Friday, August 31, 2007

Religion: Not guna do it?

In the 600-plus pages of my two-volume edition of the Notebooks of Simone Weil [Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1956; translated by Arthur Wills], she cites the Bhagavad Gîtâ a total of 41 times. For this reason, I was reading one translation of the Gîtâ, which I took out of the library, while working my way through the Notebooks. When I had finished that, I bought a copy of a more recent translation, by Graham M. Schweig, which I have on my nightstand. I am currently working my way through that, a couple of pages per night. Last night I began the fourteenth of the eighteen chapters, in which the Lord Krishna explains to Arjuna the three gunas, or “qualities of nature”: sattva, rajas, and tamas. Simone Weil uses these concepts in constructing and elucidating her system of theology, relating them to both Platonism and Christianity.

The gunas are each briefly defined in the Index to Sanskrit Terms provided at the end of the Notebooks:

Sattva: higher element of the gunas; principle of purity and light.
Rajas: middle element of the gunas; disturbing principle which gives rise to the passions.
Tamas: lower element of the gunas; principle of darkness and evil.

Collectively, these three “qualities” or substances go to form the prakrti, which is defined in the index as “original matter (or nature).” Another key term, which is strangely omitted from the index in the Notebooks, is dharma. In a footnote on page 21 of his translation of the Gîtâ, Schweig defines dharma as: “A state of consciousness, a personal calling to goodness, cosmic harmony, sound ethical law, or justice. Dharma is the very first word in the Sanskrit Gîtâ, and this symbolic primacy is not lost on Simone Weil. Each person’s dharma, she knows is “all mixed up with evil,” the amount of which is dependant upon the relative strength of influence exerted upon the individual’s actions by each of the three qualities of nature. Actions, and the results of actions, are karma, which can be likened to a debt that the individual owes to existence as defined by how far he falls short of fulfilling his individual dharma. The thematic aim of the Gîtâ, Weil says, is the “ordering of finite means with a view to an infinite and transcendent end: how is this possible.” Her answer to this question is: “One should become detached from the three gunas (even sattva). Action for action’s sake, not for its fruits (even the fruit of inner perfection)” – (page 89).

We will look at this paradox further as time goes on, since it seems to be a crucial element of Simone Weil’s thought in contemplating the nature and goals of human existence.

NOTE ON THE ILLUSTRATION: It may seem inappropriate to use "The Three Graces" to decorate a post on "The Three Gunas." But my reasons are two-fold: a) I'm a fan of the artist, and this is a prime excuse; and b) it is precisely because all three gunas (even tamas) look good to us when we are failing in our attention to duty and allowing them to influence our acts, that all of our acts are entangled, or mixed up with evil. Caveat emptor.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Reflections: Road Trip

The past week has been a hectic one, centered on getting my oldest daughter properly supplied, packed, and transported, to begin her freshman year of college. This involved a 1500 mile round-trip, by car, over the course of three days, with the setting up of a dorm room sandwiched between the two all-day driving sessions. Then, at the end of it all, you find yourself at home, minus the presence of a loved one who has been one of the central focuses of your life for the past 18 years. It isn’t quite the “empty nest” syndrome yet, since she has a sister a year behind her. But there remains a gaping hole, nonetheless.

My good friend, Jim, who has only one daughter, and went through this a couple of years ago, tells me that he’s still adjusting to it. And then he tells me that you hear from them most often when they’re unhappy. Talk about the proverbial rock and the ubiquitous hard place.

All complaining and lamenting aside, the drive through the hills and mountains of West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts is a particularly beautiful one. Even driving through Connecticut and New Jersey at night, on the way back, provided some sinister beauty. You are speeding along dimly-lit elevated highways, through cityscapes resembling scenes once envisioned in futuristic film noir. Towering edifices, like alien monuments edged in twinkling lights, loom up out of an absolute darkness, as though projected by the eerie, greenish-blue light reflected from their massive planes, deeply etched by the angular dance of jet black shadows. Where the highway passes over human dwellings, made visible by ordinary street lights, it is impossible to imagine the lives of the people who live within such ancient wooden frame structures. None of it seems real.

Back now, in humdrum Ohio, in a house with an empty bedroom, surrounded by a large lawn which needs tending regardless of the end-of-summer heat wave, perhaps there will be some consolation in resuming the daily reading which the distractions of the past week have made nearly impossible?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Reflections: Whattsa matter you?

Ava Gardner. No comment. Just...Ava Gardner.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Readings: What Is Life?

Across the evening valley the old mule went with his heartbroken "Hee haw" broken like a yodel in the wind: like a horn blown by some terribly sad angel: like a reminder to people digesting dinners at home that all was not as well as they thought. Yet it was just a love cry for another mule.

--Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums

After all, our wisdom, however irrefutable it may be, has provided us with no understanding of the meaning of life. Yet all those millions who make up humanity manage to live without ever doubting its meaning.

--Leo Tolstoy, A Confession

...I'm also observing if any demonstrable good's to be had from getting as old as Methuselah, other than that the organism keeps functioning like a refrigerator. We assume persistence to be a net gain, but it still needs to be proved.

--Richard Ford, The Lay of the Land

To say like Ivan Karamazov: nothing can possibly make up for a single tear from a single child. And yet to accept all tears, and the countless horrors which lie beyond tears. To accept these things not simply in so far as they may admit of compensations, but in themselves. To accept that they should exist, simply because they do exist. ...and by this acceptance to love God through and beyond it.

--Simone Weil, Notebooks, Volume One

There are two ways to look at life. One is that you never have enough closet space. The other is that you have too much stuff.


Monday, August 20, 2007

Reflections: Life in the Material World

[N.B.: if you would like to read this essay on dualism from the beginning, scroll down to the August 13th post, "Reflections: Heresy?"]

Why was the Serpent’s proposal to Eve so effective? Why was the satisfaction of every physical need, combined with complete ease and security, not enough for our human parents? In Chapter XXXIII of his Republic, Plato provides a possible answer:

"…As hunger and thirst are states of bodily inanition, which can be replenished by food, so ignorance and unwisdom in the soul are an emptiness to be filled by gaining understanding. Of the two sorts of nourishment, will not the more real yield the truer satisfaction?
Which kind of nourishment, then, has the higher claim to pure reality – food-stuffs like bread and meat and drink, or such things as true belief, knowledge, reason, and in a word all the excellences of the mind? You may decide by asking yourself whether something which is closely connected with the unchanging and immortal world of truth and itself shares that nature together with the thing in which it exists, has more or less reality than something which, like the thing which contains it, belongs to a world of mortality and perpetual change.
No doubt it is much more real."

Prior to eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve were essentially nothing more than a pair of beautiful pets; they were not fully human, as we understand human. It would seem that, according to orthodoxy, the price of full self-consciousness and of our moral free agency, and therefore of our full humanity, is living with the perpetual burden of Original Sin.

Orthodoxy states that the sin of Adam and Eve is responsible for bringing death into the world, but the text of Genesis does not fully support that doctrine. It is made clear, for one thing, that Adam and Eve will be eating, and to eat is necessarily to kill that which is eaten. To the contention that Adam and Eve were immortal prior to the attainment of self-consciousness are opposed verses 22 and 23 of the third chapter of Genesis:

[22] And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:
[23] Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

Clearly, it was for the very purpose of keeping Adam and Eve from acquiring immortality, along with wisdom, that they were expelled from Eden. So, the Serpent did not exactly lie when he told Eve that she would not die as a direct consequence of eating that apple. And the Serpent also spoke the truth when he said that Adam and Eve would become godlike by eating it, as God himself affirms. Plausibly, then, everything that orthodoxy attests to be the fallen state of nature is, in reality, a necessary condition of material existence. The material world is not the highest Good under heaven; but neither is it Fallen because of a human act. It is as it must be, in order to have material existence. It becomes, therefore, the human project to transcend our material nature and strive to become holy, like God. This is what Jesus commands us to do: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” [Matt. 5: 48]

So, what is the nature of the Serpent? Is this the first appearance of Satan, the principle of pure evil, in the Bible? Interestingly, the book of Genesis does not characterize the Serpent as “evil,” but merely as “subtle.” It is clear that the agenda of the Serpent is to coax the humans into an act of defiance against the rule put in place by the Creator. But we have seen that the consequences of this act of disobedience are not shown to be unequivocally bad as they might be interpreted, for instance, by the philosophy of Plato.

The Serpent is sometimes portrayed in a positive light in world mythology, and sometimes as an embodiment of evil. Some snakes are, after all, poisonous. But others are a boon to man in controlling the numbers of vermin. The Serpent is sometimes, as in Genesis, seen as wise, and is sometimes equated with Satan:

"Although in the minority, there are at least a couple of passages in the New Testament that do not present the snake with negative connotation. When sending out the twelve apostles, Jesus exhorted them 'Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.'Matthew 10:16)."


"In the Gospel of Matthew 3:7, John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Saducees visiting him a "brood of vipers". Later in Matthew 23:33, Jesus himself uses this imagery, observing: 'Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of Gehenna?' ("Hell" is the usual translation of Jesus' word Gehenna.)"

