Thursday, April 29, 2010

Learning about Morality from Psychopaths

Jonah Lehrer shows us how:

from The Frontal Cortex (blogsite)
Jonah Lehrer

Psychopaths can teach us a lot about the nature of morality. At first glance, they seem to have perfectly functioning minds. Their working memory isn't impaired, they have excellent language skills, and they don't have reduced attention spans. In fact, a few studies have found that psychopaths have above-average IQs and reasoning abilities; their logic is impeccable. But the disorder is associated with a severe moral deficit.

So what's gone wrong? Why are psychopaths so much more likely to use violence to achieve their goals? Why are they so overrepresented in our prisons? The answer turns us to the anatomy of morality in the mind. That's because the intact intelligence of psychopaths conceals a devastating problem: the emotional parts of their brains are damaged, and this is what makes them dangerous.

When normal people are shown staged videos of strangers being subjected to a powerful electrical shock or other painful stimulus, they automatically generate a visceral emotional reaction. Their hands start to sweat, and their blood pressure surges. But psychopaths feel nothing. It's as if they were watching a blank screen.

Read the entire thing.  As usual, I don't agree with all of his points, I think he too heavily elides other influences on morality--assigning an emotional role solely, when the emotions are as tractable and trainable as reason--so I find the ultimate conclusion dissatisfying even as I find the observations intriguing.

From Books Inq. Hitchens and Eagleton

Two against Nihilism

Some Interesting Approaches

The Literary Platform

And Netgalley.

This latter was brought to my attention yesterday and it consists of a site you can sign up on to receive electronic galleys for review of forthcoming books.  I selected three from the Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt publisher catalog (because they are well-known and have produced some interesting work in the past), but there are a number of other publishers there including smaller presses.  Saves the publisher money on galley copies, but gets the word out there.  An interesting concept, I wonder how it will catch on.

One nice thing is that you don't have to read on-line.  I had the books sent to my Kindle.  However, the books are DRM and expire after sixty days.  Although, I will have to verify, because I just got my first.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Postman Again: The Scary Reality of Network News

I've always found network news confusing, terrifying, deeply depressing, and deeply disengaging.  My father and teachers frequently insisted that I imbibe from this foul stream on a daily basis.  As soon as I came to an age where I could make my own determinations I fled from it as far as I could go.  And Postman actually pinpoints why all these things should be our natural reactions to the production.

from Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman

All television news programs being, end, and are somewhere in between punctuated with music. I have found very few Americans who regard this custom as peculiar. . . What has music to do with the news? Why is it there? It is there, I assume, for the same reason music is used in the theater and films--to create a mood and provide a leitmotif for the entertainment. If there were no music--as is the case when any television program is interrupted for a new flash--viewers would expect something truly alarming, possibly life-altering. But as long as the music is there as a frame for the program, the viewer is comforted to believe that there is nothing to be greatly alarmed about; that, in fact, the events that are reported have as much relation to reality as do scenes in a play.

And the critique continues

I should go so far as to say that embedded in the surrealistic frame of a television news show is a theory of anticommunication, featuring a type of discourse that abandons logic, reason, sequence and rules of contradiction. In aesthetics, I believe the name given to this theory is Dadaism; in philosophy, nihilism; in psychiatry, schizophrenia. In the parlance of the theater, it is known as vaudeville.

And yet another analysis--a brief but shining moment of perception:

What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of "being informed" by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It mean misleading information--misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing. In saying this, I do not mean to imply that television news deliberately aims to deprive Americans of a coherent, contextual understanding of their world. I mean to say that when news is packaged as entertainment, that is the inevitable result. And in saying that the television news show entertains but does not inform, I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?

The horrors of the world are paraded across our screen--serial killers, accident victims, Darfur, and tsunamis, and just as quickly we see the latest slip-up of a Dallas Cheerleader and the sports scores for the local curling teams and high-school lacrosse competitions.  All of this is just a morass--not informative, not helpful.  When I watch the news, I often leave with the feeling, "Now, how do I find out what really happened?"  How do I pierce the double veil of agenda and entertainment?

And then I find myself asking the question, should I even try to do so?  The final point I want to make this evening, and then I'll leave you in peace:

You may get a sense of what this [information without possibility of action] means by asking yourself another series of questions: What steps do you plan to take to reduce the conflict in the Middle East? or the rates of inflation, crime, and unemployment? What are your plans for preserving the environment or reducing the risk of nuclear war? What do you plan to do about NATO, OPEC, the CIA, affirmative action, and the monstrous treatment of Baha'is in Iran? I shall take the liberty of answering for you: You plan to do nothing about them. You may, of course, cast a ballot for someone who claims to have some plans, as well as the power to act. But this you can do only once every two or four years by giving one hour of your time, hardly a satisfying means of expressing the broad range of opinions you hold. Voting, we might even say, is the next to last refuge of the politically incompetent. . . . Thus, we have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.

You'll need to read the book to discover the last refuge of the politically incompetent.  But we've all felt the cycle of impotence he describes.  What can I do about Darfur--contribute money to a charity that may or may not get the money, food, materials to people who can use them.  Fret endlessly, with no more result than if you never knew about Darfur--except perhaps the exacerbation of your tendency toward ulceration.

And so, in these words, with these ideas, we are called upon to stop entertaining ourselves to death.  And the question comes to the fore--what is the first step?  If we're committing societal suicide, or societal imbecilism, how do we start to put a stop to it?  I don't have the answers--nor does Neil Postman, or so I think.  I haven't completed the book--but the book isn't about an answer--it is about awareness and asking the questions that will lead to action to find an answer.  Reflection--time to consider.  Time away from work and blogs and television and things that reduce our ability to cope.

Exploring Typographic Man: Two Excerpts

The last excerpts last night may have gotten a little ahead of where I wanted to be as I chronicle notes for this book.  So I'm going to take a couple of steps back and record some observations, one of which I'm still evaluating, but which I find persuasive.

from Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman

It may be true, as Frederick Jackson Turner wrote, that the spirit that fired the American mind was the fact of an ever-expanding frontier. But it is also true, as Paul Anderson has written, the "it is no mere figure of speech to say that farm boys followed the plow with book in hand, be it Shakespeare, Emerson, or Thoreau." For it was not only a frontier mentality that led Kansas to be the first state to permit women to vote in school elections, or Wyoming the first state to grant complete equality in the franchise. Women were probably more adept readers than men, and even in the frontier states the principal means of public discourse issued from the printed word. Those who could read had, inevitably, to become part of the conversation.

While I find much in this that is suggestive and interesting, I somehow doubt the main contention that it was because women could read the Wyoming granted the franchise.  A better guess to me would be that Wyoming was filled with a lot of men who really, really wanted women to come to Wyoming and offering the franchise was a small price for domestic and connubial bliss.  Let's face it, men just aren't that complex--although sometimes we play complex creatures on TV.

And then we have a comment in praise of lawyers, one in particular:

This was especially true of Daniel Webster, and it was only natural that Stephen Vincent Benét in his famous short story would have chosen Daniel Webster to contend with the Devil. How could the Devil triumph over a man whose language, described by Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, had the following characteristics.

. . . his clearness and downright simplicity of statement, his vast comprehensiveness of topics, his fertility in illustrations drawn from practical sources; his keen analysis, and suggestion of difficulties; his power of disentangling a complicated proposition, and resolving it in elements so plain as to reach the most common minds; his vigor in generalizations, planting his own arguments behind the whole battery of his opponents; his wariness and caution not to betray himself by heat into untenable positions, or to spread his forces over useless ground.

I quote this in full because it is the best nineteenth-century description I know of the character of discourses expected of one whose mind is formed by the printed word. It is exactly the ideal and model James Mill had in mind in prophesying about the wonders of typography. And if the model was somewhat unreachable, it stood nonetheless as an ideal to which every lawyer aspired.

