Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Year's End: A New Year Plea For the "Foxy"





In keeping with my general antipathy to year end resolutions and summaries in particular, and closure in general, this post shall be a late one in the new year. But its lateness is not only for reasons of precision and exactitude on my part: it is above all for reasons of alienation from the whole cultural business of such ways of viewing time and destiny. In short, there is nothing worse than a wrap-up. Everything about it is explicitly and implicitly infected, riddled with all sorts of fallacies.

One of these fallacies is a linear temporality that makes us servants to the future and enemies of the present. Another fallacy is a progressivism or historicism that thinks that there is a quantifiable measure of our many losses and improvements into a final verdict of decline, or as we are wont to prefer, ascent.

I remember one particularly obnoxious wrap-up that circulated through the mail from one of my many married acquaintances. The whole things was so glowing with prideful self assertion; it all but nakedly stated how great everyone involved had been over the previous year and how surely they were to be better in the forthcoming year. It read as an advertisement for a chain restaurant rather than a report on a family, though I would argue there is little difference between the two in our current historical moment.

Related to the wrap-up and though less egregious, yet still problematic, is the resolution.

People make resolutions not only because of the perennial cult of self improvement but because of a peculiarly linear temporality. This temporality admits of a straight line of onward and upward Progress, with History falling in line, in increasing maturity, wisdom, even enlightenment.

To clarify where I deeply stand on such matters I must interrupt with what may apparently be a digression but, as we shall see, connects to where I have been heading all along.

One of the most brilliant, most distinguished minds in legal (or indeed any other kind) philosophy, Ronald Dworkin, has just published a book called Justice For Hedgehogs. Now, given the fame of the author, there will doubtless be hundreds of responses to the book. The book itself is magisterial and as such I am only halfway through it, and there is much good in it and much with which I agree. Yet his central claim, and the book's title are most contrary to my disposition, as readers of my blog will undoubtedly see.

You see, dear reader, though Dworkin is a most brilliant mind and his book covers so much -from the question of free will through the role of the state and even aesthetics - he is on the opposite side to me since I am most deeply influenced by the late great Sir Isaiah Berlin.

This explains Dworkin's title. Isaiah Berlin wrote the essay "The Hedgehog and The Fox: An Essay On Tolstoy's Conception of History".

The Greek poet Archilocus said: "The fox knows many little things but the hedgehog knows one big thing".

While Berlin admits Tolstoy was a combination of the two as a thinker, Berlin himself was an advocate for the "foxy" position as he was a passionate defender of pluralism.

The title is incorrect in more than one way since hedgehogs don't need justice; we foxes, however do. Most of the world, like Dworkin, believes the world is one and that there is a right or wrong answer to most questions. They believer such unity is backed up by some sort of grand metaphysics. Ronald Dworkin is more modest and sophisticated than that: but like grand theorists before him, he aims to create a unifying and unified theory where all things go together.

The last highest and most noble attempt to present such a grant theory was John Rawls in A Theory Of Justice. Yet what made Rawls' theory notable was that it made space for subjective difference and diversity. It recognized irresolvable problems; that is why Rawls felt a need for a neutral space from which to govern.

Dworkin, on the other hand, wants more than neutrality; he seems to want to pronounce what the good and the true are at every turn; where any controversy or disagreement is but a cover for genuine error or misunderstanding of the facts, rather than irreducible, insoluble difference. If freedoms are sacrificed for social justice then there was not really freedom to be sacrificed to begin with, but, rather, a too narrow definition of freedom as license. (Which is how I do define freedom). Yet some freedom we must sacrifice if we are to prevent certain suffering. (The suffering caused by other's freedoms).

Dworkin would retort that we have been under assault from moral relativism, and thus, a variant of objective all inclusive theory like his is sorely needed to set the record straight and keep us safe from fashionable relativists.

But the world is as hostage to monism like Dworkin's as it is to relativism; indeed I consider relativism as serious a sin as Dworkin's monism. It has nothing in common with my or Isaiah Berlin's "Objective Pluralism."

