Saturday, January 31, 2009

Reflections: Oh, yeah? Sez you!

I have been involved for the past several days in a comment thread over at Zippy Catholic which has veered—or caromed—off topic, becoming somewhat vituperative in the process. What began as an interesting (to me, anyway) discussion of the art of textual interpretation, has come to rip the scab off the Reformation, resulting in some finger-pointing and name-calling, neither of which, obviously, has anything useful or productive to say about hermeneutics. I doubt very much that anyone will want to read through the 100+ comments that brought us to such a pass; but, in the spirit of full disclosure, I provide the relevant link here.

Now, it so happens that I have been jotting down some pithy concepts on interpretation gleaned from Frank Kermode’s excellent and interesting text, The Genesis of Secrecy, to which I previously referred here. The following is particularly relevant to the position that I’ve been taking in the thread chez Zippy:

“Now that which requires to be disclosed must first have been covered, and this view of interpretation certainly implies that the sense of the parable is an occult sense. Its defenders like to say not that the interpreter illumines the text, but that the text illumines the interpreter, like a radiance. For this, as I said, is an outsider’s theory. It stems ultimately from a Protestant tradition, that of the devout dissenter animated only by the action of the spirit, abhorring the claim of the institution to an historically validated traditional interpretation.” [p.40]

This excerpt is sandwiched, in my notes, between those following (its place in the sequence may be discerned by the page number given), which I will post for context, without additional editorial comment. And I will invite my RC antagonists over to have a look at them, in hopes of elevating the level of discourse.

“Once free of the constraints of the simple primary sense, we begin to seize on those more interesting—let us say spiritual—senses that failed to manifest themselves in the course of a, let us say, carnal reading. Carnal readings are much the same. Spiritual readings are all different. Speculation thrives; we each want to say something different about the same text. Nor is there a foreseeable end to the things that might be said; one divination breeds another.” [p.9]

“[Interpretation] may go on to provide [a text] with a mythological structure, a satisfying spiritual order, instead of the trivial carnal order of the primary narrative. Should we go on to say, in a manner now modish, that the text, in the end, interprets itself or enacts its own interpretation? This is the latest of Hermes’ tricks, when the interpretation vanishes into the text, or the text into the interpretation.” [pp.9-10]

“The object of…interpretation is…sometimes said to be to retrieve, if necessary by benign violence, what is called the original event of disclosure. This is the language of Heidegger; he takes the Greek word for “truth,” alētheia, in its etymological sense, “that which is revealed or disclosed, does not remain concealed.” Every hermeneutic encounter with a text is an encounter with Being as disclosed in it. For Heidegger indeed, it is the very fact that one is outside that makes possible the revelation of truth or meaning; being inside is like being in Plato’s cave.” [p.39]

If you’ve come over, welcome. Your serve.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Readings: How It Works

Here’s how it’s supposed to work:

On a Saturday morning, I make a routine trip into town to go to the public library. I have a book to return, but no intention of borrowing anything on this visit. Nonetheless, a new memoire by novelist Anne Rice catches my eye, and I take it out on a whim. Somewhere in the book, Rice mentions that one of her sources in researching her two novels about Jesus has been Paula Fredriksen. Since I’d come across that name in reading before and had made a mental note to one day check her out, this reference became the occasion for me to borrow this book from the university library.

In reading Fredriksen, I was led, in a footnote concerning a passage from the Gospel of Mark, to this book by the critic Frank Kermode, and duly borrowed it from the university library as well. In his book, Kermode uses a novel entitled Party Going by Henry Green to illustrate the mechanism of interpreting a narrative. Kermode made the novel seem interesting enough that I wanted to read it too.

Having decided to write about all this, I began searching for a link to a description of Party Going to use for this post. What I learned was that has no information on it, because the book is apparently not currently in print. I went, therefore, to Wikipedia for this article, which mentions Kermode’s use of Party Going, and also notes that Green’s best-known work is another novel entitled Loving. I have since borrowed both of these Green novels from the university library and added them to my "to read" stack. And so it goes.

My intention in writing about these things is that somebody, anybody, happening across my site might be prompted by my serial enthusiasms to hunt down at least some of these books and read them.

