21 September 2017

JULIUS CAESAR

This was to be a post on the failures of that horrorshow, Political Correctness.  Identity politics and what the Right tagged "PC" has eaten up the Left and is on the brink of doing the same to the Right. The Left is no longer what historically has been defined as liberal, as the Right is no longer (and hasn't been for decades) conservative. And so this meditation on The Tragedy of Julius Caesar was going to be more a stodgy plodding commentary on such stupidity, particularly the attack and defense of a recent staging of the play.

The problem, or my problem anyway, has always been that I have never particularly liked this play. Thanks to bad productions, bad instruction and bad readings, it has never been very appealing.  But at my ripe old age of something I have re-read it and am starting to be appalled by my callow youth.  Not surprisingly, I suppose, my younger self had no eyes for the subtlety of this masterpiece.  It is, in part, a sideways glance at the failures of ideology.  (Truth be told, I have seen one very good production of Julius Caesar at Washington Park - for free, no less - by the Portland Actors Ensemble where I was at first annoyed by the character of Antony being played by a young woman.  But I was quite wrong.  She was magnificent - fiery and eloquent and strong as the character ought to be.)

So there may have to be two posts on this play.  Lucky you!

The ignorati (I'm going to get used to that word) love to scream the Benjamin Franklin quotation about having given us 'a Republic, if you can keep it' right up to the point when they have placed their own emperor on the throne.  Then all bets are off.  It's 'fuck the world, we've got ours now and no fucking liberals are going to make us protect the Republic.'  Everyone thinks the tyrant of their own choosing is benevolent and wise, which is why we must be skeptical, vigilant, jealous of our Constitution and profoundly aware of how it protects us from those who would try to consolidate too much power.  Our own history condemns the strongman, or used to anyway.  George Washington was offered the title of 'King' which, I think with some sense of being insulted, outright refused.  (As it turns out, that story is apocryphal, dammit!)

So, a production of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by the Public Theater in New York intentionally made their assassinated emperor-to-be look roughly like DJT.  The Right was outraged!  Outraged, I tell you! and protesters stormed the stage during a show.  Fox and Breitbart breathed fire and caused two sponsors of the production - Delta and BofA - to withdraw financial support.  That's fine.  It's their money.

“The Public Theater chose to present Julius Caesar in a way that was intended to provoke and offend. Had this intention been made known to us, we would have decided not to sponsor it...” 

Susan Atran
Bank of America spokeswoman

(The Guardian in the UK snarkily reported that Elizabeth Wolf, spokeswoman for Delta said, 
" "Delta saw the play," though she did not clarify in what form the airline was present in the theater.")

I can't imagine wanting to sit through any production of a Shakespeare play that doesn't 'provoke and offend.'   That's just too boring for words.

But this is also the 'fine art of getting it wrong' as many in the arts community pointed out.  Quoted in a NYTimes article, Bill Rauch - Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival - pointed out,
"It's an odd reading to say that it incites violence, because the meat of the tragedy of the play is the tragic repercussions of the assassination... The play could not be clearer about the disastrous effects of violence."  In the program notes the director said, "Julius Caesar can be read as a warning parable to those who try to fight for democracy by undemocratic means... To fight the tyrant does not mean imitating him."

The insurrection is bloodily defeated on the plains of Philippi.  Brutus and Cassius commit suicide on their own swords and Octavius and Antony prevail.  Violence begets violence, and political violence always fails in its ill-conceived goal.

"Trump, Republicans and Democrats should all take heart that what this plays says is that killing a political leader, no matter how righteous your views are, is a bad idea - a terrible idea.

Rob Melrose (dir. Acting Company)
NYTimes

Unfortunately some on the Left made the same stupid error and defended the production as a virtuous attack on DJT.  You can't have it both ways.  Either criticize or defend the play based on what it actually says or leave it.  The Right can't see past the JC/DJT figure and the Left can't get past wanting to do in a president they hate.

I know there are those who will claim that I would be outraged over a depiction of Obama assassinated as Julius Caesar.  Would I?  I hope not, but honestly DJT is a Julius Caesar figure in a way Obama never was.  I'm trying to think of a Good Will play where an Obama-like figure meets a bloody doom and if I would be upset by it.  I might be interested in a version of Measure for Measure where the toxic Duke is an Obama-like figure - might work.

(Delta sponsored a version of Julius Caesar in 2012 with Obama as the assassinated figure.  That was fine with them.  But it doesn't work aesthetically.  I'm not offended, I just can't see how the allegory works.)


So, the point is that the Right has its own version of PC which they have brandished against a production of a play that has at its heart a version of their own message.  They should get over themselves.  And stop lecturing the Left about their love of PC - everyone is offended by everything, but they should leave Good Will and his plays out of it.  They don't have the sechel.

Emperor Trump by Ed Asher Briant

(LN:  Blogger is still playing Silly Buggers with my formatting.  Sorry.)

05 September 2017

JOHN ASHBERY

"There is the view that poetry should improve your life.  I think people confuse it with the Salvation Army."

John Ashbery


John Ashbery
July 28, 1927 - September 3, 2017
Most likely John Ashbery's name will provoke absolutely no recognition in you.  There's no shame in that.  Outside the poetry/academic/I-don't-know-what community, Ashbery is barely a breath of autumn wind on a dry leaf.  But, verily, he is also one of the most likely poets of our era to be remembered in the way Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman have been remembered.

Ashbery is notoriously considered 'difficult' or 'occult' in the sense of being hidden or obscured.  In other words:  readers think he is hard to understand.

Perhaps.

But, let's be clear, it isn't the poet's job to be clear.

"...but everything need not and cannot be (intelligible).  Plainly if it is possible to express a subtle and recondite thought on a subtle and recondite subject in a subtle and recondite way and with great felicity and perfection, in the end, something must be sacrificed, with so trying a task, and this may be the being, at once... intelligible."

Gerard Manley Hopkins
1844 - 1889

That is to say, sometimes a poet has an obligation to write about difficult ideas in a difficult language, and that is not a bad thing.  As readers, our comfort or facile ability to understand a poem is our problem.

