Sunday, April 29, 2012

Body, Soul and Immortality

If, in keeping with traditional metaphysics (i.e. Aristotle), the soul is the "form" of the body,  ergo, the mysterious source of all motion, growth and development within a particular body; and, if the soul also "inhabits" a body (as an "enlivening breath" of sorts) so as to provide the energy or "active principle" that accounts for whatever possible states the body can assume; or, similarly, taking the more modern understanding of "mind" (from Descartes) as a repository for thoughts/impressions which cannot be reduced entirely to mere physical responses,  then the big question becomes: what exactly would it mean for the soul to exist on its own, apart from the body, given that all "experiences" as such (thoughts, moods, feelings, sensations, memories, etc.)  either share a bodily element, make reference to a body or depend upon a body for their formation??? It's a difficult problem to be sure, for those of us who resist materialist conclusions... But can the "separated soul" go on to enjoy "new experiences" of its own apart from the body? This is where metaphysics becomes speculative to the extreme - ignoring Kant's line about "no (particular) thoughts without sense impressions." In other words, how does something happen to you apart from a bodily medium? Well....there could be other mediums I suppose but what would they "look" like - literally? Or feel like? Or sound like? Or smell like? Get the idea?  This quandary accounts for why so many people of faith speak of a resurrected body in place of a mere soul on its own - sans body.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Nobodaddy Revisited

Lest anyone intentions here are rather simple and straightforward,  if somewhat experimental... and far (very far) from wanting to come across as impious or derogatory. The following is simply an attempt to unpack an experience that many of us have had and continue to have, which is quite existential, but not always gleeful or inspiring. I refer to it simply as "that existential feeling" (with emphasis on the word "feeling" as opposed to a "logical conclusion" based on "empirical evidence")  of being "alone among the elements," of having been cut off from any consistent form of divine protection, of being "abandoned" and "forsaken" -  made vulnerable to the [autonomous] forces of Nature. Or as Simone Weil would say, made beholden to the "gravity" of blind necessity, prey to accidents and random disasters, fodder for "extremes of heat and cold" - as if we had expected some better deal...(yeah, I get it)...but yet we do expect a better deal. Like Job before us or the author of Ecclesiastes, or King Lear on the Heath, like William Blake (see prior post), Matthew Arnold, Alfred Lord Tennyson, even Charles Darwin, along with many prior poets and countless slaves, we've experienced that weird, awkward, one-way dialogue, that "Nobodaddy moment," that strange "conversation" with the abyss.  We've undergone our angry interrogation/denunciation of the deus absconditus  -  the non-responsive agency, the absence-in-place-of-a-hoped-for presence, the void that we cling to like a person,  our ever-absent, silent interlocutor, who is not sitting above the clouds watching over us, is not apparently keeping tabs on us, has no dealings with us,  no correspondence with us, cannot hear us, does not heed our cries, cannot intervene on our behalf or send signs and omens, or make amends for past injustices, neither wishes us well or ill, cannot remember us or compile facts about us, provides no response or condolence, is not cognizant or awake or sentient, offers us only ambiguous silence and a blank (invisible) stare from the great beyond. Granted it's hard to feel safe with someone like that not watching over you...although many millions of people nowadays feel relatively nonplussed by it all (or so they claim, or so I hear), but the good news for the rest of us who do agonize over these matters, as I believe we should, as I believe we must, in order to become worthy of calling ourselves truly religious-minded creatures,  is that by sweeping aside this idolatrous expectation - of a deity poised to step in and tamper with the outcome of every waking moment,  ready to prevent us from misteps, errors, failures, confusions, miseries and regrets, there on call to chase away the ghouls or else bind up our hurts, and give us unambiguous moral guidance and support every step of the way as we believe He should (!), one can (perhaps, just maybe, and with some degree of probability) make room for some far-off preliminary to a correspondence with the one true G __ d with whom a relationship of genuine concern (both ways) may actually be envisioned.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Calamitous 14th Century

The 1300s - a turbulent century, but one that is worth remembering and re-visiting - thanks to brilliant writer, historian and prose stylist: Barbara Tuchman.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Homer's Odyssey - Opening Lines

         "Tell me, Muse, of that man of many resources, who wandered far and wide, after sacking the holy citadel of Troy. Many the men whose cities he saw, whose ways he learned. Many the sorrows he suffered at sea, while trying to bring himself and his friends back alive. Yet despite his wishes he failed to save them, because of their own un-wisdom, foolishly eating the cattle of Helios, the Sun, so the god denied them their return. Tell us of these things, beginning where you will, Goddess, Daughter ofZeus.
          Now, all the others, who had escaped destruction, had reached their homes, and were free of sea and war. He alone, longing for wife and home, Calypso, the Nymph, kept in her echoing cavern, desiring him for a husband. Not even when the changing seasons brought the year the gods had chosen for his return to Ithaca was he free from danger, and among friends. Yet all the gods pitied him, except Poseidon, who continued his relentless anger against godlike Odysseus until he reached his own land at last.
            Now, though, Poseidon was visiting the distant Ethiopians, the most remote of all, a divided people, some of whom live where Hyperion sets the others where he rises, to accept a hetacomb of sacrificial bulls and rams, and there he sat, enjoying the feast: but the rest of the gods had gathered in the halls of Olympian Zeus. The Father of gods and men was first to address them, for he was thinking of flawless Aegisthus, whom far-famed OrestesAgamemnon’s son had killed. And, thinking of him, he spoke to the immortals.
          ‘How surprising that men blame the gods, and say their troubles come from us, though they, through their own un-wisdom, find suffering beyond what is fated. Just as Aegisthus, beyond what was fated, took the wife of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, and murdered him when he returned, though he knew the end would be a complete disaster, since we sent Hermes, keen-eyed slayer of Argus, to warn him not to kill the man, or court his wife, as Orestes would avenge Agamemnon, once he reached manhood and longed for his own land. So Hermes told him, but despite his kind intent he could not move Aegisthus’ heart: and Aegisthus has paid the price now for it all.’" - from Book 1

