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Monday, July 07, 2014

Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer

"Washington's Crossing," one in the series "Pivotal Moments in American History," by David Hackett Fischer is a book I've had in my possession for a long, long time.  I've included this title on my reading list for the year several times, but I never got around it.  As always, I have deep regrets for putting it off so long.  

My relationship to this "pivotal moment in American history" is a passionate one.  While teaching high school American history and literature, I used George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River and his attack on Trenton as the launching pad to what I hoped was a year-long study into what it means to be an American from a more traditional angle.  I recognize that in the age of political correctness and historical revisionism such an approach doesn't meet with the approval of academic higher-ups, but my students were very appreciative (as opposed to my colleagues who were prone to dismiss every single thing the Founding Fathers did because, after all, "they were white males of privilege and slaveholders and land-owners and how terrible it is that we hold these people up in admiration").  It is worrisome to see how some positions of liberalism seem naturally prone to dismiss everything that does not meet their approval, and even more worrisome the fact that they do so with a wave of their liberal wand and not with solidly constructed arguments; often all they have to do is throw out an ad hominem which they use as a "cure all."  If you disagree, you must be a racist as well.  But that's an argument for another day.

David Hackett Fischer dismisses a great deal of those myths present in many American history books.  What's most impressive about Fischer's research for this book is the abundance of "Appendices" detailing all sorts of relevant statistical proof.  He creates a nice balance between straight historical fact and hero worship.  I confess being a fanatic about George Washington history and anything related to the man to the point of reading 12 different biographies on this central figure.  The great difficulty among these biographies is two-fold: 1) the hero worshipping can become a false caricature however likable or loved by the reader, and 2) historical facts can become obsessed with details that offer little to the narrative, pedantic and dry.  Fischer's strength is in portraying Washington (and the rest of the Founding Fathers) as deeply committed men.  In reading this volume, it became apparent to me that it is not difficult to render these men in narrative accurately--if one sticks to the facts, the facts and their actions speak decisively for themselves.  For example, Fischer explains:

"Much of this creed was about honor: not 'primal honor,' not the honor of a duel, not a hair-trigger revenge against insult, or a pride of aggressive masculinity.  This was honor as an emblem of virtue.  These gentlemen of the Northern Neck lived for honor in that sense.  The only fear that George Washington ever acknowledged in his life was a fear that his actions would 'reflect eternal dishonour upon me.'  A major part of this code of honor was an idea of courage.  The men around young George Washington assumed that a gentleman would act with physical courage in the face of danger, pain, suffering, and death.  They gave equal weight to moral courage in adversity, prosperity, trial, and temptation.  For them, a vital part of leadership was the ability to persist in what one believed to be the right way.  This form of courage was an idea of moral stamina, which Washington held all his life.  Stamina in turn was about the strength and endurance as both a moral and a physical idea."  

I don't see how anything negative could be constructed out of ideas like these.  I suspect that the current trend is to throw away these values for the "sophistication" offered by the textbook ideas and utopian values of today's intellectuals.  It is difficult for someone who has never risked their lives for their beliefs to understand that, to comprehend the amount of character strength it requires to give it all up for a principle.  This is something we learned early in the U.S. Marines, to live and be part of a cause greater than one's self.  My previous criticism of the liberal tendency to dismiss all of American history as nonsense, as fueled by racial/social and gender-based injustice is based primarily on my experience in both camps--first in combat and then in the ivory towers of academia, where I was "scratched off" as well-intended but not "visionary" enough.  Yes, I'm a bit bitter.  Academia today is nothing but an echo chamber where only the sound of one hand clapping is heard.

"Washington's Crossing" offers something new about the historical narrative format.  Alongside the appendices and copious notes, Fischer's detail accounts of troop movements, maps and general illustrations completes the book quite nicely.  The "enemy" is not portrayed with excessive negativity but rather shows both Hessians and British as facing many of the same hardships as the Americans.  The "myth" presented by the A&E television movie "The Crossing" (you can watch the entire movie at that link) is cleared up by Fischer.  It is true that the American army was in dismal condition.  It is also true that without crossing the river, the Cause would have been lost completely.  What Fischer does instead of over-romanticizing is present the facts and let them speak for themselves; that is to say, all of those things were true enough, but offering the other-side of the proverbial coin (in an accurate depiction of the Hessians at Trenton) serves up a more complete picture.  For example, the Hessians were in a much better position, but they were also suffering from a great number of hardships.  The American militia had been relentless.  They attacked and attacked in touch-and-go tactics and kept the Hessians on their toes to the point of exhaustion.  As the winter descended and the season turned sour, both Hessians and British made a number of tactical blunders that allowed American militia to operate at will.  American militia gets its due recognition in the annals of American history, but not as entirely as Fischer offers in his book.  Most of these American irregulars were under the command of self-sufficient men who were in constant contact with General Washington while at the same time allowed to act when they saw the opportunity.  The British and Germans suffered from the opposite.  Colonel Rall, the Hessian commander at Trenton arrogantly dismissed Washington as defeated and unable to mount an attack of any circumstance.  The peppering of the American militia made the Hessian commander think that anything stirring across the river was nothing more than militia badgering his foraging parties.

The details of the actual crossing of the Delaware River, and the excruciating details of the time-table is a very engaging reading, but Fischer does one better.  If the writer's main responsibility is to present the facts as clearly as possible, the by-product of this should be keeping the reader engaged.  How does a writer keep his "line" on track, the proverbial "zone" steady enough to keep the reader engaged without sacrificing objectivity?  I suppose that is a great mystery, but a mystery that Fischer manages with witchy ability.

What is even less known is the second battle for Trenton.  Perhaps the romantic mythologizing over the many accounts have blurred the line between the "highlighted" facts and the "forgotten" facts.  The second battle for Trenton occurred when the British decide to send General Cornwallis to take back the town.  In his arrogance, Cornwallis decides on a frontal attack, full force, and play right into Washington's tactic of making the British pay dearly while at the same time retreating.  There was no particular reason for Washington to hold the town (or any town) because that would have made him a sitting duck to superior forces.  When the devastating results of the second battle for Trenton reached the British high command, it was clear that the so-called superior military force (and its leadership) has been "out-generalled" by a fumbling Virginia farmer-gentleman.  A week or so later, when all was said and done at Princeton, and another American victory took hold of the public's imagination, the fate of the British and Hessians in the colonies was sealed.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, and I wish I could reveal more of its magic but I am fearful to "give it all away."  The vast amount of statistical information, correspondence, maps and other visual plates help the reader immerse himself into a story that shaped the course of human events.  David Hackett Fischer presents this story as a comprehensive archive of not just American history but also a portfolio into the psyche of men (men on both sides) willing to give their lives for their ideals, willing to sacrifice their lives and fortunes and uphold their sacred honor.  To classify "Washington's Crossing" as a triumph is no hyperbole, but certainly an understatement.

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Norman Mailer: The Spooky Art -- Thoughts on Writing

Norman Mailer was a controversial figure in American letters from the moment he burst into the scene with "The Naked and the Dead."  The rollercoaster ride of instant fame and the literary scene almost did him in as soon as he had arrived at the pinnacle of the New York literary olympus.  One has to let that sink in... this is the same man who survived island hopping in the South Pacific during World War II and saw ferocious action as an infantryman.  Biographically speaking, Mailer grew up middle class, went to Harvard and "put in his time" as a craftsman learning the arduous path of the writer's life.  Fast-forward to 2003, and the cantankerous, loud and outspoken Mailer has become a quick-witted elder statesman of letters, a mellowed grandfatherly figure intent on looking back with an objective eye and speaking from the heart.