And these are some of the reasons why the various degrees of dualism found in Platonism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, and the teachings and philosophies of some of the many mystics and sages are of interest to me.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Reflections: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

We have seen how, in a material world, light beamed at existing objects necessarily creates the shadows in which evil can lurk; the brighter the light, the deeper the darkness. All of Creation, man included, is founded upon this intrinsic paradox. As they put it on the street corners of the Bronx, “You have to take the good with the bad.” The Creator equipped man with free will because man could not, in any meaningful sense, choose the good, unless he were capable of choosing evil instead. And this inevitable truth sets up the tragedy of man’s Fall and his expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

In the creation of Eden, God had provided Adam and Eve with everything that materia has to offer – beauty, nourishment, sexuality, and power – dominion over the entire spectrum of life. But there remained this one, odd, exception:

16] And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
[17] But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

In the first version of the Creation, as presented in Genesis 1, this divine caveat does not occur. It is only in the second, notably less perfect, version of Creation that the Creator plants in the groves, along with “every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food,” the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

In terms of our considerations of dualism, we might well ask here, how – since the whole of creation had been deemed “good” by the Creator – there could logically exist a tree of the knowledge of good and evil? For how does one have knowledge of a thing (evil) that does not exist? The very presence of this tree in the midst of the Garden seems to imply that all is not good.

We might next ask how, if prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve have no knowledge of good and evil, they can be said to be moral agents and to possess free will? If one cannot consciously choose evil, then one is morally absolved of any intent to do so, and the concept of guilt, or sin, is meaningless.

Which brings us to the serpent. Although, as we noted earlier, all of Adam and Eve’s animal needs had been provided for by God’s creation, Eve’s encounter with the serpent quickly shows us that the satisfaction of every material need and desire was not sufficient. The serpent is easily able to persuade Eve that the acquisition of wisdom – the ability to transcend the material, passing into intellectual realms – was worth risking even death, the permanent loss of the material world. We will enlarge upon this consideration next time.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Interlude: Fiat Lux Redux

Before finishing completely with the first chapter of Genesis and moving on to a consideration of the two trees that God placed in the Garden of Eden, I want to take one last look at the implications of “Let there be light.”
We are told that, after causing it to come into existence, God “divided” the light from the darkness and called the light “Day” and the darkness “Night.” We usually think of darkness as the absence of light; that is, we think of darkness as something which has no existence independent of the existence of light. Light is the up, if you will, to the necessarily corresponding down that is darkness. Yet it was light that God created, and then separated from the apparently preexistent darkness. It would therefore seem that, actually, light is the absence of darkness. In terms of physics, this is may be a nonsensical way to look at it. But, as a metaphor for the spiritual lives of men, it seems to me to embody a profound truth.
Consider, for instance, the minimalist New Testament recapitulation of the Creation in the Gospel of John:

[1] In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
[2] The same was in the beginning with God.
[3] All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.
[4] In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
[5] And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

Here, light is equated with life, with the Word, that is, with the Christ, and the Christ with “the light of men.” We recognize this light as that spark of the divine by virtue of the possession of which man is said to be made in God’s image. And all the rest is a surrounding darkness that obscures the light, imposing an ignorance of its salvific presence. Darkness is not, then, merely a neutral absence of the goodness that is light; rather, it is an obstacle—a kind of firewall between matter and life.

We, in our ordinary thinking, do not consider darkness to be a mere absence of light; we experience it as a menacing presence to be feared and avoided. We are afraid of the dark, afraid of the night and of the menacing spirits which populate it. The devil, Satan, is referred to as the Prince of Darkness and as the Prince of This World. As the embodiment of evil, Satan is also the embodiment of a dualism; a struggle of Darkness against the Light; of spirit against matter.

The ultimate futility of this struggle on the cosmic level is reversed on the microcosmic, terrestrial level, where the darkness of sin, and the allure of evil, so often, and so easily, overwhelm the will of the spiritual pilgrim, placing an endless series of stumbling blocks on the path of his arduous journey toward the Source of all light. We will see this struggle acted out by the dramatis personae playing their existentially predestined rôles on Eden’s tragic stage.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Reflections: Dualism - In the beginning


1: a theory that considers reality to consist of two irreducible elements or modes
2: the quality or state of being dual or of having a dual nature
3 a: a doctrine that the universe is under the dominion of two opposing principles one of which is good and the other evil b: a view of human beings as constituted of two irreducible elements (as matter and spirit)

Of the four dictionary definitions of “dualism” above, I am most interested here in parts "a" and "b" of number 3. Orthodox Christianity, at least as expressed in Catholicism (as I understand it, which is admittedly not that well) would deny the truth of each of these definitions. In the biblical book of Genesis, it is stated that when God had finished with the Creation, he saw that it was good. As God the Father is the sole Creator of everything, and since God is omnibenevolent, it follows that everything in Creation must be good. Logic tells us that a Creator who is all-good could not create a bad thing. Neither, in a non-dualistic, monotheistic universe, could there be a second creative principle, entity, or being that is responsible for the existence of evil things. Therefore, evil can have no objective existence. So “3 a” above cannot be applied to a valid description of the creation, as perceived by orthodoxy.