Sybil or the Two Nations by Benjamin Disraeli

The "Two Nations" = the Rich and the Poor

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Sampling of Haikus

Cold test-taking room
a grey pencil breaks loudly
soon Ned will chase birds. [#679]

Sad crinkled paper
falling while our teacher shakes
his head in slow mo. [#334]

A navel orange
with a weird textured face here
in the drawer; yikes.

Life is some spicy
enchilada that I have
saved for next Tuesday. [#852]

Golf is a dream I
just can't get used to because
the strokes hurt, each one. [#147]

While driving through town
three drunk hippie protesters
throw flowers at me. [#225]

You found an old coin
I found some stale bread,
ripe with age, rock hard. [#378]

At the library,
my honors class made noise so
Now we can't go back... [#006]

On the morrow good fish
I will give you a reason
to avoid large nets... [#057]

Scream! Gurgle! Kick! Scratch!
I'm in a bad mood! Can't you
tell? I want to cry... [#043]

If you give me those
figs in exchange for 10 bucks,
that will seal the deal. [#078]

A child stares at trolls,
little smiling dolls on tall
shelves - strange how moods change. [#777]

No smoke, no drink, no
reason to self-destruct, no
harm, no foul, just breathe. [#892]

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Road from the Past: Traveling through History in France

Jonathan Franzen calls Twitter "Unspeakably Irritating"

Famed birdwatcher and great American novelist Jonathan Franzen has weighed in on the latest communications craze, declaring as follows: “Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose…it’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters…it’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring [sign gesturing] The Metamorphosis," said Franzen. "Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’…It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium … People I care about are readers…particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.”

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Trouble in Gotham

"In the early 1960s, uncertainty and menace gripped New York, crystallizing in a poisonous divide between a deeply corrupt, cynical, and racist police force, and an African American community buffeted by economic distress, brutality, and narcotics. On August 28, 1963—the day Martin Luther King Jr. declared "I have a dream" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—two young white women were murdered in their Manhattan apartment. Dubbed the Career Girls Murders case, the crime sent ripples of fear throughout the city, as police scrambled fruitlessly for months to find the killer. But it also marked the start of a ten-year saga of fear, racial violence, and turmoil in the city—an era that took in events from the Harlem Riots of the mid-1960s to the Panther Twenty-One trials and Knapp Commission police corruption hearings of the early 1970s.
The Savage City explores this pivotal and traumatic decade through the stories of three very different men:

George Whitmore Jr., the near-blind, destitute nineteen-year-old black man who was coerced into confessing to the Career Girls Murders and several other crimes. Whitmore, an innocent man, would spend the decade in and out of the justice system, becoming a scapegoat for the NYPD—and a symbol of the inequities of the system.
Bill Phillips, a brazenly crooked NYPD officer who spent years plundering the system before being caught in a corruption sting—and turning jaybird to create the largest scandal in the department's history.
Dhoruba bin Wahad, a son of the Bronx and founding member of New York's Black Panther Party, whose militant activism would make him a target of local and federal law enforcement as conflicts between the Panthers and the police gradually devolved into open warfare. 

Animated by the voices of the three participants—all three of whom spent years in prison, and are still alive today—The Savage City emerges as an epic narrative of injustice and defiance, revealing for the first time the gripping story of how a great city, marred by fear and hatred, struggled for its soul in a time of sweeping social, political, and economic change." - from Amazon's Product Descriptor

