25 May 2017

EXPECTING THE BARBARIANS

What are we waiting for, assembled in the public square?

The barbarians are to arrive today.

Why such inaction in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
What further laws can the Senators pass?
When the barbarians come they will make the laws.

Why did our emperor wake up so early,
and sit(s) at the principal gate of the city,
on the throne, in state, wearing his crown?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today.
And the emperor waits to receive
their chief.  Indeed he has prepared
to give him a scroll.  Therein he engraved
many titles and names of honor.

Why have our two consuls and the praetors come out
today in their red, embroidered togas;
why do they wear amethyst-studded bracelets,
and rings with brilliant glittering emeralds;
why are they carrying costly canes today,
superbly carved with silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today,
and such things dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't the worthy orators come as usual
to make their speeches, to have their say?

Because the barbarians are to arrive today;
and they get bored with eloquence and orations.

Why this sudden unrest and confusion?
(How solemn their faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly,
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?

Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.
Some people arrived from the frontiers,
and they said that there are no longer any barbarians.

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

Expecting the Barbarians
C. P. Cavafy

13 April 2017

THE DOUBLE AXE

Tor House and Hawk Tower
I am starting with a picture this time for a very specific reason.  I want you to be impressed and charmed by these buildings that Robinson Jeffers put together by hand from the granite boulders he gathered and quarried at Carmel Point on the Monterey Peninsula in California before I tell you he was a poet.

Jeffers wrote in the morning in Hawk Tower, then worked on it and Tor House in the afternoon.  Certainly a muscular poet.

Poets aren't supposed to be the kind of people who quarry boulders and build towers.  They are expected to be impractical, overwrought, physically weak, effeminate, moody, mentally unbalanced and all the rest.  Tell me it isn't true.

                                            Publishers' Note

The Double Axe and Other Poems is the fourteenth book of verse by Robinson Jeffers published under the Random House imprint...  In all fairness to that constantly interdependent relationship and in complete candor, Random House feels compelled to go on record with its disagreement over some of the political views pronounce by the poet in this volume.  Acutely aware of the writer's freedom to express his convictions boldly and forthrightly and of the publisher's function to obtain for him the widest possible hearing, whether there is agreement in principle and detail or not, it is of the utmost importance that difference of views should be wide open on both sides.  Time alone is the court of last resort in the case of ideas on trial.

Slightly mealy-mouthed on the part of Random House, I still give them great credit for publishing this book.  Published in 1948 shortly after WWII, it can't have been comfortable to put out a collection of poems that were critical of war specifically, but of international intervention of all kinds.  By this time Jeffers was an isolationist.  We don't much like isolationists these days.  And his particular brand looks uncomfortably like Reaction as well.  The notes in the dust jacket are telling, "Robinson Jeffers sees a world bent on self-destruction and takes a stand for complete political isolation."  But the poetry is telling, too.

                                     WE ARE THOSE PEOPLE

I have abhorred the wars and despised the liars,
                                    laughed at the frightened
And forecast victory;   never one moment's doubt.
But now not far, over the backs of some crawling years, the next
Great war's column of dust and fire writhes
Up the sides of the sky:  it becomes clear that we too may suffer
What others have, the brutal horror of defeat -
Or if not in the next, then in the next - therefore watch Germany
And read the future.  We wish, of course, that our women
Would die like biting rats in the cellars, our men like wolves on                                                       the mountain:
It will not be so.  Our men will curse, cringe, obey;
Our women uncover themselves to the grinning victors for bits of
                                       chocolate.

Jeffers grimly tells a past that foresees a similar future.  But with the loss on our side, eventually.   His horror of the horrors of war is no less than the horror he contemplates as our fate one day again;  he knows there will be another world war and another and on and on.  Jeffers' isolationism is fatalistic - he believes we will never cease to concern ourselves in things that are 'not our problem', and the result will eventually destroy us and maybe everybody.

We still believe in the Chestertonian necessity of the war that was WWII, (we are less certain of WWI, because we are ignorant of what it was) to say otherwise today is heresy.  Closer to the day, Jeffers saw it differently.


I like the title of this book of poetry, The Double Axe.  Of course, it is an axe with two blades on each side of the ax-head, but we also see it as a reference to what we usually call a double-edged sword.  The blade may cut an enemy, but be wary of the backswing.  There is a sharp edge there as well.  What else is it?  Could it be two axes swinging at each other, without conscience, inanimate and without motivation except that of the ax men?  And Jeffers won't let you forget that they are men.  Are they executioners?  Paid for a job they have no say in?  Begging forgiveness before dropping the blade on the doomed neck?  There is much here and it should be ambivalent.  We are meant to be uneasy about the metaphor and what it means in a context of war.

                                                  THE INHUMANIST

1

                   "Winter and Summer," the old man says, "rain and                                                    drought;
Peace creeps out of war, war out of peace;  the stars rise and they set;
                             the clouds go north
And again they go south. -- Why does God hunt in circles?
                              Has he lost something?  Is it possible -- himself?
In the darkness between the stars did he lose himself and become
                               godless, and seeks -- himself?"

 Now we are asking ourselves about the circularity of human history and intervention of God into it.  And the old man's God is two-fold:  both God and god.  What does that mean?  Maybe Jeffers' God/god is something other than the omniscient, omnipotent hero of Christianity.  And, of course, then why didn't He/he intervene in the horrors of the death camps and gas chambers?  The questions don't resolve well.  If at all.

6

                            " ... It was a symbol of generation:  the two lobes and the
stiff helve:  so was the Cross before they christened it.  But
this one can clip heads too.  Grimly, grimly.  A blade for
the flesh, a blade for the spirit:  and truth from lies."


PREFACE

The first part of The Double Axe was written during the war and finished a year before the war ended, and it bears the scars; but the poem is not primarily concerned with that grim folly. Its burden, ...is to present a certain philosophical attitude, which might be called Inhumanism, a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to not-man; the rejection of human solipsism and recognition of the transhuman magnificence.

Jeffers' preface to The Double Axe perhaps asks more questions than it answers.  (Note that the rejection of 'human solipsism' is of a piece with the previous book in the BPL, The Ecological Thought.)  In other words, we may not be all there is, or even much of what there is.

I'm not the first to notice that Trump wields power like a three-year-old with his father's .357.  It seems to go off and he has no idea why.  Not that having any kind of coherent policy would help much.  The damn thing is still going to kill people.  And it may be us.  He is pretty much indiscriminate in those he fires at.  Unintended consequences?  I don't think he cares much.  Shoot first!  Hell, shoot second, third and fourth - kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out. 

Fire!

THE ECOLOGICAL THOUGHT

"Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized."

                                              Graham Harman


"Don't tell me there's no such thing as Nature;  there is, I can see it everywhere."

                                                My wife 

Mom:  "Go play outside."
Me:  "I am outside."
Mom:  "No.  You're in the house.  Go play outside."
Me:  "But the house is IN the outside."

                                'See 
Or shut your eyes,' said Nature peevishly.

                                                 Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came
                                                  Robert Browning

                                                         ***

So, aside from picking fights with my nearest and dearest about the nature of Nature, I am still a right twit.

When architects begin thinking about Inside and Outside in terms of architecture they quickly run into a problem.  The defense mechanism which is architecture tries to build walls and roofs to protect against the 'elements' only to discover that the outside is a creation of human introspection.  What we attempt to make 'the outside' is actually always and only and already 'inside' ourselves.  The only apt dialectic is the inner/outer of the person.  "Human movement and action are exterior to everything;  man is always on the outside..." as Henri Focillon states it.  Once we set aside conventions of 'inside' and 'outside' it becomes obvious that it is we who are the determinant.  Architecture is our attempt to put us inside.  It's an understandable delusion, but a delusion never-the-less. 