It is a rare lawyer today who aspires to anything other than a fatter fee or a prominent place amongst his contemporaries.  Not none, but on the whole Shakespeare's notion regarding treatment of lawyers might make, overall, for a better society. But, to aspire to highly reasonable, illustrative, and concrete reasoning.  How outré, how bizarre!  What does that profit a man or a lawyer?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In My Pursuit of the Odd, the Bizarre, the downright Freakazoidal

Seven Candidates for the New Kraken--see, or rather hear, especially The Bloop.

Fifteen miles of disturbing biological goo


Leechy Grossout

Too Good to Be True?

A trailer for Whisperer in Darkness the first Lovecraft film that looks like it might have something to do with something HPL wrote.

And while we're at it, why not just take a gander at the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society Site?

Another Boston Novelty

A novelty for me, not for Boston.  In my touring Sunday, I passed by a statue of Benjamin Franklin that stands about a hundred feet away from the sidewalk plaque that celebrates the first American Public school.  I walked back to look at it and as I was exiting the fenced in area, I saw a statue of a donkey.  Now, this was odd.  I knew of the bull on/near Wall Street, but this donkey had no apparent explanation.  Walking closer I looked for an explanatory plaque.  I saw embedded in the pavement the object I sought, or so I thought.  Looking at it, it took me a moment to decipher what I saw.  There were two shoe-prints in each of which was the drawing of an elephant and at the base of this plaque, behind one if one were to stand in the shoes was the inscription--Stand in Opposition. 

I realized what it was, but still didn't know why it might be there.  Then it occurred to me (and I would have to find the dates of the statue to affirm) but I thought that plausibly this was a highly symbolic anti-slavery advertisement.  Because, as we well know, it was the Republican Party that stood in opposition to the Democratic and slave-holding South.  Now, I could be wrong, it could have been a robber baron produced piece of laissez-faire propaganda.  But for now, I'll hold on to the idea that it was a very clever and clear symbolic statement.

From Expostion to Show Business

The fall of American Reason as chronicled:

from Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman

The solution to these problems, [the vast distances and spaces separating American communities from one another in the time of the frontier] as every school child used to know, was electricity. To no one's surprise, it was an American who found a practical way to put electricity in the service of communication and, in doing so, eliminated the problem of space once and for all.  I refer, of course, to Samuel Finley Breese Morse, America's first true "spaceman." His telegraph erased state lines, collapsed regions, and, by wrapping the continent in an information grid, created the possibility of a unified American discourse.

But at a considerable cost. For telegraphy did something that Morse did not foresee when he prophesied that telegraphy would make "one neighborhood of the whole country." It destroyed the prevailing definition of information, and in doing so gave a new meaning to public discourse. Among the few who understood this consequence was Henry David Thoreau who remarked in Walden that "We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. . . . We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough."

Thoreau, as it turned out, was precisely correct. He grasped that the telegraph would create its own definition of discourse; that it would not only permit but insist upon a conversation between Maine and Texas; and that it would require the content of the conversation to be different from what Typographic Man was accustomed to.

It's an odd view of Morse and his invention, and yet one that makes dramatic sense.  Morse started us on the way to a sound bite.  Given all those dots and dashes, how long would one sit and listen and take down page after page of reasoned discourse?  Who would be likely to engage in that form of conversation when the information is so tedious to convey?  Indeed, wouldn't it be more likely that instead of  "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary. . . "  we would condense to "Congress declares freedom for all?"  Who has the patience for the transmission of anything more?

In the previous chapter, we are regaled by the tale of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

The first of the seven famous debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas took place on August 21, 1858, in Ottowa, Illinois. Their arrangement provided that Douglas would speak first, for one hour; Lincoln would take an hour and a half to reply; Douglas, a half hour to rebut Lincoln's reply. This debate was considerably shorter than those to which the two men were accustomed. In fact, they had tangled several times before, and all of their encounters had been much lengthier and more exhausting. For example, on October 16, 1854, in Peoria, Illinois, Douglas delivered a three-hour address to which Lincoln, by agreement, was to respond. When Lincoln's turn came, he reminded the audience that it was already 5 p.m., that he would probably require as much time as Douglas and that Douglas was still scheduled for a rebuttal. he proposed, therefore, that the audience go home, have dinner, and return refreshed for four more hours of talk. The audience amiably agreed, and matters proceeded as Lincoln had outlined.

What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory?  It should be noted, by the way, that Lincoln and Douglas were not presidential candidates; at the time of their encounter in Peoria they were not even candidates for the United States Senate.

How many of us would sit around for seven hours of talk, even for so serious a matter as slavery and the fate of the nation.  Most of us can't endure a half-hour at a time of sustained talking.  (But then, that may be because most people talking today take thirty seconds of an idea and expand it with inflated rhetoric and oratorical tricks (but not flourishes) to three hours of wind.)

We have changed.  I think about my grandparents--very simple people.  My grandfather never went to college, he became a foreman in a Goodyear plant. And yet he read--he read and understood a Bible most people shy away from as too difficult, too high-flown.  He read commentary on the Bible by people who used language that was not far removed from the stately prose of the KJV.  My other grandfather likewise never went to college.  In fact, he never went to high school.  With an eighth grade education, he ran a successful construction business and he too read both that "unreadably difficult" KJV and such commentaries on it as were appropriate to his purposes.  And the comprehension and discourse of these men was far more sophisticated than what comes out of the mouths of most people supposedly educated with "higher degrees."  This is not so much a tribute to these men, but to the expectations of the times.  What they did was not extraordinary, it was ordinary, it was expected, it was how you fended for yourself and became important and useful to your community.

We've seen examples of eighth grade tests from the late 1800s, the question of which  many of us could not answer--questions that assumed a deep understanding not only of incident but of cause.  This was the state of discourse at the beginning of the last century.  If you ask a young person of today what it meant to "Remember the Maine"  or for that matter "The Alamo," how many could even begin to guess about what you were talking?

Sure. we're light years ahead in our understanding of science and medicine.  But then we have Sam Harris stating baldly that science can be the source of ethical and moral decisions.  As much as I dislike his opinions and his actions, is there a person with Abraham Lincoln's understanding of the politics of his day?  Or is it indeed better for the establishment that we do not look too closely into questions that are beyond us?  Is it not better indeed to attend to our bread and circuses--the wonders of the iPad and Janet Jackson's catastrophic wardrobe failures, and the sexuality or lack thereof of Justin Timberlake, or whoever the dernier cri is today.

Postman is powerful in his exposition.  His suggestions spawn thoughts.  It is to be hoped that these thoughts can give rise to positive action to restore in some small part of the population an awareness--an ability to be awake that is so dangerous to the present status quo.

Postman Quotation for the Day

Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence.

Neil Postman--Amusing Ourselves to Death.

More and more often, it seems to me, Mr. Postman is being proven wrong in this contention.  But in the past, it held true reasonably well.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Influence of the Printed Word

from Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman

The influence of the printed word in every arena of public discourse was insistent and powerful not merely because of the quantity of printed matter but because of its monopoly.  This point cannot be stressed enough, especially for those who are reluctant to acknowledge profound differences in the media environments of then and now. One sometimes hears it said, for example, that there is more printed matter available today than ever before, which is undoubtedly true. But from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century, printed matter was virtually all that was available. There were no movies to see, radio to hear, photographic displays to look at, records to play.  There was no television. Public business was channeled into and expressed through print, which became the model, the metaphor, and the measure of all discourse. The resonances of the lineal, analytical structure of print, and in particular, of expository prose, could be felt everywhere. For example, in how people talked. Tocqueville remarks on this in Democracy in America. "An American," he wrote, "cannot converse, but he can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation. He speaks to you as if he was addressing a meeting; and if he should chance to become warm in the discussion, he will say 'Gentlemen' to the person with whom he is conversing." This odd practice is less a reflection of an American's obstinacy than of his modeling his conversation style on the structure of the printed word.  Since the printed word is impersonal and is addressed to an invisible audience, what Tocqueville is describing here is a kind of printed orality, which was observable in diverse forms of oral discourse. On the pulpit, for example, sermons were usually written speeches delivered in a stately, impersonal tone consisting "largely of an impassioned, coldly analytical cataloguing of the attributes of the Deity as revealed to man through Nature and Nature's Laws."