Saturday, April 21, 2012

All the Names by Jose Saramago

"The deceptive simplicity of Nobel Prize-winner Saramago's prose, and the ironic comments that he intersperses within this story of an obsessional quest, initially have a disarming effect; one expects that this low-key exploration of a quiet man's eccentric descent into a metaphysical labyrinth will be an extremely intelligent but unexciting read. Unexciting: wrong. Within the first few pages, Saramago establishes a tension that sings on the page, rises, produces stunning revelations and culminates when the final paragraph twists expectations once again. The title refers to the miles of archival records among which the protagonist toils at the Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths in an unnamed small country whose inhabitants still live by ancient rules of hierarchical social classes. The registry is quixotically disorganized so that the files of those most recently deceased are buried under miles of paper at the furthest remove of the massive building. After more than two decades at the job, 50-year-old Senhor Jos is still a mere clerk in the bureau. A penurious, reclusive, lonely bachelor, Senhor Jos has only one secret passion: he collects clippings about famous people and surreptitiously copies their birth certificates, purloining them from the registry at night and returning them stealthily. Purely by accident, the index card of a 36-year-old woman unknown to him becomes entangled in the clippings he steals. Suddenly, he is stricken by a need to learn about this woman's life. Consumed by passion, this heretofore model of punctilious behavior commits a series of dangerous and unprofessional acts. He forges official papers, breaks into a building, removes records from institutions and continues to enter the registry after darkDall punishable offenses. To carry out his mission, he is forced to become practical, clever and brave. But the more risks he takes, the more astonishing events occur, chief among them that the remote, authoritarian Registrar takes a personal interest in his lowly employee. Meanwhile, Senhor Jos himself discovers shocking facts about the woman he seeks. Saramago relates these events in finely honed prose pervaded with irony, but also playful, mocking and witty. Alternately farcical, macabre, surreal and tragic, this mesmerizing narrative depicts the loneliness of individual lives and the universal need for human connection even as it illuminates the fine line between the living and the dead." - from Publishers Weekly

Pulitzer Prizes - 2012


Fiction No award (probably the right move here)
Drama - "Water by the Spoonful" by Quiara Alegría Hudes
History - "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention," by the late Manning Marable (Viking)
Biography - "George F. Kennan: An American Life," by John Lewis Gaddis (The Penguin Press)
Poetry - "Life on Mars" by Tracy K. Smith (Graywolf Press)
General Nonfiction - "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern," by Stephen Greenblatt (W.W. Norton and Company)
Music - "Silent Night: Opera in Two Acts" by Kevin Puts (Aperto Press)

Traffic Isn't Moving...

Traffic isn't moving. We're stuck - again. Not moving when we're supposed to be somewhere. No worries. Look around at the other drivers who seem almost used to it by now, resigned, complacent. They've done this a million times. They know the drill. We'll get there eventually. But for now we're stuck. More on that later. Since there's nowhere to go at the moment, consider the role that Fate plays in all this. At moments like these, I always do. And I use that word advisedly, because something like Fate seems involved. Just think about all the strangely fated, "predestined routines" that we go along with because we have no choice, because someone else, it seems, has made the decision for us, presumably on our behalf, that THIS is what works best, that THIS is how IT should be, this is how it will play out in the best of all possible worlds. We're stuck in traffic and it has to be that way because what's the alternative?  Got any bright ideas? It's rush hour; it's busy outside; millions of motorists are mobilizing at once, trying to get to the same little green patch of earth using the same narrow swath of concrete.  So what are you gonna do? Are you visualizing this scenario? Good. We're stuck, remember. Now repeat after me: it's already been decided. It's sort of like Fate has already spoken, but you weren't consulted somehow.  In large measure, it's already been decided what you will do today, what you will be able to do, where you will go, how and by what means; it's also been decided which destinations you will not venture to arrive at, and which plans, enterprises, excursions you will leave on the cutting-room floor. It's already been decided:  what clothes you will be wearing along with the passengers who will ride along with you to the places you will go. Already been decided. And where these clothes come from and what other people will think of you when you try them on, and what car you'll be driving (it won't be a horse, mind you...) to and from the clothing store, what brand of coffee you'll be sipping, and the food-court victuals you will consume before, during and after a long, hard shopping all day; and what late breaking news you'll hear on the radio, what topics you'll latch onto, which definition of style or beauty or health or joie de vivre you will subscribe to (automatically) as a result of your quixotic quest; to some degree, likewise,  it's already been decided what gadgets you will need for this excursion, which movie or music or youtube "prompts" will influence these "choices" of yours - which books you will end up reading to expand your  temporarily constricted horizons... what other big ventures you will envision for the new year; where you will dream of settling down eventually (whether in a city or a suburb or a farm) - driven there by some strange spiritual imperative - and the hyper-restricted, this-or-that "options" that will be waiting there for you to make... it's already been decided....That's what it feels like at least. So far so good...but when it comes to traffic patterns and gridlock on the roads, this too having already been decided by some anonymous cabal of planners and developers who shun the spotlight for good reason... here I must put my foot down and demand to meet the committee of geniuses who invented these beltways and turnpikes and toll roads and narrow, winding vertigo-inducing highways and bridges leading from "bumper-to-bumper snail's pace" traffic to "let's-park-here-for-the-night-might-as-well" congestion; not to mention those drab, dreary frontage roads overloaded with row after row of chain hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, gas stations, business parks, etc. etc.. It's already been decided that we will travel in this manner with these traffic patterns, traffic jams, traffic derailments, traffic meltdowns, traffic absurdist theater, traffic zombie caravans...but what happens when what has been decided upon just isn't working any longer...What then?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Political Biography Anyone?

The fourth installment of Robert Caro's monumental, magisterial biography on Lyndon Johnson is set to be released on May 1st. I would expect that this volume, dealing with the Johnson presidency, will be hailed as the greatest one yet - and it's only 736 pages long!

And while we're at it, let's not forget Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith.