The next big thought that might to occur to us is that not only are we always outside, but we are always in space.  We can send bits of metal blasting a little way off the surface of the planet, but we are already out in space - relativity reminded us (told us) long ago that points of reference made all the difference. We can't seem to help still thinking that we are the center of the universe and that out there is everything else.  We know we aren't the center of everything, but we don't know it.  This everyday thing that we do is really just space travel - it's just that everything else in space is traveling too.  (Care to think for a minute about 'time travel'?)


Does this matter in terms of environmental thought?  These are the kinds of fundamental mistakes we make which allow us to put Nature (as if there were such a thing) out there.

"But in looking at the ghost of Nature, modern humans were looking in a mirror.  In Nature, they saw the reflected, inverted image of their own age - and the grass is always greener of the other side.  Nature was always "over yonder," alien and alienated.  Just like a reflection, we can never actually reach it and touch it and belong to it.  Nature was an ideal image, a self-contained form suspended afar, shimmering and naked behind glass like an expensive painting... Wilderness areas are giant, abstract versions of the products hanging in mall windows."


Prof. Morton helps us out:

"The ecological thought is the thinking of interconnectedness.  The ecological thought is a thought about ecology, but it's also a thinking that is ecological.  Thinking the ecological thought is part of an ecological project."

"It is a vast, sprawling mesh of interconnection without a definite center or edge."

Begin contemplating the 'bigness' of the mesh (Morton's word for the image of the ecological thought) and re-integrating the stuff that we have objectified and rigidly categorized into separate compartments (i.e. plants, animals, cities, wastewater, nuclear plants, styrofoam, mountains, CFCs, Disney, etc.) and we should begin to feel more than a bit frightened.  You realize that you can't think your way around or out of it.  And it matters dreadfully.


"We must face some puzzling questions.  What is an environment?  Is there such a thing as the environment?  Is it everything "around" us?  At what point do we stop, it at all, drawing the line between environment and non-environment..."

The Ecological Thought denies absolutely that there is any such thing as 'Nature' out there.  Everything, including the thoughts we have about the ecological thought, is environment.  (I'm starting to have difficulties with the words:  environment, ecology, nature, natural, etc. that Morton doesn't have because he clearly defines his terms as he goes along - I don't have that luxury in this format.  You'll just have to read his book to get the cleaner version of the vocabulary.)

It certainly puts us in a difficult position if we can no longer sit out the events of Lifeworld.  What we have is what we have to live with.  For example, denying Global Climate Change (don't say Global Warming - that's just another rationalization) is a result of human activity doesn't change the fact that it is happening.  So we have to alter its course because we are aware of it.  Morton's analogy is to us seeing a child in the street in imminent danger of being run over by a truck.  It just doesn't do to say, "Well, I'm not driving the truck, so I'm not responsible." You run out and grab the kid before she gets hit. 

"I don't advocate a return to premodern thinking.  The ecological thought is modern."  Morton insists.  The old harangue about returning to pre-Industrial Age lives won't cut it and in fact that kind of talk is an example of 'the problem'.  "There is no metaposition from which we can make ecological pronouncements."  Lifeworld (another Morton-ism) doesn't allow that;  what we have is part and parcel of the mesh.  Talking about putting the train in reverse and going back to some dreamtime of perfection is a fantasy.  (There are extremely serious problems with all nostalgia - there's no denying certain kinds of damaged memory fuck us over when we try to put them into play now.  But that's a discussion for another time.)  Try backing Plutonium out of the now - it's out of the bag and there is no putting it back.  Returning to handsaws and waterwheels won't work us out of the seas of plastic and other virtually eternal waste that already exist.  Arguing that there are different levels/kinds/modes/varieties of existence gets us into the mess we are in.  Nature isn't one thing and Civilization (as in 'I'm getting back to Civilization after a weekend camping') another. 


"Moreover, the form of the ecological thought is at least as important as its content.  It's not simply a matter of what you're thinking about.  It's also a matter of how you think."  And, "A questioning attitude needs to become habitual."  And, "Thinking itself is an ecological event."  That intensity of awareness and thought doesn't come naturally to Americans particularly.  It's more fun to change out our light bulbs because we've been told it will help, than it is to say (with President Obama), "...we can't solve global warming (aargh!) because I fucking changed light bulbs in my house.  It's because of something collective."  That's less fun.

So I'm tempted by the flaws of my 'Green' thinking to add a picture of the Great Plastic Ocean here.  But, as you see, that's part of the problem.  Environment isn't 'out there' and my recycling bin 'in here.'  It's the damn mesh and it isn't easy.


 It's been suggested that I have to change the name of this blog to "The Trump Presidential Library" but I won't do that, because it's all part of the same edifice.  Reagan, Bush, Trump - it's all a continuum.  It should be clear that I believe we are all complicit and responsible for the current shambles, but I also believe that those who have great power deserve to be aggressively criticized for their stupidity, willful ignorance, and evil ideologies.  Yep.  Up, down, sideways - keep kicking them until they pay attention and get it right.

And after reading Prof. Morton's book, put it on the shelves of the BPL or TPL and maybe, someday, they will read it.

Finally:

Mindfulness

I went seeking solitude with
Henry Thoreau lecturing in my head,
Telling me his secrets.
But I couldn't find the pond or
The trees or
The neighbors --
So I sat on the sidewalk with
My feet in the street and
Talked to the pigeons and
Breathed in the exhaust and
Looked at the roses planted in the median.

09 April 2017

O BRAVE NEW WORLD, THAT HAS SUCH PEOPLE IN IT!

So, I have sulked and occasionally blustered for nearly six months.  What now?

I am truly afraid of this new regime, both for us and for me (it's all about me isn't it?)

Years ago a friend, very seriously, told me:  "One day you are going to be called before HUAC!"

For those who have forgotten the secular Inquisition which was the House Un-American Activities Committee, go have a look in cyberspace at the havoc those fuckers wrought in good people's lives.  McCarthy - yeah - but the useful idiots who fanned the flames and made lives hell are the analog to the Trumpites who will pursue the same kind of 'Loyalty First!' agenda.  Just look at the abuses perpetrated by the alphabet soup that is Immigration, Airport Security, Homeland Security, etc. already.  God help us!  (My Gnostic mind reminds me that the demiurge who created this woe-begotten Cosmos absolutely loves this kind of hatred, pain and chaos.  So, no help from God.)

The challenge my friend threw down was simply this, "shut up now while you have the chance.  Someday it will be too late."  Perhaps.

So, as absurd as it may seem, I do fear the knock at the door;  I fear being approached at work and asked to "come with us";  I fear the utter hell such people have already caused with the push of a button or the secret signing of a document.  The Trumpites have made it clear that they have but one standard:  Loyalty.  To what or to whom is a moving target.  In Room 101 we will be reduced to begging, "Just tell me what you want me to believe, what you want me to say..."

I shut down (I thought) this blog forever last November due to this fear.  It just wasn't worth it.  I am, if anything, more afraid now after watching the flying circus which is the 'brave new world.'  The Shakespeare quote titling this post is meant ironically - as if that wasn't obvious.  It is more Huxley than Good Will.  Appalled, not applauding.

Shepard Fairey's OBEY art




The Shepard Fairey OBEY posters were a direct reference to the 1988 John Carpenter film They Live.  I am not willing to do the full David Icke yet, but it is almost as if the Lizard people have begun to tire of their Human suits and are starting to show their true selves.  Carpenter was certainly on to something.