Hey, listen—it couldn’t hurt.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

R.I.P. - John Updike

I was saddened today to learn of the death of that masterful man of letters, John Updike. As was the case with Norman Mailer, who preceded him in death, Updike richly deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature that never came his way. I will leave it to the New York Times obituary to recap his long, varied, and illustrious career, and instead say a few words about what the man gave to me personally.

The occasion of Updike’s passing provides me with an opportunity to remember that “one teacher” whom every enthusiastic student has on the way up—the teacher who makes the difference that changes the course of his student’s intellectual development. For me, that was my ninth-grade English teacher, Mr. Johnston.

Mr. Johnston was a twitchy, nervous little guy. Looking back on it, he reminds me a bit of Dustin Hoffman, playing Ratso Rizzo. He suffered greatly, I think, from nicotine withdrawal as he taught his classes. Nonetheless, he taught me to write so well as a fourteen-year-old that I rarely ever got a grade less than A-minus on any writing assignment that I turned in subsequently, through both high school and college. Mr. Johnston went to the administration on my behalf to obtain permission for me to give an oral book report on J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye. (One didn’t routinely allow discussion in a junior high school English class of a book containing the word “fuck” in 1961.) Mr. Johnston also obtained clearance to teach our class Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel controversial for its racially-charged plot in those pre-civil rights days. He treated his students like young men and women, and thus encouraged us all to live up to the respect that he showed us.

Because of my interest in Salinger, Mr. Johnston took it upon himself to recommend another contemporary novelist to me; a man younger than Salinger, still under the age of thirty, who had already demonstrated a major talent. The novel was Rabbit, Run. The author was John Updike. I loved Rabbitt, and quickly obtained a copy of his earlier novel, The Centaur.

I have continued to read Updike throughout my life. I asked for and received a volume of his early stories for Christmas just last year. I loved his late-nineties novel In the Beauty of the Lilies so well that I gave it to my dad for Father’s Day some years ago.

I don’t feel that John Updike ever received his full due from the literary establishment. Most likely Mr. Johnston never got the kudos he deserved either. I can only express my gratitude to both of these great men for what they contributed to my life. And remember.
Update: Speaking of remembering, the information in the NPR article linked by reader Anonymous in the comments section has corrected my memory. The novel that I read next after Rabbit, Run must have been The Poorhouse Fair, since The Centaur came after Rabbit.

Reflections: One Size Fits All

Equal Opportunity Under the Law: the Down Side

Monday, January 26, 2009

Quote du Jour: Hermes' Revenge


Theory can obscure as well as facilitate. It amused Nietzsche to remind us that the name of Schleiermacher, one of the founding fathers of modern hermeneutics, means “veil-maker.”

~ Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Rants: Listen-up, Obama

Innocent non-combatants, including children, killed by Americans hunting al-Qaeda or the Taliban in Afghanistan under a Democrat Commander-in-Chief are in no way more acceptable than innocent non-combatants, including children, killed in Iraq under a Republican.

This is strike one, Mr. President.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Review: Berlin Alexanderplatz


For the past three weekends, ending early this morning, I’ve been engrossed in watching all 14+ hours of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterful film, Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Originally made as a TV mini-series, Berlin Alexanderplatz is a devastating exploration, or explication, of the human condition, set in a marginal East Berlin neighborhood in the late 1920’s. The cast of characters present a fallen humanity in the guise of pimps, whores, and petty gangsters, all exhibiting various levels of hope and despair, as the will to do good fights an often losing battle with contingency and moral failure. (Pictured above are the film's protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, a pimp, and his last "girl," Mieze.)

The sheer scope of the thing is amazing, and only brilliant acting by a cast of European actors, with none of whom had I been previously familiar, compelled me to stick with it through sessions lasting up to three hours-plus per disk. (The DVD set consists of the feature on six disks, and a seventh disk of special features, which I did not watch.)

Anyone wanting to get serious about his knowledge of the history of cinema will need to commit the time it takes to view this masterpiece in its entirety. This Wikipedia article gives a decent synopsis of the film’s 13 episodes and concluding epilogue. This article from The New York Review of Books provides some interesting context.

Four stars.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Reflection: Whose Inauguration Is It, Anyway?