"The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing" is not the typical book aimed at the promising writer (or even the writer wannabe who speaks of the craft but does little writing), it is rather an open and objective few at Mailer's work and the struggles to define the highly elusive elements of writing such as "style" and "narrative voice."  The book reads with many previously published interviews and written pieces by Mailer with the author's own running commentary.  Divided into sections, the section on "Craft" appears as the most instructive, with the chapter on "Style" finally opening the door into a concrete definition of the writing process and finding one's own voice.  What the writer does is over-romanticized ad nauseum, so coming to writing that is so clear and void of the usual cliches is refreshing as it is instructive.  One of the best passages from "Craft" draws from the introspective power to clarify the obscure:   "Someone who has never tried fiction will hardly be quick to understand that in the study, a writer often does feel God-like.  There one sits, ensconced in judgment on other people' lives.  Yet contemplate the person on the chair: He or she could be hungover and full of the small shames of what was done yesterday or ten years ago.  Those flashes of old fiascos wait like ghosts even appear and ask to be laid to rest.  Consciously or unconsciously, writers must fashion a new peace with the past every day they attempt to write.  They must rise above despising themselves.  If they cannot, they will probably lose the sanction to render judgment of others.... then later in "Real Life versus Plot Life, Mailer appears like a prophet.  In speaking about the limitations of seeing your characters as victims, he seems to be predicting why today's literature is filled with victimhood, a social phenomenon today in the United States that seems to dictate "if you haven't been victimized, you haven't arrived:"  "I'd say try not to think of your characters as victims.  That sort of classification narrows them.  In reality, very few victims ever see themselves exclusively as victims, and when they do, their spirit turns stale.  There is a certain sort of self-pitying victim one wishes to walk away from, and they can be even worse in a book.  Unless one is Dickens."  I wonder what Mailer would say today about the abundance of these types of novels, and how it might be a reflection of the changing moods in America... or is it just a marketing ploy researched and supported by data in many of the publishing houses of today?

Mailer examines the transmission of real life events into literature taking as an example the tragic events of 9/11.  He explains with detail the amount of care a writer must take in filtering what happened into what happened with a vague twist, the effort of not letting all of the proverbial cats out of the bag.  "Certain events, if they are dramatic or fundamental to us, remain afterward like crystals in our psyche.  Those experiences should be preserved rather than written down.  They are too special, too intense, too concentrated to be used head-on.  Whereas if you project your imagination through the crystal, you can end up with an imaginative extrapolation of the original events.  Later, coming from another angle, you may obtain another scenario equally good and altogether different from the same crystal.  It is there to serve as a continuing source so long as you don't use it up by a direct account of what you felt....  Interestingly, I believe Mailer (who lived hard just like his literary idol a generation before him) is the only writer who has really gotten into the real Hemingway psyche.  What I mean by the real Hemingway psyche is the examination of Hemingway's life and work with an objective eye, not with political or academic hog-washing blurs.  Like all of the writers from his generation, Mailer learned a great deal from Hemingway, but he also suffered from a love-hate relationship with the Nobel laureate and did not lean one way or too much the other when being critical of the master.  "I think Hemingway got into trouble because he had to feel equal to his heroes.  It became an enormous demand.  He could not allow a character in his books to be braver then he was in his private life.  It's a beautiful demand, and there's honor in forcing oneself to adhere to such a code, but it does cut down on the work you can get out.  While it's legitimate to write about a man who's braver than yourself, it is better to recognize him quickly as such.  I believe I could put a heavyweight champion of the world into a novel and make him convincing, even enter his mind without having to be the best old fighter-writer around.  I would look to use one of another of the few crystals I possess that are related to extraordinary effort....  Hemingway's death was a cautionary to me.  His suicide as wounding as if one's own parent had taken his life.... Hemingway was a great cautioning influence on all of us.  One learned not to live on one's airs, and to do one's best to avoid many nights when--thanks to Scott Fitzgerald's work--one know it was three o'clock in the morning.... Hemingway committed suicide working on airs.  He took the literary world much too seriously.  His death is there now as a lesson to the rest of us: Don't get involved at too deep a level or it will kill you and--pure Hemingway--it will kill you for the silliest reasons: for vanity, or because feuds are beginning to etch your liver with the acids of frustration."  Writing a little later, Mailer seems to evoke many of his experiences in combat with a thin-veiled allegoric sense of image:  "Well, few of us dare death.  Most of us voyage out a part of the way into our jungle and come back filled with pride at what we dared and shame at what we avoided, and because we are men of the middle and shame is an emotion no man of the middle can bear for too long, we act like novelists, which is to say that we are full of spleen, small gossip, hatred for the success of our enemies, envy at the fortunes of our friends, ideologues of a style of fiction which is uniquely the best (and is invariably our own style), and so there is a tendency for us to approach the books of our contemporaries like a defense attorney walking up to a key witness for the prosecution.  At worst, the average good novelist reads the work of his fellow racketeers with one underlying tension--find the flaw, find where the other guy cheated."

A few years ago, I read and reviewed "The Deer Park" on this blog.  The book was a painful experience, difficult to believe much less read and interpret.  Back then (as today) my fear was always that I had missed something important about the book.  A small amount of research yielded a sea of bad reviews which, at first glance, seem to have confirmed my view.  Reading "The Spooky Art," and most particularly the chapter on the re-write of the draft of "The Deer Park," I came away with a sense of having been unfair to Mailer.  But how is one to know, as a reader, the backstage difficulties of the writing process?  We cannot do anything other than try to be impartial.  The writer/reader relationship remains the mystery it will always be.

Mailer is insightful in his criticism of "The Last Tango in Paris," and offers a view of how the written is translated into the visual, and the complexities of mixing the written, the improvised and the actor/writer/improviser.  I have never watch this film, but I know enough about the controversy it caused.  Mailer is the perfect judge of seeing without eyes the factor of improvisation and how it doomed the film while augmenting Marlon Brando's genius.  He argues that the box office success of the film in America was a consequence of its sordid, vulgar and perverse elements.  He judges this without being a prude, but rather putting it on the public/consumer.  Why go watch a film in which Marlon Brando the actor plays the part of a character through which he is improvising the line if the only purpose of going to see the film is to try and discern which part of the perversity is Brando playing the character being perverse?  Does it reflect on the thousands upon thousands of suburban women who rushed to the theater to watch Brando engage in anal sex with a much younger actress (or was it Brando playing the part of a character who possesses those sexual preferences, or was it just simply "Brando being Brando?").  See the difficulty of improvisation, the written and the art?

Mailer comments on the limitations of art in general.  He writes extensively about graffiti  and avant garde art and the ability of visual artists to go beyond what writers achieve on the page.  He concludes, "But we are at the possible end of civilization, and tribal impulses start up across the world.  The descending line of the isolated artist goes down from Michelangelo all the way to Chris Burden, who is finally more comfortable to us than the writers of graffiti.  For Burden is the last insult from the hippie children of the middle class to the bourgeois art-patron who is their spiritual parent, but graffiti speaks of a new civilization where barbarism is stirring at the roots."  

I think Norman Mailer had gone full-circle by the time he died in 2007.  Shortly after his death, I found "On God: An Uncommon Conversation" and found it to be a sensible book, not a dogmatic or archaic discourse on the metaphysical.  Just like in "The Spooky Art," Mailer doesn't theorize... he doesn't need to.  I am planning now on tackling his longer works (The Executioner's Song and Harlot's Ghost).  Before I do this, I have to write on my perverse habit of taking "literary detours."  With this I mean the habit of drawing up a reading list for the year and then injecting books in-between those listed.  I know some people who detest reading lists because they come to see it as dictating a task, reading as a duty to finish or complete a check out list.  I find this comparable to what Mailer writes about in "The Spooky Art" because one must never find the process too dictating.  I draw my own list and I am the impartial manager who injects a player into the line-up and keeps his opponent guessing.  It's all art, and I suspect Mailer would approve.

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Monday, June 02, 2014

Overloading the Senses: "The Piano Tuner" by Daniel Mason

I have only written one negative critical review since I started this blog in 2006.  The other one is about Norman Mailer's "The Deer Park," and it is about to get a "re-review" based on the insight I have gained from the book I am presently reading, "The Spooky Art."  In it, Mailer explains difficulties about the work I was completely unaware of when I read and wrote the review.  The difficulties dealt with the publishing world and its demands (plus Mailer's own problems with editing and addiction), and I am sure that Mason's book probably encountered some of the same obstacles.  I'm not saying Mailer's book wasn't bad, but "The Deer Park" really does deserve a reevaluation based on what I've read.  Unless I come across some details about "The Piano Tuner" that will help me change my mind about the book, I suspect this review will stand as is.  I will keep it as short as possible.

What strikes the reader first about the style of the book is the obvious and overwhelming overuse of language designed to stimulate the senses.  When done correctly, this can be a treat to the reader, but in the case of this book, it began to wear down the senses almost as soon as it began.  The bold is mine for emphasis.