"It was domestic thunder,
The color of spinach.
Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls:  it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country."

John Ashbery
Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape

Parse that, if you will.

"No wonder Ashbery is widely thought of as dauntingly "difficult" - or, in some camps, as something of a literary hoaxster... Being difficult, after all, is not the same thing as being incomprehensible."

The Instruction Manual
How to read John Ashbery

Meghan O'Rourke
Slate

(The link above to O'Rourke's article is a good way to approach Ashbery's work after reading some of his poetry.)

I am not particularly a fan of any writing, poetry or prose, which reaches first for the emotional tug.  I want my writer to achieve the emotional through the logic of the writing and through the meaning of the words.  That isn't to say I am immune to the emotional or passionate, just that I believe there should be some cost for experiencing the feelings - they ought not to be served up on a silver platter. Otherwise I feel cheap or cheated -I could go to a film by Oliver Stone or James Cameron for that.

But, rarely, a reader like me has to reverse that order and follow the impression a writer makes into the meaning and not the other way round.  It is disconcerting for someone like me, but a great writer can achieve the effect with great effort and ability as Ashbery does.

"It is hard to talk concretely about Ashbery's poetry, because his subject is, so often, aesthetic consciousness - what he calls "the experience of experience." "

Meghan O'Rourke

This is Hamlet's overhearing of himself as he talks and thinks about what he is experiencing.

"But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart."

V, ii

It's a comment to himself made upon himself.  It's a question to himself about why he feels the way he does.  He's not complaining;  this is a statement of a kind of wonder. Prosaically, it is that alien in a science fiction film who has been deposited in a human body somehow and is tasting, feeling, experiencing our world in our way for the first time.  She marvels at the power and the 'firstness' of the moment.

"Words... are our effort to create a logic for ourselves, to articulate what Wallace Stevens once concisely called "the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind." "

Meghan O'Rourke

But, despite my own discomforts, we often - if not always - feel before we think and then talk to ourselves about the experience afterward.  In fact, it is the feeling we are having at the moment that we most often talk to ourselves about.  I don't particularly like acknowledging that, but it's the truth. Feelings escape my control and words follow pantingly to contain and control them like a border collie scramming after fugitive sheep.

Finally, sort of, I want to reprint Ashbery's funny, fine, relatively simple poem Sleepers Awake from the Poetry Foundation website.  Read it.  Follow the link to hear him read it aloud.  Let it wash over you and think about the phrases.  Poetry isn't weak or effeminate;  it is too robust for our enervated world.  Read poems and be strong.  Poems won't, as Ashbery noted above, improve you per se, but you will see better.



Cervantes was asleep when he wrote Don Quixote
Joyce slept during the Wandering Rocks section of Ulysses
Homer nodded and occasionally slept during the greater part of the Iliad; he was awake however when he wrote the Odyssey
Proust snored his way through The Captive, as have legions of his readers after him. 
Melville was asleep at the wheel for much of Moby-Dick
Fitzgerald slept through Tender Is the Night, which is perhaps not so surprising, 
but the fact that Mann slumbered on the very slopes of The Magic Mountain is quite extraordinary—that he wrote it, even more so.   
Kafka, of course, never slept, even while not writing or on bank holidays. 
No one knows too much about George Eliot’s writing habits—my guess is she would sleep a few minutes, wake up and write something, then pop back to sleep again. 
Lew Wallace’s forty winks came, incredibly, during the chariot race in Ben-Hur
Emily Dickinson slept on her cold, narrow bed in Amherst. 
When she awoke there would be a new poem inscribed by Jack Frost on the windowpane; outside, glass foliage chimed. 
Good old Walt snored as he wrote and, like so many of us, insisted he didn’t. 
Maugham snored on the Riviera. 
Agatha Christie slept daintily, as a woman sleeps, which is why her novels are like tea sandwiches—artistic, for the most part. 
I sleep when I cannot avoid it; my writing and sleeping are constantly improving. 

I have other things to say, but shall not detain you much. 
Never go out in a boat with an author—they cannot tell when they are over water. 
Birds make poor role models. 
A philosopher should be shown the door, but don’t, under any circumstances, try it. 
Slaves make good servants. 
Brushing the teeth may not always improve the appearance. 
Store clean rags in old pillow cases. 
Feed a dog only when he barks. 
Flush tea leaves down the toilet, coffee grounds down the sink. 
Beware of anonymous letters—you may have written them, in a wordless implosion of sleep.



One more:

This is the last stanza of When I Saw the Invidious Flare

Turning from the blaze to the counterpane
I saw how we are all great in our shortcomings, yea,
greater because of them.  There are letters of the alphabet
we don't know yet, but when we've reached them
we'll know the luster of unsupported things.
Our negativity will have caught up with us
and we'll be better for it.  Just
keep turning on lights, wasting electricity,
carousing with aardvarks, smashing the stemware.
These apartments we live in are nicer
than where we lived before, near the beginning.

It is an exquisite meditation on memory, failure, brokenness and on simply going on one could ask for.  And on the horrible task of encompassing who we have made ourselves become.

John Ashbery is dead and gone now.  

Why are we left behind to read his words and wonder?  It is a kind of purgatory we must suffer to be saved.  Follow Ashbery and be redeemed;  follow the dwarfish thief and be damned.

Now does he feel
His secret murders sticking on his hands.
Now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breach.
Those he commands move only in command,
Nothing in love. Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.                                                               

                                        Macbeth
                                         V, ii


Librarian's note:  For some fucking reason, Blogger is being daft again about formatting.  The weirdnesses in this post are a result of that.  All attempts to repair how the thing looks (including a deletion and complete re-writing) have been for nought.  Fuck it!  Make what you can of it.  John Ashbery is laughing his ass off.

11 August 2017

STILL DISTRACTED

I was listening to an essay collection from Harlan Ellison, a speculative fiction/science fiction writer of great note, in which he subjected his readers to a disquisition on literary bloggers like myself.  In short, he hates us.