I just now heard documentary film-maker, Ken Burns, speaking with Keith Olbermann about the perhaps over-the-top adulation being afforded President Obama on the occasion of his inauguration, say something that I consider to be as profound as it is true. Burns reflected that our heroes are always somewhat less than we come to imagine them to be. But, he said, (and I must paraphrase now) the difference between Abraham Lincoln as he actually was, and Abraham Lincoln as we have exalted him, is that which we want of, and for, ourselves.

In the case of our exaltation of President Obama, therefore, if we do that which we would do, rather than that which we would not, then our success will maintain Obama up there in that high place to which our enthusiasm has lifted him today.

As Obama has said: It's not about him; it's about us.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Reflections: The Party's Over...


...turn out the lights.
Outgoing Chief Executive, George W. Bush, gave his farewell address to the nation last night. I wasn't tuned in, but I have seen endless clips today.

Some years back, I expressed to Robert A. George of Ragged Thots that Mr. Bush deserved to be sent walking back to Crawford on his knees, carrying his balls in his hat. If an approval rating could be expressed as a visual image, that one just might fit.
But, hey--no hard feelings:

You did a helluva job, Bushy.

Monday, January 12, 2009

R.I.P. - Mouseketette, Cheryl

You know you’re getting old when the little show biz girls that you had a crush on in elementary school start dying off. Most of the Mickey Mouse Club guys huddled around those black and white TV sets, back in the day, waiting for the music stuff to end so that the next episode of Spin and Marty could come on, fell for Annette and her precociously bodacious ta-tas. But I was always a Cheryl man.

Rest in peace, pretty Cheryl. We won’t forget.

Y? Because we like you!


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Readings: Why I Read - part 2

Since I’m on record as an enthusiastic admirer of characteristically Jewish feminine beauty, it's not surprising that, as I was leafing through the January 12, 2009 issue of The New Yorker looking for the cartoons, I was arrested by the picture on page 64 of the German-Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt. (She looks to be slightly pained by my appreciative gaze.) The portrait adorns an article entitled “Beware of Pity” by critic-at-large, Adam Kirsch, which I went on to read. It is an interesting article, and I urge you to read it here. What I will discuss below are a couple of things in the piece that resonated with me: the first is a discussion of elitism; the second is an occurrence of a phenomenon about which I have written previously, and which I shall here dub “Textual Synchronicity.”

I have been accused in the comboxes of several discussion threads over the years of being an elitist—either political, or cultural, or both. Except in instances where this charge was made out of context, I haven’t bothered to deny it, since, as is the case with growing old—of which I’ve also been rightly accused—it seems to me that it beats all hell out of the alternative. So if from your perspective I look like an elitist, well, what the hey—to paraphrase Chevy Chase: I am. And you’re not. Congrats, all around.

I have often contrasted “the elite” with what I’ve called “bleating merinos.” The Kirsch article discloses that Arendt contrasted the self-designated elite to the shlemihl, which I take to be Yiddish for “bleating merino.” Arendt is quoted as characterizing this category of loser as “the hapless human being, the shlemihl, who has anticipated nothing.” An example of this, for Arendt, were those European Jews who waited and did nothing during the rise of National Socialism, until it was too late and they were swept up by the killing machine. My comparison to these would be those middle- and lower-middle-class Americans who allow their buttons to be pushed by neocon political propaganda, issued by “conservative” pols, for whom they subsequently vote, and by whom they are inevitably screwed.

Below is a discussion of what Arendt believed fires the ambition to be one of the political elite:

Still more revealing than Arendt’s definition of politics is her explanation of why people are drawn to it in the first place. We do not enter the political world to pursue justice or to create a better world. No, human beings love politics because they love to excel, and a political career is the best way to win the world’s respect. In ancient Greece, she writes, “the polis was permeated by a fiercely agonal spirit, where everybody had constantly to distinguish himself from all others, to show through unique deeds or achievements that he was the best of all. The public realm, in other words, was reserved for individuality; it was the only place where men could show who they really and inexchangeably were.” Arendt recognizes that most of the people of Athens, including all women and slaves, were shut out from this arena, but she accepts that her kind of politics is necessarily an aristocratic pursuit. In yet another instance of her favorite metaphor, she defends “the bitter need of the few to protect themselves against the many, or rather to protect the island of freedom they have come to inhabit against the surrounding sea of necessity.”