Well, this has become a barrage of pop culture imagery and allusion - all of which I leave to you to untangle.  The point is that I am working up my failing courage to for DJT what I did for GWB.  That is, begin the catalog for his eventual Presidential Library - will it never end?  As Bruce Cockburn put it, "The trouble with normal is it only gets worse."  I am not the first to kindle a bittersweet memory of the Nixon years - equally paranoid and fucked up as the coming Trump years, but with some good legislation.  Unfortunately it also included Hunt, Liddy, Colson, Haldeman, Mitchell, and that supreme evil Henry Kissinger.  Remember that lot when you look at Bannon, Kushner, Schiller, Priebus, Miller, Spicer, and all the others.  It's Instant Karma for American voters who have the attention span of a gypsy moth.



You think I'm kidding?

09 November 2016

27 October 2016

THE ANXIETY OF INFLUENCE

I have mentioned several times that there exist short volumes of literary criticism which are gems of literature in and of themselves:  Auden's The Enchafèd Flood; Bloom's Hamlet: Poem Unlimited; Tillyard's Poetry Direct and Oblique and a few others.  Well, here's another.  And another by Harold Bloom.

I am not going to say much about this book which may have unsettled academic literary criticism for decades for at least three reasons:  I am simply not qualified.  It is clearly brilliant, but immensely difficult and may adequately be discussed only by those who have read, written and trained for a lifetime in the Academic Humanities.  That isn't me as is painfully obvious.  My second reason for reticence is akin to the first - I haven't read nearly enough to follow intelligently Prof. Bloom's arguments.  Primarily I am unequipped in Freud (as literary critic, not scientist of psychiatry) and Nietzsche and will most likely remain so for the rest of my life.  I simply don't have time to make the necessary exhaustive study of these pillars of the West.  Finally, this book is going to percolate in my mind for years.  It took me years to attack and finish it properly and will take even more time to seep through, color all my reading and bring me to conclusions.  Anything here too extensive is simply premature.

Bloom's subtitle A Theory of Poetry is a massive understatement.

"This short book offers theory of poetry by way of a description of poetic influence, or the story of intra-poetic relationships.  One aim of this theory is corrective:  to de-idealize our accepted accounts of how one poet helps to form another.  Another aim, also corrective, is to try to provide a poetics that will foster a more adequate practical criticism."

But, properly, this book is much more than simply a statement of first principles or even latter principles.  It is an autobiography of a Reader.  Bloom claims to never have tried his hand at poetry (there is one novel in his bibliography, but we will pass over it silently.)  But he also insists that Criticism is of a piece with poetry.  It is belated (to use his word) poetry which is profoundly under the influence of all poetic precursors.  It isn't quite 'cognitive music' per se, but it strives for meaning against prior poets in a way which we find unsettlingly similar to the way in which poets themselves compete.

Bloom tells the story of The Anxiety of Influence several times in other books, but I am going to quote here another of his literary autobiographies.  This one a not-to-close to the end of life, we hope, consolidation and meditation on much of what he has been writing throughout his long academic life.  This is from The Anatomy of Influence:

(Northrop) "Frye's influence on me lasted twenty years but came to an abrupt halt on my thirty-seventh birthday, July 11, 1967, when I awakened from a nightmare and then passed the entire day in composing a dithyramb, "The Covering Cherub; or, Poetic Influence."  Six years later that had evolved into The Anxiety of Influence..."

(Oh, I had to look up 'dithyramb' too:  'a passionate or inflated speech, poem, or other writing...)

Passionate it surely is.  'Inflated'?  Perhaps to his many critics.  But as difficult as the concepts are, it is clearly a central work in modern literary theory.  Anyone who says otherwise is just itchin' for a fight.

I want to take a moment here to quote the opening verse from Wallace Stevens' An Ordinary Evening in New Haven which precedes the Introduction.

                                                       ...A more severe,

More harassing master would extemporize
Subtler, more urgent proof that the theory
Of poetry is the theory of life,

As it is, in the intricate evasion of as....

Bloom then writes 150 pages on the subject of evasion.  While that seems an unlikely pairing - Influence and Evasion - Bloom makes kind of clear exactly how it works.  He employs six categories of influence and how each works on the strong poet.  Weak poets need not apply for Bloom's Anxiety - they, according to him, accept and wallow in the earlier poets who overwhelm and stifle better writers.  This theory is about the agon, the struggle for supremacy between the masters.

I think that's all I have for now.  It isn't even a rough outline of a great book.  It barely nods to the central idea, but as I said, it will be years before I am ready and even then...

In a couple weeks DJT is either going to take the White House in a surprise triumph for his millions of his idiot disciples in which case I am done for.  Or he will be buried in a landslide of electoral humiliation, after which his mindless drones will rise up and overthrow the Democracy.  Either way,  we're fucked.

24 October 2016

A LIGHT IN THE ATTIC

In the 1980's a fellow I knew told me a story of vacationing in Florida.  He and his wife were at a bar and he stepped away to use the bathroom or buy flake or something and he returned to the bar to find Shel Silverstein in his spot, hitting on my friend's wife.

Let's just say I don't think Shel Silverstein was Mr. Rogers.

Actually, Silverstein pervades modern American culture in a slightly weird way.  We know him because we bought his poetry books (A Light in the Attic, The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, etc.) for our children.  Sometimes we read the poems to our children, but most people just picked 'em up at Costco or Barnes and Noble and dumped 'em on their kids at Christmas in a lame attempt to give them something other than video games.  A few of us (yes, I am a strange, low-brow snob) read the poems to the kiddies at bedtime and, very oddly, the lines have become part of our family-speak.  But he also wrote a number of the pop songs of our lives.  I was in middle school when someone gave me a 45 (don't start!) of Silverstein dramatically reading Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout.  I wore the grooves out (again, don't start!)  I had no idea who this guy was or that this was even poetry, but it was effing hilarious.  When I came across the poem again in the book I bought for my children I just had to commit it to memory.  My now-adult daughters can still recite great swaths (that's the poetic word we use) of it at the drop of a hat.


He wrote the Johnny Cash hit A Boy Named Sue and the Rovers hit The Unicorn (which you would readily recognize if you heard it.) and won two Grammys.  He wrote that stupid Dr. Hook tune, The Cover of 'Rolling Stone' which I loved when I was in junior high.  And he wrote the song Meryl Streep sings brilliantly at the end of the unfairly ignored movie Postcards From the Edge (an autobiographical film by Carrie Fisher - yep, Princess Leia):  "I'm Checkin' Out". He co-wrote a screenplay with David Mamet and his songs were included in the movies Almost Famous, Thelma and Louise, and Coalminer's Daughter.

He was a Korean War veteran, drew cartoons for Pacific Stars and Stripes while he was in the military and later drew cartoons for Playboy in the 1950's and 60's.  So, what have you done?  Sorry.  I include myself in that.

But when you read the children's poetry he wrote you find a mind working to humorously Subvert the Dominant Paradigm.  It's one true way to kick the shins out from under the cultural morass that we have saddled ourselves with.  I hope it gave my children a healthy skepticism regarding normative behavior and thought.  They certainly look askance at pretty much everything and I think Silverstein contributed to that healthy turn of mind.

The poems are sometimes clunky and occasionally fail, but the truth is that they mostly operate on a slightly different level than even regular 'direct' verse (see below on 'Oblique and Direct Verse'.)  But they are incredibly charming and easy to remember and recite.  Along with the mnemonic cartoons which are also subversive in a slightly bland, but suggestive way the verse becomes what we shall call 'booger' humor (following columnist Dave Barry's suggestion) and fun.