Theory and Practice

The awareness that logic alone does not help to solve our biggest problems in life is something of a disappointment to put it midly; the knowledge that "thoughtfulness" is a sign of weakness, that being "reasonable" and "sensible" is often a recipe for disaster; that trying to think and act "above the fray" and expecting others to do likewise can seem like a childish request, preventing us from confronting the messiness of a situation, while increasing our frustration with those ugly, unforeseen "outcomes" that occur so frequently; that having constant expectations of order and design in the world can leave a person feeling "naive" and "ineffectual" when it comes to "dealing with" a stubborn, incorrigible, non-pliable, non-harmonious entity; that the upbeat rhetoric employed to describe our shared social environment is typically at odds with the more sordid, haphazard, bare-bone facts (of human beings running amok from their restless, overwrought, I-want-this-I-want-that!, crash-and-burn impulses); that the ideals and precepts that inspire so many of us are shamelesly invoked by hucksters, thieves, marketeers, politicos, con artists et al. who abuse them to the hilt (!) leading many others to become cynical and jaded from an early age; that the relentless chasm between how things could be (if everyone happened to care about the same thing at the same time and agreed upon a particular goal or solution without the law of brute force or the lowest common denominator winning out) and how things typically turn out  (decidedly opposite that of the aforementioned description) - continues to widen; all this constitutes the essential dilemma, the "grand theme" of philosophy, otherwise known as the divide between theory and practice, which, if I had all day to discuss it within the imaginary confines of the "donut shop of utopian conversation," I probably would, or at least would sit there (in some dilapidated, yet actually-existing donut shop) and day-dream about such a conversation taking place with a rarefied list of most worthy interlocutors (munching on glazed and chocolate sprinkle delights). But just for the sake of continuing this thought experiment, if you happen to be one of those people who has the same sinking feeling of always wanting to apply logic and common sense to a situation, yearning for the ideal scenario to play out among rational beings, that is, yet knowing in advance that your plans will be thwarted by the entropies of ignorance, iniquity, incompetence, and illogic, then you have come to the right place. I not only salute you, I congratulate and affirm you and your rational tendencies. Bless you for being there and for reading this humble post. You are amazing as far as that goes. True, it appears that certain voluminous snares have been set in our path and that the universe doth resist our demands for order and logic (at least here in the lower echelons), but all is not lost, as long as we know that we exist with this peculiar malady - which, although frustrating and pathetic - does have its merits. For lo, when we consider how the soul itself seems woefully outmatched by passion (thumos) and appetite (epithumia)  - i.e. to "blind wilfulness" per se -  is it not shocking how REASON, the so-called pilot or captain of the ship*, is able to manage at all, to chart a path under the stars, being surrounded by such a wild, impulsive and raucous crew! [See Plato's Republic, Book 6]

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Rulers, Enforcers, Ascetics (Pt. 1)

My big problem with politics (and believe me, not the only one), has always been the coercive element - the fact that you need enforcers to keep people in line - strong alpha males and females along with certain ascetic types - a "priestly caste" as it were - to hold up the prevailing orthodoxies. And, oftentimes (not always but often) these same "enforcers" have been some of the prime beneficiaries of whatever "privileges" the group has to offer,  these members of the ruling elite who are, in theory at least, the presumed  exemplars of what's in vogue - morally, aesthetically, economically - and who take upon themselves to decide what the standard of excellence is for everyone else,  letting those who dissent do so at their own peril. (Irritating - yes, but not my main complaint.) Yet in the case of the ascetics, whenever these become the preeminent enforcers -  ergo when the ruling elite grows slack, relying on "mercenary soldiers" or an independent "priest caste" as an  auxiliary force, an element of metabole/disharmony is introduced; the possibility of a critique of the ruling order reaches the level of conscious awareness along with a possible rift between classes. For even if these auxiliaries come to  identify strongly with the rationale given by the elite for their claim to rule, they still see opportunities  for themselves waiting in the wings; notwithstanding this roughly-sketched hierarchy of  aristocrats/soldiers  or aristocrats/soldiers/clerics - we are still left with a majority of commoners and have-nots living on the margins.  Strange that the workers who make up the bulk of the demos, should be so vulnerable to manipulation or exploitation, but there it is. (I speak of ancient societies here. And medieval societies...and some modern societies...) Still - the centripetal force of the majority's bulk is not kept down entirely in that from their ranks will rise up orators, populists, demagogues, unruly slaves, muckrakers, artists, poets, philosophers, journalists, revolutionaries to champion the rights of the people.  And so we have revolutions and slave revolts and serf rebellions dating from time immemorial, from the Helots of Sparta to Spartacus and his crew to Nat Turner.

