30 June 2011

Ma Belle

Poor Michele Bachmann can't buy a thrill. First, she confused John Wayne with John Wayne Gacy as the inspiration for her presidential campaign. Then she was served with a 'cease and desist' letter for using the Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers song "American Girl" at a campaign rally.

Now she's been hit for pilfering the Katrina & the Waves song "Walking on Sunshine" at her campaign kick-off.

Maybe she would have better luck if she'd used this Waves (Kimberley Rew) song: "Nightmare b/w Hey War Pig"

Or this Petty tune:

Now for a rock block (Nippon style)

Bonus just for shits & giggles.

26 June 2011

J'Accuse: How Denial Might Just Cost a River in Egypt

Though you won't find it in the headlines, the Fukushima catastrophe keeps getting worse (h/t to Crow).

One day we may wake up to find that it was a turning point in the quest/battle for clean, renewable, planetary energy use. Germany is planning to scrap nuke use altogether, with positive repercussions elsewhere. In the market system, it's always been a question of true price discovery, a game that's been crooked from the outset because the resource controllers and refinery processors have had their thumbs on the scales.
"A recent analysis conducted by Carbon Brief investigated no less than 900 published papers, all of which cast doubts on climate change, or even speak against it. After concluding this investigation, they found that 9 out of 10 of the most prolific ones had some sort of connection with Exxon Mobil. You can find a link to these papers at the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

The results showed that out of the 938 papers cited, 186 of them were written by only ten men, and foremost among them was Dr Sherwood B Idso, who personally authored 67 of them. Idso is the president of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, an ExxonMobil funded think tank. The second most prolific was Dr Patrick J Michaels, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, who receives roughly 40% of his funding from the oil industry.

This goes in parallel with the ‘work’ of the Koch industries; even though you probably haven’t heard of them, Koch industries is the second largest privately held company in the US, and in the past 50 years, they have invested more than 50.000.000 dollars in spreading doubts about climate change, according to Greenpeace."

Read more: http://www.zmescience.com/ecology/climate-change-papers-exxon-mobil/#ixzz1QP3WPAJm
More on true price discovery of energy, or "energy return on investment" [EROI] here. How does society price in the costs of "circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, urogenital, and ‘other’ types of defects" in children born under the shadow of mountain top removal into a ton of coal? Or the costs of "elevated rates of mortality, lung cancer, and chronic heart, lung and kidney disease in coal producing communities."

Indeed, there appears to be some evidence that the value of solar power far exceeds its actual costs "thanks to its ability to reduce peak demand on the transmission and distribution system, hedge against fuel price increases, and enhance grid and environmental security."

Where the costs of nuclear, coal, fossil fuel, natural gas, etc. are being wildly underestimated while the beneficial value of, e.g., solar is being shortchanged we do not have an efficient market. Necessary information is being squelched and distorted to prevent the emergence of a truly efficient market via proper price discovery.

As the facts emerge, we are seeing some inroads against the propaganda machine, though.

How many Cassandras is it going to take to get us to wake up to the facts? Will a mass sea life extinction event be our canary in the coal mine? (Welcome home, mate! Thanks for the pix.)

Progress—let's call it—is taking place, however slowly. Hell, even the royal Saudi oil barons are thinking ahead—to the tune of $100 billion. Maybe they recognize we're running out of their principal asset—oil. And we all know that the only thing they have more of than oil is sunlight. Or maybe sand.

Who would've thought to rent out the otherwise unusable sunny rooftop of your massive factory or big box store to become an efficient energy producer?

So, yeah, some solutions are emerging. Still, we must hold the paid deniers, the propagandists, the shills in the media and politics who are doing the 'dirty' business of trying to keep the scales—market, justice, moral, information—imbalanced, to account. It's the individuals I'm talking about here, not the corporations—with one exception.

  • Sammy Wilson, Environment Minister, Northern Ireland
  • Vaclav Klaus, President, Czech Republic
  • Steve Milloy, Columnist, FoxNews
  • Pat Michaels, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute
  • Christopher Monckton, Former Adviser to Margaret Thatcher
  • Sarah Palin, Celebrity, Former R-Governor, Alaska
  • James Inhofe, Senator, R-Oklahoma
  • Melanie Phillips, Columnist, Daily Mail
  • Christopher Booker, Columnist Daily Telegraph
  • David Bellamy, TV Presenter
  • Glenn Beck, Radio Talk Show Host, FoxNews
  • Steve Doocy, Anchor, FoxNews
  • Michael Steele (now Reince Preibus), Chair, Republican National Committee
  • George Will, Columnist, Washington Post
  • Blaine Leutkemeyer, Representative, R-Missouri
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce
  • Phelim MacAleer, Film Director & Producer
  • Stephen Moore, Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal
  • Fred Barnes, Co-Founder, Weekly Standard
  • Roy Spencer, Former NASA Scientist
  • John Shimkus, Representative, R-Illinois
  • John Coleman, Founder The Weather Channel
  • David Koch
  • Charles Koch
  • Jim DeMint, Senator, R-South Carolina
  • Sherwood B. Idso, President, Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change
  • Rick Santorum, Presidential Candidate, R-FMFL
  • Rush Limbaugh, Talk Radio Host
[In another post, I'll address the corporate and lobbying issues.]
[UPDATED to fix links. Again to add FMFL and Solar Cost link.]