 This is the modern beginning of a entire genre of Children's literature that doesn't blink or look away at the daily realities of a child's life.  A great deal of children's publishing is built on Shel's foundation.  We eat, we see garbage, we poop, our parents fight, we have weird bodies with things that stick out or in, we don't always like our siblings or parents or teachers or even our friends.  The light is shone on all of this and we get to acknowledge what was once considered too rude to mention.  It may have all gone a bit too far since (some authors seem to think that offensiveness for its own sake is the point - it isn't) but it started here and we should be grateful to Silverstein for making it available to the Common Consciousness.

The subversive nature of ill-behaved children has a long honorable history in children's lit.  Going back, at least, to Mother Goose and The Brothers Grimm and popping into awareness in the fundamental character at the heart of Lewis Carroll's great books, Alice: the child who acts out in defiance of poorly thought out, insanely enforced, just fucking stupid adult rules is central to the way we teach children.  Yep, children should behave, but not always and not ever in the proscribed social ways we think they should follow.  Every one of us knows this, but it is somehow bad form to admit it.  That's why we have literature of this sort.  It is a way of objectifying certain ideas or reifying others so they may be comprehended by undeveloped minds and put into practice daily.  It is critical to a functioning world to have children who fight against idiot adults.  But children have to learn the proper ways to subvert (there's that word again) the dominant.  It requires imagination and critical thinking;  it requires subtlety and a razor wit;  and it requires great strength and energy.  If a child puts her fist in your face, literally or metaphorically, don't look at the fist!  Look at the face and find the TRUTH they are in communication with that makes them tell you to "Go Fuck Yourself!"  It's there, or may be and it is your responsibility to find it, nurture it and help it discover a way cut the legs out from under whatever stupid rule you've presented her with.  Sometimes they are wrong, but more often they are right and you are a fool.  Never fail to see how absurd you look to her - imagine living in a world of giants, built for giants, with weird giant rules and then imagine how hard it would be to just go along with it all the time.
(Well, it's obverse of the image I was attempting, but it rather makes the point.)

Sometimes Silverstein was brilliant and sometimes he was sentimental (that's not a compliment) and sometimes he just gave us a laugh.


If this ditty doesn't stick in your head on a single reading, then you've been big far too long.  So just get the books out and read them aloud, whether you have children there or not.  It won't be wasted time.  You may remember how and why to be skeptical of a world that makes up stupid, fucking rules that no one - least of all a brilliant child - should follow.

That's my beef with the world.  Too many adults or people who think they are acting as adults should.  It's like the so-called Christian Church.  There never has been anything more un-Christlike in the the history of the world as the Christian Church.  It's the nature of institutions, I suppose - as if that's an excuse.  They usually suck.  And just to keep in the spirit of the thing, I can't think of anyone less child-like, less Jesus-like, less human or humane than DJT.  Even Dick Cheney must be gasping at the unfathomable fuckwittedness of The Donald.  He has surpassed all the hopes and dreams of a party (now that's a misnomer!) that has worked so hard to achieve a nastiness not to be believed since Vlad the Impaler.  Yeah, yeah - I'm happily indulging in excessive hyperbole, but I don't feel much like firing the trebuchets when I have therms and a red button to push.


Good children, smart children know that sometimes you just have to make a bully pay.  To hell with the fallout...

04 October 2016

DOWN THE STYX

Lawrence Durrell was considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature along with Karen Blixen and Robert Graves when it was awarded to John Steinbeck in 1962.  No one, including Steinbeck, thought the committee had made the correct choice.  The fact Durrell and the others were passed over, however, is no shame.  They are in very good company and the failures of Nobel in this field may simply be due to the vagaries of the tastes of particular eras.  As Harold Bloom writes, "Cultural prophecy is always a mug's game," or as he puts it elsewhere, "Contingency governs literature as it does every cognitive enterprise..." and I am safe (sharing the opinion with Bloom) in suspecting that many current literary heroes and winners of  prizes will be eventually ignored.  Such is the thrust of literary criticism and the great canonical question, "more than, less than, equal to..."          


But, back to Durrell.

This voyage "Down the Styx" is as British a travelogue as one could wish.  As central in the genre as any travel book by Bill Bryson, though perhaps with fewer laugh-out-loud moments, but not without great humor.

"Dear Auntie Prudence" he begins as pleasant an epistolary start as any maiden aunt could hope.  Though expectations unravel quickly,

I am writing to reassure you about the journey.  There is no cause for alarm.  It is very simply done and many facilities are available.  If you were one of the quick while living everything will be all right...  They will bring you down to the water's edge with the obol sewed into your mouth for safety and leave you alone to wait for Charon.

Uh,  this is disturbing.  The only Charon I know ferries the dead into Hades.  And who looks forward to coins sewn into their mouths?  Well, travel is travel wherever one is going.

There will be no sign of the black barge as yet, but do not get impatient... Spend the time in re-arranging your emotional luggage and drawing on your long white gloves.

The funeral is over and we are on our way.  Or at least Auntie Prudence is with directions from her dear nephew Lawrence.

This book is short.  Just twenty-three pages continuing in the same mode, the text overlaid on tinted Doré engravings of Hades.  Apparently there are just 800 of the softcover copies printed for the Capricorn Press.  But the text itself in other forms shouldn't be hard to come by.




 That dreadful picture above is on the limited edition softcover.  It is a watercolor by Durrell himself unfortunately.  I might have encouraged him to forgo the credit and find another illustrator, but it has some Primitive charm, I guess.


This is a reproduction of one of the Doré prints from the book.  Don't be misled though.  The print is strangely tinted and overlaid by a blank box containing Durrell's text.

You will enter.  You, the ghost of Prudence will enter, clean and shining like a knife-blade;  you will enter like a sacred wafer between the lips of Christ...  There will be nothing to say.  Simply sit down...for a short rest, and absently begin to count the spokes of your umbrella.  The worst is over.  Trust in your inner ghost and be upright.  Let me kiss you on the forehead and wish you Bon Voyage in the black barge, my dear.  It is all I can do.

                                                                  Your affectionate nephew, Lawrence

It is a sweet and homely sendoff to the afterlife and dear Auntie Prudence must have been deeply comforted.  I particularly like the image of the dowager idly counting the spokes of her umbrella and waiting patiently to forget.  It is the pagan or perhaps Gnostic farewell so typical of Durrell.

I have no consoling sendoff of my own for the blackened souls of the BushTrumps.  They deserved no  comforting words.  Forgetfulness is too good for them - let them remember for eternity... Now there's a Hell for you.  Or them, I mean.

29 September 2016

CONCRETE ISLAND

As I read J. G. Ballard's queer novel I kept thinking, "there are no places like this - they don't really exist."  But driving around even my small home city I realized that they weren't just there, they were really there... Here.  Like nightmare areas in my brain that I refused to acknowledge, once I started seeing them, I couldn't stop:  Concrete Islands.


Architect Rem Koolhaas calls them 'Junkspace.'

"If space-junk is the human debris that litters the universe, junk-space is the residue mankind leaves on the planet.  The built... product of modernization is not modern architecture but Junkspace.  Junkspace is what remains after modernization has run its course or, more precisely, what coagulates while modernization is in progress, its fallout.  Modernization had a rational program:  to share the blessings of science, universally.  Junkspace is its apotheosis, or meltdown... Although its individual parts are the outcome of brilliant inventions, lucidly planned by human intelligence, boosted by infinite computation, their sum spells the end of Enlightenment, its resurrection as farce, a low-grade purgatory..." 