And over many, many centuries (I'm talking aeons!)  of the franchise being gradually extended and expanded to include more of those previously left out of the equation, we reach a stage of history where it becomes somewhat impossible to justify a ruling class as such (on the basis of some over-arching principle of merit that the ruling class supposedly embodies) or a ruling orthodoxy per se - except by some sort of all-inclusive promise (of prosperity? freedom? opportunity? dignity? equality?) or some some other means of vicarious participation in the feast (winning lotto ticket? instant celebrity? king-for-a-day status?)Everyone is equal nowadays in theory; therefore those who claim superior title to wealth, status, power must do so on a time-limit or by some means of implied consent (?) Confusing, yes, because still so unclear. Our erstwhile leaders and representatives on some level accept their role as glorified puppets with multiple invisible strings attached to public opinion. Thus do the people at large - the vast "middle" classes and average Janes and Joes become aware of themselves as ultimate "judges" - "arbiters" - "voters" - "deciders" - who give their "thumbs up, thumbs down" verdicts to this or that administration and to whatever shifting paradigm of truth happens to be stealing the spotlight for a season.  But in such a milieu as ours, can the rationale for a ruling class ever rise to some sublime principle of worth or merit? Do we not continue to assign merit by means of market forces measured in $, with a litmus test of popularity added on top of that? As a result, is it surprising to notice the discourse of modern life marked by a discursiveness that takes for granted the lack of value in the object itself, beyond what the subject grants, and even then, knowingly (!) grants only for a fleeting moment. They say canaries die in coal mines... and leaden thoughts sink to the bottom...

Friday, April 13, 2012

Pithy Quotation

"The amount of verbal pomposity, elaboration of the obvious, repetition, trivia, low-grade statistics, tedious factification, drudging recapitulations of the half-comprehended, and generally inane and laborious junk that one encounters suggests that the thinkers of earlier ages had one decisive advantage over those of today: they could draw on very little research." - Dwight MacDonald (describing modern "academic prose")

from "The Voice" by Matthew Arnold

Literary Trivia Question #379: Which literary "voice" did Matthew Arnold have in mind when he wrote this poem?

"...Like bright waves that fall
With a lifelike motion
On the lifeless margin of the sparkling Ocean;
A wild rose climbing up a mouldering wall - 
A gush of sunbeams through a ruined hall - 
Strains of glad music at a funeral - 
So sad, and with so wild a start
To this deep-sobered heart,
So anxiously and painfully,
So drearily and doubtfully,
And oh, with such intolerable change
Of thought, such contrast strange,
O unforgotten voice, thy accents come,
Like wanderers from the world's extremity,
Unto their ancient home!" - from "The Voice" by Matthew Arnold

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What Makes a Gentleman...

"Hence it is that it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. This description is both refined and, as far as it goes, accurate. He is mainly occupied in merely removing the obstacles which hinder the free and unembarrassed action of those about him; and he concurs with their movements rather than takes the initiative himself. His benefits may be considered as parallel to what are called comforts or conveniences in arrangements of a personal nature: like an easy chair or a good fire, which do their part in dispelling cold and fatigue, though nature provides both means of rest and animal heat without them. The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;—all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home. He has his eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd; he can recollect to whom he is speaking; he guards against unseasonable allusions, or topics which may irritate; he is seldom prominent in conversation, and never wearisome. He makes light of favours while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He never speaks of himself except when compelled, never defends himself by a mere retort, he has no ears for slander or gossip, is scrupulous in imputing motives to those who interfere with him, and interprets every thing for the best. He is never mean or little in his disputes, never takes unfair advantage, never mistakes personalities or sharp sayings for arguments, or insinuates evil which he dare not say out. From a long-sighted prudence, he observes the maxim of the ancient sage, that we should ever conduct ourselves towards our enemy as if he were one day to be our friend. He has too much good sense to be affronted at insults, he is too well employed to remember injuries, and too indolent to bear malice. He is patient, forbearing, and resigned, on philosophical principles; he submits to pain, because it is inevitable, to bereavement, because it is irreparable, and to death, because it is his destiny. If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive. Nowhere shall we find greater candour, consideration, indulgence: he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes. He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits." - from John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, 8.10

Fear of Wind....(Anemophobia)

Okay...I admit it...I used to be afraid of the wind (past tense).  Hasn't everyone gone through a phase like that? No? Well, I'm happy to report that I never cowered in fear because of a thunderstorm.... unless of course that same storm was accompanied by a little wind - and lightning. So how about those other, "usual-suspect" fears? Snakes? Yes. Rats? Yes. Sharks? Who isn't scared of them? Plebeians? Ick.  Radioactivity? Yes, yes. Crowded elevators? Affirmative. Is that so unwarranted? But this was a so-called irrational fear, a phobia. I used to believe that my house was going to blow over, used to imagine trees being uprooted and cars being tossed around in the sky, used to anticipate windows imploding, dishes shattering, walls collapsing,  furniture overturning, cliffs eroding, people fleeing, animals howling and my beloved basketball hoop crashing down to the ground. Every time the breeze would appear, I would begin mildly hyper-ventilating, pacing up and down, chanting my "why? why? why?" mantra. But I had cause. What the heck can you do on a windy day besides fly a kite? Well...make a long story short, the weather apocalypse never came to my hometown; but unfortunately did arrive elsewhere. It was always the midwest or the south and I used to be mesmerized by visions of tornadoes and hurricanes on the news, so what was I getting so worked up about growing up in California? We had smog, heat-waves, earthquakes, mud slides, brush fires, traffic jams, zodiac killers - a myriad of indigenous horrors to deal with! Why couldn't I cling to my neurotic clown phobia or my fear of polyester?  It was those dreaded Santa Ana storms that arrive during the late summer and continue into the fall, at the peak of fire season. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Piano or Guitar

