Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sunday Poem

Each Small Gleam Was a Voice
by Stephen Crane

Each small gleam was a voice,
A lantern voice --
In little songs of carmine, violet, green, gold.
A chorus of colours came over the water;
The wondrous leaf-shadow no longer wavered,
No pines crooned on the hills,
The blue night was elsewhere a silence,
When the chorus of colours came over the water,
Little songs of carmine, violet, green, gold.

Small glowing pebbles
Thrown on the dark plane of evening
Sing good ballads of God
And eternity, with soul's rest.
Little priests, little holy fathers,
None can doubt the truth of your hymning,
When the marvellous chorus comes over the water,
Songs of carmine, violet, green, gold.

Thursday, January 28, 2010


JD Salinger has died, at 91.

I think Salinger is a prime example of my belief that an artist can both be a period artist, destined to seem less relevant or successful outside of his or her own time, while still deserving to be called great. Perhaps not great in the same way as an artist whose work is enduring, but great nonetheless. The difficulty lies in the fact that the people who are capable of appreciating that greatness are often contemporaries of the artist in question; that's the reality of writing perfectly of your time. The rest of use have to appreciate the work the best we can, to take its strengths and flaws through the prism of our own misunderstanding. That's good enough, though. I'll tell you the truth: Catcher in the Rye leaves me cold. It doesn't touch me because it doesn't speak to the truth of my time. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate it as a piece of craft, or respect the craftsman. This is yet another virtue of looking beyond greatness or listmaking; when you abandon "better/worse" as meaningful distinctions, you are left with the space to simply consider what is before you.

Incidentally-- it remains as true as ever: if you want attention as an artist, become a recluse. Nothing piques the public's interest more.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

dear father, greybeard, lonely old courage teacher....

The "Apple Advantage" is class signalling and always has been

Tomorrow is the great unveiling of the Apple tablet, that fabled bit of electronics that has caused so much virtual ink to be spilled. I may avoid the Internet altogether tomorrow, as the collective i-gurgling will probably corrupt even gadget-free sites like ESPN. I'm cool without, thanks.

Some people speak as if I am an Apple hater, but that isn't true. I simply have not sacrificed my discrimination and critical capacity when it comes to Apple, unlike most of the bloggers you will ever read. Apple makes many good products, and some great ones. The question has always been whether the products they make represent a good value. That's been the issue, for me. Sometimes, I find the answer is yes. Often I find the answer is no. Unfortunately, actually evaluating the pros and cons of Apple products is anathema on the Internet, where we are all expected to bow down to whatever Steve Jobs and his marketing team has decreed. This is a disease that has so infected the gadget press that I simply don't trust a word I read online about Apple. There is so much uncritical love thrown Apple's way that you can never sort the true claims about Apple's value from the false ones. Apple makes some fantastic products, I have counseled people to get them many times, but I am afraid that the media and the legion of fanboys devoted to Apple's perfection have left me permanently skeptical about anything positive that I read about the company.

Anyway-- here's something that to me is so obvious that it barely needs mentioning, and yet I never see people talk about it openly: the real advantage of Apple, for many people, is that Apple products are status objects. Displaying your Apple stuff proudly is just yet another of our culture's myriad ways to engage in a little subtle classism. Apple products are expensive, some very expensive, and they are often significantly more expensive than non-Apple equivalents. When I bring this up in cautioning people about buying a particular Apple product (even in the course of endorsing such a purchase) there's a weird defenselessness that happens. People don't disagree, and yet they don't weigh that as a negative factor, either.

The reason is simple: being expensive is part of the point. A Macbook Pro is just as much of a status marker as a Louis Vuitton purse or a BMW. Being more expensive than another product of similar capability isn't a bug, it's a feature. But unlike that purse or that car, Apple products come with a kind of built-in deniability about the fact that they are purchased in part because of their class signals. Look, people love to demonstrate wealth; it is one of our culture's more singular obsessions. But a lot of people, for reasons of politics and decorum (and this extends to conservatives and liberals alike), feel guilty about flashing their class. So while they look down at, say, black urban youth for wearing expensive jewelry, they make sure you know where they went to college. Both are signaling, and both have everything to do with money, but one allows you to deny that you are so signaling.

And that brings us to "Apple culture." This is a phenomenon we're all aware of. I can't tell you how often I've discussed a potential purchase, of a computer or phone or MP3 player, where my frank discussions of features compared to price point get held up because of terms like "philosophy," "individualism," "creativity," "personality." You know-- all the things that purchasing a commodity can't give you? That stuff tends to dominate discussion of Apple products, and has been the essence of Apple advertising for years. There is somehow an Apple culture, and this culture is associated with all kinds of vague (but very real!) virtues. There is, according to many, a category of "Apple people," and this somehow means more than people who prefer Apple products but instead has everything to do with a person's personal virtue, and most importantly, how "unique" they are, a term thrown around about a commodity owned by millions with such disregard for its basic denotation that my eyes glaze over when I hear it. All of this stuff, this strange but inescapable reference to Apple culture, is just a way to hide guilt about the frank status projection that prominently displaying your iPhone represents.

All of this is why the killer feature of the iPod was always those white earbuds. That was what really sold. You could ride the subway or walk down the street and everybody knew that there was something very expensive in your pocket. Why, otherwise, not switch to some nondescript-- and likely higher quality-- headphones? Because such headphones didn't tell anyone that you were someone who could throw down $300 on an iPod, that's why. I remember watching those white earbuds spread like wildfire across the city, accompanied by more knowing glances and quiet smirks than I care to remember.

If you are at this point saying that none of this is a reason not to buy a particular product, I am in total agreement. White, straight teeth are also a class marker, but I am not advocating skipping the dentist out of some strained feelings of guilt. Again-- some Apple purchases make sense; some don't. The original iPod was, really, a miracle of design and superior tech. Hell, I owned an iPod, the original Nano, and while I would now go with a Zune HD above an iPod Touch, were I in the market for either, it would be close. As tends to happen with consumer electronics, good enough alternatives are now so cheap that the comparative advantage of devices like the Zune or iPod has diminished. But I did buy an iPod at one time. The tablet coming out tomorrow might be a great product and a very smart buy. We'll have to wait to find out; the gadget press will pronounce it the greatest achievement of humanity no matter how flawed it might be, in the short term. But in the long term, it might very well be a smart, worthwhile purchase. Just as an iPod or iPhone can both be really smart purchases. I would never pretend that isn't the case.

But-- if you find people are talking about Apple in pseudo-mythical terms; if people are endorsing a vision of Apple or Steve Jobs as anything other than capitalists with the sole priority of making profits; if you hear terms like "culture," "individualism,"or "philosophy," if you find that you are stammering and straining to explain why you love your Apple product beyond any rational explanation... be real. You know what the value is. It's okay; we all do it, I do it. I do think a little guilt is alright, here; unlike the great mass of political commentary in our culture, my opinion has never been that feeling guilty is always inappropriate. Just remember that the sound of someone stammering to explain how "Apple is about more than electronics, man," is the sound of white people trying to hide their guilt about exploiting naked classism.

Incidentally, people always say one of Apple's biggest strengths is aesthetics. This is always weird to me. Aesthetics are subjective. Personally? I think the toilet-seat white plastic shell that has come to define Apple is the absolute apotheosis of whitebread design, an entirely safe, focus-group vision that nonetheless prides itself on danger, a yuppoid futurist fantasy that isn't about "clean lines" or minimalism but instead about a certain sexless, antiseptic stab at middlebrow design profundity, the illusion of depth for people so shallow they're fooled into think that there's anything more moving about smooth white plastic than about that sickly computer beige from a decade ago.

But like I said. Such things are subjective. Nothing to get too emotionally involved with.

Monday, January 25, 2010

preemptive strike on Lost

As Lost is starting up its final season, I want to get on record, again, as saying that the show is bound by law to disappoint and anger all but the most mind-controlled fans, and that this inevitable dissatisfaction has been written into the show's DNA since day one. Here are some comments I posted at the American Scene back in February of 2008, just to prove my cred on this issue. Just remember, when you all are stomach-punched by the show's finale, who knew what was up all along.

So let me say straight away that I am not in any way a Lost hater. I’m not a big fan of the show— it’s not quite my cup of tea— but I find it refreshingly original, smart, and respectful of its audiences intelligence.
With that said, I’ve never believed that they are going to be able to wrap it up into a satisfying conclusion for the show’s devoted fans, and the more I see of it the more convinced I become.

