Saturday, February 25, 2012

Making Star Wars Better

Wow.  I didn't think it would be so easy to turn Star Wars 1 into a great movie, but this guy nailed it:

(Btw, if you haven't watched Star Wars, like, 8 million times, then a) what's wrong with you?, and b) that video won't make much sense.)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Book Art

I can't decide if this (more here) is Art or Kitsch.  But, I find it strangely compelling either way.  And if I was in charge of the Mount Holyoke museum, I'd arrange an exhibition.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


“It’s impossible to fall off mountains you fool.”

If your response to the preceding is “Wow, man.  That’s deep.  Really deep,” then I have a book for you.  If you respond like any sane person and say “Uh, not only is that untrue, it’s a rather stupid mantra,” then sorry, No Book for You.

The Book:  Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac.  The bit above is the high point of the tale.  It occurs when Kerouac’s alter ego is climbing a mountain and get scared he will fall off, and then realizes he shouldn’t have been scared.  Deep.  Seriously Deep.  Like Wow.  Metaphor for Life, you know.  200 pages of that and you have one seriously Deep Reflection on, like, you know, Life and Stuff.    You think I’m making this up?  No way, Man.  Let me quote the Master:
This is it. “Rop rop rop,” I’d yell at the weeds, and they’d show windward pointing intelligent researchers to indicate and flail and finagle, some rooted in blossom imagination earth moist perturbation idea that had karmacized their very root-and-stem….It was eerie.”
At this point, you have already rushed out to buy the book is some hallucinogenic haze or decided never to even think about reading this book. 

I read it for my tutorial this semester.  Each of the five students picked a book, I added a selection, and we’ll read those books this semester.  From that list, this was the book I was least looking forward to reading.  I read On the Road a few years back in a different tutorial and thought it was a tedious waste of time.  One the Road is better than The Dharma Bums, mostly, I suspect, because I read the former longer ago and so the pain of reading it has dulled.

In the discussion about the book, I gamely spent two hours trying to convince anyone in the tutorial that this book held the Secret of the Universe.  I failed.  Perhaps it is not their Dharma to see the truth that becoming a Dharma Bum holds such marvelous possibilities.  All the students seemed to think this book was just about a bunch of Losers in the 1950s who decided to pretend their Aimless Lives had Meaning.

(The students also made some disparaging remarks about hipsters.  This amused me:  Lily complains every time I listen to Vampire Weekend that it is Hipster Music.  I tell her I am a hipster, so it's OK if I listen to it.  She gets exasperated.  But, now I am puzzled:  is it OK to like Vampire Weekend, but not Jack Kerouac?)

One student seriously objected to the portrayal of women in the book.  Every woman in the book exists solely in order to have will sex with Our Heroes.  I tried to convinced her that this was the Dharma of those women; that to exist solely as sexual objects for the Dharma Bums was a Deep Meaningful experience, but she didn’t buy it.  Sigh.  My power of persuasion are lacking.

I did learn something from reading this book.  It is even easier than I thought to spin out an ersatz Buddhist philosophy and pretend you are saying something even when you know what you just said means nothing at all.  Once you realize you can’t fall off a mountain, your Dharma is realized to entail a self-actualization of a what we might ignorantly call a Soul screaming to abandon the Norms of a society which denies its Oneness.  Deep, huh?

My other odd realization:  Kerouac’s alter ego in this book spends time in a fire watchtower in the middle of nowhere.  It serves as a time for reflection.  The titular characters in Mark Helprin’s Freddy and Fredericka also spend time in a fire watchtower in the middle of nowhere reflecting on life.  Presumably there is a connection, but I’d have to reread Helprin’s book to figure out what it is.

