Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Three Obits: R.I.P.

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I want to pay brief tribute to three musicians who have died at the end of this eventful year. The first to die, Odetta, is significant to me in that I saw her perform live at an Ann Arbor venue called Canterbury House (which I was surprised to learn is still in operation) in the late ‘Sixties. This was at the height of both the folk music craze and the civil rights movement. Odetta was significant to both. Canterbury House was important to me not only because I heard a lot of great music there in the ‘Sixties, but also because the minister who ran the place in those days performed my marriage ceremony in the University of Michigan campus chapel in 1969. Odetta sang this song the night I saw her perform.

The next to die was Freddie Hubbard. If you wanted to draw up a list of the top five jazz trumpeters of all time, Hubbard would have to be included. As I rank them you’d have: Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, and the fifth spot would be up for grabs. Lee Morgan? Miles Davis? Clifford Brown? Fats Navarro? Wynton Marsalis? I’m a Chet Baker fan. Over the years, Freddie Hubbard played with everybody. Here he is, playing with one of my favorite tenor sax men, Joe Henderson, and Herbie Hancock.

Finally, Delaney Bramlett. I don’t know that many people will know who he was. Even in the ‘Sixties, of which he was a figure who did not transcend the times, he wasn’t what you’d call a foreground figure. But he was big in the background. Here is Delaney, playing with his then wife, singer Bonnie, and some other guys… This is a nice clip. Give it a listen.
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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Reflections: Problems with Paradigms

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The following little rant was born as a comment to a thread at Ragged Thots in which it was suggested that, while the GOP has been characterized as "the stupid party," the Democrats can be designated as "the evil party." Below, slightly enhanced, is my response:

Actually, as I have tried over time to point out, the GOP, as the incubator of "conservatism" and "free market" piracy, is a coalition of the stupid and the evil, with the evil pounding cadence for the slow. The primary characteristic of Democrats has been futility. They see occasional glimpses of where they need to go, but their attention span fails them. They become distracted like toddlers trying get from one side of a room full of toys to the other.

Our captialist System is built on greed and greed is a poison. Once it builds past a certain tolerance--a tolerance that nobody seems to be much interested in monitoring--the organs of that System begin to break down, to fail.

The Evil Ones say, "So what? I will still get mine." The stupid ones are assured that although they've made irresponsible mistakes up til now, if they just turn their pockets out, take the wise counsel of the Evil Ones, and from this point on do it right! everything will be hunky-dory again soon. The truth is, there is no way to "do it right" for any extended period of time, when the paradigm is built on scheming, lying, and the leveraging of power--all juiced by greed. Yet this is the Republican Way.

The Democrats, by contrast, occasionally show signs of an urge to grope and stumble, feebly, in another direction. But as I say, in the global Round Robin as it currently exists, you have three teams to choose from: Evil, Stupid, or Useless. With which do you identify?

Sign here, kid.
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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Quotes (within) Quotes du Jour

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I have just now finished reading Lewis Hyde’s fascinating study, Trickster Makes This World. Before I put it aside as a blog topic, I’m going to post below a couple of quotes (with emphasis added) embedded within excerpts that I came across toward the end of the book.

The depth and breadth of Simone Weil’s investigations and understanding of the intellectual pursuit of objective Truth is such that it never surprises me to find her cited in any intellectual work, regardless of subject matter. Such is Trickster Makes This World. In a chapter on the rejuvenative effects of the trickster impulse on art, focusing on the French Dada and Surrealist artist, Marcel Duchamp, Hyde quotes Weil on contradiction:

Contradiction is a lever of transcendence,” Simone Weil once wrote, but that lever will not work unless accompanied by some oil to keep it loose, a fluid we call “humor,” the smile of early surrealism… [p.275]

The next excerpt, still focused on Duchamp and “contradiction’, is a bit longer and contains a quote from minimalist, Carl Andre:

Duchamp’s well-oiled contradiction…was a tool not simply for avoiding mundane consumer regret but for avoiding the regret of living a life derived from unexamined language, tradition, and habit. Individuals who never sense the contradictions of their cultural inheritance run the risk of becoming little more than host bodies for stale gestures, metaphors, and received ideas, all the stereotypic likes and dislikes by which cultures perpetuate themselves. As Carl Andre once said, “Culture is something that is done to us. Art is something we do to culture.” When the thing “done to us” ceases to satisfy and empower, it becomes a kind of parasite, an ichneumon fly depositing its eggs in the soft bodies of children learning to behave. Better, then, if one of those children can outwit the parasite; best if he turns out to be an artus-worker, a Hermes of the Hinge, whose mischief keeps the protective barriers surrounding cultural forms porous and open to change. [p.307]

Such is the antidote for the dread toxin that causes terminal Bleating Merinoitis.
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Friday, December 26, 2008

Reflections: Steal This Post


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Below are two more excerpts from Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World which I found to be particularly thought-provoking. Hyde’s topic here is the Greek god Hermes in his role as trickster, but also as mediator between the world of mortality and change and the Eternity above. I have inserted various bracketed keywords to flag contexts and/or analogies—perfect or imperfect, ancient or contemporary—that came to mind as I was reading:

"For a human community to make its world shapely [orthodox] is one thing; to preserve the shape is quite another, especially if, as is always the case, the shape is to some degree arbitrary [ideological, dogmatic, doctrinal] and if the shaping requires exclusion [xenophobia, sectarianism] and the excluded are hungry [ecumenically inclined]. So along with shapeliness comes a set of rules meant to preserve the design. “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not blaspheme. Do not gamble. Do not pick up things in the street. Behave yourself. You should be ashamed….” Whoever has the wit to break these rules, whoever puts the guards to sleep, slips across the threshold and floods the sacred meadows with contingency, whoever steals the boundary stones [between the Greco-Roman world and Israel] of clean distinction, that person strips design of its protective glamour. Hermes [Jesus] does all this and by it he disenchants the world into which he was born."

But wait—there’s a catch:

... "To have the lying [blaspheming], thieving [Sabbath violating] Hermes [Jesus] spring from Zeus’ loins is to figure Zeus as the ultimate author of hermetic inventions, as if Hermes had never really been an outsider…. To have Zeus [Yahweh] father Hermes [Jesus] is to claim that the changes he brings are a part of the eternal and not contingent, relative, or dependent on historical situations. It draws history back into myth.
XX"Such may be the frequent fate of radical change-agents, to be co-opted, outflanked, and contained by the larger culture [Rome, the Church, Madison Avenue], to be brought up short of a full apocalyptic reallotment. But what exactly are the options? A remark by Claude Lévi-Strauss offers a way to imagine the possible fates of those who threaten a group with fundamental change. Lévi-Strauss contrasts two types of societies: “those which practice cannibalism—that is, which regard the absorption of certain individuals possessing dangerous powers as the only means of neutralizing these powers [Eucharist] and even of turning them to advantage [Constantine]—and those which, like our own…adopt what might be called the practice of anthropemy (from the Greek emein, to vomit).” The latter eject dangerous individuals [Crucifixion]; they leave them in the woods [Gulag], or build special jails [Gitmo] to cut them off from the group and keep them isolated. In short, groups can either expel or ingest their troublemakers. The most successful change-agent avoids either fate and manages to stay on the threshold [Lenny Bruce, Ralph Nader, Bob Dylan, Ayn Rand], neither in nor out, but short of that difficult balance the next best fate may be to be eaten, to be incorporated into the local myth."

Maybe the concept of the internet "troll" needs to be given a second look?

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Readings: A Triptych

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THE MOTHER OF GOD

The threefold terror of love; a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.

Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart's blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?

~ William Butler Yeats

MOSAIC OF THE NATIVITY: SERBIA, WINTER 1993

On the domed ceiling God
is thinking:
I made them my joy,
and everything else I created
I made to bless them,
But see what they do!
I know their hearts
and arguments:

"We're descended from
Cain. Evil is nothing new,
so what does it matter now
if we shell the infirmary,
and the well where the fearful
and rash alike must
come for water?"