25 June 2011

Buying Belief

But first I must acknowledge my own complicity: As a writer of fiction, my work contributes to the proliferation of the technology of falsehood, bullshit, delusion, scam, con, lie. Or at least the reification of same. My previous post Beyond Belief looked at religious (and other) beliefs as the sine qua non of traditional notions of Identity.

That being dispensed with, we read that no more than 5 of the 51 contestants for the crown of Miss USA believe that evolution should be taught in the public schools. Seductive. So, when Keats oded "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,'" he didn't quite anticipate this. Or, then again, maybe he did.

Al Gore (remember him?) asserts that the news media is a further tool in blocking the truth about the climate crisis our world and, more specifically, our species appears to be facing.
"[As referee of public discourse, it] appears not to notice that the Polluters and Ideologues are trampling all over the "rules" of democratic discourse. They are financing pseudoscientists whose job is to manufacture doubt about what is true and what is false; buying elected officials wholesale with bribes that the politicians themselves have made "legal" and can now be made in secret; spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year on misleading advertisements in the mass media; hiring four anti-climate lobbyists for every member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives."
One way to influence the debate—and one which has no fealty to truth or public-spriritedness—is to buy it.
"Documents and interviews unearthed in recent months by Brave New Foundation researchers illustrate a $28.4 million Koch business that has manufactured 297 commentaries, 200 reports, 56 studies and six books distorting Social Security's effectiveness and purpose.

Together, the publications reveal a vast cottage industry comprised of Koch brothers' spokespeople, front groups, think tanks, academics and elected officials, which have built a self-sustaining echo chamber to transform fringe ideas into popular mainstream public policy arguments. ...

The Koch echo chamber begins with think tanks like the Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation and Mercatus Center at George Mason University and the Reason Foundation, which owe their founding and achievements to Koch backing. These think tanks take their $28.4 million in Koch funding and produce hundreds of position papers distorting the long-term health of Social Security.

The authors of these hundreds of self-described policy studies, newsletters, commentaries and books are then paraded through television, print and online news media. Their distorted message is amplified through shows like Hannity, with its 3.3 million viewers per episode, or CNBC's Kudlow Report and its roughly 300,000 viewers per episode night after night after night."
Buy it and Enforce it.

Structures of falsehood—fictions, ideologies, ideals, religions—and the creation and reinforcement thereof prey upon our existential insecurities. Our native gullibility. Our naiveté.

18 June 2011


For Father's Day:


My flight was unexceptional, as was my anxiety. For that, I had a Xanax and a string of deep, slow, yoga breaths. I tried but failed to sleep in my cramped seat. Turning away from the bulging, wheezing man in the seat next to me, I stared through the window at the river-beribboned coast of Virginia passing some 30,000 feet beneath me, empty of thought, numb of feeling. It is a gift not given to all, I've come to realize, to be able to ignore the press of daily life and live cocooned in the present moment. I would deal with my parents when I landed, and I would get back to Nina and New York after that; but for now, even though I couldn't relax, I could at least put all that out of my mind. To be able to forget, to cease to hope or fear: it is a certain sort of freedom.

The sky was brilliant and thin. The plane flew unopposed by headwinds, landing early. Even so, my father was already at the small airport, sitting off by himself and staring into the distance. He looked right at me but didn't seem to recognize me. His hair was now serenely white. He seemed smaller, beaten, almost a stranger. An unexpected old man. For some reason this caught me by surprise, though it shouldn't have; he was now breaching his seventies.

Had I really not seen him since the wedding? These affairs were always fraught with their small slights and insults, but people—families—supposedly got over them. Somehow we hadn't. The years and the excuses had piled up: a slipped disc, a bout of flu, an unexpected crisis at work, social obligations. Nine-eleven had merited merely a couple of worried phone calls. Pretty soon a decade had passed. I had left my parents, and with them my past, behind.