When I read this the first time I was entranced by the thought of "no movies to see, radio to hear, photographic displays to look at, records to play."  Not forever, of course.  But it would be nice to think about a life that had somewhat fewer of these things laced around it.  Fewer things cluttering and stifling the airwaves--but it would soon become stifling--unless we set about doing something useful with the time--like building a civilization rather than flowing along in a society.

Irène Némirovsky--Anti-Semite?

A preview of a forthcoming book and some short stories by Irène Némirovsky

Most people are best acquainted with her through the final two novels of a sequence that was to be called Suite Francaise when completed.  That is the title of the extant portion of the work.  Let's hope this new study of herwork puts the lie to the endless gossip that propels the literary world forward.

Aldous Huxley on Democracy

 Part I
Aldous Huxley interviewed (part II).  via Books Inq.  I think
Part III

Fits in very well with Amusing Ourselves to Death.  And Aldous speaks well to Orwell. And also speaks to Postman's central thesis.

For Those Still Interested in Climate Change and its Rhetoric

You might find this review of The Hockey Stick Illusion informative. 
(via Books Inq.)

Poem of the Week--Edgar Allan Poe

Poe's exquisite "To Helen."  Poem and commentary.

Do We Need a Constitutional Amendment?

from Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman

Meanwhile former President Richard Nixon, who once claimed he lost an election because he was sabotaged by make-up men, has offered Senator Edward Kennedy advice on how to make a serious run for the presidency: lose twenty pounds. Although the Constitution makes no mention of it, it would appear that fat people are now effectively excluded from running for high political office.  Probably bald people as well. Almost certainly those whose looks are not significantly enhance by the cosmetician's art. Indeed, we may have reached the point where cosmetics has replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control.

 Many of us have experienced the same.  For example, people who are a few pounds, or even many pounds overweight who apply for a position--say receptionist, where weight and activity should pose no problem, and where appearance is otherwise impeccable.  Too often such competent and capable workers are passed over for someone much more attractive but much less able to make appointments and keep books.  I don't know about you, but I would prefer to speak to a person who can understand what I'm asking and give me the options and opportunities that are open to me that day, than to a beautiful receptionist who can't figure out how to read the computer calendar. (I should immediately pose the caveat that not all beautiful receptionists are incompetent--but it surprises me how many need basic instruction in Outlook or iCal to interpret what is on their screens.)  Our entire discourse has devolved to a question of youth and (relative) beauty.  A shame, because in so doing, it has ceased to be a discourse and it has become a polemic, a tirade, a tiresome lecture on the supreme importance of the visual impact.

Notes from a Walk Around Boston

Plaques in the Old North Church

Major John Pitcairn
fatally wounded
while rallying the Royal Marines
at the Battle of Bunker Hill
was carried from the field to the boats
on the back of his son
who kissed him and returned to duty.
He died June 17, 1775 and his body
was interred beneath this church


In memory of
The Revd Mather Byles Jr. DD.
Rector of this Parish 1768-1775
and of the Parish of St. John 1788-1814.
Loyal to the King
he was banished by the act of 1778
"to suffer death without benefit of clergy"
if he should return

Plaque in the Holocaust Memorial Park

April 12, 1945 OHRDRUF concentration camp

THE THINGS I SAW beggar description. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. . .  I made the visit deliberately in order to be in a position to give first-hand evidence of these things, if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to propaganda.

Dwight D. Eisenhower
Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Forces
34th President of the United States

That last a bit too prophetic of what was to come.  Memory inevitably alters history--but in those who would deny one of the great horrors of the 20th century (of which there were many), it is not merely the subtle effects of shifting memory, but malice and willful distortion.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Aesthetics or Epistemology?

Mr. Postman addresses the question:

from Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman

. . . I must first explain that my focus is on epistemology, not on aesthetics or literary criticism. Indeed, I appreciate junk as much as the next fellow, and I know full well that the printing press has generated enough of it to fill the Grand Canyon to overflowing. Television is not old enough to have matched printing's output of junk.

And so, I raise no objection to television's junk. The best things on television are its junk, and no one and nothing is seriously threatened by it. Besides we do not measure a culture by its output of undisguised trivialities but by what it claims as significant.  Therein is our problem, for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations.
What is notable here is not that it is not an exploration of a cultural wasteland in aesthetics, but rather  in a rather more serious aspect of our theory and understanding of knowledge.  And when that theory takes seriously such things as Supernanny, The Apprentice, and Cleaning House. We have moved beyond a theory of beauty into the theory of what is real and what comprises knowledge.  Add to that the fact that many college graduates have gotten used to gleaning what they "know" from such sources as wikipedia and other internet archives and compendia.  Primary sources seem to vanish under the welter of opinion and opinion wearing a thin skin of "objectivity" to become fact.  You can find holocaust deniers, hydrogen peroxide drinkers, chelation therapy fanatics, and flat-earthers by the score.  This doesn't even begin to count conspiracy theorists, moon-landing deniers (perhaps one of the scarier trends, because it is one that could be the fate of all of us in this new world of easily doctored photographs AND video).  What are we to make up the information glut that provides no real information, but a ton of conjecture wrapped around a sentence fragment of uncited "information."  And then there is the problem I have commonly in the post-modern world--how do I know if this work I just read represents conjecture, opinion, or reliable research?  How do three people look at the same information and come up with the very different pictures they do of Pope Pius XII, unless they have arrived at their conclusions and back up to the facts that support them?  How can we know the truth in the world of the internet?

A Marvelous Adams Site

The electronic archive of the Adams family papers is beautifully designed, with lovely popover tabs filled with information about specifics in the letters--particularly useful when those tidbits help you better understand who is talking about whom and how they are related.

Scrod and Clams

Okay, one final Boston post.  Over the past two days I've been able to get into Boston enough to partake of two of my favorite Bostonian treats (other than cannoli) fresh clams (fried) and scrod (baked).  Why you need to know that, I don't know.  But what trip is complete without a menu?

Oh, and each eaten in a Boston eatery of some vintage--The Union Oyster House and Durgin-Park Market Dining Rooms.  Both wonderful meals and not exorbitant  (for lunch at any rate).

Old Stuff By Now

But I may want to see it again--John Stewart on South Park Censorship

I'm not what you'd call a great fan of Mr. Stewart's, but I do find that he is an equal opportunity offender, and in this case, he points out an absolutely critical fact that may get lost in the barrage of humor.  A group living in the United States has the freedoms won for all by our own past history.  Sitting here in Boston for a short time, that becomes so much plainer than it is day to day.  Perhaps everyone should visit Boston, turn off their iPods and their skinjacks into the net and walk the freedom trail and just listen. 

Huxley and Orwell: Fire and Ice

It is fitting to begin this with the appropriate word from Frost:

Fire and Ice
Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire;
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

And I follow with a book that is now very old news, but one that I had not encountered before in actual book form (mostly in excerpts here and there).  I saw it on the bargain tables at Borders (thus my two visits) and debated the question of simplicity v. desire and finally decided that rather than the three I really wanted, I would get only this one that I was fairly certain I would read.

In commenting on the complementary dystopias of Orwell and Huxley, Postman has this to say:

from Amusing Ourselves to Death
Neil Postman

Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley's vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley geared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy.  As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny "failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions." In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

And all I can say is both/and.  Why does one undo the other?  Why can't we hide some things and put others out there to be drowned in the tide of information that flows over us every day.  I don't think we need to choose between Orwell and Huxley, but we need to tease out the predictions of each that have come true.  We've really gotten very close to the world of the memory hole, starting in the communist countries, but entering into our own world of Kennedys and their covered over scandals.  The government continues to inflict pain in the form of restrictions, taxes, and penalties, while the media help us drown our sorrows in an ever expanding sea of waste.