God thinks Mary into being.
Suspended at the apogee
of the golden dome,
She curls in a brown pod,
and inside her the mind
of Christ, cloaked in blood,
lodges and begins to grow.

~ Jane Kenyon

anti-x

his costume is scarlet.
he rides the cold wind.
as he passes through the sky
he blots out the star.

his mask glows with neon
and tinsel.
behind it he laughs.
it is droll how we think him so jolly.

his sustenance--slave labor.
"something for nothing"
is his creed: how we listen with glee
as we macy and gimble one another to death.

his obese, slow thighs don't slow him,
for he rides in style, over our heads:
but always away from bethlehem.
oh no, w.b., it will be no sphinx.

~ Rodak (circa 1965)
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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Quote(s) du Jour

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Below, without editorial comment, are a few pithy excerpts from Trickster Makes This World:

"More conservative minds deprive coincidence of meaning by treating it as background noise or garbage, but the shape-shifting mind pesters the distinction between accident and essence and remakes this world out of whatever happens. " [p.100]

"...in the economy of categories, whenever the value of accident changes, so, too, does the value of essence." [p.100]

"...accidents happen in time, essences reside in eternity." [p.100]

"In the thirteenth century, the prose Edda was a work of modern art that allowed the 'noise' of Christianity into its frame." [p.105]
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Monday, December 22, 2008

Reflections: Truckin' and Scroogin'



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Bah. Humbug. I was planning to put up a rant today about how little I am able to get into the Christmas spirit as chaos reigns and the situation careens from bad to worse--with the global economy spearheading the rush. But I have decided against it. I’ll save that for a New Year’s summary of some kind. For the time being, I will just keep on keepin’ on. You won’t, however, be seeing any faux yuletide cheer on Rodak Riffs this year.

Yesterday I started reading a book that I saw mentioned in an article about its author as a title has been widely read among a group of writers whom I admire, and consequently borrowed from the library: Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde.

Trickster is a mythological archetype that plays a role in the story-telling of virtually all polytheistic cultures from the dawn of time. In Greek mythology, for instance, that role is played by the god Hermes. In Native American culture, the trickster is variously called Coyote, or Raven. In some cultures trickster is a god, in others a wily animal, or a tiny human-like character; but in all he plays a similar role.

In his introduction to Trickster Makes This World, Hyde states his central thesis as being the idea that “the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on.” Hyde states that he will essay “to give some sense of how this can be, how social life can depend on treating antisocial characters as part of the sacred.” I find this to be an interesting concept to explore and Hyde’s many supporting examples from world folklore and myth are a delight to anyone interested in the contemplation of those things which are essentially and universally human.

Hyde quotes anthropologist Paul Radin, who provides the following characterization of trickster:

Trickster is at one and the same time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes and who is always duped himself…. He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both. He possesses no values, moral or social…yet through his actions all values come into being.

Bugs Bunny comes immediately to mind as a contemporary American trickster.

Trickster Makes This World was published in 1998. But working with Radin’s definition, Hyde makes the following observation on possible manifestations of trickster in the modern world which might well have been inspired by current events:

XX "In America, one likely candidate for the protagonist of a reborn trickster myth is the confidence man, especially as he appears in literature and film (most actual confidence men don’t have the range of imaginary ones, and come to sadder ends). Some have even argued that the confidence man is a covert American hero. We enjoy it when he comes to town, even if a few people get their bank accounts drained, because he embodies things that are actually true about America but cannot be openly declared (as, for example, the degree to which capitalism lets us steal from our neighbors, or the degree to which institutions like the stock market require the same kind of confidence that criminal con men need).
XX "If the confidence man is one of America’s unacknowledged founding fathers, then instead of saying that there are no modern tricksters one could argue the opposite: trickster is everywhere."

Did I hear somebody say “Enron”? Do de name “Bernard Madoff” ring a bell?

Yo! Merry Christmas, suckers!

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Readings: The New Paradigm

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In the “Afterword” of her indispensable book, The Dark Side, Jane Mayer reiterates that the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld “new paradigm,” that fully sanctioned the use of torture and dispensed by fiat with both human decency and the rule of law, was not without its critics in both government and the military. She sums up the central message of her study thus:

XX “Instead of heeding this well-intentioned dissent, however, the Bush Administration invoked the fear flowing from the attacks on September 11 to institute a policy of deliberate cruelty that would have been unthinkable on September 10. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and a small handful of trusted advisers sought and obtained dubious legal opinions enabling them to circumvent American laws and traditions. In the name of protecting national security, the executive branch sanctioned coerced confessions, extrajudicial detention, and other violations of individuals’ liberties that had been prohibited since the country’s founding. They turned the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel into a political instrument, which they used to expand their own executive power at the expense of long-standing checks and balances. When warned that these policies were unlawful and counterproductive, they ignored the experts and made decisions outside of ordinary bureaucratic channels, and often outside of the public’s view. Rather than risking the possibility of congressional opposition, they classified vital interpretations of law as top secret. No one knows to this day how many more secret opinions the Bush Justice Department has produced. Far from tempering these policies over time, they marginalized and penalized those who challenged their idées fixes. Because the subject matter was shrouded in claims of national security, however, much of the internal dissent remained hidden.
XX “Throughout this period, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have continued to insist that they never authorized or condoned ‘torture,’ which they acknowledge is criminal under U.S. law. But their semantic parsing of the term began to seem increasingly disingenuous as details from the secret detention and interrogation program surfaced, piece by piece.” [emphasis added]

The above is a brief summary. Mayer provides skeptics with 22 pages of endnotes and a nine-page bibliography citing her sources. The details provided in the body of the text to support these conclusions should turn the stomach of any person of good will and outrage any true patriot. It is disheartening, to say the very least, that these horrors have evoked so very little opposition and dissent.

Consolidation of power in the executive is the primary ingredient of totalitarian government. Integration of that unchecked executive power with what departing President, Dwight D. Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex” is the establishment of a fascist system.

What have we become? Where are we going?
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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Reflections: Hoodat Gonna Bust My Prez?

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One does not need to read many more pages into Chapter 7 of The Dark Side to come to the sad realization of how impossible it would be to discuss what our government is doing in its execution of the “War on Terror” without breaking Godwin's Law. First, we are told (p.166) that the systematic torture protocols have been approved directly from the Oval Office:

Accurately or not, Bush Administration officials later described the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo as the unauthorized actions of a few ill-trained personnel. By contrast, CIA officials have never denied that the treatment of the high-value detainees was expressly approved by President Bush.

We can’t even lay all the blame at the feet of Dick Cheney. But it is the unavoidable use of words like “mechanized” and “automated” and “systematic” (p.167) which inevitably invite analogies to the techniques employed by Nazi Germany:

The system, which grew to include many more than the top fourteen most prized prisoners, was remarkable for its mechanistic aura. “It’s one of the most sophisticated, refined programs of torture ever,” said an outside expert familiar with the protocol. “At every stage, there was a rigid attention to detail. Procedure was adhered to almost to the letter. There was top-down quality control and such a set routine, you get to the point where you know what each detainee is going to say because you’ve heard it all before. It was almost automated. People were utterly dehumanized. People fell apart. It was the intentional and systematic infliction of great pain, masquerading as a legal process. It was just chilling.”

These are war crimes. The United States has prosecuted and punished responsible authorities of defeated governments for precisely the same kind of torture and inhuman abuse now being perpetrated by Americans “Inside the Black Sites”.

Who will hold the President responsible for his crimes?