Helprin's book, by the way is worth reading.  In fact, a few years ago, the Mount Holyoke News ran a feature on Professors and the Desert Island Test for books.  (It was not a long running feature, by the way—I was the first and last entry—I guess my answers were too dull to make the series last two issues.)  I was asked to pick three books to take to a desert island, but I couldn’t pick any three books—I had to pick one 1 book from my discipline, 1 book from the last five years, and 1 free choice.  The book from the last 5 years was the hardest choice—seriously, how many books from the last 5 years are you confident you would want to read over and over and over for years on end?  So, I picked Freddy and Fredericka because it fit the category and I really liked it, and I figured maybe some student would actually read it.  So, I’ll repeat the advice again:  it’s a really good book—well worth your time.  (The other two books are also worth your time, but were much more predictable choices.  (So predictable that I suspect that even if I didn’t say what they were, anyone could guess what I said—so to confirm your guess:  The Wealth of Nations, which is a massive work of philosophy with endless side notes and ruminations masquerading as an economics book—I’d rather read it over and over than Friedman and Schwartz’s A Monetary History of the United States.  The free book?  The Bible.  That answer had the virtue of a) being true—I really world take it—and b) being nicely scandalous for a publication at Mount Holyoke.))

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Coffee Cycle

A Most Perfect Work of Art for your Edification.

Twilight of Descartes

Last Saturday, the Met broadcast its production of Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods), the fourth and final part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  Ever since I first heard about this opera, I’ve wanted to see it, and now, thanks to the glories of Met in HD broadcasts, I have.  Altogether, it’s about a 15 hour long opera—the fourth part alone was a 6 hour event (including two intermissions).  The production was stunning, and the opera was every bit as amazing as I had always thought it would be.

So, what is the message, point, or conclusion of Wagner’s Ring?  I have absolutely no idea.  It is a sprawling, messy work.  Indeed, trying to forge some sort of coherent message here seems to me to be a Fool’s Errand.  It is the spectacle that matters, the recurring leitmotifs, the gods and dwarves and giants and dragons.  It is the rise of the man who knows no fear and the transformation of Brunnhilde from loyal daughter of Wotan to lover of Siegfried and the curse of Alberich and the failure of Wotan—all of these wrapped up into a massive, overwhelming, awe-inspiring tribute to…what?  One can, as Shaw did, spin this as some socialist tale showing the problem of the cursed lust for gold, but such an argument makes the opera too small.  If all of this is simply a footnote to Marx, then so what?  Every attempt to spin a moral tale makes this opera too small.

What I find intriguing about Wagner’s monumental mess is that it points to the idea of something which cannot be reduced.  A streamlined Ring, a Ring in which there was a coherent theme would be a very different thing.  And a much poorer thing.  Am I supposed to admire Siegfried or not?  Honestly, if that question could be answered, Siegfried gets smaller.  Am I supposed to mourn the Twilight of the Gods or not?  And again, to answer that is to diminish the opera.

In other words, this opera strikes me as the Triumph of Romanticism.  There is a wild, unknown, unknowable thing out there which is still True, but I have no ability to articulate it in cold, logical rational statements.  The Enlightenment dies in Wagner’s Ring.  The Gods and Dwarves and Giants and Heroes all Die in a great conflagration. And we are left with what?  The Wasteland. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Five White Mice

In my continuing fascination with Stephen Crane, I recently read the section in his Library of America Volume entitled “The West and Mexico.”  This is a series of short pieces (mostly short stories, but some non-fiction) written between 1894 and 1900.

This section contains “The Blue Hotel,” which Mencken said was the greatest short story ever written.  I am not sure it is the greatest—but, then again, I have no idea which short story I would rate as the greatest, so maybe this is it—but, whether it is the Greatest or not, it’s really good.  Beautifully told, with a perfect punch line at the end.  I’m surprised I wasn’t forced to read it in high school—it comes with a ready-made high school paper topic.  It’s well worth a few minutes of your time to read this story.

The other stories in the section are also quite good.  The same thing that enables Crane to craft nice little poems, gives him the ability to craft an entire world in a short story.  The non-fiction bits were OK.  However it was pretty obvious reading the section as a whole, that Crane was using the non-fiction journalistic writing as a warm-up for the short stories.

The underlying theme is the question of fate.  How much of life is chance, how much is dictated by the actions of others and how much is in our control?  I haven’t read all of Crane, but it sure seems to me that there is a latent Calvinism underlying his work—we think we are acting, but we aren’t.  We think we are heading for a big showdown, but it doesn’t materialize.  We think we are passively observing events as they unfold, but we suddenly find our actions forming part of the narrative leading inexorably to conclusion.