My father looked uncomfortable in a checked flannel shirt tucked half-way into his high-waisted jeans, though he still wore the dress black loafers I was accustomed to seeing him wear in the pulpit. In his lap he cradled a steel thermos the size of a small artillery shell. He seemed to be looking right at me but made no sign of recognition. It reminded me of being a child, trying to hide in the wooden pews as his eyes would seemingly search me out and land right on mine when he came to a salient point in his sermon, a point probably aimed at me for some indiscretion I had committed during the week. I nodded to him and waved. He squinted in my direction then creaked to his feet and attempted a smile as I reached the top of the ramp. He extended his right hand, a move he had perfected over a lifetime of Sundays. I took it then pulled him toward me. He stumbled into my embrace, not sure, I suspect, what to do with the canister in his free hand. I braced against his weight. After he regained his balance, I clapped him on the back almost apologetically. He heaved a surprised sigh in my ear as if I had squeezed the breath from his lungs. Several business types huffed around us as we hugged by the door.

He said he'd been at the terminal for several hours maybe, having forgotten what time Abby'd told him my plane was to land. He hadn't slept much the night before, but, then again, he hardly ever slept much these days.

The parking lot was oddly quiet, unlike the LaGuardias and JFKs and Newarks to which I was so used. Empty spots everywhere. Still, he had parked off a great distance from the terminal doors. Poised, I suspected, for ease of exit.

"Here, I'll drive," I said when we finally reached his car, a Taurus of dulled paint and uncertain age.

He conceded the keys. "Don't you have baggage?"

"I've got a change of underwear in my briefcase. I have to fly back early in the morning." I said. "I've got a conference in federal court tomorrow afternoon. Couldn't get out of it."

He stared straight ahead. "You didn't have to come," he said. I wasn't sure it was quite what he meant.

"I know, Dad. It's been too long. I'm just sorry it had to be under these...circumstances."

"Well, you always knew what you wanted."

I didn't know what else to say to this stranger, my father. He was never an ironist, but it wasn't until he said this that I realized just how wrong he was. Maybe that's the way I came across to them in my drivenness. It wasn't the way I felt. I only wanted to get away. If there was anyone that description fit, it had to be Nina. It was what first drew me to her.

I drove the back way from the airport, a route he showed me. "I try to avoid the expressway," he said. It took us on country roads that rolled out like ribbons past terraced pastures of tall browning grasses, past creaky white-plank farmhouses and shuttered gas stations, past sheds and open barns of rotting timbers and rusted tin roofs, past bulldozed subdivision and condominium sites and new, hastily-built red-brick strip malls and office parks. What stands of trees remained blazed in brilliant autumn hues—ginko yellow, maple red, pine green—as the silver light of the low sun leached a long season's life from their limbs.

I gave him broad, up-beat outlines of my life in New York. Nina. My job. Not lies, really. Just not the whole truth. He seemed to listen, but didn't speak much. Then again, he never did.

My parents lived in a plat of sixties-era split-level tract houses set back from the main strip of fast-food franchises and chain stores by a narrow road that wound across a creek and through a corridor of flood-plain woods. I seem to recall a rafter of wild turkeys had roved these woods at one time; you often saw them picking their way along the roadside early in the mornings or late afternoons. The birds seemed to have disappeared. Of course, this was November.

And this was my mother: "She isn't talking much, Son. She can't seem to fight her way through the medication. The morphine and whatnot. It's smothering her mind. When she wants to say something she has to plan ahead and stop her drip," my father said as we turned onto his short street. "She can't speak unless she's in great pain."

I looked over at him. His face fell in heavy folds from his sun-freckled skull as though he had lost the will to keep it from sagging. There was a spot, a whitish scar just above what was left of his hairline. It looked like he'd had something removed, a melanoma perhaps. His eyes, small dark coals set in bruised circles, no longer sparkled; his puffy eyelids were threatening to close over them. His hair, contrary, wispy and white, refused to lie down, threatened to fly off. Grew, unkempt, from his ears. His nostrils. "How's...how's..." he had a pained look on his face.

"Nina?" I'd just been talking about her.

"Yes, Nina."

"She's fine, Dad. Like I said, Saturday is the opening night of this piece she's producing. Lots of last-minute details. She just couldn't pull herself away."

He wandered off into a silent space.

"You look tired. This thing with Mom seems to be taking its toll on you."

"She doesn't have long, Son. She'll be glad you came."

14 June 2011


Driving home the other day, I did something I almost never do (except in the case of baseball): I listened to AM radio. This time to get the traffic report for Atlanta. What I heard gave pause: traffic around such-and-such is backed up for several miles dues to...wait for it...ZOMBIES!

Yes. Zombies have invaded the ATL. Apparently, the AMC TV show "The Walking Dead" has chosen our area to film, and they've blocked roads to do it. I bet your city doesn't have traffic tie-ups due to Zombies. Just sayin'.

If you're worried about the undead, there's no need to fear: your Government is on the case. Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control has published the official manual for surviving a Zombie Apocalypse. "If zombies did start roaming the streets, CDC would conduct an investigation much like any other disease outbreak. CDC would provide technical assistance to cities, states, or international partners dealing with a zombie infestation." I feel better already.

