29 January 2010

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again: A Brief Coda

Last year I indulged in a longish (15-part serial post), sustained personal essay about confronting my fear of heights by attempting to skydive with my daughter on her 18th birthday: Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again. It was a self-discovery piece that ranged widely over a number of concerns, chiefly the power of the emotion of fear. Upon rereading it, it seemed to hang together fairly well, so I had been considering shortening/editing it and submitting it for publication. But there was a missing piece. Maybe this is the answer I was looking for all along: "How to Fall 35,000 Feet and Survive" in the current issue of Popular Mechanics.
"You're six miles up, alone and falling without a parachute. Though the odds are long, a small number of people have found themselves in similar situations—and lived to tell the tale. Here's PM's 120-mph, 35,000-ft, 3-minutes-to-impact survival guide."
It has happened—I had read about such things—but it's not something one can count on. Still, there's always hope. It's a human thing, don'tcha'know.
"'To be born again,' sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, 'first you have to die. Ho ji! Ho ji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly. Tat-taa! Taka-thun! How to ever smile again, if first you won't cry? How to win the darling's love, mister, without a sigh? Baba, if you want to get born again...' Just before dawn one winter's morning, New Year's Day or thereabouts, two real, full-grown, living men fell from a great height, twenty-nine thousand and two feet, towards the English Channel, without benefit of parachutes or wings, out of a clear sky.

'I tell you, you must die, I tell you, I tell you,' and thusly and so beneath a moon of alabaster until a loud cry crossed the night, 'To the devil with your tunes,' the words hanging crystalline in the iced white night, 'in the movies you only mimed to playback singers, so spare me these infernal noises now.'

Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity. Now he rolled happily towards the sardonic voice. 'Ohe, Salad baba, it's you, too good. What-ho, old Chumch.' At which the other, a fastidious shadow falling headfirst in a grey suit with all the jacket buttons done up, arms by his sides, taking for granted the improbability of the bowler hat on his head, pulled a nickname-hater's face. 'Hey, Spoono,' Gibreel yelled, eliciting a second inverted wince, 'Proper London, bhai! Here we come! Those bastards down there won't know what hit them. Meteor or lightning or vengeance of God. Out of thin air, baby. Dharrraaammm! Wham, na? What an entrance, yaar. I swear: splat." S. Rushdie, The Satanic Verses p.1

28 January 2010

Two Deaths

In the wake of the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Haiti, where people are still dying and the devastation and disease persist, pausing to note the deaths of two individual Americans—celebrities of a sort—might seem callous, especially to them.

Howard Zinn, aged 87, died yesterday. He is widely known for his alternative history text: A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present (1980). You can preview it here. His website is here and has information about him, his work and his life.
“There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people for a purpose which is unobtainable.”

The second? J.D. Salinger who, at age 91, also died yesterday. The New York Times obituary can be found here (if it hasn't been sequestered yet behind a pay wall). Salinger, of course, is most famous as the reclusive author of the coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye (1951).
“Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behaviour. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as some day, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry.”

Both books, each in its own way, managed to crack the veneer of the status quo: Zinn's the prevailing myth of America's manifest destiny and innocence in world affairs, and Salinger's the unquestioned authority of the adult world. Both railed against pervasive hypocrisy and lies and inhumanity. Each is a classic in its own right.

14 January 2010

Family of Values: Humanity

Sometimes it seems there is nothing one can do but weep. Or hope

One of the most brilliant men who ever lived, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), once wrote (in Latin, of course):
"Now this supreme wisdom, united to a goodness that is no less infinite, cannot but have chosen the best. For as a lesser evil is a kind of good, even so a lesser good is a kind of evil if it stands in the way of a greater good; and there would be something to correct in the actions of God if it were possible to do better. As in mathematics, when there is no maximum nor minimum, in short nothing distinguished, everything is done equally, or when that is not possible nothing at all is done: so it may be said likewise in respect of perfect wisdom, which is no less orderly than mathematics, that if there were not the best (optimum) among all possible worlds, God would not have produced any. I call 'World' the whole succession and the whole agglomeration of all existent things, lest it be said that several worlds could have existed in different times and different places. For they must needs be reckoned all together as one world or, if you will, as one Universe. And even though one should fill all times and all places, it still remains true that one might have filled them in innumerable ways, and that there is an infinitude of possible worlds among which God must needs have chosen the best, since he does nothing without acting in accordance with supreme reason." Theodicy

A 'theodicy' is a treatise on the goodness of god (or providence or fate) in the face of evil in the world. Leibniz believed that three spatial dimensions plus one of space/time made for the best of possible worlds for the flourishing of human life and moral goodness.