And who will see the less obvious, but slowly emerging, analogies between the crimes being committed against detainees in the War on Terror and the economic crimes being committed by the same ruling elite against American working people in the top-down Class War? The mechanism is to inflict pain until resistence is broken. Stay tuned.
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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Readings: Weird Science

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Chapter 7 of The Dark Side, Jane Mayer’s study of the growth of the American culture of torture and extra-legal imprisonment, is entitled “Inside the Black Sites”. The following excerpt, which is concerned with the CIA interrogation of al-Qaeda logistics chief Abu Zubayda, is revelatory of the degree of degradation to which our neocon masters have subjected the rule of law and human decency:

XX “AZ,” an informed source said of Zubayda, “was talking a lot.” The FBI agents believed they were getting “phenomenal” information. In a matter of days, a CIA team arrived and took over, freezing out the FBI. The apparent leader of the CIA team was a former military psychologist named James Mitchell, whom the intelligence agency had hired on a contract. Oddly, given the Agency’s own dearth of experience in the area of interrogating Islamic extremists, he had no background in the Middle East or in Islamic terrorism. He spoke no Arabic and he knew next to nothing about the Muslim religion. He was himself a devout Mormon. But others present said he seemed to think he had all the answers about how to deal with Zubayda. Mitchell announced that the suspect had to be treated “like a dog in a cage,” informed sources said. “He said it was like an experiment, when you apply electric shocks to a caged dog, after a while, he’s so diminished, he can’t resist.”
XX The FBI agents, with their traditions of working within the U.S. criminal legal framework, were appalled. They argued that Zubayda was not a dog, he was a human being.
XX Mitchell, according to the informed sources, retorted, “Science is science.”

Could Dr. Mengele have stated the issue any more clearly?
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Monday, December 15, 2008

Reflections: X Happens

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A regular part of my Saturday morning routine is going online to have a look at the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Don’t ask me why I don’t wait until Sunday to do this, because I have no answer to that sensible question. When I actually lived in New York City, rising early enough to get to the corner candy store and buy the Sunday Times before they were all gone was a must-do task, to be completed regardless of the weather or one’s state of health. So what was a Sunday ritual in New York has become a greatly modified Saturday habit in Ohio.

This past Saturday one of the features in the book section was “The Ten Best Books of 2008”—five fiction and five nonfiction. I hadn’t read any of them, although I remembered having read reviews of several. I had added one or two of them to my “to read at some future time” list.

This past Saturday was also the day of the monthly used book sale at the public library. I didn’t need any books (God knows), but I did need to gas my car; and getting out of the house for awhile seemed like a good plan as well. So off I went to the library.

When I emerged an hour or so later I had in hand one used book that I didn’t need (Deus lo Volt! by Evan S. Connell) and two of the “Top Ten” books from the Times list: 2666 by Roberto Bolano, and The Dark Side by Jane Mayer: one fiction, one nonfiction.

Back home, I started reading The Dark Side. I found the first five chapters to be unexciting. They provided a lot of detail on Cheney and his minions, their thinking, and how they influenced Bush’s decisions vis-à-vis the “War on Terror.” But I didn’t feel that I was learning anything new that wasn’t essentially trivial. Then I got to chapter 6, “Outsourcing Torture”. Sure, I knew about this too; but from this point on, the trivia ceased to be trivial. At least it was not trivial in the moral universe.

The horror begins with the story of a captive known as Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, an alleged al-Qaeda commander, who was captured and turned over to the Americans by the Pakistanis. He was being interrogated by two FBI agents and the sessions were going well. But then: “Whatever the motive, several days into what the FBI regarded as winning al-Libi’s trust, a young Arabic speaking CIA officer named “Albert” ...burst into the cell where Fincher was questioning al-Libi and started shouting at the prisoner. “You’re going to Egypt!” he yelled. “And while you’re there, I’m going to find your mother, and fuck her!” It’s all down hill from there:

After the CIA took custody of al-Libi, the FBI lost track of him. There were rumors that he was rendered to Egypt, where he was being tortured. One memorable but unconfirmed detail that made the rounds was that he had been buried alive in the desert, with sand up to his neck. He was said to have lost his mind.

Al-Libi had been cooperating with the FBI, who had been treating him humanely. Al-Libi had a Syrian wife and was lobbying to get the wife and her family into the United States in exchange for information he was willing to provide, even though it resulted in his conviction. Then the CIA took over. My reading has slowed considerably at this point. I’m still stuck on chapter six. A quick glance at the coming attractions reveals that it only gets much worse.

Do you remember that post-9/11 equation that went (with numerous variables): if X, then the terrorists have already won? Well, yeah…

My question to anybody who is not horrified by our programs of rendition and torture is simply: Quo vadis?
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Friday, December 12, 2008

Readings: Patriotic Panacea


As I may have previously mentioned, my local public library conducts a monthly book sale to raise funds. I have hauled more books back from those sales than I will ever have time to read; but it’s for a most worthy cause. I often find myself buying books that I read, and perhaps owned, thirty or forty years ago, but which have since passed out of my possession. I am reading such a book now: Them by Joyce Carol Oates.

As the novel begins, a sixteen year-old working-class girl named Loretta, who has dropped out of school to work, and is supporting her drunken father and keeping house for her hoodlum older brother, goes to a party, gets drunk, and brings her boyfriend home with her. She is awakened at dawn by the sound of a single gunshot. Her boyfriend is in the bed next to her, dead, with a hole in his head. She flees the apartment, half naked, and runs down to the street, frantic to decide her next move. Her thinking is typically American:

What she had to do, Loretta thought, was get a gun herself. Get a gun first. Then she could figure out what to do next. First she needed a gun, but to get the gun she needed money. Back in her room she had three dollars saved, which was nothing, and anyway she wasn’t going back up to that room. She would get a gun, she thought, and then she would be safe. It came to her that girls had their faces slashed for all kinds of small mistakes—she’d seen a woman running down the street once with the side of her face streaming blood. ...She thought I have to get a gun, and every part of her body strained forward at this certainty; focused on it. She could understand now why her brother had a gun. Everyone needed a gun; it was crazy not to have one. ...She could almost hear the words...a gun, a gun...in the air about her. Once she had a gun, then, then she could take care of herself.

Loretta was a strict constructionist and a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment.
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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Readings: Homeless

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I have finished reading Marilynne Robinson’s excellent novel, Home. I have returned it to the library—gotten it out of the house. It was, to me, a devastatingly sad book. It is hard to write about.

As in her previous novel, Gilead, of which Home is a sequel, various theological threads of Robinson’s Calvinist faith are woven throughout the plot. Of these Protestant doctrines, the question of Predestination figures largely in Home, as do the dynamics of sin vs. grace, justification vs. damnation, and knowledge vs. faith. These questions are largely examined through the tensions of the relationship of Jack Boughton, prodigal son and black sheep, and his moribund father, a retired Presbyterian preacher.

What one first notices in reading Home is Marilynne Robinson’s perfect ear. She knows how a young boy talks; how an old man on the brink of death talks; how a spinster English teacher, and how an American working-class woman in a rural setting talk. We recognize such types, as we have known them, in the words of Home.

The one character who stands out against this perfectly articulated backdrop is the novel’s deeply flawed, perpetually anguished, anti-hero, Jack. His speech is unique, non-typical, out of the ordinary.

Jack is a man with a troubled background, who has lived most of his adult life away from “home.” The mysteries of his past are revealed slowly, bit by bit, in his conversations with his younger sister, Glory, who has also returned home after a less than satisfactory fling at life-in-the-world to care for their aged father, a widower.

Jack is a study in alienation. He is a man who feels himself displaced in any setting. He is an idealist with high principles which he is repeatedly unable to enact; an essentially kind and serious man of learning who self-medicates with alcohol to kill the pain of his inability to be good. For Jack, there is no home.

The last thing we see of Jack in the novel is this:

She went to the porch to watch him walk away down the road. He was too thin and his clothes were weary, weary. There was nothing of youth about him, only the transient vigor of a man acting on a decision he refused to reconsider or regret. No, there might have been some remnant of the old aplomb. Who would bother to be kind to him? A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face. Ah, Jack.

Some of us are, perhaps, unfortunate enough in our own lives also to recognize—even to know—Jack.
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Saturday, December 6, 2008

Quote du Jour: Class War

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Proof that not all Gen-Xers are reactionary:

What we have been living since Reagan is a policy of liberating the forces of greed. I don't think the project has actually been the development of the world and the elimination of poverty. I think this has been a class war waged by the rich against the poor, I think that they won, and I think the poor are fighting back.