Fair enough, we ought to be in for a great deal of mutual criticism for the cheek of trying to write something approaching an insight into a given author or work.  Without doubt most authors I have written about would be rightfully appalled by my, what?, approach or 'take' on their work.

The author sets himself up as a monad - a first being, or even a totality of being.  There are no others in their authorial universe and it is sheer heresy to take up the cross and drag it along for their suffering messianic selves.  They may deign to allow us to look at their holy writ, but comment thereon?  Absolutely not.  We are worms and as such have no standing to discuss, much less criticize.  (My limited personal experience with published authors confirms my hypothesis.  While they will, with barely concealed scorn, tolerate our purchase of their books, they construct a Trumpian wall behind which they live in bookworld (only the published ones, you understand) and we are on the other side where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.)

Lest you think I am speaking derisively or critically in the sense of being disdainful - it simply isn't so.  There is no other position that they are allowed to take by the rules of Romanticism.  They have Authority (it's in the word) and must claim Priority (that they came first with their creative insights.)  Their fear and loathing of 'belatedness' or of being influenced by writers who came before is absolute.  As the badly translated phrase from the Old Testament puts it, an author states "I am that I am."

So, back to this limping blog.


I am not a literary critic of any kind.  I hope I make no pretensions to such.  Occasionally I steal a march and capture their asses for my own use (untangle that!)  But more often I simply avoid trying to look like a writer with a specific academic predisposition.  I am also not an amateur critic in the sense that I am not critiquing any book.  I am that most rare of beasts - a reader.  And as such certain things catch my eye;  certain things spark a fire within me and I am forced to write.  Drivel it may be, and almost certainly is, but in a sense I am taking the authorial position over from the original writer and claiming a kind of authority of my own.  For that reason I cannot claim Priority - I come late to the party.  In a psychoanalytic sense my ego is mediating a text for me.  It (my ego) is reality testing my experience against the hard truth of the book itself - and I ask myself 'have I accurately, if impressionistically, reflected the original?'  'have I accurately described the idea this work has imposed on my consciousness?'  While a true and perfect evaluation of a book might be akin to the author in the Borges story who painstakingly recreates Cervantes' Don Quixote word for word and makes the claim he has perfectly re-written the original, that level of exactitude is not desirable.

These too-long essays are an attempt to fire you with the same spark that fired me.  Even the books I loathe inspire me to think and write.  That's a good thing.  At least it's a good thing for me, perhaps not for you - but you come here of your own will, so...  I am grateful for that, by the way.

The only message I am really, truly trying convey is this:  Be a reader.  Be a solitary soul who reads books.  It won't make you a better person - it obviously hasn't made me a better person.  It won't make you a better citizen.  It won't do anything.  It is just reading.  It is just an aesthetic experience that encompasses the cosmos.

20 July 2017

DISTRACTED... MOMENTARILY, I HOPE

I promised a post on Good Will's Julius Caesar and I will deliver, but I came upon another gem not to be lost in the deeps...

While hirpling through my copy of Garner's Modern American Usage I found a list of terms which are the names different types of governments.



So, we have:  ergatocracy - government by workers;  gynecocracy - government by women;  ochlocracy - government by the mob, and finally my favorite:

kakistocracy - government by a country's worst citizens (think of the excretory 'kaka'.)


Sure, I cherry-picked the photo, but I didn't make it up.  Fans of the Dwarfish Thief, party on!

07 July 2017

2312

Self-consciously bookended by a death and a marriage, which is the definition of a romantic comedy, 2312 both is and is not science fiction by any definition.

"to form a sentence is to collapse many superposed wave functions to a single thought universe.  Multiplying the lost universes word by word, we can say that each sentence extinguishes10(n) universes, where n is the number of words in the sentence.  Each thought condenses trillions of potential thoughts.  Thus we get verbal overshadowing, where the language we use structures the reality we inhabit.  Maybe this is a blessing.  Maybe this is why we need to keep making sentences"

                                                                                        Extracts (18)

The non-conventionally punctuated segment comes from a repeating element in Kim Stanley Robinson's truly remarkable novel.  Thanks to Wiki here's the thing:

 In quantum mechanics wave function collapse is said to occur when a wave function—initially in a superposition of several eigenstates—appears to reduce to a single eigenstate (by "observation")...

The thing to understand, I think, is that writing is the collapse of multiple (10(n) universes, where n is the number if words in the sentence - a precise formula) possibilities into a single reality.  It is the idea behind the science fiction novel (perhaps all literature - everything?) - taking the multiverse of possible futures and following just one as all the others 'collapse' away.  It is a representation of the reality of history.  An endless number of possible futures exist at any given moment - and perhaps all occur somewhere - but only one happens here in this universe.  But remember, it is observation that collapses the wave function.


So back to the repeating elements.  There are three - Extracts, Lists, and Quantum Walks - which are functions of the three main personalities in 2312Extracts seem to be the expression of data upon which analysis of vast amounts of information is accomplished by the Saturnian diplomat Wahram.  Lists record much the same thing for Swan Er Hong, Mercurian, artist, world-designer, and fomenter of things.  Finally the Quantum Walks feel like the quanta thinking processes of the AI named Pauline (called a 'Qube') implanted in Swan's head.  It isn't confusing - the repetitions are small musical themes that weave in and out of the story enhancing the narrative.  They are surprising and helpful.

And then back to the Romantic Comedy reference.  Start from crisis and chaos - in this case a death and an attack on a planet and a strange, strained relationship - and move through the almost Shakespearean formula of conflict/uncertainty/resolution (this isn't quite right, but if you've taken even an intro course to Good Will, then you'll understand.  Someday I'm going to write a post... sigh.)
This is subtly done and unless you have a strong geek streak as I do, the form will go unnoticed.  Robinson is too fine a writer to bludgeon us, for which I am endlessly grateful.  But, nevertheless, it's all there and it doesn't hurt to have it in the back of your mind while reading.  Acts II, III, and IV are the crisis and they exceed the demands of the genre by (sorry) light-years.  Robinson knows the buttons that need to be pushed for a great SF read and pushes them with grace and sophistication.  It's still genre fiction, but very good genre fiction.

