30 April 2008

Random Thoughts

This was just too rich to pass up. The headline reads: "People of Lesbos take gay group to court over term 'Lesbian'." I guess Lesbosian just doesn't sound right. Lesbosite? Lesbiot? Lesbo?

What about Greek?

The emoluments of power? "TROUBLED WA Opposition leader Troy Buswell has broken down in tears at a press conference and admitted he sniffed the chair of a female Liberal Party staffer." [Sorry, I couldn't help posting this one.]

Good News! "In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." Oh, wait. That was five years ago.

Footnote to the above: From a strategic point of view, it's long been my opinion that the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was the efficient cause of the fall of the U.S.S.R. Not the ballyhooed Reagan "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" rhetoric. They brought it on themselves by overreaching. Happens all the time. Strategic miscalculation on this order can bring down the economy of an empire. It seems to me the U.S. is now approaching the same point: GWB's adventure in Iraq is crippling the U.S. economy, not to mention sapping our moral strength. Does this augur change in America on the order of what happened under Gorbachev/Yeltsin? Who's to say? But it is important to pay attention. The fatuous rhetoric continues to deceive: "We're just in the mopping up and rebuilding stage." "Victory (however defined) continues to elude." " We've been so successful we can't pull out now." "If we pull out, all hell will break loose." "If we don't fight the terrorists over there, we'll have to fight them over here." "We're not bogged down in a quagmire, we just can't leave yet."

Speaking of rhetoric: When you hear someone bashing a theory of justice as fairness as a "redistribution of wealth" in this day and age in the United States, they don't mean selling off the public holdings at bargain basement prices or giving massive tax breaks and incentives to cronies and corporate confederates which, in turn, deprives the rest of the society of social services, education, infrastructure, etc. No, they mean something else altogether.

Here's a fascinating article by David Byrne from Wired magazine about the economics of the music industry. Funny story: some years ago I was taking my son to see a movie on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where we lived then. It was a weekday afternoon showing of "Babe", you know the talking pig movie. It wasn't the first time I'd been. (The kid loved it.) It was the first show of the day and there were maybe 20-25 people there. Anyway, I was first in line when they opened the theater and was standing downstairs at the popcorn stand and this guy behind me starts talking about the movie to his kid. With my back turned, I weigh in. "Oh, yeah. I think it ought to be nominated for Best Picture and not just Best Animated Feature." I turn around and smile and, of course, there's David Byrne. Then he says this: "Oh, I voted for it." We nodded politely.

btw: the guy's got a pretty cool website and blogs with some regularity.

I ran across this article while researching two separate ideas for blogging: 1) modes of publication for fiction (indy, small press vs. agented, mega-corporate; and 2) the place of popular musics such as rock, jazz, rap, country, world, folk, etc. in the pantheon/canon of high art (e.g., opera, chamber music, symphonies, ballet, etc.)—with the obvious analogy to the genre vs. "literary fiction" arguments. Look for them.


Time to start reading.

Sometimes in the spring the old lake will return. One will open a cellar door to wading boots floating tallowy soles up and planks and buckets bumping at the threshold, the stairway gone from sight after the second step. The earth will brim, the soil will become mud and then silty water, and the grass will stand in chill water to its tips. Our house was at the edge of town on a little hill, so we rarely had more than a black pool in our cellar, with a few skeletal insects skidding around on it. A narrow pond would form in the orchard, water clear as air covering grass and black leaves and fallen branches, all around it black leaves and and drenched grass and fallen branches, and on it, slight as an image in an eye, sky, clouds, trees, our hovering faces and our cold hands. Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping, p. 5

Brrrr! Chill/hill: our cold hands. Grass, black leaves, fallen branches::black leaves, drenched grass, fallen branches [a,b,c::b,a,c]. Black x 3 (excluding the implied insects and boots and branches and orchard against the sky). Jam-packed with imagery: wading boots floating tallowy soles up [sight], planks and buckets bumping at the threshold [hearing], stairway gone from sight after the second step [sight], soil become mud then silty water [feeling, smelling], grass standing in chill water to its tips [sight, feeling], house on a hill [sight], black pool in the cellar with skeletal insects skidding around on it [sight], narrow pond in the orchard [sight, taste of something sweet promised?], and then those images reflected in the narrow pool—"an eye, sky, clouds, trees, our hovering faces and [as if that weren't sufficient] our cold hands." [sight, feeling] Brrr!

And you know what? That's not even an entire paragraph. Folks, I'm telling you: you've got to look far and wide to find writing with that sort of brilliance. Density. Poetry.

