Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reflections: Did Michael Jackson Die for Your Sins?

I will state at the outset that I am not a fan of pop music; my tastes run much more to rock, blues, jazz, and R&B. I have never purchased a Michael Jackson recording, and can't recall ever having voluntarily listened to a whole Michael Jackson song. Involuntary exposure has, however, inevitably, been considerable.

All disclaimers out of the way, having watched several hours of MJ coverage last night, I've become convinced of the high intelligence beneath the surface weirdness of the guy. What is not clear to me is to what degree that intelligence was in contact with reality. If, for instance, the Jackson family father was truly the brutal monster that Michael portrays, why wasn't he stopped? If Michael is the biological father of "his" children, why do none of them show any physical evidence of being mixed-race children? Does he believe that he is the father? How can he believe that his behavior with young boys was appropriate even if there truly was no sex involved? Earth to Michael!

Michael Jackson has many high profile protectors and defenders and I have to respect their obvious love for Michael as being based on very real positive qualities which transcend his musical genius. That said, why did they enable his unacceptable conduct and his debilitating drug use? Did they all need him more than he needed them? Were they afraid to lose him if they confronted him with it? Liza, for one, knows all about drug dependency, from both first- and second-hand experience in her own life. Where was she in all of this?

It would seem that Michael Jackson most resembles Elvis in having been surrounded by enablers: every important person in his life can be reduced to the status of a hanger-on by his/her inability to manifest and enact any life-saving tough love for the poor man.

Finally then, the question becomes: would Michael (Off the Wall) have been Michael (Thriller) without that tragic element? Did he have to live as he lived (Bad) in order to satisfy our cultural jones (Dangerous) for the sensational? Did Michael Jackson need to die for our collective sins?
Update (h/t Madscribe: Madonna's take on it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Reflections: Linked Allusions

I can’t seem to get enough of Red Pines’ translations and commentary on the poems of Han Shan these days. His ancient Eastern wisdom seems applicable to nearly everything. Apply the following, for instance, to the message of yesterday’s post:


People think the body’s their root
and the mind they think is its stem
the mind mustn’t stray from the root
when it does the root’s life ends
still unable to avoid this fate
don’t be too lazy to look in the mirror
unless you read the Diamond Sutra
you’ll make bodhisattvas sick

In the Nirvana Sutra; 34, the Buddha likened his sermons to a mirror in which one’s true nature is visible. The Diamond Sutra ends with this gatha: “All Created things / are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, or a shadow / like dew or like lightening / regard them like this.” According to this sutra, only by not grasping form can we see our true mind. Meanwhile, Vimilakirti told Manjushri: “I’m sick because other beings are sick. If they weren’t sick, my illness would vanish. Where we find birth and death, we find sickness. When beings are able to get free of sickness, bodhisattvas will no longer be sick.” (Vimilakirti Sutra: 5) A bodhisattva is someone who works for the liberation of others.

Check it out: It's about our relationship to the Other.

Rememberances: ...les neiges d'antan

Happy fortieth, Small Bird, wherever you are.

True love never forgets

Review: The Reader

I watched the movie version of The Reader this morning. I had read the novel some years ago, but I don't remember it having bummed me out the way the movie has. The message of the film seems to be this:

Love is futile. Cruelty is inevitable. Atonement is impossible.

But only for Germans, one supposes...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Reflections: Dopplegänging It

Have you ever found yourself understanding—understanding with real breadth and depth—another person concerning whom that understanding reveals the source of one’s personal existential trials in a clear light? For me, there have been at least two such persons: Simone Weil and Franz Kafka.

(What follows from this point on is only the roughest sketch of the possibilities touched upon, but in the form of a blog post, it will have to suffice.)

If Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, writing in the 19th century, began the most lastingly influential critical/taxonomic vivisections of Western bourgeois man—i.e., the first Modern man—it was Kafka, writing in the 20th century, who, having internalized the spiritual angst and existential anxiety revealed by those predecessors, exposed in his writings the dark depths of Modern alienation.

In proclaiming Kafka’s “central place in this century’s canon,” my favorite literary critic, Harold Bloom, notes in his indispensable text, The Western Canon:

“Certainly ‘Kafkaesque’ has taken on an uncanny meaning for many among us; perhaps it has become a universal term for what Freud called ‘the uncanny,’ something at once absolutely familiar to us yet also estranged from us. From a purely literary perspective, this is the age of Kafka, more even than the age of Freud. Freud, slyly following Shakespeare, gave us our map of the mind; Kafka intimated to us that we could not hope to use it to save ourselves, even from ourselves.”

Bloom—himself a kind of Gnostic Platonist—quotes the following as the acknowledgement of “a dualism that Kafka finds exists at the heart of everything and everyone”:

There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.

And when the world has been unmasked, Kafka says, what is revealed is that:

There is nothing besides a spiritual world; what we call the world of the senses is the Evil in the spiritual world, and what we call Evil is only the necessity of a moment in our eternal evolution.

