Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Random Questionnaire

* In terms of your general approach to life, do you self-identify as liberal, conservative, progressive or reactionary?

* Are you by temperament nostalgic, averse to change, homesick for something elusive that lies buried in the past?

* Do you find yourself staring at old photographs for long periods of time or collecting artifacts like some Byzantine scholar?

* When old buildings are torn down in favor of generic ones, do you cry silent tears?

* Is history a source of sustenance to you or the great nightmare from which you are trying to awaken?

* Do you find yourself connecting with "kindred spirits" from the past? Do you appreciate how difficult life was for those who came before us?

* Is the future a source of hope or worry to you?

* Do you feel out of place in the present age?

* Do you believe in progress - as defined by the relentless march of technology?

*Are places important to you? Does a feeling of rootlessness ever afflict your mood?

* Do you find yourself worrying about the loss of particularity with regard to cities and towns across America?

* Would you travel for miles across state lines for a decent slice of pie - be it fresh peach or blueberry?

* Are you comfortable with the notion of belonging to the global village?

* Do hipsters annoy you - in part because of their tyrannical enforcement of "cool" this and "cool" that?

* Does "corporate culture" annoy you? What the heck is corporate culture?

* Do you find yourself in the minority on issues of major importance that other people seem to disregard as major issues?

* Does the ubiquity of crime and violence feel like a daily defeat of the social contract?

* Do you long for prison reform?

* When considering the state of education, and, what are sometimes called "life skills," does it bother you to think of how ill-prepared so many young people are to be parents - no one having instructed them in this art-form - and that this ongoing absence of parental support is somehow the missing link in a never-ending discussion?

* Do you find that people are missing the point when it comes to substance abuse - that we fail to get at the root causes of it all (which has something to do with the fact that so many of us are going numb and getting intoxicated as part of a mysterious, passive, aggressive ritual of slowly-timed collective self-implosion - all this as foreign drug cartels rule over large portions of our major cities?

* Do you incline against warfare and all its empty promises?

* Do you cringe when people are silenced, forced to crawl under a rock, forced to go away, impelled to lose their jobs and careers over a single ill-formed, ignorant, impolitic remark?

* Are you unnerved by the withering glance of public opinion upon vulnerable, unsuspecting, semi-obtuse individuals who never got the memo?

* Do you find yourself wishing to resuscitate actual books, newspapers, magazines and other traditional forms of print?

* Do you find it hard to keep up with the celebs and their antics - which is no reason, mind you, to discontinue reading People, Us and In Touch magazine. (The experience becomes even more perplexing when you don't recognize a single famous person and cannot name any accomplishment for which they are known.)

* Has sports become the new religion? Has religion fallen prey to the business model?

* Does it seem like the present-age is defined by hedonism and complacency at the expense of true spirituality?

* Do many of your peers (and perhaps even you or I on occasion) seem guided by hyper-romantic quests for virtual worlds and alternative reality spaces (such as blogs, yes) in which to escape from the dismal sordid industrial or post-industrial landscape that surrounds them/us?

* Do you long for higher standards in the arts and sciences?

* Do you feel insecure when actual experts speak on topics that they have devoted years to understanding - thereby showing the rest of us that we are by comparison ignorant and unschooled in such matters?

* Do you rebel against the same-old mediocre books on the same-old best-seller lists?

* Do you find yourself "tuning out" of the "daily buzz" in favor of some news item that no one else is talking about?

* Do you feel hopelessly under-informed by major news-media outlets and downright apoplectic when it comes to the cult of personality that has taken over among our celebrity pundits?

* Do you regard Good Morning America as the lowest form of government-sanctioned mind control?

* Do you regard the Today Show as the new form of bread and circuses?

* Are you bothered by the neglect of classical music?

* Do you wish for, long for, pine for a serious public discourse defined by increasing levels of gravitas i.e. men and women with long, sober faces talking in measured paragraphs - as opposed to having stand-up comedians and media spin-meisters define the narrative?

* Are you ready to take part in a revolution in which no one gets physically injured, in which there is no violence, but in which everyone is forced to admit that they are half-wrong, half of the time? Is there such a danger in that?

