Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Drug Report for Late October 2012: Americans for Safe Access vs. DEA

This case, in which the three-judge U.S. Court of Appeals, DC Circuit, began hearing oral arguments 15 days ago, as I write this. The decision is not expected for "months." Many of you are all over this stuff, but the basic deal is this: Unistat's federal government "schedules" all drugs. A Schedule One drug has "no currently accepted medical use," has a supposedly "high potential for abuse," has "no currently accepted medical use in treatment" in Unistat, and some Authorities at some point decided a Schedule One drug fails to meet accepted safety guidelines for people while under medical supervision.

These are the Banished of the Banned drugs. You have to go through extraordinary measures to try to get permission to study these drugs, even if you have the PhD or MD degree.

Ecstasy is Schedule One (in my learned opinion, it should not be, not even close).

Heroin is Schedule One (this is maybe the only drug on Schedule One that I think someone could make a somewhat plausible argument that it fits all the criteria above, although I find the idea of Schedule One drugs - which means the government, with very, very rare exceptions - will not allow any scientists to do research with the drug, which I find contrary to the spirit of scientific inquiry in general).

LSD is Schedule One (although, increasingly, since around 1995, scientists have gotten permission to do studies and have found some profoundly human uses for the drug, particularly with the terminally ill; LSD should be studied much more, in my opinion).

Cannabis is Schedule One also. Yes, that's right: the Federal Unistat government has classified marijuana as on par with heroin and LSD. "No currently accepted medical use."

Americans for Safe Access (ASA) thinks it has a welter of new scientific data to present to the court. The history of sane people trying to get the government to reschedule the drug to Two, Three, or Four, is long and evermore maddening the more you read it. Since 1972 people on the side of Sanity (I admit my blatant bias here) have tried to get pot rescheduled under the Controlled Substances Act, only to be kept waiting for decades (I'm not exaggerating here), only to be summarily dismissed by the DEA.

IF...if the Court says the DEA dismissed the arguments from previous petitioners for frivolous reasons, the Court could find that Cannabis be rescheduled to something like...well, how about Schedule Three? Among the drugs on that level: Marinol, which has as its active ingredient THC, perhaps the main molecule that gets you high in Cannabis! Why is Marinol Schedule Three while Cannabis is Schedule One? Welcome to the Profound Idiocy and All-Out Fascist Meanness of the DEA!

Anyway, a rescheduling by the Feds would relax the Gestapo-like tactics, which have gone on at least since the time of Nixon, but really stepped up and never really let down, from Ronald Reagan to Obama. The States that voted to allow medical pot would probably not be subjected to the Inhuman tactics by the Cop/Prison Industrial Complex.

I'll link to a bunch of articles that discuss this potentially liberating moment for our future; I confess I see people like DEA head Michele Leonhart and the DEA's lawyer arguing against its rescheduling, Lena Watkins, as on the side of Neverending Human Misery in Many Forms. Anyone else working to lessen Prohibition of these magical flowers is, to me, on the Side of the Angels. More classic proponents of Neverending Human Misery in Many Forms are named in this article, in which DEA folk and Drug Czars warn that, if cannabis decriminalization bills are passed by voters in a number os states, the purveyors of Neverending Human Misery in Many Forms will crack down hard.

Because I do not consider Unistat much of a Free Society anymore, I have grown hardened soul-skin; I cannot get my hopes up that the Appeals Court will do the sane thing. But I do confess that, like a prisoner unjustly locked up who thinks someone outside will find evidence that they did not commit the crime and they can finally go free: I catch myself hoping.

For an enlightening microcosm of this whole story, listen to a 21 minute clip from Ira Flatow's NPR Talk of the Nation's "Science Friday" show, in which, just a week or so before the hearings got underway, two experts - Dr. Bertha Madras (For Neverending Human Misery) and Dr. Donald Abrams (Side of the Angels), debate the topic: HERE.

I hope you all have (or had) a sexy, cell-gladdening Halloween!

Articles about the hearings:
Marijuana Scheduling Case Heard By US Appeals Court
US Court of Appeals Hears Arguments to Reschedule Cannabis
Appeals Court To Review DEA's Dismissal of Cannabis Rescheduling Petition
Summary of Oral Arguments in Federal Cannabis Rescheduling Case
Here's the best thing I've seen yet:
Powerful Court Quietly Takes Marijuana Case That Could Shatter Federal Prohibition Laws, by Steven Wishnia, one of our best writers on the War On Certain People Who Use Certain Drugs

Friday, October 26, 2012

Writing and Style: The Long, Meandering Sentence

The other day I was watching Jeopardy! (I know, I know, I'm some sorta geezer and this disclosure no doubt damages my Cool Cred, but WTF).(<---a bit of ironic foreshadowing!)

Anyway, HERE's the board I was looking at. Look at the category, "Send Me A Text." From the context, I got the first three, but didn't get the $800 or the $1000 ones. (Did you? I have sent precisely three texts in my entire life, and zero in the past two years. Kids 12-15 send 193 text messages per week, with girls sending more than boys.)

Which sent me, later that evening, to online dictionaries of Text-Speak.

Quite the cornucopia of knowledge I'll probably never use, but still: interesting: HERE.

                                    William Faulkner, Nobel Prize for Literature, hear
                                    his acceptance speech HERE.

Robert Anton Wilson, when talking about his style, often pointed out Joyce and Pound as influences. When he mentioned Faulkner, it was usually in the context of Faulkner's long, hypnotic sentences, sentences that start out telling you about a idea or person or something in the environment, then meandered around corners, banking off of the qualities of light and what that made a character think of, and that time when the town was faced with a crisis, and how they handled it, people around Faulkner's  Yoknapatawpha having seen quite a bit in their time, or at least thinking they did. Wilson wanted his own long sentences to "swing" just so.

And I've long marveled at long sentences and what they can do to my consciousness. Those of you who enjoy the sentence of clauses upon clauses: do you feel like we're a dying breed?

McLuhan might've said - maybe he did write - that with the ubiquity of SMSs (short messaging systems), it might eventually place long, literary sentences into relief: because of loudmouths on talk radio and their short sentences, with shouting pundit-heads on TV "news," all of this in the context of here and now robotic short declarative "news" bites, sound-bites, texts, tweets, etc: we might suddenly notice the long sentence as the marvelous thing it represents.

What does it represent?

                                  Pico Iyer. I became hooked with Video Night In 
                                  Kathmandu, then read The Global Soul, then The 
                                  Lady and the Monk. See his books HERE.

One of the most literary and cosmopolitan writers we have, Pico Iyer - my favorite travel writer, ever - not long ago penned a short essay on why he writes long sentences. He does it as "a small protest" against "the bombardment of the moment."

Iyer's wonderful essay is HERE.

He says we have a surfeit of information, but "what we crave is something that will free us from the overcrowded moment and allow us to see it in the larger light." All well and good, but what does the long, Faulkneresque sentence do?

For Pico Iyer, "The long sentence is how we begin to free ourselves from the machine-like world of bullet-points and the inhumanity of ballot-box yeas and nays." Now we're getting somewhere...

The extended sentence, swoop-swerving on the page, signifies the complexities of our minds in a world in which, as Pico says, for shouting heads on TV, "Qualification or subtlety is an assault on their integrity." It seems like some sort of weapon of defense, this expansive sentence.

He also asserts - and I agree - that the long sentence, when we hang with it intently, as it seemingly tries to throw us with its subclauses acting on prior clauses, abrupt shifts or languid turns...we are allowed access to the depth and mysteries of our own minds. Long sentences have invasive qualities. They seem a close cousin to the instrumental solo, especially in jazz. They demand a relatively brief period of zen-like attention, and maybe that's enough to accomplish their ability to change our state of consciousness to something more in-tuned? Aye, I will say something that Pico did not say: the long sentence is a brief escape into a micro but finite province of meaning: it's mind-altering, it's like having passionate sex on your coffee break. Instead of coffee. It's like getting stoned. Sorta.