When considering human beings, orthodoxy teaches that spirit and body together form one unit and are not viable as separate entities. According to Catholicism, for instance, both the body and the soul are created by God at the instant of conception. The general resurrection at the end of time will be a resurrection of actual physical bodies—the same bodies possessed by each individual before his death. So “3 b” above describes an erroneous way to look at humanity. But I have problems with this interpretation of the book of Genesis. I find the mythical imagery and symbolism of the first two chapters of Genesis -- those which deal specifically with the Creation -- to contain elements suggestive of dualism.

To begin with, the first two chapters of the book of Genesis are clearly comprised of two distinct versions of the creation myth. This fact, in itself, suggests a sort of structural dualism. This structural dualism can be shown to be necessitated by (at least) two different authorial conclusions concerning the processes of the Creation. Without going into the various scholarly disputes concerning the number and religious biases of the hypothetical author(s) of the book as a whole, we can here propose that the juxtaposition of the two differing versions of the same creation myth demonstrates a need felt by the ancient editors to acknowledge the competing, or composite, truths of a dualism of the type suggested by dictionary definition "2" above.

The creation myth as presented in the first chapter of the book of Genesis actually ends with the third verse of the second chapter: "And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it; because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made." [All quotes will be from the King James version, unless otherwise noted.] In chapter one, the Creation goes without a hitch, from "Let there be light," to resting on the seventh day and instituting the sabbath. In Chapter One, there is no creation of Eve from Adam's rib; rather: "...God created man in his own image...male and female created he them." There is no afterthought here; no reaction to the problematic perception of Adam's lack of a mate. By contrast, in the 18th verse of the second chapter, we have: "It is not good that the man should be alone..." Not good? Mistakes were made?

In chapter one, after God has separated the waters into seas, thus creating dry land, we have, beginning at verse 11: "And God said, 'Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit...' and it was so... and God saw that it was good." But in the fifth verse of the second version, "in the day the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, and every plant of the field before it grew; for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground." There seems to be a strange lack of foresight on the part of the Creator here. It also seems that Adam, once he is created, is destined to be a field hand, tilling the ground (after God gets around to moistening it) in order that God can plant that vegetation, the ideal forms of which he has previously created in heaven. Finally, in verse 6 "...there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." It is not clear from this account whether God caused the necessary mist to rise from the earth, or merely took advantage of it when it happened spontaneously. There is no mention of the man being made in God's image.

So it is clear that the two versions of the creation myth, as presented in the first two verses of the book of Genesis, tell similar stories which differ in subtly important ways. The second version presents a Creator who does not seem to have thought of everything in advance, who backtracks and improvises as various contingencies arise. In the first chapter, all goes smoothly; every plan and act of God is really is wholly good in the beginning.

At Chapter 3, however, things begin to go very badly indeed, and it is in these circumstances that the implicit dualism of the book of Genesis becomes even more readily apparent. We shall next consider the two trees God had planted in the midst of the Garden, and the nature of the talking serpent who is so instrumental to the Fall of Man and to the doctrine of Original Sin.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Monday, August 13, 2007

Reflections: Heresy?

I am definitely not orthodox in my Christian beliefs. I have been called a Marcionite by some of my Catholic friends, although I knew nothing about Marcion until being labeled his follower prompted me to look him up. Having done so, I will admit to agreeing with some of Marcion’s ideas.
I have also been called a Manichaean. Until I was called that, everything that I knew about Mani and his teachings was what I had encountered in the Confessions of Augustine of Hippo. I believe that I was called a Manichaean because my beliefs tend to be dualistic.
I was characterized as a Marcionite, it turns out, because I agree with Marcion that the Hebrew scriptures (or Old Testament) give an erroneous picture of God the Father. I would put the Old Testament on the library shelf next to the Iliad and other mythical classics in the Western tradition.
I consider my dualism to be Platonic, or perhaps, Neoplatonic in nature. I have been reading Plato since my college days, and I consider Socrates, as presented by Plato, to be a saint equal in spiritual insight to any of the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures. I have read some Plotinus, and tend to agree with his thoughts concerning the antagonism between spirit and matter, and the transcendence of the One.
I have also been called a Gnostic.
As time goes on, I will be presenting some of my ideas on these things. The links to the Catholic Encyclopedia are provided in order to make specific those heresies to which I have been assigned.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Reflections: Authenticity Revisited

As I mentioned in my initial post, it has been my habit, when reading, to enter into a notebook some of those words which I come across that either resonate with a truth I have previously internalized, or which, although not patently true, seem to be worthy of additional contemplation. The excerpt below, from a book by the Catholic writer and thinker, Hans Urs von Balthasar, falls into the latter category.