The CDC site may be a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it's for a good purpose—overall readiness. Wisdomie and Wisdaughter, the college kids, have both confessed to all-night dorm conversations (you remember them, don't you?) about the reality of zombies and how to deal with the coming zombie apocalypse. Their friends are worried. Are zombies real? Could a zombie apocalypse actually happen?

There has been at least one scholarly work about how, theoretically, a person could be zombified: PASSAGE OF DARKNESS: THE ETHNOBIOLOGY OF THE HAITIAN ZOMBIE, By Wade Davis. Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press. 1988. (reviewed here)

And Cracked magazine once examined the "5 Scientific Reasons a Zombie Apocalypse Could Actually Happen." Decide for yourself. But be prepared.

The previous generation worried itself about vampires. Vampires are all about the erotic and a desire that is greater than our selves: too much passion. Fear of zombies has to do with the fear of sleep-walking through life, merely eating and aggressing with no true fellow-feeling; fear that others are merely urge-driven: too little passion.

And maybe militarism. No?

10 June 2011


I'm away for the weekend at a family event. I continued the discussion of Terence Malick's beautiful new film "The Tree of Life" with the fine folks over at An und für sich in the Comments. Check it out.

As promised, here's the (short) first chapter of EULOGY. And yes, I'm a firm adherent of the Oxford comma. Enjoy. Ridicule. Comments welcome. It's a free web.


Nina had an ingénue's instinct for make-up, lighting, and blocking. She knew how to stand, to angle her head, to drape her hair just so, to shade her damaged features for best effect. More than once I had come upon her lurking in front of a mirror—in our apartment of many mirrors, framed and bare, among the paintings and photographs and playbills—in various lights, cocking her head first left then right, swiveling her shoulders, mussing her hair. "Don't sneak up on me," she would snap, stiffening though not averting her gaze, pretending to adjust the frame, or swiping at a speck on the glassy surface.

Now we were facing off, Nina and I, in a still, daring silence. Even the dust motes in the apartment's first faint sunbeams seemed suspended in the air between us. Her face bared toward me, her limpid green eyes, sometime springs of dancing light, muddied with anger—or hate or hurt, I could never tell.

"You don't touch me anymore," she said, breaths bittered by sleep and coffee. Her stare never wavered, her eyes having forgotten how once they would flit back and forth, searching out each of mine in turn as if they were afraid my gaze might wander, and with it my affections.

Without looking away, I looped and tucked my tie in one deft motion. "I've hardly slept." The front of my head, the backs of my eyes, pounded. I buttoned down the collar flaps on my shirt and slid up the knot of my tie. "Besides you’ve been so busy with your play."

"You can go now, if you want." Her left hand flew up as though she were swatting at the hum of a gnat or, more likely, wiping me from her sight. A faint pinch of skin in the corner of her better eye, an arched eyebrow—sarcasm—flickered across her face.

Go where? To work? Away? And then, with the electronic chirping of the phone, the moment evaporated, her words still bristling in the morning air. I started, she perhaps for an instant sniffing triumph by virtue of flinch.

"Joshua? Son?" My father's voice, frailer than I remembered, more tentative, crept through the wires: my mother had been taken to the hospital. Then allowed to return home. There was no hope. "That's not what she wants," he said. "She wants to be here at home." He hated to bother me, he said, but would I possibly care to see her this one last time?

"I think I can get away today," I said. "I'll have my secretary call you with the flight."

"Nina, I have to go. It's Mother." I stared down at the phone. "She's dying."

"It's just like her to pull a stunt like this." I felt the sting in her voice, her eyes lasering precise holes in the back of my neck.

"What'd you say?" Not sure I was meant to hear her. Then sure.

"What about Saturday night?" her exasperation growing.

"There's never a good time," I said. "For death, I mean. I haven't seen them in like ten years, since the wedding. Dad thinks this will be my only chance to say goodbye. I need to go. I owe them that. But I'll be back in time. I promise."

"As if this weekend weren't bad enough already," she said. She turned and hunched her back, her head down, clasping her arms across her breast as if to shield something vital.

"Like I have the time for this," I muttered, whipping my jacket through my arms and over my head. "I've got that damned hearing tomorrow afternoon, too. Look, I'll get the earliest flight I can this morning, go down and get this over with, say my goodbyes or whatever, and be back tomorrow first thing. It’s no big thing." I stepped across the space that separated us, caressed her shoulders, and kissed the crown of her head. Her body was still soft and warm with sleep. I wanted more. "This isn't over yet." It was a question.

She turned and seemed to nod, sliding back a strand of liquid black hair to unveil the puckered, discolored skin that was the left side of her face. She looked up only as far as my chin. "Do what you have to," she said, patting the lapels of my jacket, then collapsed against my shoulder.

It wasn't. Yet.

More later. Or not.