Some years later, another brilliant man, Voltaire, upon witnessing the utter destruction of Lisbon, Portugal by an earthquake and tsunami on November 1, 1755 (All Saints' Day), wrote a deeply humane poem and a satiric novel about the impact of the disaster on the Panglossian optimism expressed in the works of philosophers and theologians of the time such as Leibniz.

In the latter work, Candide, Dr. Pangloss the philosopher says of the earthquake's devastation: "'For all this,' said he, 'is a manifestation of the rightness of things, since if there is a volcano at Lisbon it could not be anywhere else. For it is impossible for things not to be where they are, because everything is for the best.'"

In the poem, Voltaire says:
"Will you say, "It is the effect of everlasting laws
Which necessitates this choice by a free and good God"?
Will you say, seeing this heap of victims:
"God is avenged, their death is the payment of their crimes"?
What crimes, what bad things have been committed by these
Lying on the breasts of their mothers, flattened and bloody?
Lisbon, which is a city no longer, had it more vices
Than London, than Paris, given to doubtful delights?
If the eternal law which moves elemental things
Makes rocks fall, by the efforts of great winds,
If thickly growing oaks are burned by lightning—
They do not feel the blows which bring them down,
But I live; but I feel; but my heart, deeply hurt,
Asks for help from the God who made it exist.
What eye may see into his deep designs?
From a Being all perfect, evil cannot come to be.
It does not come from another, since God alone is master.
Yet, evil exists. O sad truths!
O astonishing mingling of contrarieties!
A God came to console our afflicted race;
He visited the earth, and has not changed it.
Whatever opinion one has, one should shudder, no doubt.
There is nothing one knows, and nothing one does not question.
Nature is mute, she is questioned in vain.
There is need of a God who talks to humanity.
It is for him only to explain his work,
To console the weak, make the wise person clear.
What can then do, the mind of largest range?
Nothing. The book of fate closes itself before our eyes.
Man, a stranger to himself, by man is not known.
What am I, where am I, where do I go, and from what do I come?
Atoms tormented on this mass of mud,
Whom death engulfs and with whom fate plays—
But thinking atoms, atoms whose eyes,
Guided by thought, have measured the skies.
From the very midst of the infinite, our lives go forth,
Without our being able, one moment, to see ourselves or know
A caliph once, at his last hour,
To the God whom he adored, said, for all prayer:
"I carry to you, O Only King, Only Unlimited Being,
All that which you don't have in your immensity—
Deficiencies, regrets, evils and ignorance."
But he might, also, have added: Hope.
What is needed, O mortals? Mortals, it is needed that we suffer,
Submit ourselves silently, adore, and die.
O God, give us a Revelation that we should be humane and

From Hail, American Development (Definition Press)
© 1968 by Eli Siegel

As Theodor Adorno wrote, "[t]he earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz" (Negative Dialectics 361).

Scholars debate whether Voltaire deliberately misinterpreted Leibniz's metaphysical point to make a humanitarian case. Notwithstanding, the Leibnizian view, at base, counsels passivity and optimism in the face of an ultimately benign reality (call it Fate, Providence, God—whatever) in which everything that happens is for the best ("God's will"); and even though this is a fallen world, it will be followed on by a better one in the hereafter.


January 12, 2010, saw an equally destructive earthquake strike Port-au-Prince, Haiti. As of this writing, the extent of the destruction is unknown. What is known is that it was devastating in the extreme: untold thousands have died and even more are injured; entire sections of the city are in rubble; hospitals have been flattened; there is no food, water, or electricity; sanitary conditions are only going to worsen.

It only makes sense at times like these to ask: why? The reality is that Port-au-Prince, a poor, populous city, sits right on top of an active fault line where the Caribbean plate and the North American plate collide. The underground friction as these two tectonic plates shift has been building up for nearly two centuries, and the unleashing of this pent-up force caused the ground under the city to shake. Population growth and unregulated or even absent building codes and urban planning has resulted in overcrowding. Extreme poverty has resulted in poor or even non-existent infrastructure. Accordingly, the city collapsed. Such things happen in this world. The causes are evident.

Is this evil?

No. The Leibnizian/Voltairean debate over whether such could have been the will of some distant creator god or tolerated by some god-who-is-with-us-in-spirit-only or the punitive action of a retributive deity or the work of some evil demon is arcane. Passe. It explains nothing, salves no wounds. However, it excuses heedlessness and cruelty—inhumanity: Why help them since God has seen fit to punish them, or because this was their fate?

[I will not link to the "utterly stupid" remarks of certain public figures—a rancid television preacher and a belching, radio fat-cat gas bag who have been America's first responders in this vein. If you read this blog, you know who they are.]