The larger context may be found here.
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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Readings: That Small, Quiet Voice

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The final piece in the excellent book, Bright Unequivocal Eye, is an essay entitled “Sweetness Preserved” by poet and novelist Wendell Berry. Berry expresses so beautifully what it is that I love about Jane Kenyon’s poetry, and those rare personal qualities possessed by Jane Kenyon that glow behind her words, that I am going to post a long excerpt from that essay here, without additional commentary. Berry says it all.

Berry’s relationship to Kenyon’s husband Donald Hall was established long before he met Jane Kenyon, as he discusses here:

Now the requirement of honesty is going to embarrass me a little, for I have to confess that I didn’t read anything by Jane for a long time after I met her. For one reason, I felt a certain complicated sympathy for her—a poet who had set up shop smack in the middle of another poet’s subject. The other poet’s claim to this subject was well established; the other poet was her husband. It was easy to wish that she might have been, say, a painter. Another reason was that I liked her, and if she was a bad poet I did not want to know.

Berry continues:

… Finally, late in the day [at a poetry reading in Ann Arbor, January 1986, featuring Donald Hall, Seamus Heaney, and Galway Kinnell, but not Jane Kenyon] somebody…said, “Jane, why don’t you read us a poem?” …And then that quiet woman read beautifully her poem “Twilight: After Haying”:

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
reluctant to leave the field,
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air. (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed—
XXXXXWhip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will
--sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen…the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses…

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.

I hope I have adequately prepared you to imagine my relief.

…here was a poet present in her work with an authority virtually absolute.

…all her gifts are in it: her quietness, gentleness, compassion, elegance, and clarity, her awareness of mystery, her almost severe good sense. This poem, like just about every one of her poems, is unconditional; it is poetry without qualification. It has no irony, no cynicism, no self-conscious reference to literary history, no anxiety about its place in literary history, no glance at the reader, no anticipation of the critic, no sensationalism, no self-apology or self-indulgence.

… When I read a disparagement of the book Otherwise in The Hudson Review, I was offended, but also puzzled. How could anybody able to read fail to see the quality of that book? But after a while, I believe, I figured it out. Jane Kenyon’s work, in fact, makes an unnegotiable demand upon a reader. It doesn’t demand great intellect or learning or even sympathy; it demands quiet. It demands that in this age of political, economic, educational, and recreational pandemonium, and a concomitant rattling in the literary world, one must somehow become quiet enough to listen. [emphasis added]

S-h-h-h-h-h.
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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Readings: Connecting Some Dots

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In an afterword to Jane Kenyon’s posthumously published book of poems, Otherwise, her husband, poet Donald Hall, wrote of her poetic development:

During junior high school she began to write poems. Witter Bynner’s translations from the Chinese were an early model.

A bit further on, Hall writes:

Her poetry gathered resonance and beauty as she studied the art of the luminous particular. “The natural object”—she liked to quote Pound—“is always the adequate symbol.”

It is no coincidence that Ezra Pound, like Witter Bynner, did translations of Chinese poetry. It is the craft of the gifted, but hard-working, poet that adds to the natural object that “luminous” quality, transforming it into a universally received symbol. This is analogous to T.S. Eliot’s concept of the objective correlative. It is also that which is the Zen essence of the art of Japanese haiku, of which I have written previously. And this is precisely the quality that has inspired my new-found love of the poetry of Jane Kenyon.

In contemplating these ideas, I was reminded of Walter Pater’s ideal of the “hard, gem like flame,” which has been characterized as “his pursuit of the "highest quality" in "moments as they pass." This state of mind, born of attention, is simultaneously a mode of existence and a mode of expression. Pater, like Donald Hall, was known as an indefatiguable revisionist. The apparent stark simplicity of Jane Kenyon’s poetry is likewise the result of many drafts and revisions. While the idea may come out of nowhere—facilitated by what Kenyon favorite, John Keats, called “negative capability”—in a flash of inspiration, the poem that is finally constructed as a vehicle for that gift of the muse (or Holy Ghost) is the result of hard-earned craft.

Once the mind begins to contemplate such things as “the luminous particular” and the “objective correlative,” examples begin to pop up like mushrooms. Yesterday, for instance, I read Paul Auster’s short novel, Man In the Dark. In this novel there is a character who is (as was often the case with Jane Kenyon) trapped in deep psychological depression. As a coping mechanism she has begun watching movies for hours at a time on DVD. While it is noted by her grandfather that she is using film to self-medicate, he also realizes that she has made a valid observation concerning cinema as an art form when she says:

Inanimate objects as a means of expressing human emotions. That’s the language of film. Only good directors understand how to do it, but Renoir, De Sica, and Ray are three of the best, aren’t they?

There we have “it” as related to film.

Just this morning I drove to the public library to return a book. While there, I was able to borrow Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Home, which I had been waiting for the opportunity to read. On only the second page of the narrative [p.4], I found this excellent example of the natural object as luminous particular:

And there was an oak tree in front of the house, much older than the neighborhood or the town, which made rubble of the pavement at its foot and flung it imponderable branches out over the raod and across the yard, branches whose girths were greater than the trunk of any ordinary tree. There was a torsion in its body that made it look like a giant dervish to them. Their father said if they could see as God can, in geological time, they would see it leap out of the ground and turn in the sun and spread its arms and bask in the joys of being an oak tree in Iowa.

Beautiful. Such writing kinda puts Marilynne Robinson in the same league with Keats, Pound, Eliot, De Sica—and Jane Kenyon—doesn’t it?
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NOTE: In googling “luminous particular” among the first hits were this and this.
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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Readings: Blessings Counted

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From a short, informal, prose piece entitled "The Shadows" collected in the volume A Hundred White Daffodils by Jane Kenyon:

The luckiest, sunniest life invariably includes tragedy, if I do not overstate these matters by calling them tragic. To lose your health, your strength, your ability to work, and to take pleasure in life--that is tragedy. It's no less tragic because it happens to everybody.

...

Tonight before the storm I went out with the kitchen shears and a basket. I cut every full-open peony in sight, quantities that I would never permit myself under other circumstances. I knew the rain would shatter the flowers, break their stems so that their luxurious forms and perfumes would be lost for the year. Pick them, something told me, pick them and fill the house, and we'll put our faces into them and inhale, and see the ants crawl on them, and leave the ants alone because life is precious and ought not to be crushed.

Amen.
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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Reflections: The Name of THE GAME

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XXXXXXXXXXXXXXThings fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXMere anarchy is loosed upon the world...
XXXXXXXXXXXXX~ W.B. Yeats

Today is the day of THE GAME, the annual Big Ten football season-ending contest between my alma mater, The University of Michigan (Go, Blue!) and the hated Buckeyes of An Ohio State University. To sum up the significance of the rivalry, for those of you who have lived in blissful ignorance to-date, the Wolverines strive for God’s approval, while the Ohio State coaches and players are juiced by demonic powers. It is Black vs. White, Good vs. Evil, plain and simple.


However, as a microcosmic metaphor for God’s Team in the world-at-large, the Michigan football program is, most unfortunately, in a state of sad decline. To extend the spiritual metaphor, Michigan has become the Western Europe of big time college football. This season, more than in any previous season in the 109-year history of the Michigan football program, the outcome of THE GAME is not in question: the Bad Guys will kick ass, big time.


Michigan, my birthplace, the state in which I spent my childhood and early youth, has been troubling my mind lately. The death throes of the automobile industry and the agonizing in Washington over the choice between attempting a heroic intervention or allowing these hamstrung beasts to die a natural death, is much in the news. As symbolic of THE GAME and the difference in stature between Michigan and Ohio, one could point out that in Michigan they design and build the cars; in Ohio they only make the tires. When Michigan goes over the cliff, therefore, can Ohio be far behind? I find myself crushed between the Scylla of sic transit gloria mundi and the Charybdis of reality bites. (For you OSU grads: “between a rock and a hard place.” )


I also remain deep into my study of the poet, Jane Kenyon, who was born and raised in Ann Arbor, and who—although she was my classmate both in high school and at the University—I never knew. The more I read of Kenyon’s poetry, the more I retroactively suffer this loss of opportunity. I particularly recommend her collection Let Evening Come, the title poem of which I judge to be perfect. In reading both her poetry and her biography, Ann Arbor and Michigan are brought repeatedly to mind. Jane Kenyon’s early death—and the leukemia that killed her—seem ominously symbolic of the decline of the state of Michigan and of Michigan’s team.


