Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Monday, January 30, 2006
Charles Olson talked a lot about space, but he thought he could knock time off the table.
Lutheran Surrealism argues that time is at least as important as space, and it is in the question of time that many problems of the avant-garde reside.
The communists argue that time will end when Cain kills Abel (Cain being configured as the proletariat).
After that heinous murder a reign of glorious justice will follow amongst the murderers.
How laughable is that? Now that we've seen the reigns of Joseph Stalin, Pol Pot, Chairman Mao, and others, the joke is in the can.
The surrealist theory of time is almost as laughable. When the unconscious is aligned with life, then we will have Robert Desnos chasing Paul Eluard around the backyard with a knife. This Sadean exegesis of human nature is the surrealist moment of the end-time. The unconscious is completely Satanic.
Progress. Many totalitarians believe in progress. This consists of better ways to toast bread but more importatly better ways to commit genocide. Airplanes the size of skyscrapers strafe civilizations into surrender, or smash into skyscrapers to create the sense that eternity will outlast phynances.
There is also the Zen moment (Billy Collins ends his poem with the Zen moment). This rather ridiculous theory of time is not so much a theory of time as a theory of moments outside of time. It implies the loss of continuity and the notion that one can freeze-frame time. Collins' poem is shot through with such moments. The circles in the glass, Basho's frog, etc. Even the wall art doesn't move, but freezes time. This was an important theory in the seventies (Be Here Now). It's retarded, I might say, but I'd rather use a word that isn't quite so abrasive.
In Lutheran time there is a notion of the two kingdoms. Time is separate from eternity. Kairos is the lyric moment when eternity appears to pervade time. This is the only satisfying or intelligent notion of time: kairos.
Every moment that Jesus speaks in the red print in the Bible is a moment of kairos. The time when we most live in kairos is when we kneel in the pews in silence. The parts in black in the Bible when ordinary people speak, is however what fills most of our time and most of our lives. Hundreds of millions of words that skitter and bobble and breathe unbelief and doubt and confusion. Once in a while a poet can peek over the edge into eternity and their words while never red might become at least a little light pink. Hallelujah. Come on, let's get happy.
Sunday, January 29, 2006
The following poem by Billy Collins appeared over at Lime Tree -- a blog by K. Silem Mohammed, and we were asked to compare it to a poem by Jennifer Moxley. Many of the poet-critics there saw the poem as a late-capitalist bit of self-indulgence. I read it rather as a poem that celebrated the end of communism and the survival of capitalism after the dreadful 20th century in which the communists succeeded in taking over scores of countries only in order to drive the economies into the red and to send all their poets to Gulags or directly into the cemeteries on the charge of individualism. Collins' celebration of a period of late communism when there are only a few floundering Marxist systems remaining (Vietnam, for instance, which has a lower annual income than even Haiti -- at 324 dollars per year) or silly Red China, with its horrific lack of rights now accepted even by Google and others as some kind of museum of that faded socialist dream, and in which the police continue to shoot down demonstrators of any and every kind. Collins in this poem celebrates life in the United States with its working food distribution system (note the crate of oranges), its functional automobiles (compare the car that Collins celebrates next to for instance a Russian Lada with doors that one must close very carefully to keep them from falling off). Jazz, which Adorno consigned to a symptom of slavery, Collins celebrates for its individualism, and there is wall art, and above all, a feeling of privacy in the poem. Communists everywhere are up in arms over this poem as they see it (rightly) as a direct attack on the Marxist system that they still attempt to put into the place of our own American dream. Poets are very slow to understand reality. In the 1930s many of our best writers continued to speak in favor of Joseph Stalin and to deny the Gulags. In the 1960s even after Solzhenitsyn many of our poets such as Allen Ginsberg still refused to acknowledge that Cuba was run by amoral gangsters, and not even run very well. Collins' poem is in fact a triumph. It marks the beginning of the recognition that capitalism was better all along. And he "asks us" (title) if we'd really rather be anywhere else. The poem argues that American life has now reached a space of Zen perfection in which the poets of our great country can live in peace and quiet thanks to the soldiers and police and theoretical architects of past and present who have made this country the envy of the entire world and who held off communism's blandishments and the mindless poets and theorists who continue to wish for a Bolshevik system with which they too could ruin the country in the name of a non-functional utopia. Not least of the freedoms which Collins celebrates is the very ability to write freely, instantiated in our first amendment and taken for granted today. Think of the fate that consigned hundreds of thousands of thinkers and writers in the Soviet world to the Gulags. Think of the Khmer Rouge who consigned anyone who could either read or write to the Killing Fields before you take Collins' celebratory poem for granted.