And wouldn't it be wonderful if I were to say that I were exempt, and sitting on my high Olympus I could look down on all of these happenings with a  knowing look and separate my self from hoi polloi. But I am every bit and more the media consumer that anyone else I could point a finger at.  I have my iPod and my laptop and my cell phone and my blog, and my constant seeking after more and more--information, commentary, input.  All of these are ways of avoiding real thought.  Not that the media cannot be a source of things to think about.  But as commonly abused, they are merely a source of more--more to the point of inebriation and catastrophe. 

I can't wait to get further into the book, because it speaks to where I am now.  The problem is not defining the situation, but seeking remedy.  And remedy is sought societally one person at a time, one disconnect at a time.  Perhaps it is cable news to start, preferring only longer, more in-depth coverage--perhaps.  But I suspect the disconnect is only the beginning.  It is then the problem of figuring out how to reconnect wisely--or otherwise we doom ourselves to the lives of luddites and irrelevance and we have nothing to say to those around us.  Wise use of media is probably one of the most difficult exercises of will imaginable, because we are programmed to want more and more and more.  After all, there is an infinite God-shaped hole that we seek to fill with all manner of things that are not infinite nor godly.

Report from Waltham

So, I did as I said I would and took the train down to Quincy and toured the three houses that part of the Adams National Historical Park.  There are two "birthplace homes" on a small lot, representing the early life of John Adams, and the much more stately Peacefield, a true mansion of a house, though considerably bigger now than it was after Abigail Adams's additions.  The family continued to add to it through time resulting in a truly magnificent house. 

Of interest to me were three points.  Being more acquainted with Southern Colonial residences, I was surprised to find the kitchens and the cooking areas within the main house. In most of the Southern House I've been in it is a separate building with a "butler's pantry" built into the house to serve as a warming station for food brought in from the kitchen.  The second point that impressed me is that nearly every room in the houses had a closet or storage space.  Again, in southern houses because these storage spaces were taxed in the way another room would be, often there were limited or few storage spaces.  Finally, what really impressed me was the magnificent stone library--the first "presidential" library in the United States, built to store John Quincy Adams's and Charles Francis Adams's books.  This is truly an inspiring and beautiful place and I've already informed my wife that I feel the need to have a similar edifice in the back yard.  She's dubious about that.

I know, this isn't a blog about historical wanderings, but I need to share the excitement of seeing these homes of one of my great heroes of intellect and principle--the man, who while fighting always for American independence and proper treatment of Americans also found it an abomination to curtail the rule of law--so much so that he defended and won acquittal for the soldiers responsible for the Boston Massacre.

After Quincy, I went back into town and walked the freedom trail again--stopping at a different historic restaurant, but still following that horrible craving toward Mike's Pastry where I once again indulged in cannolis, the like of which cannot be found outside of Boston, New York, and perhaps Baltimore.  When I write my Á la recherche du temps perdu it will be the smell of and taste of cannoli that replace those of Madeleines.

On this particular freedom trail trek, I looked at something I've missed every other time.  I actually saw the Hall part of Faneuil Hall, which is upstairs over the market.  I also paid attention to the Famine Memorial, which is in front of a Borders bookstore across from the Old Corner Bookstore, and the Holocaust Memorial, which I had seen, but had not comprehended as a memorial, outside of the Union Oyster House.  Both extremely moving. 

Yesterday in my wanderings, I had passed through the Famine Memorial on my way into Borders when I heard someone literally singing for his supper--a man with a superb voice--operatically trained--maybe not the greatest tenor of all time, but certainly better than many a one I have heard on amateur and professional stage.  I recalled the little anecdote I had heard about people passing by Joshua Bell playing in the Washington Metro station without so much as second glance, so I spent a good five minutes or more listening before I went into the store and more when I came back out.

That's it for Boston.  Next week back to the grind and no telling how much I'll be able to post--so I will have to let this fill in for any absence during the week.

Yesterday--The Freedom Trail, Today--Quincy and the Adams's Places

I love Boston--or at least the parts of Boston I've been able to see from the Back Bay to Charlestown.  Yesterday, I went down and walked most of the Freedom trail, stopping only at the Old North Church while cheerfully munching a cannoli from Mike's--a place so famous that you can order their cannoli kit online.  This was after a lunch at the Union Oyster House and stopping by the Market and picking up a half-pound of marinated olives to munch on along the way. 

Today I've decided to chance Quincy, although the sky is fearfully overcast and it doesn't bode well for extended sightseeing.  This may be the one and only chance and while in the area I want to take advantage of it.  If I do so, I will have visited the residences of the first six presidents of the United States.  Not that I'm trying to "do" all the President's homes, but Adams has been of interest to me since I first saw the musical 1776 at Lincoln Center in the seventh grade (or thereabouts). 

Anyway, wish me luck in my journeys.  May the weather hold so that perhaps on the way back I can go by the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum or revisit the historic area of Boston.  More on those journey somewhat later.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Joy of James

Of the Henry variety.

from The Ambassadors
Henry James

Her mother gave it, no doubt, but her mother, to make that less sensible, gave so much else besides, and on neither of the two previous occasions, extraordinary woman, Strether felt, anything like what she was giving tonight. Little Jeanne was a case, an exquisite case of education; whereas the Countess, whom it so amused him to think of by that denomination, was a case, also exquisite, of --well, he didn't know what.

A Good Question About Natural Catastrophe Novels

Where Are the Good Volcano Novels?

A Deeply Hallucinogenic Novel

Fred looks at David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus

While I've classed it as Science Fiction, it is essentially unclassifiable. Think magic realism on steroids without any realism.  A truly genre-bending essentially odd genre classic.

A Podcast Postpostmodernity

Via Frank Wilson, a conversation on Postmodernity

Another Literary Prize

The Orange Prize Shortlist

Include The Lacuna, Wolf Hall, and others.

A Required iPhone App

I don't have an iPhone, and I sha'n't have one until the company decides to turn over all Blackberry service to iPhones (perhaps not far in the future as most execs are now thumbing away at their iPhones) however, if I did have an iPhone--City Poems would be a required app.  I think of myself as a literary tourist.  Wherever I am sent, I seek out the historical, the unusual, and the literary.  On a trip across the bleak corn-strewn midwest through the country from Columbus, Ohio to Macomb Illinois--so flat that, as Bill Bryson stated in Lost Continent, standing on a telephone book gives you a view--I passed by (and visited) Dickson Mounds state memorial AND Garnett, Illinois, birthplace and chief setting of The Spoon River Anthology.  Similarly, while living in Ohio, I took a trip up to Amish/Mennonite country and seeing it on the map, the allure of Winesburg, Ohio was not to be resisted.  I come to Boston and walk the Freedom trail, so, there near the gravesite of John Winthrop, I see the grave of the woman who inspired the character of Hester Prynne.  I visit the Parker House, where the New England Transcendentalists, led by Bronson Alcott met.  Later, I am invited for a trip out to Walden pond and see as well Emerson's House, Hawthorne's House, and Bronson Alcott's House.  In Key West I walk by not only Hemingway's house--the more famous literary monument, but also the winter stomping ground of Robert Frost.  You've all been regaled and appalled by my peregrinations through Dublin and vicinity--not merely to look upon the sites of Ulysses fame but also to see the birthplace and childhood home of Oscar Wilde (two different places), the Dublin Residences of AE and William Butler Yeats, and the canal-gazing statue of Patrick Kavanaugh. . . and so on.  I am an inveterate literary tourist so a guide through London by its poems--what could possibly be better?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Catching Fire--Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire is first, but not only, a more-than-capable sequel to Hunger Games. It is written in the same taut, no-nonsense style as the first and clips along at only a slightly slower pace--and slightly slower is right for the things Ms. Collins wants to continue to explore--violence and the roots of violence, society and when you must accept its mores if not its morals, identity and loss, and other kindred topics. The most important point I want to make is that although Ms. Collins seems to be as popular as Stephanie Meyers, she is by no means in the same class with her and their close association on many fan sites does a bit of injustice to Ms. Collins, who is a most capable writer.

