Saturday, January 31, 2009
Ask not what your mom can do for you
Ask what you can do for your mom
Ask not what your body can do for you
Ask what you can do for your body
Ask not what the Aurora Borealis can do for you
Ask what you can do for the Aurora Borealis
Ask not what Lutheran Surrealism can do for you
Ask what you can do for Lutheran Surrealism!
Friday, January 30, 2009
"Humor, let me reiterate, though it may use formal devices, depends ultimately on one's sensitivity to the interplay among various 'levels' of meaning. It is a very complex skill, this ability to distinguish levels of meaning, perceive their relationship, evaluate their relative importance given the context, then almost simultaneously form a global impression. Appreciating humor -- even recognizing it -- requires human skills of the highest order (level?); no computer comes close to having them" (50).
Humor requires a jumping between levels of meaning, layers of context, and between frameworks of understanding.
Paulos also writes, "The necessity of this psychic stepping back (or up) to the metalevel is probably what is meant when people say that a sense of perspective is needed for an appreciation of humor. It also explains why dogmatists, idealogues, and others with one-track minds are often notoriously humorless. People whose lives are dominated by one system or one set of rules are stuck, in a manner of speaknig, in the object level of their system. Whether they are political radicals mouthing some party line or bureaucrats blindly enforcing some set of petty regulations [or both?], they lack the ability to step outside themselves and their systems. Understanding a joke is a distinctly human activity and requires one to evaluate almost instantly the relative importance of its different parts, to compare meanings and shades of meaning, to perceive unstated relations and implicit ideas, and to put this all into an appropriate context in order to grasp the situation as a whole. These complex operations are all metalevel (or meta-meta-level) activities and are beyond the capabilities of computers and people who want to be computers" (27).
Paulos is a mathematician at Temple University in Philadelphia. This book was published in 1980. Have computers grown in their capacity to grasp humor since then? It was nearly thirty years ago when Paulos made this judgment. Does it still hold?
Paulos gives a spin on the first joke I had ever heard. It was told to me by my father in about 1962. My father also taught at Temple University (in Phys. Ed.).
"What's black and white and red all over?"
The answer "Newspaper," is probably one we've all heard.
Paulos writes, "M.E. Barrick (1974) has compiled a monstrously long list of answers to the above riddle that includes: a wounded nun; an embarrassed zebra; Santa Claus coming down a dirty chimney; a right-winger's view of an integration march; and a skunk with diaper rash" (26).
Amusing book, this. On the back cover is an ad for a book called Poetry and Mathematics. It is by a Scott Buchanan, and was first published in 1929. Sounds amusing, too.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
"Zhu was standing in the café holding Yang's severed head when authorities arrived on the scene. A kitchen knife and Zhu's backpack, which was filled with other sharp weapons, were lying on the floor nearby. There were seven witnesses."
The story happened in a restaurant called Au Bon Pain which was apparently right on campus. There's been almost zero news coverage. One channel segued away from the story, after about three sentences worth of coverage, using the transition phrase, "And in other Virginia news..."
Apparently it is considered discriminatory to turn mentally ill students away based solely on that issue. It is even considered discriminatory to ask incoming students if they have any special mental health needs. Is the story not being reported, as well, for fear of seeming discriminatory?
In getting rid of discrimination, have we gotten rid of sanity itself?
It does seem that a general news blackout has been ordered. Who ordered it?
Is the idea that now that we have a new president, we can no longer report atrocities? Because the world has changed, and hope has been restored?
Monday, January 26, 2009
Because they rarely release their medical records, vampyres may appear to be in good health. However, the truth is that their health is nonexistent. Ask a person you suspect of vampyrism for their medical records. If they say no, or appear unduly morose, inquire further.
Because they can't appear in daylight, vampyres rarely work. At most, they may write their memoirs, filed with highly subjective impressions, few principles, and a few ideas such as "Let's spread the wealth around."
Change the word "wealth" to "blood" and you have broken the code. Change any key word in a vampyre's sentences to blood, and if it still makes sense, you are probably dealing with a vampyre. Add a Transylvanian accent, and if it rings true, you could be dealing with a vampyre.
Vampyres may have even been elected to Congress. But they will rarely actually sit in the Chambers, because there is too much sunlight spilling in.
Vampyres don't really believe in the rule of law, even when they are sometimes nominally a lawmaker. Non-Christian women love vampyres, and treat them like natural royalty. A vampyre is dead, and can only produce death, or else other vampyres. In the East Bloc, they were party members. In Southeast Asia, they had names like Pol Pot and Ho Chi Minh. Generally they were former royalty. The system changes, but vampyres always remain on top. It's life or death for them, and although vampyres are actually dead, they can maintain the impression of life for centuries by sucking the life out of the living.
Not all communists are vampyres. Most communists are dupes. How can we tell the difference? Vampyres have a sense of humor. Dupes do not. Also, dupes actually work during the day.
Dupes, on the other hand, rarely have a sense of humor. Vampyres laugh all night long. In fact, all they do is laugh. But vampyres never laugh at themselves, because they do not in fact exist. If a vampyre looks in a mirror, they do not cast a reflection. Vampyres can be a little sensitive about this. They want to summon an appearance of life. They rarely do an honest day's work, but they can nevertheless REFLECT when they are writing memoirs, so this takes up a lot of their time. Although they rarely do any real work, they fill their memoirs with subjective impressions that create the impression that they think. But they also do not think. Their only activity as they spread their wings at night is to drain the blood out of banks, especially blood banks, as they proclaim a nationalization of industry. Especially other people's industry.
Surrounded by phalanxes of dupes, they drain nations dry.
It is especially important to realize that we have been ruled by vampyres for most of our history. Nero was a vampyre. Pope Leo was a vampyre. Luther stood up to them, and attempted to put a stop to them. Finally, the Protestants fled to a new land. Madison attempted to outlaw vampyrism. But they came in huge numbers, sensing new opportunities. Lincoln fought a war against them.