I Ask You
What scene would I want to be enveloped in
more than this one,
an ordinary night at the kitchen table,
floral wallpaper pressing in,
white cabinets full of glass,
the telephone silent,
a pen tilted back in my hand?
It gives me time to think
about all that is going on outside—
leaves gathering in corners,
lichen greening the high grey rocks,
while over the dunes the world sails on,
huge, ocean-going, history bubbling in its wake.
But beyond this table
there is nothing that I need,
not even a job that would allow me to row to work,
or a coffee-colored Aston Martin DB4
with cracked green leather seats.
No, it’s all here,
the clear ovals of a glass of water,
a small crate of oranges, a book on Stalin,
not to mention the odd snarling fish
in a frame on the wall,
and the way these three candles—
each a different height—
are singing in perfect harmony.
So forgive me
if I lower my head now and listen
to the short bass candle as he takes a solo
while my heart
thrums under my shirt—
frog at the edge of a pond—
and my thoughts fly off to a province
made of one enormous sky
and about a million empty branches.
(Cortland Review 7, May, 1999).
Friday, January 27, 2006
Another version of this dream is that I am in a city that is supposedly Seattle but nothing seems to be where I thought it was. There are fences that block the sidewalk. A path will turn into a ravine and then there's a private house with no path across the bright green lawn.
Every once in a while when the dreams take a darker turn Satan himself appears in the dream. This is not as terrifying as it might sound. He often jokes with me, and I try to convince him that behind the evil facade is an honest and decent Lutheran. I know that this is theoretically true, but he regards me in the way that a Caligula might have regarded an amusing Christian he's about to throw to the lions.
Suffice it to say that my waking hours are comparatively happy ones.
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Looking down 2nd Street of Delhi one sees about twelve homes on either side. Generally there is an impression of disarray based on the different styles but after a fresh snowfall a new harmony has emerged based on the commonality of white which reduces the cacophony of colors to a melody that is soothing and very palatable. The people are usually inside but looking down the street one sees a single gentleman stepping across the street to his car and beeping the lock open as he walks toward it. The only other color is the black of the telephone wires which frame the scene.
Coud heaven permit snow after all?
Tuesday, January 24, 2006
In the last hundred years the world has gotten to the point where any person in the planet can get almost anywhere else on the planet within a day or two.
Laws, which were usually local until the middle of the last century, are now in the process of becoming international and global (the idea of universal human rights).
Sunday, January 22, 2006
Saturday, January 21, 2006
Friday, January 20, 2006
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Oe doesn't really define this term but he does give many examples of it, and from this we are supposed to make a composite portrait.
Perhaps what he means is that it should be intellectually satisfying -- a picture of the community that is adequate and necessary to that community's understanding of its past, its future, and its present.
He also offers a litmus test of a kind -- if it broadly interests the young intellectuals of a culture, then it is serious literature.
I remember when the first great works of Beat literature appeared that there was an enormous interest. I personally read Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso, Brautigan with tremendous enthusiasm. Bukowski was also read but I considered him to be lacking a serious moral dimension and judged him to not be a serious contender. I read the New York School with less attention except for its greatest poet Frank O'Hara who I thought was a rival to the Beats.
Do I still read the Beats? I no longer can. Ginsberg's inclusion in NAMBLA was enough for me to no longer consider his to have been a serious mind. I still read Ginsberg, but with a critical lense. As in, what is the matter with this guy, and why didn't I see it? I'm still charmed by the style, and by felicitous turns of phrase.
If one scrolls back to the modernists I would argue that Pound really disqualified himself as a serious mind when he backed Mussolini.
Aesthetics are not enough. There has to be a serious ethos, too. Anyone who could back the fascists is not serious. I can't read Celine for the same reason. I don't care how good a writer is on a line by line level. I want a comprehensive vision. If it's lacking in some very serious way then I disqualify the writer. I can still appreciate the style, etc., but I can no longer take them seriously.