When the show first came out, if you’ll remember, the creators of the show kept saying “It’s not going to be Twin Peaks.” I read those words in a lot of interviews, with JJ Abrams and the cast members. “It’s not gonna be Twin Peaks.” The idea was that Twin Peaks failed because it didn’t have a cohesive storyline plotted from the beginning, and Lost did, and that would help to prevent the kind of dissatisfaction with the endgame that plagued Twin Peaks.

To me, though, the model for how the show will eventually fail has never been Twin Peaks, but rather The X-Files (for a few seasons a favorite of mine.) Both Lost and The X-Files have, as their main draw, persistent mystery, and the pleasure that comes with the gradual revelation of the missing pieces of that mystery. And there lies the problem. As time went on, the creators of The X-Files had to reveal more and more; the enjoyment of the show came from learning the secrets, and you couldn’t have a season finale or event episode without giving the audience some crumb. But they also couldn’t reveal everything, because then there’s no show.

So as time went on, more and more mysteries had to be introduced, even while other mysteries were explained. The plot started to lose coherence with so many loose threads and dangling points. As is always the case, the possibility of the solutions to the mysteries was more enticing than the actual solutions, so the secrets revealed always tended to disappoint. And as time went on, a dedicated watcher became more and more impatient with yet another tease. Most damagingly, maybe, the story lost concision— there was no unified plot or theme but rather a hodge-podge of stories and threads meshed together awkwardly.

I think Lost is definitely entering the same territory. Like the secrets on The X-Files, the secrets revealed on Lost can’t quite match the expectation. Remember the hatch? Many people were disappointed with what was down there (answer: a room)!), but how could they not be? The creators couldn’t match up to the possibilities of what the audiences couuld imagine. That’s a problem with any mystery, I suppose, and wouldn’t be a big deal, if the answer to the mystery fit coherently into some sort of a unified whole. And that’s the biggest problem to me with the show. Here’s an experiment: try and summarize the plot of the show, giving a potential new viewer a version of the story that doesn’t withhold important information. I find it’s hard, and getting harder. There are reams of plot points, reams of conflicts, reams of characters, reams of events… and a never ending string of shifting allegiances and, frankly, changed premises.

Just try to list the genre elements that the show now has going on within it. Survival narrative, obviously. The “deserted island” motif. Science fiction. Psychic ability. Places with regenerative ability. Men who are ideologically extreme (or is it just crazy?). Numerology. Conspiracy theory. Ghosts. (Ghosts!) Rather than being a positive aspect of the show (Lost has everything!), I contend that all of this is actual a major drawback. The simplicity of the beginning narrative— strangers, trapped on a strange island, who must survive against unique perils and themselves— has been sacrificed for an ever-widening circle of plot twists and new storylines, which rob the show of any thematic unity.

And, of course, there is the simple question of the endgame: what possible “secret” could sum up the show, answer the fundamental questions, in a way that satisfies? I can’t imagine one. Remember when the show first came out, when everyone had a theory— they were dead and in the afterlife; the island was a government conspiracy; etc. What possible single secret could now exist that provides anything like a satisfactory answer to the shows questions? How could any one thing explain all of the bizarre turns the story has taken, and not conflict with previous continuity? And if there is no single answer, but rather a string of small answers that have no narrative unity, well, that’s X-Files territory: a seemingly broken promise of an interesting and meaningful solution to a mystery.

I’m not cheerleading an unsatisfying ending. But I absolutely can’t imagine one that can cash the check the creators have written.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday Poem and Reading Recommendation

Witnessing the Launch of the Shuttle Atlantic
by Howard Nemerov

So much of life in the world is waiting, that
This day was no exception, so we waited
All morning long and into the afternoon.
I spent some of the time remembering
Dante, who did the voyage in the mind
Alone, with no more nor heavier machinery
Than the ghost of a girl giving him guidance;

And wondered if much was lost to gain all this
New world of engine and energy, where dream
Translates into deed. But when the thing went up
It was indeed impressive, as if hell
Itself opened to send its emissary
In search of heaven or "the unpeopled world"
(thus Dante of doomed Ulysses) "behind the sun."

So much of life in the world is memory
That the moment of the happening itself—
So much with noise and smoke and rising clear
To vanish at the limit of our vision
Into the light blue light of afternoon—
Appeared no more, against the void in aim,
Than the flare of a match in sunlight, quickly snuffed.

What yet may come of this? We cannot know.
Great things are promised, as the promised land
Promised to Moses that he would not see
But a distant sight of, though the children would.
The world is made of pictures of the world,
And the pictures change the world into another world
We cannot know, as we knew not this one.

My essay recommendation for this week is this piece on revolution by Pyotr Kropotkin, which I submit without comment.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

my library

my books from Freddie deBoer on Vimeo.

I once watched a movie called, I think, Supermasochist, and that's pretty much how I feel after video taping myself for a half hour and then watching it. I'm not a fan of my nose, or my hair, and I'm getting this turkey neck thing with my old age, and I have some annoying tics, too. But at some point you've gotta give yourself a fucking break, right?

I warn you: I use the word "fantastic" like 30 times in this half hour video. I had no idea while I was filming it. I assure you, I'm not one of those people who thinks everything is awesome, and I hope I don't use that word that often in real life. Sorry.

As I hint at in the video, this video had both a preamble and a, uh, postamble. I got rid of them both, for reasons of insecurity and poor lighting leading to insecurity. There was a long saw I was gonna go into in reference to Ulysses, and people who think that claiming to love reading is an affectation or "signaling" or whatever. But rather than going into an argument that will be wearying for you and for me, I'll just say this: this is what I am into. Some people are really into cars; some people are really into model airplanes; some people are really into smoking weed; some people are really into gadgets. This is my thing. I love it, and while I don't expect everyone else to love it (I am quite used to it being an uncommon devotion), I do expect everyone to let me love it without questioning my motives. And what I'd like to do here in this space is to just share why I love it, and maybe write something a little entertaining or moving to boot.

I intend to keep vlogging to a minimum, as I find it rather self-indulgent; but then again, this is a blog. Self-indulgence comes with the territory.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"The narrow ridge is the meeting place of the We. This is where man can meet man in community. And only men who are capable of truly saying 'Thou' to one another can truly say 'We' with one another. If each guards the narrow ridge within himself and keeps it intact, this meeting can take place."  -Martin Buber

100 great sci-fi novels

I'm struggling to write about this list of the 100 greatest fantasy and science fiction books of all time by Alex Carnevale. I'm struggling because it seems to me to be most valuable as an object lesson in how never, ever to write about fiction.

I'm uninterested in critiquing his selection, or the order of his list, beyond my usual low regard for lists of "greatness." There is a lot in the list, content-wise, that is plain wrong, from my perspective:
  • He describes Ender's Game as "The simplest and oldest of science fiction conceits: a boy is raised at war to save his people." I suppose whether it's the simplest would be a merely semantic argument (here's a simple sci-fi conceit: a man comes to an alien world), but the oldest science fiction conceit? Really?
  • "The post-apocalyptic theme is so dumb and I never really liked it..." Ah.
  • He says that Starship Troopers is "the first military adventure to grip us by our lapels and inform on exactly what war was, why it was waged, and how to go about waging it without losing your soul." To pick just one such book that predates it, I'll say The Red Badge of Courage.
  • "What happens to homo sapiens after we die on the inevitable altar of natural selection?" Well, since we're dead....
  • It is incredible to me that anyone could find 1984 to be a "ripping good read." Necessary, important, even great to those who are inclined to overlook its failings-- but a ripping good read?
  • The Fifth Head of Cerberus: "The greatest novella ever written in any genre." Gadzoinks!
  • On A Clockwork Orange: "The subject of violence in our culture gets short shrift because artists opine against it constantly." No. No no no. The subject of violence in our culture gets absolutely too much attention because artists use it to access gravitas and the illusion of depth constantly. Anyone who thinks violence in our culture doesn't get the attention it deserves has never seen the Oscars.
  • There isn't any one myth which is the only one that matters, and if there was, it wouldn't be Frankenstein.
  •  I think-- and I say all of this as someone who could easily be wrong-- but if a book "makes us care more deeply about unliving things that never existed than the people in our own lives," as he says is done by Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (which is indeed a masterpiece) then reader and author are doing it wrong.
He's right about Lord of the Rings, though, and A Wrinkle in Time, and he chooses the two best Crichton books. (Sphere is a gem.)