"In the fleeting seconds of final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman's parasol.  He has wondered which visions would remain--the Salween's coursing coffee flow after a storm, the predawn palisades of fishing nets, the glow of ground turmeric, the weep of jungle vines.  For months the images trembled in the back of his eyes, at times flaming and fading away like candles, at times fighting to be seen, thrust forward like the goods of jostling bazaar merchants.  Or at times simply passing, blurred freight wagons in a traveling circus, each one a story that challenged credibility; not for any fault of plot, but because Nature could not permit such a condensation of color without theft and vacuum in the remaining parts of the world.
     Yet above these visions, the sun rises searing, pouring over them like a gleaming white paint.  The Bedin-saya, who interpret dreams in shaded, scented corners of the markets, told him a tale that the sun that rose in Burma was different from the sun that rose in the rest of the world.  He only needed to look at the sky to know this.  To see how it washed the roads, filling the cracks and shadows, destroying perspective and texture.  To see how it burned, flickered, flamed, the edge of the horizon like a daguerreotype on fire, overexposed and edges curving.  How it turned liquid the sky; the banyan trees, the thick air, his breath, throat, and his blood.  How the mirages invaded from distant roads to twist his hands.  How his skin peeled and cracked."

The plot consists of a piano tuner contracted by the British Army to travel to Burma and tune the piano of an eccentric British army surgeon.  The time period is 1886, but the observations and reactions of the protagonist ring false based on his political and personal opinions.   He is well fleshed out, but his overly-liberal views on politics and culture make him flat and unrealistic.  He belongs to the middle class in Victorian England, a man of modest means with a wife and a small piano tuning practice.  His outrage and indignation at the imperial ambitions of England at that time ring false.  I am sure there were exceptions to the rule, but historically one would tie this type of worldview to the intelligentsia (ironically the same class that depended the most on England's conquests), and not to the proud "common" man in service of Her Majesty the Queen.

The journey to Burma is far too long in terms of narrative length.  During the journey, the reader is introduced to "The Man with One Story," a story-within-the story that falls victim to being overly eccentric.  A man stands on the deck of the ship for many, many trips.  He is blind and supposedly, once approached by the other passengers for a common greeting (good evening, good morning, or anything of the sort), he launches into a story that he tells exactly the same way (word by word) again and again.  The use of ultra-sensory language and mirage-visions, etc. appears pointless and overdone.  I suspect that the mesmerizing, blurry, dream-like narrative of "The Man with One Story" has something to do with the ending of the novel and how the protagonist "sees" his own demise, but I lack as a reader when it comes to this type of "do-it-yourself" connections.

It was difficult to understand the perspective about the "mission" the protagonist had been assigned because most of the "mission" was cryptic even to himself.  I suspect this was another element of the style that was designed to make the reader turn the page.  The army surgeon becomes an enigma from the very start, and, because of this, he turns into a "pest" throughout the narrative.  The mystery factor about the doctor, and the protagonist's inquiry and curiosity only leads to disappointment once the good doctor is introduced.  The build up did not satisfactorily reach the climax and the protagonist's mix of frustration and admiration about the enigmatic doctor doesn't make up for it.  The reader never really fully understands the motivation of the plot until... wait, the doctor was a spy, a traitor, his concubine nothing more than a seducer working for the Russians, and don't you know... the book ends in a dream-like stupor of exhaustion and sensory overload.

It's not hard to criticize a book, really, but if one has a heart and knows of the difficulties behind this type of work (fiction writing) the criticism most likely will leave a bad taste in one's critical mouth.  Like I said before, the "ins and outs" of the publishing world can be demanding to the point of absolute frustration.  Part of me wants to believe the integrity of the creative process, but this book also shines a light on the market demands of the literary business.  It feels as if an editor might have recognized the overuse of the sensory in the style of the book, but went ahead with it because "how could something so exotic as a sensory tour de force Victorian era trip to Burma not sell" to a particular demographic deeply embedded in the book club world?  It's hard not to be a cynic when so much money is involved in this process.  But still, I always feel like the onus is on me... I missed something... I failed to see the connection, the artistry and the real meaning of it all.

"The Piano Tuner" was disappointing in many ways.  My main criticism for this book was the endless waves of literary sensory overload.  I think the book has many merits in terms of plot, if you can overlook the constant inclination to compare the narrative to "Heart of Darkness" and the film "The Piano."

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Literary Detours: "Dispatches" by Michael Herr (re-read)

The first time I came to know this book I was still serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.  I was at the main library in Camp LeJuene reading Colonel David Hackworth's "About Face" when a young 2nd lieutenant came over and asked me what I was reading.  He was friendly and motioned me to remain seated (my propensity to follow military courtesy bordered on the ridiculous), a welcome gesture to me as I'm not very fond of being interrupted when I am reading.  To make a short conversation even shorter, the 2nd lieutenant complimented me in the choice of title yet recommended various titles but was insistent in asking me to write down the title "Dispatches" by Michael Herr.  I folded the piece of paper I used to write the title down and slipped it into Colonel Hackworth's book.  In 1994, while in the process of researching a paper as a college student, and a year after leaving the U.S. Marine Corps, I found the piece of paper and decided to finally pick up Herr's classic.  It was a decision I regretted because then I couldn't put down the book despite being in the middle of the semester and short on time for just about everything, let alone non-required reading.

What struck me early on about "Dispatches" is the fact that for as brutal as the book reads, it is actually written by a war correspondent.  The book details in part the attack on the walled city of Hue, otherwise known as the citadel.  The writing is honest and carries with it the right amount of detachment for objective thought, reasoning and judgment that fails in most combat writing by the actual participants.  For example, the narrator depicts the voice of men from their own perspective, and even when he is rephasing it, the honesty comes out clear and truthful.  For example, “Amazing, unbelievable, guys who’d played a lot of hard sports said they’d never felt anything like it, the sudden adrenaline you could make available to yourself, pumping it up and putting it out until you were lost floating in it, not afraid, almost open to clear orgasmic death-by-drowning in it, actually relaxed... Unless of course you’d shit your pants or were screaming or praying or giving anything at all to the hundred-channel panic that blew word salad all around you and sometimes clean through you. Maybe you couldn’t love war and hate it inside the same instant, but sometimes those feelings alternated so rapidly that they spun together in a strobic wheel rolling all the way up until you were literally High On War, like it said on the helmet covers. Coming off a jag like that could really make a mess of you.”  I remember underlining this passage and knowing it made an impact on me back then.  Re-reading it now, and after 13 years of a war that has not been my experience directly, I can see it reflected on the young veterans I share time with today.  Theirs is a war for younger Marines, not like the conflicts I fought in which a large number of top senior NCOs were men who had seen heavy action in Vietnam; men who were coming to the end of their tenure as active military and still had to put one more experience under their belts before calling it quits.  From the "outside," I see the young veterans of today taking about being under fire and see the universality of what Michael Herr put down on paper so eloquently... that war in its many incarnations will have a similar effect on the men who fight it.  It's nearly impossible to describe the rush of combat and its many emotions, but Herr's description comes to a near-perfect account.

The book is filled with criticism of the "high command" and its decisions.  Of particular interest is Herr's account of the siege of the fire-base at Khe Sanh.  Herr's accounts of being under fire while waiting for a ferry out, laying down so close to the ground hoping the airplane or helicopter coming in didn't get shot down as it made its approach, and the wounded and dead laid out at the edge of the runway really make a mental image of the insanity of it all.  Then, almost as fast as it began, the four North Vietnamese Army division surrounding the base disappeared into the jungle and Khe Sanh disappeared from the headlines with a quick "high-command" briefing to the correspondents.

There are accounts about Michael Herr's colleagues, most interesting the story of Sean Flynn, photojournalist and son of the famous actor Errol Flynn.  Flynn is featured in the book at length, depicted as a jovial and intense photojournalist with a sensitive touch to both his work and his relationships with others.  The tragedy remains painful to Herr and he writes consolingly about the memories he shared with his friend.  Of all the people covered in the book, Flynn was the one that most attracted my attention--not simply because of his famous father but because of the circumstances behind his disappearance.  He was reported missing in Cambodia and was never found.  In 1984, he was officially declared dead.

I enjoyed taking a literary detour from this year's reading list to read "Dispatches."  It is a book that intoxicates with its accounts of brutality while at the same time reigniting the desire to come to terms with all that has been seen and done in combat.  It is books like "Dispatches" that fill the great void between those who experience and those who yearn to appropriate the experience through the great vehicle that is literature.