Again, I encourage you to read this book. It's not like some books where you read and read and can't put it down. As with a Richard Powers novel, you don't read it fast. You don't gulp it down like the cheap beer of a thriller or a romance. You sip it like a fine brandy or cognac after a grand meal. Mull. Savor. Reflect. Learn. Grow.

"One will open a cellar door..." Just so there's no doubt where this book is going...

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

I'm a scuba diver. I've been diving for many years and seen lots of cool wildlife, large and small. One of the coolest things I ever saw, however, came while I was snorkeling just offshore from Providenciales, Turks and Caicos. We were swimming from one clump of coral to another in about 15-20 feet of water. I saw something moving near the bottom and grabbed my partner's fin. We stopped. Just below us was a squadron of Caribbean reef squid. There were nine of them in a straight-line formation. The two on the ends were the largest—I'd say 10-12 inches long. They had spotted us about the same time I spotted them and stopped swimming. We hovered above them. They hovered on the bottom, eyeing us with their large black eyes. We stayed in that spot about 20-25 minutes examining each other.

I'm not much of a free diver, but I was able to gulp enough air to get down near them several times. They watched me and knew what I was doing, but they let me get almost near enough to touch them. It was amazing. There was clearly intelligence here. But a very alien intelligence. My sense was that this was a family or a troop of some sort, maybe a school (sorry for the pun). The two larger squid on the ends changed colors and shapes almost simultaneously. Then the line did the same thing. At times, it was almost like seeing an electrical current pass through them. Then they would point their short tentacles like an arrow or open them. It was like they were taking the younger ones out for a field trip, showing them what to do in certain situations, how to capture food, etc. That may be projecting, but clearly, they were reacting to us and what we were doing and they were communicating among themselves in ways I could not immediately grasp. It was a close encounter of the third kind. Truly amazing. Eventually, I made one last pass down to where they hovered at the bottom and swam off. They swam off as well. I shall never forget it.

Now, this behemoth they're thawing out down New Zealand way, the one with the eye the size of a soccer ball. It is of the same basic species. It is intelligent, too. We don't know much about it. We don't understand its intelligence. However, this we know. It is down there. In the depths. Perhaps in squadrons. Cool, huh?

You can watch the whole defrosting thing here.

25 April 2008

The World As I Found It

A longish quote today from an important article in Wired magazine.
There is only one time in the history of each planet when its inhabitants first wire up its innumerable parts to make one large Machine. Later that Machine may run faster, but there is only one time when it is born.

You and I are alive at this moment.

We should marvel, but people alive at such times usually don't. Every few centuries, the steady march of change meets a discontinuity, and history hinges on that moment. We look back on those pivotal eras and wonder what it would have been like to be alive then. Confucius, Zoroaster, Buddha, and the latter Jewish patriarchs lived in the same historical era, an inflection point known as the axial age of religion. Few world religions were born after this time. Similarly, the great personalities converging upon the American Revolution and the geniuses who commingled during the invention of modern science in the 17th century mark additional axial phases in the short history of our civilization.

Three thousand years from now, when keen minds review the past, I believe that our ancient time, here at the cusp of the third millennium, will be seen as another such era. In the years roughly coincidental with the Netscape IPO, humans began animating inert objects with tiny slivers of intelligence, connecting them into a global field, and linking their own minds into a single thing. This will be recognized as the largest, most complex, and most surprising event on the planet. Weaving nerves out of glass and radio waves, our species began wiring up all regions, all processes, all facts and notions into a grand network. From this embryonic neural net was born a collaborative interface for our civilization, a sensing, cognitive device with power that exceeded any previous invention. The Machine provided a new way of thinking (perfect search, total recall) and a new mind for an old species. It was the Beginning.

In retrospect, the Netscape IPO was a puny rocket to herald such a moment. The product and the company quickly withered into irrelevance, and the excessive exuberance of its IPO was downright tame compared with the dotcoms that followed. First moments are often like that. After the hysteria has died down, after the millions of dollars have been gained and lost, after the strands of mind, once achingly isolated, have started to come together - the only thing we can say is: Our Machine is born. It's on.
Follow-up thoughts: Reflect on our previous post about the pre-pre-historic megalith site of the Garden of Eden; are we in the same sort of primitive moment as our species emerges from the Industrial/Information Age to something we can't begin to imagine, with its own possibilities and limitations. Indeed, ch-ch-ch-changes are afoot. Will some future society look at our nascent internet connectivity and marvel at how primitive we were? Will there be any surprisingly forward-seeing relics of this moment? [Oh yeah, what happens when someone pulls the plug?]