I start to read one of her books and have a hard time putting it down, for sleep, for miles, for driving, to and from places. I can't explain what the attraction is.  Perhaps you are so engaged with the characters it is hard to part from them--you are so wrapped up in their dilemmas and problems (Katniss has two boyfriends, neither of whom she wants to hurt and both of whom are critical to different aspects of her life.)

This story concerns the "Victory Tour" that occurs after winning the Hunger Games.  Neither Katniss nor Peeta feel much like being cheered as victors, most particularly by those districts whose tributes they had a direct hand in the death of.  When they visit the district of Rue, one of the original Tributes, things begin to go awry and the people of the district pay her a remarkable tribute.

This year's hunger games are special they it's the seventy-fifth year and time for the Quarterly Quell, a particularly savage and vicious thrust at the districts by Capital City.

And further the deponent sayeth not lest some of my readers have been persuaded to pick the series up.  Really, I've read nothing that is as nearly as compelling since The Dark Is Rising series some time back.  Suzanne Collins handles difficult material deftly and she makes a stories written for young adults meaningful and powerful to adults.  Make no mistake these books are strong meat, but they talk about important issues--issues that affect both young adults and adults.

Get these and enjoy them, and after you've read them share them with children who you feel are up to them.  Highly recommended *****

Monday, April 19, 2010

Some Thoughts About Meaning in Poetry

Often poetry is taught in school as though each poem were some sort of rebus or puzzle that needs to be deconstructed, analyzed, and reconstructed to the specifications of whatever the present school of criticism is teaching about poetry.  Most people approach a poem as though it were some sort of exotic and potential deadly animal ready to unleash its fury at the slightest provocation.

I think we have Eliot and Pound to blame for that--purposeful obscurity and the creation of the rebus/puzzle poem.  But most poetry before the twentieth century, and a good deal during and after is not at all like that.  A poem is an invitation to take a break, to share a moment with the poet, to see as he or she does.  In that seeing you'll sometimes get a message, but if you don't, it is the seeing that is the thing after all.

Who really cares what Frost's "The Silken Tent" is about?

The Silken Tent
Robert Frost

She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one's going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

Why not revel in the sentence--one long and perfect and glorious sentence that flows and says precisely what it means to say--neither more nor less--and invites us to hear all the resonance and meaning that it could have.  What is the profit if I dissect it and stick it on its pins into some vast lepidopteran cabinet of poetry, having analyzed and found the soul of it and made it mean for some time whatever it is I want it to mean?

Or take the differently lovely, "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock"

Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock
Wallace Stevens 

The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange, 
With socks of lace
and beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
Catches tigers 
in red weather. 
I had a teacher once who spent two class periods trying to tell us what each of those color combinations meant or could mean under the varying circumstances of the poem.  But the poem is not a rebus--it isn't a puzzle.  It means more than we let it mean when we attempt to amputate limbs and put it through some sort of critical sausage grinder.

The first and most important and lasting thing a poem means is what we see and hear when we read it.  I don't know and I don't care what "The Waste Land" is supposedly about.  What I care about is that April is the cruelest month--for good cause.

I'm not saying that there isn't great joy in playing with a poem and looking at its working and determining how the poet achieves an effect and even determining what that effect is supposed to be.  But the first thing a person teaching poetry should do is introduce the student to the language, the rhythm, and the appreciation of the surface of a poem.  Only after one has learned to appreciate the delivery should one slice into it to see if it has been cooked to perfection.


Drift--Victoria Patterson




Drift is a collection of 13 interconnected short stories about the lives of the have-nots, the almost-haves, and the once-hads in Newport Beach, California.  When I first saw notices of it, I thought, "Oh dear, Peyton Place visits California."  But boy was I wrong.  Another case of don't trust the notices.  I picked the book up and I was entranced--immediately and completely.  Victoria Patterson has considerable talent and she has created a world akin to that of Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio--complete with grotesques and self-doubting narrator/central figures.  But no one escapes from Newport Beach.  If you want a real sense of this book think Winesburg, Ohio meets Cannery Row. Victoria Patterson is a powerhouse of a writing, creating compelling and engaging characters and weaving story lines in and out of time to show us the lives of those who are often invisible to us.

The stories are not connected chronologically and they all seem to center around a cluster of characters--Rosie, John Wayne (not the movie start) Kat, and B all figure prominently having whole stories or large parts of stories dedicated to piecing together images of their lives.  Of these, most prominent is probably Rosie.  She appears in, narrates, or dominates 6 or 7 of these stories.

Newport Beach is, apparently, a very upscale neighborhood in California. We get to learn about those who live in the shadows--the waitresses, the drug addicts, the loco, the discarded.  Each story focuses on one or more people who have been estranged from themselves, from their families, from society at large.  And many of the stories feature a sort of redemption, a way each character finds to live with who they are and what they are within the society as a whole.

Really, all I can say to you is get the book.  You won't regret it.  Ms. Patterson writes with deep compassion for her characters and she brings you in touch with each of them, rounding out even the background characters as the stories march on.  By the time you finish the book, you have a picture of the servant class and a picture of the wealthy that is, on the whole, balanced, reflective, and results in a book length meditation of class and identity in America today.

****1/2--Highly recommended.

How Would You Like to Receive a Letter That Begins Like This?

from "The Letter to Menoeceus"
Epicurus

Let no one be slow to seek wisdom when he is young nor weary in the search thereof when he is grown old. For no age is too early or too late for the health of the soul. And to say that the season for studying philosophy has not yet come, or that it is past and gone, is like saying that the season for happiness is not yet or that it is now no more.

Boy, Did I have Epicurus Wrong

In her remarkable book How Philosophy Can Save Your Life, Ms. Mccarty walks us through ten different philosophical systems that comment on different aspects of human life.  The first of these, and one close to my heart is a study of simplicity.  She chooses for her philsophers Epicurus and Charlotte Joko Beck.  What struck me in reading through this section is what a mangled impression one gets of the philosophy of Epicurus from the words in the language derived from his name.  Epicurean almost always refers to luxurious and tantalizing in a degree that goes far beyond common sense.  And yet, if the excerpt below is any indication, we have received a false impression of what Epicurus is really all about.

from How Philosophy Can Save Your Life
Marietta McCarty

"Those have the sweetest pleasure in luxury who least need it. . . . To grow accustomed therefore to simple and not luxurious diet gives us health to the full, and makes a man alert for the needful employments of life, and when after long intervals we approach luxuries, disposes us better towards them, and fits us to be fearless of fortune" ("Letter to Menoeceus").  

To these ears, at least, this sounds a great deal like St. Paul's assertion that "I know how to be rich and I know how to be poor."  What Epicurus seems to point to is not allowing the good things of the world own us.  When we allow them to get their claws in and was luxury becomes necessity, we've lost a little bit of ourselves to it.  Think about it--how many of us now "need" e-book readers, computers, iPods, iPads, laptops, cell phones, and all of the paraphenalia that seems to accompany contemporary life  But how many of these things to we NEED really--how many have actually improved our lives in some substantive way?  I'm not trying to say that all such items are worthless, 'but rather that we have so completely sold ourselves to them, we're no longer in a place that allows for objective analysis of actual utility.  And I sit squarely in the center of that "we" and "us."  I am not exempt, as exhibited by the fact that I type here on my laptop with my cellphone at my side and my iPod playing Debussy piano preludes as I wait for the three-second water boiler to stream water through the nearly instant ginger tea basket.  All luxury that leads to slavery.  Now I have to find some way of toting all of these "necessities" from place to place, rather than just going myself. Now I must care for them and must guard the bag that contains them rather than treating them like my suitcase (isn't it Iago who says "Who steals my purse steals trash?"--so too with my suitcase). 