The ultimate dilemma: piano or guitar? What does it say about a person to choose one over the other? Granted, I neglect  to mention violin, flute, trumpet, organ, cello, tuba, French horn, oboe, clarinet, banjo, bass or ukelele  as part of this competition, but you understand. It's like cats and dogs. What does it say about a person to choose one over the other? Must decide. Serious dilemma...for some of us.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Paging Don Draper

Note: Don Draper, of "Mad Men" fame, is the fictional character whose complexity as a modern American male,  embodies the ambiguities of arete that the ancient Greeks first identified; namely the tension between "conventional goodness" (understood as respectable, law-abiding, self-controlled behavior) and "greatness of soul" (understood as courage, independence, risk-taking adventurism).  Don is not much for staying home and keeping the hearth-fires warm; he's out there in the arena, making his mark, letting his star shine bright, conniving, competing, mixing it up, going in search of dragons to slay, outwitting rivals, entangling himself in the lives of others, acquiring mistresses and proteges, complicating matters and making things really messy for himself and everyone else. Needless to say, so many of our celebrities grab our attention in a similar sort of way by displaying what the Greeks would call "greatness of soul" while violating certain conventional norms.  By not letting their moral inhibitions get in the way of a good time or another conquest, they conform to one side of the "virtue coin" while neglecting the other, because virtue (arete) is unfortunately for us mortals, two-sided. And somehow we judge THEM - these normal-rules-don't-apply-to-me types - by a different standard, we root for them, admire them, forgive them always and everywhere, cheer them on, model our day-dreams on their life-script, because they're so darn confident and charismatic. Does this ring a bell with anyone? Just think of your favorite "wild and crazy" celebrity and what you allow him or her to get away with, while the exact same behavior from a neighbor down the street would make you twitch with outrage and indignation. Ah Don, ah humanity. Well, Socrates, there's another can of worms you just happened to leave open...See prior post.

Ambiguities of Arete

Arete (definition): virtue, goodness, excellence,  greatness of soul, character

"Once more, Socrates, I will ask you to consider another way of speaking about justice and injustice, which is not confined to the poets, but is found in prose writers. The universal voice of mankind is always declaring that justice and virtue are honorable, but grievous and toilsomeand that the pleasures of vice and injustice are easy of attainment, and are only censured by law and opinion. They say also that honesty is for the most part less profitable than dishonesty; and they are quite ready to call wicked men happy, and to honor them both in public and private when they are rich or in any other way influential, while they despise and overlook those who may be weak and poor, even though acknowledging them to be better than the others. But most extraordinary of all is their mode of speaking about virtue (arete) and the gods: they say that the gods apportion calamity and misery to many good men, and good and happiness to the wicked. And mendicant prophets go to rich men's doors and persuade them that they have a power committed to them by the gods of making an atonement for a man's own or his ancestor's sins by sacrifices or charms, with rejoicings and feasts; and they promise to harm an enemy, whether just or unjust, at a small cost; with magic arts and incantations binding heaven, as they say, to execute their will. And the poets are the authorities to whom they appeal, now smoothing the path of vice with the words of Hesiod: Vice may be had in abundance without trouble; the way is smooth and her dwelling-place is near. But before virtue the gods have set toil, and a tedious and uphill road: then citing Homer as a witness that the gods may be influenced by men; for he also says: The gods, too, may he turned from their purpose; and men pray to them and avert their wrath by sacrifices and soothing entreaties, and by libations and the odour of fat, when they have sinned and transgressed....And now when the young hear all this said about virtue and vice, and the way in which gods and men regard them, how are their minds likely to be affected, my dear Socrates, those of them, I mean, who are quickwitted, and, like bees on the wing, light on every flower, and from all that they hear are prone to draw conclusions as to what manner of persons they should be and in what way they should walk if they would make the best of life? Probably the youth will say to himself in the words of Pindar: Can I by justice or by crooked ways of deceit ascend a loftier tower which may he a fortress to me all my days? For what men say is that, if I am really just and am not also thought just profit there is none, but the pain and loss on the other hand are unmistakable. But if, though unjust, I acquire the reputation of justice, a heavenly life is promised to me." - Plato's Republic, Book 2, Jowett Translation

Alice Munro's Short Fiction

Monday, April 9, 2012

Correction by Thomas Bernhard

The art we need is the art of bearing the unbearable. - Thomas Bernhard.

"Roithamer is one of four children raised at Altensam, a palace which ruled over the area of the Aurach Gorge in Austria's mountainous northwest. Both the narrator and Hoeller were working class kids in the village below the palace and close friends of Roithamer when growing up. The narrator is also a Cambridge don in the sciences. Hoeller, who has never left the area, is a taxidermist and has built his own home in the gorge. Roithamer has had an extremely unhappy childhood, or at least this is his memory and construction of it, and he has fixated on his sister, deciding he will "save" her by building the most incredible building in the world, a gigantic cone in the very center of the local forest, in which she will live. It is a home for Rapunsel if ever there was one. The home, in some strange way we don't actually know, kills her and Roithamer's grief and defeat lead to his suicide. The time line action of the narration, in the sense that one can say there is one,  is that the narrator has come back to Hoeller's garret, where Roithamer lived when in Austria, and from where he designed and oversaw the building of the cone, in order to sort through Roithamer's papers. It is from both the narrator's tale in the first paragraph, and from Roithamer's papers which the narrator studies in the second paragraph (entitled Sifting and Sorting) that we learn the above and much, much more. The form is simply astonishing. I've already pointed out that this 271 page book of quite tiny print is only two paragraphs long. In some of the earliest pages it was not unusual for sentences to run well over 2 pages, so at first I had the sense there were more pages than sentences. Overall, however, I suspect the book must average about 3 sentences a page, perhaps fewer, I didn't count. The novel is 100% the narrator's first person story with a very few remembered conversations and a few quoted passages from Roithamer's papers (normally identified by "so Roithamer" at the end of the sentence). The seeming time line of the novel itself is probably two to three days at the most, all of which the narrator spends in Hoeller's garret (Roithamer's garret?) except for one brief meal with the Hoeller family spent mainly in silence." - from "Comments" on Correction  by Bob Corbett, January, 2001


