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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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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Sir John Tavener: A Composer and a Man of Faith

At first this created a great deal of shock... then I thought of his wonderful contributions to the dialogue about God, faith and humanity's fate in the face of modern spiritual threats and was somewhat relieved.  You're in a much better place today, Sir John Tavener... God bless you.  I can't even begin to count the hours I've spent writing or reading while playing "The Protecting Veil" in the background.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Law Explained: Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Limits of Concrete Reason

The frightening thing about American law is how dependent it is on strictly individual opinions.  A jury of your peers can be questions to really not be categorically correct.  At the risk of sounding like an elitist, I will venture to ask an important question... Who exactly qualifies as your peer?  Is it people with advanced degrees in philosophy or any other liberal art, or people whose concept of the law comes from watching re-runs of Judge Judy on television?  And what about the judges?  A judge who is up for reelection might be inclined to think of his career first and send an innocent man to prison simply to have a record that is tough on crime.  I am not suggesting that this is the case all of the time, but human nature is a funny squirrel and it open the door for formulating these types of difficult questions.  With some of the decisions made at the Federal level lately, I wouldn't be surprised one bit if a Federal judge renders an opinion one way or the other based on advancement opportunities.  At least I can say that I am not pulling this out of the abyss of my non-exercised academic brain.  Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes held such ideas about the law and went as far as suggesting (rather firmly I might add) "that law is nothing more or less than what judges do."  

"The Path of the Law" was Justice Holmes' most definitive insight into the processes of the law.  In it, Holmes explains the law as a series of experiences, but his concept of experience was riddled with non-concrete categorical imperatives.  For example, Menand points out the problematic: "It is often hard to distinguish, in Holmes's writing, between the descriptive and the prescriptive--between what Holmes believed the law was in practice and what he thought the law ought to be.  Holmes didn't do a lot to help his readers make this distinction, but the reason is that his favorite method of argument was to show that what the law ought to be is what it pretty much already is, only under a wrong description....  Whose experience?  The experience, Holmes said, of 'an intelligent and prudent member of the community.'  He didn't mean by this a particularly prudent and intelligent person--a judge, for instance.  He meant, precisely, a person who is neither particularly prudent nor particularly imprudent, an 'average member of the community"--in other words, a jury.  Could we count on these so-called members of the community to know how to judge, considering the aversion to anything logical and reason-based in today's society?  With political correctness running amok in just about every single region of American life, who could even begin to count with anything resembling a fair trial?

I'm not in any way criticizing the contributions of Oliver Wendell Holmes to American jurisprudence.  What I am trying to advocate here is a departure point for a critical analysis of the American justice system.  This is something that perhaps a few of us actually think about, or would even consider until we're knee-deep into some legal issue that takes us to court.  For many years I never understood the general public's aversion to jury duty, and, not having served on a jury myself, I cannot speak from experience.  Yet the amount of weight that falls on the shoulders of people like you and me (intelligent and prudent members of society) in, say, a criminal case seems to require more than just emotional thought or intelligence and I dare say NOT ALL people are prepared or even equipped to go through such an experience.  Wave a jury of your "peers?"  Then pray the judge assigned to your case is not up for reelection, or on the fast-track to an upper court appointment.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Dutch Mona Lisa: Portrait of Isabella Brant

There's a distinct quality to Dutch/Flemish portrait painting from the epoch of the late 1500s and the mid to late part of the 1600s that is familiar and easy to recognize.  This premise is (as a basic statement) obvious enough, while the complexity behind it often remains hidden in the fear of being overly elemental.  I remember years ago being sort of look down upon by colleagues when confessing my love for J.S. Bach, or (apparently a worse admission) W.A. Mozart.  Back in those days, the composer du jour was Gustav Mahler, and to speak of anything besides Mahler's "sweeping harmonies" or (what I consider an even more over-used cliche) "haunting melodies" was academic sin.  The same, I think, applies to visual art.  There are names that come and go in vogue according to the intellectual tides; I suppose that's a normal enough pendulum swinging process.  What I find rather tragic is how the academic pendulum swings one way or the other often relegating certain names to obscurity or oblivion.  While I don't consider Peter Paul Rubens to be in the "forgotten category," I do fear that this inclusive/exclusive process (whether real or imagined) can do more harm than good to artists like Rubens.