Natural events are not, in themselves, evil. They are a condition of the planet upon which we live. A fact of life on planet Earth. Inhumanity, insensitivity, cruelty, on the other hand: these are true evils.

No one deserves such a disastrous fate—not poor people, nor black people, nor former slaves, nor French-speaking people; not people whose homes happen to sit on a fault line, nor even folk who have been victimized and impoverished by a corrupt oligarchy and colonial/neo-colonial exploitation. No one. Not even folks whose ancestors might have made a "pact to the devil" (to quote the aforementioned American religionist whose views are truly evil).

Real human beings in Haiti are in desperate need of medical assistance and basic food and water and shelter and sanitation. And here's where we see the true good in humanity. Here is where there is hope for us all. Individuals, non-governmental organizations, churches, nations, even international bodies have mobilized unbelievably quickly to do what they can to help with the almost unimaginable suffering in Haiti. Bless them all. Thank them all. Contribute, if you can. Here. Or here. Or participate however and wherever your conscience leads. But contribute. It is a way we all can participate in this great work of true humanity, this moment of true goodness.

When one person suffers, we all suffer. Now, millions (literally millions) are suffering. It is going to take a massive, long-term humanitarian effort to make even a dent in it. Yet, it is happening before our eyes. Humanity, for a moment, is uniting to come to the aid of suffering humanity. Those who would exploit this calamity for their own profit or political or personal gain are the ones who bring evil into this world.

The real question is: why does it take an event of such enormity to bring out the good in us all (minus, of course, a few ignorant and insensitive, dare I say evil, louts)? Why isn't alleviating poverty and human suffering our abiding task?
O God, give us a Revelation that we should be humane and

03 January 2010

State of the Blog 2

This is my first post of 2010 and my first post of WoW's third year.

Lots of holidays this time of year: Solstice, Advent, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year (here in the West), Tet (later on in the East), chief among them—not to slight Festivus or Zappadan. That means celebrations, disruptions, obligations, joy, surprises, disappointment, family, friends, seasonal affective disorder, loneliness, cold weather and decreased daylight (in the northern hemisphere), reminiscence, hope, despair—lots of things to lots of people.

WoW is also celebrating its two year anniversary (12/22). Wow! Just Wow! Who knew I could sustain this thing this long? I certainly didn't anticipate it.

A few quick facts: my first year I put up about 220 blog posts and had around 25,000 hits. This past year I posted only half as much (~107) but received approximately 38,000 hits. One of my posts was nominated for and selected as a finalist for 3QuarksDaily's Best Political Post of 2009, a true honor. I made a number of on-line blogfriends and commenters, too, which, to me, has been one of the unexpected boons of blogging (thanks, all). I'll go on.

WoW refuses to narrow its scope. It will not limit itself to being strictly a literary or critical blog, or a political blog, or a philosophy or theology blog, or even a personal blog, or, for that matter, an aggregating blog or a humor blog; but at the same time it is all of these—and more. In this, it resembles its author—who, too, refuses to be put into a box. And so, expect WoW to continue to range wide and far: not all things to all people, but not nothing either.

Wishing you the best of whatever holiday (if any) you choose to acknowledge!

Jim H.

And here's a few links to keep you busy until I come up with something original:

NatGeo's best pics of the year (btw: that cute little old lady pic was taken just down the road from my son's high school!)

Discover Magazine's [developing] top 100 stories of 2009.

Wired Magazine's top scientific breakthroughs of 2009 and its top mobile gadgets of the decade. (WoW is, as usual, agnostic as to whether this is truly the end of the decade.)

Project Censored's Top 25 Censored Stories for 2010.

Media Matters for America has published its Most Outrageous Comments of 2009.

Talking Points Memo has announced its 2009 Golden Dukes Winners given "in recognition of great accomplishments in muckiness including acts of venal corruption, outstanding self-inflicted losses of dignity, crimes against the republic, bribery, exposed hypocrisy and generally malevolent governance." Also, you can find TPM's Top 10 Cable News Moments here.

Michael Orthofer at the Literary Saloon at the complete review was very busy this year, managing "365 uninterrupted days of posts at this Literary Saloon -- as I apparently did in 2009 (there were 1347 posts for the year, an average of some 3.7 per day).) Only 172 books were reviewed at the complete review in 2009." Whew!

Rotten Tomatoes' Best of the Decade movies list. And here's Metacritic's Best (and Worst) Movies of the Decade. (WoW is absolutely thrilled to see Spirited Away so high on that list.)

Take The Pills compiles a 'mixtape' of best songs of the year that you can download. ...Noviembre thinks this is the record of the decade. I've heard it and it's pretty good. (For entertainment and discussion purposes only).

So, was this indeed the worst decade ever? It was certainly the decade of Bush. 'Nuff sed.