How does one Act in the face of a current whose shape cannot be determined until after the fact?  Crane doesn’t seem to have much to say on that topic.  While it sure seems that action and inaction should lead to different outcomes, it isn’t at all clear in Crane that we have much of a say in the matter.  We act or don’t act, and then the result seems like it was a foregone conclusion before we ever thought about the problem.

Yet, somehow, Crane doesn’t seem fatalistic.  I haven't solved the problem of Crane, yet—but I still have several more novels and a lot of short stories to go.

Since that isn’t a very satisfying conclusion, I figured I would add a video.  I mentioned some months ago, I had bought Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, but I wasn’t sure if I liked it.  After listening to it quite a bit, I am now happy to report, it’s a good album.  Here is the title song, which has an ambiguity suitable to the present post.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Soul's Blood

Obviously, I am being terribly negligent toward this blog.  I’d plead that I have been actively engaged in a host of other activities, but I know in advance that such pleas of Being Busy will be unpersuasive to 1) those who Believe that the Present Blog should be one’s highest priority (a null set) or 2) those who have read the Annual Christmas letter and know that Your Humble Narrator never actually is Busy (a small set) or 3) those who really don’t care one way or the other (vast multitudes).  So, I will offer no excuses.

In the previous entry, I discussed the book I read on the way back from California.  As every attentive reader of this blog noted, this left open the question of which book I read on the way to California.  It was like a Reverse Cliffhanger—what happens Before?

Philip and Carol Zaleski, Prayer: A History

An amazing book.  Seriously amazing.  First off, the Zaleskis write with a remarkably fluidity and an incredible ear for a great anecdote.  For a book which sets out to detail every aspect of prayer, it was an extraordinarily smooth read.  Most religious books are either dense academic jargon or insipid feel-good exercises.  This is as good as writing about religion gets.

For the most part (the most part being about 90% of the book), the content was fascinating.  I’ve been rather devout ever since I can remember, and I have never learned as much about the nature of prayer as I did reading this book on a plane trip from the East to West Coast.  This was one of those books which opens up whole new vistas—it is very much akin to cutting down a bunch of trees which were obstructing a magnificent view.

The book is, as the title would suggest, a Grand Tour of Prayer.  Reading it, I was struck by how scientific the whole enterprise seemed.  Humanities types are not know for offering up scientific evidence, and scientists have great disdain of Proof by Anecdote.  But, after seeing the evidence marshaled in this manner, it was striking:  prayer exists is so many forms, in so many cultures, over so much time as a real experience of so many people that it would take a bizarre view of the world to say that there is nothing there.  Once you see the broad historical scope, there is a remarkable body of evidence that prayer is something fundamental and universal to the human condition.  Now why should that be?  Perhaps, prayer is actually something real?

Yet, the Zaleskis are also wonderfully quick to note, all prayer is not the same.  Buddhists and Christians are not doing the same thing when they pray.  Yet both do pray.  So, prayer is vastly more complicated than we tend to think.  Similarly, the heart of the book is a marvelous taxonomy of prayer: the refugee, the devotee, the ecstatic and the contemplative.  I’d never really thought about the types of prayer, but seeing it broken out like this revealed not just the omnipresence of prayer, but the complexity of prayer.

Now the quibble;  the only part of the book I thought was weak was two chapters in the last section, discussing prayer and healing and the efficacy of prayer.  It’s a foray into social science, and alas, it’s not great social science. There is a big difference between noting that prayer is something real by setting forth a wide array of anecdotal evidence for its existence, and thinking about whether prayer works by looking at a seemingly random small set of studies.

But, don’t let the quibble be anything other than a quibble.  This is a marvelous book for anyone who is at all interested in the nature of prayer.  And, much to my surprise, while it is clearly an academic book—I can easily imagine a class using this as a text—I have found myself praying vastly more often after reading it.  An academic book with practical effect.  Who knew such a thing existed?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

When a True Genius Appears in the World

A few weeks back I had to take a trip out to California.  As I have noted here before, I carefully pick my Plane Books—books that look long and not necessarily all that thrilling, but which I really wish I had read.  Planes are the perfect place to read such books. 