Vampyres are immortal and they can change shape and become whatever the public desires. They can speak in bizarre lifeless abstractions like "change" and "hope," realizing that dupes flock to such soulless terms. It is very hard to expose a vampyre to sunlight. They bite back, and they bite hard. But if you succeed in exposing them, they are sucked screaming into nothingness, like nothing so much as a cigarette turning to ashes. Everything a vampyre has ever touched will then turn instantly to ashes, as they die, leaving only a loud chuckle as they got so far on so little.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
1. It's too cold. We have only had one day above freezing this month. Even inside it's cold. If you turn up the heat to the point where you're comfortable, NYSEG (New York state electric & Gas, which has a monopoly) will destroy your budget. Humans are apparently 80% water, and when you feel that you are about to freeze, it's menacing.
2. Obama won. Now the conservatives are the counterculture. Obama even wrote Beatnik poems in his youth. When I was younger, I used to think that if everyone was a Beatnik, the world would be better. Then, just after I change over, they finally get a Beatnik president who's admitted to smoking dope, and trying cocaine, and who thinks love will change the world.
3. I'm reading Barry Miles' book The Beat Hotel, which is about the hotel in Paris where Corso and Burroughs and Ginsberg lived. There are so many depressing details, such as when Burroughs shoots his wife in the forehead apparently because he was depressed about his boyfriend. Even more depressing are the descriptions of bookstores in Paris, and cheap places to eat and read the books. I miss that. And I am baffled by the Beats. Ginsberg says that there is a great big love zone that everyone can tap into, and he doesn't believe in possessive love. Or anything possessive. He shares stuff, and wants to visit the Soviet Union in the 1950s, when Stalin was still in control! The only guy I like better after reading this book is Kerouac. "Kerouac .... was sympathetic to the American far-right and a great supporter of Senator McCarthy. He saw existentialism as a communist plot" (60). That cheered me a little, but in the aggregate, not enough. It's a combination of MISSING PARIS, which I loved, and also, some kind of envy that these guys lived such cool albeit demented lives, but also, wondering what this means, since I couldn't have stood any of their lives for two minutes, and I feel doubly estranged.
4. Delaware County New York does have a Bohemian milieu, but it's spread over hundreds of square miles. There's a good bookstore run by a green couple. And if you go in there, it feels human. The woman is an Episcoplian minister. The man is an atheist. They get along fine. and out back behind the store is an enormous mural which mixes English bohemia of the last five hundred years with local Bohemian characters. My friend Gary Mayer painted it. My child Tristan is in the lower right hand side, stealing a wallet in a Dickensian image (he's stealing the wallet from an overstuffed factory owner with a tophat). Tristan doesn't know why he was pressed into this image, since he says he's never stolen anything, and would never do that. I tried to explain Charles Dickens to him, and the orphans who operated a crime ring in the days when it was thought that "property is theft," so it's ok to steal back.
"What is property?" He asked.
"Legitimate earnings, or trade," I answered, "At least in the main."
"What is legitimate?" He asked.
This went on for twenty minutes, as I tried to get him to think about baseball cards, and how he feels when his little brother appropriates them, until his mother said that there was food on the table.
5. I'm in a trough between writing projects. I just finished a young adult novel, and sent out twenty queries to agents yesterday. I thought it would be snapped up, but so far all the responding agents (two) have said try me again later, I'm swamped. I cannot stand the sales part of writing. I want to be able to work, and sales is not my line of work, but someone has to do this job, and it's either me or no one. I find it amazing that the Beats were so good at this aspect of writing. They hung out in the right circles, and constantly made contacts, and worked at it, even though it was grotesque, and they suffered. Ginsberg was especially effective in this line of the writing business. He kept a sharp eye on the main chance, and never wavered. He never had a family. His family was his gang of poets and novelists.
6. I have had a sore throat for about a week. I thought I had slept it off, but last night it was a little cold in my room, and it came back. It's just the tiniest sore throat, but I am overly sensitive when it comes to illness and pain.
7. Driving in the snow on the rural roads of Delaware County one sees the barren landscape abbreviated only by a barn here and there, and an odd cow or two. The local farmers are turning to a kind of boutique farming where alpacas and llamas, Muskoxen, and exotic varieties of goat and cow are replacing normal American Holsteins. I saw two cows the other day which resembled what I thought were a species of Musk Oxen from the Himalayas. I feel disoriented by the odd shapes, and the strange hairdos, of some of these bovine and equestrian alternatives. If you go on tiny rural roads seldom visited, you are likely to see whole herds of strange buffalo, with a miniature zebra trying to stay warm by staying in the herd. Emus, and other exotic fowl, litter the landscape with ultra-exoticism. The sheep is no longer in the meadow, the cow is no longer in the barn.
What will I do about this feeling of malaise? I will continue to try to function. My daughter has a three-page report due this week. It's her choice of topic. I'm interested to see what she writes. My son has a good friend and he's practicing basketball with him in the College's Bubble. I'm also slogging through a book on algebra. I have another book on geometry lined up. I want to read Whitehead's book on mathematics, and am thinking about Wittgenstein's Remarks on Mathematics. Frege's Introduction to Mathematics is over my head at present. I am also doing an exercise DVD by a brutal body sculptress named Gillian. Twenty minutes in a concentration camp of aerobic murderousness. It's called a Thirty Day Shred.
All the sensible "local" mammals are sleeping under the duvet of snow. The woodchuck is curled up in his den, dreaming of summer cucumbers. The deer must be above ground, but I never see them.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Two nights ago I was watching the National Geographic Channel. It's one of the sites I check when I settle in for my 9-11 pm illuminations, along with Fox News, International Film Channel, the History Channel, and occasionally Turner Classic Movies. I was half-way through a Sudoku puzzle, when I sat bolt upright.
They had a program on called New Methods of Police Interrogation. To my surprise, they had "a popular English professor named Thomas Murray" on the show. He had apparently slaughtered his ex-wife in a custody battle over the children.
When the police found the slaughtered ex-wife (battered and stabbed in her house in Manhattan Kansas), they went to inform the ex-husband (who worked at Kansas State University), and he said he would like to talk to them later as he was busy. This struck the police as odd, and they took him in for questioning. The questioning was filmed, and we saw highlights through a two-way mirror. Murray seemed to already be familiar with the crime scene, citing its bloodiness, and he said that his wife's blood found in his car was due to her having had a nosebleed. During the interrogation, it became obvious that Thomas Murray (a linguist who specialized in the vocabulary of S & M), had abrasions on his hands. The police asked to see his arms, and his wrists and his legs and body were also badly bruised.