Compare this, if you will to what Simone Weil, in speaking in the context of necessity, calls “gravity”:

We must always expect things to happen in conformity with the laws of gravity unless there is supernatural intervention.


Generally what we expect of others depends on the effect of gravity upon ourselves, what we receive from them depends on the effect of gravity upon them. Sometimes (by chance) the two coincide, often they do not.

Particularly in light of that second quote, consider now these reflections of Roberto Calasso from the pages of K.:

Kafka was an expert on the feeling of being foreign or extraneous, and he began, in his last period, to consider it and represent it in his work in commonplace situations that became suddenly illuminating. For example, the family’s card-game ritual. For years, in the evening Kafka’s parents played cards. For years they asked him to take part. For years the son said no. ...Kafka inferred something quite profound: his behavior with his family made clear to him why “the current of life” had never swept him along, why he had always remained on the threshold of things that then eluded him.

I am reminded here of Simone Weil, always on the threshold of the Church, refusing to enter, much as Kafka refused to play cards with this parents.

Calasso continues:

It was Kafka’s suspicion, and this too arose from his observations of the family card game, that any practical initiatives on his part to camouflage himself in normalcy (and these could be as diverse an office job or halfhearted attempts to devote himself to gardening or carpentry) were simply palliatives or a clumsy way of masking behavior that remained as unmistakable, in its hopeless inconsistency, “as the behavior of a man who chases the wretched beggar from his door and then when he’s alone plays the benefactor by passing alms from his right hand to his left.”

I often find myself, in similar ways, feeling an inability to connect with others and instead playing a role in which both they and myself are imaginary creatures.

Again, Calasso:

This behavior corresponds to the sensation of going through life pressing his head “against the wall of a windowless, doorless cell.” The rest—“my family, the office, my friends, the street”—were “all fantasies, some closer, some further off.” Of them, “the closest” was “the woman.” And thus the endless attraction, since that closest of fantasies could condense within it all the others and act as their emissary.

In my own alienation, I find myself wondering: is what “the woman” was for Kafka as “the Cross” was for Simone Weil? Similarly, I am intrigued by speculating that what “the Castle”—with its all-powerful, intractably exclusionary, hierarchical bureaucracy— signified to Kafka, might in some important way be analogous to that which kept Simone Weil “waiting for God” on the cathedral steps, never to enter.

As presented in Simone Pétrement’s definitive biography of Weil, we learn that:

[Simone Weil] believes that Christianity is Catholic by right but not in fact.
“So many things exist outside [the Church], so many things that I love and do not want to give up… ....there is an absolutely insurmountable obstacle… It is the use of the two little words ‘anathema sit.’ …I remain with all those things that cannot enter the Church, the universal repository, on account of those two little words. …In order that the present attitude of the Church might be effective and that she might really penetrate like a wedge into social existence, she would have to say openly that she had changed or wished to change. …After the fall of the Roman Empire, which had been totalitarian, it was the Church that was the first to establish a rough sort of totalitarianism in Europe in the thirteenth century... And the motive power of this totalitarianism was the use of those two little words: ‘anathema sit.’”

As one might have heard it said in a smoke-filled church basement: “I can I.D. that totally.”

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Readings: Han Shan in the Gap

Here—since I’ve been too distracted lately by things into which I don’t want to delve in this venue to work on what I had planned as my next post—is another poem by Han Shan (Cold Mountain) translated, with commentary, by Red Pine. I had a little private chuckle over this one by applying it to pundits, political bloggers, and such-like:

The world is full of busy people
well-versed in countless views
blind to their true natures
they get farther from the Way
if they could see what’s real
they wouldn’t talk about empty dreams
one thought answers your prayers
revealing a buddha’s view

The final couplet recalls the words of Amitabha, "This mind creates the buddha. This mind is the buddha. The sea of omniscience of the buddhas springs from the thoughts of the mind." Kuan wuliangshoufo ching (Contemplation of Amitabha Sutra)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Quiz du Jour: Test Your Literary IQ

I am reading a novel and want to see if anybody can figure out—from the image above (a strong reference to one of the novel’s subplots) and the excerpt below (which describes an attitudinal stance characteristic of the novel’s protagonist)—what the title of that novel is:

…[the protagonist] gathered from her description of Matisse that he owed much of his greatness as an artist and as a man to the fact that he was simultaneously epicurean and pious, hedonistic and devout; that he made little or no distinction between his love of wine, women, and song and his love of God—and attitude that struck [the protagonist] as entirely sensible.
Please submit your answer to the comments section below.
NB: Persons who already know what I’m reading, should recuse themselves to give others a shot at it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Reflections: Pattern Recognition

I realize that I’ve been wearing out the book Straw for the Fire (selections from the journals of teacher and poet, Theodore Roethke) combing through it for pithy “Quotes du Jour.” Well, the book just happens to be full of them: deal with it. I am now gleaning gems from the last four or five pages anyway, so that well is about to run dry.

But it is not quite dry yet. Last night I found this:

Not only to perceive the single thing sharply; but to perceive the relationships between many things sharply perceived.