The long sentence militates against everything fast and easy and short in our world; it wants to save us from what we're in peril of losing: the subtle self-questioning of the live mind. The long sentence is a chance for passionate engagement with the world, and integrity's "greatest adornment."

Pico cites Rushdie and DeLillo, Proust and Pamuk, Philip Roth and Sir Thomas Browne, Annie Dillard and Alan Hollinghurst. And someone I've been reading lately, Thomas Pynchon:

"I cherish Thomas Pynchon's prose (in Mason & Dixon, say), not just because it's beautiful, but because his long, impeccable sentences take me, with each clause, further from the normal and predictable, and deeper into dimensions I hadn't dared to contemplate."

I'm re-reading Pynchon's Inherent Vice right now. It's a novel filled with Los Angeles detective tropes, paranoia, drugs, music, crazy characters, and humor. The book is set in LA, very early 1970. And on page 13 Pynchon delivers a long sentence, a genius of image-projection upon the reader's mind (what Ezra Pound called phanopoeia), which, well, just read for yourself. The private detective in the novel - named "Doc" -  has an office next to a Dr. Buddy Tubeside, whose practice consists almost entirely of giving people shots of "Vitamin B12," which was a euphemism for methamphetamine. (B12 is a real vitamin - it prevents anemia - but it always helps to have a euphemism for a populace paranoid of the Drug User.) This is a historical fact: doctors in the 1950s through about the mid-1970s, would see middle-class patients - often housewives - who felt uninspired in their dreary housework, they had little nagging pains, they felt "blah." Doctors could give a shot and do the trick every time! How meth has changed over the years, eh?

Anyway, here's Pynchon:

"Today, early as it was, Doc still had to edge his way past a line of 'B12' -deficient customers which already stretched back to the parking lot, beachtown housewives of a certain melancholy index, actors with casting calls to show up at, deeply tanned geezers looking ahead to an active day of schmoozing in the sun, stewardii just in off some high-stress red-eye, even a few legit cases of pernicious anemia or vegetarian pregnancy, all shuffling along half-asleep, chain-smoking, talking to themselves, sliding one-by-one into the lobby of the little cinder-block building through a turnstile, next to which, holding a clipboard and checking them in, stood Petunia Leeway, a stunner in a starched cap and micro-length medical outfit, not so much an actual nurse uniform as a lascivious commentary on one, which Dr. Tubeside claimed to've bought a truckload of from Frederick's of Hollywood, in variety of fashion pastels, today's being aqua, at close to wholesale."

Do you not only get a picture here, but a snapshot of a historical moment, with ideas about how we negotiate drugs and permissibility, how we frame addiction, how things change, how sex can go with drugs, people will always just want to feel good, etc? I do. And "beachtown housewives of a certain melancholy index" just kills me. O! To write a phrase like that! What about "stewardii"? And "lascivious commentary" on the nurse uniform.

It's Things like this that keep me reading, ladies and germs. It's sentences like that that give me a contact high.

                                    One of the only photos of the extremely enigmatic 
                                    Pynchon, born in 1937. When he's been labeled 
                                    "reclusive" he shoots back with something like 
                                    "You mean I'm not media-friendly?" 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Voting For Unistat President: Maybe I'll Stay Home

It's more like who to vote against. I was dumb enough, naive enough,  to think that, in 2008, I was finally voting for someone I'd actually like, who might at least somewhat represent my values. I had never before gone into the voting booth to vote for someone because I actually sorta liked them. In 2008 I did, I'm embarrassed to say. My guy won, and he's been a crushing disappointment.

So, in less than two weeks, our big national Dog and Pony Show crests (finally!), after $1,000,000,000 has been spent by plutocrats and kleptocrats and fascists of various persuasion, in hopes of a more favorable showing for their money...or property. Whatever.

Obama, who our version of the Taliban (shown on Fox "News") has been trying to convince its viewers that Obama hates white people, that he's a communist, a secret muslim who wants to take our guns and magically install sharia law, who's a crypto-nazi, like "Stalin without the bloodshed" (the actual words of one of our TV idiots on Fox "News") - I'm not making ANYTHING up here, folks who are reading this from outside Unistat - that Obama is all of the above (somehow) and an East Coast liberal elitist who thinks he's so great because he taught at Harvard Law. (On what planet can such a "reality" be possible?)

Yep: Obama, according to the loudest and dumbest in our media, is a latte-drinking radical muslim who is like Stalin and Hitler, and he hates white people. He wants to take away our guns, force everyone to ride bicycles because he's a radical environmentalist too! He wants Sharia Law and will make all our children eat organic vegetables because he thinks he's so smart.

Enough with the Idiot Rundown...

Instead, the reality: Obama's a tool of Wall Street. He filled his cabinet with banksters and the very people who presided over the looting of the country. Obama believes in deregulation, even though he'll pay lip service to regulation when he's talking to his pie-eyed liberal cohort. Torture has been effectively decriminalized under our Barackstar. I find this endlessly shameful. But not as much as the unmitigated shame of his continuance of Bush Administration policies of not only torture, but indefinite detention without trial,his prosecution and persecution of whistleblowers - under the Espionage Act! - which is more than all previous Presidents combined.

And Obama's El Drone Assassino Numero Uno. (Yea, like that doesn't invite what the CIA calls "blowback"! Noooooo.)

Oh, but he gave us healthcare!, you say. You mean he did everything he could to not have single-payer, the only sane system in the world. The insurance companies privately love him, but most of them back the other guy anyway.

Obama hasn't done much of anything, nor has he said anything, about the rise of poverty and decline of the middle class. He was stupid enough (that is, if he actually wanted to be FDR, which I now no longer believe) to try to reach compromise with a Republican Congress that is so far right-wing that they openly told the American public that their number one goal is to make Obama a one-term President...and this was within a week of his election! The country was heading into a Depression like 1930, people were suffering, they were afraid, and these criminal Republicans didn't care: the billionaire fascists that elected them didn't care. But I guess enough people watched the corporate TV news enough to make it all seem legit.

[Am I ranting enough?]

                                                 Danny Schecter, one of my guys

So I read 200 articles by thinkers I admire, who more or less share my values, trying to triangulate, to figure out how or what to do in this upcoming election. Danny Schecter says this election starkly illuminates the overwhelming presence of the one-percenters; we really don't have anyone to vote for. Green Party candidate Jill Stein was arrested for protesting that she wasn't allowed into the Presidential Debates, which are so obviously FIXED, and yet no one in the corporate media will admit that, much less make it a real issue.

More interestingly, Norman Pollack, who admits he'll stay home on election day, argues that at least Romney and Ryan are openly Neanderthal-ish (which I find unfair to the Neanderthals); Pollack is bristling with disgust over the polished bullshit that Obama represents, and at one point Pollack asks, how much worse can Romney/Ryan be? Maybe they'll crack down on same-sex marriage and make contraceptives harder to obtain, but at least they're relatively transparent.

Okay: my whole adult life I've had anarchist friends, educated to the nines, they'd read everything and they made variations on this argument Pollack makes in "America: On the Cusp of Fascism" (skip down below the plea for money). What they really mean is: things are bad and horrible people are in power. Vote for the worst person, so that things get so bad there will be no choice among the populace but to openly take to the streets and make real change, as history has taught us.

Not only have I not read history quite that way, I've always had to argue, "Yea, you have enough material comfort and safety it's easy for you to say. Who will do your killing for you? Are you willing to shoot it our with a hundred-thousand SWAT dudes?" And not to mention the brazen indifference to the increased suffering of the already underprivileged. But at least it works with your Theory of History...This sort of emotional blankness toward the already-suffering reminds me of my problem with the so-called "right" Libertarians. We have a values disconnect.


                                    Daniel Ellsberg. Kids: if you don't know who he is, 
                                    do some research on his life! There is much wisdom 
                                     to be had in looking into the traverse of his story.