Asked how it happened, Murray replied something to the effect, "I had trouble with a pineapple."
I said to myself reflexively, "You should have seen the pineapple."
The jury sentenced him to life in prison with a possibility of parole after 25 years. I googled, and Murray's appeal in June of 2008 before the Kansas Supreme Court failed to overturn the conviction in spite of what Murray's lawyer claimed were procedural irregularities in the first trial.
I looked in Amazon.com for books by Murray. To my relief, Murray was not a literature professor. He seems to have been largely a linguist. His work included a study of the vocabulary of S & M, a study of the various speech patterns in St. Louis, and a book about the morphology of English, as well as a book written with his ex-wife (the woman he apparently murdered for attempting to gain custody of their children), which I can't seem to recall exactly: something about legal vocabulary, perhaps.
Whatever else I think about English professors as a group, I don't think of them generally as psycho-killers. If anything, I think of them as overly idealistic. There are probably at least 200,000 tenured English professors in the country (8000 colleges, if you include community colleges -- with an average of 25 professors in each department?). Out of this huge body of men and women, you'd think that a few of them would commit horrible acts, and I'm not saying that there aren't a percentage of English professors who are capable of this kind of thing, but I think it's probably lower than the carnage committed by members of other professions. Professional boxers, for example, who are used to violence, are probably more often indicted for violent crimes than are English professors. (Someone has probably done a study of arrest-rates for boxers and English professors, but I haven't looked for it.)
But Murray wasn't really an English professor in my estimation. Most English departments separate out the linguists, and have a different department for them. Not because they are necessarily more violent than English professors, but because the work they are doing is probably closer to mathematics (it's based more on close analysis as opposed to broad appreciation), and is therefore substantially different.
My view of the Literature profession is that if anything we are too idealistic (we are committed to ideals by our very nature), too much consumed by one-kingdom visions of the Sermon on the Mount, and the ability of humanity to make a saltation out of our animal origins, spawn wings, and fly about, singing Songs of Innocence out of William Blake.
I'd rather that we get our feet back on the ground, and think about the actual Experience of human nature, and ally ourselves with realists like Locke and Luther, rather than with demented utopians like Marx and Munster. Against the laws of love, there are always people like Thomas Murray. We need to think about them, too, as aspects of humanity, even of our own humanity, to be guarded against.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Taking the name of the Lord in vain is the same as blowing up a village of deaf people for no reason, according to the Gospel.
In law, however, which Luther sets as over and against the Gospel, as the kingdom of the left, we have gradations. Taking the Lord's name in vain is not a capital crime (although it IS in Islam, a capital crime, if the Danish cartoon debacle is any indication), but killing someone else, much less taking out a village of people, is a crime. The first is not punished, the second one is.
In the Gospel, hurting one's own soul in any way is the definition of crime. In law, hurting others is much worse, and especially attacking or in some way destroying their body. If you kill someone, it might not hurt their soul at all. If you take the Lord's name in vain, however, it hurts your soul, but may not hurt your body at all. Therefore, it is not a crime in American law, but it is a sin.
One-kingdom philosophies conflate the two.
Two-kingdom philosophies separate them, and argue that there is an animal existence, in which theft, murder, and libel are worse crimes than thinking badly about your parents, or thinking bad thoughts about God (or even thinking that God doesn't exist).
So in a one-kingdom philosophy, GM's idea that slavery and working at Wal-Mart are more or less the same thing makes sense.
But in two-kingdom philosophy, there is a stronger sense of the gradation between the two, and that slavery is far far worse on a sliding scale, because your liberty and health and time are totally impaired, whereas working at Wal-Mart they are not (you can always quit, it's only eight hours a day, much of which you spend shooting the breeze, you can't be killed or whipped by your boss, and even if there aren't any health benefits, you can still get worker's comp if you drop a case of beer on your feet with the loading truck.
Political correctness is a one-kingdom philosophy. Saying something or thinking something bad about another race or sex is racism, or sexism. In these cases, one might not be physically killed, but one is therefore rejected by the group, and faces a possible social annihilation, whereas shooting someone in the head is not always such a bad thing, because you were raised by mean parents, and you couldn't help what you did. Thinking something, and doing something, are somehow conflated, and the worst crimes are crimes of thought, especially when you think badly about another whole group. But hurting an individual doesn't really matter so much. You didn't really do it. Your upbringing did it.
The sense of gradation of Luther's two kingdoms clarifies our responsibilities to God (which are up to Him to punish) and our separate responsibilities to our neighbors (which are up to the state to punish).
Luther makes sense.
Mostly, everyone else -- doesn't.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
The World of Mathematics is a four-volume set first published in 1956 under the aegis of editor James Newman. In the fourth volume there is a thirteen-page piece which purports to be "A Mathematical Theory of Art," by George David Birkhoff, a math prof who worked at Princeton University.
Birkhoff's work on a mathematical measurement of beauty was first given a public forum in Italy in 1928, and later published in book form (Aesthetic Measure, Cambridge, 1933). The article that appears in Newman's volume, is a shorter piece that was first published in Italy in 1928.
Birkhoff argues that although aesthetics is a matter of intuition and that it is singular, we can nevertheless find general principles that can be reduced to mathematical regularity.
Here is the general theory of aesthetics that Birkhoff proposes:
Aesthetic merit equals complexity divided by order.
M = O/C, in its shortest form, in which M stands for Aesthetic Merit, and O equals order, and C equals complexity.
In general, this formulation seems to derive from Thomas Aquinas' formula (without attribution) which says that beauty is a complex coherence, or a coherent complexity, in which a singularity pervades multiplicity. Examples include the Rose Window at Notre Dame Cathedral, which offers many scenes from the Bible unified by a circular window frame, and a common color scheme.
This formula is one of the ways in which I judge student essays: if there is a strong driving argument that takes many disparate facts and frames them into a new and convincing order, the student stands likely of receiving an A.
But the formula is of course not enough!