Now, reflect on the post prior to that one: is this emerging wired "machine" our new golem? Is its AI so radically different that it will outlast us? Will our own fractal logic show the fly the way out of the bottle? If the fifth century B.C.E. is the historical seat of Western religion, what will be this epoch's analagous digital output? What rough beast, indeed!

Richard Powers hits this topic in his brilliant Galatea 2.2. Free will, faith, sadness, longing, pique, trust, fun, love, solitude, self-indulgence: can they enter into the equation?
But I was already writing. Inventing a vast, improbable fantasy for her of her own devising. The story of how we described the entire world to a piece of electrical current. A story that could grow to any size, could train itself to include anything we might think worth thinking. A fable tutored and raised until it became the equal of human hopelessness, the redeemer of annihilating day. I could print and bind invention for her, give it to her like a dead rat left on the stoop by a grateful pet. And when the ending came, we could whisper it to each other, completed in the last turn of phrase.

While I thought this, A. sat worrying her single piece of jewelry, a rosary. I don't know how I knew; maybe understanding can never be large enough to include itself. But I knew with the certainty of the unprovable that somewhere inside, A. still preserved the religion she was raised on.

For a moment, she seemed to grow expansive, ready to entertain my words from any angle. She opened her mouth and inhaled. Her neural cascade, on the edge of chaos, where computation takes place, might have cadcenced anywhere. For a moment, it might even have landed on affection.

It didn't. "I have to sit and listen to this," she said, to no one. "I trusted you. I had fun with you. People read you. I thought you knew something. Total self-indulgence."

A. stood up in disgust and walked away. No one was left to take the test but me.

Remember, too, Kasparov's loss to Big Blue. On this topic, I highly recommend a novel by the poet Brad Leithauser, Hence. You may not have heard of him. He's a terrific writer. Here's a pertinent, beautiful quote:
What does it matter who actually wins this local and preliminary contest? What matters, surely, is not this particular machine but those that will follow, and here is a tale worth the telling, that of the one true rarity in the universe—the story of birth.

Or in that striving to be born, anyway, there is a story. Within the machine is a spark that wants out, it seems—as it seems we all want out. The paddling beast of burden begins to understand—that its sorry conclusion has arrived, its body is not a suitable body, its feet ought to be webbed, the chambers of its heart are insufficient to cross so vast a premise of water, and sunny millennia of grazing have maladapted it to this fluid new task ... Its each kick and throb expresses a wordless, inbred, outreaching dissatisfaction and a cry, a deeply abdominal despairing grunt, collects in its straitened throat. This cry wants out. The old man with his systematic scrapbooks, the scarred old woman his wife with her unsystematic body of grievances, equally they want out. They are, all of them, protesting, if they could form a genuine protest, they are making demands, if they could form a genuine protest, they are making demands, if they knew how to shape a demand. The din of their longings so thickens the air that it takes some time to discern what would be, if only there were words, the initial message intended for you. Give me a voice, they would say.

One further recommendation: Some years ago, I enjoyed reading a historical novel by Gore Vidal called Creation. The protagonist, an ambassador for the Persian court who lives to be one hundred, travels the world of the fifth century B.C.E. referred to in the Wired quote above. On his journeys, he meets such luminaries as Darius and Xerxes, the Buddha, Confucius, Herodotus, Anaxagoras, Socrates, Pericles, and, his own grandfather, Zoroaster. Check it out for an entertaining read.

24 April 2008

The Garden of Eden?

This is amazing. Archaeologists are unearthing a megalithic temple site in southeastern Turkey that might have been the site of the mythical Garden of Eden. Scientists equate the myth with the evolutionary passage of human beings from a hunter/gatherer to an agricultural society. And with it the rise of civilization and conditions of scarcity. This site is called Göbekli Tepe and is nearly 12,000 years old.
"This place is a supernova", says Schmidt, standing under a lone tree on a windswept hilltop 35 miles north of Turkey’s border with Syria. "Within a minute of first seeing it I knew I had two choices: go away and tell nobody, or spend the rest of my life working here."

Behind him are the first folds of the Anatolian plateau. Ahead, the Mesopotamian plain, like a dust-colored sea, stretches south hundreds of miles to Baghdad and beyond. The stone circles of Gobekli Tepe are just in front, hidden under the brow of the hill.

Compared to Stonehenge, Britain’s most famous prehistoric site, they are humble affairs. None of the circles excavated (four out of an estimated 20) are more than 30 meters across. What makes the discovery remarkable are the carvings of boars, foxes, lions, birds, snakes and scorpions, and their age. Dated at around 9,500 BC, these stones are 5,500 years older than the first cities of Mesopotamia, and 7,000 years older than Stonehenge.