I guess Daniel Ellsberg (and Noam Chomsky) make about the most sense to me: yes, Obama is bad, but Romney/Ryan will be far worse. There really does seem to be a difference that guys like Schecter and Pollack don't point out: Romney and Ryan will be the same or worse as Obama on every thing I indicted Obama for above, but they seem to want to attack Iran, the economy would probably be worse, women's reproductive rights, health care, the safety net (what little there is of it) would all be worse under these assholes. And I really do think both of them are classic white rich-guy, wealth-worshipping-above-all 8x10 glossy assholes, with zero empathy for anyone else's suffering. Not to mention they're both astounding intellectual lightweights.

Oh and under Romney/Ryan: they'd be worse on climate change, green energy, and the environment in  general.

And last, but certainly not least: do we want Obama or Romney to choose who gets on the Supreme Court? (Actually this seems - maybe - like the best reason to vote Obama.)

But I'm still not sure. Ellsberg makes maybe the best case I've seen. And yet I'm still not convinced. In fact, the action of vengeance (which I think Obama knows a lot about; I'm not a big fan of Saletan, but he makes an interesting point here, methinks) is something that might down Obama nonetheless.

In 2008, I didn't expect much of him. Bush/Cheney had done almost irreparable harm to the economy. But I did think one egregious injustice - marijuana prohibition - could be effectively dealt with. And Obama said pot was very low priority. But for whatever reason, he's gone back on his promise to not fight the war on pot. And for that, I may withhold my vote. Because I'm vengeful enough, I guess. I know my state - California - is going for Obama. Withholding my vote for him would be symbolic, it would mean something on some other level (possibly even less significant, if you can imagine some quark-sized entity).

But then I remain haunted with complicity because I did a "protest" vote for Nader in 2000, possibly helping in the argument that allowed W. to steal the damned thing; I was assuming Gore, his evil among the Two Lessers, would win...

                                   2012 Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, who's my 
                                   idea of a sane Republican, but because that party
                                   has apparently outlawed sanity, he jumped parties.
                                    I believe him when he talks with disdain about both
                                       Obama and Romney.

David Sirota has a very interesting idea that the state of Colorado and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson make a "perfect storm" for defeating Obama, and it's because there are enough cannabis-toking civil libertarians who have HAD IT with this shit. I know I have. And perhaps "vengeance" is too strong a word for a peacenik like myself. Let us call it spite.

We shall see if Gov. Johnson siphons off enough angry stoners' votes in Colorado to change history and petard-hoist Obama. Hey Barack: you think you can get away with being one of the biggest hypocrites in history? We might have a say. (I'm suddenly feeling like I might show up and write in "Robert Anton Wilson.")

Meanwhile, I will make a prediction about the US election that I feel is 100% accurate: rich people will win.

                                               Dr. Jill Stein, Green Party candidate
                                               In a halfway sane world, she'd be 
                                                 electable. She's my choice, stands
                                                     no chance.

Friday, October 19, 2012

My Weird Jewish Pangs: A Divulgence

I don't know when it started, but it definitely recurs. Something will trigger it. I'll read something particularly brilliant, and quite often: yep. There it is: a Jewish name attached. I think it all first started for me when I was around 13. My last name? Johnson.

I was one of those introverted, bookish kids. Deep in WASPy Los Angeles suburbia. I don't recall ever knowing a Jewish person; that is, I somehow didn't know what "jewish" meant. I'd heard the word, but it was a cipher. I always had one best friend as a kid, and we spent all our time together. When I was 13, my best friend was a kid that got the best grades in math, and he also broke the school record for the  mile run. I think his background was British, by way of North Carolina. We were both bookish in our own ways. We had other friends, too.

                                                           Woody Allen 

My mom thought we'd like a new movie - new to us, because at the time our little burgh filled with white flighters didn't have its own movie theater - and my mom had to drive my pal and I to an adjacent town to see the second run of a film called Take The Money and Run. I remember we laughed through the whole thing, then stayed and watched it again. As I remember it, we were the only people under 30 in the theater. It felt that way. Back then, if you paid once and you wanted to see the film again, you just remained in your seat and waited for another showing. They didn't chase you out. Anyway, at 13, all I knew was this Woody Allen guy was a genius.

Later, I developed quite a taste for Allen's books and films. As I slowly pieced together for myself ideas of "Jews" - reading the OT on my own, trying to figure out Israel and Palestine, tracing that history, I kept running into writings and ideas that I found endlessly interesting, and almost always some Jew was at the center of it all.

Now: my people are from Norway, Scotland, England, Sweden. But on the West Coast of Unistat, in the last third of the 20th century, in the suburbs of LA, I had no religion. I grew up with no tradition. My mother had been active in the League of Women Voters and was a JFK Democrat. I don't remember my father talking about intellectual ideas at all. He wasn't religious but he was good at sales and had very many friends because he was a master joke-teller and genuinely loved people. He was the life of the party.

How did I become so bookish? Around age 20 or so, I remember I sort of thought I was sort of...jewish. But how incredibly not Jewish I was! My ancestors were not hounded all over he globe and  subject to pogroms.

                                          Franz Kafka, prophet of absurd State power

Well, growing up an introverted asthmatic kid, in suburbia, with long hair and guitar, not Protestant, not wealthy, with an anxious mother who passed that on to me...I escaped into books and other worlds, other ideas. This was a world inordinately influenced by Jews, an influence far above their numbers relative to the larger population.

So: being alienated and persecuted for looking like a dirtbag pothead rock and roller in a small, smoggy white town overwhelmingly clean-cut, Republican and WASPy was one aspect. My bookishness ("Why do you...read books?," I distinctly remember a fellow band-member ask me) was another. The asthma and anxiety was probably another ingredient. Anyway, I most definitely felt (and still to this day feel) as The Other...without any of the Holocaust-y stuff bagged in there.

And by my late teens I had become steeped in Jewish humorists and had become interested in ideas by people like Spinoza, Marx, Freud, Einstein, and later, Chomsky. I had practically memorized Groucho's lines from Duck Soup. 

[It occurs to me my blog entries on "Favored Hungarians" can double as "More Jews That I've Found Fascinating."]

I recently became acquainted with a writer friend's friend, a San Francisco writer named Chaim Bertman, roughly my age. He was housesitting for my friend and I went over to check on him and we talked rapid-fire about odd ideas for a solid hour as I stood in the doorway. I asked him if he'd published and he told me of his 10 year old first novel. Later that night I found a library that had it in its catalog so I obtained it a couple days later and read it. He'd previously said he'd like to read my (this) blog. As I read his first chapter, it was so fine, so writerly, that I felt like calling him up to request that he not read my blog. His book - which he seemed quasi-embarrased about, or maybe it was such ancient history to him? - is called The Stand-Up Tragedian and it came out in 2001. If you want to write a novel about not being able to write a novel while having picaresque adventures through Israel, Florence, and all over Unistat, you will have a tough time topping this guy. He writes beautifully. I loved one little moment, when the protagonist (who seemed very like Chaim; it was difficult to not read the book as poetic autobiography) is talking on the phone to his university professor-father, who wants him to finally settle down and "do" something with his life."Eric" dodges the question and tells his father a Hasidic story:

"I asked him if he knew the story of Rabbi Isaac, son of Yekel, in Cracow. I'd found it in an English translation of a book of Hasidic tales. It explained better than I could what had set me into motion - why I wanted to be a writer.

"After many years of poverty, which had never shaken his faith in God, Rabbi Isaac dreamed that someone had bade him look for a treasure in Prague, under the bridge that leads to the King's palace. Rabbi Isaac didn't have a curvy bone in his body: He always told the truth. When he arrived at Prague, Rabbi Isaac ingeniously told a native his dream. 'Treasure, king, bridge, palace,' the man laughed. 'I have dreams too - who doesn't? Me, for instance, I keep having this dream that I find a big treasure under the stove of some poor Jew by the name of Isaac, son of Yekel, in Cracow. But you think I'm going to wear out my shoes, walking to Cracow, where one half of the Jews are named Isaac, and the other Yekel?' And he laughed again. Rabbi Isaac bowed, traveled home, and found his shovel." (p.16)

This tale acts as a fractal for the entire book. His next book will be science fiction, Bertman told me.