Robinson's SF gewgaws - the technology and stuff of imaginative fiction - work.  They are outrageous and often surprising, but not silly.  In a way, we can see where they come from.  They are not just wishful thinking about flying cars or faster-than-light travel.  Clearly his tech is beyond humanity as it now stands, but he infers where we might be able to go based on where we are.  It isn't as easy as it might seem, but his amazingly broad grasp of the outer edges of what we know now gives us a place to stand while we look with him into what may be our future. 

As with any great SF literature, the future is also a commentary on today and 2312 doesn't fail.

"the space diaspora occurred as late capitalism writhed in its internal decision concerning whether to destroy Earth's biosphere or change its rules.  Many argued for the destruction of the biosphere as being the lesser of two evils"

                                                                                       Extracts (6)

It isn't Green Utopian thinking, though.  If anything, it's the opposite.  Robinson isn't a conservationist per se.  He writes, with unnerving affection sometimes, of destroying environments to make other environments and has what I might call a philosophically pragmatic streak in him that's a mile wide.  (I have to admit it reminds me of the environmental thinking of Timothy Morton and Graham Harman.)

"...for the truth is we are here to inscribe ourselves on the universe, and it is not inappropriate to remind ourselves of this when blank slates are given us.  All landscape art reminds us:  we live in a tabula rasa, and must write on it.  It is our world, and its beauty is entirely inside our heads.  Even today people will sometimes go out over the horizon and scuff their initials in the dust."



"If the line of caribou migration was to be established for good, and the entire zone made into a habitat corridor, then the land itself would have to be changed, as it had been before.  Again humans would be altering it.  All Earth was a park now, a work of art, shaped by artists.  The new alteration was just one more stroke of the brush."

Earth Art by UK artist Andy Goldsworthy

Robinson does remind us that sometimes the price of such artistry is beyond our ability to pay.

"Despite this, people tried things.  So much more power than ever before was at their command that some felt they could at last begin to overturn Jevons Paradox, which states that the better human technology gets, the more harm we do with it.  That painful paradox has never yet failed to manifest itself in human history, but perhaps now was the tipping point... the moment when they could get something out of their growing powers besides redoubled destruction.
    But no one could be sure."

Robinson's prose is fun.  A character sits, "mycrofting spiderlike in a raised chair."  Remember your Sherlock Holmes?  (Or is he referring to the definition in the Urban Dictionary? ... god, I hope not.)  Or, "two more of Genette's colleagues suited up and went out, all of them on Ariadne lines."  Classical literature, anyone?  You don't have to catch all the references ditched in the prose, but it's more fun if you get most of them.

His sense of humor rattles about in the book in unexpected places.

"Saint George, a social terrarium in which the men think they are living in a Mormon polygamy, while the women consider it a lesbian world with a small percentage of male lesbians"

                                                                                        Lists (5)

If that doesn't make you laugh, well...

2312 is of a piece with Robinson's Mars trilogy, but narratively independent.  He may be 'writing' a story of our future solar system, I don't know.  There's so much, but he has an uncanny ability to gather in so much and still populate it all with people we can care about.  He seems willing to collapse the wave function with his observational skills and that's a lot to ask of any writer.  It's a combination of the art we inscribe on this universe and the data we exclude in the process.  Any writer worth her salt will tell you Michelangelo-like that she chips away the stuff that doesn't belong to get to the thing we finally are awe-struck by.  What we leave out is often as important as what we include.  I would like to think there's a literary science to be made of what authors leave out or intentionally exclude - it would start with Shakespeare and his ellipses and jump to Milton and so on, and so on...

There is a major element of the book I have avoided because I have no real frame of reference for it at the moment.  Robinson turns gender, sex, and genital relationships (for absolute lack of a better term) into an unmoored, unfixed line throughout the book.  Any individual might be a husband in one relationship and a wife in another.  Both (if there are only two) sets of sexual organs can and often do occur in a single individual.  Child bearing is detached from nominal designations of gender and either sex may be responsible for it.  Robinson examines lightly some of the nomenclature that usually identifies these variations.  And it would be untrue to say that characters within the novel are immune to caring about the differences.  They are profoundly aware and at the same time non-nonplussed about them.  It is of social importance, but not moral or even relational importance.  The sex and organs and orientation of any individual plays no part in the relationship between two characters.  It's handled with intelligence and a light touch that ought to be a big hint to both the identity politics crowd (wow!  that's going to get me into trouble) as well as the moral majority crowd who can't see beyond the end of their own (usually) penises.

I really do hope you read this book.  It should build a new foundation for all your reading in the genre.  Both the books you have already read and the ones that come after.  As Bloom tells us, it's all about influence.

There is a dimness, a lack of curiosity and imagination in our Fearless Leader (I'm calling him Boris from now on) that should leave all of us dumbfounded.  I have met people who always claim victory in every situation, even when they have obviously gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop.  They aren't positive thinkers or marked by the inevitably of success or whatever motivational self-help guru or book is currently being flogged.  They are narcissists, psychopaths, sociopaths or whichever clinical designation is appropriate.  In short, they are manipulators who really ought to be locked up and studied.  And even then they will claim to have won.  These people always move in a cloud of their own stench.  That we can't smell them a mile away is a condemnation of us all.  We should be training ourselves from childhood on how to spot these types - they look like us, you know and have endless skills of manipulation.  We need help to avoid these damaged individuals.  Don't for a minute think I am giving them a kind of pass because of some genetic predisposition, as if they were alcoholics with a disease that needs treatment.  It's worse than that.  Helping a drug addict or alcoholic or mentally ill person to health and wellness is obligatory and noble at the same time.  But these warped Borises need to simply be isolated and kept away from healthy humans.  There is no cure as far as I have heard.  So, bye-bye to Boris and his camp followers.  It's time for a desert island for them all.