To be of the hoi polloi, a lesser creature that exists at the moral-intellectual mercy of contingency, to be blindly, easily, led towards destruction—a bleating merino—is to be in a bad place:

Avoiding that helpless “place” became the goal of Arendt’s life and thought. The categorical imperative of her political theory might be phrased: Thou shalt not be a shlemihl.

Right. Or a bleating merino. Now here comes the instance of “Textual Synchronicity.” I have previously written of a tendency for the serious reader to choose, simultaneously, but unintentionally, completely at random, various texts that contain identical and/or complementary ideas, which reinforce each other, with significantly enhanced impact on the reader. Towards the end of the Kirsch article, then, we read:

In “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” [Arendt] points out that the first step in the Nazis’ destruction of the Jews was to make them stateless, in the knowledge that people with no stake in a political community have no claim on the protection of its laws. [emphasis added]


This is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and what is happening now in Darfur.

So I finished that article and was putting the magazine aside with my right hand, in order to pick up Roberto Bolaño’s multi-volume, episodic, novel 2666—which I got for Christmas—with my left. Now for the occurrence (edited for brevity) of a synchronicity:

Upon opening the novel to p.266 of the first volume, where I had it bookmarked, I read, in the very first section—or episode—the following recitation of a newly introduced character:

The Greeks, you might say, invented evil, the Greeks saw the evil inside us all….It was the Greeks who showed us the range of possibilities and yet now they mean nothing to us. Everything changes, you say. Of course everything changes, but not the archetypes of crime, not any more than human nature changes. Maybe it’s because polite society was so small back then….Most human beings existed on the outer fringes of society. In the seventeenth century, for example, at least twenty percent of the merchandise on every slave ship died. By that I mean the dark-skinned people who were being transported for sale….And that didn’t get anyone upset….But if a plantation owner went crazy and killed his neighbor, and then went galloping back home, dismounted, and promptly killed his wife, two deaths in total…the legend of the murderer on horseback might linger for generations. Or look at the French. During the Paris Commune of 1871, thousands of people were killed and no one batted an eye. Around the same time a knife sharpener killed his wife and his elderly mother and then he was shot and killed by the police. The story didn’t just make all the French newspapers, it was written up in papers across Europe, and even got a mention in the New York Examiner. How come? The ones killed in the Commune weren’t part of society, the dark-skinned people who died on the ship weren’t part of society, whereas the woman killed in a French provincial capital and the murderer on horseback in Virginia were. [emphasis added]

Greeks. Elites. Dark-skinned people. Stateless persons. I get it. But go figure.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Riffs: A Sixties Footnote

The New York Times reports the death of William Zantzinger, the villain of Bob Dylan’s editorial ballad, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” from the album The Times They Are A-Changin’.

Click here to see and hear Dylan performing this song live, when it was current, in one of his rare early network television appearances. Fellow sixties survivors, and TV history buffs, will recognize emcee Steve Allen at the beginning of the clip. We could use more personalities with the brains and class of Steve Allen on television today. Unfortunately, our world is more likely to harbor a remnant the W. D. Zantzingers.


Reflections: Have a Rice Day

To close this previous, semi-snarky post, I wrote: “…I am hoping that the final quarter of Anne Rice’s latest book will be inspirational.”

Having now finished that book without major reassessment of my previously expressed opinion of it, I can report nonetheless that, if the final quarter of the book lacked inspirational impact, it was not for any failure on the part of Rice to try to make it hard-hitting.

She reports that as she groped her way back towards an ever more urgent commitment to Christ

…I found myself reading the Gospel of Matthew more than the other Gospels. I found myself entranced with the Sermon on the Mount.
And something came clear to me that had never been clear before. Loving our neighbors and our enemies is perhaps the very hardest thing that Christ demands. It’s almost impossible to love one’s neighbors and enemies. It’s almost impossible to feel that degree of total giving to other human beings. …One has to love the rude salesclerk, and the foreign enemy of one’s country; one has to love those who are “patently wrong” in their judgments of us. One has to love those who despise us openly and write and tell us so by email. One has to love the employee who steals from you, and the murderer excoriated on national television.