Like I said, the problem isn't really the content of his opinions, but rather how he expresses them. He's succumbed to the tendency to think that the way to try and honor or extol literature is by somehow matching its value with a heaviness of prose. And that's a mistake. I think he is equally burdened, as many who write about science fiction and fantasy are, by having to press up against the close-mindedness of those who don't respect genre fiction. But allowing that frustration to lead you to write in a portentous way is tactically a mistake. You should never, when writing about literature, allow those you disagree with to define your argumentative space. When you do, you get sentences like, "To me pheasants were creatures of the farthest imagination" and "Here was one of predictive sensibilities and great zest for the occult" and "In three volumes it approaches titanic questions philosophical and strategic, and dispenses with them for the fun of revenge and the purity of moral action."

Look clearly I am not one to ever criticize complicated diction or constructions. No words are good or bad outside of context. (Although when I read "forthcomes" in this, it was a struggle to keep thinking so.) Even whole constructions often can only be judged within their context. But no matter how real and potent your regard for a particular work is, restraint and understatement are invaluable tools. And if you genuinely think that a given  sci-fi novel is " More real and telling about humanity than The Great Gatsby"-- especially if you really think that-- it helps not to come across as someone who is too in earnest to be accurate. I hate the way that genre writing is excluded from the critical hierarchy, and it very well could be that some of the books Carnavale has such considerable regard for are as good as he says. But breathlessness has a way of undermining a person's arguments.

Still, the list is a good piece of provocation, and it's nice to look at so many lovely covers of old sci-fi books.

Update: Very sorry to have failed to provide a link. Just an oversight. Fixed it.

Monday, January 18, 2010


"Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have it in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed; Looking Glass is dead, Too-hul-hul-sote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say yes or no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets; the little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are—perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children, and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

The Age of Entanglement

I'm unable to come up with a snappy opening here, so I'll just say that I'd like to recommend The Age of Entanglement: When Quantum Physics Was Reborn, by Louisa Gilder.

As a grad student in the humanities, I am dedicated to ensuring that I never fulfill the stereotype by being ignorant or uneducated about science. There is, I'm sorry to say, an upper bound on my scientific knowledge, and it isn't a particularly high ceiling, but I insist on pushing up against it periodically. One of the greater regrets of my life is not taking better advantage of my former schooling in science and math. In college, thanks to some dedicated professors, and to my getting hired on as a tutor for a test prep company, I discovered that I wasn't, actually, perpetually unable to learn anything about math or science. This shouldn't be a surprise, but I assure you, I was shocked to learn that I could learn trig, and functions, and elementary physics.

I wish I could say that my failure to learn in my days in middle school and high school was a result of tracking, that I got called an "English kid" early on, and that my teachers put me into the "can't do math" track... but that isn't true. The truth is that I decided that I didn't give a shit about math or science, and despite my teachers telling me that I could do it, I decided I couldn't. In my defense, I was going through quite a bit in middle school and high school. But aren't we all. Anyway-- I wasted some really wonderful opportunities to make myself a smarter, better educated person, and I'm deeply sorry for that. Since my college days, I've tried hard to absorb math and science in books of popular (populist?) math and science instruction.

There are limits, though, like I said. Discovering a new facility in trigonometry and functions is a far cry from learning the calculus, and it has to be said that I very well might have found calculus beyond my ability. Like I said, I read a lot about science, but I only truly grok a portion of it. I have read A Brief History of Time three times all the way through, and bits and pieces many, many times. About the time I get to particle spin, I get to the point where I have to admit that I am reading much but understanding little. Thanks to a friend who taught me with patience many years ago, I think I understand special relativity, both on the level of visualization and on the level of math (which is of course an absolutely necessary element of truly understanding a physical theory). So I've got the classic abstracted explanations (two men throwing a ball on motorcycles while a third observer watches, the man standing on a train holding a flashlight, the train in the tunnel, the Michaelson-Morley experiment etc.), and-- and please don't test me on this-- the mathematical explanation. It's helpful that, in special relativity, the mathematics seem to proceed so logically for the use of pedagogy, relativistic principles leading from relative distance and time to relative speed, speed impacting momentum, momentum leading eventually to energy and the famous matter/energy interchangeability....

I have general relativity on the level of abstraction but not really on the level of math, which is a fancy way of saying that I don't have it. The famous conception of gravity as a warping of space time is not incorrect, and is an elegant way of explaining a complicated phenomenon, but absent of math I'm sure it is a distortion. (When I hear people explain the warping of space-time, like a weight warping sand, and then a rolling ball traveling into the warped sand, I worry that people are thinking of the ball "falling" into a warp in a way that would make sense here in earth's gravity well-- that is, that they are thinking of gravity, on the level of this analogy, in a way that is tautological, if that's the word. The ball doesn't fall like a water drop into a bucket but like a wagon wheel traveling in a well worn groove. Anyway.)

My knowledge of quantum mechanics is, frankly, barely knowledge at all. Not for lack of trying; I've read and read and read explanation after explanation, metaphor after analogy after symbol. But as has been famously said about quantum mechanics for a long time, you can't really understand it absent understanding the math, and "civilian" explanations of its many intricacies are both harder to understand and more distorting than the math. As I don't know where to begin to get the math to get the science, despite my attempts, I am ignorant of quantum mechanics on even an elementary level, and I wish I wasn't.

I'm getting quite far afield here. The book concerns entanglement, a part of quantum theory that concerns the connection (the entanglement) between particles that cause them to be linked, in a descriptive sense, in a way that persists even across vast distances in space. Entanglement is one of the major points of reference when people talk about quantum weirdness, the tendency of quantum mechanics to resist conceptual explanations or to create conceptual understandings that seem to defy some of our more elementary understandings of how the universe works.  There's controversy about this, but one aspect of quantum weirdness, when it comes to entanglement, is that from one perspective it seems that quantum entanglement defies special relativity, in that particles that are entangled can seem to impact each other at speeds and distances that would exceed the speed of light.

I suppose the point is that I found The Age of Entanglement smart and engaging despite my deficiencies in understanding its underlying concepts. On the level of instruction, no, the book didn't leave me grokking entanglement the way I would like to, but this is my own failing, not Gilder's. That's just another way of saying that Louisa Gilder is smarter than I am. And even absent that understanding, it's a really enjoyable book, as it's as much a history of a fascinating period of scientific progress as it is scientific explanation. It talks enough about the social aspects of science-- the disagreements between scientists, how consensus is formed, what goes into the scientific canon and what doesn't-- that even absent a basic understanding of the scientific material, it's entertaining.

One word of caution: Gilder lightly fictionalizes the history by creating "conversations" between the scientists from their writings. In other words, she'll take a line or two from something a scientist wrote, then a "response" from another, and add some conversational verbiage to it to make it into a kind of back-and-forth discussion. Laid out like that, it sounds like exactly the kind of thing that I would find annoying in a nonfiction work, and I'm sure for some, it may come across as gimmickry. To my surprise, for me, Gilder pulls it off. Had I heard about that aspect of the book before I picked it up (quite by chance), I likely wouldn't have read it. I am the kind of person who has to learn his lessons over and over again.

If you're at all interested, you might watch this video of a lecture that Gilder gave about the book. Also: this is undoubtedly sexist, but I feel compelled to say that Gilder is hella cute, and science is sexy.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Sunday Poem and Reading Recommendation

Channel Firing
by Thomas Hardy

That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgement-day

And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into their mounds,

The glebe-cow drooled. Till God called, `No;
It's gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:

`All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you that are helpless in such matters.

`That this is not the judgement-hour
For some of them's a blessed thing,
For if it were they'd have to scour
Hell's floor for so much threatening...

`Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).'

So down we lay again. `I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,'
Said one, `than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!'

And many a skeleton shook his head.
`Instead of preaching forty year,'
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
`I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.'

Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.


For a reading recommendation, check out this brief essay from a magazine that comes out of Drexel University, sent to me by young Will from the League of Ordinary Gentlemen. It concerns Heidegger and the recent attempts to cast his work into the pit with Mein Kampf or The Turner Diaries. I have written at length about this issue specifically here, and tangentially here. (Please also be sure to read the post by Steve Menashi that I link to in the second post from the league.)

Anyway, I won't try to rehash the point Jessa Crispin, the author of the essay, is trying to make, other than to say that she reminds us very ably that life is filled with moral ambiguity, that we should approach our ethical decisions with caution, and that feeling a certain way is a far cry from doing something. It's a great piece, check it out.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

a brief note on Culture11

I hate to bump the post on The Wire, which I'm quite fond of, but I want to say something here. Over at Right Wing Nuthouse, there's another Culture11 postmortem. It's smartly written. However, it endorses the analysis of C11's fall from The Washington Monthly. I think that any analysis of this character, talking about the flaws in content for C11, are misguided. Here's what happened with Culture11: it was a website startup, it ran on venture capital, the financial sector melted down in an unprecedented way and an incredible amount of investment money dried up. That's about it.