A musical composition ranges through a theme that is announced in the first note, and generally returns to that same note at the end, which provides the time-sequence with unity. But we can't just hum the same bar twenty times, as there would not be enough complexity. Birkhoff writes, "...a poem overburdened with alliteration and assonance fatigues by undue repetition..." (2191) [perhaps he was thinking of Charles Swinburne]. "...a musical performance in which a single wrong note is heard is marred by the unnecessary imperfection..." (2191).
Birkhoff admits that art is not purely formal. It means something beyond itself. A perfectly beautiful watercolor, if it happens to be by Adolf Hitler, throws an ugly shadow by dint of what else it means. Birkhoff writes, "In fact the symbols O and C represent social values, and share in the uncertainty common to such values" (2194).
Birkhoff's formulation nevertheless cannot give us a formula for the creation of beauty. It can only help us to understand "after the fact" why something is beautiful. Birkhoff argues that it is the "consensus of opinion" for those who are familiar with some art form, which determines the canon of what is beautiful in that arena. In dog shows, it's dog experts. We may have a quorum therefore of sixteen experts who agree that one specific example of a Scottish Terrier is the most beautiful. However, little Billy next door who has a mangy Scottish Terrier named Sparky, may not agree with the quorum. His unsightly little mutt will no doubt be much more beautiful to him, because of the love with which he regards his (to us) comical cur.
Symmetry is not sufficient to establish beauty. There is also connotation. Formal or geometrical elements of a painting or a dog are one thing in establishing the beautiful. But context is another. If the canine has its teeth lodged in your ankle, or in your baby's ear, it is likely to be regarded with less disinterested contemplation, with less of a view to its formal arrangement, and more of a view to kicking its behind.
"The feeling of 'empathy,' whose importance has been stressed by the psychologist Lipps, contributes to the enhancement of the aesthetic effect. Similarly, actual participation on the part of the percipient, as in the case of singing a tune as well as hearing it, will enhance the effect" 2188). [Singing church hymns definitely does enhance their effect, so this part we may agree with.]
In a church hymn or a piece of music in general, "complexity C will be measured by the number of notes in the melody" (2188). Birkhoff does not describe order so neatly, but I think in this case it would be the structure of the notes, or their composition. The composition should be such that we can sense the overall order (that there IS an order, and that the order is pleasingly complex, and yet still coherent enough that we can recognize that the whole is of a piece).
Look at the following YouTube video with Katy Perry singing Hot and Cold, for a very contemporary example of a song that rises through a series of choruses to make a single unified statement out of a complexity of material:
Katy Perry is a contemporary singer (my daughter who's nine wanted me to see this video as she wants to be a singer, something I'm hoping will pass!). She released a Christian album when she was sixteen (her parents were evangelicals), and has apparently now gone in a more secular direction. Notes of unity: the drumming, the wedding itself, the shoulders bouncing (including that of the little girl's on the right, indicating a certain sisterhood of the females present, the chorus about breaking up (one into many), with the reversal also vying for position, in which the young man and woman move from two (complexity) to one, through the marriage vow, a promise of eternity together, and the men celebrating this, too. When many things form into a pleasing new combination, it's beautiful. That's more or less what Birkhoff is telling us about beauty. But I think his formula could be simplified..
E pluribus unum, might be another way of looking at it. When many things equal one, by virtue of their inner coherence, there is beauty to be found. Another simpler formula, might be
X = 1.
Where X equals anything more than 1, and where the greater the number of original things that go into X still equals one, the more beautiful it is. Looking up at the stars at night (there are trillions), we name them under the appellation, "Stars." This singular term for a multiplicity is the general drift of Birkhoff's idea. Using Occam's razor, I think my formula is simpler and thus more beautiful than his, but I stand on the shoulders of a giant.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
The last was a bit of a surprise. Khe Sanh was an obscure outpost in the northern area of South Vietnam that was hit by a massive attack in 1968 and sustained one shock after another from the North Vietnamese army apparently as a diversion to draw American troops into that lonely quadrant so that the Tet Offensive could then pulverize the real targets which were major cities in the middle and southern areas of the country.
President Obama also said that we had won the wars against fascism "and communism" with our ingenuity, and our patriotism. I guess this means that contrary to what Jerome Corsi, for instance, has written, Obama is not really a communist. In fact, he sees the fight against the communists as part of something good in American history. The war against communism is not really over, but we did beat the Soviet Bloc, and got them to tear down the wall, and free the citizens of Eastern Europe. Red China and Vietnam itself are now going capitalist at least in terms of free enterprise (if not yet in terms of free thought). The only communist bastions remaining are North Korea and Zimbabwe, and Myanmar, and the American University system, and Obama said to them, "If you are holding on to your power with your fist, and trying to suppress dissent, you are on the wrong side of history."
Obama's praise for soldiers, and his scolding words against the communists, made me happy. I came away from the speech thinking he will be fine. He recognizes that we are in a war against communism and other kinds of unfreedom, and he said, we will outlast you, and he praised the obscure and forgotten men and women of America, our own ancestors, who struggled through immense hardship with the communists so that we could be here today.
He also honored George Washington, and George W. Bush. (What does the W. stand for? Is it Washington?)
I am very sad to see George Bush go, but I think the transition of power went smoothly, and that at least Obama isn't a communist.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Against the notion of charity, I pose the notion of being chary.
It's a principle I use in teaching. I never give grades away based on race or gender, or any other factor. Either earn the grade, or forget it. The teacher should be fair, and reward students according to the work they did (irrespective of belief), but should not be biased either for or against any particular student based on criteria that are irrelevant to the knowledge of the subject.
In philosophy, I give tests and the answers are either right or wrong. If there are 25 questions, then each answer counts for four points. I use the scale of 90-100, in which 90-93 is an A-, 94-96 is an A, and 97-100 is an A+. 80s are the Bs, 70s are the Cs, 60s are the Ds.
Anyone who cheats on a test, who can't keep their eyes on their own paper, fails the test, and receives a 0, which ruins averages, and usually eventuates in the student failing the class.
Much much harder to grade are the essays I append to each test, in which I ask for a creative response to a question such as (on the Kierkegaard segment) -- when would you think it's ok to make a teleological suspension of the ethical in favor of the religious realm? (This question is based on the notion of Kierkegaard's that when Abraham goes out to kill his son, it's ok, because he is suspending the ethical, in order to follow the more rigorous demands of the religious realm.)