One would think that the above goes without saying for any Christian. But more often, I think, these words are talked-but-not-walked. This is perhaps the perfect example of a Great Truth that we’ve heard so often, and accepted so entirely without reflection, so entirely without contemplation of its meaning for our daily lives, that it has become just background static—mere wallpaper in a room that we rarely enter.

Rice later says:

The more…I listen to people around me talk about their experience with Jesus Christ and with religion, the more I realize…that what drives people away from Christ is the Christian who does not know how to love. A string of cruel words from a Christian can destroy another Christian. [p.227]

Yeah. There’s a lot of that going around. Persons interested in a practical demonstration of this phenomenon can browse the grounds here. Rice next asks the crucial question by quoting some Scripture:

But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for He makes His sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
XXXHow can this not be enough?

How, indeed. Rice immediately answers that question by posing another:

How is it that I, unlike Him, am a broken creature of my time? [p.243]

While I can’t say that I am exactly inspired by the judgment implicit in the question, I can certainly admit that it nails my predicament.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

R.I.P. - Ron Asheton of the Stooges

While I knew Jim Osterberg (Iggy Pop) beginning with my junior high school days--he was in my eighth-grade homeroom and my high school AP English class, among other connections (I recently penned a short poem about that relationship)--I can't say that I knew Ron Asheton. I did meet him, because of my friendship with Jim, but I never got to know him. I was, once, in that basement rehearsal room mentioned in the linked obituary, so I can make some claim to having been there in the beginning when it comes to the Stooges, and perhaps, therefore, to what came to be known as punk rock. The Stooges brand of rock music gave new meaning to the word "raw" and Asheton's guitar was a main element of that new sound. It still works for me, in small doses. I'll be taking a small dose tonight.

Riffs: A Musical Comment on the Days to Come?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Readings: Arroz con Pollo

I remember being very enthusiastic about Anne Rice’s novel, Interview With the Vampire, when I read it, sometime in the late 1970’s. I read at least two more of her vampire novels, although with waning enthusiasm. I also, at some point, found Feast of All Saints, her novel about not-quite-white society in New Orleans, in a remainders bin, and read that with a modicum of pleasure. But after that point my tolerance for Anne Rice had maxed-out. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t read any more of her novels—or, at least that if I tried, I didn’t finish them—until her two novels about Jesus Christ (Christ the Lord—Out of Egypt and Christ the Lord—the Road to Cana) were recently published. I read them both. They aren’t the best novelizations of Christ’s life that I’ve encountered, but they are both well worth reading. They are the efforts of a lapsed Catholic who has returned to the Church. As such, they are very devout, if not, perhaps, strictly orthodox (?).

Anyhoo, on a visit to the public library the other day, I happened to glance over at the new book shelf where I spotted Called Out of Darkness—a spiritual confession, Anne Rice’s natural history of her return to the Faith. I’m always a sucker for a good spiritual memoir, so I borrowed it.

As of tonight, I’ve read about 3/4 of the book. I intend to finish it, but I can’t give it a glowing review. While there is some good writing about the beauties of New Orleans and Rice’s extremely conservative Catholic childhood, overall I find the book’s pacing to be choppy, a result of having been badly edited. Moreover, I find Rice’s self-portrait to be wildly self-contradictory, and not quite believable. I find that I don’t like her very much, or sympathize much with her various modes and phases. But that’s just me. You might feel altogether differently about it.

Anne Rice is apparently about six years older than me. I was surprised to learn that she had left New Orleans and was living in San Francisco, smack in the middle of the Haight-Ashbury heart of the hippie counter-culture at the height of the sixties. For a time she and her husband had an apartment in the building that also housed the famed Free Clinic. In describing those days, Rice makes the following observation:

In the midst of rampant liberation, the flower children were stridently if not viciously sexist. “Chicks” were supposed to bake bread, clean up, feed their hippie boyfriends, and if at all possible hold a job to support the artist-poets of the group, and perhaps even fork over a bit of financial support received from frantic parents back home. It was no accident that these “chicks” wore long dresses and long hair. They looked like pioneer women, and they worked just about that hard.

Yeah, well, in short, Ms. Rice, it was paradise. It was a great system. It worked for me. And it was kicked all to pieces by the Man. We were getting laid, you see, and the Man was not. What came after, to fill that human, natural (not to say mammalian) void, was—God help us!—Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug. Oh, the humanity!