06 June 2011

Ideas of Reference

Wikipedia says: "Ideas of reference and delusions of reference involve people having a belief or perception that irrelevant, unrelated or innocuous phenomena in the world refer to them directly or have special personal significance: 'the notion that everything one perceives in the world relates to one's own destiny'." It can often be a sign of paranoia or schizophrenia.

This is not the case when one experiences a great work of art. Nor is it the case when there are objective points of reference. Seeing Terence Malick's "The Tree of Life" had a powerful emotional affect upon me. It sent me into that space where everything is related, everything is connected, everything is about me. That space where creation happens. As a rational human being—I have a graduate degree in Philosophy and a Law degree—that can elicit panic, but the film is so beautiful, it brings, instead, a feeling of ecstasy.

Let me explain: According to the credits, much of the movie was filmed in a place called Smithville, Texas. I lived for three of the first six years of my life in a town called Kirbyville, TX, some 250 miles from Smithville, which is a dead ringer for the town in the movie. The main street, the slant-in parking, the long straight residential streets, the trees, the green. My time there was not far removed from the time of the film, and my age not far from that of the boys. My first elementary school was architecturally identical to the one in "The Tree of Life." My father was the pastor of the church in K'ville; Jack O'Brien's is the organist. Like Jack, I ran across the tops of the pews when people weren't there. I roamed the town in a pack of my young peers—it was safe to do, even at that young age. I threw rocks through shed windows. I had my first little girlfriend there. Our family left precipitously, packing up in the family car and moving to North Carolina, for reasons that were obscure to me then.

On this score, I would like to point out one tiny factual error in the film: In the scene where a child drowns in the swimming hole—again, not unlike the pool where I learned to swim—we see boys and girls swimming together. This didn't happen in that time and in that place. Swim days were segregated: boys had to play in the gym or on the playground on the days when girls swam at the pool and vice versa. Other details were shockingly accurate. And that's the point.

Unlike Jack, the in-breaking of conscience—the obtaining of a knowledge of what's right and wrong, the specific choice to do the wrong thing (again and again), and the regret for having so chosen—which is the central trope of the film (the bridge [of the last frame] between the two world) for him, came for me some years after my sojourn in Texas. Notwithstanding, I felt like Malick's movie was about me. I felt it could've been made just for me.

Of course, my rational mind knows better, but that's the way I feel after having seen it.

As a writer, I connected with the film as well. Often I find myself wandering aimlessly along the shores of mute memory—like Jack—trying to make some sense of who I am and what it all means. The novel I'm currently working on begins with a present day narrator who has just received a death sentence from his doctor. He, too, calls up isolated instances from the past… blah, blah, blah…to try and make sense…blah, blah, blah. In my piece, however, the hero opts for one last coup to try to sum it all up, to create meaning, as it were. To go out with some style. In other words, the form of the novel I'm struggling to write takes much the same form as Malick's movie—except he's a tremendous artist, with all the pageantry and music and imagery of the film medium available to him. Oh yeah, and Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, too.

These points of confluence—call it serendipity—I do not believe, constitute ideas of reference in the DSM sense. ["I'm not crazy!"] It has to do, rather, with the universality of Malick's art—its essential humanity. It touched me profoundly, but I also think it can and will touch others equally as profoundly. The fact that it has parallels—if not intersections—with my own life only served to heighten the personal/emotional nature of my response.

You've seen my 'objective' take on the film in yesterday's post. This is my more subjective take. My personal connection.

Did I mention that the soundtrack music is transporting?

05 June 2011

Picking Up A Few Acorns

I fear I must insist you see Terence Malick's new film "The Tree of Life." I'm not normally a shill for the latest movie or book, but in this case you'll thank me.

I don't know quite how to put it, but I'll try: there were moments in this film when I found myself pinned to the back of my seat—even more so than in, say, the flying sequences of "Top Gun" or the driving sequences of "Days of Thunder"—breathless, clinging to the arms of the chair, riveted to the screen, afraid to move because I might miss some minute, meaningful detail of the experience. But that's me.

You can track down any number of reviews on the Web. Anthony Lane's in The New Yorker is a good place to start. But the ones I've seen miss what I take to be the point of the piece.

The first two scenes set the table, leisurely introducing the characters, the crisis, the pace, the idiom, the imagery, the voice, etc. Every frame seems about to burst apart with meaning. Then, there is an abstract sequence about the creation of the universe—reminiscent of that in "2001: A Space Odyssey," but much more pointed and, as Lane points out, coherent. After which, we get back to the main story line—Jack O'Brien's mid-life angst.

Most reviews I've read, tell us this film is Malick's "prayer" or his "message". This, I feel, misreads the movie. The film does pose the Miltonian question of how to justify the ways of God to men. Specifically, how can we relate in our Ur-situation [that's my word] of mortal loss and grief to the majestic, cosmic forces that created the vast Universe in which we find ourselves? Malick does not, however, answer the question. I take away no authorial message. And all the better.