Part of the difficulty with grading creativity is that you can't quantify the innovative or the original. It's a complex task to do this. But students get points if they write something I haven't seen or thought of before, AND they do it in a rigorous and coherent way. The old formula from St. Thomas Aquinas still holds: beauty is complexity and coherence. If an answer is merely coherent but lacks complexity, it's boring. If it's complex but incoherent, it's annoying, too.
Grades and standards are difficult to establish especially in the humanities. But in the higher realms of mathematics or science there would also be a need to evaluate the creativity of an effort. For instance, a Ph.D. dissertation would have to do something new, and something considered important. How that would be established is hard to say, but I think it would be similar to how we judge a poem or an essay in the humanities.
In Seattle, I had a French teacher who believed that everyone should receive an A because in his belief, "each student is perfect in their own way." This just means that the teacher hasn't established a clear standard, but is letting each student become their own standard. That's charitable, in a sense, but it also means that the students will not know the standards of French, and that when they get to France and their lousy French is incomprehensible to taxi drivers and newstand vendors, their lack of knowledge of the standard will annoy everybody, and they will find out the exact worth of the grade they received: zilch.
Giving freebies throws off the standards, and creates chaos, not only in the system at large, but in each citizen, or each student's, understanding. To be chary is thus to be charitable, in the long run.
The need of each student is what motivates them. They need to get better grades. Take this need away, and you've taken away their motivation, and you've destroyed their chance to master their discipline.
It would be like playing one-on-one with someone but spotting them points. Nature never spots points to anybody. It wipes out those who can't hit the giraffe's equivalent of a jump shot (nibbling leaves?).
Nature always keeps the standards in place, and since we are part of nature, we must, too.
Friday, January 16, 2009
If evil, as St. Augustine said, is the absence of good, then it is a kind of negative. How can two negatives (evils) equal a positive?
"When a bad thing happens to a bad person, it's a good thing," one math professor explained.
So in fact two wrongs can make a right?
Or is the equation an intrusion of the diabolical?
The multiplication of the negative strikes me as doubly negative, on the face of it. I can't seem to get over this.
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Yesterday when I got home there was a letter from an outfit called Aesthetic Realism, founded by Eli Siegel in 1941. Siegel was a poet and philosopher, who thought that people needed to like the world around them, and needed to work at this. That this is what psychology should do. Siegel thought Freud was a fruitcake, who had gotten everything wrong. Freud was a big name in 1941. Siegel's remains tiny. Will his kernels grow? Siegel lived from about 1908-1972 (I can't remember the precise dates!).
Siegel also wrote poems, poems that William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Rexroth (among others) really appreciated. Here's one:
People were wedged
So closely together in the subway
You could take one discouraged person for the other
There is a commentary on this poem by the editor of the newsletter (Ellen Reiss) which says we shouldn't think of all people as the same, or of clumps of people as the same. Each discouraged person is different, and not all are really discouraged in the same way. Some will perk up when there's jazz offered. Others are just tired. Each tomato is different. Every mountain is different. To think about this makes one appreciative of the concrete singularity of our lives.
The website is at
I was rather excited by what little I've read. I haven't written them off yet. Here's the three basic principles:
1. We ought to not only like the world, but should like it on an honest basis!
2. The greatest danger is for someone to have contempt for the world. This means to feel that one is better than someone else, or than the world itself.
3. "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves."
At the website are about a hundred other poems by Mr. Siegel, and also some appreciations by important critics. The newsletter reminds me of the kind of thing I used to pick up in crummy forgotten health food stores in Seattle, which made me feel like I was in on a secret.
He argues that life is about philosophy, and that philosophy is basically aesthetics, and that aesthetics is about the relationship of ourselves to others. So far, so good.
Any objections? Any takers?
The headquarters of Aesthetic Realism is in NYC at 141 Greene Street, and the first Thursday of each month they have speakers at 6:30 pm. Someone should go, and give us a report! Stephen Baraban seems the most likely, and the best placed member of the LS community. Stephen, will you go?
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
1. What is the first poem you ever loved? Why?
I remember it was in 12th grade English class. The teacher was a man named John Meixell. He introduced "Out Upon It!" by the Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling. It was a plea to his girlfriend to put out, since he had already loved her for three days. I thought it was funny, and also sad, a combination, which, like hot fudge with cold ice cream, seemed paradoxical, and wondrous. It was a sunny sultry day in early October, and I was bored, but this poem gave me an inkling of the beauty that words can hold.
2. What is something / someone non-“literary” you read which may surprise your peers / colleagues? Why do you read it / them?
I enjoy reading books about math and science if they are well-written. I just read Natalie Angier's book The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. I read it to learn new things. Poetry and literature are ghettos of political correctness, and I want to learn about the real world. So I rarely read literature or literary criticism any longer. "in a hundredth of a second, a hummingbird can beat its wings once, and it is by the grace of this hyperbolic wing-flinging that these birds can hover like helicopters to sup in midair" (77). This provides me with the kind of wonder that poetry used to provide, but no longer (for the most part) does.
3. How important is philosophy to your writing? Why?
I read philosophy because I have to defend myself against the intrusions of the political into the aesthetic. I read it mainly for that reason. And also to go further in my devotion to the aesthetic. Most philosophers are not beautiful writers, but a few are, especially Bishop Berkeley. I had to read all the French postmodernists in graduate school. They were clodhoppers for the most part, except for Pierre Klossowski. Ok, they were all clodhoppers except for Pierre Klossowski, but the half-retarded denizens of my particular discipline (English literature) are all over those people, so I had to read them to find out what they were about. I have a pretty good understanding of Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Zizek, Cixous, and all the other big names of 15 years ago. In essence, they were fashion-plates who were wrong about absolutely everything, and now they are about as out-of-fashion as Swinburne and Tennyson. There were some non-fashionable French alternatives to these nutcases like Luc Ferry and Raymond Aron, but no one read them except me, but I imagine they still have something sensible and interesting to say.
4. Who are some of your favorite non-Anglo-American writers? Why?
I liked the whole French surrealist movement, but especially the work of Philippe Soupault. I liked the interest in a kind of sad humor. Some of the forerunners, including Henry J.-M. Levet, I have translated for the delectation of American readers (my Levet translations appeared in Jacket a few years back).