Josh Cherniss states three propositions in his Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Isaiah Berlin:
  1. All genuine questions must have a true answer, and one only; all other responses are errors.
  2. There must be a dependable path to discovering the true answers, which is in principle knowable, even if currently unknown.
  3. The true answers, when found, will be compatible with one another, forming a single whole; for one truth cannot be incompatible with another. This, in turn, is based on the assumption that the universe is harmonious and coherent.
Like Berlin, I deny all three of these propositions which is why I am a thoroughgoing pluralist.

A relativist, on the other hand, believes such problems are clashes of merely subjective points of view. At worst, the relativist denies the existence of true or false statements altogether, denies the existence of good and evil, however construed.

I believe such problems as the inability to answer the three propositions in the affirmative to be caused not by relativity but rather, ironically, by objectivity! It is precisely because we can see - most painfully - the truth of the various sides, and yet see the impossibility of fulfilling all sides simultaneously; it is because we can see the inevitable necessity of tragic choices that we pluralists are anything but relativists.

And, above all, because the world is not one in any systematic way, it is perfectly possible for there to be some answers that are clearly right or wrong, as in the science of gravity, Hitler's evil, Bach's grandeur, and so on, and simultaneously other answers that are undecidable, like trying to weigh the relative merits Japanese filmmaker Ozu in comparison with French filmmaker Robert Bresson.

Yet Ronald Dworkin wants to apply his monistic inclinations to a comprehensive legal theory. It is a curious thing to be reading a book in which I agree with so many of his conclusions (about issues of the day in the courts) yet disagree most vociferously with how he arises at our shared conclusions.


But I have said too much about this issue. Please enter this new year in the spirit of the fox. Be flexible. Don't be afraid of being called a dilettante if you happen to have more than one single minded interest. Take each day and each case, one at a time. Think for yourself. Not all situations are identical. No two people are alike. Respect the profound differences around you. Not merely differences backed by group identity and and pride of membership; those as of late have been more acceptable to tolerate. But pricklier and trickier differences: ones that reside in the innermost recesses of an individual human heart.

And that is all I can stand to say in anything like the spirit of a new year.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Holiday Memories: Childhood in the 1970s Part 12


My memories are as perceptual and as sensory, indeed sensual, as my current disposition. Before thought or even feeling can intrude to color my perceptions there is first and above all the sensation that enters my nervous system. And in the late 1970s there were plenty of impressions that could be most overwhelming.

Some of these sensations and impressions came in the form of quite odd characters. I had no idea where they came from or why they would come over for the holidays. It was not clear that they were close friends of the family; what was clear was that they appeared to be friends of the theater types with which my father was involved because of the children's theater shenanigans and my magic acts.

I remember of course very clearly the three girls next door (!) and their stage mother who was a loathsome woman and bore the most striking resemblance to Joan Crawford, so much so that she impaired my ability to appreciate and comprehend the work of that greatest of actors because I could not help but think of that high school theater teacher whenever I would come across Johnny Guitar on the late show.

Of course I was in love with two of the girls, but, alas, it was the youngest and most unappealing of the three - a girl who appeared to have such arrested development that she acted ten years old when she was in fact at least fourteen - who relentlessly pursued me, leaving much of my time spent avoiding her clunky, clumsy advances, my eyes set, of course, on the eldest who looked like a twin of Cybil Shepard and who was so enigmatic and arousing compared to everybody else around her. But their mother kept such a hold over them. In her authoritarian style, she was the most anti-1970s parent imaginable.

One of her favorite subjects was the relative unimportance of sexual matters and how deeply offended she was by the spectacle of males with their shirts off in Florida and how it was practically immoral to subject others to such exposure. I was always trying to play up to her and agree with her, thinking it would get me an advantage with her daughters that my friendliness would dissolve her guard. It was never to be. One time I was forced to take a state wide trip in a station wagon convertible with her and her girls. It was about a four hour trip and all four hours of it consisted of her preaching about the loose morals and values of the young. And this from a drama teacher!