In an Hegelian moment, I prefer to think of Junkspace and Concrete Islands as the ultimate expression of Enlightenment. Not as unplanned detritus, but as ineluctable outcome - real apotheosis.

Concrete Islands in the Ballard sense are those isolated greenspaces built into highway design.  They are those areas that urban explorers or, as they often call themselves, Infiltrators, love.  They seem unreachable, even impregnable, but are inevitably populated by the homeless.  Look at any area on your morning commute, usually blocked by concrete walls and cyclone fencing along the highway.  In a mockery of the medieval walled garden they are landscaped, planted with roses and groundcover, unconvincingly camouflaged by
shrubs and hedges - tarted up - and virtually invisible to us. They are spaces wasted by the extravagance of the modern commuter, inner-city highway.  As Koolhaas notes, they are conspicuous consumption of space through capitalist overspending;  something like the slag pits associated with strip mining.  They are vanishing reminders that we have so much in the way of resources, we can readily afford to waste some.  Again, like clear-cutting forests where we can take only the old growth, largest trees and simply burn the smaller, less profitable growth.

Robert Maitland, thirty-five-year-old, very successful, London architect (lovely obvious touch of Ballard's) drives his Jaguar far too fast and crashes off the ramp of an elevated roadway on his way home one night.  No one observes his accident and he finds himself first physically injured, then mentally incapacitated by the experience.  The island is an isolationist's nightmare, filled with more broken vehicles and even the walls of a small neighborhood wrecked by the construction of the highway.  The destroyed village in the island is a touching monument to both the ravages of civilization and to the domestic life Maitland has wasted and broken.

Maitland, severely injured, simply assumes his safety is inevitable and rescue is imminent.  But as days slip by and his aborted efforts at escape pile up, he begins to recognize that he is truly stranded and that the island is an exterior representation of his own mind.  Robinson Crusoe-like he cannibalizes his car and the relics in it to effect some level of comfort and jury-rig some way of getting free of his trap.  Having split his time, openly, between a home with his wife and son and an apartment with his mistress, he has no hope of being missed soon enough - it will simply be assumed by each that he is with the other. 

   "He realized, above all, that the assumption he had made repeatedly since his arrival on the island - that sooner or later his crashed car would be noticed by a passing driver or policeman, and that rescue would come as inevitably as if he had crashed into the central reservation of a suburban dual carriageway - was completely false, part of that whole system of comfortable expectations he had carried with him."

Ballard eventually gives Maitland two grotesques as company and possible means of escape:  a severely brain-damaged former circus performer (Proctor - I can't help admiring Ballard's character names) and an equally mentally ill prostitute (named, in another nice Ballardian way, Jane Sheppard).  Not exactly Fridays to his Crusoe they play a weird psychological game with him involving dependence and control and deluded hope for all three of them.  It is a dreadful, grim parody of the three-way life he carries on with his wife and lover.

My local library lists the book in the genre of Science Fiction which seems absurd to me;  as absurd as calling Robinson Crusoe Science Fiction.  It seems to me that there is only one fantastic element to the story and that is the creeping suspicion that the island is becoming larger and larger and will eventually encompass an entire world.  It is the mental breakdown of paranoia.  The little thing becomes everything and I, for one, don't like it much.

Eventually it becomes difficult to discern if Maitland is hallucinating, lucid or even perhaps, in a way, dying and reflecting on his lost life.  I can't say.

   "In a few hours it would be dusk.  Maitland thought of (his wife) Catherine and his son.  He would be seeing them soon.  When he had eaten it would be time to rest, and to plan his escape from the island." 

This is our dilemma.  Shipwrecked and victimized by our own complacency - our own comfortable expectations - we are now faced with a kind of mortality.  Are we so injured that we can't effect our own escape or do we even want to any more?  The former would be horrible, but the latter seems even more hellishly likely.  Escaping Trump's Nativism is absolutely mandatory, otherwise we become, not Crusoe-like, but Kurtz-like from Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  We will have gone too far into the dark heart to return alive.  Finally, the rest of the civilized world will proclaim our sole epitaph, "He dead...."

Librarian's note:  If you vaguely recognize the author's name, it may be due to two major films made of his work by Hollywood.  Oscar-nominated "Crash" and the autobiographical "Empire of the Sun" were both made from Ballard novels.  As a side note, one of the few films I have been impressed by in the past few years was The Machinist starring Christian Bale.  I was interested to discover that Bale and his director for The Machinist had optioned (stupid, ugly word that really means nothing tangible to me, but seems to be a thing in Hollywood) this Ballard book to make into a movie.  Alas, that was apparently abandoned years ago and it seems unlikely now.  Sigh....

28 September 2016

POETRY DIRECT AND OBLIQUE

A short post in honor of one of those little books of literary criticism that are gems of literature all on their own.

Oddly, I can only find a single photograph of E.M.W. Tillyard.   It is on the cover of a collection of essays written in a dispute with C.S. Lewis on the nature of poetry.


A reprint of the book is due out next year and until I have actually read it, I'll save the summation.

(In an absolutely pointless aside:  Lewis and his friend/antagonist J.R.R. Tolkien once attended a party dressed as polar bears.  It was not as they call it in the U.K. a 'fancy-dress' or masquerade party, but simply a New Year's party.  The reserved and buttoned-down British...)

Tillyard's short book, Poetry Direct and Oblique, (just a bit over 100 pages) gets to the point quickly:  If you fail to place a work of poetry into the correct category, i.e. Direct or Oblique, you cannot accurately read it.

   "Between the two extremes the gradations are of course innumerable;  and the scale is only of the roughest.  But still it should help to eliminate the mistake of judging poems by standards to which they have no reference.
   But when you have fixed your poem in the scale, you have not begun seriously to criticise it.  All you have done is to put it in a position where you can see it without certain preliminary distortion."

This is the essence of all criticism and indeed, thought.

Category errors are fatal.  Consider King Lear as light, happily-ever-after dinner theater (as Nahum Tate re-wrote it) or judge Star Wars for its many failures as a horror film and you are destined for, at least, ridicule.

I really only wanted to add Prof. Tillyard's book to the BPL to get to this point.  His analysis of the spectrum from Direct to Oblique in poetry is incredibly helpful to a close reader, but I'll leave you to look it up on your own if you are so inclined.


The second argument in his book that I mean to mention is the speculation that the neglect of Direct poetry read aloud in groups (e.g. the family) is the cause for a general falling-off of interest and ability to read and even write poetry at all.  Referring to 'social' or even 'easy' verse, Tillyard makes the plain argument:

   "To appreciate great verse, you must have the experience of much verse-reading.  Prose is no substitute.  And to get the feel of actual verse, nothing serves so well as good statement-poetry." 

But we have little of it today.  Mostly it is found in books for very young children (think Seuss and Silverstein) or the occasional Christmas piece in The New Yorker.  We assume that if we are not reading "Great" poetry, that we are wasting our time.  Tillyard acknowledges the modern, life-is-short idea, but makes the strong argument that without experience with competent verse, we don't have the tools to read good or great poetry.   I couldn't agree more.  I am being quite serious when I recommend that you (yes, You!) sit down tonight with a stack of Seuss, Silverstein, Kipling, Lewis Carroll, or who-you-like, and spend an hour or two reading aloud.  You might be under threat of being locked up by those who doubt your grip on reality or sanity, but then you'll just have more time to read - be grateful!