The portrait of Isabella Brant, Rubens young wife, sits at the Cleveland Museum of Art among portraits of better known figures.  What the portrait reveals is an intimate look into a marriage that is known to have been as happy as it was tragically short.  At the time of the painting, Rubens and his wife Isabella had four children.  Much like the better known "Mona Lisa," Rubens masterpiece depicts a knowing smile, a confident and serene intimacy that draws the viewer in to the precise moment when that intimacy is created and known to both artist and model.  The character of Isabella Brant is opposite to that of da Vinci's insomuch as it carries with it a different angle; that is to say, we are made intimate to a much less complex moment, less charged with exterior interpretation.  Isabella Brant's smile and responsive look conveys a matronly acknowledgement, as opposed to a sexually-charged codified gesture.  The Cleveland Museum of Art suggests that "[t]he informal, sketchlike character of the present portrait suggests that Rubens painted it for his own enjoyment.  The picture was enlarged only later, by van Dyck, to a more conventional format, allowing space for Isabella's right hand."  I don't know about van Dyck's addition but I have read some about Rubens' other portraits of his wife but I have not yet had an opportunity to study them.

The theory that academic circles sway with trends and tastes is one that I have strong opinions about.  I apologize ahead of time for those who feel the statements made here offend.  It is difficult to understand why academia functions in such manner.  I can only assume that this is so due to the strong opinions of academics and the often conflict-generating nature of the discourse.  There are times when I feel intensely grateful to be out of there.

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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Charles Pierce: Mathematician, All-Around Genius and Ladies Man

Charles Sanders Pierce is one of those intellectual historical figures that strikes the reader like the proverbial ton of bricks.  The son of Benjamin Pierce, Charles had the doors to the academic life wide open by virtue of his pedigree, but it was his precocious and powerful genius that took him all the way to the top and, from there, all the way down to the bottom.  One is reminded (in a good way) of Peter Shaffer's treatment of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the play (later movie by Milos Forman) "Amadeus."  Charles Pierce was a member of "The Metaphysical Club," a book by Louis Menand that I have been re-reading so slowly I might set the record for slow reading a 440 page book.  At any rate, Pierce was probably one of the most arrogant and loud-spoken of all of the scholars Menand covers in the volume.  He was abrasive in presence and overpowering in conversation.  Not to be one to allow his ideas share the stage with his colleagues and peers, Charles Pierce wrote letters to university presidents praising himself as the "next big thing," or simply the "big thing" (a designer of systems) in an age when modesty and professional bearing were still very much protocol.  He made enemies here, allies and opponents there--in short, Pierce was a man for the ages.
Pierce's glory as a scholar came from his immense intellect and his ability to produce some of the most challenging theories about the nature of all his fields of endeavors.  For example, he (and his father) were engaged in the famous Howland case, in which a signature on a last will and testament to decide the fate of Issac Howland's estate became a national sensation.  The case centered around the contention that one of the signatures was traced/fake and therefore the document was invalid.  The Pierces engaged in calculating the probability of said signature appearing in the same place on the paper, particularly the margin distance.  The Pierce calculation for this probability proved to be ineffective in the decision of the case because of the "extravagance" of its scholarly "pretentiousness" (or at least that is the general consensus).  The calculation, as Menand reports it in the book goes as follows: "The change that Sylvia Ann Howland could have produced two signatures in which all thirty down-strokes coincided was... one in 5^30, 'or, more exactly it is once in two thousand six hundred and sixty-six millions of millions of millions of times, or 2,666,000,000,000,000,000,000."  The case was lost, and while Pierce's contribution seemed to have been concrete enough, the general consensus was that the abstraction of such calculation, understood by perhaps a handful of mathematicians in the world, was not the type of evidence conducive to resting a verdict on.  