Librarian's note:  I'm sure I will come back and re-write that last paragraph.  It isn't funny or smart or helpful or anything else which it should be at least.  But I'm tired and frustrated and want to spend time re-reading portions of KSR's very, very good book and forget about it all for a few hours.  Thanks for your patience and please continue visiting the BPL/TPL.

So, let's take a run at that last paragraph.  It's about hope, and the future, isn't it?  I am predisposed to be without hope for the short term, much less the long term.  That's my burden and I bequeath it to you.  Sorry.  My burden, not yours.  Trump and his ilk compress that hopelessness into a kind of despair that if it isn't existential then it is at least experiential.  Glass half full?  What fucking glass?  I am skeptical of KSR's inclination towards hope.  I think it's just that, an inclination:  a predisposed bend towards the positive end of the spectrum.  In my mind it's about sincerity.  He sincerely believes there is hope for all of us, but sincerity is no guarantee of truth.  "All bad poetry is sincere," says Oscar Wilde.  I think I have said before that I believe "all sincere poetry is bad."  If there is no element of irony, skepticism, doubt, then there is no true belief.  I'm not saying KSR is a sunny optimist by any means.  And he isn't prone, yet anyway, to writing those dismal post-apocalyptic novels even when describing the post-apocalypse.  He even makes a point of avoiding the Chestertonian described trap of assuming vast changes in human nature in order to achieve utopia.  But I simply think he is far too optimistic about what we might call human nature.  Trump and the people who voted for him should be the exemplars of that, yes?  It's a cliché to be an old cranky guy who believes the world was better when I was young.  But that's not me.  I think the world was shit then too.  It's just that the depth of the shit is increasing exponentially as the sea levels rise thus.  Brief periods of Camelot are just that - and probably not even that. The Kennedy years were a smoke and mirrors game of distracting from many horrors by building an image of a kind of (note!) nuclear family perfection that retrospect has shown us was just pure bollocks!  Interestingly enough, the golden glow was built around that Disney image of the family.  Why start there?  That's a question for another, much longer (believe it or not) post.  The nuclear family in many ways is just a turd no matter how one guilds it.  The current nuclear family of note (the one in the White Whore House) is a damaged and yet perfect image of what American reality is.  A serial adulterer on his third wife who is a known sex offender, a cold wife who couldn't display her contempt for her husband more completely if she wore a sign, a venal horde of offspring and their spouses who will eventually sell their psychopathic father into pokey and a band of sycophants who will do the rat jump when the leaky vessel starts going down.  Watch how they all compete to sell each other out when the time comes.  Well, enough.  Read books, drink whiskey, smoke and stay away from all contact with people like me.  We won't do you any good anyway.

Love,

The Librarian

Librarian's second note:  I listened to an interview with KSR on the Generation Anthropocene podcast this week.  He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the works of Philip K. Dick (when Dick was still alive and almost ignored by the public) and studied with Ursula K. Le Guin who he says taught him sociology as well as writing.  These things intertwine hilariously (if you are inclined to see life that way) when you discover that KSR's first thesis advisor at UCSD was Frederic Jameson who Dick reported to the FBI as a foreign agent of the Warsaw Pact.  

22 June 2017

UPROAR

Is this the right Caesar?
Recently the alt-right (or whatever we call the ignorati these days) stormed a production of Good Will's Julius Caesar because they objected to an execution of the emperor dressed to look like DJT.  Even the real conservatives don't want a piece of his faux-populist bullshit.

In preparation of a post on this 'bridge' play, I have been re-reading it and looking at my favorite writers on the subject.  I came across this quote in H. C. Goddard's unequalled The Meaning of Shakespeare where he cites a line from Macbeth as a perfect summation of Caesar's spiritual failings as he nears his tragic end at the hand of Brutus and his cohorts,


                                            Now does he feel his title
Hang loose about him, like a giant's robe
Upon a dwarfish thief.

'Dwarfish thief...'  It's a bit low-brow to point out the initials of our fearless leader match those of the epithet, but never let it be said I didn't take the low road whenever I could score against these weasels.  Hey ho.

Patrick Stewart as Macbeth















Whatever your opinion of the previous occupant of the big chair, Obama never looked like a pretender to the throne.  He wore the mantle of power with authority and grace unlike the current president who shows no gravitas whatsoever.

Anyway, I wanted to make this quick post to highlight the Macbeth quote before it slipped away in a cloud of dementia.

20 June 2017

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES

"By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes..."

Macbeth
Second Witch
iv, 1

It's another not-critique, another impressionistic post on a book that sits in my soul with wings that make me feel as if I could fly or with a brick that makes me a bit sick.  Which is it this time?  I'm not certain - oh, wings!  no, a brick!  both - fear and exhilaration like riding the carousel with the calliope music blaring to make me deaf and the wild, frightened horses scaring the little bejeezus out of my four-year-old heart.

There is a great scene at the end of the movie version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  The principals - and nearly everyone - are dead and the clowns who rather tormented the poor duo throughout put away the props, pull down the curtains, close up the wagon and ride off along the cliff face where the whole thing began.  (Go watch it here - just two minutes... R&G Are Dead.)  It is the reminder that we have just witnessed a play-within-a-play and that the whole thing starts over at the beginning with the next performance.  And, in our faces we are slapped with the cyclical reality of our staged lives and repetition of our much-rehearsed dialogue.

The end of SWTWC puts me in the same mood.  The tents are collapsed, the freaks have fled (except for the Skeleton (This is particularly nice, because the elderly father of our protagonist repeatedly tells us he knows things down in his own skeleton) who picks up the child body of the Illustrated Man and walks off into the fields, and the circus train is left rusting on its siding.  But the librarian has already hinted that the whole thing happens over and over and over and while they 'won' this time, the next battle is coming and coming forever. 

     "For some, autumn comes early, stays late through life where October follows September and November touches October and then instead of December and Christ's birth, there is no Bethlehem Star, no rejoicing, but September comes again and old October and so on down the years, with no winter, spring, or revivifying summer."