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Monday, May 05, 2014

Jean Paul Sartre's "The Wall" and Pre-World War II Existentialism

Jean Paul Sartre's "The Wall" is full of those tiny stylistic nuances, so much so that if the reader "blinks" too fast, he might miss them. On the other hand, "The Wall" manifests characters that are alive to more than just emerging literary traits of the "not quite" mid-20th Century. Published in 1939 just about the same time Europe was about to explode to the fury of a new war, "The Wall" pre-dates much of the experiences that later led to Sartre's all-encompassing philosophy. The existentialism is certainly there, but in a "younger" form distinct from his post-World War II literary endeavors.

The title story builds upon the painful experience of prisoners during the Spanish Civil War. While a lot has been made of the allegorical "wall," the absurdity of these prisoners' condition and their suffering certainly points to the existential question, but it is the outcome of the story that reveals the truly over-the-top ridiculousness of "being." The protagonist seems to have sworn allegiance to the cause or to one of its leaders or to God knows what, and to that allegiance he is determined to be truthful to the very end. As he is interrogated, he is asked about the whereabouts of the leader and he responds with an absurd suggestion he anticipates the interrogators would never take serious. Nevertheless, when the suggestion is followed through and investigated, it turns out satisfactory to the powers in charge. This is not revealed to the protagonist after his companions have been executed, including among them a very young man who is emblematic of the existential idea of waste.

 The story "The Room" explores the capacity of loyalty but in much different fashion. A woman is married to a man who has become "questionably" insane. Her parents are caught in the whirlwind of decisions and options, as they do not want to see her "waste" her life away. In its own way, the story explores questions of self-sacrifice, loyalty and discipline to one's beliefs. This is a brief story (compared with the others) and, on the surface, seems to reveal less about the characters than the other stories in the collection. The question of insanity transfers from one character to the other, primarily displaying how each is committed to their own ideals of truth. The father, for example, is quite disgusted when he learns from the mother that their daughter is still being intimate with her husband. The premise reminded me of a quote from a novel by Ernest Hebert which I read in 1993 or thereabouts and made a great impact on me: "Men are loyal to their own ideas as dogs are loyal to undeserving owners," or something to that effect. In the end, the young woman is unable to leave her husband illustrating the despair of choices and the absurdity of attachments.

"Erostratus" follows a character in a desperate path to commit an act of violence for which he has no reason or explanation. By killing six people he hopes to "write" some history for himself, an existential mold that draws quite a bit from Kirilov, the nihilist in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's "The Demons." "If I am to prove powerful to some extent," observed Kirilov, "then I must kill myself." He intends to leave a mark on history, however insignificant by simply exercising the power of the act in itself. The judgment of how useless and wasteful those deaths happen to be is beyond his act; a judgment to be formulated by others, as if to say, by second hand. The failure of his act paints a portrait of existential ready-made art--that is to say, Sartre does not judge right or wrong despite the psychological and philosophical tendencies of the story. Sartre simply states the events as they happen and the reader is left to judge. This echoes the stream of consciousness of the protagonist and the close reader is rewarded with this epiphany at the end. We are led to judge, again, in second hand.

Lulu has a friend named Rirette and a lover named Pierre. She also has a husband who exemplifies the archetypal domineering male who emotionally abuses his wife. But the seemingly clearly cut characters of "Intimacy" reveal more than stereotypical traits. Lulu is a complex female character not just struggling with issues of repression, guilt and loyalty, but also with existential conundrums revealing society's pressures of role and decorum. She intends to leave her husband, and goes as far as to plan her eloping with Pierre but fails in dramatic fashion leaving Rirette to piece together the irrational behavior of her dear friend.

"The Childhood of Leader" is the story of the making of a fascist. The main character Lucien Fleurier is depicted from early childhood into young adulthood in a series of psychologically linked scenes. From simple angst about not belonging to being sexually abused by a child predator, Lucien (who is the son of an industrialist) gravitates from ideas about self to growing connections about the world around him. The fascist element is connected by Sartre to the impending explosion of violence that is both relevant to the story and relevant to the historic events taking place at the time. Lucien is aimless in the sense that he looks into the future with a clear idea of what he does not want, yet he is powerful to transform his life away in a way that would direct him away from what he sees as doom. Therefore, he falls easy prey of those around him. Here Sartre uses a different technique--he does not so much inject existentialism into the story as he allows it to grow with the character, often simply displayed as anger, frustration and angst. The revelatory factor of the story is Lucien's acknowledgment of the absurd, with the disturbing vagueness of his acceptance as an added bonus to the reader.

I am surprised at how much I enjoyed deciphering these short stories and connecting the dots about Sartre's intentional use or outright avoidance) of existentialism. I have to look to more of Sartre's pre-war works.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Report from the Interior: Paul Auster's Grand Voice Becomes Our Own

Paul Auster's "Report from the Interior" is the continuation of his biographical chronology (or non-chronology) and it covers the very early years of his life.  Certainly, I am not objective in my review of this volume due to my absolute fanaticism about his work.  Yet, I found the book so personally and tenderly rendered that I will suspend my lack of objectivity and surrender to a new level of love for Auster's words.  While being a companion to "Winter Journal," this book holds its own very much the same way that Auster's stories hold their own orbit in "The New York Trilogy."

The book is written in the second person, as Auster offers the reader the opportunity to participate in the investigation of extremely early age.  It is, however, a literary device that can be misused or poorly applied.  In Auster's case, his experience as a writer and thinker reconciles the line between the narrative technique and the metaphysical levels of "who's writing/narrating this."  There are so many universals about the narrative that it touches everyone who reads it.  One doesn't have to be a Jewish kid growing up in New Jersey, or a teenager hopelessly full of angst trying to find his way or even an early college student full of ambition and confusion to fall in line with the "you" of the narrative.  One tends to appropriate a narrative voice regardless of the grammatical construct, but Auster's masterpiece technique is one that does more than simply drawing the reader into the narrative.  The "you" in this book allows the reader to breach the lines between author and reader, narrator and listener.  The universality of life in full development can be a daunting, giant border to overcome.  How can a writer "hook" the reader (a description of this technique that I despise), keep her interested in the narrative, making her wanting to forgo all other things vying for her attention, and how can that writer assume the reins of direction without intruding in the "you" that constantly appear on the page?  And, in addition, how can he do that without falling into literary trickery?  The answer to this comes as an omnipresent voice at the start of the book, “In the beginning, everything was alive. The smallest objects were endowed with beating hearts, and even the clouds had names. Scissors could walk, telephones and teapots were first cousins, eyes and eyeglasses were brothers. The face of the clock was a human face, each pea in your bowl had a different personality, and the grille on the front of your parents’ car was a grinning mouth with many teeth. Pens were airships. Coins were flying saucers. The branches of trees were arms. Stones could think, and God was everywhere.”  This passage sets the tone that illustrates the mind of the very young, the Kantian apriori, or, say, for example, the opening passage of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."  This does the "trick" rather well without losing the effect of the second person voice which appropriates the narrative shortly thereafter.

The only lapse of temporary confusion I had with the book were the two lengthy retelling of two films that were instrumental in shaping Auster's identity.  One of these, "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" is told in amazing detail, so much so that I had to go find the film and watch it.  Naturally, it felt like cinematic deja vu.  I gave this some thought.  Why would Auster spend so many pages retelling the story of two films?  Why not list the titles and allow the reader to pursue them if they chose to?  The reason was not obvious to me, but later I found a couple of podcasts where Auster explains his indulgence.  The truth presented itself in the retelling of the film; that is to say, the impact of shaping Auster's young mind can only be apparent to the reader if he retells the plot illustrating the pressing importance of specific details.  Simply listing the title would have lost the meaning of what these two films meant to Auster.  "I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang" illustrates Auster's early concern with issues of justice and history--the chronicle of unfairness and tough-breaks any individual can fall pray to.  The second film is "The Incredible Shrinking Man" which shows Auster's early concerns with identity, self and the ephemera of the physical existence.  The influence of this film compared to the issues of social justices carried in the previous one is less clear, but the amount of metaphysical inquiry it proposes is thrilling to the reader.  A man begins to shrink physically, what measurable (no pun intended) consequences can this have to the psyche of man--in the case of Auster, a very young man figuring out the world as it appears before his eyes.