This trip I made a horrible mistake in picking a book for the plane trip back.  It doesn’t seem all that hard to pick books which will meet the above criterion, but this time, I was way off.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever made a bigger mistake.

The book:  John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces

The problem:  It was a fantastic book.  I would have ripped right through it even if I wasn’t on a plane.  I wasted a whole plane trip reading a book I would have devoured had I ever read the first page before now.  Indeed, my foremost thought when reading it was, “How in the world is it possible that I have never read this book before?”  That was coupled with, “Where in the world did I ever get the idea that this was one of those dreary, but potentially worthwhile, bits of literature?”  The answers to those two questions are undoubtedly linked, but I have no idea what those answers might be.

This book is funny, very funny.  And thought-provoking.  It is interesting, well written, and has some of the most memorable characters you’ll ever meet.  The main character, Ignatius J Reilly is a modern day Falstaff.  Take Shakespeare’s character, put him amongst the working (or non-working as the case may be) classes of New Orleans in the 1960s and you would have this book.  Brilliantly done.  The cast of supporting characters are also worthy of Henry IV—no small feat, that. 

It’s a sprawling book, with, I suppose, something akin to a plot line, but really a series of minor plot lines weaving in and out.  Uniting the plots is Ignatius’ attempts to navigate a word in which he doesn’t quite belong.  A slothful holder of a Master’s degree in English, holed up in a room in his mother’s house, we see Ignatius simultaneously trying to write the grand philosophical work to end all philosophical works—he runs out of steam every time he gets a paragraph or two or random musings down on paper—and looking for a job to help pay the bills so his mother doesn’t lose the house in which he resides.  Reilly is unsuitable for work—in exactly the same way the Falstaff would have been unsuited for a desk job.  Reilly is larger than work, he is larger than life, there is simply a vast Too Muchness about him.  You would not want to know Ignatius J Reilly; you would think he was an Absolute Loser because, well, he is one.  He Dreams Big, can’t muster the energy for even the most mundane tasks, and yet, despite being everything you would not want your kid to become, it is hard not to secretly, very secretly (you wouldn’t want anyone to hear you think this), admire him a bit because he just doesn’t care that the world does not fit him.  He chalks his misfortunes up to Fortuna, and…well, I was going to say moves through life, but “moves” conveys a bit more purpose than Ignatius is wont to display.

Throughout the book, the other characters serve as a foil for the problems of Reilly—we watch others struggling or giving up the struggle to fit into the world, none of them terribly successful at it.  As Reilly muses toward the end of the novel:

Once a person was asked to step into this brutal century, anything could happen.  Everywhere there lurked pitfalls like Abelman [a customer of the factory in which Reilly briefly worked], the insipid Crusaders for Moorish Dignity, the Mancuso cretin [a policeman], Dorian Greene [a rather campy homosexual], newspaper reporters, strip-teasers, birds, photography, juvenile delinquents, Nazi pornographers. And especially Myrna Minkoff [a wannabe 60s radical].  The consumer products.  And especially Myrna Minkoff [yes, he repeats that sentence—Myrna is a real problem for Ignatius].

It is interesting to think at the end of a novel like this:  how much do I try to fit into the world?  How much of what I do is a deliberate attempt to shape my life so that I seem at home here?  What would be different if I simply woke up every morning, firmly convinced, that the world should fit me, that world should modify itself so that it was at home with me?  Imagine that you really believed that, that you really did wander through life unaware that there was something odd about your attitude toward the world, that it was singularly odd that you actually didn’t understand why you should adapt yourself to the world.  It’s a strange thought experiment.

From there, one gets to wondering why the world is the way it is.  And reading this coming off a semester reading Southern literature in my tutorial, it’s easy to see how there is a logical progression from Faulkner and Agee to Toole. 

And yet…is the world really all that bad?  Is fitting into a world of work and polite social interactions really all that bad?  Are we really living lives of quiet desperation (OK, that’s a Northerner’s line, but even still, it fits)?  I’m not so sure.  I like my computer and my iPod and the easy ability to buy books.  I like microwave ovens and cordless drills.  And is modern industrial life really such a high price to pay for the marvel of being able to read news about the Raiders on the internet while living on the East Coast?