We do, however, get the answers of his principal characters: Mr. O'Brien's (Brad Pitt) solution is to conquer his disappointment and grief by struggling to build big, lasting monuments to the ego. Mrs. O'Brien's (Jessica Chastain) solution is to love it all, good and evil, when we have it and, when it goes, release it all back to the infinite in the same spirit. Jack's (Sean Penn), their son, solution is to wrestle with the soul and wander about, lost, along the shores of memory, seeking out the infinite, searching for the transcendent in a world where it does not readily present itself: the search itself being the BRIDGE. [Maybe he's supposed to be a cut-out for Malick, but that's not for me to say.]

This is the artistry of the narrative. But the artistry of the film extends to the cinematography, the soundtrack, the imagery, the dialogue—in short, it is a masterpiece that uses all the elements of the medium to craft a work of art.

There are moments of surpassing beauty. There are moments of shocking violence—but only insofar as they are moments of true intimacy and trust betrayed. There are moments where souls are riven, and evil intrudes on the basic goodness and innocence of the young. There are many moments when the music is simply transporting.

All-in-all "The Tree of Life" is a movie where you have to work for the meaning, but it all works together so beautifully that the experience leaves you, as I said, breathless.

Please, do yourself a favor. See it. I took Wesdom and some other high schoolers. There were some tears. There were some questions. They want to see it again. They've gone to see "X-Men" now.

One hole in the story has to do with the third O'Brien son. He seems to get lost, and one suspects Malick had to banish his story to the cutting room floor. As it is, the film comes in at about 2:30.

02 June 2011

Word Salad Annie©*

Please let this woman run for President.

Word salad = “...he who warned, uh, the...the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms...uh, by ringin’ those bells and um...makin’ sure as he’s ridin’ his horse through town...to send those warning shots and bells...that, uh, we were gonna be secure and...and we were gonna be free...and we were gonna be armed."

*Apologies to the immortal Tony Joe White.

Ur-Story: Burning Man, Part 7

(cont'd from previous posts)

I think I've finally found the appropriate theme song for my look at Elias Canetti's monstrous novel Auto-da-Fé, the second song in this YouTube video from Hüsker Dü's final album Warehouse Songs and Stories: "Charity, Chastity, Prudence, and Hope," beginning at 3:50 (The first song, "These Important Years," isn't half-bad either.)

If you click here, you will find the previous posts in this series (plus this one and any that come after). As always in blogland, they scroll from the bottom of the page upward.

I continue with my breakdown of the main characters. Today: Georg Kien. Georg, in my view, is primarily a vehicle for Canetti to explore and expound upon (i.e., hammer home) certain of the thematic ideas raised in the novel.

Georg is the only brother of Peter Kien, our protagonist. Peter first mentions his brother to the avaricious dwarf Fischerle: "Kien cited his brother in Paris, a well-known psychiatrist; earlier he had amassed a fortune as a gynaecologist. 'A fortune, did you say?' Fischerle immediately decided to make a halt in Paris on the way to America. 'He's the right man for me,' he said, 'I'll consult him about my hump.' 'But he's not a surgeon!' 'Don't matter; if he's been a gynaecologist, he can do anything.'" (267) Including psychoanalysis! The jokes at Freud's expense abound.

Again, in case we didn't get it the first time, Canetti restates the theme:
"It was long past noon, he couldn't eat for hate, when suddenly his eye fell on two large brass plates on a single house. One of them read: Dr. ERNEST FLINK, Gynaecologist. The other, immediately below, belonged to a Dr. MAXIMILIAN BUCHER, Specialist in Nervous Diseases. 'A silly woman could have everything she wanted all at once,' he thought and suddenly remembered Kien's brother in Paris, who had made his fortune as a gynaecologist and then turned to psychiatry." (335)
Before embarking on his journey to America, Fischerle sends Georg a telegram to summon him to Vienna. It reads: "Am completely crackers. Your brother." (337) And like a classic deus ex machina, Georg appears for the first time in the last eighth of the book, in the chapter entitled "A Madhouse," described as "beautiful and kind," (395) a real first for this book. Surely this is someone who can straighten out this mess.
"He was tall, strong, fiery, and sure of himself; in his features there was something of that gentleness which women need before they can feel at home with a man. Those who saw him compared him to Michelangelo's Adam. He understood very well how intelligence and elegance could be combined. His brilliant gifts had been brought to fruitful effectiveness by the policy of his beloved [Note: the third wife, much younger, wife of the founder of the institute where Georg works]. When she was sure that no one would follow her husband as the head of the institute but George himself, the director suddenly died without provoking any comment. George was at once nominated his successor and married her as a reward for her earlier services; of her last one he had no suspicion." (396)
Parsifal, anyone? Siegfried?