                                                             Robert Scheer

Robert Scheer
One of my favorite political writers. My beloved English professor - the best teacher I'd ever had and who was incidentally not a Jew -  told me about Scheer, who I'd never heard of. Scheer had written a book on how dangerous and crazy Reagan and the people he was surrounded with were; Reagan was into his second term and my Professor pointed me toward Scheer's With Enough Shovels. Some Reaganite had told Scheer that nuclear war was winnable, it's not that bad: we can dig holes in the ground and dirt is a wonderful thing. And he was serious.

I followed Scheer closely after that, then realized he had been writing in "my" newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. Later I found out he'd been involved in SDS, had written for Ramparts and maybe even, if memory serves, The Berkeley Barb, all sorts of romantic things.

Anyway, he'd published, in the Times, a very long, three-part piece that ran January 29-31, 1978: "The Jews of Los Angeles." It was filled with history, influential figures, and all sorts of arcane (to me) minutiae about various schisms and causes and immigration routes to LA, and statistics. (You can find it collected in Scheer's Thinking Tuna Fish, Talking Death.) It clarified some things for me about Jewish identity that I've never ceased to think about since: the idea of Jews as a race (and how this must be preserved, and various other dissenting takes by Jews); the idea that Israel is the most important thing to a Jew: to keep Israel safe and thriving. And third: the culture of improvement of the human race, which was based in a universalist idea. It is this face of Judaism - the universal brother and sisterhood of the human race - that appealed to me greatly. (And, in my current state of ignorance, I trace the historical epicenter over this idea, its coalescence, to Holland and Spinoza, but I will leave that for some future blauge/blah-g/blog.)

Scheer wrote of a retired female Jewish garment worker in LA. She didn't care about the ideas in the synagogue; she'd left oppressive Russia 50 years before. She did miss Yiddish speakers, socialist rousers coming to give furtive talks despite right-wing LA's WASP-rulers and their thriving Red Squads. "She missed the young Jewish girls in leather jackets, organizers in the fledgling garment district, transplants from the East Side of New York, trying to have their fiery idealistic commitment, and sunshine and oranges, too. [...] They passed this secular religion of the Jews - this special moral concern that would not quit - on to their young, who then flooded the ranks of the civil rights and antiwar movements."

Now, below is a passage that gave me an envious Jewish pang way back when, when I first read it. Recall that not for one moment was any "idea" ever discussed around my family's dinner table, while my mom and dad were still together, nor even after they split:

(Despite the sunshine and beaches of Santa Monica and the crime rate, rudeness on the buses, etc:) "But their minds were still occupied with social ideas, with what, for generations of Jews, had been the substance of life itself - with issues, with ideas, with what the contemporary Jewish writer Vivian Gornick captures best in her recent book [presumably The Romance of American Communism? published in 1978? - the OG]:

"It was characteristic of that world that during those hours at the kitchen table with my father and his socialist friends I didn't know we were poor. I didn't know that in those places beyond the streets of my neighborhood we were without power, position, material or social existence. I only knew that the tea and black bread were the most delicious food and drink in the world, that political talk filled the room with a terrible excitement and richness of expectation, that here in the kitchen I felt the same electric thrill I felt when Rouben, my Yiddish teacher, pressed my upper arm between two bony fingers, and his eyes shining behind thick glasses, said to me, 'Ideas, dolly, ideas. Without them, life is nothing. With them, life is everything.'" (Thinking Tuna Fish, pp.47-48)

                                              Meghan Daum, hilarious shiksa

Meghan Daum
Not long ago I finally got around to reading Daum's 2001 book of essays, My Misspent Youth. I first encountered Daum in the LA Times. I still read her online. She's wickedly funny, often self-deprecating, sometimes bitchy, always very intelligent. I had never given any conscious thought about whether Daum was Jewish or not. I just knew I had a crush on her because she was such a tremendous essayist.

So I'm reading through, admiring each piece, when I get to "American Shiksa" near the end. That tears it: Meghan is not Jewish. She's a WASP from the East-ish part of Unistat, now living on the Left Coast.

And she's got a variation of my Jewish pang.

When adolescence hit her, she skipped becoming a woman and instead became a shiksa:

"I just didn't have much taste for those praying quarterbacks, those hunks in blue satin choir robes, the hulking social drinkers, the swaggering lifeguards and stockbrokers, the good old boys from the verdant athletic fields of my youth. I discovered Jewish men like I discovered books in the library, tucked away in the dark corners of suburbia, reticent and wise and spouting out words I had to look up in the dictionary. Unlike Christian men with their innate sense of entitlement, with their height and freckles and stamp collections and summer Dairy Queen jobs, all those homages to the genetics and accoutrements of Western Civilization, Jewish men were rife with ambiguity, buzzing with edge. Their sports were cognitive, their affection seemingly cerebral. They were so smart that they managed to convince girls like me that they liked me for my brain, that even though I was a shiksa, even though I had been deprived of Hebrew school and intense dinner debates about the Palestinian Question, I was a smart girl."(pp.129-130)

She goes on in hilarious detail. Daum eventually married a Jew. You could see it coming. Oh my gawd Daum is funny. And she's not even Jewish! (Well, maybe she got some of it via osmosis?) Anyway, I ain't the only one, although I myself have never had a Jewish girlfriend...until my wife found her birth parents and it turns out her biological father is Jewish. I'd rather not get into the particulars as to whether that actually "counts," because it's not my point. My point is: I missed out on Vivian Gornick's tea and black bread and ideas being "everything."

                                            Steve Almond. I identified a lot with the 
                                            main character in his short story, "My Life
                                            In Heavy Metal," which, 'nuff said.

Steve Almond
I recently read, with mounting envy, his collection of essays, (Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions, from 2007. His obsession with Kurt Vonnegut, his run-in with Fox News after he quit his Adjunct Professor job at Boston University after they invited Condoleeza Rice to talk. An essay on the Boston Red Sox that is probably the finest piece of sports fandom-sickness I've ever read, and I've read a lot. I'm a connoisseur. Almond writes about sex in the most frank and funny manner. Read his books if only for the sex. He's not an erotic writer, although at times he writes about sex in such a starkly truthful and poignant and poetic way, he seems erotic nevertheless. And then, near the end of the book, an essay on his Jewish identity, "Ham For Chanukah":

"It will be difficult to explain why, as full-blooded Jews, the spawn of actual rabbis, we took part in this deeply fucked-up ritual. But I am going to try to explain. Because that is what Jews do: we try to explain." (p.273)

Almond tells why his upbringing near Stanford was so non-religious: his parents were professionals. They were busy. His grandparents had a lot to do with it, too, and Almond is hilarious about it: "My paternal grandfather Gabriel endured a thorough Jewish education, then went off and became a famous political scientist. His basic attitude was that God had done some interesting work early on, but hadn't published much lately."

Well into his adulthood, Almond didn't seem to consciously identify with any of those three aspects of Jewish identity: Race. Israel. Universalism. Gabriel's wife was Jewish but seemed to so desire assimilation in the US that she seemed almost "tacitly anti-semitic," identifying with German culture and becoming involved with the Unitarian Church.

Eventually, as Almond grows and begins thinking for himself about his background, he gravitates to the universalist aspect of identity:

"My appreciation of Judaism has more to do with pride. I viewed my people as pound-for-pound champions of consciousness - Christ, Marx, Freud, Einstein - stars of the longest-running ethnic drama on earth..." (p.285)

Here's a passage that activated my pang big-time. Almond's mother spoke Yiddish, and passed a large Yiddish vocabulary on to Steve. Almond writes:

"I cannot begin to express my adoration for Yiddish, the official language of the shtetl Jews and the most emotionally precise vernacular ever devised. More than any holiday ritual, Yiddish is the legacy my mother passed on to me. I once actually wrote an entire cycle of poems (awful, all of them) devoted to the Yiddish word schmaltz." (p.285)

He writes that his "recovering Catholic" wife wanted to convert to Judaism, which moved him greatly, and they will bring their daughter up in Judaism. "She will know where and who she came from. She will be loved unreasonably. The rest is hers to determine."