You get the point.   There's much to mine here, much to think about, much to parse, and much to mull over--do we really want the simple life, or do we want the simple life on our terms?  Terms that inevitably complicate it.


Works of Epicurus in translation on the Internet.

Beatrice and Virgil--Yann Martel

I should start this review by saying that I read and enjoyed Beatrice and Virgil, because much of the rest of what I have to say will not sound like I did.  I must also say that I really like Life of Pi mostly before everyone else jumped on board.  I liked it for reasons that, while not opposed, are certainly not in conjunction with most of the comments I've seen on it.  I liked it for sheer surrealism, for comment of religious life, and for the elegance of the mysterious island.  I say this because I find similar elements in Beatrice and Virgil which have me liking the book even while I think it does not quite achieve what the author desired.

Beatrice and Virgil is a convoluted play within a story within a metafiction.  It attempts to be philosophical both about the purposes of fiction and about the literary approaches to the holocaust.  An attempt to limn the contours of the story would likely not provide a whole lot of information about what really goes on.  Henry is an author who has written a successful novel, not unlike Yann Martel's first big hit.  He comes up with the idea of doing a "flip book" on the holocaust in which one side of the flip is nonfiction and the other side is fiction.  This little idea goes aglay and Henry ducks out for another country.  Meanwhile he answers much of his fan mail regarding his first book.  In doing so, he meets another author--one who sends him a highlighted copy of Gustave Flaubert's St. Julian the Hospitalier.  Turns out this guy is a play-writing taxidermist--enter his characters Beatrice and Virgil, a donkey and a howler monkey.

Yes, despite all of this the book does turn out to be a metaphorical examination of some of the aspects of the holocaust--and it is intriguing reading.  Stumbling in and out of all of this metafictional commentary and literary criticism is the germ of an idea about the holocaust that seems impossibly wrong.  Either Mr. Martel (or Henry) is woefully ignorant of holocaust literature, or he has chosen for purposes obscure to me to ignore the huge fiction-based holocaust literature which includes such luminaries as D. M. Thomas's The White Hotel, William Styron's Sophie's Choice, Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic, Tadeusz Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, and literally countless others.  Perhaps this is also just a metafictional conceit designed to provoke a response from the reader to Henry's own ignorance, which is what I should be critiquing rather than Mr Martel's.

Whatever the case, the problem is that everything becomes just a little too precious--the story told from about six removes using an animal holocaust to hide the underlying human holocaust and stand in for it, Mr. Martel's entire movement toward commentary on the holocaust, and even the donkey and howler monkey living in the land of Shirt. 

All of this said, I find Mr. Martel's prose beautiful and his ability to tell a story, regardless of how difficult and convoluted, is remarkable.  I found myself dragged through the book by the compelling nature of what Mr. Martel was trying to say.  And while I don't think the book is ultimately successful at achieving the author's end, it makes for a very disconcertin and thought-provoking read.

Recommended--***1/2

Coming Soon: Reviews of Four Books and Notes on a Fifth

Maybe write after I type this out!  Reviews of:

Yann Martel Beatrice and Virgil
Suzanne Collins Catching Fire
Victoria Patterson Drift
Hallowe'en: New Poems ed. Al Sarrantino

And notes on two books I'm presently reading:

Marietta McCarty's How Philosophy Can Save Your Life
Mary Oliver Rules for the Dance

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different--From Open Culture

Change You Can Believe In--a brief introduction to one of the central ideas in Calculus, for those not necessarily mathematically inclined.

Biblioklept Goes Noir

And gives us a snippet of one of the all-tme great movies and movie shots--the opening of A Touch of Evil,  in which the opening shot tracks through small town Mexico the hero, heroine, and sundry street folks.  The seeming simplicity of the shot and its technical brilliance makes it memorable and incomparable.  Robert Altman gives us a similar opening shot at the beginning of another superb film, The Player.  That it is not done often is a sign of just how difficult such a shot is to set up and get right.  Go, enjoy, and then see the whole thing (both whole things)--even though Touch of Evil does have the exceedingly unlikely Charlton Heston as a Mexican detective and The Player goes in and out of at least three pitches in the chief character's office (hard to call this guy a protagonist--as you'll see if you watch the film.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Contra iPad

I must say that this screed contra the iPad largely records my own (admittedly prejudicial) misgivings; and therefore, I'm giving it time here on my blog.

One of Yiyun Li's Favorites Captures the Pulitzer

Tinkers by Paul Harding

For a dissenting opinion, see here.

I'm not sure I agree with this latter, but perhaps it is a measure of the book that I started and tried but never did get through it.  I set it aside thinking to pick it back up, and I may well do someday in the near future; however. . .

I'm About a Week Early--Lexington and Concord

I may repost on the appropriate date--but what brought it to mind is that a coworker had a chance to visit and said that the bridge in question is presently under the flood.

The Concord Hymn
Ralph Waldo Emerson


By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
     Their flag to April's breeze unfurled;
Here once the embattled farmers stood;
     And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
     Alike the conqueror silent sleeps,
     And Time the ruined bridge has swept
     Down the dark stream that seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
     We place with joy a votive stone,
That memory may their deeds redeem,
     When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

O Thou who made those heroes dare
     To die, and leave their children free, --
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
     The shaft we raised to them and Thee.

The Springs of Affection--Maeve Brennan

Thanks in large part to the recommendations and comments of the great many bloggers in Literary Land, I have come upon some wonderful books to read both this year and last.  Without Mr. Myers, I would have left The Believers on the shelf and have missed a really fine book as a result.  That is only one example among many--another blogger alerted me to Amellie Nothomb, and so forth.  But Maeve Brennan was for me my own discovery.  Ever since I found the very short novel The Visitor on the shelf of the downtown Kissimmee library (from which it subsequently vanished without a trace) I have a been a fan, seeking out Ms. Brennan's work wherever I could find it.  And I have found only one book on the library shelves--The Springs of Affection, from which I have posted numerous times.

Ms. Brennan's art takes the form of chronicling unhappy marriages--deeply unhappy people married to one another and seemingly unable to live without one another, but relentlessly and inexorably unhappy--made so by their own choices and decisions.  The Springs of Affection is made up of three clusters of stories.  The first concern Ms. Brennan's early life in Ranelagh (a "suburb" of Dublin--to which I walked last time I was in the city).  The second concern the marriage of Hubert and Rose Derdon--a completely, almost morbidly unhappy married couple whose unhappiness traces both from history and from a few key incidents quickly limned and highlighted by Ms. Brennan in the stories.  And yet, and yet, as unhappy as they are when one of them is no longer present, the other mourns and pines and claims to neither mourn nor pine.  The third cluster recount another unhappy marriage--unhappy but not desperately, relentlessly so.  Delia and Martin Bagot live in a small house with their two daughters and the constant haunt of their first child who died after only three days with them.  This is a different sort of unhappiness--and the last story of the book "The Springs of Affection" give deep and interesting insight as to why.  Told by Martin's twin sister after his death, "The Springs of Affection" chronicle the rigid and terribly ties that family can have on a person and how those ties shape life for good or ill.

The writing, particularly in these last two groups is superb--truly unmatched in its genre and it makes one regret that Ms. Brennan left us so little.  Had there been more, then she might be better remembered.  And she certainly deserves better than that small fame she presently has.  You would all do yourselves a kindness were you to invest a few hours with one of Ms. Brennan's books of short fiction.  I  intend to revisit "The Springs of Affection" at least once before returning the book to the library--it is a story that stands with the best of Irish writing (and of course, by that I think one could compare it favorably with Dubliners.)

Highly Recommended *****

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award Shortlist

via the Literary Saloon, this short list nominated for the award:

Of these I have read only one--The Believers which I certainly find worthy of a nod.  I have Home on my list to read and think that there is better chance of getting through it than through Gilead.  Perhaps after finishing, I can revisit Gilead and try to find what others found so appealing in the work. I've tried reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog and must say that I wasn't in the mood--keep in mind that this says nothing whatsoever about the merits of the work.