During the holidays these people would drift in and out of our house without any apparent pattern or time. There was little sense of when meals were to start. What there was a sense of was the presence of adult intruders who were nevertheless invited.

Without a doubt the most colorful of these theater type friends was one Bobby Larue. I had never met anyone quite like Bobby Larue. He both frightened and fascinated me.

My sensory system was compromised by his personal effects. Here was a man, apparently without family or relatives, who would come over with a gold lame or faux leopard kind of cape (be aware that we are in the state of Florida) and for the bottom some kind of elephant bell denim slacks with contrast stitching in rust. Most shocking of all, he wore a different ring on every finger. He also had a very wide coiffed toupee with which he would fidget while conversing. I had never seen anything like it in real life other than the Liberace television specials which I was forced to watch and which I deeply hated (having fantasies of all the pianists I'd really prefer to be watching, if only the networks had the class and taste to feature them).

I remember Bobby LaRue had one obsession to which he would keep referring and returning and that was his idol Charles Nelson Reilly. He would go on forever about the virtues of Reilly, why Charles Nelson Reilly should win every award, and be given every role, how he was so much better a performer than Paul Newman or Robert Redford, and how there was no justice in the world as long as Charles Nelson Reilly was relegated to the ghetto of comedy.

Bobby LaRue was one of the first encounters I had with genuine aesthetic disagreement. I remember when I first got a little upright piano. It was a Baldwin and was the first piano, or instrument, to which I ever had access. I had not yet had the advantage of a teacher. Out of frustration I would try and play keys to make musical sense. And I would do this for an hour or so, quietly so as not to bother anyone. Yet I was also listening a lot to the Miles Davis album Kind Of Blue, trying to duplicate on that piano the sounds I was hearing, but to complete failure, plunking my hands on the keyboard in frustration at my inability to hear well.

I tried to share my interests once at a Christmas party at which LaRue was present. I tried to praise Miles Davis and my father dismissed the music as heroin music "because it was played so slow it made you think they were on heroin when they played it" a reductionism that made me so angry. This was when Bobby Larue would become larger than life (as if he hadn't already started out that way) and complain that he "hated Miles Davis". That "was not real music". Real music was classic show music. (To be fair my father did at times like Miles Davis, but still claimed the music, at least in the fifties, was modeled after certain drugs). I remember his litany of virtues that told us when something was valuable: "it entertains, it makes you feel, it makes you cry, it makes you laugh."

Bobby LaRue was hopeless when it came to my musical tastes. He told me "real music" was Robert Goulet. And it was Julie Andrews and, after crossing himself, Ethel Merman and Judy Garland. I was not one to disagree with this list per se, though I was not crazy about Goulet.

I also made the mistake of saying I liked Paul Lynde, and Bobby Larue would get irritated, saying that Charles Nelson Reilly was more wholesome and for the whole family, and funnier. Like my neighbors, here was another plea for the family, for the virtuous and the wholesome. This immediately set up a feud comparing Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly. Since I was a child I had little say in defending Paul Lynde.

I have little idea who Bobby LaRue was and from where he had come. My mother said that he used to be hit at dinner theaters across Florida, in his youth. I know he spoke with an exaggerated tone of voice and his presence always seemed an irritant because I was shocked that any man would leave the house dressed as he did and felt equally terrorized and mesmerized by all those ten or so rings, holding a glass of scotch, the kind of glass with little avocado or chartreuse daisies printed all over it.

The only matter on which we could agree was the soundtrack to A Chorus Line which he loved and would always assent when I offered to play it. I was always in charge of the record player; the one time I had any say over the music, when not hostage to my mother's favorite radio station.