After years of reading through the modernists -- EE Cummings and his disgraceful lightness about sexuality, or Pound with his disgraceful fascism, or T.S. Eliot with his shockingly silly Cats series, or then as we move forward to a gnostic like Spicer, a gnostic like Ginsberg, and so on, I find it increasingly difficult to see these poets as worthy of attention.
Perhaps the one modernist who still holds my attention is Marianne Moore.
The one Beat who I still hold as having had an interesting vision is Corso. His was a mottled vision, true, but I find him powerful and engaging especially when he traverses his Catholic roots. There was something wonderful in Corso which degenerated after Kennedy's assassination in 1963. I don't think he ever fully recovered. It changed his viewpoint on human nature, and I think he wrote humanity off after that incident.
I can't take communist poets seriously after the debacles of Stalinism, Maoism, the Khmer Rouge, etc. That anyone could imagine that they are the party of principle and then set about to erase all other factions is abominable. And yet it is precisely what is outlined in the Communist Manifesto.
On a political basis it is the Federalist Letter #10 that I believe to be the foundation of a politics that I can live with. The multiplication of factions rather than their elimination is what James Madison called for. Diversity not of demographics so much as of ideas. This is the minimum I am looking for in a poet. I see this ability to accept different groups very seldom except in some small measure in Charles Olson (how he accepts the Portuguese Catholics as well as the Unitarians).
One also sees it in Henry J.M. Levet, and in Whitman. And I think in Marianne Moore.
Most poets seem unable to stand their irreconcilable differences with others. A few celebrate it. I think that Kenzaburo Oe celebrates it in his delight in his bizarre son. It's something that makes for serious literature. One sees it also in Orhan Pamuk. In Pamuk's novel Snow he humanizes terrorists. He shows that they too have a human side. And of course one sees it in Shakespeare. Every viewpoint is validated and is difficult to dismiss. This sense of an openness to true difference and thus to the multi-voiced that Bakhtin celebrates. It is perhaps only one facet of a serious writer, but I find it to be a determining essential, but it is not the final criterion. More on that later.
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
"The role of literature -- insofar as man is obviously a historical being -- is to create a model of a contemporary age which encompasses past and future, a model of the people living in that age as well..." (66).
Shortly after WWII this serious literature -- junbungaku -- broke through and was accepted by the intellectual classes of Japan because it dealt with their needs. Before and during the war there was no possibility for freedom of speech. Shortly thereafter however the conditions were present.
"Haniya and Shiina studied Dostoevsky; Takeda read Lu Xun; Noma immersed himself in French symbolism; and Ooka read Stendhal. In fact, all the postwar writers were young intellectuals who had endeavored to establish their identities by absorbing European literature. Unable to express during the war years, they honed their minds and lived with a spirit of defiance toward the war being fought by the fascist government that ruled them" (69-70).
In this context Mishima apparently read Georges Bataille and Pierre Klossowski.
The candid portraiture of a generation of writers that Oe depicts in this volume fascinated me partially because it has a comparison to American literature that must be addressed. In the period before my own there were the Beat writers, the New York School of writers. To what extent could they have been considered serious in Oe's sense? This is something to address another day as I must be up and running. Suffice it to say for now that they were and they weren't.
Monday, January 16, 2006
We still don't know for sure who killed ML King. The family of King doubts that it was James Earl Ray. Ray was not a trained shooter, and he claimed to have waited in a public bathroom to shoot the Reverend in Memphis on that day. It would have been a difficult shot and yet with one bullet the sniper took out King by hitting him in the head.
As many mysteries surround this shooting as surround that of JFK.
I was just a kid at the time and it seemed to me that political assassination was the way things got done in this country. So many things like this were taking place that I could barely track them all and keep up with the war in Vietnam, and what was going on in Israel, much less with the San Francisco Giants whose team had my favorite player Willie Mays.
An earlier generation was probably used to anarchist bank hold-ups as the way things got done. The Sacco & Vanzetti case remains full of question marks.
Screwy loners dismantled the 60s. If it wasn't Manson in LA or Ian Einhorn in Philadelphia, it was James Earl Ray, or Valerie Solanas.
The peace generation forgot that our nature is one of "total depravity" as Jean Calvin put it. Total means 100%. The peace generation thought that Rousseau was right. That we are taught to be bad, and that our basic nature is good. They believed that we are born 100% good and all we had to do is make love and not war. And then Altamont, and Black Sabbath, and the punk generation.
Who taught Cain to kill Abel?