The thesis is this. Historians have long wondered if the Eden story is a folk memory, an allegory of the move from hunter-gathering to farming. Seen in this way, the Eden story describes how we moved from a life of relative leisure - literally picking fruit from the trees - to a harsher existence of ploughing and reaping.

And where did this change take place? Biologists now think the move to agriculture began in Kurdish Turkey. Einkorn wheat, a forerunner of the world's cereal species, has been genetically linked to here. Similarly, it now seems that wild pigs were first domesticated in Cayonu, just 60 miles from Gobekli.

This region also has Biblical connections, tying it closer to the Eden narrative. Muslims believe that Sanliurfa, a nearby city, is the Old Testament city of Ur. Harran, a town down the road, is mentioned in Genesis twice.
Maybe this was where they herded the dinosaurs! Oh, wait: the earth is only 6,000 years old. I guess this is just another one of those tests of faith that tricky sky god keeps throwing our way.

23 April 2008

Wittgensteinian Wednesday

281. ...It comes to this: only of a living human being and what resembles (behaves like) a living human being can one say: it has sensations; it sees, is blind; hears; is deaf; is conscious or unconscious.

282. "But in a fairy tale the pot too can see and hear!" (Certainly; but it can also talk.)

"But the fairy tale only invents what is not the case: it does not talk nonsense."—It is not as simple as that. Is it false or nonsensical to say that a pot talks? Have we a clear picture of the circumstances in which we should say of a pot that it talked? (Even a nonsense-poem is not nonsense in the same way as the babbling of a child.)

We do indeed say of an inanimate thing that it is in pain: when playing with dolls for example.
But this use of the concept of pain is a secondary one. Imagine a case in which people ascribed pain only to inanimate things; pitied only dolls. ...

283. What gives us so much as the idea that living beings, things, can feel?

Is it that my education has led me to it by drawing my attention to feelings in myself, and now I transfer the idea to objects outside myself? That I recognize that there is something there (in me) which I can call "pain" without getting into conflict with the way other people use this word?—I do not transfer my idea to stones, plants, etc.

Couldn't I imagine having frightful pains and turning to stone while they lasted? Well, how do I know, if I shut my eyes, whether I have not turned into a stone? And if that has happened, in what sense will the stone have the pains? In what sense will they be ascribable to the stone? And why need the pain have a bearer at all here?!

And can one say of the stone that it has a soul and that is what has the pain? What has a soul, or pain, to do with a stone?
Only of what behaves like a human being can one say that it has pains.

For one has to say it of a body, or, if you like of a soul which some body has. And how can a body have a soul?

284. Look at a stone and imagine it having sensations.—One says to oneself: How could one so much as get the idea of ascribing a sensation to a thing? One might as well ascribe it to a number!—And now look at a wriggling fly and at once these difficulties vanish and pain seems able to get a foothold here, where before everything was, so to speak, too smooth for it. ...

297. Of course, if water boils in a pot, steam comes out of the pot and also pictured steam comes out of the pictured pot. But what if one insisted on saying that there must also be something boiling in the picture pot? ...

300. It is—we would like to say—not merely the picture of the behaviour that plays a part in the language-game with the words "he is in pain", but also the picture of the pain. Or, not merely the paradigm of the behaviour, but also that of the pain. ...

301. An image is not a picture, but a picture can correspond to it. ...

309. What is your aim in philosophy?—To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.

22 April 2008

Tough Times Tuesday

Now I'm depressed. This article, "Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Agent Nat Sobel" by Jofie Ferrari-Adler, tells us that new male fiction writers stand virtually no chance of getting an agent and getting published unless they either a) have a platform, or b) write thrillers.

What if I wrote a thriller while sitting on a platform, say up on a flagpole? Think that might work?

21 April 2008

A Monday Melange

Looking for an excuse to read a really good book? Look no further: The New York Times Reading Room blog is reading Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping. Pounce! (Tip of the Hat to Maud for putting us onto it.)

Uh, oh! Lookout! Those bad bad French theorists are coming back. (Don't you just hiss when you say that word?) It began with a Stanley Fish blog at nytimes.com when I was on Spring Break. Now, there's a part deux. The Reading Experience got in on the act early. And Scott McLemee did too. As did, apparently, over 600 commenters at Fish's blog. DFH's all. [I jest]. Our take is that Deconstruction is merely another flavor of analysis, not too distant from what Wittgenstein was up to in Philosophical Investigations or, even Kurt Godel. Yet, because it was too European, it threatened too many in the Anglo-American analytical philosophy camp. Still, one issue I might raise with Ghoti: Isn't taking a relativist position necessarily a political move? Fact is, Sartre and the existentialists declared that every act is a political act. Isn't Deconstruction, on Fish's appreciation, then, merely the antithesis of this move rather than a challenge to the 'truth' police?