The book is marvelously and tenderly rendered.  Auster designs the narrative like a museum gallery of the ages we travel.  The colors, light, shadings, shadows and composition of paintings hanging on the walls go from the elementary literary stick figures to complex avant garde depictions of the human condition.  Paul Auster remains, without a single doubt, my favorite writer and THE leading literary voice of his age.  Everything Auster writes shines with absolute perfection.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Literature of the Discontent

I was standing behind a young couple while waiting to order coffee at the local cafe.  It was hard not to eavesdrop since the young man was a loud-talker, but the rationale behind the premise of what he was saying intrigued me (I can only assume it was a well thought-out argument but only caught pieces of it).  He was explaining to his companion that he only stored "classics" in his e-reader and not popular fiction.  "It's not," I was able to catch a full sentence that stuck with me, "like I would keep Harry Potter or vampire series in it."  If anything, his impassioned declaration stayed with me, and I started to look back some years (when I was still teaching) and to remember the argument of some of my colleagues regarding popular versus classical fiction.  I was continually "attacked" over my insistence that classics taught universal themes just as well as, say, Harry Potter or the many genre vampire series of the mid-to-late 2000s.  With regards to Harry Potter, especially, the department was even considering a "Harry Potter Symposium," and the idea of "Potterian Studies" was thrown around with great enthusiasm.  I was the man out in left field, waiting for the "ball" to be hit in my direction so I could drop it as I perpetually have all of my academic life.

It wasn't so much that I was opposed to books like Harry Potter as I was to the idea of jumping on a fad out of sheer popularity.  "Fads," argued Max Shulman in "Love is a Fallacy," "are the very negation of reason."  Now, you may call me an elitist, or a stuck up classicist or worse, a discontented son of a bitch.  Nevertheless, my argument for classics (which, incidentally, I never gave up) was that the universal ideas included in Harry Potter and some of the "friendly" vampire series (that is to say, friendship, loyalty, struggle, suffering, exaltation, love, rancor, reconciliation, etc.) were originally offered in books like "The Scarlet Letter," or "For Whom the Bell Tolls," or "Uncle Tom's Cabin," or "The Grapes of Wrath," or "Moby Dick," or "Sister Carrie," or "The Great Gatsby," or "The Awakening," or "Crime and Punishment" or "The Way of All Flesh," or "The Possessed," or "The Brothers Karamazov" or... you get the point... And what a better way to prepare students for a life of continual learning than the classics.  There's always time, I argued, for "those other books."  It was not to be... students always turned to "Potterian Studies" with unquenchable devotion.  The populist argument is, "well, at least the kids are reading."  That may or may not be a sound premise--what if, for example, the "kids" were in absolute rave about "Mein Kampf"?  Well, "at least the kids are reading," right?

I have great love for contemporary writers, among my top of all time there's always elbow room for Paul Auster and Haruki Murakami and Philip Roth but my love always gravitates toward classic illustrations of timeless themes.  Discontented or not, at least I am still reading, no?

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Friday, March 07, 2014

Where Have You Gone, Dr. Gachet? The Art World Turns its Lonely Eyes to You...

It was a cold Christmas eve, December 24, 1998, the last public showing of the Vincent van Gogh exhibition in Washington, DC.  The van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam loaned most of its exclusive collection to museums in Los Angeles and in Washington, DC while their facilities were being refurnished.  I stood in the freezing rain and snow for six hours to get a ticket.  While it may sound like my effort was valiant and (even to some) heroic, I had no one to blame but myself.  I was living in DC at the time, and had plenty of time during the day to attend the exhibit, but laziness and the proverbial "I'll-do-it-tomorrow" got the best of me.  And so it was that on Christmas eve, cold and overcast day in Washington DC, I stood in line (at the time populated by tickets scalpers and other procrastinators) and waited and waited and almost froze.  I got to the door just in time to receive one ticket for the last show of the day.  The last "open to the public" showing of this amazing collection--perhaps the single most significant van Gogh art collection put together in one place outside of Amsterdam.  A once in a lifetime opportunity that almost slipped through my fingers because of my carelessness and laziness and bad procrastinating habits.

I walked through the gallery carefully and at a non-hurried pace.  Despite it being the last public showing, the directors of the exhibit were well aware of people's desire to enjoy the paintings; we were given enough time to walk placidly with no time constraints.  I took it all in.  I can't remember exactly when it happened... perhaps it was as soon as I walked in and saw the first painting, "The Cottage," painted by van Gogh in 1885... suddenly, Frederick Chopin's "Etude No.6" in E flat minor invaded and colored every single perception, sense and instinct inside of me.  Here's Freddy Kempf's interpretation on YouTube:

I went out to dinner after the exhibit and could not shake the emotions off.  Sure, it was seemingly depressing without reason or explanation, but above all it was significant because I was able to measure the impact of both the art and the music, and how it all registered in me as a human being, the capacity for emotions and varying senses was as sharp as I had ever felt it up to that day.  I remember thinking over dinner that it had been a "ONCE IN A LIFETIME" experience, that I would never again see those paintings and feel those emotions unless I traveled to Amsterdam (which at the time was not even a possibility, it seems).

Two years later, I did find myself in Amsterdam, and on a beautiful spring day April 2001, I spent the entire day at the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  It was an improvised trip and I will not get into the details of it here.  What is significant about the Amsterdam visit was that it cleared up my experience during the Washington DC exhibition.  While attending a lecture that day, the phrase "the melancholy expression of our times" came up.  The lecturer referred to it in passing, mentioning something about Vincent's correspondence with his brother Theo.  I picked up a copy of "The Letters of Vincent van Gogh" while at the museum in Amsterdam and soon understood (albeit not exactly) why I had felt the way I did that day in DC, and, perhaps more importantly, why Chopin's etude penetrated all of my senses that cold day.  I am sorry this has turned out to be more about my impressions of van Gogh's art than about the book I am about to recommend everyone to read.  Cynthia Saltzman's "Portrait of Dr Gachet: The story of a van Gogh Masterpiece" is by far one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read in any genre.

The beauty of Cynthia Saltzman's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet: The Story of a Van Gogh Masterpiece" rests precisely where most recent books of art history fail.  Saltzman writes with such brilliance and clarity, it is difficult not to make an allegorical comparison to the master's canvases themselves.  She has a gift for narrative that is informative and full of nuances and it fuels the interest and engagement of the reader.  The book is peppered with biographical sketches of those personages of the art world connected to the van Gogh masterpiece, Portrait of Dr Gachet.

Saltzman's list of characters begins with those closest to Vincent van Gogh, and, after the artist's untimely death, it collects a veritable list of the "who's who" of European art dealership and collecting from the late 1800s to nearly a century later.  I was most impressed with Saltzman's ability to engross the reader in a time-travel experience.  Those mentioned are depicted with a descriptive/narrative writing style that simply won't let the reader go.  Beginning with Johanna van Gogh-Bonger and her dealings with Ambroise Vollard, the Paris art dealer, to the tragic and heartbreaking story of Georg Swarzenski, to the Nazi's confiscation and atrocities, this book is the most amazing account of all things related to how van Gogh's work influenced the art world both in the collecting and artistic sense.  The biographical sketches do not overshadow the other segments of the book dedicated to chronology of events and the cataloging of appraisals and ownership/provenance details.  On the contrary, both the historical and factual content are woven nicely in what (again) I describe as the perfect non-fiction writing style: engaging, informative, beautifully phrased and a pleasure to read.

This balance is nicely crafted and created with masterful wordsmith.  Saltzman writes about the portrait of Dr Gachet in both interpretative and concrete fashion without tumbling or disrupting the essence of what she wants to convey:
"At the most literal level, Portrait of Dr. Gachet was a gesture of self-possession, a graphic realization of the contention van Gogh had spelled out in a letter to his distracted brother, that Gachet, 'certainly seems to me as ill and distraught as you or me.'  It spoke to van Gogh's rational understanding of his illness, his fears of the unresolved consequences of the doctor's failure to address his disease, and their momentary sympathy.  It also demonstrated the lucidity of mind that he brought to the act of painting.  In painting the portrait, van Gogh reversed the roles of patient and doctor and scrutinized Gachet as the patient afflicted by their shared diseased.  ('Melancholy' was thought among the medical profession of the time to be a form of neurasthesia or nervous collapse). In representing Gachet's physiognomy as a map of his state of mind, van Gogh followed the practice of French physicians throughout the nineteenth century, who employed paintings, drawings, and photographs of lunatics as diagnostic tools.  But Gachet's haunting countenance is not one of a madman; a rational being, he comprehends the nature of his own suffering."
In passages like this one (and many more throughout the book), Saltzman creates the perfect balance between analysis and imparting information about the subject matter.  She takes into consideration a great deal of research information available and draws conclusions expertly without losing the essence of both her own perspective and those who came before her.  Of particular interest is Saltzman's approach to the portrait itself, as I found out in reading this nearly perfect volume how much of the work's interpretative evocation is truly Saltzman's own, original in both content and scope.