My parents had an unusual system for gift giving. Basically I was given a certificate to the local record shop where I would buy a five dollar album. I could always pick the album and it was invariably some kind of jazz-rock fusion like Chick Corea and Return to Forever, or much to the chagrin of my parents, late Miles Davis in his early 1970s electric period. I never knew what a record was going to sound like since we never heard any radio but what my mother played. I went merely by what Downbeat had advertised and if I liked the graphics in the advertising, the more outrageous (the trumpeter lying on a sofa in the shape of red lips, a bassist in a cape flying through the air etc.) the better. The record would be a Christmas present.

My mother had a penchant for an easy listening radio station called JOY. And she would play that station practically 24/7, even while in her office at work. This was one reason why I had such little access to other radio. Sometimes I liked the arrangements, but more often I did not. Worse, I would argue against the music, attack and criticize the selections, getting great pleasure from hurting my mother in this way, perhaps as revenge for having to listen to it, perhaps out of darker motives from within.

Always on Christmas Eve the three of us would put ornaments on the tree. I loved that tree because it was a thick and fluffy white tree and made me feel special whilst living in Florida. My father would try and be clairvoyant or psychic and guess what was in his wrapped presents and he was always right, much to the chagrin of my mother, who felt offended and violated by his accuracy. It made me for a time a true believer in all things clairvoyant.

He would place his right hand on the wrapped present and list what was within. "Shoes, grey socks, a book on Houdini, hardware tools, sky blue tie, umm.. Adidas sweater that zips up...I think it has brown stripes down the side of the arms..." he would rattle off, while feeling the wrapped presents for the appropriate vibes and divining, gleaning the surprise within. In cumulative anger over the years my mother eventually dispensed with all wrapping and said "here" with her rough, masculine grunt, that only she can summon, and dumped a bunch of unwrapped items on the floor at his feet.

The holidays too were a time for great religiosity. Not, of course in my household, never, that is, unless my preacher uncle was in town which was a rare invitation. (Indeed he wasn't invited; he just showed up suddenly, unannounced). But rather, all around us, in the Jesus and the Devil cartoon tracts, the Biblical bumper stickers, the presence of many thick men with fixed grins and abundant jowls, ready with a handshake and offer of Jesus for your troubles.

And that about "wraps up" my memories of the holidays from my childhood.

Here is a gem from Paul Lynde:

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Blog: A Look at Emerson's Divinity School Address


On July 15,1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered what was to be one of his great orations; it is part essay, part jeremiad, a confession, an exhortation, and a marvelous work of theology all rolled into one.

Since this blog is supposed to be contrarian and since Christmas is fast upon us let us revisit a particular passage in the work:

In this point of view we become very sensible of the first defect of historical Christianity. Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every man to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love. But by this eastern monarchy of a Christianity, which indolence and fear have built, the friend of man is made the injurer of man. The manner in which his name is surrounded with expressions, which were once sallies of admiration and love, but are now petrified into official titles, kills all generous sympathy and liking.
Those words caused Emerson to be essentially banned from speaking at Harvard for thirty years. Emerson was also invited to speak at the bequest of the senior class rather than faculty.

A few words before this passage Emerson does praise the person of Jesus, but note the nature of this praise:

Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.'
If only many of our contemporary Christians discussed Christ in this way instead of as a ruler who asks that you confirm or deny him as a kind of test, only to condemn you for all eternity if you deny him.

The address begins with one of the most beautiful passages in all of Emerson. As is typical of Emerson he begins the address with reflections on natural processes, since for Emerson process is all:

In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy. The cool night bathes the world as with a river, and prepares his eyes again for the crimson dawn. The mystery of nature was never displayed more happily. The corn and the wine have been freely dealt to all creatures, and the never-broken silence with which the old bounty goes forward, has not yielded yet one word of explanation. One is constrained to respect the perfection of this world, in which our senses converse.
But no amount of pastoral and bucolic rhetoric could have prepared the listeners for what was to come.