But now we turn to the bitter that magnifies the sweet:  I am back with these additions to the BPL and, as it looks ever more depressingly likely, the Trump Presidential Library.  For this Snark is a Boojum and while we hunt it with forks and hope, in the end I fear we will 'softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again.'

WELL...

I'm more than a bit rusty, so patience... please.

I sat patiently (well, not so much) for a long time waiting for my good humor and civility to return.  My initial impulse to withdraw and stay that way has perhaps temporarily subsided and thanks to a recent comment from a friend I am trying my hand again.at these short whatever-they-ares.

Re-reading, I am woefully aware that a strong editorial or at least proofreading hand should have been employed to repair some truly egregious errors in my writing and typing.  But it seems a bit late for that now.  They stand as they are with the usual caveats.

Lorem ipsum and Etaoin shrdlu!

That's my offering to the printing gods in hopes I may be forgiven my transgressions, many and horrific they are!  I will say twenty of each quietly to myself whilst I finger a chain of linotype letters.  May those gods of hot type have mercy on my sole (damn!  That's one more each!)




07 July 2016

'WHEN KISSINGER WON THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE, SATIRE DIED'

Well, there's not much point in going on - I think, with the nomination of Donald J. Trump as the GOP presidential candidate the funny is dead.  Or, as Lily Tomlin put it, 'No matter how cynical you get, it's hard to keep up.'

I'm not the first to notice or point it out, but DJT is just the logical outcome to the institutional racism, misogyny and nativism the GOP has been fomenting for decades.  Why anyone is surprised surprises me.  The rather obvious point of this exercise in futility is that stupidity, illiteracy and ignorance leads directly to the current state of the American electorate and ultimately a DJT presidency.  And still there are people defending stupidity:

The Atlantic

(On the topic of this particular article:  No one, no one, no one, has every argued - legitimately - that stupid people have less worth as humans.  It's a category error of the simplest kind - it is argued that they are less intelligent and therefore ARE LESS INTELLIGENT, not less worthy.  As I've stated previously, we don't discriminate against the Yugo for being a bad microwave, we don't buy a Yugo because it's a bad car.  Stupid people are not discriminated against as bad humans, but are prevented from doing certain activities, jobs, etc. because they don't know how to do them.  I wd argue, admittedly in a pained way, that DJT shdn't be denied basic human rights, like the right to speak which he wields with an ignorant fury, but he shdn't be allowed to become president of the country because, at least, he's a fucking idiot.  Why is this so fucking hard to understand?  I'm starting to wonder if David H. Freedman shd be allowed to write for a magazine with the stature of The Atlantic, but I'm NOT wondering if he shd be allowed to write for, say, Chronicles.)

Anyway, enough of that.  Let's get on with the point here.

First, here is a review of the newest biography of W. from the NYT.

Review: ‘Bush,’ a Biography as Scathing Indictment

“Believing he was the agent of God’s will, and acting with divine guidance, George W. Bush would lead the nation into two disastrous wars of aggression,” Mr. Smith writes. “Bush’s personalization of the war on terror combined with his macho assertiveness as the nation’s commander in chief,” he adds later, “were a recipe for disaster.”

I'm looking forward to reading Jean Edward Smith's book on W. then I'm putting the whole sordid affair out of my mind.

 The second, uh third, item here is the Chilcot report from the UK.  The Guardian has given a two good early assessments of the report on the Blair government stupidity in following W. to war: 

Chilcot report: key points from the Iraq inquiry 

And

 Tony Blair: 'with you, whatever' pledge was not commitment to war

Or, if you prefer, here's:

 Statement by Sir John Chilcot: 6 July 2016 - The Iraq Inquiry

You could, I suppose, read the full 12-volume, 2.6 million word report.  It's up to you.  Regardless, while a 'scathing' report on Blair it is equally a condemnation of W., Dick and the war mongers who have gotten far too many combatants and civilians killed.

And then there is our own State Department response (I am not making this up):

 The US State Department issued a statement on Wednesday saying it would not respond to Chilcot’s report. “We are not interested in re-litigating the decisions that lead to the Iraq war in 2003 ... we are not going to go through it [the report], we are not going to examine it, we are not going to try to make an analysis of it or make judgment of the findings one way or another. Our focus is on the challenges we have in Iraq and Syria right now,” a spokesman said. 

So, get ready for President DJT.  And you thought W. was bad. 

...fuck

 

 

03 November 2015

THE END

(Librarian's Note:  I am posting this as a kind of self-flagellation - a reminder that I really can't just shut up.  Though that would be the wise thing to do.  This post was intended to have been the beginning of the final word on the BPL, but, well, I go on and on and on...  So sorry.)

I suspect this post will take a long while to finish.

I am going to re-open access to anyone, but I doubt I will be posting or looking in again.  It's time to look somewhere else for the idea that informs.

In the beginning I was furious at the Bushites and their illiterate stupidity - I still am, but now I understand that they were merely followers.  The American world was already there and the Leaders just dim reflections of a putrid civilization which had failed its own promise.  The Revolution was televised and the pictures were of mean, money-grubbing fools who gave away a kind of Paradise for a bucket of money.  Paradise lost, indeed - more sold, than lost I think.

There were hundreds and hundreds of books I read which I never managed to fit in the Library.  They are all there, of course.  But without the Librarian's help which is probably the way it should be.  A few comments from the World pointed out that I knew nothing and should just shut up.  That may be the idea I am looking for.  You have nothing for me and I have nothing for you, so...  Which makes this last gasp particularly laughable.  But, really, I will shut up soon.  Very soon.

I have become fascinated recently by the simple concept of Withdrawal - I'm sure there is a sexual joke in there, and a metaphor as well for what I mean, but I'll leave that for you to figure out.  Quitting.  Giving Up. Giving In.  Stepping Aside (as if I had ever really been in the race, fuh!).  Refusing to Participate.

Being Depressed is hard, hard work and there are those who will accuse me of what?  I cannot say.  Maybe of Not Trying.  But I have always hated the Hustle.  That ambiguous word, as Berman points out, truly is the word that describes the horror of the modern world.  Meaning both effort past what is possible and grift or con, hustle is an ugly word that informs an ugly world.  So, Life is Hard as the greatest thinkers have told us for centuries.  "Anyone who says otherwise is just trying to sell you something."

But Beauty is a trap.  So ugliness may be one as well.  Disregard both.  Know, instead.  And you cannot Know if you Hustle.  Simple as that.  The one precludes the other.

The Great Lie is that the Ugliness, the Hustle is worth the moments of Beauty we apprehend.  The deception is that the two are related.  Hustle so you can have these moments.  Work so you can rest.  As if the duality brings each into sharper focus, makes us more alive.   But this a false creation of a false god.  Jehovah says, "Well, I told you the rules and you fucked up, so you get nothing..."  and Jesus (at least one of them) says, "Who, when his son asks for bread gives him a stone?"  Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but it was his father. 

Well, enough for the moment.  I have more to say, and will.  And in the end I will come back and delete it all, because... well, because I think shutting up is at least part of the answer.




A HANDBOOK FOR WRITERS

It's been a year... After sitting in the mud, waiting patiently for the end, it's time to get up and walk a few more yards.  Going on - not forward - is the only choice.

The problem with monomaniacs (like myself) is that we find shit that sparks us and we run around flogging innocent people with it until we simply run out of steam and let them go on with their lives again.  We huff exhaustedly through wetted beards and look around a bit lost and confused, pick up all our fallen papers and books and wander off. 