Georg's methods are radical for the time: "He treated his patients as if they were human beings. Faithfully he would listen to stories he had heard a thousand times before, and would express spontaneous surprise and amazement at the stalest dangers and anxieties. He laughed and cried with the patient he had in front of him." (396) He's a proto-R.D. Laing, listening to the voice of schizophrenia, absorbing its wisdom and poetry, empathizing with its pointed insight.

Canetti being "Canetti", he uses Georg to launch into a critique of the genteel literary fiction of the day:
"Since he had belonged to them [i.e., the patients consigned to his Institute] and given himself wholly to their constructions, he no longer cared for polite literature. Earlier he had read with passion, and had taken great pleasure in new turns given to old phrases which he had thought to be unchangeable, colourless, worn out and without meaning. Then words had meant little to him. He asked only academic correctness; the best novels were those in which the people spoke in the most cultured way. He who could express himself in the same way as all writers had done before him, was their legitimate successor. The task of such a writer was to reduce the angular, painful, biting multifariousness of life as it was all around one, to the smooth surface of a sheet of paper, on which it could pleasantly and swiftly be read off. Reading was fondling, was another form of love, was for ladies and ladies' doctors, to whose profession a delicate understanding of lecture intime properly belonged. No baffling turns of plot, no unusual words, the more often was the same track traversed, the subtler was the pleasure to be derived from the journey. All fiction—a textbook of good manners. Well-read men are obsessed with politeness. Their participation in the lives of others exhausts itself in congratulations and condolences. George Kien had started a gynaecologist. His youth and good looks brought patients in crowds. At that period, which did not last long, he gave himself up to French novels; they played a considerable part in assuring his success. Involuntarily he behaved to women as if he loved them. Each in turn approved his taste and accepted the consequences. Among the little monkeys a fashion for being ill spread. He took what fell into his lap and had difficulty in keeping up with his conquests. Surrounded and spoilt by innumerable women, all ready to serve him, he lived like Prince Gautama before he became Buddha." (398-99)
Canetti goes to some length to describe Georg's conversion from gynecology to psychiatry. It involves a banker's wife whom Georg is "treating", a pornographic work of art, a man whom "Canetti" calls a gorilla, and his devoted sex slave. The gorilla man speaks an invented language, a "private language" in Wittgenstein's terminology, in which the names for each object in his shuttered world shifts according to the man's momentary passion. As noted earlier, this appears to be a broadside against Berkeleyan subjective idealism. Georg learns the man's language and decides that he is happy, and he decides not to treat the man. He notes the similarity between the man and "the greatness of the distracted to whom his friend was so closely akin, and with the firm principle that he would learn from them but would heal none. He had had enough of polite literature" (403) Thus, he decides to become a psychiatrist. He becomes famous and is mentioned for the Nobel Prize.

Georg's theories differ from the conventional, bourgeois notions of his assistants:
"Conventionally minded, they held fast to the customs and beliefs of the majority in their period. They loved pleasure, and explained each and all in terms of the search for pleasure; it was the fashionable mania of the time, which filled every head and explained little. By pleasure they meant, of course, all the traditional naughtiness, which, since animals were animals, have been practised by the individual with contemptible repetition.

Of that far deeper and most special motive force of history, the desire of men to rise into a higher type of animal, in to the mass, and to lose themselves in it so completely as to forget that one man ever existed, they had no idea. For they were educated men, and education is in itself a cordon sanitaire for the individual against the mass in his own soul.

We wage the so-called war of existence for the destruction of the mass-soul in ourselves, no less than for hunger and love. In certain circumstances it can become so strong as to force the individual to selfless acts or even acts contrary to their own interests. 'Mankind' has existed as a mass for long before it was conceived of and watered down into an idea. It foams, a huge, wild, full-blooded, warm animal in all of us, very deep, far deeper than the maternal. In spite of its age it is the youngest of the beasts, the essential creation of the earth, its goal and its future. We know nothing of it; we live still, supposedly as individuals. Sometimes the masses pour over us, one single flood, one ocean, in which each drop is alive, and each drop wants the same thing. But it soon scatters again, and leaves us once more to be ourselves, poor solitary devils. …There will come a time when it will not be scattered again, possibly in a single country at first, eating its way out from there, until no one can doubt any more, for there will be no I, you, he, but only it, the mass.

For one discovery alone Georges flattered himself, and it was precisely this: the effects of the mass on history in general and on the life of individuals; its influence on certain changes in the human mind. He had succeeded in proving it in the case of some of his patients. Countless people go mad because the mass in them is particularly strongly developed and can get no satisfaction. In no other way did he explain himself and his own activity. Once he had lived for his private tastes, his ambition and women; now his one desire was perpetually to lose himself. In this activity he came nearer to the thoughts and wishes of the mass, than did those other single people among whom he lived." (410-11)
Based on passages such as this, many readers of Auto-da-Fé attempt to link the novel up with Canetti's much later chef-d'ouevre Crowds and Power [vide the Nobel Committee] and assert that Canetti was prophesying the rise of Naziism in Germany. I shan't.