Charles Pierce's personality was welcomed in some circles and, without a doubt, contemplated with envious eyes in others.  He had his champions and William James proved to be one of them writing letters of recommendations for Pierce, as Pierce desperately looked for an academic position.  One such position was the inaugural chair for the Philosophy Department at Johns Hopkins University.  The president of the university, one Daniel Coit Gilman, was one of those people in administrative positions of power who carry grudges and remembers favors and double-crossings and is quick to take his revenge when the opportunity appeared.  Pierce pestered Gilman with letters looking for an appointment but a storm was brewing on the horizon regarding Pierce's personal life and Gilman was not about to turn a blind eye to such transgressions.  In short, Pierce was denied a position at Johns Hopkins because of marital problems, as Charles Pierce had left his wife for a much younger woman in a case that was socially scandalous as it was salaciously enjoyed by people like Gilman.

Charles Pierce never recuperated his status as America's preeminent mathematician.  As a matter of fact, the true nature of his genius was his ability to transcend his field into physics, philosophy and even the young field at the time of Natural Psychology.  He left hundreds of unfinished manuscripts for articles, books and systems of thought and one is left to wonder what would have become of American scholarship if Charles Pierce had not been derailed by his own awesome intellect and personal weaknesses.  

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Monday, July 01, 2013

The Beautiful and Damned: The Story of Ann Prentiss

While watching a re-run of an old 1970s drama titled "Emergency!" on my local "nostalgia television" channel, I came across a beauty of incomparable quality.  There was something about her looks that caught my attention, and, while I am unable to pin down with accuracy what exactly that was, my overall assessment is that Ann Prentiss is probably one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen on television.  I'm not in the habit of doing research every time something catches my eye (specially when it comes to television) but the image stuck in my head overnight and I had to give in to it.  What I found, unfortunately, was a story of success and sisterly competition, of family secrets and a tragic ending that left me deflated and scratching my head.  At any rate, here are some of the pictures I found of Ann Prentiss.  She died in prison in 2010 while serving a 19 year sentence for aggravated assault, attempted murder and attempting to hire someone to kill her brother-in-law.

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Sunday, June 09, 2013

Chauncey Wright: The Man, The Myth... The Sad and Troubled Paradox

Chauncey Wright, one of the main characters of Louis Menand's "The Metaphysical Club," was considered by many the quiet driving force behind the group.  The reason for this claim is that Wright lived for conversation and therefore served as the intellectual "fuel" of the group.  Officially, he was a "computer," meaning a mathematician paid to do calculations all day.  When not calculating, Wright lived the life of the bachelor scholar.  He was an alcoholic and suffered from massive bouts of depression.  He was able to offset his mood in public because people loved his interlocution.  Back in the mid to late 1800s, the "life of the party" wasn't the drunk uncle wearing a lamp shade on his head, or the suave operator with the funniest jokes and quickest lines; the life of the party back then was the guy who could sustain an intellectual conversation without monopolizing the affair.  Chauncey Wright was just that perfect in conversation.  He was, however, troubled in many, many painful ways.

Chauncey Wright was not an antagonist or a contrarian.  He was an intellectual powerhouse that swam with the biggest minds of the epoch.  The mid to late 1800s were also a time of social decorum, or propriety and extremely conservative protocol.  Unfortunately for Wright, he didn't meet several of the categorical standards.  For as much a social talent when it came to conversation, he was a life-long bachelor and his interest in the opposite sex seems to have remained either a secret or uncatalogued to this day.  Wright boarded in homes while working out his ideas and attending meetings of The Metaphysical Club.  He also had an extremely soft heart and did an incredible amount of good in quiet and anonymous ways.  He helped locate and free the children of Mary Walker, a fugitive slave who ran a boarding house where Wright lived for some time.

His ideas were a mixture of his contemporaries and good old fashion European cutting edge.  Menand sums it up this way: "What Wright meant by positivism was, at bottom, an absolute distinction between facts and values.  Fact was the province of science and value was the province of what he called, always a little deprecatingly, metaphysics.  Wright thought that metaphysical speculation--ideas about the origin, end and meaning of life--came naturally to human beings.  He didn't condemn such ideas out of hand.  He just thought they should never be confused with science.  For what science teaches is that the phenomenal world--the world we can see and touch--is characterized, through and through, by change, and that our knowledge of it is characterized, through and through, by uncertainty."  There's enough in this passage to understand that Wright was focused on bringing in the opposition to some very lofty ideas being held at the time.  I can imagine how The Metaphysical Club (people like Charles Pierce, William James, Benjamin Pierce, Oliver Wendell Holmes and the rest, all of whom corresponded heavily with each other) reacted to some of Wright's hard questions.  James was particularly influenced--perhaps not by Wright's writing which he found obfuscated and difficult--in conversation and by Wright's mere commanding presence.  Holmes was particularly full of praise for Wright: "Chauncey Wright, a nearly forgotten philosopher of real merit, taught me when young that I must not say necessarily about the universe, that we don't know whether anything is necessary or not."