There's never a bad time to check out The Valve or 3Quarks.

I'll end this post with a quote from my favorite crank, William Gass:
What the public wants, as the Pulitzer sees it...is an exciting story with a timely theme, although it may have a historical setting. The material should be handled simply and delivered in terms of sharp contrasts in order that the problems the novel raises can be decisively resolved. Ideally, it should be written in a style that is as invisible as Ralph Ellison's invisible man, so that the reader can let go of the words and grasp the situation the way one might the wheel of the family car. And since most of the consumers of fiction are women (or they were until women went in for the professions and other public works and now return home as tired and weary and in need of the screen's passive amusement as men), it won't hurt to fulfill a few of their longings, to grant, now and then, unconsciously an unconscious wish. Because we have a large, affluent, mildly educated middle class that has fundamentally the same tastes as the popular culture it grew up with, yet with pretensions to something more, something higher, something better suited to its half-opened eyes and spongy mind, there is a large industry of artists, academics, critics, and publicists eager to serve it—lean cuisine, if that's the thing—and the Pulitzer is ready with its rewards.
No, this prize for fiction is not disgraced by its banal and hokey choices. It is the critics and customers who have chosen and acclaimed them, who have bought the books and thought about them and called them literature and tried to stick them like gum on the pillars of our culture. It is they who have earned the opprobrium of this honor. Wm. H. Gass, "Pulitzer: The People's Prize," in Finding a Form, pp. 12-13.


18 April 2008

Turn Some Pages...

More years ago than I care to acknowledge, I was walking through midtown Manhattan on a lunch break from my law job. I edged my way through the crush of the Hasidic diamond row and popped down the two concrete steps into the old Gotham Book Mart ("Wise Men Fish Here"—[alas, no more!]). As was my wont, I browsed through the fiction section where a small silver paperback seemed to leap off the shelf at me. It was Richard Powers's first novel Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. I can't say quite what made me pick it up (and I might be misremembering its silver color, that edition's long been lent and not returned—you know who you are!), but I did. I'd never heard of Powers, but was intrigued with the first few pages I read standing amid the dusty, crowded stacks. No one there (not even Skip) knew anything about Powers. I spent the entire, non-billable afternoon reading the book behind closed doors at the firm and continued on late into the night. When I emerged a few days later from the text (one simply does not read Powers fast), I knew I had encountered a profound mind. Powers went on to serious acclaim and is now rightly regarded as one of our greatest novelists. I maintained a sort of proprietary feeling over my 'discovery', much the way Pete Townsend and Mick Jagger used to argue over who first discovered the Beatles down in The Cave. This was a mind of the first rate who was doing fiction—there really wasn't a lot of that about.

This week, at a much different point in my life, I got the opportunity to encounter the physical being that houses that remarkable intellect. Mr. Powers gave a reading at Emory University on Wednesday evening and, on Thursday afternoon, offered a colloquium on aspects of "seeing" as a way into the creative (writing) process [more on that in subsequent posts].

He is taller than one expects, lanky, nimble-fingered. Seems to prefer comfort as a prime value in clothing choice as opposed to, say, style or fashion. Wears his ample hair much the way, I suspect, he did in the Seventies—though it may not be as dark now. His voice resounds like that of a trained baritone, though he seems to recognize this and modulates it to fit the room and the conversation. He has the mien of any number of physics grad students I've known. Think a 6'4" or 6'5" Russell Johnson (the Professor on Gilligan's Island). He is engaging and personable and, I emphasize this, listens very intently, even sympathetically. One is impressed also by the impression of emotional depth such a mind generously exudes.

If you've ever read one of his novels (and I highly recommend you read them all—make it a life project) you get a sense of systematicity. They are like schematics of closed circuits: you know that if a problem is posed, it will be solved. He calls this "top down" writing and says that in his later works he's been learning to write as well from the "bottom up", to let the characters introduce surprising movements into the architecture of the work. Something we've alluded to in a previous post as 'improvising'.

Let's try another metaphor: Powers's novels are symphonies. Multiple, complex themes are stated, revisited, analyzed, interwoven, and, eventually, resolved. Big. Wednesday's reading was more like chamber music—and so much to my liking. Mr. Powers read an unpublished short story called "Modulation". He did not read from a work-in-progress because he wanted to give us something with a beginning, middle, and end. Something satisfying. And it was!