 We get off trains onto platforms where someone we should have met (though we weren't planning it) has gotten onto the previous train and gone on without us.  We pick up our coffee order from the counter and don't remark the fellow who just dumped his empty cup into the trash and walked out the door into the rain.  We pick a used book to buy from a shelf that sat next to a book sold to the shop - his name is scrawled on the endpapers - by the same man we haven't met for decades. 

But once in a lifetime we get a glimpse of the back of the overcoat of this missed man and wonder, "Who was that?"

I picked up a pamphlet from the dollar cart outside a favorite bookstore in Lincoln City.  For a buck I got a copy of a lecture given by James Dickey at the Library of Congress in 1967.  He is lecturing on the future of poetry - badly, by-the-bye.  But he cites a young poet, Vern Rutsala, and quotes a short, brilliant piece that
had gone unnoticed by most of the literati.





Up early while everyone sleeps,
I wander through the house,
pondering the eloquence
of vacant furniture, listening
to birdsong peeling
the cover off the day...

***

O fat god of Sunday
and chocolate bars, watcher
over picnics and visits to the zoo,
will anyone wake up today?

(Those are just the opening and closing stanzas.)

I had never heard of this poet, but was instantly taken.  So, I went looking into the man whose overcoated back I saw stepping out into the rain.

Vern Rutsala wrote some dozen and a half books and by the 1970s was a highly regarded, often awarded poet.  He won Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships and was a finalist for the National Book Award for poetry. 

And, as it turns out, he was teaching Creative Writing at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR while my daughter was an undergraduate studying music there.

A simple, missed connection that means nothing to anyone save me.  From a fifty-year-old lecture pamphlet, to a sidewalk bookseller at the beach, to a local university and a single student from the little town of Sisters, to her cranky old postal worker father.  I would like to have met, taken a class from, talked over coffee with this gifted poet.  Missed him - he had a nice overcoat though.

This particular book is subtitled "New & Selected Prose Poems."  These brief poetic (though not metered) narratives instantly reminded me of the short, short brilliant stories by Jorge Luis Borges.  They are gems.  And the idea must have been in Rutsala's mind as well, for one piece on a four-year-old's nightmare tiger is entitled "To Borges."  It is perfection - a single paragraph so sure-footed and self-contained even JLB himself would have admired it.

I, too, had my tigers, Jorge, but mine did not come from books or a zoo - our town was too poor for a zoo.

So nice!

So, consider yourself flogged by this monomaniac. 

I am picking up my papers and books and wandering off looking for more books, victims, readers, poets and poems.

There is a new Bush in town.  I thought he was brighter than his brother, but it turns, improbably, that this is not so.  But he may end up being the third of the family in the Big Chair.  God help us!


26 October 2014

CIRCUS PHILOSOPHICUS

I have never studied Philosophy.  Well, that will become clear shortly.  And while Graham Harman has committed the unforgivable sin of writing very clear prose, the ideas are still difficult.

(As an aside, the - I guess - new program of writing clear, pointed prose by some very dense thinkers is very much appreciated.  Timothy Morton is another example of this trend.  The Ecological Thought is intentionally written in mid- to low-level prose which in another context might be almost offensive, but in this book helps with the sometimes difficult and convention-challenging ideas.  If there is a chance that a dunderheaded reader such as myself has any chance of understanding any of these ideas, then the Big-T Thinkers must abandon the obscurantist modes of the Julia Kristeva, et. al. crowd and give the rest of us a chance!  It's true that "a subtle and recondite comment on a subtle and recondite topic sometimes requires a subtle and recondite mode of expression" but not to the exclusion of clarity for the mere sake of obfuscation.  And while I can sympathize with Blake to the effect that that "which can be made Explicit to the idiot is not worth my care" there is still a need to write well.  Now, off my high horse and onwards afoot.)

In the narrative Afterword, Harman states baldly that the six short chapters are Platonic myth.  He would know, though I wonder at that definition of 'myth.'  The actual storytelling here sometimes gives way to the kind of Philosophical didacticism I usually expect from such a book, but it is relatively rare and only distracting in the single chapter "The Haunted Boat."

Harman's myths build one on another - stories of an unreasonably giant Ferris Wheel, a Bridge both in Hell and on Chesapeake Bay, a calliope, an oil rig, a haunted Japanese fishing boat and a banner depicting a sleeping zebra  - to achieve an image of the beginnings of a Philosophy.  Except as noted, Harman leaves his descriptions and speculations to do the work in our minds which is a treat.

No point in reality is merely a solid thing, and none is an ultimate concrete event unable to act as a component in further events.  In this respect, the cosmos might be described as a vast series of interlocking ferris wheels.  Let these trillions of wheels spin in your mind.  Let them sink into your heart and enliven your mood.

Harman's giant Ferris wheel is magnificent.  It does indeed sink into your heart.  The picture above doesn't do justice or even accurately depict Harman's myth.  He describes a massive wheel of many miles in diameter with its hub at ground level.  The mind-picture jolts expectations of a real world wheel, which contributes to the weirdness, the uncanniness of the idea.  It's frankly beautiful.

The Ferris wheel chapter vies with the Oil Rig for place of pride in the book, I think.  The decadent-circus atmosphere that attends the idea of a giant wheel and the blackened industrial vision of oil rigs strung, bead-like, across a hurricane-hammered Gulf vie with one another for the image that overtops.  But there is an odd connection between the two;  they each have a Fin de siècle overtone that unnerves a little.  One, perhaps unintended, element of Harman's Philosophy is a kind of post-apocalyptic feeling that we have turned a corner in the History of Ideas, a kind of post-Romantic revolution of perception.  Well, this may just be my freighted reading of these fine myths.  I don't know, but "...each object reduces every other to a hazy caricature of its deeper plenitude."  (Though we have to be very careful with Harman's use of the word 'object.')

In a lecture I picked up from the ubiquitous iTunes, Harman uses the word deform to describe the impact real objects have on other objects.  Everything deforms everything on contact, but "... the world of the senses is by no means purely a continuum."  And "...practical action fails to exhaust the reality of things no less than theory does."  It is, I think, Harman's two-fold response to the History of Philosophy in the West.  Objects are Real;  Theory doesn't exhaust their Reality, nor vice versa.  It is an acknowledgement that there has been a gaping hole, a missing element in Western philosophy since the Greeks.  He is trying to get us away from the Reductionism that has plagued our thinking for millenia.

Why have we succumbed to the mode of thinking that deprives us of wholeness?

...theory is what disrupts the usual dull bond between the sensual object and its real hidden traits.

It's a valid question that hovers over, for example, the Haunted Boat of Harman's Myths.  I, for one, kept wondering why I have allowed a kind of Thinking About the World to wrench away at least half of that world for so long.  It isn't an anti-intellectual swipe at Theory, it's in fact the opposite.  It is the attempt to re-integrate Imagination (Fancy for the early Romantics) with Precision - which ought to be at least one priority of Philosophy.  There is an uncanny sense of healing in this book.  I hope it can continue.  In the lecture I referenced above (I think that's where he mentioned it) Harman notes that certain kinds of awareness are available only to those who are 'lame.'  In other words, awareness of our bodies is often only available to us when those bodies are damaged.  We are aware of our heart only when it is not working properly.  It goes back to an old Chesterton gem about the man who walks by walking, not by thinking of 'picking up one foot and placing it in front of the other.'  The healthy man just walks without being aware of walking.

Well, I have flogged this post into a kind of numb unconsciousness.  It is a travesty of a succinct, hard jewel of a book.  This book may join my pantheon of short, excellent books of Literary Criticism (yep, it's that too.) 