Almond impressed the hell out of me a few months back when he dared to publish a critical essay on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert - and their slavish fans, of which I guess I'm one - for congratulating themselves for being so cool and hip and smart, when, Almond thought, Stewart and Colbert were more enabling and giving air time to fascists. I admired the essay even though I thought Almond misunderstood the function of satire and comedy - and Almond does both very very well himself - but he really made me think. (I'm always grateful for this.) When the piece was picked up by Huffington Post, I was embarrassed for the 3000 (it seemed like it) liberals in the comments section who lashed out at this "Steve Almond" for offending their immaculate tastes, making fun of his name, no one evincing the slightest hint they knew who he was, accusing him of being a sour grapester who probably got turned down for a writing gig with Stewart or Colbert. Thereby sorta proving - or at least strongly bolstering - Almond's points.

It's this kinda schtuff that get me all lathered up in admiration. A brilliant Jew taking on another brilliant Jew (and Colbert is a Catholic): all ideas are worth fighting over. Words. Ideas. Creativity. Intelligent Talk. Books. Science. Human Universalism.

Hoo-kay! Now: it's out there. My weirdo Jewish pangs of some sort of envy. But in my heart, I'm sort of Jew myself. Indulge me? Do a mitzvah and grant a goy some delusion?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Another Promiscuous Neurotheologist Post (But This One Gets Shanked Into the Chomskyan Rough)

Go ahead and skip this video of Harvard Professor Marc Hauser, but if you do you'll miss out on a bit of Irony. It's 3 minutes, 40 seconds:

Getting back to trying to figure out how religion came about and how it related to moral thought, Hauser at Harvard and Prof Illka Pyysiainen (don't even ask about pronouncing his name) of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (and their teams) worked on this problem. The posited positions seem to have been that 1.)We can either think of religion as an adaptation that solved the problem of cooperation among non-genetically related peoples when the tribe got big enough; or 2.) Religion evolved as a by-product of pre-existing cognitive capacities.

Position #1 and its adherents seem to think that the Cooperation Model means there is no morality without religion, although there seem to be a few who like the Cooperation Model but shy away from this "hard" position about "morality" as we know it today.

Position #2 and its adherents see religion as merely one way of expressing one's own moral intuitions.

Note that both assumptions make religious experience a brain experience solely and do not address the existence of any sort of Gaseous Vertebrate of Astronomical Weight and Heft (or: gee ohh dee).

My "intuition" says that, if I'm forced to choose one of the two positions, I'd go with #2, because I grew up irreligious and yet seem to have a modern Industrialized World adult's view of morality that fits in well enough that I'm not ostracized or shunned or forced into exile. I have friends. I'm kind to strangers and my loved ones know I love them. I'm not writing this from a SuperMax prison, where I'm doing Life plus 900 years for some cartoonishly heinous act, like taking over a kindergarten and slitting the throats of all the bunny rabbits and making the kids watch it, and then raping Ms. Schoolmarm in front of little Francine and Billy and Jared and Sally. Or masterminding a secret terrorist bombing of Cambodia.

[Oh wait a minute: that second thing really was done by a guy who's not only not in prison, but he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Talk about Irony!]

Actually, I have no dog in that fight. I think all that will come of it are speculative narratives couched in as much social scientific study as the researchers can muster, the result being, depending on your proclivities, Just-So stories, or Edifying Discourse. I remain agnostic about the origin of religion but enjoy reading the attempts to travel in time to find the Origins. I take a pragmatist's view: what do I find good to think about?

A short precis of the Hauser/Pyysiainen paper appeared HERE. The paper was originally published in Trends In Cognitive Sciences on 8 February, 2010. Pyysiainen and Hauser looked at some plenitude of  studies on moral intuition and were impressed that people from many diverse religious backgrounds, and some people with no religious upbringing or affiliation? They all had no trouble in making moral judgments when faced with unfamiliar moral dilemmas. Ipso facto: people don't need a particular religious background in order to make sound moral judgments. And Hauser/Pyysiainen go to the position I'm guessing they had when they went in: religion emerged from pre-existing cognitive modules.

I thought Pyysiainen was appropriately conciliatory towards religion in his quote from the article in Science Daily: "However, although it appears as if cooperation is made possible by mental mechanisms that are not specific to religion, religion can play a role in facilitating and stabilizing cooperation between groups."

Hey, that's why these guys get the Big Bucks, eh?

The Kicker
Marc Hauser published this paper with his Finnish colleagues while, it turns out, Harvard was doing a five-year investigation on him, for charges of various academic frauds. Around six weeks ago, Harvard finally wrapped it up: Hauser - once an academic star, a favored lecturer at Harvard, prolific publisher, and one of John Brockman's Third Culturalists - was found guilty of scientific misconduct. He fabricated data, manipulated results in multiple experiments, and "conducted experiments in factually incorrect ways." He's no longer affiliated with Harvard. (See HERE for Harvard's findings, and HERE for Hauser's response to the Federal Office for Research Integrity's findings.

For a long and insider's fascinating take on this whole episode see Charles Gross's piece from The Nation from late last year. It seems a fairly rare event when the grad students helping the star Professor turn the Prof in. When they do, it often taints the grad students and makes their life as future scientific researchers very difficult, but this time it does not seem to have harmed the students.

                        Professor Chomsky, most influential linguist of the 20th century, and
                        I think, a bad influence on now-fallen Marc Hauser. Chomsky's
                        reaction to Hauser's resignation, which happened long before
                          Hauser was convicted of academic fraud, is HERE.

The Chomsky Connection
Even though I copped to picking the Hauser/Pyysiainen of the two choices (due to no formal religious upbringing), when I read the piece and saw Hauser's name attached, I had already read he was under a long investigation. And, to be honest, I had become quite biased against his stuff - which ranged over an impressively large biological/philosophical/psychological terrain - because I'd followed him initially as a Chomskyan, who believed in Cartesian rational modules in the mind that get tripped by being in this world and then Do Whatever.

(No talk about neurons or neural circuits or the embodied brain, that's for damned sure! Although, to be fair, I think Hauser would've loved to have seen Chomsky go for more neuroscience...or at least be more open-minded to primatological findings, but he simply could not. Chomsky would not. Why? Because then the syntactical walls come a' tumblin' down, the whole Idealized Universal Grammar schmeer gets canned when you must deal with The Continuum of chimps and birds and singing Neanderthals to neurons and real stuff. Not diagrams.)

Indeed, Hauser and Tecumseh Fitch appear to have talked Noam into co-publishing a paper on the origin of language when, after a lifetime of dodging the issue, Chomsky put his name to a paper on the subject, if only to stop the charges that Chomsky appeared to think that Language arose in an instant, like the Big Bang or Yahweh saying "Let there be light."

A large chunk of Hauser's now-gone academic career seems to have been to extend the Chomskyan model of thinking about linguistics to the realm of Evolutionary Psychology. Indeed, Hauser seems to have been quite gung-ho about Edward O. Wilson's "consilience" project, but claiming it for a sort of Cartesian/Chomskyan intellectual empire.

Now obviously, I've veered way off course from the topic of neurotheology and into the politics of academia, but I couldn't help it: the Irony was too much. Forgive me?