Which brings us back to THE GAME. In this week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review, there is a review by Jonathan Chait entitled Turf Wars, of War As They Knew It, which is a history of the Michigan-Ohio State football rivalry during the Vietnam years. It looks to be an interesting read. The review itself includes a paragraph describing the legendary OSU football coach and arch fiend, Woody Hayes (Wuck Foody!) that is the first thing I ever read about the man that, part of which, I have to grudgingly admire:


Hayes was less a conventional right-winger than a fanatical proponent of social order. He inspired his players to pursue their education and even lectured them on military history, of which he was an autodidact. He had no interest in money, regularly declining raises and leaving some paychecks uncashed. News of gasoline shortages prompted him to walk almost three miles to work daily.


Far from that Homeric era when legendary Michigan coach, Bo Schembechler, led the Maize and Blue onto the field, Michigan is coached this year by a micro-cephalic hillbilly mouth-breather imported from some infernal West Virginia slag heap by a Michigan A.D. who must be on crack. This Appalachian moron is well summed up in this article, thoughtfully emailed to me this week by an already gloating dickhead who was born and raised in—you guessed it—the state that dare not speak its name. Aw, fuck it—


GO, BLUE!
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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reflections: Endless Sleep

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Today’s New York Times features a couple of obituaries that echoed of the past for me. The first was notice of the passing of dance and theater critic, Clive Barnes. Back in the day when I was living in the City, married to a professional modern dancer, and then to an actress; when I was hanging out in the Village and on the Upper West Side with theater types and artists, Clive Barnes was an omnipresent figure whose Word hung over that world like rolling thunder. Rest in Peace.

But that was in the 1970s and 1980s. Long prior to those days, during the Boomer generation’s formative years—the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties—pop music was notable for its obsession with the prospect of dying tragically young. Perhaps it was the threat of nuclear annihilation that had always been there, just over the horizon. Or perhaps it was that they made us read Romeo and Juliet in 8th grade English class. Whatever the source of our hunger for lugubrious thrills, the music we listened to—from Mark Dinning’s overly cutesy “Teen Angel” to Jan and Dean’s overly contrived “Dead Man’s Curve” to Bob Dylan’s overly journalistic “Percy’s Song”—was always spiked with similar examples of the popular macabre. Of all the tunes in that genre, however, the most deliciously haunting was Jody Reynold’s ballad, “Endless Sleep”. Rest in peace.
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Monday, November 17, 2008

WWWtW-Watch #21: All of Me

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Dedicated to the proposition that it can happen here.
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While undertaking this little foray behind fascist lines, I also reconnoitered a post over there with the catchy title of “The Mass Marketing of Hell”. Seduced into taking a closer look, I learned that this post had been occasioned by the response of readers to a previous post, entitled “The Measure of Sincerity”.

Apparently, it was the measured “sincerity” of the message delivered by this paragraph that prompted the second post:

Any Catholic Obama supporters who did not vote for him on this basis [i.e. the principle of “double-effect”] were formally cooperating with Obama's wicked and vicious policies, committed a grave sin, and will go to Hell for it if they do not repent, confess, and do penance. I'm not really addressing those Catholics in my posts, but I do pray for their damned souls, that they may repent before it is too late.

The second post sounds a claxon resonant to that of the first:

A number of people reacted rather strongly to this post, as if I had said something shocking. The part that got the strongest reaction is where I re-state the Catholic doctrine that formal cooperation with grave evil is mortal sin, and that when we commit mortal sin that means we will go to Hell for eternal damnation unless we repent, confess, and do penance.

The whole shebang is reiterated at Zippy Catholic, for the benefit and edification of the orthodox.
As I contemplated all of the above, bemused, and not a little alarmed, I was reminded of the following excerpt that I had included in a post concerned with my reading of Erik H. Erikson’s book, Young Man Luther:

The Roman Church, more than any other church or political organization, succeeded in making an ideological dogma—formulated, defended, and imposed by a central governing body—the exclusive condition for any identity on earth. It made this total claim totalitarian by using terror. In this case (as in others) the terror was not always directly applied to quivering bodies; it was predicted for a future world, typically in such a way that nobody could quite know whom it would hit, or when.
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Right. Why not take all of me?

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. It wouldn’t be too much to say that the Zipster has gone all friggin’ medieval on ‘em! But all kidding aside, when fear and zealotry combine, the all-too-common result is war-most-unholy. That is so Old Testament.
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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Readings: A Warning

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The Pear

There is a moment in middle age
when you grow bored, angered
by your middling mind,
afraid.

That day the sun
burns hot and bright,
making you more desolate.

It happens subtly, as when a pear
spoils from the inside out,
and you may not be aware
until things have gone too far.

~ Jane Kenyon, Let Evening Come
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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Quote du Jour: Of Jane Kenyon

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The excerpt to follow is taken from an essay entitled "Our Lady of Sorrows" by Greogry Orr. The essay is included in "Bright Unequivocal Eye": Poems, Papers, and Remembrances from the First Jane Kenyon Conference:

I'd like to shift now to what I think Jane Kenyon writes, the personal lyric, which takes the story of the "I," the individual self. I think culture invented lyric poetry along with religion and philosophy to help people understand the world, and to discover ordering powers. But religion and philosophy are different in that they propose external ordering powers that exist outside the self, and which the self must align with. What's amazing about the personal lyric is that culture gives the individual self the tools to order and the self has to do the ordering itself. It's a personal struggle, a struggle to create what Frost calls "a momentary stay against confusion." This is what the lyric poem is: a gift from culture to the self to deal with existential crises. What do I mean by existential crises? I mean all kinds of disorder, but especially the buried self, the world of feeling and subjectivity, what it means to be a self in the world.

To compose one's own scripture. To interpret one's own dreams...
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Friday, November 14, 2008

Reflections: Doubting Rodak

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Tom, the power-that-is at Disputations, yesterday posted the miraculous tale of a Serbian abortionist who has been converted to a pro-life orientation by the agency of

a recurring dream he had in which he saw a field filled with the children he had aborted. St. Thomas Aquinas was also there, although [the abortionist] a lapsed Orthodox raised under Communism, had never heard the name before he heard it in his dream.

Tom muses:

A medieval Doctor of the Latin Church appearing in a dream to a non-practicing Serb?

Well, yeah... I guess I’ll believe that when I see a depiction of the event celestially branded on the face of a toasted muffin.
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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Readings: Of Donald Hall, Poet


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I’m currently reading with pleasure Unpacking the Boxes, the memoire of Donald Hall, the 14th American Poet Laureate. I met Donald Hall when I was an undergraduate English major at the University of Michigan and he was on the faculty. In the past year I stumbled across the knowledge that Hall’s wife, Jane Kenyon, also a successful poet, was my classmate both at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor and at the University. Yet I did not know her. This is, to me, a mystery. Tragically, Jane Kenyon died very young, in 1995. I will perhaps write more on this at a later time.

The excerpt below is taken from the first chapter of Unpacking the Boxes, which is entitled “Domains”:

In general the arts – theater and music and painting and sculpture and poetry – carry with them an aura of sexual freedom and license, some arts and artists more than others: jazz and rock musicians, dancers, actresses. Typically, readers have felt something erotic in poetry, something adventurous, wayward, sensuous, and forbidden. Late romanticism created the poète maudit: outlaw, madman, bohemian, overthrower of social convention – ...But even before artist decadents drank absinthe in dark cafés, poetry was sensual by its nature – in its internal structure, in its bodiliness, especially in its carnality of sound. Poetry is more erotic than fiction, which is why female poets were so rare until the mid-twentieth century. Jane Austen and George Eliot were permitted to write great novels, but the only great nineteenth-century woman poet was the eccentric eremite Emily Dickinson. In the first half of the twentieth-century, Marianne Moore was equally exceptional. The vast increase in the number of good women poets has coincided with sexual liberation.