I'm not excusing C11 for any editorial or content deficiencies, but it's just tangential to the point to say that C11 wasn't going to "catch on" or that it was lacking some sort of content that would have kept it afloat. It was a website, and more a web magazine, and web magazines simply don't get profitable out of the gate, not in a year or three. Sometimes not even in five. It's crazy, how big a portion of online media ventures that we consider successful are still entirely unable to show a profit from regular operations. It doesn't matter how good Culture11 was, or how well it fit a particular niche. It simply wasn't going to survive without investment, and it emerged in a very, very poor period for investment.

Stylistic note: I continue to struggle with how to show websites and blogs, orthographically. I italicize books, movies, print magazines, and TV shows. I put quotes around short stories, individual episode titles of TV shows, and poems. But I'm not sure what to do with online publications like blogs or web magazines. For now I'm just leaving them as-is. Any suggestions?

Rewatching the Wire (spoilers)

I was rewatching the Wire, all the way through-- this would be my second time of seeing them all in order, sequentially, though I've watched many of them several times before individually. It's been a bit of a dispiriting experience, and totally unexpected, and it's sad, to me.

Questions of overrated/underrated are among the most tired and least useful we have. I'm going to try to avoid partaking in them, here, though of course I'm sure this too will become one of my little hypocrisies. Anyway-- the point here is not in any way to make the "The Wire is overrated" argument. It's true that the frankly absurd standard that the show must be held to, given its level of critical acclaim, makes any evaluation of it seem like such a thing. What I want to talk about, though, isn't talk of Platonic ideals of "rating," or even of "artistic worth." I merely have found that, watching a show I truly love straight through for a second time, it is a troubled experience, less satisfying than the first time around. And that's why I have stopped watching, and started again, and stopped again... because I by turns don't want to remember the show as anything less than the revelation it appeared to be at the time, and then I want to give it every opportunity to restore itself in my mind, and ultimately it doesn't, not to the same amazing heights it did before. What I wonder is why.

What I should say out of the gate is that I have some opinions about the show that, it seems, are out of the mainstream. The biggest one is just the relative quality of the seasons. While I am very much in the consensus that the final season is the worst, personally, I find it very strange that there isn't similar consensus that the second season is the best. I don't just think this is true, I think it's true by a wide margin. I think that Season Two is head and shoulders above the rest, which means it is in rarefied air indeed, as the other seasons are masterpieces of their own. I've been accused by some of merely trying to be contrarian or idiosyncratic in this opinion. It's worth saying, though, that I had no idea that this wasn't a mainstream opinion while I was watching the shows through. Although in terms of time I suppose my journey through the show was roughly parallel to the Internet's growing avalanche of regard for it, I wasn't really following any of that until after the fact, or at least until Season Five was first appearing.

In a similar vein, I don't find Season Four to be of the quality that others have felt. Yes, the story of the the kids and the intimate look at failing inner city education is very affecting. I find, frankly, to be perhaps too affecting: I often find this season to be emotionally manipulative in a way that the greater series largely avoids. I suppose it is asking a great deal of the creators of a television show to avoid somewhat heavy emotional messages when you're talking about impoverished boys living among drugs and crime in inner city Baltimore. But there are times when I feel like the appeal to the incredibly real, very American tragedy of these kids is done in a way that begs the artistic question. Meanwhile, I find it wedded to a story of the Baltimore drug trade that is increasingly adrift from its moorings. But more on that in a sec.

All of this is subjective, of course. I don't believe in a hierarchy of tastes, at the end of the day, although I will deny this with full voice if you and I ever argue about books. All of it should come in the context of a show that, again, is a frankly incredible success. I am trying, slowly, to banish considerations of "the best" in terms of various kinds of art-- what possible meaning could it have to say that The Wire is "better than" The Simposons, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Parker Lewis Can't Lose, Wonder Showzen... ? But rest assured, even to the degree that I am trying to resist hierarchy, The Wire is a masterpiece. My feelings on the matter of which seasons work the best are interesting only to the degree that they demonstrate a show that, I think, follows a fairly common arc of television quality: it starts out very well, develops its voice and reaches its pinnacle, and then slowly slides backwards as it runs out of things to say.

Anyway: I can't put my finger on why, exactly, I find rewatching the show as a long narrative (instead of in discrete chunks) again so much less moving than the first time through, or why I should find this disturbing on a level any different from the fairly common experience of finding a beloved piece of media to be worse, on balance, than you once thought. William Brafford of the League of Ordinary Gentlemen said that he found that it transcended television the first time through, and no longer does, and I think there's some of that here. Certainly, there were the usual pleasures of appreciating something again and developing feelings that you didn't have initially-- D'Angelo Barskdale, for example, is certainly the protagonist of the first season, and its story is his story, and far more than any of the police he is the moral center of that season. But these little enjoyable moments come alongside a narrative that, as a whole, was less satisfying and more troubled than before.

If I had to put my finger on anything, I would say that the Wire as a series has a fundamentally unbalanced dramatic arc. Barksdale and Bell are reigning in the beginning, they are stung by the police, they meet a rival in Marlo, that rival and the police lay them low, and then Marlo rises-- and never really stops rising. More than anything, what I've felt is that Marlo's rise doesn't seem true in nearly the way that the dominance and fall of Barksdale and Bell feels true, and I find Marlo's ultimate undoing to be almost entirely unsastifying as a matter of drama.

You've got to be careful with such things. You don't want to punish artists or authors for not creating the story that you wanted them to, but then in some sense any critical dissatisfaction is at heart just that. Certainly, there are some fanboyish thoughts that I entertain while watching the show which I shouldn't allow myself to take as indicators of the show's quality-- I often find myself thinking just how cool it would be if we saw a Barksdale/Stansfield war when Avon was at full strength, if Bird and WeeBay were out of jail. (Imagining really getting to see WeeBay at war against Marlo fills me with some very geeky joy.) To criticize David Simon et al. for not providing me with that would be stupid.

What isn't stupid, I think, and isn't incorrect, is to say that the arc of Marlo doesn't fulfill the expectations that the series has created, and that it happens in a way that is fundamentally unsatisfying. Yes, Marlo's crew is ultimately dismantled. But it happens in a way that provides none of the payoff, emotional or dramatic, that I think it needs for it to truly work as a piece of fiction. Barksdale's defeat seems, in a really weird way, almost tragic, and totally in keeping with the narrative structures that have been built around it. Marlo, in contrast, has a long, brutal and nearly-uncontested rise. His "downfall," such as it is, seems totally cursory, and provides none of the feelings of truth that its counterpart in Stringer Bell or Avon has. Sure, Snoop gets shot by Michael. And yes, Chris ends up in jail. Marlo, though, needs only "give up the crown," despite the seeming complete legal unenforceability of such an arrangement. At the end, Marlo has remained untouched by the great piling up of damage that the street has made.

And that seems, to me, to be a betrayal of the elementary truth of the show. I struggled, in Season Five, with some of the decisions that were made about the characters that I had developed an attachment to. It's totally banal to say (and Simon has said it explicitly, if I'm not mistaken) that for most of the series, Omar is the one character that is allowed to be a kind of fantasy. Laying him low in Season Five, the way that he is, was a tough decision, but one that I can't necessarily say was wrong. But to drag him back to the level of reality so cruelly and in a way that so deflates his character-- and it's a cheap trick, Omar getting shot by Kenard but seemingly having his legend go completely unaffected on the street-- is a decision that has to be of a piece with the entire narrative of the show. Bubbles's transformation and redemption seems a bit cute, but I am more than happy to extend the courtesy to a character who I have watched for better than fifty episodes and who has been through an incredible amount of torment to get to where he is.

But Marlo-- Marlo escapes it all. If he has an emotional attachment to Chris or Snoop-- to anyone at all, really-- we never see it. His punishment, from the long slow suffocating weight of government, is merely to stop, to stop being the kingpin. His downfall has none of the emotional power that such a thing should have, having watched his brutal rise for three seasons, nor does it follow the logic of the series, where the system endures, the top level players go unharmed-- the politicians, the Greeks, the careerists, the uncaring mass-- but all of the individual players, at the level of the street, get burned. Even Prop Joe, so smart, careful and above it all for so long, doesn't get out. Even Stringer Bell, who seemed to know that the street would take him only to jail or to death eventually, couldn't escape it. Even Omar, who has been our release valve into pure fantasy for four seasons, gets cut down. But not Marlo. The last little "fuck you" to the established rule that if you are from the street, if you've tasted the poverty, it comes back and drags you down eventually, comes when Marlo is approached by a street thug at the very end and effortlessly disarms him. Omar can't be an object of fantasy, ultimately, but Marlo can, and to me, that betrays the agreement between the audience and the creators of the show, the conventions that we've been extended and have come to believe in over five seasons.