If you wanted to find a single word able to kindle my imagination concerning a place I have never been to, and get it racing out of control, down a dusty backroad somewhere in the panhandle (driving my imaginary orange trans-am), past the party-all-night beaches on the eastern strand, to a forlorn stretch near the glades (?) where who knows what kind of "good ol' boys" might be "hangin' out" at the local gas station, counting their (extra) fingers and toes, playing their fiddles, adjustin' their baseball caps, cussing 'bout their low bowling averages, chugging cheap beer while lamenting the deteriorating (pronounced "dee-teeeeeeer-rio-ray-tin") state of the economy, that word would have to be: Florida.   I can just hear someone asking (as they always seem to do): haven't you ever been to Florida? No, actually I haven't. Don't you have any family down there? No, I'm sorry but I don't. But you're going there for spring break - right? Spring training, then? Baseball anyone? No. Catch the Superbowl next time it comes around? Nein. Nyet. But you know someone who owns a condo down there? Nope. But there must be some elderly person you know who will be moving there before next winter? Negative. But surely you play golf, you must play golf; everyone with tired bones and sore joints plays golf, don't they? Uh.....not exactly. But you are at least curious about alligators and other reptilian life forms lurking in soggy marshlands - right? Am I? Do you not love palm trees? Do you never go in search of exotic birds? You mean like those chickens, peacocks, turkeys, crows, flying pigs, oxen - who roam the streets in that tropical resort town where Jimmy Buffet lives? Don't you ever wish to go boating on some idyllic stretch of ocean where you might hope to bump into one of the Estefans? As in Gloria and Emilio? Don't you at least want go on a literary pilgrimage of sorts to scope out the haunts of Hemingway, Hiassen  and Hurston, to see where Dave Barry sleeps or where Wallace Stevens hung his hat? Zzzzzzzzzzzzzz....... Demographics, must have some interest in wacky demographics - people who never should go within 100 miles of one another all forced to get along within their early retirement enclaves? No answer. And do you shun sunlight? No answer. And do you abhor recreation? No answer. And Cuban cigars? No answer. And do you have have anything against transient sociopaths hiding out from the law for years at a time or roaming the streets unsupervised on a daily basis? Uhm, actually I DO have an issue with that! But surely, you can appreciate the need for sunny weather, for pure relaxation, for walking about in Bermuda shorts, showing off your new "bod," your chiseled physique, your iron "glutes" with an entourage of body guards in tow on roller blades? Well, perhaps... In dark sun glasses with matching sandals, you've got your "bro-bag" out, you're window-shopping, name-dropping, people watching, sauntering along, dressed to the nines, in the groove with your peeps - ever been there, ever done that? Answer: As you must know, Mainers don't typically do "stuff" like that - that's too much "chillin'" for our uptight souls to handle. Never been to Disney World? No. Disney Planet? What. Disney Galaxy? Oh. Disney Cult? Yikes. Disney Fraud? Sure. Disney Empire? Help. Disney Mind-meld? Whoa, there. Disney Walmart? No way! Disney Voldemort? Arrrhhhhhhhhhhh! Stop. Stop. But you'd still like to see Miami, right? Or Key West? Tampa? Tampa Bay? Ft. Lauderdale? Daytona Beach? St. Augustine (the town not the saint)? C'mon....Palm Beach at least! Okay, alright. Sure. Put me down for Palm Beach, but could I just show up there without an invitation? Sign on the dotted line...

Sunday, April 8, 2012


If you can find hope again when all hope seems lost, then you have understood, then you are on the path. I don't know how to say it any other way.
Beyond that, a reverential silence must suffice. 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