Charles Halloway is quoting from a religious pamphlet he remembers looming out of his youth, but it is Ray Bradbury's implicit message - we always fight evil, always and forever struggle to put off our bad selves and take on the uncomfortable, ill-fitting good skins that we know we should wear.  He seems to say that the victory over Cooger and Dark's carnival is not exactly illusory, but hardly final either.  In a neat writer's trick, Bradbury turns the evil/good battle into the evolution of man.

     "If men had wanted to stay bad forever, they could have, agreed?  Agreed.... No.   Somewhere we let go of the hot gorilla's paw.  Somewhere we turned in our carnivore's teeth and started chewing blades of grass...  Since then we measure ourselves up the scale from apes, but not half so high as angels."

Halloween week, the week Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway (Charles' son) are to turn 14, the circus comes, not to town exactly, but near enough to hear.  It's very late in the season for such things;  we want our carnivals and such to be around on the 4th or late August, but definitely before Labor Day when school starts and everything is dull again. 

For reasons that really aren't exactly clear, the boys become persecuted by the carnival and its two Autumn people, Mr. Dark and Mr. Cooger.  Certainly they have seen odd things, certainly they are suspicious.  But they could be ignored by the carnival if it weren't for the fact the purpose of its being there is the boys' great temptation and fight. We are all slightly hysterical, conspiracy-minded boys at that age.  It is the moment when we grow up, grow up or fail.  Another film reference:  Near the end of the wonderful Labyrinth, David Bowie's Jared tells Jennifer Connelly's character that all her suffering, her journey, her struggles, her fears and temptations were a gift from him, "I did it all for you!" he says.  This is profound.  Until and unless we turn evil on its head and recognize that in a very real way it is a gift to each of us, we never grow up.  Growing is the point of temptation and struggle.  While I am not there myself, some eastern thinkers have developed the ability to see pain as a blessing.  Me?  I just hate it.  I think there is a Christian heresy in there somewhere, but I can't remember which one of the millions it is.)

     "We have common cause against the night.  You start with little common causes...  Common cause, common cause, common cause of mouth, eye, ear, tongue had, nose, flesh, heart, and soul."

When the Disney movie version of SWTWC was released in the early 80's, I recall a surge in support for seeing the movie from the evangelical right.  Constitutionally disposed to condemn Hollywood movies as a whole, this was a clinamen of morality.  The idea, I think, was that this film showed the battle between good and evil.  Oh, and Good (of course!) won.  Stridently opposed to dualism, the evangelical community painfully misread the book as a Christian allegory, where Bradbury clearly had something else in mind.

     "Besides, you're inferring that's the Devil out there.  I only say it's a type of creature has learned to live off souls, not the souls themselves."


But Bradbury is a dualist - it could go either way.  Is Good pre-determined to win?  Hardly.  And he nicely disposes of any Christian idea that certain kinds of religion or mysticism are inoculations against the Bad.

     "Well, what have you there?"  Mr. Dark squinted.  "A Bible?  How very charming, how childish and refreshingly old-fashioned."
     "Have you read it, Mr. Dark?"
     "Read it!  I've had every page, paragraph, and word read at me, sir!"
     ... And before Charles Halloway could move, Mr. Dark ran lightly forward and took the Bible.  He held it in his two hands.
     "Aren't you surprised?  See, I touch, hold, even read from."
     ... Mr. Dark hurled the Bible into a wastepaper basket and did not look at it again."

The vampire lives!  Crucifix, Bible or Holy Water - no church wizardry in this most magical book.

There is much more I would like to cover:  the GMHopkins and Dylan Thomas inflected prose, the unparalleled action sequences, the carnival horrors from deep in our imaginations, but you'll have to read it for yourself.  Ray Bradbury is perhaps America's most neglected writer.  His work is commonly written off as Science Fiction (which it almost never is) or adventure books for boys.  If he is acknowledged, it's most likely for his masterpiece Fahrenheit 451.  But most often he's just ignored.  There are issues with Bradbury, but they don't add up to a grain of sand in the scale against his written work.  He is amazing.

Well, here we are again.  This is where I say something snarky or vulgar or both about that bastard in the WH.  So, Fuck him!  I want to go read.  I want to read Ray's great books and short stories.  I want to read Good Will.  And Herman Melville (did you know Bradbury wrote the screenplay for Houston's movie version of Moby DickRead Green Shadows, White Whale - it's another masterpiece!)  There is no morality or salvation in books.  It's true.  We don't read for ethical or social instruction.  We don't read to be taught how to act or behave.  We read to learn our own insides. 
That's why I want DJT to read the books I put in his library.  He is a narcissist - a shiny, though quickly tarnishing, exterior.  There is no there, there.  No interiority, no true self.  No fucking idea who he is.  Just a little god unto himself.  A real book would kill him, whether it were Bleak House or See Dick and Jane.  Poke into him and find an empty shell, full of spider webs and dirt clods... and a really, really bad smell.

15 June 2017

LILITH

You may have noticed that a second title was shown on that cover of Phantastes I posted recently.  Lilith is often mentioned in tandem with MacDonald's beautiful fantasy of fairyland.

There is problem with that.

I complain endlessly about 'category errors.'  The gist of it is this:  if a reader, viewer, critic (blah, blah) fails to get a work in the proper category, then she cannot properly assess its successes and failures.  If you start with the idea that a novel is, in fact, a poem (or, of course, vice versa) then you've lost access to the conventions you need to accurately critique the work, or even appreciate it.  Novels are different than poems and if you don't know the difference, or can't tell the difference, then you are lost from the beginning.  To illustrate my point to a friend who couldn't tell the difference between fantasy and a parody of fantasy, I told him his beloved Volvo was a lousy microwave oven.  It has a flat place to put food;  it has a glass port to view the cooking food;  it warms the food (a little), but in the end it doesn't do what a microwave is supposed to do:  cook.  The Volvo has some characteristics of a microwave, but that isn't its purpose.