Just the other day I was trying to explain to my two daughters, both in college now, that “chick” is not a sexist designation, in any meaningful sense. But they weren’t buying it. Thanks a lot, Bella-baby.

All of that said, I am hoping that the final quarter of Anne Rice’s latest book will be inspirational. The word is out that I am in great need of that kind of thing.


Sunday, January 4, 2009

Quote du Jour: Open to Grace

…Ananda! You have sought the secret lore from all the Buddha-lands without first attaining emancipation from the desires and intoxications of your own contaminations and attachments, with the result that you have stored in your memory a vast accumulation of worldly knowledge and built up a tower of faults and mistakes.

You have learned the Teachings by listening to the words of the Lord Buddha and then committing them to memory. Why do you not learn from your own self by listening to the sound of the Intrinsic Dharma within your own Mind and then practicing reflection upon it?

~ Jack Kerouac, Wake Up - a Life of the Buddha

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Reflections: The Tongue as Blunt Instrument

Most of us spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about politics, sports, or religion on blogs, around the proverbial water cooler, or over beers in some evil-smelling grogshop. And we spend much of our remaining time reading op-eds and topical books and magazines, or sitting at the pixilated feet of the talking heads on cable TV, in order to stockpile ammo for our next face-to-face or cyber-argument.

It often seems, after all this expended energy, that we’ve just been spinning our wheels, unable to gain any rhetorical traction. The following excerpts from The Aquarian Conspiracy may provide some insight as to why this is so often the case:

Life is not constructed like a sentence, subject acting on object. In reality many events affect each other simultaneously. Take, for example, the impossibility of sorting out who-did-what-first or who-caused-what-behavior in a family. We construct all of our explanations on a linear model that exists only as an ideal.

Hmm. Apply that thought in a post-mortem on your last argument about who’s to blame for the financial melt-down.

Semanticists like Alfred Korzybski and Benjamin Whorf warned that Indo-European languages trap us in a fragmented model of life. They disregard relationship. By their subject-predicate structure, they mold our thought, forcing us to think of everything in terms of simple cause and effect. For this reason it is hard for us to talk about--or even think about--quantum physics, a fourth dimension, or any other notion without clear-cut beginnings and endings, up and down, then and now.

Gosh. Maybe the failure of AIG was not primarily due to Barney Frank’s unnatural lust to put every shiftless, nappy-headed Negro and his web-toed hillbilly cousin into his own six-bedroom mansion on a wooded cul-de-sac, after all? Maybe it’s just that the nature of language requires us to designate a simple cause-and-effect explanation for the event, if we insist on discussing it at all?

Events in nature have simultaneous multiple causes. Some languages, notably Hopi and Chinese, are structured differently and can express nonlinear ideas with less strain. They can, in effect, "speak physics." Like the ancient Greeks, whose philosophy strongly influenced the left-brained West, we say, "The light flashed." But the light and the flash were one. A Hopi would more accurately say, "Reh-pi!"--"Flash!"

[bridge and chorus]

I recently e-mailed my good buddy, John Derbyshire, with regard to my new-found enthusiasm for the poetry of Jane Kenyon. In reading various biographical pieces on Kenyon, I had learned that her earliest poetic influence was most likely Witter Bynner’s translations of poetry from the Chinese (which I previously mentioned here.) Knowing Derb to be a knowledgeable poetry guy, as well as a world-class sinologist, I wondered if these twin competencies might have led him to read Kenyon? Although it turns out that he wasn’t familiar with Kenyon (a deficiency that I hope I’ve now prompted him to remediate), his return e-mail did include this link to his excellent article on the vicissitudes of translation. It also provides some concrete examples of the differences between Indo-European language structure and that of “Chinese,” as referred to in the last excerpt from The Aquarian Conspiracy above.


Korzybski warned that we will not grasp the nature of reality until we realize the limitation of words. Language frames our thought, thereby setting up barriers.

So you see, I wasn’t going off-topic when I abruptly brought up Kenyon and Bynner and Derb (Oh, my!). I wasn’t even “connecting the dots”—I was transcending the linguistic barriers that compartmentalize our thinking and verbal intercourse. Lie back and enjoy it.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Reflections: New Year, New Age?