I look back on the days when I was teaching full-time at ______, and those long weekend when, as a bachelor scholar, I used to close the door of my apartment behind me on Friday afternoon after work, and not open it again until Monday morning when I headed out to the classroom.  I wonder if the changes that came to my life in 2005 had not taken place if I wouldn't have ended life Chauncey Wright.  That's not to say I would have drank myself to oblivion in a sea of depression, for I was very happy to live as I did.  But Chauncey Wright died at the age of 45, after two strokes which left him unable to care for himself, and as I said, I was happy living quietly among books, writing and my teaching.  Life has changed too much to make a comparison.  I am very happy to have learned about Wright... a true TITAN for evidence and the balance between the empirical and the metaphysical.

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Wednesday, May 08, 2013

A Roll of the Dice... Probability "Explained"

Writing about "The Law of Errors," in his masterful work "The Metaphysical Club: The Story of Ideas in America," Louis Menand explains discrepancies in calculative mechanics this way (which I find brilliant, by the way): "The solution to this problem [the problem of not knowing what produces a discrepancy] was borrowed from probability theory--specifically, from a formula published in 1738 by a mathematician named Abraham De Moivre, a Huguenot who had emigrated to England, in the second edition of a work called The Doctrine of Chances.  When you roll two dice, you get one of thirty-six possible combinations (one and one, one and two, one and three, and so on, up to six and six).  These thirty-six combinations can produce eleven possible totals (two through twelve).  The total with the greatest likelihood of coming up is seven, since a seven can be produced by any of six different combinations (one and six, two and five, three and four, four and three, four and two, six and one).  Only five of the thirty-six combinations will produce an eight or a six, only four will produce a nine or a five, and so on, down to the two and the twelve.  If you chart on a graph the results of many rolls of the dice, with the totals (two through twelve) on the horizontal axis and the number of times each total comes up on the vertical axis, you will eventually get points that connect to form a bell-shaped curve.  The highest point on this curve will be at seven on the horizontal axis (approximately one-sixth of your throws will produce some combination of numbers adding up to seven), and the curve will slope downward symmetrically on either side to two and one end and twelve at the other."

What I find most fascinating about this is the fact that in gambling there are many ways of calculating risk this way, enabling experienced and knowledgeable gamblers to "beat" the house again and again.  Case in point: the mathematical genius that is card-counting. While its application to "real" life is hard to interpret right at this moment, I am going to take some time this summer to study this roll of the dice probability issue and come up with some results.  I don't know how the roll of the dice game works at casinos but my curiosity has been cracked and now there'll be hell to pay :-)

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Monday, April 29, 2013

Janos Starker, RIP

Fall of 1989... I had no business attending (not as a performer but as audience) a master class he gave at Indiana University Conservatory of Music while I was visiting a friend who studied with him.  The word "intimidating" does little to describe this hurricane of a man. But above all, he was a great musician and a sensitive artist... outspoken, hard drinking and chimney-like smoker, but a beautiful cellist nonetheless. Rest in peace, Maestro.