I could could on and on about Hauser and what I consider the 18th century view Chomsky has infected some of academia with (and longtime readers of the OG know I've typed a lot on Noam and I actually love the Man), but to suffice and for further delvings: see George Lakoff's talk on "Philosophy In The Flesh" and then some of his Third Culturalist's responses to Lakoff's 21st century ideas about the embodied human mind. This goes back to March of 1999. Notice Hauser's response, then skip down to see how Lakoff (Chomsky's bete noir in Linguistics; they loathe each other) responds to Chomsky acolyte Hauser's non-understandings.

[For some other blogspew: it could be argued that John Rawls has as much to do with "Nativist" ideas in academia as Chomsky does.]

One of Hauser's books was titled Moral Minds and I have not seen any data about his publisher removing the book from bookstore shelves, as was done to Jonah Lehrer when it was found he'd fabricated quotes about Bob Dylan in his book Imagine. But Hauser still plans to go on and publish in the field of evolutionary psychology/cognitive neurobiology. One article has his next book being titled Evilicious: Explaining Our Evolved Taste For Being Bad, and it should be...interesting. (NB: I refrained from using "Ironic" yet again!) In an article on the Hauser debacle in USA Today, of all places, I noted big-time primatologist Frans de Waal's worry that maybe much more of Hauser's data was cooked than what the investigators looked at. De Waal accuses Harvard of covering up too much for Hauser, possibly damaging the field of animal behavior...

A Head Test: How is Hauser different from Lehrer? And does knowing Hauser made up stuff, etc: does that change how you think of this particular paper on the origin of religion?

Going Out With Hauser
I will let Hauser's quote on morality from Science Daily carry this one out:

"It seems that in many cultures religious concepts and beliefs have become the standard way of conceptualizing moral intuitions. Although, as we discuss in our paper, this link is not a necessary one, many people have become so accustomed to using it, that criticism targeted at religion is experienced as a fundamental threat to our moral existence."

Amen, Hauser. And have a good life.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

This Political Season: Just For Kicks

Which Candidate For You?
Not long ago I found this article at NPR: "Web Quiz Tells You Which Presidential Candidate Best Fits Your Worldview," which linked to I Side With. Take the test and see who your real candidate is.

You may be surprised.

No Need To Settle For Euclid
Because it's both easy and fascinating, I will now once again link to Robert Anton Wilson's erudite article on thinking about politics in a Non-Euclidean way. Read it and share it with your friends! Discuss it in a way that would've made Thomas Jefferson proud.

                                       Mikhail Bakunin, 19th c. anarchist who disagreed
                                       with Karl Marx for very prescient reasons.
Mitt Agrees With You!
By the way: if you self-describe as a liberal, a moderate, or a conservative, Mitt Romney agrees with you! Don't believe me? Check this out! (They could have made this little bit easier to navigate by allowing us to un-click boxes in order to jump around a tad more.)

Finally, Richard Dawkins has warmed my heart a bit by extensionalizing (a term from General Semantics that has stuck with me) the Atheist/Agnostic/Theist POVs. He has three positions for Theists, and four for Agnostics/Atheists

My position doesn't appear there, as I see it. I think all the gods and goddesses "are" "real," but they're metaphors that emanate from deep within our biological-Being. When people ask me if I'm an atheist, I say no, I'm more like some sort of agnostic. If they ask for clarification, I'm delighted to get weird with them. But really: my agnosticism fits into the "model" model: I'll say I'm atheist in certain situations, agnostic in certain situations, and that I'm Buddhistic in others. Other times I'll say I'm a Discordian or a Javafarian. If you ever want to screw with a willfully ignorant Christian, tell them you're a "Jeffersonian  Christian." If they ask what's that? Then you get to tell them about what T-Jeff did to the Bible, which could lead to an interesting situation. Hey, I'm here to help, friends!

addenda: When I did the I Side With test, my candidate was Jill Stein, with Gary Johnson and Obama coming in 2nd in everything else. (Not that you asked.)

Monday, October 8, 2012

William James and the Tough and Tender-Minded

This afternoon, indolent and slothful, lax and swelling with sweet slack, after a walk in the woods, I began reading in a stack of books begotten via my maxed-out library card. In a book of quotations, Jewish Wit and Wisdom, I ran across this:

"A cartload of pasteurized milk for nurslings at four o'clock in the morning represents more service to civilization than a cartful of bullion on its way from the Sub-treasury to the vaults of a national bank five hours later."


"People who want to understand democracy should spend less time in the library with Aristotle and more time on the buses and subway."
-Both quotes are attributed to Simeon Strunsky, who I had to look up.

                                          The melancholic William James, 1842-1910

This reminded me of William James's first lecture of 1906, the first of eight he gave at the Lowell Institute in Boston, and there was at least one of the eight at Columbia, in January of 1907. All the lectures were open to the public, and the crowds were overflowing with blue-collar thinkers, readers and intellectual types.

Possibly my favorite book of Philosophy of the Roaring 20th century - in the sense of James as a canonical thinker, that sort of Philosophy - all eight of the lectures can usually be found in cheap and delightfully readable editions under the title Pragmatism, although I've also seen those collected lectures titled Eight Lectures on Pragmatism. Anyway, you can download it for FREE here.

The Strunsky quotes reminded me of the first lecture, "The Dilemma In Philosophy," in which James addresses the gulf between rationalism and empiricism and says most of you people are probably a mix of both; if you think a lot about it you may be perplexed by the inconsistencies in your worldview, and what should you do?

James says rationalistic philosophers are "tender-minded" in their disposition. They're generally intellectualistic, idealistic, optimistic, religious, free-willist, monistic, and dogmatic. They insist on going by principles.

For James, the empirical ("tough-minded") philosophers like to go by facts and they're sensationalistic, materialistic, pessimistic, irreligious, fatalistic, pluralistic, and skeptical.

106 years ago, some of these terms commonly meant something slightly different than they do today, and in characterizing the tough-minded and the tender-minded, James is not choosing any term in a loaded way. When he says the tough-minded are "sensationalistic" he means they make sense of the world via their sense organs and he means to contrast this with the tender-minded person's "intellectualistic," in which he means those people know things by reading philosophy books and other textual High Kulch efflorescences filled with abstractions, "wisdom" and erudition.

Strunsky's quotes illustrate the thoroughgoing tough-minded 'tude.

There's a passage in this lecture that's become oft-quoted, but it's so good I have to be another who quotes James, on pragmatism and these two types of dispositions:

"Most of us have a hankering for the good things on both sides of the line. Facts are good, of course - give us lots of facts. Principles are good - give us plenty of principles. The world is indubitably one if you look at it one way, but as indubitably it is many, if you look at it in another. It is both one and many - let us adopt a sort of pluralistic monism. Everything of course is necessarily determined, and yet of course our wills are free: a sort of free-will determinism is the true philosophy. The evil of the parts is undeniable, but the whole can't be evil: so practical pessimism can be combined with metaphysical optimism. And so forth - your ordinary philosophic layman never being a radical, never straightening out his system, but living vaguely in one plausible compartment of it or another to suit the temptations of successive hours."

O! How cosmically hilarious I find this passage! What a heretic! Because it seems so-so-so true to me. Because it's utterly, scandalously and outrageously playing tennis with the net down, to piss of the stuffy academicians. Because James dares to talk to the rabble in such a way. Because he lets the farmers and shop-keepers know that they really ought to keep on being philosophically-minded, to keep thinking, or as Robert Anton Wilson said, "Keep the lasagna flying." Because really: for James, these are only words. And because, for some of us who were on to James and Pragmatism before reading this, we knew he was going to deconstruct just about all of the hallowed terms in Western philosophy from the previous 2500 years. (His pragmatic colleague John Dewey published a book in 1920 titled Reconstruction In Philosophy.)

                                      Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz, 1646-1716, one of the
                                      mostly stupendously brilliant nuts history has ever
                                      seen fit to throw our way.

In this same lecture, by way of discussing the extremes of tough and tender-mindeness, James uses six paragraphs to really skewer Leibnitz's extremely rationalistic tender-mindedness in a way to make even Voltaire blush.