I previously posted a piece on the authentic life, my stated position therein being that it is only saints, artists, and outlaws who have a good shot at actually living one. Here, Balthasar seems to me to be expounding upon the mechanics involved in a saint attaining his sanctity. Note also the second-to-last sentence, with reference to the Simone Weil aphorism on contemplation in the sidebar:

The man obedient to his mission fulfils his own being, although he could never find this archetype and ideal of himself by penetrating to the deepest center of his nature, his superego or his subconscious, or by scrutinizing his own dispositions, aspirations, talents, and potentialities. Simon, the fisherman, before his meeting with Christ, however thoroughly he might have searched within himself, could not possibly have found a trace of Peter. Yet the form “Peter”, the particular mission reserved for him alone, which till then lay hid in the secret of Christ’s soul and, at the moment of this encounter, was delivered over to him sternly and imperatively – was to be the fulfillment of all that, in Simon, would have sought vainly for a form ultimately valid in the eyes of God and for eternity. In the form “Peter” Simon was made capable of understanding the word of Christ, because the form itself issued from the word and was conjoined with it. When ever Simon follows the light of “Simon”, his own self, he will always be wrong and dangerously so; he only acts truly when he “takes no heed to flesh and blood”, but is obedient to his mission, through which he knows the Father’s will.
Once we see this, we must admit the possibility of a real hearing of the word, and so of contemplation.
…Here the Trinitarian background of faith is fully evident – we are rooted in the Son analogously to the way in which the Son is rooted in the Father.

 Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer

The question that this raises for me is: does a man, by being "obedient to his mission" and thereby fulfilling "his own being", live an authentic life (such as would satisfy a secular existentialist), even though, as Balthasar claims, "he could never find this archetype and ideal of himself" on his own?

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Reading: a Recommendation

While recouping some of the energy expended in getting the essay/memoir on heroes finished, I thought that I would, if only to keep the ball rolling, just post a brief recommendation for the benefit of anybody who might be looking for something worthwhile to read. The book I am going promote is a book of interrelated poems, published in 1975. The poet is Anne Sexton.

I read this book last when it was new. It occurred to me to read it again now because Rebecca Goldstein quoted Anne Sexton at the beginning of a chapter in one of the two novels by her that I just read. The fact that Rebecca Goldstein quotes Anne Sexton recommends Rebecca Goldstein’s novels. That’s how it works. That’s how I find most of the books that I read.

It was still possible for a poet to be really famous in 1975. A poet, a novelist, could be a “hot” cultural item. Anne Sexton was such a poet. Everybody that I knew then, it seemed, was reading Anne Sexton. Now, more than 30 years later, I am suggesting that everybody begin reading her again, because -- to state it in the vernacular -- her poems kick ass.

Even the title of the book that I am pitching here kicks ass. The title is: The Awful Rowing Toward God. That may be the single best title ever chosen. It harbors an image which describes to perfection the existential project of every spiritual pilgrim who ever aspired to make it to the Other Shore.

Anne Sexton’s imagery is most often jagged, and hard-hitting; a series of mini-Claymores in a field already strewn with sacrificial victims. But she also has her tender moments, as in this poem , entitled Courage:

If your buddy saved you
and died himself in so doing,
then his courage was not courage,
it was love; love as simple as shaving soap.

Dig it.

Here is another extended image that particularly grabbed me:

When you knock on wood,
and you do,
you knock on the Cross
and Jesus gives you a fragment of His body
and breaks an egg in your toilet,
giving up one life
for one life.

Sha-zam! That was from The Evil Eye.

One more bit of verse, from The Wall, and then you can go out and get the book:

For all you who are going,
and there are many who are climbing their pain,
many who will be painted out with a black ink
suddenly and before it is time,
for those many I say,
awkwardly, clumsily,
take off your life like trousers,
your shoes, your underwear,
then take off your flesh,
unpick the lock of your bones.
In other words
take off the wall
that separates you from God.

Enough said.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Transformational Pop

Heroes - #3 (cont.)

Bob Dylan – Part Two

[NB: Anyone arriving at this blog for the first time at this point, who would like to read this essay from the beginning, should scroll down to the August 2, 2007 entry “Reflections: Heroes.”]
In 1964, I had an opportunity to see Bob Dylan live in concert, in the auditorium of my high school. Fortunately, I don’t need to reconstruct my reflections on that event from the shards of memory, as I can provide, unedited, with period adolescent, mid-Western, naïveté fully intact, my contemporaneous journal entry from the day after the concert.