So, there's the nub of my issue with those who would place Lilith in the same category as Phantastes.  It does share some of the fantastical imagery of the other book, and it follows a callow young man who has taken over an estate upon his majority.  But where the one (Phantastes) is a full fairy story adumbrating an occult, extra-sensory realm of life than exists alongside our own, Lilith is a spiritual allegory that takes those fantastical images and uses them to illustrate a Christian principle in the real world.  At least, those are MacDonald's rough intentions.

I was originally charmed by the mystical library where the novel begins.  It includes a closet of rare manuscripts, a false set of shelves filled with the fake spines of fictional books and an old man who is interchangeably a raven and a librarian.

The setting is seductive (which may be MacDonald's point) and wondrous.  It appeals to my own hermetic tendencies and fantasies of owning a massive library/sanctuary of my own.  Shock, eh?

In one of the walls was the low, narrow door of a closet, containing some of the oldest and rarest of the books .  It was a very thick door, with a projecting frame, and it had been the fancy of some ancestor to cross it with shallow shelves, filled with bookbacks only.  The harmless trick may be excused by the fact that the titles on the sham backs were either humorously original, or those of books lost beyond hope of recovery.  I had a great liking for the masked door.

(Behind that door in my library you will find a shelf of my rarest whiskies.)

Sorry, I've gone far astray from my intent here.  But the point is that I did, or do, love the opening framework of the book as I like the framework of a library.
(No man knows it when he is making an idiot of himself.  A sentence from Lilith that I should take as my motto.)

From here MacDonald gets tedious.  Nothing is itself.  A butterfly becomes a book when touched, a pigeon is a prayer on its way (to God, presumably), a gnarled old man with a white beard is a hawthorn shrub.  A little flower is a prayer, too.

     "Could you not teach me to know a prayer-flower when I see it?"  I said.
     "I could not.  But if I could, what better would you be?  you (sic) would not know it of yourself and itself!  Why know the name of a thing when the thing itself you do not know?  Whose work is it but your own to open your eyes?  But indeed the business of the universe is to make such a fool of you that you will know yourself for one, and so begin to be wise!"

It could be fun for a while, but when it becomes everything, it gets old very fast.  Yes, yes, things have multiple natures, but it is by facets not by multiple-beingness (to make an ugly neologism).  These are clunky one-dimensional representations to get the reader in the mood of the allegory.  "Pay Attention!"  he announces.  "If I call something by one name I actually mean it is something Else!"

This anyway is just a taste of the sort of thing MacDonald really overindulges in throughout the novel.

Sleep is waking, death is life, to live is to die, everyone else is awake but you are asleep, you can't know if you are dead or alive or awake or asleep.  You only sleep/awake if Father Adam puts you to sleep or wakes you.  You think you are alive, but you are dead. These sets of symbols meant to explicate the elegantly simple Bible verse, "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."  Matthew xvi, 25.  A mystical statement of existence, but one that is quick and lively and beautiful whether you believe the theology of it or you don't.  It achieves its life because apart from theological meaning, it contains truths.  MacDonald just flogs the idea until it lay gasping on the floor, emptied of oxygen and meaning.

A small point which I have failed to mention:  the name of the protagonist is Mr. Vane.  It is unsubtle but effective, I suppose.  But wasn't there a less obvious choice?

There are great moments and insights in this book and I could quote from it endlessly:

Then first I knew what an awful thing it was to be awake in the universe:  I was, and could not help it!

Don't you remember those instances of adolescent angst and terror?  I, for one, never really outgrew them.  But it makes the tediousness of the story that much more unbearable.  I found myself slogging on looking for those nuggets in the dross.

"...he and I would be talking of two persons as if they were one and the same.  Your consciousness of yourself and my knowledge of you are far apart."

It is the idea that sometimes makes me despair of truly knowing anyone, ever.  Harold Bloom once (or many times - he never said once what he could repeat ad nauseam) said he read to know more people than he could ever hope to get to know in his life.  When we read Shakespeare serving up hundreds of fully individualized characters with immense personalities of their own, we catch Bloom's sense.

Another nice moment in this book,

I saw now that a man alone is but a being that may become a man -- that he is but a need, and therefore a possibility.  To be enough for himself, a being must be an eternal, self-existent worm!

Fairly, it is the demonstration of the Christian word 'Charity,' the 'caritas' of the Greek language.  Letting someone else do for us makes us both human.  I am hardly ever gracious in acceptance.  I prefer the 'thank you very much, but I'll do it myself' response.  Hmm...

Finally MacD devolves into the endless paradoxes of sleep/wake, death/life.  He can't seem to stop worrying it.

     "... I too have slept, I am dead!"
     "I believed you dead long ago; but I see you alive!"
     "More alive than you know, or are able to understand.  I was scarce alive when first you knew me.  Now I have slept, and am awake;  I am dead, and live indeed!"

If only he knew when to quit.

Rossetti's Lady Lilith
 Like MacD, I don't know when to quit either.  This has gone on too long.  But I have a couple more things to make this maybe a little more confused and confusing.

First, to give him his due, MacD was a universalist.  That is, he believed that Christianity teaches that everyone is given salvation in the end.  So, whether you want it or not, you get an eternal Christian heaven.  That is a simplistic representation of what he believed, but it will do for the moment.  There are shades and shades.

Second, the mythology of the character Lilith in the West is complicated and complex.  She is Adam's first wife created from the same earth as Adam himself rather than from his rib as Eve was created.  Therefore she is Adam's co-equal creation with the same power and authority.  And she is a temptress:

Of Adam's first wife, Lilith, it is told
(The witch he loved before the gift of Eve,)
That, ere the snake's, her sweet tongue could deceive,
And her enchanted hair was the first gold.
And still she sits, young while the earth is old,
And, subtly of herself contemplative,
Draws men to watch the bright web she can weave,
Till heart and body and life are in its hold.


Algernon Swinburne
1868

Out of envy and pride, she left Adam to become an authority on her own terms.

She has been co-opted by radical feminist movements as a symbol of the rejection of all patriarchy.  She stands alone as an authority in and of herself.  A full and militant rejection of the masculine.  She is the First Mother.