The salient point, I guess, is just that a fall, a brief and extremely one-sided conflict, and then a powerful, brutal, and almost entirely unchecked rise, with an unconvincing and tacked on coda of defeat, isn't satisfying. I think part of the reason for the feeling of absolute exhiliration you feel when Slim Charles (quietly one of the best characters in the series) pops Cheese in his arrogant face is not just because Cheese is so despicable, but also because we have been waiting and waiting for a fall for Marlo's gang that matches his rise, and the series never provides it.

The creators are under no obligation to give us satisfaction on that level. The "bad guys" can win, and they do. But the ending of the Wire, to me, betrays the internal logic of the series. Some will say that this is just a facet of the final season being easily the weakest. But to me, rewatching the whole thing-- and particularly Season Three, where I was hoping, begging for Avon to mount an at all credible resistance to Marlo-- knowing the ending throws the whole series off kilter. I can't enjoy the narrative arc knowing that it is one which the creators ultimately did not balance in a way that fulfills the internal contract.

This isn't a takedown. The last thing I want to do is write some contrarian bullshit that takes a beloved and respected piece of art and throws it on the fire. The Wire is a brilliant show, moving and disturbing, filled with brilliant acting, a rare amount of care and commitment, and which shows to the great unknowing mass of America how many millions of Americans have to live. It's a triumph and I celebrate it. I just think, at the end of the day, that it isn't what I once thought it was.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

William Holman Hunt

Since I know you were asking yourself, "I wonder if Freddie bears any affection for a particular Pre-Raphaelite," the answer is I do! Here's Hunt's The Lady of Shalott, which hangs in my hometown art museum, Hartford's Wadsworth Atheneum.

on Douthat on Roth, Bellow, Mailer, Updike and Nabokov through Roiphe on Chabon et al

This post from Ross Douthat has been getting some play out there, and it's intriguing. You should check it out. There's a lot to say here. First, Douthat is reacting to an essay by Katie Roiphe, who has made a side career out of expressing dismissiveness towards her peers. The less said about Roiphe, in my opinion, the better. So: this is me saying less.

Douthat, though. My first instinct is to have a little fun teasing Douthat (a writer who I have a considerable, if unrequited, affection for), for his usual tropes of the wonderful stability of days gone by, and too much sex in America! But I won't waste any time gently chiding Ross for his belief in that mythical America of old-- you know, those heady days of yore, when even a rock star had a crew cut and the corner store had a "no gypsies allowed" sign up and the only brand of car was Studebaker and you could get out of any contract if you proved the other party was gay and the only hobby was scrimshaw and, like, your penis always pointed true north, or whatever. No, no teasing from me.

Jonathan Franzen and Michael Chabon and Eyeglasses Safran-Foer come in for a lot of abuse from Roiphe and Douthat because they don't write about pirates swiving women or the carnal adventures of half-Jewish door-to-door brush salesman or the like. I think this argument is unfair; thinking reductively is a sin in economics, philosophy and history, but it is the sin when thinking about literature. I am not the man to defend  these authors, though, as I am not fans of theirs and I would do a poor job.

No, I'm much more interested in Ross's post just for the consideration of "the Great Male Authors of mid-century." As I think he would agree, whether or not they are in the aggregate great is a question with a different answer today than 20 years ago-- or, at least, so it would seem. Relative critical reputation is impossible to judge, particularly from hindsight. Sometimes I feel like these are authors who have perpetually been "taken down a peg," for as long as they have been considered great, their reputations propped up if only because so many needed to do so in order to knock them over. It's a fickle thing.

Not that I believe in any unison of value for the four authors (Mailer, Updike, Bellow, and Roth) that are included in that moniker. Poor Updike and Mailer need no more dirt thrown on their coffins by me. I will always have affection for Updike, and no amount of repositioning will compel me to abandon his short stories, or to join the growing consensus in dismissing Rabbit, Run. Yes, his sex writing was bad, but most sex writing is bad, and it was as bad the day it was published as it is now. Strange to see Bellow even in the list; it's a category error to place him alongside Mailer, Updike and Roth. It is an exaggeration, but not much of one, to say that Bellow saved American letters from the corrosion of minimalism, sharp books with clipped prose about stern men piloting rowboats. But I would need more space and time to really talk about Bellow.

The author I imagine most would take exception to Douthat questioning would be Roth. I would not. I am not a fan of Roth's. To be sure, some of that is my usual distaste for feeling bullied into appreciating a particular author or filmmaker or musician. Which is stupid, of course. Less stupid, I think, is to say that Roth is a talented novelist who was told by many people he was a genius, and believed them, and succumbed to that thinking, and began to write Grand and Brilliant Novels, and what you get, sad to say, is books like The Plot Against America. Anyway-- I think Douthat is right, and that a lot of the power of early Roth came from the shock in his frank description of sex. Not that this was new new-- it would hardly have mattered if he wasn't a skilled and practiced author. But it made a big difference.

The failing, I think, is in thinking that Roth's writing seeming less vital or moving now is necessarily a failure, or that it means that we were wrong once and right now. The fact that critical reputations ebb, flood, and fade is not an error, or the revelation of an error, but a facet of the reality that we look for quality in art in many different ways, and that what can move and delight us comes in a vast variety. I just don't think that being a superb period piece is any failing, and I might even go so far as to say that a book that sings for 20 years can be just as comprehensive of a success as one that sings for two centuries, if both fulfill their purpose, keep their promises. It's okay that nobody reads Wilkie Collins anymore, or at least, it is in the sense that Wilkie Collins can have fulfilled his purpose and written what he wrote and had it give something to the people who asked for something from it. And if I despair at people no longer reading Pushkin or Hugo it isn't because there is some superior virtue to artistic longevity but merely because I think that they still have a great deal to offer. My agreement that Roth was an author of appeal to a limited set of people from a limited time is on balance no indictment.

The really weird thing about that post, by the way, is Douthat including Lolita in his argument. This is just not on. It's not on, for one thing, because Nabokov in general and Lolita in particular are simply on a higher order of genius and accomplishment than the "Great Male Novelists" and their work-- even above Bellow, and Hertzog. Very few people confuse the enduring virtues of Lolita with those of early Roth or Updike. More importantly, though, Lolita just doesn't make sense in Douthat's argument. Most importantly, however much our various taboos about sex may have declined in the face of Myspace and rampant anal sex and Pokemon or whatever the hell else people use as symbols of these sex-crazed times, certainly, pedophilia, of all things, isn't any less taboo. Indeed, it's hard to imagine us having a more hysterical public understanding of the crime. We certainly are more adamant in our opposition to it than we once were. (Have you heard the Top 40 hit "Young Girl" recently? Holy shit.) If anything, the prurient power of Lolita should have increased. That the book's critical appreciation remains largely unchanged in the face of that gives a clue to the larger point: Lolita isn't powerful because of the risque subject matter. I hate to say something so tired, but part of the book's power is how banal it all is. Humbert Humbert's true corruption lies in how little of a falling off there is within him, how his long exploitation of Lolita isn't a fall. It's the ultimate guiltlessness that is most disturbing.

Incidentally, in his lovely book Banvard's Folly, Paul Collins deals with questions of the swaying of public appreciation for an artist with far more poise and purpose than I could ever muster, particularly in the title essay. It's a great book, you should check it out.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


by Geoffrey Hill

I will consider the outnumbering dead:
For they are the husks of what was rich seed.
Now, should they come together to be fed,
They would outstrip the locusts' covering tide.

Arthur, Elaine, Mordred; they are all gone
Among the raftered galleries of bone.
By the long barrows of Logres they are made one,
And over their city stands the pinnacled corn.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Rand and what she's made

I post this video, in particular, for only the first 5 seconds or so. I could have chosen many others; the point is that the vlogger in question has a low opinion of those with whom he disagrees.

It wasn't always that way. Brandon Cropper and I were in college together, years back, in a class or two. It would be an outright lie to say we were friends, and I personally would be very surprised if he remembered me at all. It was pure accident when, last year, I stumbled on his Youtube videos, and had a brief moment of realization that this was the same person who I had shared a class on Existentialism with.