Does that sound like a truism? Perhaps it does. But on the other hand, if one listens closely to one’s fellow man, and to the way that your man poses his arguments—particularly on controversial topics—it can be discerned that many, perhaps a majority, of those arguments are founded upon facts viewed perhaps sharply; but viewed in isolation.

Take as an example the assertion made by Rush Limbaugh, and subsequently parroted by others on the political right, that Colin Powell’s support of Barack Obama’s candidacy for POTUS was based on race. I think that this is true. And I also think that if race alone—disconnected from the whole constellation of Obama’s other attributes, which together made him a desirable candidate in the minds of a majority of his countrymen, regardless of race—had been Powell’s sole motive in supporting him, that would have been wrong. It would have been as wrong as Limbaugh, et al., have striven to make it seem.

Let me uncharacteristically give Limbaugh the benefit of the doubt. Let me stipulate my belief that Limbaugh actually believes what he said; that he has an actual, deep seated, conviction that Powell’s only motive in supporting Obama for POTUS was their shared racial background. Hmm. Has Powell supported the prior candidacies of other Black liberals? Did he, for instance, campaign for Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun, or Al Sharpton? I don’t think so.

It would be odd if race were not a factor in Powell’s support of Obama for POTUS. But, given the fact that Powell is a Republican of long-standing, it seems to me to be obvious that Powell’s support for Obama must be based on Powell’s recognition of a broad network of talents, personal characteristics, and historical factors pertinent to Obama’s person and professional career, which together, in concert, form a pattern which made Obama a viable Black candidate for Powell, where other African Americans who have sought that office were not.

So Limbaugh may have perceived the race factor in sharp outline; but he saw it only out of context. And this failure of pattern recognition is the basis of the category of error that has made Mr. Limbaugh look so abysmally ignorant in his discussion of this and of many other “controversial” issues.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Quote du Jour: Natural Law

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxThe Way of Heaven favors no one
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxbut always helps the good.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx~ Lao-tzu, Taoteching: 79


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Reflections: O'Connor on Weil - Part V: Conclusion

In wrapping up this exercise to introduce Simone Weil to a new readership by way of Flannery O’Connor, I will note that the last mention of Weil in a letter to “A.” was dated 20 July 63. Since O’Connor died on August 4, 1964, it is fair to say that having once been introduced to Weil, O’Connor maintained her interest to the end. O’Connor’s penultimate reference to Weil in the letters was this:

Never read Beauvoir. Never aim to. I think myself that Simone Weil is a trifle monstrous, but the kind of monstrosity that interests me. Indeed.

This has not been my first attempt to introduce Weil to new readers by way of a third party author. Not so long ago I completed another five-part series of posts quoting the whole a short biography of Weil by the novelist, Paul West. It is evident from his treatment of Weil that West, like O’Connor before him, found Weil to be “a trifle monstrous.” Be that as it may. I consider Weil’s biography to be every bit as important to an understanding of my devotion to her as are her writings. I therefore encourage persons who have taken an interest in this series of posts to begin here with a reading of the West bio and scroll up through the other four posts. I will post links to a couple of full-length biographies at the conclusion of this piece.

I find that since I launched Rodak Riffs, almost two years ago, I have written nearly forty posts tagged with the name Simone Weil. Several of these have contained quotes about her by other prominent writers. For instance: Elizabeth Hardwick and T. S. Eliot and Iris Murdoch. I add their recommendations to that of Flannery O’Connor.

I also recommend this previous post, which contains a link to a selection of Weil quotes.

A not-so-random sampling of previous posts featuring my application of Weil’s writings to whatever I was thinking about at the time, can be reviewed here and here and here and here and here and here. A bit of scrolling around in the Rodak Riffs archives for 2007 and 2008 will uncover a couple dozen more.

Of biographies, the one by her friend, Simone Pétrement, is probably considered the standard work. It is also the most hagiographic. My personal library also holds biographies by Robert Coles, Gabriella Fiori, David McClellan, and Francine du Plessix Gray. I can recommend them all, noting that some (e.g., Coles, du Plessix Gray) are less sympathetic to Weil’s “monstrosity” than others.

There: I’ve done what I can.

Friday, June 5, 2009

WWWtW-Watch #22: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing


It's been many months since I've bothered to aim a critical spotlight at the crypto-fascist crew over at What's Wrong With the World. The recent murder of Dr. Tiller in Kansas, however, incited my curiosity as to what kind of rhetorical treatment the pseudo-Christian hate-mongers at WWWtW would be giving the incident.
What I found was the following post by an evidently mainstream Roman Catholic man named Edward Feser who teaches philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. The post is an extended comparison of Dr. Tiller to serial sex-killer and cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer. I was pretty much expecting the worst, but this kind of screed surpassed all of my most cynical expectations:

Do I seriously mean to suggest that Tiller was as bad as Dahmer? No, because Tiller was almost certainly a more evil man than Dahmer was.

If a keen appetite for the grotesquely hateful has been whetted by that uncharitable little blurb -- if you really have the stomach for it -- you can read the whole agape-free, despicable article here.