James starts in on Leibnitz with, "Truly there is something a little ghastly in the satisfaction with which a pure but unreal system will fill a rationalistic mind." James pulls no punches: "superficiality incarnate" is Leibnitz's Theodicy. James tears it to shreds, not because he dislikes Leibnitz, but because the extremely tender-minded can be incredibly callous to actual human suffering in justifying suffering in a perfect world made by a perfect God. James quotes long passages from Leibnitz, then writes, "Leibnitz's feeble grasp of reality is too obvious to need comment from me." Then he cautions the crowd, he didn't need to go back to a "shallow wingpated age," for these kinds of minds are around now.

[I realize more information and a fleshed-out take on Leibnitz has arisen since 1906, and we know he was an incurable brown-noser with the royal and rich, but Bertrand Russell and others have shown that Leibnitz had a second, very different, much more tough-minded view of things...for which I will perhaps save for some future blog-warble. Leibnitz was one of the great minds ever, in my opinion, although I still consider James's points on the Theodicy very strong.]

James begins to contrast Leibnitz's "airy and shallow optimism" with a then-current-day anarchistic pamphleteer and vocal critic of Unistatian imperialism after the 1898 war named Morrison I. Swift, who collected atrocities committed against the poor and working class from newspapers and commented on the stories. One of the stories begins:

"After trudging through the snow from one end of the city to the other in the vain hope of securing employment, and with his wife and six children without food and ordered to leave their home in an upper east-side tenement-house because of non-payment of rent, John Corcoran, a clerk, to-day ended his life by drinking carbolic acid..."

"Such is the reaction of the empiricist mind upon the rationalist bill of fare," James writes, meaning Morrison I. Swift's mind. But James was sympathetic here: "Mr. Swift's anarchism goes a little further than mine does, but I confess that I sympathize a good deal, and some of you, I know, will sympathize heartily with his dissatisfaction with the idealistic optimisms now in vogue."

I have gone on far too long about just this one (of eight) lectures from 106 years ago, and bid adieu.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Two Ways Novelists Can View Criticism

But before I get to that, a smattering of critical takes on ideas about criticism that are by and about and surround some of my favorite artists: Ezra Pound, Mezz Mezzrow, Marshall McLuhan,William S. Burroughs, and George Carlin:

Ol' Ez had a gazillion things to say about criticism, and often it was aimed at some sort of mass pedagogy for the "man" who still wants to learn; a "man" who has found himself alienated from the Bewildered Herd and would like some guidance from a no-nonsense tough-guy aesthete. Pound was happy to play the part. Here's some advice from Pound to one of these "men":

"All the 'critic' can do for him to is knock him out of his habitual associations, to 'show him the thing in a new light' or better, put it in some place he hadn't expected to find it." - from Machine Art & Other Writings: The Lost Thought of the Italian Years, p.83

It seems there are many cognate quotes like this from Pound in his voluminous oeuvre; I liked this one because it seems to capture the experimental Pound: a writer who tried to find structures and forms that worked on the mind of the Reader on more than a few levels. A critic can break habitual associations in the reader only with some sort of ju-ju that approaches a magickal operation, it seems to me. A simple way to unpack this: when Harold Bloom used the term "strong poetry" he meant someone (scientists and political revolutionaries included) who could use metaphors so well that they make the reader see the world in a new way. No mean feat; no small shakes, that.

Any criticism that accomplished this level must, it seems to me, attain to something like "literature" itself?

                                       Mezz: not the greatest player ever, but good enough,
                                    and he loved playing stoned. His book Really The Blues
                                    was influential in many ways.

Mezz Mezzrow
"Suppose you're the critical and analytical type, always ripping things to pieces, tearing the covers off and being disgusted by what you find under the sheet. Well, under the influence of muta you don't lose your surgical touch exactly, but you don't come up evil and grimy about it. You still see what you saw before but in a different, more tolerant way." - from Really The Blues, pagination lost in my notes because I was probably stoned?

No comment here; Mezz's observations about "muta" (cannabis) seem self-evident to me.

Woody Allen is a big fan of Mezz's book.

                                                  Burroughs, El Hombre Invisible

McLuhan on Burroughs
The New York intellectual Alfred Kazin had quasi-dismissed Burroughs's writings as a "private movie theatre." Here's McLuhan:

"It is amusing to read reviews of Burroughs that try to classify his books as nonbooks or as failed science fiction. It is a little like trying to criticize the sartorial and verbal manifestations of a man who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from the roof of our home." - originally from "Notes on Burroughs," The Nation, December 28, 1964; collected in William S. Burroughs At The Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989

Let me just say that the current way I see McLoon's meaning here is that we ought to look first at the performativity of Burroughs's bits, the way he tries to accomplish whatever he's trying for (saving Western civ), and not so much the garish content of his visuals alone.

Professor Carlin: On Film Criticism
"I'm never critical or judgmental about whether or not a movie is any good. The way I look at it, if several hundred people got together every day for a year or so - a number of them willing to put on heavy makeup, wear clothes that weren't their own and pretend to be people other than themselves - and their whole purpose for doing this was to entertain me, then I'm not gonna start worrying about whether or not they did a good job. The effort alone was enough to make me happy." - from When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops?, p.106

                            Bobby Campbell's portrait of RAW and burger. Campbell is easily 
                           the best artist who has ever tired to capture Wilson's vibe: he's
                           steeped in RAW's work and has a mesmerizing, psychedelic style
                                 that fits RAW's work isomorphically. When I look at this 
                          piece, I think of the Discordian admonition: "Don't just eat a 
                          hamburger...eat THE HELL out of it!"

Two Writers: Very Different Takes on Criticism
First up, my favorite writer, Robert Anton Wilson, interviewed at his home overlooking the campus at Berkeley, possibly Spring of 1981, by Dr. Jeffrey M. Eliot:

Eliot: Are you affected by the critics? Do their opinions concern you?

RAW: As William Butler Yeats said, "Was there ever a dog that loved its fleas?" Critics have been very kind to me, personally. Of all the reviews of my published books, something like 90 percent have been highly favorable, so I have no personal grudge against critics. On the other hand, in an impersonal
way, I have a strong moral objection to critics. Whenever I see a critic tearing a writer or actor or any artist to shreds in print, I feel a sense of revulsion. I write a lot of criticism myself, but I only review things I like. I don't admire the desire to tear other people apart. I can think of two unfavorable reviews I've written in my whole life, and I regret them. One was about a book in which a woman gets raped and is said to enjoy it; the other was a review of a very dogmatic book on UFOs, in which the author described those who disagreed with him as neurotics. People who like to write witty, nasty
things about other people are not generous or charitable, to put it mildly. We should all try to give out as much good energy to other human beings as we possibly can. I honestly believe that every bit of bad energy we put out has adverse effects that go on forever. This is the Buddhist doctrine of karma. The
Buddhists believe that every bit of anger, resentment, hate and so on that goes out passes from one person to another, without stopping. The same is true of good energy: every bit of good energy one puts out makes someone else feel a little bit better. I think if people were really conscious of this
psychological fact, they would try to put out nothing but good energy, no matter what happened to them. They would certainly not be so casual about passing on bad energy. All the bad energy in the world builds up like a giant snowfall, until we have a huge war. Nowadays, it can mean total nuclear
Armageddon. This is traditional Buddhism, as I say, but I think it's materialistic common sense, too. One only needs to study human behavior to realize it. I regard those people who make a career out of being nasty as emotional plague carriers.
-from an interview in Literary Voices #1, p.54

Near the end of his life, RAW saw fit to re-publish snippets of various interviews he'd given over the years in his book Email To The Universe. The above was included in that 2005 book (albeit RAW edited it using E-Prime), see p.216. RAW wrote that his wife Arlen read the interview and she guessed he was stoned at the time. On p.216 of Email, which includes this bit on Buddhism and criticism, RAW included a footnote which reads: "Yeah, Arlen got it right: I must have toked a bunch o' weed before delivering myself of that sermon."