There was a nice book by Henry Parland that came out about a year ago from Ugly Duckling Presse. It had this same kind of sad humor that I keep feeling attracted to. Parland was a Swedish Finn who died at age 23 or so back in the twenties. He writes about the strange sexiness of legs, and trains, and clouds over Helsinki.
Rubber does not conduct electrons (T or F?).
5. Do you read a lot of poetry? If so, how important is it to your writing?
I have read a lot of it, but I haven't read all of it. I tend to read humorists. I especially liked Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky of the Beats. For me to really like it, it has to have a certain kind of sadness and it can't be a straightforward account of how the poet is self-righteously correct about something. Nothing makes me more sick. Orlovsky's poem about trying to save an Indian woman leper, but killing her by mistake, is a wonderful poem. It's honest: which is the rarest of things in poetry. He sees her, and has her all clenaedup, and then she dies because all the parasites in her body were keeping her from bleeding to death. It's like a horrible Charlie Chaplin film in which nothing goes right, and the generous poet turns out to be an idiot. In general, I liked the first thought best thought quality of much Beat writing. Now you can't do that. The first thought might be politically incorrect, which would mean it would have to be corrected into something that could pass through the gauntlet of the small-minded zealots. Very little of any interest still passes through that gauntlet. Aside from the Beats I like very little American poetry. I liked Charles Reznikoff, and Marianne Moore. You can't really read Marianne Moore. You have to study her work, but I find it rewarding. No one has actually ever read her work before. I mean, no one. They skim it and put it to use in their sickeningly one-track political agenda. To read means to try to sympathetically understand the way in which the writer was responding to her world. This is almost impossible to do, and takes a very long time. I don't think anybody really reads in that sense any longer.
6. What is something which your peers / colleagues may assume you’ve read but haven’t? Why haven’t you?
Recently, everyone assumed that I had read a poet named Larry Eigner. I thought he was a phenomenon of political correctness, that he was read because he had a disability. It turns out that he had a lot of aesthetic merit irrespective of that, and he is someone I am actually planning to read in further detail.
I've never read much of Robert Creeley, or Robert Duncan, or Robin Blaser, or Gary Snyder. I've read a few hundred pages of each, but liked less than one page per each. I've never really read Philip Roth. I have never read very much of Marcel Proust. I've read two hundred pages and found nothing of value in it. I've read most or all of Milton and only liked two or three lines. Most writing does nothing for me. I read it because I have to do it. Writing that doesn't appeal to me is incredibly extensive. I think I might get through life without ever having read John dos Passos, John O'Hara, or John Cheever.
7. How would you explain what a poem is to a seven year old?
I've tried to do this, but it's like explaining the color yellow to a two year old. It's better just to let them experience it, and let them form their own opinions.
8. Do you believe in a Role for the Poet? If so, how does it differ from the Role of the Citizen?
Poets should be quiet on irritating matters like leftist politics and George Bush or Sean Hannity. We don't care what they think any more than we care what Sean Hannity thinks. Poets' role is to write good poetry. This process is a mystery, like falling in love. You can't just up and do it. It's something that happens to you, like grace, or else it doesn't. The role is something given by God, or else it isn't.
9. Word associations (the first word which comes to mind; be honest):
Lemon : Death
Chiseled : Death
I : Death
Of : Death
Form : Death
I think that the crucial part of the poet is the soul. The body is extra-terrestrial, and astro-physical, or rather, the true body is -- that it can leap between worlds, and speak with the dead, and transmutate into dinosaurs and bolts of lightning, and relive the Mexican-American war from the viewpoint of a flea.
The single body in which I live is something like a holster or an airplane hangar.
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Saturday, January 10, 2009
Let's speculate for a moment that the will to power is all that there is. If that's true, then all moral discussion is actually a vying for power. To a great extent, this is probably the case. But let's hold on to the possibility that there is a transcendent moral reality that we can not only glimpse, but live within. Let's at least leave this as a possibility on the table, while being simultaneously doubtful if anyone ever actually fully embodies that moral reality.
Lutheran author John Updike (he's now an Episcopalian who attends a church in North Boston the last I heard), has a tetrad about Rabbit which is actually a disquisition on the tumblings of the id and the superego from the 60s through the eighties.
In Rabbit, Redux, Updike's Rabbit is shacked up in suburban Reading, Pennsylvania with a cute teenage runaway from a wealthy Episcopalian family, and a Black Panther. It's an orgy, not only of sex, but of politics. All three are at one another's throat (and two men are in the girl's pants) throughout the book. Finally the house burns down and the runaway is burnt to death, while the Panther (who has shot a police officer and is on the lam), and Rabbit himself, live on. I think it's meant to be an illustration of Lincoln's phrase, "a house divided cannot stand."
But it's so much more than that.
At one point the three of them are sitting in the living room, when Skeeter, the Panther, flicks on the tube. This is what we hear:
"... after a five-year exile spent in Communist Cuba, various African states, and Communist China, landed in Detroit today and instantly taken into custody by waiting FBI men. Elsewhere on the racial front, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights sharply charged that the Nixon Administration had made quote a major retreat unquote pertaining to school integration in the southern states. In Fayette Mississippi three white Klansmen were arrested for the attempted bombing of the supermarket owned by newly elected black mayor of Fayette, Charles Evers, brother of the slain civil rights leader. In New York City Episcopal spokesmen declined to defend further their controversial decision to grant two hundred thousand dollars toward black church leader James Forman's [Foreman, I think, sic] demand of five hundred million dollars in quote reparations unquote fromthe Christian churches in America for quote three centuries of indignity and exploitation unquote. In Hartford Connecticut and Camden New Jersey an uneasy peace prevails after last week's disturbances within the black communities of these cities..." (p. 195, Rabbit Redux, published in 1971, republished by Ballantine in 1991).
Now let's argue that the Episcopalians, who were the driving force in the southern Confederacy (their leader Jefferson Davis and their top general, Robert E. Lee, were both Episcopalians, and many of the top generals and leading financial contributors to the war effort were Episcopalians) are now not really apologizing for their actions in the centuries of slavery as trying to buy their way into the new power structure by committing a little money to buying a good name (much like Exxon's commercials on PBS), and thus arguing that they are good, and thus entitled to resume their supremacy in American affairs.