I have neglected to mention much the excellent chapter entitled Tiny Calliopes which may be the most enlightening of the book.  Fighting hard against the reductionism of Scientism, Harman gives us a re-integrated world.

The calliope was no less unified than the simplest hydrogen atom, yet this fact did not entail an absence of tinier components.  Everything in the cosmos was both substance and aggregate.  Reductionism was false;  geology, sociology, and rhetoric need not bow before the anger of smug eliminators.

Like the calliope, every entity remained itself in two directions, reducible neither upward nor downward.

In Harman's terms, both undermining and overmining are denied.  Sure, everything is made up of parts, but that doesn't exhaust the qualities of the whole.  In a way, simply denying the false reducing of the world by scientism and philosophizing takes Harman and us a long way toward healing the Western schism.

Finally, it is the reductionist thinking of the Bushites which does all of us the most damage.  It is thinking like Harman's which repairs us.  Taking the world apart to see the bits is a noble effort as long as it doesn't occlude the vision of the whole.  For the whole is real.  Just because we can look at the parts it doesn't give lie to the Reality of Objects.

Thomas Pynchon is correct.  Looking closer and closer at relationships (not in the romance-novel sense of the word) eventually dissolves into pixillation, not a clearer perception of anything.  But there are ways of looking closer, and from farther away that don't deny the Thing itself.

08 October 2014

LIBRARIAN'S NOTE

Blogspot is once again playing Silly Buggers with formatting.  So sorry.  I am trying to compensate, but with little or no success.

Don't blame me I'm just the Bucking Flogger.

07 October 2014

NEIGHBORS

As I noted earlier, a great unacknowledged master of genres, Thomas Berger, died recently.  He wrote westerns (Little Big Man), Arthurian cycle lit (Arthur Rex) and even an absolutely frightening sendup of Kafka (Neighbors).
It is this last one that concerns me here.

I have a confession:  this book upsets me profoundly.  The portrayal of Earl Keese as the Joseph K. analog is a painful representation of the American middle-aged male of a certain type.  My type, I guess I'm saying.

We are awkwardly aware of our expanding waistline, failing masculinity, drudging middling grad-grinding boorishness... and Berger nails it.  Like Joseph K. of Kafka's The Trial, Keese has a weird self-regard that just barely stops him from referring to himself in the third person.

The book starts with a truncated meal which is where The Trial starts if I remember correctly.  Intruders, unwanted it may be unnecessary to say, occupy the Home of Keese and upturn every domestic expectation of the middle-aged, middle-class, middling man.

Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.  His landlady's cook, who always brought him his breakfast at eight o'clock, failed to appear on this occasion.  That had never happened before.  K. waited for a little while longer, watching from his pillow the old lady opposite, who seemed to be perring at him with a curiosity unusual even for her, but then, feeling both put out and hungry, he rang the bell...  In the next room, which K. entered more slowly than he had intended, everything looked at first glance almost as it had the evening before...  yet one did not perceive that at first, especially as the main change consisted in the presence of a man who was sitting at the open window reading a book...

The Trial
Franz Kafka

Dismissing, for the moment, my preference for a different translation of the opening line, we can continue to the feckless Keese (or K., if you prefer.)

(Keese) rose and headed for the kitchen.  While passing through the dining room, which was papered in a pale-gold figure, he bent slightly so that he could see, under the long valance and over the window-mounted greenhouse, into the yard next door.  Despite what he believed he saw he did not break his stride.  In the kitchen he looked again:  it was a large white dog, in fact a wolfhound, not a naked human on all fours...  Keese admitted to himself that, very rarely, some outlandish vision of his might be to some degree or even wholly authentic;  but since he had no standard of measurement he must, in self-preservation, consistently reject the evidence of his eyes.  In this basic way he was at odds with the rest of humanity as to one of its incontestable truths:  seeing is believing.

Seeing isn't believing for K., Keese, nor us.  In fact, perception is the main problem.  Nothing looks right.  Nothing feels right.  Nothing is right for either of them.


Neighbors is usually referred to by reviewers as Kafka-esque which is just lazy.  Berger is, true to his literary nature, not just (I don't know the word here:  satirizing isn't right;  I can't keep using send-uppastiche is horribly wrong;  modernizing is just awful.  See - I can't even get the tenses right), copying a style, he is forcing us to look at an earlier text entirely anew.  Berger's novel actually is The Trial for a bourgeois America.  Robert Bellah, and all the other sociologists (the Bowling Alone crowd and my sometime hero, Morris Berman) notwithstanding, America is a frightening place and it's no wonder we shrink from contact with those people. 
(In the midst of a partially manufactured - for America anyway - infectious disease crisis, I am starting to realize the extent to which the medical trauma is analog for the existential predicament.  Are we certain that that guy across the street doesn't have Ebola?  AIDS/HIV was a similar crisis in that sense.  It isn't that there is no actually exigency, it's just that it also represents the general angst with which we experience all social interaction, not just sex.  Too much?  I don't really think so.)

Berger has seen that Neighborliness is the great existential crisis of modern life in America.  We feel deep angst at the thought that there people in our immediate world, behind closed doors and hidden by walls, who are something Other than us.  It is the angst of the Zombie movie - they look like Us, but they are not Us.  And we don't even know what threat they pose.  How often have we read the headlines to find out that someone just up the street has killed their mother and stuffed her body in the deep freeze?  That they have been abusing their children for years?  That they are a decorated war veteran?  That they are the child of an infamous serial killer?  We just don't know and it scares the bejeezus out of us.


In Berger's novel, the Neighbors act just enough off-kilter to frustrate Keese' expectations.  But maybe they're really just normal people in a bad situation themselves.  Keese can never quite decide.  Their (possibly) strange behavior then infects his own home and his wife and daughter (abruptly returning from college under suspicious circumstances) and, it must be said, Keese himself.  His own behavior gives him pause.  Why is he acting the way he is acting?  Is it justified?  Is it a sign of his own mental breakdown?  Is it merely the actions of a man under extreme stress? 


Love Your Neighbor may be the highest ethical standard, but we never can forget that hazards inhere in the actual praxis.  Jesus never had to deal with those yahoos just across the fence from us.  Fuck!

As I said, this book unnerves me:  Keese' hyper self-regard, Berger's preternatural ability to convey the slightly off-kilter flavor of modern life, the almost paranoid fear of my own neighbors all congeal to make my skin crawl.  This really is the modern horror novel.  Stephen King could have (or may have, for all I know) schooled himself on Berger's nightmare of weird domesticity.

Part of the tension is the unremitting claustrophobia of the novel:  it takes place on a weekend in small-town America where the sidewalks are 'rolled up at 5', the two neighborly houses are alone in a cul-de-sac, time doesn't progress reliably, the bulk of the action takes place at night and in the dark, and the houses themselves feel shrinkingly cramped.  Of course, it is the claustrophobia of the dying light of a small life.


To be fair, I haven't seen the Belushi/Akroyd film based on Berger's novel, but I can't believe for an instant that a comedy fairly represents the horror of Neighbors.  Anyone who reads this for the laughs probably lives next door to me.

This is the problem with our former neighbors in the Bush White House.  I don't know what really went on behind those darkly closed doors and bullet-proofed windows.  But I'm certain it isn't anything good based on what I did see and hear.  Call me Gladys Kravitz if you like, but those fuckers across Pennsylvania Ave. scared the shit out of me.  I can at least see the new guy sitting with a beer and reading a good book;  his pretty wife digging in the garden;  and his sweet daughters playing ball with the dog in the yard.  The previous tenants were Zombies, I'm sure of it.

Mr. Berger, R.I.P., you scared the crap out of us.