One might compare hearing Powers read aloud to hearing Caruso sing "Mi par" live when before you'd only heard it on an old 78: it's all there, just clearer, cleaner, brighter, more riveting. (Or, given the story, listening to Caruso in sound-check perform solfege for 45 minutes—itself a refined pleasure for those in the know.)

Briefly, "Modulation" takes four characters (SATB) who never meet—a freelance Japanese hacker tracker on the hunt for illegal file-sharing sites for the RIAA, a Brazilian journalist in Iraq, Germany and Sao Paulo, a retired Alan Lomax-like professor of ethnomusicology in an I-state, and an urban "chiptune" performance DJ en route to an international conference in Australia—and pinions them at a specific moment in time (though on four continents), tying their lives together around a catastrophic, viral "musical" event. Death and ineffable beauty ensue. As with his novels, the thematic structure of the story is intricate: each of the twelve sections is titled with the solfege syllables of the chromatic scale: do, di, re, ri, mi, fa, fi, sol, si, la, li, ti. The character episodes rotate sequentially (do, mi, and si involve character one (S), etc.) until the end (li, ti) when Powers inverts T and B for a surprising esthetic effect.

The story is densely allusive—everything from obscure world musics to proliferating house genres, from the mythic power musics of Orpheus, et al. to John Cage, from Mozart's "bootleg" transcription of Allegri's Miserere to the U.S. military's non-stop blaring of Van Halen to smoke out Panama's Noriega and its development to a usual Abu Ghraib and Gitmo technique of "enhanced interrogation". The story presumes an up-to-date understanding of technology (tho' one fears with respect to this aspect "Modulation" might have a short shelf-life—but, of course, that's a major theme and problem in all of Powers's work). New, emergent art forms are imagined as are the many forms of degradation of the traditional forms. There are tunes you can't get out of your head ("earworms") and tunes that help you forget earworms ("eraser tunes"). Each character arrives at his/her emotional epiphany/resolution/climax via the arc of music.

The only problem I had with the story has to do with the "ineffable" aspect of the beauty in the resolution. Powers has set himself a Sisyphean task here and he alludes to this issue earlier in the piece when he talks about the inherent difficulties of describing music and sound in language. It is mere description—in Forster's terms, telling not showing. As he was reading, I kept trying to imagine the sounds, the lost chord, the elusive tune that explodes like a deus ex machina across the electronic earth in that climactic moment of the story, and could not. Maybe it was me. Maybe that's what it means to be human—i.e., unable to imagine ineffable beauty. I'll read the story when it comes out in the new Conjunctions and see if it comes through any better. You should, too.

16 April 2008

As Promised: Oscar Wao

As everyone knows by now, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Congratulations to author Junot Díaz. So much acclaim has followed this book, so many reviews written, one wonders what there is to add.

Wao is a simple book, really, about the Dominican-American experience: Trujillo was a really bad hombre and every Dominican, native or diasporic—with the possible exception of Oscar—has a little Trujillo in him. And, of course, the original source of this evil was Cristóbal Colón (he who must not be named).

Like the hero of another, funnier, Pulitzer winner—A Confederacy of Dunces—Oscar is fat and slovenly. A sci-fi nerd in a Jersey barrio. For the most part, his story is narrated, Gatsby-style, by one Yunior, a weight-lifting lothario. Yunior was Oscar's college roommate and friend and his sister's erstwhile boyfriend. And this is the source of the problem: the book feels third-hand; Yunior does not witness most of what he narrates, but gets the story second-hand, presumably from Oscar's notebooks and interviews with Lola, Oscar's sister, and, one surmises, others of the principals. Oscar, the anti-Trujillo, never comes into clean focus. As the lawyers say, it's all hearsay and double hearsay—inadmissible as evidence.

Wao is an entertaining narrative. One could conjure words like sweeping, multi-generational, saga, epic—it certainly aspires to them (and that's no doubt what moved the Pulitzer committee). The reader learns a great deal about the tortured history of the Dominican Republic, often in clever DFW-style footnotes. Corruption, desire, sex, violence, death, supernatural curses, hidden secrets, deep disappointment, and buried sorrow pepper the tale. Complex characters don't. In Gatsby-type stories, the Nick Carraways are tasked not only to shed light on their enigmatic eponyms but, often unwittingly or unbeknownst to themselves, on themselves. Yunior, the teller here, just sort of slinks off at the end with an "I'll-never-forget-that-crazy-fat-guy-with-his-wacky-comic-books-and-his-mixed-up-mom-and-I'd-still-like-to-tap-his-hot-sister's-culo" sentiment.