But I have already hyped this Dylan thing well beyond my ability to propound it convincingly. It is necessary here to cop out, to state that to understand what Dylan was by 1965, you had to have been there: I can’t translate it into words. For a year, or two, or four…Dylan was the embodiment of the Zeitgeist for a particular subspecies of American youth, of which I was one dazed and confused specimen. We wanted a hero. We needed a leader. We tried to seize Bob Dylan by main force to anoint him our philosopher-king, our warrior-prophet, our King David. And Bob Dylan, as if by magic, slipped unnoticed out of the mob, and, from a safe distance, flipped us the bird. “Don’t follow leaders*,” he snarled. And I haven’t had a hero since.

In his refusal to be idolized, Dylan instructed me in two things: Don’t examine the random contingencies of my life, he said, examine my work. And in examining my work, he added, don’t ask me what it means—ask your self.

Yeah…well…if you think about it, that’s about the same attitude that, say, Shakespeare took.

* Look out kid
You're gonna get hit
By losers, cheaters
Six-time users
Hangin' 'round the theaters
Girl by the whirlpool
Lookin' for a new fool
Don't follow leaders
Watch the parkin' meters

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Heroes - #3

Bob Dylan – Part One

If you have come with me this far, you will have noticed that, while the Al Kaline part was mostly about Al Kaline, by the time we get into the Dylan Thomas part, it has come to be largely about me. Ain’t that just what happens when your balls drop, though? You start to think that you’re Alpha Male Man. You are, as the old joke goes, a Legend in Your Own Mind. The world is your gig, and the rest of the poor schmucks are just your contemptible audience. And this is the perfect intro for a short discussion of my third, and final, hero: Bob Dylan.

I may not have been certain how I was introduced to Dylan Thomas, but I know exactly how I encountered the phenomenon that was Bob Dylan. When I say “exactly” I say it in full awareness that memory is a tricky and iffy thing. I have had demonstrated to me over and over again how memory takes the scattered events and contingent emotional elements of one’s past and reassembles them into a mosaic which satisfies the psychological/emotional needs of one’s present. Language provides us with the tools to usurp this role of memory and to construct such a scenario for ourselves. By rummaging through that catch-all drawer where the memorable events of the past have been carelessly tossed over the years, we can select the pieces that seem to match and cobble them together into shoes that fit the feet on which we now stand. The long story made short(er) is this:

I was afflicted in those days with a chronic insomnia. It left me tossing and turning nightly until 2 or 3 a.m., in a hormonal fever that no amount of self-abuse could quench. The only other ameliorating resort was listening to late night AM radio . After a certain hour, it was possible to catch DJ, Dick Biondi, on WLS out of Chicago. Sometimes it was even possible to pick up WBZ out of Boston, the name of whose late-night jock I can no longer recall. But the usual choice was either WJBK, out of Detroit, or the powerful CKLW, broadcast out of Windsor, Ontario. In those days, the role of AM radio stations, whose staple content was pop music aimed at a teenage audience, was to play the top 100 or top 50 hits, in rotation, over and over again. Playing album cuts on the radio did not become the thing until the ascendancy of FM, still several years up the road from 1963.

Nonetheless, one fateful night, either on WJBK, or after his subsequent move over to CKLW, my favorite local DJ, Terry Knight, in the wee small hours of the morning, broke the mold and played together in one mini-program, three cuts from Bob Dylan’s 1963 album, The Freewheelin’. And thus, he blew my mind.

As I recall, Knight played three songs: Blowin’ in the Wind, with which the world was already familiar from the Peter, Paul and Mary rendition; Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright; and A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall. First of all, nobody had ever heard a voice like that on AM radio. Secondly, nobody in middle-class America knew the sound of a blues harp being played on a rack, while the artist’s hands were busy banging on his guitar. But then – (Oh, my God!) – there were the lyrics. Blowing in the Wind, we’ve discussed. Don’t Think Twice is a good lyric and has always been one of my favorite Dylan songs. Given a different arrangement, however, one could easily imagine somebody like Johnny Cash doing that tune convincingly, or even having written it. But, Hard Rain? That was an earthquake! That was a sea change! After hearing that song, spun by Terry Knight in 1963 or 1964 – I don’t know which – nothing was ever the same again.

Let’s compare and contrast. We remember that the top song in 1963, the year that Bob Dylan released The Freewheelin’, was Surfin’ USA by the Beach Boys. I’m not going to be a hypocrite and claim today that I didn’t dig the Beach Boys in 1963. I was as appreciative of their pre-Beatles vocal harmonies and Chuck Berry guitar riffs as the next guy. But once I had heard Hard Rain, it was like Double Bubble compared to Red Man. But, observe:

The Beach Boys saw this:

You'd seem 'em wearing their baggies
Huarachi sandals too
A bushy bushy blonde hairdo
Surfing U. S. A.

