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 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

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-too-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...