There is much packed into that little paragraph which strikes a sympathetic chord in me.
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Update: Here is a link to Donald Hall's page on the Poets. org site

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Monday, November 10, 2008

WWWtW-Watch #20: Eating (Jim) Crow


Dedicated to the proposition that it can happen here.

I haven't done any What's Wrong With the World-Watch features for quite some time. Frankly, I just haven't had the interest in wading through the redundant, repetitive, repugnant screed the authors at that site keep posting. That said, this morning I thought I'd take a peek to see how the soi-disant saviors of Western Civilization were taking the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. It did not surprise me to find that they have descended into outright racism. Don't think that the reference to "McDonald's" isn't code, for it surely is.

Onward, "Christian" soldiers.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Reflections: A Basis for Hope

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America is never going to be ruled by philosopher kings. The closer any Chief Executive has come to being thus categorized, the less successful has been his political career. The anti-war candidate of 1968, Eugene McCarthy, a good man and a poet, comes to mind here. As does, to a certain extent, Jimmy Carter.

That said, one of the of the things that makes me most optimistic about the chances for success of the coming Obama administration is that, presumably, the executive branch of the government will be pretty much purged of businessmen and staffed with lawyers. Businessmen tend to think in terms of fiscal quarters--in three-month chunks of time; i.e. they are short-sighted. For maximum profit-taking this may be a good trait; but for the plotting of history, it sucks.

This was demonstrated to horrible effect with the invasion of Iraq, when they didn't look past "Shock and Awe" to see the inevitability of an insurgency. In contrast to businessmen, lawyers also tend to look at people and see their rights, rather than their "worth." We saw the horrible effects of the latter perspective with Katrina. People who were perceived not to be "worth" much were simply left to die.

Lawyers tend to be more intelligent than businessmen. It takes more brains to craft a letter-perfect brief than it does to add a column of figures. That is why businessmen need to hire lawyers. Hopefully the people have again--as they did in the Clinton Administration--wisely eliminated the middleman. Leave the governing to the guys with the smarts, and let the businessmen do what they are good at--generating wealth.

No more square pegs in round holes.
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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Readings: Final Irony

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I concluded my post of November 3, 2008 by stating:

In my next post, I will discuss briefly how Erikson demonstrates this paradoxical effect on both organized religion and society-at-large to be mirrored, or foreshadowed in the personality of Luther himself, in so much as he represents a type which Erikson calls the “homo religiosus.”

Well, this has turned out not to be “my next post.” That said, I no longer feel the inspiration to go into another lengthy exposition on the topic of Luther. This is, it seems, a different, perhaps “Post-Obama” world, in which such considerations no longer matter. (I’m kidding.)

What I think I will do, instead of scrapping the two excerpts about the homo religiosus upon which I was planning to build this post, is just let it be a kind of extended Quote du Jour. Anybody who read the November 3rd post can make the connections to the following for himself:

[A homo religiosus] is always older, or in early years suddenly becomes older, than his playmates or even his parents and teachers… Because he experiences a breakthrough to the last problems so early in his life maybe such a man had better become a martyr and seal his message with an early death; or else become a hermit in a solitude which anticipates the Beyond. We know little of Jesus of Nazareth as a young man, but we certainly cannot even begin to imagine him as middle-aged.

This brings to mind the following lines from the early Bob Dylan lyric, “My Back Pages”:

In a soldier's stance, I aimed my hand
At the mongrel dogs who teach
Fearing not that I'd become my enemy
In the instant that I preach

Erikson also wrote:

No wonder that [the homo religiosus] is something of an old man (a philosophus, and a sad one) when his age-mates are young, or that he remains something of a child when they age with finality. The name Lao-Tse, I understand, means just that.

And Dylan’s refrain in “My Back Pages” is, of course:

Ah, but I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now.

Feel free to contemplate Dylan as a modern-day homo religiosus cast from the same mold as Luther. Or not.
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Friday, November 7, 2008

Riffs: Happy Birthday, Joni Mitchell


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Cyber-buddy, Brandon S. Field, remembering that I am a big fan, sent me an email on Wednesday as a heads-up that today is Joni Mitchell’s 65th birthday. In my estimation, Joni Mitchell has been a giant in the field of popular music; and not a half-bad painter, as the self-portrait above attests. As is the case with Bob Dylan, her only close competitor for the title of greatest songwriter of a generation, it takes head as well as heart to fully appreciate Joni Mitchell’s music.
Ms. Mitchell, you have given me much. Thank you. I love you. Many happy returns.

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in
something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year
Or maybe it’s the time of man
I don’t know who I am
But life is for learning
We are stardust
We are golden
And we’ve got to get ourselves
Back to the garden
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“The more decadent a culture gets, the more they have a need for what they don't have at all, which is innocence, so you end up with kiddie porn and a perverse obsession with youth.”
~ Joni Mitchell
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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Monday, November 3, 2008

Readings: Fatal Irony

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I have finished reading Erik H. Erikson’s excellent study, Young Man Luther, of which I wrote previously here.

As a developmental psychologist, Erikson’s primary interest in researching and writing this book was to explore the influence of Luther’s formative years in shaping his personality and lending energy and direction to the development of his innate genius. Erikson’s primary focus is on the apparent conflation in Luther’s emotional universe of his strict and ambitious biological father with God the Father, and Luther’s perceived inability to find justification in the eyes of either. This conflict led, according to Erikson’s Freudian interpretation, to Luther’s subsequent disobedience and rebellion against both his father’s society and his God’s Church.

In considering Luther the son, Luther the Monk, Luther the Professor, and Luther the Priestly Prophet and Protestant progenitor, Erikson does an outstanding job of placing each of these Luthers within his proper historical, societal, ecclesiastical and ideological context. There is not a boring paragraph in the entire text.

But, in these ideologically charged times, the thing which particularly held my attention in reading Young Man Luther was Erikson’s consideration of Christian doctrine and dogma as political ideology. What interested me in this regard was not any critique of Catholic or later Protestant doctrine, per se, but rather the inevitable “bureaucratization” of the institutions embodying these doctrines, which may be a fatal flaw inherent to all organized religion.

Erikson writes that:

Christianity…had started as a spiritual revolution with the idea of freeing an earthly proletariat for victory in another world after the impending withering of this one. But as always, the withering comes to be postponed; and in the meantime, bureaucracies must keep the world in a state of preparedness.

He later notes that:

The Roman Church, more than any other church or political organization, succeeded in making an ideological dogma—formulated, defended, and imposed by a central governing body—the exclusive condition for any identity on earth. It made this total claim totalitarian by using terror. In this case (as in others) the terror was not always directly applied to quivering bodies; it was predicted for a future world, typically in such a way that nobody could quite know whom it would hit, or when.


As I have written previously on Luther’s Theology of the Cross here, I will not recapitulate such theological considerations in the current post. In Young Man Luther, Erikson writes of Luther that once he found that he could not come to terms with the Pope and his Church and had become a rebel, he eventually came up against the following paradox:

In his own support [Luther] quoted Galatians 1:8: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” …The justified thus becomes judge: whatever the theological rationale, it is obvious that the positive conscience, the good conscience of true indignation, without which there can be no true leadership or effective education, becomes the negative conscience for others, and in its self-increasing wrath must again become a bad, an “unjustified” conscience.

Later, Erikson notes that:

Luther, at the beginning of ruthless mercantilism in Church and commerce, counterpoised praying man to the philosophy and practice of meritorious works. Subsequently, his justification by faith was absorbed into the patterns of mercantilism, and eventually turned into a justification of commercialism by faith.

Once this has occurred, the very elements of society that have been formed and empowered within the crucible of the Reformation become themselves the forces of Reaction:

The trouble comes, first, from the mortal fear that instinctual forces would run wild if they were not dominated by a negative conscience; and second, from trying to formulate man’s optimum as negative morality, to be reinforced by rigid institutions.