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Virtue is Knowledge: A Contemporary View of Plato's Dialogue "Meno" and Its Application to Modern Times

Are we still asking ourselves the "big" questions? Have we lost our moral compass? These questions are as common today as they were 2,000 years ago--although I suspect the answers are harder to come by today. The "Meno" dialogue is a deeply personal example for me; I try teaching it every semester as a starter for broad class discussions that, hopefully, spark a light in students' hearts and their views of their own philosophy. Anthony Kronman's book "Education's End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life," is a prime example of this premise. The question as to whether or not these are questions or lessons to be learned in the classroom is as old as time itself. The difference with today's social condition, as opposed, say, 100 years ago, is that these lessons are not (for the most part) not being taught at home. That is not to say that parents are not disciplining their children; on the contrary, I think parent involvement today has reached epic proportions. But again, what are the lessons being taught? How are following generations to understand the important from the mundane? With the increase of information availability, these question crescendo into a high pitch only dogs seem to hear. Politicians might fall back on the occasional cliche (we are at the crossroads) to avoid answering concretely, but we don't have that luxury. It is everyone's job, but if parents do not do the job at home, then teachers/professors must do it in the classroom/lecture hall.

Relativism no doubt will rear its "ugly" head and argue that most perennial of questions: "Who's to say what we should teach to arrive at those moral lessons?" While this is a valid question, the premise of the idea is simply false. Reading the Classics (a task now declared useless and defunct by the global economics-techophiles obsessed with 'competing' with China) has been the moral path to follow for centuries, if not millennia, but depending on a moral GPS is a recent development. With the increase of information available the only thing the online commune has to do is declare the information "solid" for it to jell into cemented ideas. I know I will sound like a grandpa saying that "back in the day" ideas took centuries to jell into cemented ideas, but that simply the truth. People like Voltaire, Nietzsche, and Sartre struggled with their ideas and thoughts, absorbing criticism, the scrutiny of their peers, etc. Today, we simply accept, and the collective triumphs. Please read DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism
by Jaron Lanier to see what I mean.

I know I cannot continue to post arguments like these without proposing a solution. Right now, I am teaching where I think I am needed the most. That's where I am starting. There are many different types of enlightenments, but the one that prompts a student to become a critical thinking, long-life learner might just be the best thing ever to happen to society since the invention of the wheel. If the proponents of the idea that the classroom is not a place to run around debating moral philosophies, then I beg them to share with me their alternative. Until then, the core of academia should be founded on the examination of the ethics missing from practically all current platforms.

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Saturday, February 09, 2013

Famous People Born on February 9th

This is a bit of an indulgence.  I did a search of people born on February 9th (my own birthday) to see what I could discover.  I knew for a long time that the writer Alice Walker was born on the 9th, and that William Henry Harrison (I'll give you a few seconds to see if you can come up with his pedigree................. no?), 9th president of the United States of America was also born on the 9th of February.  Kurt Cobain and Vin Diesel were born on the same day.  What I did not know was that Joe Pesci was born on the 9th!  Joe Pesci!  Joe Pesci!  On my birthday!  I feel like thanking the Academy but I will restrain myself.

Happy Birthday, Joe!

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Thursday, January 03, 2013

It's Just One of Those Days... (Not the Limp Bizkit Song)

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, I have forgotten, and what arms have lain Under my head till morning; but the rain Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh Upon the glass and listen for reply, And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain For unremembered lads that not again Will turn to me at midnight with a cry. Thus in winter stands the lonely tree, Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, Yet knows its boughs more silent than before: I cannot say what loves have come and gone, I only know that summer sang in me A little while, that in me sings no more.

I know we read this poem together a million times, and a million times we promised each other that it would be forever.  I miss you.  Wherever you are, and wherever you go (and whoever you are with), you will be in my heart for eternity.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It's Good to Not Know Yourself... I Guess

I've always been intrigued by this piece by Jorge Luis Borges, as I was intrigued when I (as a seven or eight year old) used to read the highway graffiti back in the early 1970s that read "FREE BORGES" in the cosmopolitan city I was living at the time with my parents.  "Was Borges ever in prison?" I asked one of my professors once as an undergrad.  I never got a straight answer.  I sought the answer myself in the following passage.

From "Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings," by Jorge Luis Borges.