You can imagine how that went, if you watch his large output of videos, on both his current channel and his previous one. Mr. Cropper (his handle of choice) is a vocal, passionate and committed devotee of Ayn Rand and her Objectivist and Ethical Egoist philosophies. He is an ardent foe of what we clumsily refer to as the postmodern, and holds that those who traffic in it and its tropes are worse than wrong, but deceitful, corrupt, vile. So you could expect that a class in French existentialism-- taught by a committed existentialist and populated by undergrads who either accepted the kind of folk relativism popular in all college environs or were too disaffected to challenge the professor-- would not be one that he was likely to enjoy. (That class, incidentally, was taught by Eleanor Godway, a passionate and brilliant teacher; it was among my most important formative intellectual experiences.)

Yet despite the distance between the subject matter and his eventual ideology, I remember Brandon as an engaged and engaging student. He would frequently-- almost always, really-- push back against the reading or against the class's interpretation of it, but never in an aggressive or aggrieved way that threatened the emotional integrity of the class. Even though I was the other most vocal student in the class, and I was the one spouting the constructivist arguments I did (and do) hold to be of use, he was never anything but warm to me-- even if, at times, his frustration towards the professor, the class, and me were all evident. I don't know how much of an intellectual evolution he has undergone, on the level of ideas, since then-- he mentioned Rand frequently then, and was clearly taken with her work.

What is clear, though, is that a frankly incredibly hardening has happened with him since then. He has developed a certitude, and a rejection of any contrary opinion, and a pitched, proud disrespect for anyone who doesn't agree with the entire suite of his intellectual project. In this, he is perfectly typical of the other Objectivists that I have read or interacted with. He is, as far as I understand, quite a popular vlogger among the Objectivist set. The willingness to listen, the curiosity, the belief in the friendship inherent in the exchange of ideas, all seem gone. In their place stand a crude, angry and embittered certitude. Whatever questions he had then he has long since answered now.

And it's this, ultimately, that makes Rand so corrosive, so deadening to the heart of the intellectual project. People far abler than I have prosecuted the case against Rand, and I don't intend to rehash it here. But this tendency of her writings and her philosophy to compel people to slap concrete on the foundation of their own ideas, to build a moat around their intellectual life, to categorize the whole world into the tiny fraction who are worthy and the great horrid mass that are simply not to be listened to in any circumstance... this is the greatest failing of the woman and her teachings. There are a worse things to inspire people towards-- genocide, war, ethnic cleansing-- but still, a philosopher whose greatest contribution is a vast incuriosity is a dismal thing.

And, you know, if you peruse Mr. Cropper's videos for awhile you'll learn that he thinks poor people choose to be in poverty and deserve it, that we should not feed the starving, that the American Indians were a collection of idiots who were rightly colonized by a superior power, that war is often preferable to peace, that religion is a mental disease, that modern cosmology and particle theory are a scientific conspiracy, that we won the Vietnam war, that we are and should be at war with Islam (because Muslims are inherently irrational and hateful), that nuclear armed nations should enforce their advantage in the capacity for physical violence against other nations without conscience, that global warming is a myth, that child labor should be reinstated as it is a moral and rational edifice, that poetry always must rhyme or is not poetry, and his most cherished and frequently expressed idea, that the edifice of modern higher education is in total a conspiracy against the people, perpetrated by educators who knowingly disseminate nonsense, and that this is the reason for his failure to ascend to the pinnacle of intellectual achievement. Some of these can be directly attributed to Rand's philosophy; many can't. But the framework that creates them can indeed be blamed on a corpus that tells people, again and again and again, that the more they are disagreed with, the more it proves their genius; that it is a mark of honor to generate contrary opinion but not to listen to it; that nothing is at last as valuable as an idea that is an affront to the lice, the vermin, the trash.

A friend of mine recently let me know that she was reading Ayn Rand, and was mesmerized by it; and how to respond? To say that the sum of my beliefs stand in opposition to Rand's would be a shocking understatement. To say that I disagree with her would be to fail to express my moral revulsion in the face of her vulgar and ugly project, my horror in the knowledge that such adamant support for ruthlessness, callousness and contempt are not only possible but popular. Yet to tell this friend that she shouldn't read Ayn Rand would be to fail in exactly the way I have identified. No banned books, no forbidden ideas. Even to caution her against what she found there, to deride Rand or her books, before she had read them, would be to break the compact that says that books are to be read first and contradicted second. So what could I do, but to urge that she keep an open mind, and to hope that she enjoyed herself?

There are many things I would like to say to Brandon: to confront him with the oddity of his own frequently unstable economic situation, if his beliefs on virtue and wealth are what they are; to say that there perhaps isn't so much difference between his solicitations for donations for the school he wishes to start and those for charitable causes; to point out that a parents' wealth is the most consistently correlative factor in a child's eventual wealth; to ask how a philosophy that is supposed to be based on Aristotle's logic can contain such rampant argument through assertion; to ask whether there might not be some truth to the inherent destabilization of language; to wonder whether perhaps some aspects of science describe natural phenomena simply too complicated to be dissolved down to broad understandings of "rationality"; to say that rights are meaningless without responsibility; to wonder what to do with the human heart and its yearnings for compassion. But in the face of all this, I'm afraid I would likely be greeted with derision and a closed mind. I don't have to suppose that; he's said it, again and again.

In this conversation, of course, we are disadvantaged. Even after my friend has read and absorbed those works, if she were to take them and run with them as some have-- as Mr. Cropper has-- I couldn't claim certainty, or the mantel of the righteous or rational, in my arguments against those ideas. I couldn't make an appeal to some real and timeless truth. The books themselves, meanwhile, and their many acolytes, insist again and again on this certitude. Against a defiant and explicit "objectivity" we can respond only with the contingent. With the contingent, and with kindness. I have felt a certain affection for Brandon, as I have picked through his videos, even while he is saying things that are frankly repugnant to me. And I would be lying if I didn't say that there are times when he says things that are really perceptive and bright. He's an intelligent guy, with a dedication to his intellectual project I admire. I can't dismiss him, or any other followers of Rand, or risk losing all of them in the way so many of them have lost so many others.

There's a lesson, in all of this, I think, about charity, and about grace. I have frequently failed to involve either in my many debates. I think it is my duty to extend such things to Mr. Cropper, even as he would reject such things from me-- and in the proper way to honor someone else's beliefs when they include not wanting you to honor them, there is another dilemma. The marketplace of ideas is a cold and disorienting world, and I am frequently reminded of how even those who we consider friends and bear affection for can often appear grim and aggressive. The decision to continue to extend the spirit of friendship, and of fraternity, in the face of such divisions is the ultimate refutation of Rand and what she stands for.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

nota bene

If you are looking for a great blog about kid's books, please check out the infrequently updated but very entertaining Bottom Shelf Books, by my good friend Minh.

Sunday Poem and Reading Recommendation

Martial Choreograph
by Maya Angelou

Hello young sailor
You are betrayed and
do not know the dance of death.
Dandy warrior, swaying to
Rick James on your
stereo, you do not hear the
bleat of triumphant war, its
roar is not in
your ears, filled with Stevie Wonder.

"Show me how to do like you.
Show me how to do it."

You will be surprised that
trees grunt when torn from
their root sockets to fandango into dust,
and exploding bombs force a lively Lindy
on grasses and frail bodies.

Go galloping on, bopping,
in the airport, young sailor.
Your body, virgin
still, has not swung the bloody buck and wing.

Manhood is a newly delivered
message. Your eyes,
rampant as an open city,
have not yet seen life steal from
limbs outstretched and trembling
like the arms of dancers
and dying swans.


Maya Angelou, I'm sorry to say, has had her reputation caught up in our endless culture war, the sinews and particularities of her actual work subsumed into competing narratives of marginalization, artistic affirmative action, identity politics, and the like. As this poem makes clear, I think, it is a mistake to dismiss her because of some of her more overzealous admirers, or to assume that her work is trumpeted merely because of her race and sex. In a lot of her work, there is a concision, and a admirable ruthlessness, hidden in her at times overbearing persona. Her occasional lapses into New Agey piety or squishiness can be excused, it seems to me, for producing poems like this one-- a poem which just may have something to tell us about our times. All of that is what people who are too ready to assume the hand of identity politics in the critical reputation of black and women writers risk losing, when such assumptions become knee-jerk or thoughtless.

For a longer reading recommendation, I'd like to point everyone in the direction of "Railway Dreaming" by Charles Dickens, from his Selected Journalism. That's a volume that I recommend as a whole without reservation. This particular essay is a good taste, and like most of them in the collection, is quite short. Check it out.