Thus we see Luther finally condemning the revolt, and calling for the extermination of the peasants whose demands for freedom and equality had been engendered in them by Luther’s own preaching that:

... [O]ur knowledge of God [is limited] to our individual experience of temptation and our identification in prayer with the passion of God’s son. In this, all men are free and equal.

And:

In Christendom...all things are in common and each man’s goods are the other’s, and nothing is simply a man’s own.

If you want to understand the mechanism by which Marxism has failed wherever it has been tried, or why ideological Conservatism is in the terminal stages of a morbid decadence in American society today, look no further.

In my next post, I will discuss briefly how Erikson demonstrates this paradoxical effect on both organized religion and society at large to be mirrored, or foreshadowed in the personality of Luther himself, in so much as he represents a type which Erikson calls the “homo religiosus.”
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Friday, October 31, 2008

Readings: Rumble in the Jungle

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In J.M.G. le Clézio’s novel War (see below) we see everything through the overwrought eyes, or from within the chaotic psychic depths, of the central personage (not to say “character”), Bea B., who is perhaps insane, or, perhaps more accurately, hyper-sane. Bea B. seems to see everything, every item in the catalog of the ten thousand things, from multiple perspectives: everything is terrifying; everything is beautiful; all is a roaring city of huge towers of gleaming white stone, glittering metal, swift, dark rivers of asphalt, floors of colorful plastic, walls of windows like watchful eyes; or everything is a jungle, teeming with an awesome over-abundance of thrilling, terrifying, flora and fauna. Whether Bea B. sees a city or imagines a jungle, all that she sees, imagines, or projects is in constant motion, accompanied by an avalanche of sound. Everything that exists is presented to her as words. She feels that she must understand it all, and that time is running out. Her name – “Bea B.” – suggests, perhaps ironically, the French word “bébé”—“baby.” Her observations, musings, dreams, as words, which flow endlessly, and are sometimes jotted down in a little blue notebook, are directed to an occasional interlocutor, sometimes companion, named “Monsieur X”:

That’s what I am seeking, Monsieur X. I am seeking words and signs capable of helping me survive. In the matted forest I am seeking friendly plants, and boulders, and snakes, and friendly birds. I want to rediscover the ancient legends and tell them to you, so that you in turn can tell them to others.
For example: …

THE MYTH OF MONOPOL

It is he who runs everything. He has armies of leather-jacketed cops patrolling the town, armies of cops who carry big rubber truncheons and keep fierce dogs on the leash. No-one knows precisely who MONOPOL is. He lives in fortress-palaces of a sort, by the side of the sea, or on the tops of mountains. He also lives in town centres, and he has huge glass and concrete structures built, and people are obliged to go there and buy. He has hordes of slaves, all dressed exactly alike; he has fleets of new ships and planes and cars that sparkle; he lives with a lot of very young and very beautiful women who have green eyes framed in black mascara, and long slim legs. No-one has ever seen MONOPOL, because he stays hidden behind his concrete walls, and then he is never in the same place twice. He simply spends his whole time putting up these palatial buildings, and handing out orders to his army of cops and slaves. He owns factories where millions of people work, but his riches never suffice. He loves gold and silver, hoarding it in great silent vaults guarded by cops. He loves war, too, because his slaves kill each other with the guns he manufactures. And he loves power, because he is the only one who knows what he wants and how to get it. There are people who want to slay MONOPOL, and so they hurl grenades through his shop windows and under the wheels of his cars. But MONOPOL is invincible. He has many bodies, many lives. He is everywhere at once, behind the plate-glass mirrors, listening in to telephone conversations, on the other side of the television screens. He knows everything that is going on. Maybe, one day, MONOPOL will cease to exist. But not until every stone, every window-pane of his gigantic warehouses has been ground to dust. Not until the whole earth has burned fiercely for a year on end, so that everything is destroyed, down to the very roots.

All such myths are there, around me. …

That is the “war.” And I—so I assume—am Monsieur X.
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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Readings: Paradise Summed


I’ve been wandering through the archives again. On this trip, in another not-quite-so-dusty box as the one from which I pulled the little wonders described here, I found something else that struck me as way cool. In the Milton Quarterly, Volume Twenty/Number One, March 1986, I found the article “Tetragrammic Numbers: Gematria and the Line Total of the 1674 Paradise Lost” by a scholar named Eve Keller.

To me, this article is a prime example of the rewards available from scholarship in general, and the study of literature specifically. I was not able to find a link to an electronic version of Ms. Keller’s groovy piece (although I did find a blog featuring a post on the same topic, written twenty years later), so I will have to quote Ms. Keller’s words extensively below:

XXXIn the year of his death, Milton expanded his ten-book epic [i.e. Paradise Lost] into twelve by dividing roughly in half each of the two longest books of the poem and by adding fifteen lines to the total. Book 7 of the 1667 edition became Books 7 and 8 in 1674, and Book 10 became Books 11 and 12. Of the fifteen new lines, three were added to Book 5, three to new book 8, four to Book 11, and five to Book 12. From the ten-book, 10,550 line form of 1667, Paradise Lost became in 1674 a poem in twelve books, comprising 10, 565 lines.
XXReaders have puzzled over the possible symbolic intentions of the line additions for quite some time, but none has reached a successful conclusion.

Starting the question posed by the above, Ms. Keller’s research proceeds to make her the first person, three centuries after the fact, to explain exactly why Milton added those lines in restructuring his masterpiece. Would you believe that the solution to the puzzle is to be found in gematria, a tool of Jewish Kabbalistic mysticism? As readers of Rodak Riffs most likely already know, but as, nonetheless, Ms. Keller explains:

XXThe art of gematria is a mystical method of interpretation built on a system of correspondences which assigns a specific number to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Deriving etymologically from a conflation of gramma and geometria, gematria joins number to language, allowing words, phrases, or any other combination of letters to have numerical value.

Keller adds this crucial bit of speculation:

XXAlthough Milton may not have learned gematria directly from the medieval sources of Jewish Kabbalism, he certainly had access to the technique through the Christian Kabbalists of the Renaissance.

And formulates this “startling” conclusion:

XXWith gematria as a guide, we may now suggest a significance of the 1674 line total. By simply juxtaposing the Hebrew letters which correspond to each number of the total 10, 565, the startling justification of Milton’s emendation appears. In Hebrew, the letter ‘yod’ (I) corresponds to the number 10, ‘heh’ (H) to the number 5, ‘fvav’ (V) to the number 6, and again ‘heh’ (H) to the number 5. Write these letters in sequence, yod-heh-fvav-heh, and the result is IHVH, the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, the most holy Name of God. The total humber of verse lines in Paradise Lost, in other words, pronounces the ineffable, speaking in silent numbers the Name of the Divine.

Way to go, Eve Keller! I find this to be every bit as wonderful, awe-inspiring, and intellectually rewarding as was the discovery of that nifty 1915 sonnet in the previous dusty old box that I delved into in the vaults. English Majors of the World Unite!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Reflections: Arc-hive

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While wandering down a dimly lit row, amidst many dimly lit and seldom visited rows of shelving, I lifted the lid of a sere and dusty gray box; a box unexceptional among shelf upon shelf of sere and dusty gray boxes; boxes whose ancient pasted on labels--now peeling away in the gloom and dry heat of the University archives--identify long-forgotten contents sought by no contemporary person. And within I found a sheaf of poems that had won awards, but in a different time; poems that failed to move my contemporary and cynical soul, save for one sonnet, which glowed, as I strained to make out its words in the obscurity of that silent place, with an interior light that was a fragment of the Truth that its words made manifest:

God said: “With eyes fixed on the toilsome ground
XXMankind will miss my masterpiece and me.
XXHence let a lure be hidden hauntingly
Among the things he loves; and bowed or bound,
Let soft beseechments still beset him round.
XXCall up unliveried workmen from the sea
XXAnd bid them fashion through eternity
A path of beauty to the blue profound.”
Then there came up an army of the air,
XXThe primal moths and queer inchoate bees –
XXWere ever any artists such as these,
The makers of the flowers? And earth grew fair
XXWith miniatures of morning: and the breeze
Of even stirred with heavenly similes.