The premise of the book is the run-away economy that led to the "disappearance" of Dr. Gachet from the public viewing/museum circuit.  In May 1990, a Japanese businessman bought the Portrait of Dr. Gachet for $82.5 million and just as quickly stored it away in a warehouse.  His death in 1996 left the van Gogh masterpiece in a sort of artistic purgatory.  To this day, a Google search on "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" adding variables like "location" or "owner" or "sale" yields, for the most part, links that are either offline or vastly out-dated.  It is amazing to see that even 15 years after the publication of Cynthia Saltzman's book, no one really knows where Dr. Gachet vanished to. 

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011 by Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee

What strikes me the most about this short collection of letters is how discreetly it came and went through the literary radars, and how little notice it received from reviewers.  I must admit that the entire volume strikes as (for the lack of a better term) fabricated, but this is something that is openly accepted on the dust-jacket summary of the book.  Paul Auster (the great, white Jewish one) approached J.M. Coetzee about engaging in open-ended letters, topics as varied as the open world and not limited to literary matters.  Thus begins a conversation between these two literary giants that is at once trivial as it is insightful.  I know, I know... the typical polite self-contradictory description used by many when they cannot commit themselves to make an assessment resembling either/or.  Yet, the more I read, the more engaged I became.  Rarely does one see a collection of letters of varied topics such as the nature of sports, incest in literature, death and living, parenthood, statistics, art, politics and history in the Middle East, etc.  I found many of the discussions trivial, yes, but the real revelatory moments more than made up for the investment.

What happens in collections of letters is that the reader 1) expects a long period of correspondence, and 2) correspondence that in some ways encapsulates the events of the day, at that time, as they are occurring.  My last experience with "the letters of..." was that of "The Collected Letters of James Wright," a book I often refer back to, looking randomly at underlined passages for their powerful content, and mere brutality of description.  I don't foresee myself the same with "Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011" but I am glad I got to read something new by Paul Auster (sorry, Mr Coetzee) because he's the one and only for me.  I don't engage in hero-worship, not in sports or politics or history, and certainly not in literary matters (with the aforementioned exception, of course).

One passage that struck me as perhaps the most important is that of Paul Auster explaining his reservations about electronic readers.  Auster is honest about being a technophobe, and at the same time not being against electronic readers due to the fact that they promote the act of reading, and anything that does that should be encouraged.  Where things go awry (and I confess that, as an opponent of electronic readers, I never looked at it this way) is the flexibility of the technology to "destroy" the impermeable, hard object.  Auster explains: "On the other hand, I do have certain fears. (Fears, by the way, already borne out by the destruction of the music business. How I miss browsing in record shops!) Amazon, which has so far cornered the market here, is selling books at too low a price, is in fact taking a loss with each book it sells in order to woo the public into buying the machines. One can foresee dire consequences in the long term: the collapse of publishing houses, the death of bookstores, a future in which every writer is his own publisher. As Jason Epstein pointed out in an article in the New York Review [of Books] some months ago, it is absolutely essential that our libraries be maintained, since they are the bedrock of civilization. If everything went digital, think of the possible mischief that could ensue. Erased texts, vanished texts, or, just as frightening, altered texts."  This last prediction was one I never thought about.  It is, indeed, frightening.  As for Epstein's plea about the libraries, the same thing goes.  I used to believe that libraries were exempt from the threat of electronic text/readers until I visited the newly restored main campus library at the undergraduate college I graduated from.  The library is not almost entirely stripped of books in the second and third floor.  There are all sorts of "reader friendly" areas but most people are engaged in the use of computers rather than the act of reading itself.  I was waiting for a friend who was attending a class at the time and went for a walk, an investigating journey to see what the library had been transformed to.  My shock was severe when I entered the third floor to notice all the periodicals (peer-reviewed journals and popular magazines) were gone, scanned in part and now available in micro-strip.  I cannot recount the hours I spent there as an undergraduate when, left alone on campus with nowhere to go during breaks, I would pick random bounded volumes of "Time Magazine" from the 1920s and just past the pages (as well as the hours).  The third floor currently houses a great number of pseudo-offices (more like encapsulated cubicles) for para-professionals offering tutoring services, and, housing support professionals with important sounding titles like "Assistant Director of Student Achievement."  But I digress.  Imagine an electronic text of "Moby-Dick" in which the thinly-veiled homo-erotic scene of Ishmael and Qeequeg tossing in bed at the Nantucket inn is turned explicit by someone with a hyper-sexual imagination bordering on the pornographic... or a "Crime and Punishment" where Raskolnikov is able to make it to America as a stowaway and works himself through the ranks of Wall Street and into American financial "respectability."  Hard to imagine that happening?  Really, just browse Wikipedia for an hour and see for yourself.

I don't expect to agree with Paul Auster on every topic.  Even with my admiration of his work, I know enough to separate the man from the artist.  I confess I find his excessive criticism of conservatism (here in America and in Israel) a bit on the simplistic side.  That is to say, at the point where the subject is broached, Auster sounds like a blind liberal, a person that as soon as the term "conservative" or "right-wing" is mentioned in conversation, all bets are off and the engagement on ad hominems and hasty generalizations of all sorts is fair game.  I hold that type of liberalism and conservatism at a distance.  I've been on both sides of the political spectrum, and find myself disgusted by both in ways that are both irreparable and final.  What I see happening in political discourse is painful (even more painful when it comes from someone as intelligent as Auster)... the whole idea that someone will find Fox News irritating, despicable, dishonest and nauseating but just as well find MSNBC the pinnacle of intelligence and decorum makes me weep in silence for the idiocy of this country.  I don't watch television and only collect news items from the international press.  The American press is a cesspool of misinformation and unethical brain-washing on both sides of the political spectrum.  Those who see evil at the mention of George W Bush are the same sheep who can find no fault with Barack Obama despite his many violations (many of which, the overseas use of drone, is far worse than Bush... but of course, I will be accused of being a victim of right-wing propaganda).  Nobody is perfect, but both sides are equally rotten.

J.M. Coetzee is an enigma to me.  I believe I've read a few of his essays but none of his books.  I am eagerly awaiting my next trip to the bookstore.  Certainly his most famous titles are in order.  If anyone could recommend a title to start off with, please let me know.  I am more than intrigued.  I find him sensible and deeply honest in all and any of the topics these two giants engage in in the course of their correspondence.

It's a short and almost predictable little book, but "Here and Now: Letters 2008-2011" will not disappoint.

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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

"The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism" by Ayn Rand

I have fallen into the habit of picking up books that are perhaps a bit on the out-dated side and yet finding myself unable to put them down.  I've always felt an intense responsibility to finish a book, even (and perhaps even more specially so) those that I know would yield little to my time investment. This was sort of the case with Ayn Rand's "The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism."  The difficulty with this short little collection of essays (many of which are by Nathaniel Branden, the psychological theorist) is that while some of the ideas are outdated, many are frighteningly close to the current dilemma facing the United States today.  Whether political, social, civic or even religious, Rand touches on subject that are front and center to today's current events.  Of course, the initial reaction is to think that these subjects are so general in content that they transcend the span of 50 years, but upon closer inspection, this is not the case.

There is very little that can be called "general" about individual rights and the role of an either big or small government in the daily lives of citizens. Even after 50 years, Rand is insightful mainly because the universality (not generality) of the issues resonates beyond the construct of her age.  For example, Rand defines "Values" as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep--virtue is the act by which one gains and/or keeps it.  The three cardinal rules of the Objectivist ethics--the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one's ultimate value, one's own life--are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride."  She then moves on to describing/defining the idea in more detail: "Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man's life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values.  Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work--pride is the result.  Rationality is man's basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues.  Man's basic vice, the source of his evils, is the act of unfocusing his mind, the suspension of his consciousness, which is not blindness but the refusal to see, not ignorance, but the refusal to know.  Irrationality  is the rejection of man's means of survival and, therefore, a commitment to a course of blind destruction; that which is anti-mind, is anti-life."  