The Protestant idea is that we are all bad to the bone and must pray that a ray of grace will enter into us and we will know God to the point that we can be just a little bit more like Him.
I think ML King would have understood this, but still he did have an interesting dream, as did Lincoln before him. King gave his great speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.
God help us.
Sunday, January 15, 2006
"We are not in a world ungoverned by the laws and power of a superior agent. Our efforts are in his hand and directed by it; and he will give them their effect in his own time."
Thomas Jefferson to David Barrow, May 1, 1815. Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."
Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. Boyd, Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1:429
"And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?"
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781. Peden, Notes on Virginia, 159, 163.
Jefferson was a sort of forerunner of the Unitarians and he thought that everyone of his generation would die a Unitarian. Unitarians believe that reason is the ultimate.
Luther believed that reason was the devil's whore.
I'm with Luther.
Friday, January 13, 2006
Why do I suddenly remember this image?
Perhaps a psychologist would argue that it was a meaningful remembrance of things past. For me it was partially the odd picturesque quality -- the dappled sunset with dark clouds coming in, the enormity of the ship, the clarity of the image of the boxer through the portal (did he need special permission to work out on the ship? was he a professional, or training for the Olympics?). Or perhaps it's just a random memory.
Monday, January 09, 2006
Sunday, January 08, 2006
Now I'm going through his Memoirs, and read the neat chapter on Industrial Society. I had read his 18 Lessons on Industrial Society in graduate school as part of my attempt to understand Pierre Klossowski's interest in the Saint-Simoniens. I found the one passage that Klossowski quoted from Aron to be more interesting than almost the entirety of Klossowski himself.
Industrial society whether communist or capitalist is still designated as having a ruling class.
That might be determined by whether one is a successful entrepreneur or whether one is a member of the communist party. But there are going to be bosses in one way or another. The cronyism of the communist party is no doubt worse even though the freedom to protest that arbitrary distinction was not possible in any of the communist states. Everything in communism is arranged by the state including every individual's thoughts.
83% of the French in 1950 were wage-earners.
I have always been attracted by Raymond Aron, Alain Finkelkraut, Luc Ferry, and what has been called the neo-Kantians who came in the wake of the post-structuralists and postmodernists. In fact they largely wiped out communism in France. In the American university which typically lags some thirty years behind France in terms of its intellectual developments and which must wait for translations from that country to appear we are still doddering about thinking about communism. Aron writes that to be a Marxist-Leninist and to be intelligent and honest is an impossible combination.
He does hold out hope for the early Marx, but only as a sparkle in history.
For the longest time Aron held out hope that America would provide an aegis for democracy. After Vietnam and the debacle of our defeat there he gave up on that hope. A fickle and feeble-minded giant is no friend to anyone.
Saturday, January 07, 2006
What would he think of American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan?
I think he would be against long-term involvement. Having smashed their fascist governments and having tried to introduce liberal governments without having successfully prepared the population through slow and steady educational systems that would support liberalism (as is what happened during the Protestant revolution) one wonders how we will be able to leave Iraq before two or three generations pass.
Perhaps that's pessimistic but it's what I thought about in the early morning hours this morning before awakening when all seems most bleak.
The alternatives seem even more bleak. The Islamic countries are like septic systems that are so backed up that getting anywhere near them is fatal.
In Morocco, one of the more enlightened of such countries, over 90% of the population suffers from chronic dental migraines. There are so few dentists! Those dental migraines are probably the Islamic world's chief export at this point as the whole western world is forced to grind its teeth as they think about what to do in regards to a people that won't allow its women to be educated, and to say the men are better off is almost laughable.
Friday, January 06, 2006
It ends with these two sentences:
"With or without God, no one knows at the end of his life whether he is saved or lost. Thanks to those about whom I have said so little [his family] and who have given me so much, I remember this formula without fear and trembling" (484).
In between these two chunks lie 484 pages of political reflection from the Dreyfus Affair to Vietnam, with of course the great fact of Solzhenitsyn in between.
"Solzhenitsyn is not a political man, even if his statements, his work, and his life constitute political realities with all the force of his suffering and his genius. His convictions transcend politics because they inspire an extraordinary personality, because they are, in the last analysis, spiritual in essence: faith in freedom and unconditional devotion to the truth... Who in the west is carrying on the same battle as Solzhenitsyn? The answer is simple because the question is indecent: no one." (p. 381).