Friday, January 8, 2010

So everybody is on board with my idea that kid's media is just preparing them for doing drugs later on in life, at this point, right? I mean there's really no arguing the point, right?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

the inevitability of critically acclaimed movie backlash

I was unaware that there was an Up In the Air backlash, but at this point, I couldn't possibly be surprised by it. It's been my observation recently that once a movie receives a certain amount of critical praise, a backlash against it is inevitable. The degree and tenor of the backlash will depend a great deal on the individual movie, but the reality of the backlash comes, I think, from realities of our new media culture, and certain elementary aspects of human psychology.

We are drowning in media, and more, in media analysis. The sheer amount of verbiage, written and spoken, about our popular media that exists now is staggering. It hasn't just increased in the last decade, or increased exponentially, but increased by a seemingly impossible degree. True enough, the amount of this analysis that receives more than a little attention is much more limited. But even so, the aggregate weight of all the innumerable voices contributing to our understanding and critical appreciation of various pop culture artifacts is considerable, and inevitably changes how we think about movies, music, TV shows, and so on.

Consider the amount of attention an individual movie used to receive. There would be the initial spate of reviews in newspapers, all published within a week or two of each, usually. There would be a few television reviews from guys like Gene Shalit. There would be an occasional magazine article in a handful of publications. And, for a long time, that would be about it. When the Oscars rolled around, there might be a brief flurry of renewed interests. All in all, someone could see a movie, read about it, generate an opinion, and not think about that movie again for a long time, if at all.

Contrast that with today. The movie comes out on the festival circuit. The original wave of reviews come in, and if it's a good movie, they're likely to be of the breathless variety. People hear about the movie but have no ability to see it. Finally the movie comes out, now likely only on a few screens in places like New York and LA. More reviews, more commentary, more buzz generated. Finally the movie opens wide, a new slew of reviews. All the while there is a steady flow of blog posts and online articles getting pumped out, day after day. Meanwhile, there are blog posts and articles about the blog posts and articles, a phenomenon, I feel confident saying, virtually unheard of prior to the Internet era. All of this stretches on, in fits and starts, until the now-interminable award season, where group after group announces their big winners, and the Hollywood press becomes indistinguishable from horse race political coverage.

Throughout this whole long cycle, an individual who reads stuff on the Internet as obsessively as, well, me, and many people I know, may read literally dozens of positive reviews and recommendations of a given movie. And that's never a good thing for a movie's greater reputation, I think. I find it a very common element of human psychology that being exposed to positive press about something over and over again leads someone to start to look for something negative to say. Over time, without the movie having changed at all, the steady drumbeat of regard for the movie annoys people and creates the backlash. I'm not saying everyone feels this way, although personally, I often do. And I'm certainly not saying it's rational; indeed, it's rather dumb. But I do think it happens.

This isn't to say that the later, more negative opinion is the correct one. (There are a few movies where I kind of wish there had been a backlash.) And I think we can and should say that ultimately it's no great loss if a movie earns a somewhat lower estimation, in the short term, than it deserves. A movie's relative value is a great to argue about but not important enough to invest a lot of emotion in. I do think, though, that the predictability of this process leaves us in a place where it's hard to see many movies as really great, which makes movie appreciation more dispiriting. And sometimes the backlash gets out of hand. I was as annoyed by Juno and its dialogue as much as anyone, but I still found the animosity towards it often over the top.

Awards, too, I think, get influenced by this. I will throw out all the appropriate caveats about the Oscars et al. and how ultimately unpersuasive they are as barometers of real quality. But I do think people still care about them, and I still care. I think the Crash/Brokeback Mountain Oscar race was influenced by the Brokeback backlash occurring at just the wrong time for that film (and just the right time for Crash). Of course, Crash's Oscar led to a backlash against it, as well. It's hard not to see who got the award as largely a part of the fickle cycle of praise, backlash, backlash-backlash, and so on.

I could be off base with all of this. But it's my observation that the longer a movie earns praise, the more certain a backlash is to brew, and our oversaturated media culture has a lot to do with that.

The Sartorialist-- Booky Edition

A book that recently reminded me of the power of the printed page actually contains very little print at all. Scott Schuman's book version of his Sartorialist blog is a really lovely volume. Surprisingly lovely, to me; I picked it up in a bookstore this past fall when I was sure I wasn't going to buy anything that day. I've checked Schuman's blog a handful of times, and I'm impressed by his photography and the styles he showcases, but I wouldn't have thought I would buy this book. But the pictures just look so damn handsome within the physical book-- much more attractive, incidentally, than I find the images on the website. I don't know quite what it is. Something about the colors, which seem deeper and more resonant; or perhaps how the images fill out the entire page, rather than a digital window (in a digital window, on a screen). But the book is an argument, I think, for the permanent relevance of the printed book. I get a lot more out of these pictures than I do the identical images posted online.

Incidentally, I find Schuman's (limited) commentary inside the volume to be as inane and unnecessary as it is on the blog. That's alright; many artists are the worst commentators on their own work. Just ignore his comments, if you want my advice.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

the next iteration

Hello all.

Well. Your humble servant remains as inconsistent as ever. I know that, at this point, no one has any particular reason to believe that I'll keep any particular promises at all. I also understand that there is a certain "boy who cried wolf" quality to my moments of self-definition, at this point.

But if I can hold your patience just a little longer, I'd like to announce that I will be returning to L'Hôte, in a new form. Not multiple times a day, as I once did, and not about politics and everything else. L'Hôte is going to become a blog primarily about reading, with a little more general cultural stuff, and some movie writing thrown in for good measure. But no more politics.

The simple fact of the matter is that I am just not very good at writing about politics; or, I should say, at being a writer of politics. I think that I have a pretty good ability to express myself in writing, and I think that I have a perspective worth hearing on politics. But I also have an a combination of passion (some would say aggression, and not without cause) and an inability to rein myself in that, at the end of the day, is not productive for the causes that matter to me most. At times, this endless health care debate and its attendant moral issues-- and they are moral issues, never doubt that-- would fill me with such feeling that I could hardly sit down or hold a single thought in my head. This inability to disconnect from my emotions makes me a poor advocate for my own causes, in the context of our slow moving beast of a political process. And while I have taken not one step back from my various political persuasions and pet causes, the time came when I had to admit that, perhaps, I was doing more harm than good. Worse, I had begun to be regularly uncharitable, in a world and a blogosphere where the spirit of friendship is a precious commodity. For that, I cannot forgive myself.

I have been a bit battered. I don't take that as anyone's "fault," and I recognize and affirm that I have always made my own bed. But I am tired of fighting. I have fought friends more often than foes, often enough, and for that I apologize; those whom I owe sincere thanks for their patience are too many to name. Through it all I have done it in the sincere conviction that what I had to say had to be said, but this is little excuse. In the end, this evolution is a product of my own growing realization that I must proceed on my political journey by embodying the change I believe must happen-- to speak less, to be more, if you'll forgive my pretension. I'm not sure how this will always play out. But I am resolved. On my political travels I will use for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use: silence, exile, cunning.

So: I'm hoping to write about reading, and what it means to be a reader, and the kind of books that I'm reading and thinking about. These have been heady days, as a reader, for me, the last six months. I am in a graduate program in rhetoric and composition, and while my scholarly pursuits are largely dedicated to pedagogy and the study of composition (with a focus on college writing, and particular interest in the analytic and clinical research going on in that field), I still am doing more deep reading pf literature than I have in quite some time. I have filled the hole that politics was leaving with what I have long looked for: truly satisfying scholarship. The program that I am part of is not exactly a secret, and I'm sure you could find it out with little effort, but I would appreciate it if it could go unspoken, in comments or wherever. Also... I am well aware of the academic job market in the humanities. In my particular subfield, things are actually a bit better than in English or the humanities as a whole; but I am under no illusions. The odds are brutal for all of us, and I am no exception. On this subject, if you wouldn't mind, I would prefer that I might keep my own counsel. This was always a gamble, and one I have taken with my eyes open.

Let me please take a moment to say: all of my thanks and gratitude to the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, my blogging home for a year. The members of the League demonstrated tremendous friendship and support for me, and considerable patience, as well. I left them recently, but with no animus, and I appreciate all of their efforts and their continuing bloggy work. I have considered myself and will go on considering myself a friend to the League, and remain an avid reader of all of their work.