~ Charles G. Matthews, THE SUBCONTRACTORS, 1915

In a parallel universe, the passage entitled “Covers the Ground” in Gary Snyder’s book-length poem, Mountains and Rivers Without End, begins with the following epigraph:

“When California was wild, it was one sweet bee-garden…” ~ John Muir

And it ends with:

The Great Central Plain of California
was one smooth bed of honey-bloom...

…all the ground was covered
with radiant corollas ankle-deep
bahia, madia, madaria, buriela,
chrysopsis, grindelia,
XXXXwherever a bee might fly —

And how would we answer if asked by the Almighty, “Where are my bees?”

And who will help us if our bees have abandoned us for cause?

And, finally, please God -- don’t mess with my ice-cream.
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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Quote du Jour

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The following excerpt is taken from a longer passage in William James' classic work, Varieties of Religious Experience, as quoted in Erik H. Erikson's Young Man Luther:

Some evils...are ministerial to higher forms of good; but it may be that there are forms of evil so extreme as to enter into no good system whatsoever, and that, in respect of such evil, dumb submission or neglect to notice is the only practical resource.

Indeed, that seems to explain and to characterize much of our pragmatic behavior. Take this thought, then, and wear it as a cilice under the outer garment of your bougie complacency.
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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rants: Republican Fascist Hyenas

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When I got home from work today, I had mail. Snail mail, that is, in the actual metal mailbox out by the road. It was sent to me by the Ohio Republican Party. (They have to be kidding, right?) Anyway, the item in question is a slick, four-fold, flyer. On the “back side” of the unfolded flyer it says:

THIS IS THE STORY OF WILLIAM AYERS…
Terrorist.
Radical.
Friend of Obama.

On the front side, where my name and address is printed, down in the lower left-hand corner is Bill Ayers’ forty-year-old mug shot. In the upper right-hand corner is a muddy close-up of Barack Obama’s scowling face. In a rectangular box above Ayers’s mug shot, pointed at Obama’s portrait like the barrel of a handgun, is the infamous Ayers quote:

“I don’t regret setting bombs.
I feel we didn’t do enough.”

When you unfold the flyer, the interior left side has the large font header:

OBAMA HAS CLOSE TIES TO DOMESTIC TERRORIST.

Beneath this there is text that includes the following:

“His group was finally stopped when a bomb to be detonated at a U.S. Army dance, prematurely exploded, putting Ayers on the run and his current wife on the FBI’s Most Wanted List.
“Then William Ayers became of friend, colleague and supporter of Barack Obama.”

Then” for fuck sake? “Then?” That “then” entails a span of what? Three decades? That wouldn’t mislead anybody, would it?

On the right side of the fold is the large font header:

TERRORIST.
RADICAL.
FRIEND OF OBAMA.

And at the bottom of the page:

BARACK OBAMA.
NOT WHO YOU THINK HE IS.


How the fuck do they know who I think he is? On the final side is a two-paragraph recounting of the nefarious history of the Weather Underground, purportedly excerpted from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review—the journal of record in the “real America,” I guess? Then finally a repeat of the mug shot and the scowling Obama.

This is character assassination. This is un-American. This is your Republican Party as it is at home. Own it, you fascist hyenas.
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Monday, October 20, 2008

Readings: Zeitgeisted

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Another book that I’m currently nibbling my way through in small, but nourishing bites is Young Man Luther: a Study in Psychoanalysis and History, by Erik H. Erikson. Normally, I have but scant regard for psychoanalytic theory; particularly Freudian theory, which I feel has been largely dismissed as over-wrought bullshit by this juncture. If I want to contemplate psychological theory from the formative years, I much prefer that of Jung. It was, therefore, my interest in Luther that led me to grab this book out of used book bin at a public library sale.

All of that said I am enjoying the reading of it. Erikson writes in a fluid style; is clearly an excellent historical scholar, and I find his ideas to be engaging. One of the concepts that Erikson deploys in his study of Luther’s personal development is that of the moratorium:

Societies, knowing that young people can change rapidly even in their most intense devotions, are apt to give them a moratorium, a span of time after they have ceased being children, but before their deeds and works count toward a future identity.

Erikson is the man who gave us the term “identity crisis.” This becomes most relevant to his exploration of just what made Luther tick. But as I read the following passage, it occurred to me that it seemed to have special relevance to my generation—the so-called Boomers—or at least, to that sub-cultural segment of the generation in the midst of which I spent my formative years:


It is probable that in all historical periods some—and by no means the least gifted—young people do not survive their moratorium; they seek death or oblivion, or die in spirit. Martin must have seen such death of mind and spirit in some of his brethren, and came to feel close to it more than once. Those who face the abyss only to disappear we will, of course, never know; and once in a while we should shed a tear for those who took some unborn protest, some unformed idea, and sometimes just one lonely soul, with them. They chose to face nothingness rather than submit to a faith that, to them, had become a cant of pious words; a collective will, that cloaked only collective impotence; a conscience which expended itself in a stickling for empty forms; a reason that was a chatter of commonplaces; and a kind of work that was meaningless busy-work. I am speaking of those “outsiders” who go their lone way, not those who come back to poison the world further with a mystical literature which exhorts man to shun reality and stay outside, like Onan.

I had many a friend who looked into that abyss of “empty forms” and were horrified when the abyss looked back at them. As it has shaken down, the antidote seems to have been to become a little less like John Lennon and a little more like John McCain.
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Saturday, October 18, 2008

Readings: Zen Master


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The October 20, 2008 edition of The New Yorker features an excellent profile by Dana Goodyear of the poet, Gary Snyder. Unfortunately, it seems that only this abstract of the article is available online.

I’ve been reading Snyder since my college days, and it is good to be reminded that at age 78 he is alive and well.

In addition to being a prize-winning poet, essayist, translator, scholar and teacher, Snyder is also a serious environmentalist who was raised in and near the woods of the Pacific northwest. I recommend his recent book of essays, Back on the Fire, to anyone who is feeling a little greenish, or yearning to feel that way.

I own, and highly recommend to anyone who has not read Snyder over the years and would like to play catch-up, the anthology The Gary Snyder Reader. This book covers his whole career and includes poems, translations (I particularly like his rendition of the Chinese poet “Cold Mountain”), and various prose pieces.

Dana Goodyear’s article inspired me to hit the stacks and borrow Snyder’s book-length poem Mountains and Rivers Without End. I look forward to getting down to it. The volume begins with an epigraph by Milarepa:

The notion of Emptiness engenders Compassion.

Ah, if only…

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Friday, October 17, 2008

Readings: Dyn-O-Mite!

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When J.M.G. le Clézio won the Nobel Prize for Literature, I had never heard of him. That very fact piqued my interest. I therefore borrowed his 1973 novel, War, from the library. That will be my next reading project. Here is the opening paragraph of War:

War has broken out. Where or how, nobody knows any longer. But the fact remains. By now it is behind each person’s head, its mouth agape and panting. War of crimes and insults, of hate-filled eyes, of thoughts exploding from skulls. It is there, reared up over the world, casting its network of electric wires over the earth’s surface. Each second, as it rolls on, it uproots all things in its path, reduces them to dust. It strikes indiscriminately with its bristling array of hooks, claws, beaks. Nobody will survive unscathed. Nobody will be spared. That is what war is: the eye of truth.

Hmm. Outside of the fact that war has gone wireless since 1973, that sounds about right, I’m afraid.
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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reflections: Turn Out the Lights...


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...the Party's Over.

Here's the bottom line:

In the end, starting out with a large field of candidates, the Republicans couldn't find even one that they themselves could support. The Democrats did.

In the end, William F. Buckley/Ronald Reagan conservatism has failed: it got its shot, and it didn't work. It didn't work. Conservatism has been standing athwart history, pissing down on it.

But the worst news for conservatism has been Sarah Palin. She was supposed to represent the Conservative Future. But she's crashed, and she's burning, and she can't get up. Bill Ayers is more popular.

Says John McCain: "C'mon, kid, pull my finger!"

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