Bob Dylan’s vision was:

I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it,
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin',
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin',
I saw a white ladder all covered with water,
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children,
And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

The Beach Boys left you with:

We'll all be planning that route
We're gonna take real soon
We're waxing down our surfboards
We can't wait for June
We'll all be gone for the summer
We're on surfari to stay
Tell the teacher we're surfing
Surfing U. S. A.

And Dylan’s agenda is:

I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin',
I'll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty,
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison,
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',
But I'll know my song well before I start singin',
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Is my point made?

Friday, August 3, 2007

Heroes - Interlude: 1963


In the late 1950’s, a collegiately-styled group consisting of two acoustic guitars and a stand-up bass, calling themselves The Kingston Trio, introduced “folk music” to Top 50 AM radio with their #1 SMASH HIT, Tom Dooley. Their success, which continued through several more Top 50 hits, as well as three or four successful albums, gave rise to a rash of imitators, and kicked off the folk music craze.

Scroll down to 1963. Another trio, calling itself Peter, Paul and Mary, and significantly more authentic than the Kingston Trio--Greenwich Village-wise--recorded the classic anti-war ballad, Blowin’ in the Wind. Of course, in 1963 there was not yet any war going on that anybody knew about, so Blowin’ in the Wind didn’t really become an anti-war anthem until several years later. But in 1963 it did reach #17 on the pop charts. And it was different. Lyrically, it was almost poetry. (My more alert readers will have picked up on the Dylan Thomas segue here.) It caught my attention. I bought the 45 rpm single and noted that the composer’s name was B. Dylan.

The number one tune that year was the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ USA. Little Stevie Wonder was kicking off his career with a two-sided hit (45s had two sides, children) Fingertips, Pts. I & II, which came in at #8. The Motown Sound was majestically represented that year by Martha and the Vandellas’ hit, Heat Wave (#32). Yeah, 1963 was smokin’. Roy Orbison put out Mean Woman Blues (#45) that year. And one of my favorite tunes (as it was so clearly about me) was He’s So Fine (#7) by the Chiffons, a black girl group. 1963 was at the height of the surf music craze. The Surfaris scored with the tom-tom and guitar-driven instrumental, Wipe Out (#18). The Chantays were blasting their own instrumental offering, Pipeline (#27), and Jan & Dean came in at #28, harmonizing on Surf City. Some 1950’s hold-outs, such as Dion (Ruby Baby #40), Bobby Darin, Andy Williams, and even Eydie Gorme (#30, Blame It on the Bossa Nova), were still hanging around the Top 50. And the folkies were represented by Trini Lopez, with his Tex-Mex rendition of If I Had a Hammer, a tune that Peter, Paul and Mary had previously scored with; and by The Rooftop Singers, with Walk Right In.

That gives you the general picture. Next time around, the story of the late night radio, virtual Damascus Road revelation, that was my introduction to the transformational, mind-bending, phenomenon that was Bob Dylan.

Heroes - #2

Dylan Thomas

By the time I was hormonally well syncopated with the clammy, rhythmic grip of adolescence, it was no longer cool (in my mind, anyway) to idolize mere athletes. The wrong type of girls—the ones with trowelled on make-up and bouffant hair-dos which were varnished into breeze-proof helmets by frequent applications of hairspray—admired those conceited jerks. Swaggering through the halls of the high school, the jocks lorded it over the rest of us, receiving unwarranted female adulation in return for their moronic posturing, preening, arm-punching displays. I was made of more sensitive stuff than that. The female companion for whom I yearned was a reader of Shelley and Keats, a sensitive soul who would understand the hellish agonies of my unquenchable and perpetual horniness and turn it into a thing of beauty: I would become a poet.

I’m not too sure how I first encountered my second hero and role model, Dylan Thomas, but I think that it must have been in the Modern Poetry anthology that was required for my AP English course. Thomas was represented therein by several of his better-known works. It was probably the hard-driving cadence of his perfect villanelle, the magnificent Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, that first hooked me. The sheer bravado of this endgame challenge, or desperate plea, for the beloved father to howl in the face of death, to go down, as they say, kicking and screaming, was very attractive to the nascent rebelliousness of a mid-western “good boy,” yearning to be a man.

But surely, it was it was the urgently hydraulic and conspicuously phallic message of The Force That Through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower that alerted me to the irresistible mixture of sex, death, and sheer joy that the drives the best of Thomas’ poems. That he died tragically young; that he died of drink; that he had a reputation as a rake, did nothing to hurt his appeal, on the cusp, as we were, of the Eisenhower years and the ‘Sixties. If not for the photograph of the young Dylan Thomas displayed here, I may well never have started smoking.

For all that, it was the final lines of what I considered to be his greatest poem, Fern Hill, which conquered me utterly. Dylan Thomas taught me, at that most difficult age, what my essential nature was, where I was inevitably bound, and how I should conduct myself during the brief interim of my journey:

"Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, /Time held me green and dying/ Though I sang in my chains like the sea."