And yet, Aron's magnificent humanity is tempered by his devotion to the truth and his faith in freedom. If anyone carried on Solzhenitsyn's battle in the west it was he, Aron.
Wednesday, January 04, 2006
I'm not sure how or if his analyses could be brought to bear on any of our current debates. Aron was against systems, although he was an astute student of Marxism and Marxists. He critiqued the utopianism of May 1968 and remained probably the only conservative voice for which the left never completely lost respect. But he irritated the right as well.
The Stalinists and Maoists took over vast sections of the earth by the 1950s. No continent was immune. But Aron writes,
"Up till now the English-speaking and the Scandinavian countries have proved relatively immune to the Stalinist virus... Stalinism, in its early stages, aims at subordinating union action to considerations of political strategy; then, after the party has seized power, it subjects the unions themselves to the state. The union secretaries are too clever to be taken in by the argument that our intellectuals swallow so readily: Once the state becomes proletarian, there is no place in it for independent unions... Political leaders tend by nature to disregard the claims of the people they govern. Whether it is proletarian or bourgeois, a state that encounters no obstacles naturally moves toward tyranny" (The Dawn of Universal History, 233).
Aron argues that in states with an already centralized religion such as Italy or France communism made greater sense than it did in states with Protestant religions that granted so much to the individual conscience such as the Protestant Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian countries.
"Democratic individualism, with its Protestant origins and Christian spirit, is fundamentally incompatible with the message of Stalinism..." (234).
"The same cannot be said of the French democratic tradition. Its Jacobin history makes it tend toward an authoritarian, centralized state. The mythology of the general will justifies not individual rights and the rights of the opposition but the omnipotence of the majority" (234).
Raymond Aron placed first in the agregation -- the competitive national examination -- in philosophy -- well ahead of his colleague J-P Sartre who later led a coterie of irreflective twits from a cafe on the Left Bank. While Sartre got his generation drunk with the alcoholic spirits that he generated out of cyclonic teapots, Raymond Aron served only the coldest ice water in town.
Sunday, January 01, 2006
While waiting for the ball to drop last night I read through this collection of essays. The title essay by Okin is a violent contemptuous secular brickbat to the face of all religious thought. She claims that Christianity, Islam, and Judaism should all be wiped off the face of the earth because they conflict with her vision of secular feminism, and that all three religions exist solely to oppress women.
I was impressed by the clarity and force but flabbergasted by the violence of the essay.
There are fourteen responses to the essay. I've read six or seven of them. Some are by Muslim female scholars and some by Jewish scholars and some by other secular scholars. The most interesting one that I have read so far is by a Reformed Jewish scholar who teaches at the University of Chicago named Martha Nussbaum. She takes Okin to task for obliterating religion in her essay, "A Plea for Difficulty."
"...I am troubled by Okin's argument, because she makes it all sound so easy.... On one side, for Okin, there are these old patriarchal religions that oppress women in keeping with sexist 'founding myths.' On the other side there is the noble Enlightenment goal of a full political recognition of the equal dignity of all human beings. There is no difficulty here, other than a practical political difficulty, because religion is not seen as offering human beings anything of value" (105).
Nussbaum defends all three religions that Okin dismisses:
"Is Islam sexist in its origins? Not to many Islamic feminists, who stress that women and men are held to share a single essential nature..." (106)
"Both abolitionism and the U.S. civil rights movement were religious movements, and much of the contemporary struggle against racism in our nation has a religious foundation" (106).
"Reform Jews in Germany started confirming women in 1810, counted women in the minyan by 1846, abandoned asymmetrical marriage and divorce customs during the same period..." (107).
"Okin's approach raises practical political problems. By suggesting to religious women and men that their religion has nothing positive to contribute to the struggles for justice, and perhaps to life more generally, she alienates potential allies and thus makes her own struggle more difficult" (107).
No kidding. The most illiberal of all faiths is secular humanism. They shriek against the Baptists but the Baptists are wonderfully liberal and accept atheism as a valid form of thought. Too many secular liberals think that they alone have the truth and slowly they alienate all others around them as a result.
Azizi Y. Al-Hibri, a Muslim feminist who teaches law at the University of Richmond, responds to Okin that, "Only God knows the truth, and what Okin and I believe in today as the truth may be quite different from what we may believe to the truth ten years hence. After all, I was a Marxist in the seventies" (46).