From this Middle-Aged Perch of Mine

From this, my middle-aged, a-ged, a-ged perch, with sore knees and aching limbs, I,  like many other forty-somethings, survey the rising tide of young and younger. Among these surging throngs of dilettantes, I see specimens of great energy and verve, boisterous urchins with cheery faces, unruly pups waiting impatiently to scale the heights, impish knaves and surly parvenus, itching to inhabit lofty perches recently vacated by other, older, aging drones, who resignedly shuffle along steadily toward the exit doors, clutching their canes, making haste for their rocking chairs. And of this new saucy bunch, with all their loud laughter and their wanton ways, with their mockery and their swagger, and their still-unproven aura of invincibility, I would like to say that I see great talent in the making. But fearful, lest by acknowledging their up-and-coming prowess, that I demean my own, I pause, I hesitate to commend in full. For such as these remember not the recent past, nor seek to relish any decade they have not lived through, nor do they hope to learn of any film or book or show or record or cultural artifact produced before the year 2001. And many scoff at literature in general. And many do make sport of their instructors. And some mistake noise for music, while others neglect the arts. And too many betake gadgetry for wisdom. And some disparage science, and some speak ill of algebra, and of my beloved geometry. And many others do not say "please" or "thank-you" and forget to say "excuse me" after a glaring faux-pas.  Do I over-generalize, ay faith, do I put on airs to paint with portly brush strokes grossly unfair and wide in swath and carriage? Very well then, perhaps I do. For lo, there shall come a time when these same up-and-comers will vie for privilege and status, and it shall come to pass that they (too) will wear business suits (or business jeans) and dawn gray hairs with matching age spots and shall be weighed down with girth and stooped posture themselves, and shall learn to grimace and grunt with worries and regrets. And behold, they shall in those (future) days look around them and say, "wherefore do these young hooligans and slackers speak ill of us in our settled habits, amid our bountiful accomplishments?" And with shaking fists and clattering jaws, they shall reek and rattle and call out to their elders, who by then shall be fishing in ponds near golf courses in Florida, and shall lament to them: "why did ye not warn of this, of time and of age, of mortality and taxes and of that deep, irreversible pain of forlorn nostalgia?" And it shall come to pass that one ancient, haggard-looking, elderly, retired, grumpy, introverted English teacher, gazing out upon his beloved Pacific ocean, and sporting a scraggly beard much like Captain Ahab in Melville's Moby Dick, shall then rise from his rocking chair, putting down his coffee mug in a huff, and shall laugh and chortle briefly, before saying to this brood of ungrateful ingrates, this smattering of discomfited, no-longer-young, turks: "ah but I did warn ye, and hast thou not read my blog?"

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The "Minimal Standard"

I oftentimes wonder - doesn't everyone at some point - how much better this world would be if everyone out there could just maintain a minimal standard of virtue. I mean, when you think about it, how hard is it - really - for most people to refrain from extreme acts of violence, destruction and mayhem, or desist from needless hostility, rancor, animosity directed toward others or eschew scenarios of random cruelty, exploitation and oppression? The most pressing "thou shalt nots"  are pretty obvious aren't they? Don't murder, don't torture, don't enslave others- simple formula, right? So plan your day accordingly. Keep your clothes on; don't scare the horses. And oh, if you can, be kind to old people, children and stray animals. "Keep a clean nose, wash your clean clothes." It is just so amazingly straightforward. And while we're on the subject, is it so very difficult to go the extra mile and avoid getting one's hands wet with:  theft, larceny, embezzlement, forgery, fraud, kidnapping, extortion, harassment, stalking, vandalism, arson, perjury (in court, no less) - all felonies that come at a high price? Just imagine a world where everyone woke up and ran through their respective schedules and forgot to commit that single felonious act on their calendars. How transformative that would be! But let us concede before going any further - human nature being what it is - certain other habits of snobbery and pride, prejudice, envy, resentment, vanity and greed  (with even a modicum of lust and wrath thrown in for good measure) - will no doubt creep into the equation unawares, but that's a whole lot more acceptable than the more egregious and seemingly more popular crimes listed above that still (!) continue to blight our globe on a daily basis. On the bright side, I suppose, (so hard to invoke sometimes) we should be thankful for the "good people" out there  - whatever percentage of the population they happen to comprise  (5%, 17%, 24%?) - who are busy helping to keep the planet intact through their quotidian efforts, labors of love, acts of random kindness, duties of due care. Melville was haunted by the "mystery of iniquity" that led some people to become predators and destroyers of civility, but it seems equally puzzling how so many people (not enough, but still a goodly portion) are willing to persevere in that more difficult road of humility and sacrifice.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

I can see now why people get obsessed with this particular novel, notwithstanding the aura of mystery that continues to surround Emily Bronte. Something about the writing itself is so unique and affecting, the prose-style is seamlessly taut, visceral, vivid, specific, ever-so-tightly-crafted, balancing dialogue with memorable description, fusing character with setting, infusing atmosphere with emotional resonanace.

Monday, April 2, 2012

from Goethe's Faust, Part 1

"My friend, for us the alluring times of old 
Are like a book that’s sealed-up sevenfold. 
And what you call the Spirit of the Ages 
Is but the spirit of your learned sages, 
Whose mirror is a pitiful affair, 
Shunned by mankind after a single stare, 
A mouldy dustbin, or a lumber attic, 
Or at the most a blood-and-thunder play 
Stuffed full of wit sententious and pragmatic, 
Fit for the sawdust puppetry to say...
To understand -- and how is that defined?
Who dares to give that child its proper name?
The few of understanding, vision rare,
Who veiled not from the herd their hearts, but tried,
Poor generous fools, to lay their feelings bare,
Them have men always burnt and crucified." 

- from Goethe's Faust, Part 1 

(Let's give translator, Phillip Wayne, the lion's share of credit 
for making this sound so good in English.)