The patent and eternal Truth of those words left me no choice but to believe.

Heroes - #1

Al Kaline

The first of my heroes is an athlete--for more than two decades the star of my "hometown" team, the Detroit Tigers: Al Kaline. This was a man who combined skill and class. Kaline was a gifted player, a triple threat: he could run, throw, and hit. He was a reliable clutch hitter, an extraordinary right-fielder, and a smart, if not super-fast base runner. With Kaline patrolling right-field, players on opposing teams did not take the extra base. Kaline’s arm was extraordinary. He once threw a man out at home from the seat of his pants.

Al Kaline was the star of the Detroit Tigers—the only team he ever played for—from the time I first began to follow baseball as a ten-year-old boy, playing pick-up games on the sandlots of Ann Arbor, until I was a graduate of the University of Michigan; a jaded and cynical survivor of the ‘sixties; married, employed, and living in New York City. Al Kaline was a stabilizing constant throughout the manifold crises of that turbulent era.

Kaline never embarrassed himself or his team, either on or off the field. Although he was elected to the Hall of Fame as soon as he was eligible, I’ve heard it argued that Kaline wasn’t really a great ballplayer. His life-time batting average was just under .300 and, although he collected over 3000 hits, he finished his career one short of 400 home runs. But if Kaline was only a “good” ballplayer, he elevated good to the level of greatness by being consistently very good over a span of two decades.

Near the end of his playing days, his gifts finally beginning to fade, the Tiger management offered to reward Kaline’s long and stellar career with a $100K contract—superstar pay for that era. Kaline turned it down. He didn’t feel that his productivity in the previous season had earned him a raise. They don’t make them like that any longer.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Reflections: Heroes


The contemporary cinematic and video game fixation on comic book Super Heroes seems to me to be symptomatic of a subconscious, global hunger for the real thing. In the frailty of our fleeting, often isolated, existences, we desperately wish for a Superman – a force for Good--out there somewhere--ready to swoop down and apply his perfect and inevitable justice against any and all evils which threaten to render our anxiety-prone lives as terrible as we fear they may one day become. It is these Super Heroes—these dumbed-down, mass-produced avatars of Nietzsche’s Übermensch —which prove how far out of touch with the Transcendent our culture has become. Our hiding of our herky-jerky eyes behind the fantastic reality of a comic book, or in the pixilated virtual depths of a video screen, is symptomatic of our inability to place our faith in either real human heroes, with their Achilles’ heels, feet of clay, and fatal tragic flaws--or in Eternity. We are able to love neither Fate, nor Father.

You may have guessed that I am not a fan of comic books. And I haven’t seen even one of the Batman flicks. Not even the nearly nude body of Angelina Jolie can lure me into a theater where my head will be overwhelmed by a soul-numbing mixture of too loud sound, too fast quick-cut editing, and too little real meaning. I can’t humble myself before an ersatz god. Have a blast, but deal me out.

So I have no heroes today, whether tragically flawed, but human--or super. I am as afflicted as the next guy by existential nausea. But as a younger person, and not yet so thoroughly acquainted with the frailties that the flesh is heir to, there were three men who, I must admit, each served a stint as hero in my life. In the next few days, I will briefly expound on each of them.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Readings: Religion

One the things that kept Simone Weil, that most orthodox of non-Catholic Catholics, from being baptized and partaking of the Eucharist, was what she saw as the rejection by the Church of eternal Truths as expressed by other religions. A Christian Platonist, she learned Sanskrit in order to study the Hindu scriptures, particularly the Bhagavad Gita, in their original language.

I am currently reading, at the pace of about two pages per day, The Way of the Sufi by Idries Shah. The quote below expresses very well, I think, the dangers of orthodoxy and organized religion to the quest of the spiritual pilgrim:


All religions, as theologians – and their opponents – understand the word, is something other than what it is assumed to be.

Religion is a vehicle. Its expressions, rituals, moral and other teachings are designed to cause certain elevating effects, at a certain time, upon certain circumstances.

Because of the difficulty of maintaining the science of man, religion was instituted as a means of approaching truth. The means always became, for the shallow, the end, and the vehicle became the idol.

Only the man of wisdom, not the man of faith or intellect, can cause the vehicle to move again.

--Arif Yahya

It is my understanding that the "man of wisdom" referrred to in the final sentence is a teacher, or spiritual guide--a guru if we want to admit that much-abused word. I do not take it to mean that men of faith, or even intellectuals, are forever barred from the Kingdom.

Sufism, which is often understood to be the "mystical expression of Islam," is similar to Christianity in its emphasis on love. This would seem to position it well as a possible mediator in the current troubles between Islam and the West.