Most Terrifying Fiction

A review of Sarah Langan's Audrey's Door and readers respond with their own scariest fiction choices.  (via Books Inq.)

Poem of the Week--Mary Robinson

A relatively unknown contemporary of Coleridge, Blake, and other contemporary poets, Mary Robinson's major work is a sonnet series titled Sappho and Phaon, from which the excerpt is taken.


Day's harbinger unfolds the liquid plain.
The rude Sea murmurs, mournful as the strain
That love-lorn minstrels strike with trembling hand,
While from their green beds rise the Syren band
With tongues aёrial to repeat my pain!


In general my experience is that if one looks to enjoy a work, one can find something worthwhile within it to enjoy.  It may not be the height of literature, expression, or profound thinking.  But then, what is diversity for.  If everything were Ulysses, then we would have no Ulysses.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Hunger Games--Suzanne Collins

Okay.  How to start this review. Perhaps a couple of facts.

Flew home Friday night.  While Sam was at dance Saturday visited the library. Read Hunger Games Saturday.  Sunday, visited the library again to pick up the sequel.

Yes--it was that good.  I've long known that when you want to read some really fine fiction you should head over to the juvenile and YA shelves.  Unlike adults, children and young adults have no patience with writing that is not engaging and fulfilling.  They have no time for books that wind around and around and around and come out . . . nowhere.

So, I have to say that without reservation Hunger Games is one of the finest pieces of fiction, adult, YA, children's I've read in a while.  Engagingly written from the point of view of Katniss--a young lady living in District twelve the novel tells the story of the Hunger Games--a brutal means of reinforcing the central power of Capital City in the nation of Panem.  Every year two tributes--one male and one female--are selected from each of twelve districts to participate in a fight to the death.  The winner achieves wealth and fame beyond measure.  When Katniss's sister Prim is chosen, Katniss opts to take her place, as is allowed by the rules.

This book grabs you by the throat and keeps you reading, dragging you through a dystopian vision as dark as any you can imagine.  Think reality television to the nth degree featuring graphic replays of the deaths of children, and you have a sense of the what the book doesn't actually show you, but implies. Suzanne Collins writes with great aplomb, great insight, and a great feeling for her characters.  There is nary a misstep and indeed many places where the reader finds him or herself cringing with the pain of the characters.

It is a terrible, terrible reality that gets the main characters asking questions.  And it gets the reader to think through the scenario and how it plays out in the world today.

Suzanne Collins is a worthy successor to the wonderful juvenile and YA books of Robert A. Heinlein--taking his later sensiblity and incorporating into his galaxy spanning earlier period.

Highly recommended--*****

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Blessed Oblivion of Well-Preserved Ignorance

In this Newsweek review of LOA books (via Books Inq) the writer derides LOA for producing a complete volume of Shirley Jackson's writing, "A writer mostly famous for one short story, "The Lottery." Is LOA about to jump the shark?"

Perhaps to those who don't care to read she is know for that single short story (and rightly known for it); however, the opus of Shirley Jackson extends far beyond that, and she produced one of the finest post-Jamesian meditations on haunting and psychology ever written.  She deserves her own volume as much as any other writer in the series.

It is so easy to deride the work of those for whom we do not care for one reason or another.  And so easy to follow the multitude in the appreciation of a writer who may not deserve the plaudits.  But how difficult it is to think for oneself and to take the time to become truly acquainted with the literary landscape and appreciative not merely of the mountains, but even of the foothills and the plains.  Would that I were merely a barrier island!

Another Reason to Avoid Knowing about Authors

The blogger at Bookphilia recounts difficulty in approaching Mishima's work after reading a biography--I sometimes find the same.  I may enjoy Joyce's work, but I don't really know what I think of him as a person because I don't really want my enjoyment spoiled by extraneous information.

The Tedious Self-Loathing of the Literati

This article about J. M. G. Le Clézio is one of the reasons I prefer to know less about authors than about their work.  The form of specious self-loathing and the encouragement thereto is just another symptom of the postmodern plague that permeates culture.  It is one thing to confess and repudiate real sins of the past, it is another entirely to suggest that the work of Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, and thousands of others is worthless because of it.  Americans tend to do the same thing in view of the enlightenment of their European brethren. I even have friends who state that the contributions of the founding fathers were essentially useless because they were tainted by slavery.

They were indeed tainted by slavery, and we should never forget it.  Nor should we ever forget that many strove, sometimes in words only, to free themselves of it.

Sorry for the sparse posting

It is likely to continue through the next week, at least as I travel once again for a week in Waltham.

What I can say is that I was pleasantly surprised by Waltham.  Beautiful cherry trees (at least I think they were cherry trees) daffodils, hyacinths--everything I miss about the North but am not willing to endure northern winter to experience.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Ethical E-Book Piracy

The Ethicist makes his points

And to this I add that given the current state of copyright law (in strict violation of the nature of literature and the arts and the intent of the original copyright provisions) conscientious and deliberate objection to this patent injustice is, if not obligatory, at least a notable attempt to enforce the law as it was intended, not as it has been transmorgrified--largely to protect Mickey Mouse.

Open Culture notes: Faulkner

Faulkner reading from As I Lay Dying

If you are not already acquainted with Faulkner, if you've wanted to dive into the pool, but couldn't quite make out the bathymetry, you could do worse than to choose this as your entry point.  Told from the point of view of perhaps 20 some-odd characters, with the main focus on two or three of those (the Bundren Family and hangers-on) As I Lay Dying is a mordant comedy of manners of the Old South; when I read it I came to a deep understanding of some of the shenanigans I had seen (or was to see) in my own family.

Other articles of note from Open Culture Today:

Review of the iPad as e-book reader


The strange new world of nanoscience  probably better termed nanotechnology.  Nano science would imply that somehow science had shrunk overnight.

Horns--Joe Hill

I have to hand it to him, Joe Hill can certainly write.  He is a great weaver of stories--his first two books, 20th Century Ghosts and Heart-Shaped Box were remarkable debut pieces  In this, the sophomore novel, he is true to form.

That is not to say the Horns is without fault, but rather that despite its faults, the book is a very enjoyable read.  And it is worth noting that the faults spring not from timidity of purpose or an inability to handle the material, but rather from a striding ambition to deal with the big issues that horror and dark fantasy are best at exploring.

Let's start with the difficulties with the book then. They boil down to one essential point--the main point of any work of dark fiction--Joe Hill struggles and struggles hard with the nature of evil.  In some cases, this struggle results in some uneasy juxtapositions that can easily be misread.  For example in one particular setting of the book the placement of a menorah as the centerpiece can easily be misread as antisemitism because this Menorah occupies a central place in the origin of evil.  However, the real point of the menorah is a signal that we should be understanding Satan with a more profound Old Testament insight of Satan as adversary--as prosecuting judge/enabler--as God's right hand person and not so much Satan as personification of evil as Christian Theology would have it.  In fact, much of the book is an attempt to dismantle the Christian view of evil and Satan and to reconstruct along Miltonian/manichean  lines.  In some cases there is an almost Pullman-like view of God.  But none of this is resolved or clear.

The second major difficulty springs from the working-out of the first. The story itself has unlikely grooves, twists, and unexplained events that do not work well to illuminate the central and guiding themes of the book.  From time travel or presence in eternity through the explanation of the sociopathy of the main character, there are elements that seem jagged--they don't fit well.  Is love a protection or a diversion or nonexistent?  Struggle as he might to produce a coherent synthesis--I don't think Mr. Hill succeeds.

That said, let's remember that we're dealing with popular fiction, not a theological treatise; and we're dealing with an author who wants to address serious themes seriously in his popular fiction.  That tendency in itself is profoundly admirable.  We're also dealing with an author who is rapidly gaining superb control of the story-teller's craft.  While there may be some vague, obscure, or confusing trends in the book, Joe Hill is telling us a story--one that he intends to grab us by the throat and hold us from first page to its very end.