Aside from RAW's take on criticism here, his overall view on the subject was far more complex (he was not able to remain emotionally distant from unfriendly reviews), and someday I will try to flesh it all out a bit. Moving on...

Nonetheless: let us take Robert Anton Wilson(1981) as one view of critics. I would like to contrast this with Lawrence Grobel's interview with James Ellroy, who once described himself as the "demon dog" of literature.

Grobel asks Ellroy in 1998:

LG: Kirkus Reviews called you the comic-book Dos Passos of our time.

Ellroy: I never read Dos Passos. Kirkus can suck my dick. Fuck them up the ass with a faggot pit bull with an 18-inch dick and shoot a big load of syphilitic jism up Kirkus's ass.
-from Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives

Here's Ellroy on Brit TV from not long ago. He's always creeped me out in an entertaining way. If you ever get a chance to see him do a reading, even if you're not into his stuff, CANCEL everything else and see him read. Trust me on this. Also, as disparate from Robert Anton Wilson as I find Ellroy's bearing and attitude towards...life, note they have one musical love in common. This will take about 2 minutes of your space-time:

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

On Lit Crit

One of my favorite academic literary critics, Stanley Edgar Hyman (who was married to Shirley Jackson, an underrated writer who wrote the famously chilling short story "The Lottery") seemed to have read everything and wrote about his reading in a provoking and engaging way. I love his book The Armed Vision. Hyman quotes an earlier critic/academic, I.A. Richards: "To set up as a critic is to set as a judge of values." (I wrote about Richards long ago HERE.)

I find Richards fascinating for many reasons, one of which was that he was influenced by both Coleridge and the early anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Besides Richards's scientific foray into how literature is received by bright college students (as described in Practical Criticism), he thought critical evaluation functioned largely as "social communion." He explicitly saw his work as "phatic," and I tend to wish more critics had these values in mind. (Certainly someone like Dale Peck doesn't see the role of critic like this!)

Hyman seemed to not like teaching all that much, and "Professor X," who wrote In The Basement of the Ivory Tower quotes Hyman: "I've been doing it for years, and before every class, I take a piss, I check my fly, I wish I were dead - and I go into the room and begin."

Jacob Silverman
Two months ago in Slate Silverman made a complaint about too much "niceness" in literary criticism lately, and he thought it had to do with authors using Twitter, blogs, Facebook, Yelp, and Tumblr. They create a "fan base," tweet nice things about other authors, every other author is awesome, we're all friends here, authors create an aura of good feelings around themselves, and literary criticism suffers, due to the "mutual admiration society that is today's literary culture, particularly online." The level of criticism an author receives amounts to a literary culture in which "cloying niceness and blind enthusiasm are the dominant sentiments." Silverman would rather we cultivate an environment where we care less about an author's biography and who follows them, and more on the work itself. When no voices of dissent are heard about a work, it tends to chill a "vibrant, useful literary culture." He quotes Lev Grossman of Time, who admitted he won't review a book he doesn't like. Silverman would like us to act more like adults and not mix criticism for an author's work with criticism of the person who wrote the work. The last paragraph of Silverman's article sums his stance well: we ought to think more and "enthuse less."

Chris Collin
Around a year before Silverman's article, Chris Collin wrote a piece for Wired titled, "Rate This Article: What's Wrong With the Culture of Critique." I found and read this after I read Silverman's argument. Collin objects to online lit-crit's star-rating system, its thumb's up, its plus one, the number for how many times the article had been Tweeted (or re-Tweeted?), the number of "likes," etc. I couldn't agree more: go ahead and give some article four stars out of five, but don't pretend you're adding anything to the conversation. You're certainly not thinking. Well...probably not. Maybe a little, if the piece was good. Voting/giving symbolic feedback seems - to me - more a gesture along the lines of the consumer.

Hey, I dig good feedback and kind vibes - we all do - but in our writings as in life, we want to feel like we've been heard.

Collin quotes one of my favorite culture critics, Erik Davis: "Our culture is afflicted with knowingness. We exalt in being able to know as much as possible. And that's great on many levels. But we forget the pleasure of not knowing. I'm no Luddite, but we've started replacing actual experience with someone else's already digested knowledge."

(I wrote about "knowingness" not long ago, HERE.)

Collin says that "There's an essential freedom in being alone with one's thoughts, oblivious to and unpolluted by anyone else's. Diminish our aloneness and we start to doubt our own perspective."

This reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Buckminster Fuller: "Dare to be naive." In a culture of knowingness, where everyone is always online, I can't help but think that our interiorities are suffering. It's getting to the point where the act of not looking to see what everyone else is looking at, what's viral, what's hot, what's cool...and instead just following your own path and evaluating on your own...seems a bona fide radical act. 

Roxane Gay's Answer To Silverman
Not long after Silverman's piece appeared, Roxane Gay parried in Salon. And while I think she played a tad unfair by tsk-tsking Silverman over not actually reading Emma Straub's book - that really wasn't his point - I think her rebuttal quite fine, and I present these three points of view about literary kulch in our online-world as a possible opening to a conversation itself. About the role of criticism.

I thought Gay's best point was the analogy that literary culture is like school, and serious criticism is the classroom; social networks and all the mundane trivia and phatic (How would I.A. Richards see "evaluations" of literature on Twitter?) aspects of five stars and "liking" is the cafeteria. Gay pulled up an apt quote from 1846, by Edgar Allan Poe, on writing too sweetly about someone else's book. There's nothing new under the sun, truly, Ms Gay! She also takes issue with Silverman over too much niceness regarding women, people of color and writers who'd fall under the LGBT rubric: when they are reviewed, often their personal lives are considered fair game. Gay shows that she's able to give a good review to a book while noting some perceived problems with it, and at times she might even know the author personally. She urges that we stop thinking of reviews as "positive" or "negative" as this is the "wrong conversation."

Points all well-taken...until someone's feelings get hurt. Vicious, savage reviews by the aforementioned Dale Peck and his ilk: do these people thrive on shame? Are they thinly-veiled sadists?

And I bet that it's true that males - especially white males - get reviewed more often. But I also bet they are "savaged" more often by critics, too. And sometimes it might seem the reason they're getting savaged is precisely because they're male. I cop to being a lot like Lev Grossman, but my reasons for not writing negative reviews are due to the unpleasant mental states I'm required to be in to write that stuff. It's not worth it to me. NB Roxane Gay seems to evade the question somewhat by saying that everyone who read the book would see its flaws jump out at them, so why bother writing the bad review?(However, if someone wants to pay me to review Dick Cheney's or Paul Wolfowitz's or Rupert Murdoch's memoirs...I'd take that advantage. Some things need to be said, sometimes, no matter how unpleasant.)

Intellectuals and Critics: The Mafia?
Woody Allen once said that intellectuals are like the Mafia: they only kill their own. As much as this culture of criticism chugs along, let's not pretend that a large portion of the critical class - the fine writers, the intellectuals, the "chattering classes," congenitally bookish bloggers - let's not pretend that they don't consider evaluations of a rival or a political foe's work as something akin to a blood sport.

I have never published a book to scathing criticism, but can easily imagine what it feels like, especially if one feels they've produced a fine work, filled with long hours of sweat, tears, inspiration, elation, actually getting themselves to believe that they were contributing something of value to society, that they might even inspire a handful of people not blood-related in a very deep way.

The cultivation of a Nietzschean sensibility seems in order, although 'tis probably easier said than done.

Finally, I can't help but think that most of us are taking ourselves and our evaluations far too seriously, and while I surmise that many of us give critics far too much power over our choices, this seems as virtually nothing compared to forming your opinion based on relatively faceless/nameless others' likes and thumb's ups and plus-ones and re-Tweets. Fer crissakes! Let us dare to be naive! I have tried it and found it quite invigorating. Am I preaching to the choir here? I suspect so...

Tomorrow I'll note an example of polarized approaches to the role of critics and criticism by two novelists, and I hope you'll get a nice laff then.