Friday, October 31, 2008

Readings: Rumble in the Jungle

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: …


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.

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

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.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Quote du Jour

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.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rants: Republican Fascist Hyenas

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:

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:


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:


And at the bottom of the page:


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.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Readings: Zeitgeisted

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.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Readings: Zen Master

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…


Friday, October 17, 2008

Readings: Dyn-O-Mite!

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.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reflections: Turn Out the Lights...

...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!"


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Readings: A Russian Postmodernist

Although much of my reading time has lately been taken up by trying to follow simultaneously the presidential campaigns, the financial crisis, and the baseball playoffs--not to mention both pro and college football on the weekends--I have still been slowly enjoying the novel Buddha's Little Finger by contemporary Russian novelist, Victor Pelevin (of whom, more here).

The novel's structure is deliberately dream-like, with a large cast of characters, whom one can never quite pin down to one identity, shifting abruptly in and out of various bizarre situations and milieus, all the while involved in musings and conversations on esoteric philosophical and religious topics.

The excerpt that follows is taken from a section in which three Russian gangsters are conversing around a campfire, under the influence of 'shrooms. The man who does most of the talking here is recounting a time when, feeling uncharacteristically bad after committing a murder, he notices a pamphlet in a kiosk on the street entitled "Life Beyond the Grave" and impulsively buys and reads it:

XX“… Turns out life under Stalin was like life after death is now!”
XX“I don’t get you,” said Shurik.
XX“Well, look, under Stalin after death there was atheism, but now there’s religion again. And accordin’ to religion, after death everyone lives like they did under Stalin. Just you figure it the way it was. Everybody knows there’s this window lit up in the Kremlin at night, and He’s there behind it, and He loves you like a brother, and you’re shit-scared of Him, but you’re supposed to love Him with all your heart as well. It’s just like in religion. The reason I remembered Stalin is I began wonderin’ how you can be shit-scared of someone and love Him with all your heart at the same time.”
XX“And what if you’re not scared?” Shurik asked.
XX“That means you’ve no fear of God. And that means the punishment cell.”
XX“What punishment cell’s that?”
XX“There wasn’t much written about that. The main thing is it’s dark and there’s this gnashin’ of teeth. After I read it I was wonderin’ for half an hour what kind of teeth the soul has…nearly lost my marbles over it. …”

This novel is wildly funny in places. Once one gets used to its chaotic structure, the effort it takes to read it is well repaid.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Riffs: The Boy in the Bubble



Over the years I made dozens of ninety-minute audio tape mixes which I now play in my car on the way to and from work every day. This morning the second song that came up was Paul Simon's The Boy in the Bubble from the album Graceland, released well over 20 years ago. As I listened with the pleasure Paul Simon tunes always give me, I couldn't help noticing how appropriate the song's opening stanza and chorus are to the world we live in today:

It was a slow day

And the sun was beating

On the soldiers by the side of the road

There was a bright light

A shattering of shop windows

The bomb in the baby carriage

Was wired to the radio

These are the days of miracle and wonder

This is the long distance call

The way the camera follows us in slo-mo

The way we look to us all

The way we look to a distant constellation

That's dying in a corner of the sky

These are the days of miracle and wonder

And don't cry baby, don't cry

Don't cry

Well, okay. Go ahead--cry if you want. WTF.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Reflections: Busted

So now we apparently have the smoking gun (or the metaphorical "nekkid pitchers") that show us Governor Sarah Palin as I always intuited her to be. She is a "Mean Girl" indeed; signed, sealed, delivered: she's yours. As in, not mine.

This whole affair, since it is apparently known that McCain was aware of "Trooper Gate" up-front, makes me wonder if Palin's willingness to use the power of her office against her personal enemies wasn't exactly what "qualified" her for a role in the neocon passion play in the first place? If you seek Dick Cheney in lipstick, look no further. But she must have convinced them that she'd beat the rap. Where was Sarah's Scooter?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Reflections: An Analogy

For some reason, as I was observing, via various blogs, the conflict going on in the Catholic world over the question of whether it is licit to vote for Barack "Baby Killer" Obama, the thought popped into my head that there is an analogy to be drawn between the saga of John and Sarah and the biblical story of Simon Magus and his consort Helene.

Here, as clipped from Wikipedia, is a capsualization of that story:

Justin Martyr (in his Apologies, and in a lost work against heresies, which Irenaeus used as his main source) and Irenaeus (Adversus Haereses) recount the myth of Simon and Helene. According to this myth, which was the center of Simonian religion, in the beginning God had his first thought, his Ennoia (see Sophia), which was female, and that thought was to create the angels. The First Thought then descended into the lower regions and created the angels. But the angels rebelled against her out of jealousy and created the world as her prison, imprisoning her in a female body. Thereafter, she was reincarnated many times, each time being shamed. Her many reincarnations included Helen of Troy; among others, and she finally was reincarnated as Helene, a slave and prostitute in the Phoenician city of Tyre. God then descended in the form of Simon Magus, to rescue his Ennoia. Having redeemed her from slavery, he travelled about with her, proclaiming himself to be God and her to be the Ennoia, promising that he would dissolve this world the angels had made, but that those who trusted in him and Helene could return with them to the higher regions.

Don't John McCain, with his god-like promises of the utter defeat of Evil on earth , and Sarah Palin as the embodiment of his Idea, suggest parallels to the story above?
UPDATE (10/10/08): It is interesting that Kyle Cupp has now posted this reflection on Senator McCain's "religiosity" on his excellent blog, Postmodern Papist.

Reflections: I Told You So


NB: Capitalism (as in 1929) has failed again. Do tell. Greed is moral failure. That which greed permeates is necrotic in its essence. So, again (as in the New Deal) here comes Socialism to save the day. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.