So, what is the book about.  Well, we have twentieth century parallel that will be obvious when I mention Gregor Samsa.  Indeed, our protagonist, Iggy (Ignatius Perrish) wakes up one morning to discover that during a night he cannot remember the details of, he has sprouted a pair of horns--a pair of horns that comes with a remarkable gift or set of gifts.  As a sensible person, he sets off first thing to the doctor where he discovers just what the horns can do.

Seems that about a year ago Iggy was accused of the brutal murder of his girlfriend, Merrin Williams, and was released without much of an investigation thanks to the pull of his famous and wealthy parents.  But Iggy is still in mourning and still feeling a great deal of guilt for the events that surrounded the death of said girlfriend.

Combine these simple beginnings with a sociopath, a golden cross, morse code, time travel, cherry bombs, a treehouse, and some intense if somewhat conflicting thought over the central theme (Is God good?  Is Satan a sign of God's goodness and in a perverse way a goad to goodness? Does love protect and preserve or does it merely confuse? Are some people simply born bad?  etc.) and you have one bang-up book.

The writing is blazing, intensely readable, provocative.  The wrestling with theme is at times breathtaking and at times aggravating.  The assurance with which the author pursues his end is a wonder to behold.   All of these elements combine with a deep interest in all of the characters, good and bad, and a series of musical notes, observations, and puns--not the least of which would be the chief unstated one from INXS:"the devil inside,"  and you have a really remarkable, enjoyable novel.

Highly recommended for those who are really, really interested in dark fiction/light reading with serious undertones.  I especially admire this book for bringing some serious thought to a not-terribly-serious strain of our literature.  The flaws aside, nothing stops me from awarding this book next-to-highest honors for a compelling read.  If you are interested in dark fantasy/horror at all, you would do yourself a favor by reading this book.

(A most excellent airplane read!)

****1/2

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Happy Easter

Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing choirs of angels!
Exult, all creation around God's throne!
Jesus Christ, our King is risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!
Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,
radiant in the brightness of your King!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes for ever!
Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory!
The risen Savior shines upon you!
Let this place resound with joy,
echoing the mighty song of all God's people!
My dearest friends,
standing with me in this holy light,
join me in asking God for mercy,
that he may give his unworthy minister
grace to sing his Easter praises.
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give him thanks and praise.
It is truly right that with full hearts and minds and voices
we should praise the unseen God, the all-powerful Father,
and his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
For Christ has ransomed us with his blood,
and paid for us the price of Adam's sin to our eternal Father!
This is our passover feast,
When Christ, the true Lamb, is slain,
whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.
This is the night,
when first you saved our fathers:
you freed the people of Israel from their slav'ry,
and led them dry-shod through the sea.
This is the night,
when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin.
This is night,
when Christians ev'rywhere,
washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness. 

This is the night,
when Jesus broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.
What good would life have been to us,
had Christ not come as our Redeemer?
Father, how wonderful your care for us!
How boundless your merciful love!
To ransom a slave you gave away your Son.
O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!
Most blessed of all nights,
chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!
Of this night scripture says:
"The night will be as clear as day:
it will become my light, my joy."
The power of this holy night dispels all evil,
washes guilt away, restores lost innocence,
brings mourners joy;
it casts out hatred, brings us peace,
and humbles earthly pride.
Night truly blessed,
when heaven is wedded to earth
and we are reconciled to God!
Therefore, heavenly Father, in the joy of this night,
receive our evening sacrifice of praise,
your Church's solemn offering. 

Accept this Easter candle,
a flame divided but undimmed,
a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God.
Let it mingle with the lights of heaven
and continue bravely burning
to dispel the darkness of this night!
May the Morning Star which never sets
find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star,
who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all mankind,
your Son, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, April 2, 2010

For Those in the Area of Waltham MA.

And I'm thinking one in particular--I'll be spending a week in Waltham starting on Monday.  Don't know how blogging will go.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

One of My Favorite Recent SF Novels

A review of Mary Doria Russell's magnificent and magisterial The Sparrow

Optimistic Science Fiction

A review of an anthology.

There are those, I believe Harlan Ellison may be foremost in this school, that would argue that all science fiction is essentially optimistic because it starts with the premise that no matter how awful and dire, there is a future.

Quid Plura Revisits the Gargoyle

Despite a difficult rhyme scheme that enforces some odd choices, this poem works fairly well--"Don't Leave Me Hanging in a City So Dead. . . "

"April is the Cruelest Month"

At Open Culture: T.S. Eliot reads from "The Wasteland"

Nice to hear it from the poet.  "I will show you fear in a handful of dust. . ."

And hearing it, I had forgotten the quotation from Baudelaire:

from "Au Lecteur"
Charles Baudelaire

C'est l'Ennui!—l'oeil chargé d'un pleur involontaire,
Il rêve d'échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
—Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère!
Ennui! That monster frail!—With eye wherein
A chance tear gleams, he dreams of gibbets, while
Smoking his hookah, with a dainty smile. . .
—You know him, reader,—hypocrite,—my twin!
(Three poems available here.)

Emotions in Decisions

One of my chief conflicts with Catholicism (despite the fact the I am and remain a Catholic) and with many people in it is not, contrary to what many would have you believe, anti-intellectualism, but a stringent, austere, and deadening anti-emotionalism.  If you should bring an emotional datum into an argument, no matter how pertinent the response is nearly always, "Reason must triumph."  It is refreshing to reflect on the passages below to realize that the triumph of reason is, in fact, the triumph of the emotional life.  The two strands cannot so easily be parted.  The human entity is not intellect and/or emotion but intellect entwined in emotion.  To deny the emotional life is to deny the intellectual life, as these passages demonstrate.

How We Decide
Jonah Lehrer

The simple idea connecting Plato’s philosophy to cognitive psychology is the privileging of reason over emotion. It’s easy to understand why this vision has endured for so long. It raises Homo sapiens above every other animal: the human mind is a rational computer, a peerless processor of information. Yet it also helps explain away our flaws: because each of us is still part animal, the faculty of reason is forced to compete with primitive emotions. The charioteer must control these wild horses.
            This theory of human nature comes with a corollary: if our feelings keep us from making rational decisions, then surely we’d be better off without any feelings at all. Plato, for example, couldn’t help but imagine a utopia in which reason determined everything. Such a mythical society—a republic of pure reason—had been dream of by philosophers ever since.
            But this classical theory is founded upon a crucial mistake. For too long, people have disparaged the emotional brain, blaming our feelings for all of our mistakes. The truth is far more interesting. What we discover when we look at the brain is that the horses and the charioteer depend upon each other. If it weren’t for our emotions, reason wouldn’t exist at all.  (p. 13)

            To Test this diagnosis, Damasio hooked Elliot to a machine that measured the activity of the sweat glands in his palms. (When a person experiences strong emotions, the skin is literally aroused and the hands start to perspire. Lie detectors operate on the basis of this principle.) Damasio then showed Elliot various photographs that normally triggered an immediate emotional response: a severed foot, a naked woman, a house on fire, a handgun. The results were clear: Elliot felt nothing. No matter how grotesque or aggressive the picture, his palms never got sweaty. He had the emotional life of a mannequin.
            This was a completely unexpected discovery. At the time, neuroscience assumed that human emotions were irrational.  A person without any emotions—in other word, someone like Elliot—should therefore make better decisions. His cognition should be uncorrupted. The charioteer should have complete control.
            What, then, had happened to Elliot? Why could he lead an normal life?  To Damasio, Elliot’s pathology suggest that emotions are crucial part of the decision-making process. When we are cut off from our feelings, the most banal decisions became impossible. A brain that can’t feel can’t make up its mind. (p. 15)

Perhaps it is not so simple, the rest of the book will bear out.  And perhaps it isn't entirely true.  Because this demonstration comes close to demonstrating the validity of the emotional life--a position I would like to take, I must be more skeptical of it than I might be of a position that contradicts my own inclination.

Nevertheless, however it may occur--the book makes for fascinating reading.