The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of an entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor. It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me. It is no effort for me to confess that he has achieved some valid pages, but those pages cannot save me, perhaps because what is good belongs to no one, not even to him, but rather to the language and to tradition. Besides, I am destined to perish, definitively, and only some instant of myself can survive in him. Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things.
Spinoza knew that all things long to persist in their being; the stone eternally wants to be a stone and the tiger a tiger. I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone), but I recognize myself less in his books than in many others or in the laborious strumming of a guitar. Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.
I do not know which of us has written this page.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Christopher Isherwood's Last Volume of Diaries: Liberation

And so it happens that we come to the last of what has been the greatest diary reading of my literary life.  Christopher Isherwood's diaries are (and I am intent to NOT use a qualifier) the best literary diaries written in the 20th Century (yes, Virginia Wolff's included).  I am so unapologetic about my enjoyment of these volumes that I am willing to bet a great deal many people agree with me; unfortunately, the "many people" do not seem to include the NYT's book reviewers.  While it is not a surprise I am clashing once again with the powers of the NYT, this time (as opposed to the times when I defend Paul Auster's work), I am challenging any reviewer at the NYT to argue differently.

Christopher Isherwood's "Liberation," the third and last part account of a literary genius, begins as Isherwood welcomes the new decade (1970s) with the same type of foreboding yet full of enthusiasm--a paradox that is his and his alone.  The details included in "Liberation" follow the same pattern of Hollywood gossip, literary and movie producing heartache, sexual practices down to the most minute (weight recording) detail of life.  There are many of the same cast of characters I've grown to love and/or hate, and new ones that seem so transient it almost feels like Isherwood is talking about ghosts.  Along with the passage of the years, Isherwood records the passage of time with all of his health aches and that of others as well.  It is particularly sad to read when characters such as Caskey pass away--his case (dying alone in his apartment in Athens) strikes me as the worse of all the others.

Don Bachardy is steadfast in his love and support of Isherwood as the writer becomes increasingly unable to deal with his health problems.  Not without its growing pains, their relationship reaches a level not commonly seen in relations where the age difference is so great.  Both men face the future with courage as the inevitable was a matter of time and they both knew it.  Isherwood is particularly open about how strong Bachardy faces each and every one of Isherwood's increasingly debilitating illnesses.  Their collaboration (especially in the screenplay of "Frankenstein: The Real Story") is as strong as ever throughout the 1970s and 1980s, alongside Don Bachardy's own "liberation" as an artist begin recognized on his own talent and not just for being Isherwood's partner.

The title "Liberation" refers to Isherwood's own, but also to the entire gay liberation movement.  After the publication of "Christopher and His Kind," Isherwood established himself the elder statesman (or grand dame) of the gay movement during the mid to late 1970s.  Isherwood is candid in his views, not always agreeing with the political branch of the movement, and other such necessary differences when dealing with people of genius.  There are references to speeches and interviews, but to list them here would be somewhat of creating a catalog when in reality none is needed if you are to read the volume entirely.

The sadness of getting older, and, as a result, weaker in health is put down on paper here as the chronicle of a life well lived, albeit the hope for more and more years.  Isherwood is revealing in his faith and refers to his guru quite frequently during this time.  Despite the fact that after the death of his guru Isherwood stayed away from the Vedanta center doesn't seem to affect Isherwood's spirituality.  Yet, as in all tasks that demand unshakable discipline, he finds himself thinking he's lazy for missing a day or two of japam, or simply because he's tired of it all.  In all of this, Isherwood's relationship to Bachardy comes as the main source of comfort for the writer.  Isherwood explicitly elaborate on their daily life, a life that even though devoid of some of their activities in earlier years, seems to generate more tenderness and togetherness.

Despite the abrupt ending of the diaries (Isherwood died in 1986 but by 1983 he had become weak and unfocused to continue in a manner satisfactory to his earlier work).  I feel a sense of void, really, a big sense of having finished these massive volumes and having learned a great deal from them.  It's not always that one finds something that is both engaging and entertaining.  I have them to my left on the book shelve and look at their spine with a strange sense of nostalgia, as if I had come to befriend Isherwood and Bachardy and shared their extraordinary lives.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

It's the End of the World or, Whatever....

I read a book about the collapse of the United States and how chaos and disorder ruled the day.  While the book sounds like what is actually happening today, I feel deeply that--while this was not within my range of interest--it might not be so off the mark after all.  The book is "Patriots: A Novel of Surviving in the Coming Collapse" by James Wesley, Rawles.  The book disclaims that it is not intended to be used as a manual for "bushcrafting," "prepping" or military tactics, it does offer an amazing amount of information if that is your interest.  From how to make your own solar panel power source to changing frequency channel crystals on a radio so that you can't be traced or intercepted.