Defeated in the Civil War, they change tack, and now sail with the prevailing wind, in order to re-establish their credentials, in a kind of if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, move, which allows the Episcopalians to save face, and get on with the task of ruling America (one-fourth of America's presidents have been Episcopalian, even though they are one of the smallest denominations).
Meanwhile, Eldridge Cleaver, who is the subject of the opening sentence of Updike's newscast, also changed stripes. In his case he changed from an angry communist radical to a Republican, and in his last few years actually ran for office as a Republican.
Going along to get along, and, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Who knows but that all the tacking about isn't just will to power, very faintly disguised. So, perhaps Neitzsche is right not only about his Lutheran forebears, but also about the underlying true motivations of our contemporaries.
A Catholic, E. Michael Jones, in his book The Slaughter of Cities: Urban Renewal as Ethnic Cleansing (St. Augustine's Press, 2003), argues that it was invariably the Episcopalians who slammed through housing projects in the 1960s and 1970s, intentionally placing housing projects in Catholic neighborhoods. Threatened by the rising power of Catholics as Italian and Irish immigrants began to catch up, they decided to destroy Catholic enclaves in Detroit, Philadelphia, and Chicago, in particular, by thrusting black housing projects into their well-functioning neighborhoods in order to destroy them. Episcopalian leaders argued that this was just their good intentions in action, but E. Michael Jones saw something sinister behind it. It was in fact will-to-power, ever-present, and perhaps not even known to those pursuing their sick agenda of using those on the bottom to destroy those who were about to catch up to them.
Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity on FoxNews are two of the Catholics who survived the onslaught and kept their viewpoint against the secularizing Episcopalian blitzkrieg.
Updike, himself a Lutheran, writes from the perspective of those who were catching up, too, but out in the boonies of Eastern Pennsylvania (where I am from). His parents were schoolteachers (like mine), but he got into Harvard, and from that vantage-point leap-frogged into the New Yorker, and built his career out of the connections he made, but never completely forgot his upbringing, or the perspective of the little Lutheran communities of Shillington, Pennsylvania, and their war with the Episcopalian communities who were well-heeled and looked down on the Lutherans. Updike's Rabbit marries into an Episcopalian family, and this is both his good fortune (he inherits a car dealership), and his undoing -- the family is morally depraved and self-righteous simultaneously, rapid waters that he can't negotiate and into which he ultimately sinks.
One would like there to be more than will-to-power, based on Schopenhauer's notion of the ID. Maybe something like a communal super-ego, as articulated by the ten commandments, can be not only understood, but lived, by individuals. But how is one ever sure which is which? Demands for reparations might be simply will-to-power. Denials of them might be the same thing.
I looked up James Dew, who has recently starting posting in the comments box. Perry's blog (he recently touched in here and provided wonderful conversation about the slave trade and reparations) and he's linked with a new project out on PBS called TRACES OF THE TRADE, about a Bristol slave-trading family and their Episcopalian war-machine and how they have guilt about it. Here's more:
The Episcopalian war-machine is the most secretive of all dominant rivalries within America. They came from England as an upper-class church, and never quite melted into the equality that America promised. They preserved hegemony. It's now psychological war, but it is going in any and every direction, and is severed in its unity. Episcopalians were always a broad church, creating an enormous strength, but it became divided from within over reparations, over the Civil War legacy, and now over gay ordination. They were a red-state group but they are now in the process of switching sides to blue.
They are still capable of winning and tilting elections, and tilting American discourse. It's no accident that more than a quarter of our presidents have come from their ranks.
Is it possible for people to have a conscience or not? I hope that it is. But I am also wary of those who pretend to have a conscience, because the will to power can sneakily dress up as a superego and announce how it bleeds for the world's poor, only in order to garner further power. Look at the Kennedys, or the Clintons. You'd have to be blind not to see the will to power in their colossal ambition. But are they different from Mafia clans? I think they are qualitatively superior to some degree.
Are there some, like the Amish, who even more fully divest themselves of the will to power? The Amish are a very powerful clan, and very wealthy. but they are also hard-working and it is their work ethic that you have to admire.
Lutheran Rabbit tells Marxist Skeeter, the Panther, "Stop begging for a free ride -- we all got here on a bad boat" (204).
And yet, some of the churches did sanction slavery, and in Updike's newscast, there were Klansmen who attempted to destroy the rising black will-to-power in the deep south. Some denominations stood with the wealthy southerners in their attempt to preserve the slave trade. This was clearly a case in which the ID used the face of the superego to advance its own will.
The growing Marxist analysis of the Presbyterians and Episcopalians have now formed common cause with the under-classes, but is it only to preserve their hegemony from Lutheran and Catholics, who are now steadily making inroads into universities, and other higher institutions? (Catholics have about 35% of the electorate, but have only had one president, who was promptly shot. His brother was also shot. Lutherans have never had a president.)
The housing projects of the Episcopalians (into which they threw all kinds of money via Saul Alinsky's outfits, in which President Obama got his start) -- was it really an attempt to rectify their alignment with God, or was it an attempt to further destroy Catholic communities and other rising members of the middle-class?
The universal will to exterminate rivals is borne in our blood and bones.
Faction is the basis of Democracy, and at the basis of faction is will to power.
Is political correctness a head fake, as the politically correct head toward the hoop?
Ask Darwin, Ask Neitzsche.
Thursday, January 08, 2009
Every once in a while the legal notion that one entire group should pay reparations to another entire group surfaces. America paid the Japanese-Americans interned during World War II. I don't know how much each got, but it seems to have set a precedent. It wasn't something a court demanded, but something Congress decided, or so I seem to recall.
Based on that, African Americans, or some of them, would like reparations for the slavery of their ancestors. 400 years of back pay!
With the Japanese Americans, the checks went directly to people who had lived through the internment camps.
If there is a legal precedent established in which wrongs that happened before our actual life began and that would have to be remediated with financial redress, I think it would be a good idea for everybody to sue everybody, and see what happens. One of the neatest things is that there would be a whole new business in family trees, which can be interesting things in themselves. Old crimes for example in which your great-grandfather was jumped on the streets of Oslo by a travelling salesman from Sweden would have to be paid for with Swedish money.