* Do you find it amusing (and somewhat revelatory) that cats, frogs, rabbits, dolphins, owls, elephants and pill-bugs are so readily on your wavelength? Their silent wisdom speaks volumes - eh?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Menelaos in Homer's Odyssey

Menelaos - as depicted in Homer's Odyssey - while not the most sympathetic of characters, is still one of the most poignant. Amid all of his splendor and wealth, and for what it's worth, he's also the spouse of Helen, reputedly the "most beautiful woman on earth," he is a haunted soul, grateful to have survived the Trojan war plus seven years of delays getting home, yet still grappling with something akin to post-traumatic guilt. As he tells Telemachos in Book 4: "no mortal man can vie with Zeus. His home and all his treasures are for ever. But as for men, it may well be that few have more than I..." He is, in other words, the man who "has it all" - but at the same time cannot help but lament his years adrift after the war: "how painfully I wandered before I brought [this treasure] home! Seven years at sea, Cyprus, Phoenicia, Egypt, and still farther ..." When Proteus tells him of his brother, Agamemnon's death at the hands of Aigisthos, a crime he could have perhaps prevented, had he offered sacrifice to Zeus and the immortal gods, in part to stem the wrath of Athena and thereby avoiding a delayed homecoming, he is smitten with grief: "before the end [of his speech] my heart was broken down. I slumped on the trampled sand and cried aloud, caring no more for life or the light of day." Proteus tries to cheer him up announcing his special status as one of the immortals: "As to your own destiny, prince Menelaos, you shall not die in the blue grass land of Argos; rather the gods intend you for Elysion...where all existence is a dream of ease..." But Menelaos has been afflicted with a set of painful memories, it seems, which are impossible to overcome. He is the man who knows too much, the man who cannot be happy.

Time Capsule - 2014

Since March 8th, Malaysian flight 370 en route to China has gone missing…Months have gone by but the mystery remains unsolved. After annexing the Crimea, Russia's next move in eastern Ukraine is still on hold... Hundreds of miners in Turkey were killed during a horrible mining accident... Jim Abrahamson was recently fired as high-profile editor at the New York Times. Abu Hazam was convicted on 11 terrorist charges...Boko Haram (a terror cell) has kidnapped and is still holding school-age girls in Nigeria, threatening to sell them into slavery... Generals have declared martial law in Thailand...The U.S. has "indicted" five Chinese military officers for hacking into American companies...Wildfires have been burning in Southern California near San Marcos…And more recently in the Napa valley. Fire season started early again. Big tornadoes have been rolling through the midwest at regular intervals...Yet another random school shooting occurred near the campus of UC Santa Barbara by a disturbed youth who posted videos on youtube. Beau Bergdahl was released in exchange for five Guantanamo detainees after having being held prisoner for five years by the Taliban. In other news, a group known as ISIS has taken over Mosul and Kirkuk in Iraq - causing 500,000 refugees to flee. They are said to be marching on Baghdad next!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Thoughts on Nihilism - Part 2

...In its original sense, nihilism was more than just a feeling of disenchantment, of profound alienation (although it was that as well); it was a "negativity" expressed as an active rejection of all previously accepted social and political beliefs. (Here one thinks of the sense in which Turgenev used the term in his novel, Fathers and Sons.) According to this understanding, we envision a  violent revolutionary bent on destruction, obsessed with exposing and gutting the rot of a dying civilization, pulling down social structures, mores, protocols, subverting the system, etc. etc. or perhaps a radical avant-garde critic railing against inherited forms and paradigms; yet this same nihilism admits of a more conventional meaning. Here one could imagine an entire generation in search of identity and purpose, in need of a context within which to strive, pining for definite goals, for a sense of direction, yet finding nothing within the tradition that is absolutely compelling, that is to say: authoritative, binding, irrevocable. This more casual or at least non-revolutionary strain provides a clue as to how nihilism has become for us a subterranean counterpart to the modern, pluralistic, democratic ideal which everyone subscribes to by default. According to this other meaning, nihilism refers to a passive acceptance of the impossibility of choosing one way of life over another as indisputably "optimum."  In the absence of some "higher  path" or "good life" per se, multiple options or alternatives present themselves as basically equivalent in value - thus indistinguishable in merit, depending upon one's outlook and situation. In such a milieu, multiple moods, beliefs, perspectives, beliefs, orientations offer themselves up for our consideration.  The old vertical hierarchy - that ranking of good and bad lives (think Dante) - now dissolves in favor of a horizontal tableau where every "life option" per se has a certain equivalency attached to it. The goal becomes one of eclectic sampling and combining, experimenting with opportunities, wearing temporary hats or identities, testing the water here and there. For the modern ego, life itself has become a make-shift art form, with experience a canvas upon which many divergent colors and textures must appear; the goal is now to produce an aesthetic outpouring, a seemingly endless work-in-progress, like a spontaneous collage effect, like some unpredictable mingling of possible identities:  athlete, artist, musician, fast-food worker, office drone, foodie, linguist, globe-trotter, etc. etc. And the end goal? Like a best-seller or a b-movie blockbuster, this ever-changing melange must hold our attention, must amuse, provoke, shock and entertain us,  preserving an open-ended, unfinished quality - holding itself immune from final judgments. The moral categories withdraw thus in favor of aesthetic ones. I mention all of this as a prelude to thinking about a recent book of popular philosophy entitled All Things Shining by Herbert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly.