If I understand it correctly, the Latter-Day Saints teach that Lilith was an equal wife to Adam as Eve was.

So, there is much to untangle, but I'll leave it at that.

To get this over with, we put George
MacDonald's Lilith in the Trump Presidential Library and also in its precursor the BPL.  I don't know if there is a lesson here, but all books should be in these libraries.  Not that they'll be read by their namesakes, but if I could consign them and their trolls to an eternity (not believing in Hell, and not believing it would be educational for them anyway) I would send them to an everlasting damnation of books, alone.  What would be heaven for me would be a labyrinth of horror for them.  Tra-la-la...

01 June 2017

REFLECTION

There is that gap,
That gulf
Between the tip of my finger
And its reflection in the mirror.

But what's in the gap,
In the void between me and not-me?
And, of course, now that I consider:
Which is which?

I could happily be the not-me
If only
Someone else would be the me,
But there are no volunteers -
No not-me's who would be me.

Unless, and again, of course,
If the not-me has already signed on to be me.

In which case the me I am, isn't.
And the me that isn't, is.

But there is still that damned gap and
What isn't in it.

The only thing I can be certain of
Is that
Not-me is as annoyed by it
As I am.

PHANTASTES

"Our life is no dream; but it ought to become one, and perhaps will."

                                                                                 Novalis

Modernity promised certain things.  In many ways it has filled its promise, but in doing so it has coarsened us, made us unable to see certain beauties that should be close to the heart of mankind.  We are enervated, vitiated.  When we believe in the weaknesses, the overwrought emotions of poetry and fairy tale, it is because we are no longer robust enough to experience their strengths.  We think sentiment is sentimental.  It is not.  Our emotions are now easily manipulated by the tugging of capitalism and popular culture.  Shelley told us the Sublime was our only defense against the tyranny of Pleasure. 

It is the experience of the Sublime and the challenge to apply what we have learned to everyday life that George MacDonald writes of in Phantastes.

"My mind soon grew calm; and I began the duties of my new position, somewhat instructed, I hoped, by the adventures that had befallen me in Fairy Land.  Could I translate the experience of my travels there, into common life?  This was the question.  Or must I live it all over again, and learn it all over again, in the other forms that belong to the world of men, whose experience yet runs parallel to that of Fairy Land?  These questions I cannot yet answer.  But I fear."

We should too.  Gnosis, knowledge is our only hope to battle the need to constantly relearn the
lessons taken from the Sublime.  If our only wisdom comes from the daily tides of life, we are doomed. 

But I am supposed to be writing about a book.

Phantastes (commonly agreed to be pronounced, FAN-TASTES) isn't a child's fairy story.  There are no simple moral lessons here.  Anodos' adventures are not of the happily-ever-after Disney sort.  They are bloody, filled with heart-breaking disappointment, death, and horror that should give you nightmares if you still have the ability to have them.

Anodos (Greek for 'pathless') wakes one morning shortly after his twenty-first birthday when he has taken the responsibilities of the family estate from his deceased father.  His room transforms into a forest meadow and flowing stream and he is sent off to learn his lessons, more-or-less, by his great-grandmother who seems to have something of Fairy Land in her.  These early scenes are quite lovely and stir something of regret in me.  It's almost nostalgia - though for what, I have no idea - and nostalgia is always tinged with sadness.

I'm not going to recount Anodos' episodes in Fairy Land.  They are amazingly varied in tone and feeling.  I have always liked elements of MacDonald's Curdie stories - there are moments when the sudden shock of recognition stolen from a children's story is breathtaking.  Phantastes is the adult version of that.  Only an adult (nope, this is wrong already...  Children know these things too) can grasp the constant experience of failures, mistakes and screw-ups that fill our lives.  Sometimes we despair of ourselves.  Anodos' constant errors and stupidities are the objective correlative of our own lives... or mine, at least.

The stern Presbyterian countenance of George MacDonald is appropriate to his time and his original position as the minister of a non-conformist congregation.  As often happens, his radically orthodox views of Christianity got him into trouble with the elders of his church and he left the pulpit to become a full-time author.  His contemporaries were somewhat in awe of him.  He mentored Lewis Carroll (author of Alice in Wonderland) knew John Ruskin well, was befriended by Longfellow and Walt Whitman in  America.  Even that crank Twain eventually became friends with MacDonald.

In the middle of this book is the recounting of a story, as outrageous a tale as the rest of the book, about a poor student in Prague.  Cosmo Von Wehrstahl is from a noble family and, like Victor Frankenstein has begun looking to the esoteric writings of Albertus Magnus and Cornelius Agrippa for wisdom and deep learning.  We don't know if his heretical studies cause the following tragedy or are just mentioned to heighten the uncanniness of the story.  Like all good horror stories this one revolves around a mirror.  As Borges taught us, never trust a mirror.  Reflection is a travesty. 

This book isn't long and you could do much worse on a long, rainy Sunday afternoon or on a cool summer night than to pick this up and read it. 

MacDonald taught us that we all have the nature of particular animals and it is part of our job here to determine our own best daemon and that of those around us.  It is the only way we can accurately assess how we respond to this weird life lived one foot in Fairy Land and one foot in the ugliness of modernity. 

"Every one, as you ought to know, has a beast-self -- and a bird-self, and a stupid fish-self, ay, and a creeping serpent-self too -- which it takes a deal of crushing to kill!  In truth he has also a tree-self and a crystal-self, and I don't know how many selves more -- all to get into harmony.  You can tell what sort a man is by his creature that comes oftenest to the front."

                                                                                      Lilith

I know humans whose best daemon is a wise owl, and people whose first animal-self is a loyal terrier.  I also have met those who have the nature of shy lemurs and vile snakes.  It's a mixed bag in this world (oh, what is the Melville quote?  Something about a 'joint stock world')  Unfortunately, we have learned that those in power who do not have an animal daemon are soulless trolls, orcs and goblins.  Don't trust 'em!  Their only goal is to tear things down.  They live for it.  They joy in it.  It is the mark of their abominable selves.

From The Daily Kos