Rand defines a complex system of ethical values (the Objectivist ethics) by clearly and systematically defining that which is NOT the values productive to men.  Whatever is based on a whim, on an emotion, and not based on a rational/logical premise is detrimental to humanity as a whole.  The modern concept of "altruism" is labeled by Rand as the major culprit.  The idea that men must sacrifice from their toil because of how it makes others (and himself) feel is unethical and down-right disgusting to her.  I do see the level of extremism that can be constructed from this idea, but it does hold when one applies the idea of purpose to it.  If I mean to help someone because I fear others might think me a brute for not doing so, or, worse, if I do help someone because of my own selfish interest to portray myself as a humanitarian, then I am not doing anyone service.  Ayn Rand takes it further, of course, in insisting that modern altruism is completely immoral and incompatible with human nature.  In that I see a great deal of truth, but I fear the hasty generalization renders the argument problematic.  She expands on the idea of "feel" versus "rational thinking:"  "Man has no choice about his capacity to feel that something is good for him or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or ate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value.  If he chooses irrational values, he switches his emotional mechanism from the role of his guardian to the role of his destroyer.  The irrational is the impossible; it is that which contradicts the facts of reality; facts cannot be altered by a wish, but they can destroy the wisher.  If a man desires and pursues contradictions--if he wants to have his cake and eat it, too--he disintegrates his consciousness; he turns his inner life into a civil war of blind forces engaged in dark, incoherent, pointless, meaningless conflicts (which, incidentally, is the inner state of most people today)."  All one has to do is look at the apologetic principles and ideas of political correctness today to concede the argument.  Rand, whether we like it or not, is right about most people leading their lives not so much based on a rational system of beliefs but rather they seem to go about making decisions based on how these decisions make them "feel."

Rand is quite concrete in her argument for individual rights.  She offers specifics about how a society either allows the government to dictate those rights, to change them at their whim for the sake of "greater goods."  The entire premise of a giant central government telling people what they can or cannot do invalidates the idea of guaranteed individual rights. Once again, whether I agree or not with Rand, I must yield the argument.  While it sounds simplistic enough, Rand offers specifics: "The necessary consequence of man's right to life is his right to self-defense.  In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.  All the reason which make the initiation of physical force an evil, make the retaliatory use of physical force a moral imperative.  If some "pacifist" society renounced the retaliatory use of force, it would be left helplessly at the mercy of the first thug who decided to be immoral.  Such a society would achieve the opposite of its intention: instead of abolishing evil, it would encourage it and reward it."  This passage resonates with today's argument by law-abiding citizens to "keep and bear arms."  We cannot outlaw all guns, collect them, destroy them... to think that thugs and criminals would line up to peacefully and willingly give up the tools of their trade is unrealistic and based on emotional nonsense.  By the same token, forcing a law-abiding citizen to surrender the means by which he defends his property and family is irresponsible by virtue of the previous sentence's premise.

Of course there is much more to Rand's little collection of essays (many of the finest ideas are also presented by Nathaniel Brand).  The last essay "The Argument from Intimidation" is a prime example of what passes today for political discourse in both Left and Right information outlets (MSNBC & Fox News, correspondingly).  We are at the end of what Ayn Rand warned 50 years ago.  With nearly all aspects of American life (social, civic, religious, individual/special group) reaching critical mass, every year we live in this collective blindness is another year from which we might not return to reason.

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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

James Salter' "Dusk and Other Stories"

Some years ago, I bought a copy of "A Reader's Manifesto" by B.R. Myers at a used bookstore.  The book might have been misplaced, or shelved incorrectly on purpose by a disgruntled employee or customer or both.  I didn't read the book... the introduction was enough to make me put it down and regret spending all of $2 on it.  B.R. Myers apparently got a memo from God telling him Ed McMahon had died, and God decided (against His better judgment) to name Myers the new host of "Star Search."  Perhaps my humor doesn't carry via the Internet, or the joke is simply my own personal bitterness at the misguidedness of B.R. Myers.  It's one thing to singlehandly decide, "well, here... this is what is wrong with contemporary American literature... it's full of pretentiousness and high-brow idiots," and to actually say it with a straight face and mean it, and publish a book about to boot.  It is another thing altogether to actually have the credentials to criticize indiscriminately while at the same time not having produced a novel of the quality of any of the authors he blasts throughout the book.  I know, I know, I can already hear Myers say, "If you didn't read the entire book, you can't say shit about it."  But more on this later because, as you will see, I can say shit about it.

The introduction to this post is based on the fact that when I began reading "Dusk and Other Stories" by James Salter I couldn't decide on whether or not B.R. Myers was right all along.  James Salter was introduced to me by a very good friend, and since my good friend is someone whose literary taste I have supreme confidence on, I figured I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.  The first short story, "Am Strande von Tanger" struck me odd from the start.  What I mean with this cryptic statement is that I couldn't decide if this was great literature because of its style, or whether I was being filmed secretly by a "Candid Camera" crew waiting to see my reaction.  It was tough going, but once I got to the middle of the story, I was hooked.  My initial reaction was based, in part, on some criticism I read while in graduate school about the "young literary men" of the 1920s who tried so hard to imitate the language and style of "The Sun Also Rises" that everyone sounded like Ernest Hemingway regardless of genre.  Imagine a romance novel written in the voice of Nick Adams and you might get the idea.  I don't know much about Salter, but the first few pages of "Dusk and Other Stories" made me think he was a left-over from that very period of time.  Here's a sample of the opening story,
"Morning.  Villa-Lobos is playing on the phonograph.  The cage is on a stool in the doorway.  Malcolm lies in a canvas chair eating an orange.  He is in love with the city.  He has a deep attachment to it based on a story by Paul Morand and also on an incident which occurred in Barcelona years before: one evening in the twilight Antonio Gaudi, mysterious, fragile, even saintlike, the city's great architect, was hit by a streetcar as he walked to church.  He was very old, white beard, white hair, dressed in the simplest of clothes.  No one recognized him.  He lay in the street without even a cab to drive him to the hospital.  Finally he was taken to the charity ward.  He died the day Malcolm was born."  And then, a little further on...  Malcolm has a pair of shorts made from rough cotton, the blue glazed cotton of the Tauregs.  They have a little belt, slim as a finger, which goes halfway around.  He feels powerful as he puts them on.  He has a runner's body, a body without flaws, the body of a martyr in a Flemish painting.  One can see vessels laid like cord beneath the surface of his limbs."  But by the end of the first story, I was a convert... James Salter is down-right a master of descriptive artistry and a weaver of amazing plot structure.

Two things are absolutely genius about Salter's work.  First, the amount of description can be misleading.  I've tried to analyze the amount of skill and talent it takes to pull this off, but to no avail.  Salter draws the reader in with descriptive passages that paint a complete picture in the reader's mind.  He builds the characters around these settings and allows them to take shape inside these imaginary worlds.  Secondly, the number of brilliant literary analogies (often found at the end of paragraphs) makes me feel like a young lady sighing the night away.  Somehow (and this is the part that is nearly impossible to pin down), all of the stories work so brilliantly that any suspicion of pretentiousness or high-brow posturing evaporate.  There's a genius here that is hard to dissect, a type of word-craft and skill at writing that borders on absolute perfection.  Not one word (and this is no hyperbole) seems out of place.

The story "Dusk" is (despite being the title story) not one of the most impressive, but it illustrates Salter's ability to construct a character by telling details about her/him all the while incorporating the character into the description, the setting, the vast canvas of the imagined world.  The main character, a woman named Marian is, from start to finish, an enigma... even when minute details about her life story have been revealed, she remains open to the reader's interpretation.  It is simply masterful, and I can't stop saying it again and again.  The entire collection is an absolute pleasure to read and an intellectual challenge to boot.

Which brings me back to B.R. Myers.  James Salter did, in fact, bring back B.R. Myers to the forefront of my literary reading list.  My impression of Salter made me dig out the little book of criticism, but after re-reading the introduction, I had to once again put it down.  This is all I need to know about "A Reader's Manifesto."  You have to understand... I wasn't always a scholar.  I was a U.S. Marine in my youth and not prone to lengthy diplomatic discussions about any topic.  So, when I read Myers' criticism of my favorite writer, Paul Auster (the anointed one... the Great White Jewish One... pound for pound the best writer in the world) I took it personally.  I won't stand for it.  I worship the literary ground Auster walks on, and, as a devotee, I have a strong warning for B.R. Myers that comes from the regions of my being where I am still a hard-charging U.S. Marine, an infantryman with a bad attitude and a cutting-edge will to get the mission done.  First, stop using initials and write out your real fucking name--most pretentious, high-brow asshats use initials.  Second, you criticize Paul Auster again, and I swear I will fucking cut you, bitch.  (End of rant).