The story is about a group of friends who become concerned after the debacle of Hurricane Katrina.  They all were allowed into the original group by means of their expertise and what they could contribute to their cause.  While most of them are from urban areas, their "compound" is purchased and prepared before the actual collapse... weapons, ammunition, food, gasoline, and an array of upgrades to the home (some of which were so absolutely over the top in how they were explained it is nearly impossible not to image using the book as a do-it-yourself instructional), the group prepares for absolutely everything that could come up.  Other characters show up throughout, alliances are made with other groups.  Ultimately, the military confrontation with Federal and United Nations troops hits a fever pitch and the Constitutional Republic is restored.

This is definitely a book that I enjoyed reading despite the topic.  It is well written and I even enjoyed the "instructional" aspect of it.

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Monday, September 10, 2012


Wikipedia, that most pretentious form of misguided and erroneous collectivism, is at it again.  Philip Roth, an author I have covered in this blog extensively, cannot correct an entry for his novel "The Human Stain."  But the ultimate insult came when editors at the notorious cesspool of collective ignorance told Roth that "he wasn't authoritative enough," and that he needed "secondary sources" in order to make the change.

Here we are... a society where the collective is more authoritative than the individual. We are massively $%* if we think we can turn around and revert to logic and reason.


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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Paul Auster -- Winter Journal & THE NYT Review

It's hard to cover up my fanaticism when it comes to Paul Auster's work, so I am not even going to try.  There are, however, moments when my defense of Mr Auster's work has put me at odds with many people online.  I suspect this post is not at all different from all those other times when I've responded to The New York Times Book Review criticism of Auster's latest work, "Winter Journal."  In that spirit, I endeavor here to "problematize" some of the points Ms Meghan O'Rourke's review of "Winter Journal." 

The opening of the review refers to a time, she recalls, when living in Brooklyn meant running into writers like Auster all of the time (at the grocery story with her father, for instance).  Ms O'Rourke accurately points out that "[s]ince those days much has changed; you can't go out to the Fort Greene Greenmarket on Saturday without running into a spangle of fiction writers."  I suspect that by this she means Martin Amis (a grand article in the New York Times about Brooklyn writers featured him prominently, but made no mention of Auster), and the other grand group she neglects to mention. If I sound bitter, well, it is because I lack all objectivity when it comes to the almost complete blackout of Paul Auster from The New York Times.  Having said that, I have read Ms O'Rourke's work (poetry) and respect her output tremendously.  What I disagree with her on is the fact that "Winter Journal" is published 30 years after the publication of "The Invention of Solitude" and that it ["Winter Journal"] "can be read as a bookend to that text ["The Invention of Solitude"].  Strangely enough, Ms O'Rourke states later on in the review that "'Winter Journal' doesn't live up to its precedent--it lacks its kick."  I find this exquisitely paradoxical--30 years is a long time, and the stretch of time does wonderful (and terrible) things to a writer, in both terms of style and substance.  While I will always defend Paul Auster for the excellence of his genius, I take issue with the fact that the review sounds as if someone was writing a "Requiem to Lost Talent."

Compared to "The Invention of Solitude," states Ms O'Rourke, (or to any other biographical text by a fiction writer) "'Winter Journal' is not all that philosophical, and its meditative sections have a turgid quality, like a sauce that's overthickened."  I fail to see how "Winter Journal" is that disparate from "The Invention of Solitude," especially in the philosophical analysis of biographical material.  It is precisely its fullness of philosophy that what gives "Winter Journal" its most palpable greatness... it is a biography that spells an individual life spent looking for answers and not missing the details of one's own role among others.

I'll probably catch some hell for writing so off the objective center, but my life has been changed tremendously by each and every single sentence of Paul Auster's work.  There hasn't been one word missing, or one word too many for my taste.  Too bad all "perfect" things come to an end... whether it is love, friendship and writers, it all dies in the end.  I accept the criticism because it is only by the grace of Paul Auster's work that literature still has meaning for me.