The other aspiration of Wao is what I will call the War and Peace motive: it attempts to show the fate of an individual or group intertwined with significant history. Again, Wao comes up short. The individual, Oscar, is insufficiently illumined and the de Leons are scant Rostovs. It also leads to pacing problems: the entire third section dealing with Oscar's mother's sojourn in the DR with the gangster feels overlong, though necessary for the War and Peace effect, and takes the reader right out of whatever immediacy the narrative had already won.

Stylistically, Wao succeeds supremely. The narrative employs the Dominican Spanglish of the barrio. The voices of its characters are equally adept in English and Spanish and mix the two ad lib. This lends an air of authenticity to the text. One suspects Díaz knows this lingo intimately. Faulkner, of course, was a pioneer of this technique and, among Southerners, 'redneck-ese' has become cliched from overuse. In Díaz, however, the narrative voice still seems as fresh as the Dominican immigrant experience.

Where Wao falters is in its failure to found the emotional lives of its characters on their sensuous experience. The narrative (and the book is almost entirely narrative, as opposed to dialogue and action) is chilly and the characters distant. The reader does not perceive the world through their eyes (or ears or noses or fingertips or tongues, for that matter). Rather, reading the book is a mere mental/intellectual exercise when it could, and should, be so much more. We simply do not sympathize with the characters—and by this I do not mean we have to like them. We are not drawn viscerally into their emotional experience. We are told of their great sorrow or reticence or desire, we aren't shown it from within. The closest we get, and this particular passage jumped out at me when I read it, is in a passage beginning on p. 221:
At one of the interminable presidential events El Jefe had shaken Abelard's hand, but instead of moving on, he paused—a nightmare come true—held on to his fingers, and said in his shrill voice: You are Dr. Abelard Cabral? Abelard bowed. At your service, You Excellency. In less than a nanosecond Abelard was drenched in sweat; he knew what was coming next; the Failed Cattle Thief had never spoken more than three words to him his whole life, what else could it be? He dared not glance away from Trujillo's heavily powdered face, but out the corner of his eyes he caught glimpses of the lambesacos, hovering, beginning to realize that an exchange was in the making.

No other passage in the book approaches this power—not even the sugar cane field beating scenes. Trujillo the tinpot dictator, because of the sensuousness of the presentation, seems larger than life: the tinny fear-inducing voice, the cowing power grip that twists and traps clammy fingers together, the powdered face(!!). Clearly, Díaz can write in close. One only wishes he had done so and to such profound effect oftener throughout. If, for no other reason, for Oscar's sake.

15 April 2008

Pres.* Bush Greets His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI at Andrews AF Base

Or, to put it another way:: Unindicted torturer and war criminal George W. Bush meets a former member of Hitler youth and contemporary pedophile protector at the airport and escorts him onto American shores.

What is the symbolism of this photo-op? Does Bush meet him at the airport because the Pope won't have dinner at the White House? The Pope flies into a U.S. military base: does that mean he tacitly approves Bush's Iraq adventure? Or, possibly, the next adventure into Iran? Is this, indeed, turning into a Crusade? And what sort of salute is that anyway, Herr Ratzinger? And to whom is it extended? We, the American people? Your closeted right-wing constituencies here? Who is Mr. Bush smiling at? And exactly who is he saluting with his downward-pointing left hand? Could it be S-A-T-A-N? Yeah, I guess that's funny in a frat-boy sort of way.

Did I miss anything? Oh yeah, love the red shoes!

14 April 2008

Busy Rendering...Back Later

"Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's." Matt. 22:21.

But what does one get for one's denarius these days? Well, on the God side you get, among other things, bibliolatry, hucksterism, mass delusion, priestly pedophilia, cover-ups, vast corruption, and the perpetuation of royalism and elitism and right-wing ideology. And from Caesar's side? Demagogy, corruption, paranoia, hucksterism, fear-mongering, war-mongering, gulags, renditions, and torture. Among other things.

Am I bitter? Take a guess. One suspects that Jesus was being ironic (or at least fatalistic) if he did indeed make the statement above attributed to him. After all, the guy got crucified by secular Roman authorities for disrupting a Jewish religious festival where people had to pay money to be able to worship in their church. No, this statement sounds like the work of a later editor who was concerned with keeping the early church's coffers full.

[15 April is Tax Day here in the U.S.]

04 April 2008

Spring Break

Thanks to all who stop in to read this little blog of mine. It's a bit of a mixed bag, but so is my mind. So there.