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Pragmatism, Pluralism and Academic Freedom

It took me a long time to finish the re-read of "The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America" by Louis Menand but I finally got through to the other side.  One would figure that a re-read of a book I had first read in 2001 would be a quick review of ideas that were relatively fresh in my mind (I've studied American pragmatism extensively since 1995) but it was not to be.  Presently, I have responsibilities in my life that were not even a figment of my imagination back in 2001.  In fact, I struggled most of the time trying to make sense of why I had underlined a passage or marked an entire page for review.  The enterprise ended up being a fresh-from-the-press read instead of a review of areas of academic interests.  Nevertheless, I am glad I re-read this volume and hope that eventually I can go back and reference it if I am challenged for having misunderstood any of it.

William James's pragmatism caught my attention as an undergraduate.  In graduate school, I ended up writing my thesis on Jamesian Pragmatism and defending it orally in front of a room of dumbfounded professors.  I remember distinctively an Assistant Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences whose first question to me was something to the effect of "how the hell did you come up with such an idea... no one writes about pragmatism anymore."  I was actually very glad for the question because it sent the tone of exposing my fundamental ideas about pragmatism and how it applied to the work I had chosen.  The defense lasted four hours (with two 15 minute breaks) and I emerged victorious, albeit almost life-less.  I never looked back from that experience and continue reading and studying pragmatism as a tool for literary interpretation.

American pragmatism is credited in name to William James, but she was a daughter of many thoughtful contributions from top-notch American scholars such as Charles Pierce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Chauncey Wright, among others.  Personally, James gave an immense amount of credit to Holmes for its theoretical basis, but the bulk of his gratitude went to Charles Pierce.  At the time, most of these "heavy-hitters" were engaged in developing (or at least thinking heavily about) a system for answering seemingly unanswerable questions.  Charles Pierce early essay "How to Make Our Ideas Clear" was the early catalyst of the push to "concretize" subjective thinking.  From William James's "What Pragmatism Means" the method of answering the unanswerable gained momentum; or, more specifically, how not to get tangled in metaphysical questions without being able to yield some concrete result/answer.  The anecdote of the camping party observing the squirrel going round the tree seems an awkward way to start off in such an enterprising aim, but it does work as the text develops.  Basically speaking, the method for obtaining such concrete results is based on the "cash value" of ideas; that is to say, for an idea to be true, it must yield some practical benefit.  There were, of course, many detractors; chiefly among them was Oliver Wendell Holmes.  But Holmes did not object to pragmatism on the basis of challenging James' academic caliber (or anyone else's for that matter).  For Holmes, meddling in such methods was an attempt to inject the metaphysical into matters of logic, reason and objectivity and this for him was a fool's errand.  Why, then, did William James give so much credit to Holmes?  This is not a mystery, really, but we must move to today's state of academia to discover an answer (in order words, we have to be pragmatic).  These men were not in the "business" of trying to destroy one another's work.  The challenge was not that of personal attacks or attempts to jockey for position, for these men the exercise of intellectual inquiry was an art.  These gatherings of intellectual powerhouses were designed with the requirement that the opposition was as important as the gathering itself.  In other words, unlike today's academic circles--where everyone sits around for the most part parroting each other ideas and patting each other's back in self-assured comfort--these men (James, Holmes, Wright, Pierce, and others) gather or corresponded with each other with rigorous opposition/challenge to the ideas they presented.  No wonder the originality of the ideas developed during this epoch of American scholarship was so fruitful and far-reaching.

William James's main ideas are nicely encapsulated by Menand, making the reading a pleasure not only on the wealth of its historical content, but also in the facility of digesting the difficult or out-of-reach philosophical substance.  Menand explains, "Pragmatists think that the mistake most people make about beliefs is to think that a belief is true, or justified, only if it mirrors 'the way things really are'--that (to use one of James's most frequent targets, Huxley's argument for agnosticism) we are justified in believing in God only if we are able to prove that God exists apart from our personal belief in him.  No belief, James thought, is justified by its correspondence with reality, because mirroring reality is not the purpose of having minds.  His position on this matter was his earliest announced position as a professional psychologist.  It appears in the first article he ever published, 'Remarks on Spenser's Definition of Mind as Correspondence,' which appeared in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy in the same month that 'How to Make Our Ideas Clear' was appearing in the Popular Science Monthly--January 1878.  'I, for my part,' James wrote, 'cannot escape the consideration... that the knower is not simply a mirror floating with no foot-hold anywhere, and passively reflecting an order that he comes upon and finds simply existing.  The knower is an actor, and co-efficient of the truth... Mental interests, hypotheses, postulates, so far as they are bases for human action--action which to a great extent transform the world--help to make the truth which they declare.  In other words, there belongs to mind, from its birth upwards, a spontaneity, a vote.  It is in the game."  The clarity of this passage underlines the complexity of the dilemma of the value of ideas.  I ran this passage by a friend of mine (a man of deep faith with no college experience) and he agreed wholeheartedly.  The way he phrased it was enlightening to me because, as both a man of faith and academic interest, I never really saw the distinction with clarity.  My friend gave credence to the belief that agnostics or even atheists are at a liberty to believe as they do, but that they should also acknowledge that the Judeo-Christian principles that forged the morality of modern society is of benefit to them in their lack of belief or skepticism.  That is to say, the moral functioning of American society (if it can be said to be credited to those Judeo-Christian principles as so many conservatives believe) allows for the agnostics/atheists to live in a relatively safe environment where crime is minimal (compared with other countries, he was keen on qualifying).  As I understood his example then... the "cash value" of a belief (even when you are not holding that belief at all) is that what gives credibility to the belief itself.

As the pragmatism segment of the book came to a close, a neatly detailed account of Charles Pierce's follies and sad fate came into brighter focus.  William James did a great deal trying to help Pierce get a foot-hold inside academia again, but it was not to be.  Nevertheless, the men continued correspondence and James even set up a fund to help Pierce in the last days of his life.  Pierce was certainly not forgotten or eclipsed, but his influence in academia had been damaged beyond repair since his dismissal from Johns Hopkins.  It is hard to understand how administrators (still to this day) can make or break the career of a brilliant mind simply on the merits of mistakes or poor judgments made outside the classroom.

The last two segments of "The Metaphysical Club" cover some historical account of the path to academic freedom and how pluralism helped define culture in early 1900s America, and the role of academic freedom in higher education.  Academic freedom in higher education is a war that, in my opinion, was lost years ago.  The very same progressive minds, the so-called liberal activists, who tore down the walls of censorship, of excessive administrative oversight, are the same clowns that today have turned our campuses into totalitarian states.  I don't take this stance as a conservative or even as part of the same liberal movement; my intention is to disclose a very well-kept secret about American colleges and universities and that is that the overwhelming liberal bias has seemingly destroyed academic freedom in the United States.  Particularly, as a member of a liberal arts/humanities program, if you don't tug the liberal ideology, you either do not get tenure or don't even get a position to begin with.  What we have is a compartmentalized academia, where it is in vogue to be a conservative if you are in the business or economic departments, but not so much if  you are, say, an English professor.  An English professor, it seems, is expected to advocate the liberal causes in their teaching, to make their teaching an extension of their scholarship, whereas a business professor (whose audience by nature of his/her field appear to be more conservative as conventional wisdom holds) pitches the corporate rhetoric of practical capitalism and political expedience.  I am convinced we've lost that war and the members of "The Metaphysical Club" (particularly John Dewey) would die of embarrassment, really.  There's no pragmatism left in American academia (let alone American politics), and the loss is irreparable.  No wonder that Assistant Dean had to start with the question he did during my oral defense.

"The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America" was a volume written before the events of September 11th, and, as a result, it ends on a very positive note (as opposed to my previous paragraph).  It would be interesting to see what Louis Menand would say, for example, about the totalitarian turn the Federal government has taken since with the Patriot Act (Bush) and the National Defense Authorization Act (Obama).  Menand expertly studies how Oliver Wendell Holmes walked a very thin line regarding First Amendment issues and their relation to the Espionage and Sedition Acts at the outbreak of World War I.

I enjoyed re-reading this book very much.  I will return to it, I am sure, as the demands of remembering what I've read about pragmatism over the years returns to me.

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