Friday, April 25, 2014

First Thoughts on Nihilism - Part 1

Belief in nothing. Belief that nothing matters. Life without clear purposes, goals, directions. Nighttime of the world. Motto for the present age. Aimlessness. Disorientation. Crumbling paradigms. Loss of faith. Loss of meaning. Vanishing transcendence. The death of metaphysics. Universalism in crisis. No absolute truths. Nothing etched in stone. No unquestioned pieties. Historical consciousness. Dispersal of norms. The old rules no longer apply. History the great nightmare. The abyss in the dark night. Shifting Zeitgeists. A loosening of the bow. Relaxing of standards. Whose justice, which rationality? Enervation. Hedonism. Materialism. Medication. Drones. Automated phones. Automatic sprinklers. A lack of cohesion. Social atomism. Diminished horizons. A sense of decline... Playing tennis without a net... Anything goes. Appearances rule. Subjectivity. Amorality. Discontinuity. An end to infinite strivings. The old values de-value themselves. Instincts tell the real story. Under the surface. Nothing is real. Nothing sacred. Style is substance. Pop art. Commodities. Competing perspectives. Advertising. Planned obsolescence. Game shows, soap operas, bread, circuses, atrocities occurring between commercials. The new normal. You can't make this stuff up. You can't process it, absorb, assimilate, digest it all. Absurdity upon absurdity. Demi-monde. Dream-world. Stream of images. Impossible to take seriously. Tragi-comedy. Negation of reality. Mental illness. Inane conformities. Self-conscious mythologies. Superstition. Idol worship. Mood swings. People admiring, extolling, idolizing; people despising, admonishing, excoriating. In one fell swoop. The new spirituality. The ongoing secularization. The reform of therapy. Peripatetic self-help. Questioning. Skepticism. Anti-metaphysical postures. Against all totalizing systems. Fluctuating opinions. An equal weight to every point of view. Limited attention spans. Walking wounded. Hidden scars. Nervous breakdowns. 24/7 newsfeed. Fodder for shock-jocks. Mockery and ridicule. Oracles and revelations. Stand-up comedians. Celebrity gossip. The inability to step out of the loop. Boredom. Vacillation. Indignation. Sanctimony. Fundamentalism. Easy answers. Emotionality. Paucity of concern. Distancing via film, via tube, via social media. Watching as people are reduced to things, to impediments, to ashes. Haunting memories, half-forgotten. Nausea. Insomnia. Irony. Detachment. Half-hearted participation. Low-risk involvements. Extreme reactions. Exaggerated trivialities. Both-and contradictions. Reality television. Fictional memoirs. Paid actors. Scripted lives. Head-trauma wounds. Good Morning America! Still recovering from the last war...

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Best Lines Hemingway Ever Wrote

For anyone dealing with extended bouts of grief, free-floating anxiety, trauma, stress, PTSD,  etc. aggravated by feelings of aimlessness, despondency, and ongoing lack of focus, Ernest Hemingway has a story that gets at the root of the problem. "In Another Country" is literally a tale of the "walking wounded," a group of recuperating soldiers, to be exact, being "put through the system" as it were, surrounded by dubious medical equipment, so-called healing regimens and smooth-talking doctors. This is a story guaranteed to help a person in the throes of mental anguish not to feel entirely lost or alone or abnormal. (If you have to ask what that means exactly to feel that way, then relax: the abyss has not come knocking for you - yet.) The line that resonates with me at least is one that that captures like no other the gist of the real pain that many of us are feeling nowadays - though we may not feel justified admitting to such feelings. (Each person's plight is somewhat incommensurable and immeasurable - and to be fair, I would not place my own situation on a part with anyone dealing with PTSD.) Whatever our predicaments, there is something deep within that makes us resist a soul-destroying situation, that sense of affliction or malheur as Simone Weil calls it, of descending (with our accumulated private pain) into a state of mere anonymity, the anonymity of a lifeless, forgotten "thing"; such a condition as would make any normal person want to scream, rant, rave, come undone or else find some outlet for a palpable form of rebellion against the status quo. I don't have a name for such an impulse, but it's here in the following passage:

"He stood there, biting his lower lip. `It is very difficult,' he said. `I cannot resign myself.' He looked straight past me and out through the window. Then he began to cry. 'I am utterly unable to resign myself,' he said and choked. And then crying, his head up looking at nothing, carrying himself straight and soldierly, with tears on both his cheeks and biting his lips, he walked past the machines and out the door." - from "In Another Country" by Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Four Sherlock Holmes Novellas

A Study in Scarlet

The Sign of Four

The Hound of the Baskervilles

The Valley of Fear