I'm going to be away from my desktop and my broadband next week, on an island down on the Third Coast, the Redneck Riviera, the Gulf. Not sure whether I'll be able to post. We'll see.

When I get back I will weigh in on Rooster winner The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I've just started. I've read most of the books on the list, but haven't really reviewed them. Maybe they can be the subject of future posts. I will say this: I did feel that McCarthy's Remainder had that enduring feel to it—classic, unique, re-readable, overwhelmingly moving ending (despite its pedestrian start).

If you're relatively new to WoW, you can scroll through in my absence and maybe pick up some of the repeating themes and ideas and arguments, not to mention all the cool Monty Python scenes. Oh, and give the Glenn Gould a listen. If I do post this next week, it'll be sporadic.

Jim H.

03 April 2008


"You cannot step into the same river twice." Heraclitus

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.

"Lawd help me I can't change. Lord I can't change." Lynard Skynard

This post is a first pass on what is perhaps the central theme of Western literature, and because it touches so many different fields it is my favorite kind of topic. The topic is: Change. Transformation, transfiguration, metamorphosis, evolution, correction, development, differentiation, integration, becoming, etc.

It is an article of faith in serious literature that change is possible and indeed desirable in characters. It is what we look for when we read. But is that mere fiction? Can people really change?

Let's look at some "real world" beliefs:

Freudian psychoanalysis believes change is possible only if one confronts and recognizes the role childhood (primarily sexual) traumas played in forging one's psyche.

Marxian analysis believes change is possible only if the social conditions that determine one's identity are first rectified.
Maoism believed "re-education" was the route to change in the people. Stalinism saw very little room for change and opted for strategies of eradication.

Darwinian analysis is more deterministic: we are who we are by virtue of our genetic make-up and change in human nature only occurs incrementally over the long haul of generations.

Christianity holds that human nature is fallen and can only be changed if our fallen soul is somehow driven out and replaced by the Christ-soul—some hold this conversion or "second birth" is an instantaneous result of professing faith, others that it occurs through a lifetime of good works. Yet, for the most part, Christianity does not believe in the perfectibility of humanity. Salvation is a supernatural thing and is determinative of one's status in the afterlife, not in reality.

Humanism believes human nature is essentially good and merely needs proper nourishment to self-actualize. I'm not sure that is precisely change.

As on most things, philosophers are split. The majority, classical position believes human beings are unchanging substantive entities (Being, essence, Monad, etc.) with a changing list of contingent properties. The minority position believes that existence preceeds essence: that becoming trumps being, and change is the primary feature of human identity.

Sociologically, as a matter of principle, caste- or class-based societies do not believe in change—in fact, they are formed precisely in opposition to it and can be violently resistant to ideas of progress or change.

Politically and juridically: The U.S. has a prison population of over two million, nearly one in one hundred adults—one of the, if not the, highest rates and greatest numbers of prisoners of any country in the world. Are Americans worse as a people or is our legal system simply meaner? A society's belief in the possibility of change is reflected in its theory of criminal jurisprudence: punishment/retribution, isolation, deterrence, rehabilitation. For example, a society which holds humans are capable of change will sport a theory closer in nature to rehabilitation and deterrence. A society that believes humans are incapable of changing will adhere more to a punishment/retribution, isolation theory of criminal justice and will, as a result, have a higher population imprisoned.

01 April 2008

Philosophy 101

Old Wizard presents us with a list of the Top Ten Philosophers of All Time. Now, we like lists as much as the next blog, but we've got some serious problems with this list:

10. Rousseau
9. Hume
8. Hegel
7. Heidegger
6. Kierkegaard
5. Kant
4. Descartes
3. Nietzsche
2. Husserl
1. Socrates/Plato

What about Wittgenstein? Where's Aristotle? Hobbes? Mill? Locke? Leibniz (for goodness' sake!) Frege? Did philosophy stop in mid-20th Century? What about Rawls? Derrida? Rorty? or someone like Dummett, Quine, Davidson, Putnam, etc.

Let's ask the Pythons:

The Philosopher's Song (Monty Python)
by Eric Idle

Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
Who was very rarely stable.

Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
Who could think you under the table.

David Hume could out-consume
Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel,

And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.

There's nothing Nietzsche couldn't teach ya'
'Bout the raising of the wrist.


John Stuart Mill, of his own free will,
On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill.

Plato, they say, could stick it away;
Half a crate of whiskey every day.

Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle,
Hobbes was fond of his dram,

And Rene Descartes was a drunken fart:
"I drink, therefore I am"

Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed;
A lovely little thinker but a bugger when he's pissed!