When a writer who has given me something of value recommends writings from which he has derived value, I go for it. The same source which prompted me to read Trickster Makes This World, about which I have posted below, also cited, in the same piece, The Aquarian Conspiracy by Marilyn Ferguson. I borrowed them both from the library on the same day. I will admit that I was dubious about the latter, based on its title, which is why I read Trickster first. Still, my faith in the intellectual discriminatory powers of my source led me to give the book a try, regardless of its gimmicky, “New Age” sounding title. I will be quoting from it below.

Nine years ago there were predictions of some kind of cataclysm to befall us at the turn of the century—the advent of a new millennium. But nothing happened. Or did it? Are we witnessing the apocalypse now? We know that the dates of the Christian calendar are only approximations. Perhaps as the world we have known implodes around us—as we witness what may be a paradigm shift in our way of life—what we are seeing is our calendar notion of “millennium” being fine-tuned to conform to a Cosmic Clock which transcends human history.

I am a member of the post-WWII generation who came of age in the nineteen-sixties. I was among those who had hoped for, and briefly had seemed to be able to see on the horizon, a revolution in values that would take not only this country, but the entire world, into a future where all of mankind would share in the comforts and freedoms enjoyed by the majority of Americans. It didn’t happen that way. The entrenched powers, operating from within their politico-economic bunkers, prevailed. Their heirs are still in power as I write. The lesson learned was that of the Buffalo Springfield anthem of the day: Step out of line, the Man comes and takes you away. It’s not hard to look back on the sixties as a failure.

But history is not a series of facts strung like beads along a timeline. History is a process. And what manifested socially, culturally, politically in the sixties did not begin in the sixties and did not end with the sixties. The Aquarian Conspiracy has that message as one of its central themes.
America is currently having its world rocked. The future--our future, your future, my future—is today uncertain. The eggs are broken. Do we make an omelet, or do we go hungry? Do we mock those who tell us that every disaster is an opportunity to move forward, or do we pick through the rubble looking for keepsakes--the baubles and snapshots of bygone days?

Chapter 5 of The Aquarian Conspiracy is entitled “The American Matrix”. Its message, when the book was published in 1980, was that America had been, and still was, the incubator of a process that would transform the world by nurturing what would eventually become a critical mass of “Aquarian conspirators.” This loosely defined network of individuals would take this country, and then the world, into a future something like that which was envisioned by those “radicals and hippies” who were energized and mobilized by the zeitgeist of the sixties. Such transformational figures are the true heirs of the Founders, whose zeitgeist was the Enlightenment, and of the Transcendentalists, whose zeitgeist was the Second Great Awakening. Here now is an excerpt from chapter five of The Aquarian Conspiracy:

XX Civilizations decline, [Arnold] Toynbee said, not so much because of invasions or other external forces but because of an internal hardening of ideas. The “elite creative minority” that once gave life to the civilization has been gradually replaced by another minority—still dominant, but no longer creative.
XX Creativity requires constant transformation, experimentation, flexibility. Cynicism, a chronic state of distrust, is antithetical to the openness necessary for a creative society. To the cynic, experiments are futile…all conclusions are foregone. Cynics know the answers without having penetrated deeply enough to know the questions. When challenged by mysterious truths, they marshal “facts.” Just has we must let go of dead philosophies, illusions, and old science to confront reality, so a country must keep challenging its traditions if it is to be transformed—if it wants renewal.
XX Through the heavy seas of crisis, through social movements and wars, depressions, scandals, betrayals, the United States has been consistently open to change. When a television interviewer asked [Jean-Francois] Revel [author of
Without Marx or Jesus] in 1978 for his current assessment of the potential for transformation in America, he said, “The United States is still the most revolutionary country in the world, the laboratory for society. All the experiments—social, scientific, racial, intergenerational—are taking place in the U.S.”

As an Aquarian myself, with a birthday later this month, it would seem to me that the above is a pretty good fit with our current situation. On the 20th of this month we swear in a new regime—an experiment that exhibits potential for change—social, scientific, racial, and intergenerational. Let’s work for it, rather than against it. There should be no fear in being scorned by the armies of conformity. It is more than mere coincidence that “mocks” rhymes with “box.” One can hunker down inside walls, or one can climb out and marvel at the beautiful patterns change makes potential when one takes in the Big Picture.