The post immediately preceding this one, I hope, is a good indicator of the kind of writing that I will be doing here. Often enough, I may post just quotes and excerpts that have moved me. Sometimes I will write critically, though rarely, I suspect, any kind of a formal review. Though my approach will be considerably different from his, as always I will draw inspiration from Alan Jacobs and his fantastic blog on all things textual, Text Patterns. If nothing else, my desire is to have this little space to share my thoughts and feelings about the pursuit of reading, where the social and the lonely have lingered together for so long. More than anything, I hope to blog without feeling that I need it. My enjoyment about this is always in inverse proportion to how much I feel like I have to do it.

I hope I keep my promises; I hope some of you read the blog; I hope you enjoy it.



close to the bone in YA fiction

Your personal canon, as a child and adolescent, is a curious thing. I often look back at the peculiar collection of books I read before adulthood and wonder at how idiosyncratic and random it all happened to be. (And, it has to be mentioned, how influenced by my older brother, then and now the biggest influence on my literary life.) The books that I read or didn't read, from my beloved hometown library, were determined so much by chance and luck that it amazes me. This is particularly important, as back in those days I would reread my favorite books over and over-- it's no exaggeration to say that there are books I discovered in that period that I've read a dozen times or more.

As you can probably guess, I wouldn't trade any of that for having read more, or more systematically, before adulthood. The lived-in quality that my appreciation for those books has is something deeply valuable to me. I am moved by these books in a way I can't describe; they are a part of my makeup, and as much as I wonder who I might be if my personal canon had been somewhat different, I have come to accept them to the degree that I have come to accept myself. Few things can move me quite like a book I cherished as a 12 year old.

These days, I'm afraid, there is never not a degree to which I read with a thought to what I feel I must read; there is never a book I read, try as I might, that isn't in some small way a part of the project of my reading life. I am at an age when I do things with a purpose that in some way feels necessary. The loss of that wonderful feeling of purposelessness is something that I hope I can someday overcome, but for now, I am content with the fact that there are simply things that I feel like I must read. If there is a loss in reading having become a project, it is for now a necessary one. I always distrust people who seem to read for some greater reason, but I try to keep in mind that this is one of my many petty hypocrisies. I suppose even I am not pretentious enough to say that this movement in my reading echoes a movement in my larger life....

Anyway. This feeling of emotional intensity and connection to particular books is not entirely the product of  having read them when I was young. Certainly, my particular reading habits contributed a great deal. I read a lot of different things, but without question, what I read about the most was magic. I won't bore you with my belief in magic, and what it meant to a sometimes lonely preteen, and blah blah-- you've heard it before, I'm sure, and from more talented writers. Suffice is to say that I drank in books about magic and spells in great quantities, and in particular about other young people gaining magical power. This meant, often enough, that I was reading young adult fiction.

YA fiction fascinates me. It is written for people who are living at a time when your whole mind seems like a raw nerve. Everything is vulnerable, and passionate, and deeply moving, and you live constantly with the peculiar sensation of being in a body and a life that is not fully your own. For this reason, I think, it's natural that so many YA books feature magic. I think when you are deeply unhappy, which I suspect most people in the 11-13 range are, you long for the ability to escape your own life, to transcend the narrow confines of what you are. Magic is also, incidentally, a good proxy for one's sexual being. But more on that in a sec.

This is all just preface to talking about one of my favorite books growing up, Diane Duane's Deep Wizardry. (My preferred cover, incidentally, is this one, but I felt it was too small to use for the post. As you might have guessed, it is my favorite because it was the cover of the first copy I ever read.) It's a bit of a curious case. It's the second in a series that now counts eight volumes. Although the individual books stand alone well enough, I can't see someone particularly getting much out of this one without having read its predecessor, So You Want to Be a Wizard. What is strange about it is that, though I read four of the books through my teen years, this was the only one to ever really move me. I enjoyed the original well enough, but it certainly didn't touch me in the way that this book did. It's been a consistent mystery to me why I have been so much more attached to this one than any of the other books I have read in the series.

It's a story about a couple of young wizards who, by chance (or at least, as much by chance as the predestination of a magical universe will allow), must undertake a magical task of great importance, deep in the depths of a trench in the ocean. It involves great personal sacrifice on the part of the young wizards, and it is filled with a subtextual and textual references to the two dawning preoccupations of early adolescence, death and sex.

The story is really well crafted and well told, and it deals with the symbolic object of the sea in a way that plays directly to the strengths of the YA form, and to what the YA fiction's audience is experiencing at that time in its life. This preoccupation with the most emotionally loaded subjects that I have mentioned, this closeness-to-the-bone, leads YA authors to this concern with death and sex, among the most visceral and elemental of human preoccupations; the realities of the veils we expect to place between these subjects and our young people (rightly or not) forces YA authors to concern these subjects with a restraint and delicacy that I find is, often enough, only to the good. Oh, most YA books are bad, but then most of anything is bad, and as is the case so many times, restraint is an incredible tool, for focus, concision and clarity. Indeed, it is exactly the desire to tell so much, but having to say so little, that has made me return to YA books no matter how much trash I encounter.

Anyhow-- the two protagonists, a boy and a girl, have forged a friendship through magic, and its attendant hardships. Both were lonely children, caught up in the feelings of powerlessness and isolation, and find in each other a best friend. But as they are in their early teen years, their friendship is touched with sexual longing and sexual panic. As I have said, this focus on sex-- not sex as in intercourse but sex as in the whole great edifice of human sexuality, its promise and the fear it brings, to people of that age-- that is at a remove from direct or obvious discussion about the physical acts of sex is one of the things that makes YA fiction, to me, so powerful when done correctly. It is perhaps the fact that Duane retreated from the sexual longing and sexual confusion that is present in Deep Wizardry in the later books that makes them unsatisfying to me. To be clear, and to head off accusations of creepery, I would not have preferred it that the protagonists (12 and 13 years old in this book, by the way) had engaged in any explicit sex acts in the series; I imagine I would be pretty disturbed by that.

Rather, the frank and real discussion of the growing prevalence of sex in the lives of people of that age is a real strength of the book. The entwined longing for and panic in the face of the reality of sex is to me one of the central realities of young adult life. It's a sad facet of our hysteria in the face of sexual issues concerning those too young to legally have sex that we tend to occlude the issue altogether, out of fear, or out of genuine but misplaced principle. I remember the preoccupation with sex from that time of my life, and how much it dominated my thoughts and feelings, along with death, and my utter inability to articulate my feelings about either. I remember, in fact, fearing sex before sex was a reality in my life at all. I'm thinking of being in fifth grade, and not yet having sexual longing-- oh, I suppose in the Freudian sense I had sexual longing, but not in any obvious or forceful way-- and yet knowing, cognitively, from my education through books and through the unstoppable osmosis that kids pick up on things, that sex was coming. Not intercourse, I was aware, anytime soon (and I was more right than I knew), but merely knowing that, in the near future, life would become more complicated, and desire and partnering and all that came with that would be the reason why. I knew it was coming, and I was intrigued, and I was afraid.

I digress. The point is that this book deals with the deep issues of sex and mortality with real delicacy and poignancy. I hope it isn't giving too much away to say that the two young wizards each has to take the shape of a whale, but by different means, and the girl becomes a humpback, and the boy a sperm whale. And over time, they both come to fear how they are changing, and how their relationship is changing, and how transforming into these two different species of whale is affecting them. Nita, the girl, comes to be horrified by the new aggression and anger that the boy, Kit, shows in his sperm whale form. So the journey to complete their quest becomes complicated through what they are becoming, and a choice that Nita hides from Kit looms over the story. Through it all, there is the concern of Nita's mother, her frank questioning about whether Nita and Kit are sneaking off to have sex, and the larger concerns of maintaining ties and commitments to family in the sudden onrush of still-unformed adulthood.

I suppose the metaphor of the different species of whales, and the whole question of transformation, seems very obvious when spelled out like this. But Duane spins it all out with a controlled and sure hand. I should say, amid all this discussion of subtext and symbol, that the plot itself is a very satisfying and well done. It's a lovely book, to me. I can't imagine that the average reader would get as much from it as I have. Part of that is the simple, intense feelings I have that connect it to a particular time, a particular era of my life when I was so open to possibility, and my emotions were so raw and intense I thought I couldn't take it. Part of it may be that it hits the right notes to satisfy my own particular tastes. Whatever is true, it moves me. I know this is criminally overwrought, and I apologize-- but I swear, at times when I contemplate its cover, I shudder, in the face of what it meant to me, in a time of wondering and panic, and my fear in the face of becoming myself, and through it all, the dark and formless symbol of the sea, still the most powerful one we have, the limitless ocean, and what lies beneath.

Update: Diane Duane herself, I'm honored to say, popped up in the comments to provide this link to my preferred cover of the book. Humbled she responded, and glad to have the link.