The Irish could sue the British for how they behaved during the potato famine.
The Spanish could sue the British for sinking the Armada.
The British could sue America for leaving the fold without paying for all the investments of British citizens in the colonies.
Anabaptists could sue Lutherans for slaughtering them. Lutherans could sue Anabaptists for the same reason.
Norwegians could sue the Danes for centuries of captivity.
Jews could sue just about everybody.
Palestinians could sue Jews.
Catholic countries could sue the Vatican for colonizing them.
We should set up a world court, and get this going. It might be good for the economy, and keep the lawyers occupied, and keep money changing hands.
Everybody was once a sub-altern of some kind and their wounds and grievances need to be redressed, in perpetuity.
Justice itself hangs in the balance!
Those darned Hittites! None of them are even left. Let's do DNA research to see if we can find their remnants. Somebody must pay for what they did at... I just looked it up and it seems they destroyed one another in a fratricidal war. My compassion is so great that I bleed for all factions of the Hittite empire...
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
I woke up at four am last night in a cold sweat. I was dreaming that I was in a Thai restaurant in Brooklyn, looking into a bowl holding a single Siamese fighting fish (blue). The waiter was bringing me my entree, and it suddenly occurred to me that HE was a Siamese fighting fish. In fact, all the diners were Siamese fighting fish. I looked out the window and I was looking into yet another bowl. The street was full of Siamese fighting fish. I was afraid to look in a mirror.
I had been chatting with a couple at the table next to mine about the best way to get to JFK airport from there, when suddenly I realized that they were both -- you guessed it -- siamese fighting fish! I was horrified at the way their gills worked. And the unblinking eyes! And I noticed too the similarity to roosters. That the crest of a rooster is like the flowing dorsal fin of a Siamese fighting fish.
At any rate, I woke up with my eyes the size of silver dollars. I couldn't get back to sleep for two hours. I was certain that I had stumbled on to an amazing truth: people are in fact Siamese fighting fish who have somehow managed to dissemble this fact by pretending to be human. I wanted to wake up my wife and tell her my discovery, but at 4 am I decided to let her sleep. Perhaps my discovery wasn't valid.
Now it is well on into the next day, and I am having quite a laugh over my nightmare and my "sudden realization."
What caused this nightmare? I can't say. Perhaps it's been the violent nature of the blog comments over the last month or three. Or the trenchant nature of the election. Or maybe it's true: maybe people are really Siamese fighting fish, and I am just the first one to notice this.
Is it true?
Sunday, January 04, 2009
By the third persimmon, I can't eat any more.
By the second glass of cranberry juice, I can't go any further.
Riding a bicycle backwards in snow seems like a dumb idea right off.
The ethanol craze didn't work out, and it seems over.
Even for those who voted for him, how long will Obama hold out hope?
One thing I don't get tired of is the coffee substitute CAFIX. A couple of years ago they discontinued Postum and I've been in a terrible state trying all kinds of things: Roastaroma (a sickening tea), and various decaf coffees (which burned my stomach lining), and many others. But Cafix hits the spot.
It's strange to me. I was going through the cereal aisle at K-Mart in Albany yesterday and telling my kids that all the cereals on the shelves were cereals on the shelves when I was a kid. There was Life, Wheaties, GrapeNuts, WheatChex, and about twenty others, including my personal favorite, Quaker Oatmeal. The only new cereal on the shelf was something called Start Smart, a healthy cereal for people with heart trouble. All the others have been there on the shelf since I was a child. Only the prices have changed.
We wandered down the candy aisle and all the candies were the same, too. Mars Bars, Snickers, Milky Way, M & Ms, red and black licorice packs. The only candy that's come up fresh and seems to have staying power is Skittles. I rather like Skittles, too. But it seems to me that most things stay the same. They are pretty good, and I guess we don't get tired of them.
Persimmons and cranberry juice you do get tired of. Persimmons are big in Asian poetry. But they are fairly odd. They make your mouth pucker, and seem off, somewhat. But Asian aesthetics tends toward the slightly off, I guess.
I loved Postum, which was always right on the button. Day after day after day I drank it for thirty years and then it suddenly went off the market. For a year or more I wandered in the wilderness, asking grocery store managers what they had, and trying them. Everything I tried made me yearn for the old days of Postum. But now there's a timely new drink: Cafix!
I may blog more about it later and try to reveal the tiny taste difference between it and Postum. But I'm sorry to say I no longer really remember the difference since Cafix has so completely effaced Postum. The granules of Cafix appear to be somewhat larger. And when you twirled Postum with a spoon, there was a creamy broth on the surface. Cafix doesn't quite have that creamy broth, or do I mean to say froth, on the surface.
It's made in Poland, and is distributed by some company in Paramus, NJ. I found it in a tiny grocery store called Good Cheap Food, right here in Delhi. I was complaining to Velga, the manager, and she went into the back and came out with it. She says she uses it. I rather like it. It's about 7 dollars a jar. It'll more than do. If Postum were to come back, I'd probably return out of brand loyalty, but I don't really miss it right now. It's not like there's any longer a hole in my life.
I asked the manager at Wal-Mart if he'd be willing to stock it, and he said that it was not on their item chart, or something. So he can't get it. I also asked at the local Price Chopper. They said to forget it. That it wasn't in their inventory.
So it might be a little hard to find. But if you find it, it's the ANSWER to the Postum problem. I bought seven jars, just in case Velga runs out, or decides not to order any more of it. If you liked Postum, and are suffering in its absence, try CAFIX!
The only thing I worry about is that it's made in Poland. Thanks to the communists, a lot of Poland had significant environmental problems, and they weren't too far from Chernobyl, another communist environmental gaffe. But beggars can't be choosers. I'll drink this stuff even if I glow like a night light, until the Second Coming of Postum, if it ever really does return. And maybe by then I will simply have made the switch in terms of product loyalty anyhow.
Saturday, January 03, 2009
He is going to judge it single-handedly. He doesn't believe in democracy of taste or something.
Which is fine with me. I like his taste.
Let's see what he chooses.
If I am the only entrant, perhaps I will finally win a poetry contest!