So, with all that magnificent background, what does Georg do in the novel? He heals Peter's severed finger and interviews him, using his favored Freudian techniques—flattery and self-abnegating empathy, the mirror-consciousness that creates transference in the patient—to get through to him. Peter, still delusional, attacks Georg as a fraud and, importantly, as a woman. They argue about women and sex and misogyny. They discuss Kant and Confuscius, Buddha and Wang Chung, and the history of institutional misogynism. At one point, Georg says:
"'Anything that has ever been said to me, whether to hurt or to flatter, I remember always. But mere statements, simple facts which might have been addressed to anyone else, these escape me with time. Artists have this—a memory for feelings, as I'd like to call it. Both together, a memory for feelings and a memory for facts—for that is what yours is—would make possible the universal man. Perhaps I have rated you too highly. If you and I could be moulded together into a single being, the result would be a spiritually complete man.'" (436)
Then Peter begins regaling Georg with mythic stories from Germany and Greece, and, in what I take to be the absolute artistic apex of the novel, Georg divines from this the truth of what has happened to Peter—his abuse by Therese and Pfaff. It is a magnificent yet preposterous reversal of the psychoanalytic hermeneutic in which the myths and archetypes of humanity are derived from the individual's account of his personal history. Brilliant and absurd! Only then is Peter able to drive off the mass-men persecutors of his brother and set things aright.

"Canetti", or I should say Canetti, allows Georg one last insight. After his interview with Peter, he learns that Peter has 'squandered' his half of their father's inheritance on his Asian library. "One half of their vast paternal inheritance was locked up in dead tomes, the other in a lunatic asylum. Which half had been the better used?" (451)

Georg re-ensconces Peter in his restored library, and all is right with the world. He returns to Paris. And if the novel had ended here, perhaps we should have found Georg to be the true redeemer. But no. There is one final reversal which throws everything that has gone before into question.

(to be continued)

01 June 2011

Differential Man

In serendipitous response to a terrific post here at An Emphatic Umph by rhetor and philosopher Daniel Coffeen (h/t to BDR for pointing me to his site), I post a brief quote from my favorite novel ever [if you regularly read this blog'o'mine, you'll know which one I mean {Check the Label}]:
Again, as so often these days, I was alone. Nina had decided not to come back with me. She felt Picaro needed a good grooming, and, I suspect, she had a few things to say about the future of Shadowstone Fields. This was not my battle—yet. Li would drive her back into the city later. I succumbed to the strain and rested my eyes, knowing more would be required of them this evening.

Alone? No. That wasn't quite the term for what I felt; there were others on the train, in my car, even across the aisle from me. What was it? Lonely? Not at all. Lonely implied I needed other people to be complete. No, I was not lonely, had never really felt that way. My mind didn't seem to want to work for me. Solitary? That wasn't right either, though it was closer; still, it made one think of being in prison. I sighed aloud. The woman across from me looked up from her paperback. I rolled my eyes and smiled. I wasn't even sure there was le mot juste in English for this sense I had of myself. Singular, unique? No, no: they didn't work either; too vaunted, smacking of hubris. Alienated? Too harsh, I thought, for it was a comfortable solitude, a safe one, in which I found myself. And besides, that had legal and political connotations. Oh, what was that word? It was on the tip of my tongue, yet just out of reach like the obvious solution to a tricky clue in the Sunday crossword. It wasn't a common term. It even had some technical implications; it seemed like it was a term used in mathematics and maybe in medicine and mechanics, as well. What was it? The train rounded a broad curve. I could see the engine out ahead from my side of the window. Work, brain, work. You've got work to do in the city. A moment passed and then, the aha! moment. Yes, I remembered: differential. That was the word I was looking for. My body shuddered involuntarily, and I shifted in my seat. Differential equation: motion, points in time. Differential diagnosis: ruling out everything that the symptoms did not support. Differential gear: the unequal distribution of power to the wheels of a turning vehicle. Differential: was that the word? Differential man: Was that what I was? Who I am? Did that somehow define my life? What I was becoming? I chased this thought, this word puzzle, this line of associations downward into an abyss of sleep. A body, an identity, forming, moving through time. An arc, a curve defining my life as I shucked off everything that was different, everything that was not me. Rejecting everything I could not use. Focusing my energies where I felt the strain. Until when? And going where?

The next thing I knew came a light tapping and then a firmer shaking of my arm: "End of the line, buddy." Which was not my name. My doze had been mercifully purged of dreams. I came to slowly, not quite sure where I was and how I had gotten here, trying to piece together what had brought me to this place. A trickle of saliva pooled at the corner of my lips.