When it comes to the person, symbol, myth, or holiness of Jesus Christ, it appears that today little has changed. One one extreme there are those, and they are legion, who feel Jesus Christ to be a a man and a god who in his omnipotence has the deepest held opinions on the sexual, dietary and other practices of the three hundred and eighty plus million souls who inhabit these United States. On the other extreme are the debunkers who are convinced Jesus never existed in the first place. In between lies a motley of degrees and variations, not many of them much better, in my view, than the extremists.

Actually, let us say the most offensive (in certain quarters) and most unthinkable thing: let us say that "Christ-Mythers" (to use an unfairly uncharitable term) are correct. That changes very little because in fact it matters little whether Christ was real in the sense that I am real typing this into the blogosphere and you are real as you read what I type. At its best, which isn't often, Christianity and Christmas are not propositional affairs. Rather they are eternal mysteries of human imagination and they exist in order that we may entertain what it would mean, for example, for a stranger to come to town in such a way and with such force that all is forever changed. Much power of certain Western (in more than one sense) art comes from this act. Equally some of the worst in human life (that is, after Christianity) comes from this attachment to pining all hopes on a single person or deity. This last problem was the problem Emerson was referring when he discussed, to use far worse yet up to date language, being "hung up" about Jesus.

In a larger cultural sense there is a split between, on the one had, the advocates of science, some of whom really do believe that the scientific method and only the scientific method can tell us with any accuracy about our lives, and on the other hand, those that deny scientific truths and live only for faith. On the science side, in the most extreme form one finds the proposition that we are nothing but our neurochemistry. On the other side are those who deny scientific values altogether, and read their sacred texts as if they were how-to manuals or maps of the planet earth.

We would all do well to read Emerson's address, conceived of and performed in the Summer, in this Winter season. I have only excerpted from it here. But all of it is a jewel whose brilliance hasn't dimmed a bit in the 172 years that have transpired since. Indeed, it has only brightened and deepened, and reading it makes the so-called seers and gurus of today's world seem themselves most dim.

And that is all I have to say this Christmas. On the subject of Jesus Christ, besides Emerson, I like what Kris Kristofferson has to say best:

Monday, December 13, 2010

Book Review: HOLLYWOOD INCOHERENT: Narration in Seventies Cinema by Todd Berliner





I have a belief that reviewing and, moreover, criticism ought to be in part a dispassionate affair: that there ought to be in it more objectivity of appraisal and comprehension than the subjectivity of enthusiasm and censure. There are times of course when a special case and exception can be made, where subjectivity must, by definition, lead and flourish. Given that the subjects of Berliner's Hollywood Incoherent are cinema and the 1970s, two topics dear to this author's heart, and, given that the approach and style of the book is an aesthetic one rather than a theory addled or ideological one, upon completing this book it appears at times as if the book had been written with this reviewer alone in Berliner's mind.

Hollywood Incoherent is a much welcome and needed addition to the growing body of both 1970s and cinema scholarship. One of the virtues of it is that it puts style at the center, rather than political ideologies, identities and historical and cultural significance. In many ways Berliner (and to be fair, others must be mentioned in this regard, namely, Susan Sontag, Ray Carney, David Bordwell and a few others) is attempting to return criticism to a position somewhat close to the aesthetic and artistic concerns that had been dominant in the decades prior to the Theory revolution of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet Berliner is unafraid of theory and uses it when necessary. Indeed his book takes the time to define David Bordwell's concept of "parametric narration", rather than assuming knowledge on the part of the reader, and also makes a good case for why such a concept is perfectly valid in understanding general trends in 1970s studio and independent filmmaking. Still, in the end, Berliner follows in the matter and manner of "close reading", which concerns how objects in the movies create the effect they do, and what the implications are of such effects on the emotions of audiences.

Two concepts that Berliner introduces that are helpful are those of "incoherence" and "perversity". These words are redefined not as negative states of personal or collective organization or psychology, but rather, positive states of works of art. Perversity is taken from critic Stephen Booth to mean in Booth's words, (in Booth's Precious Nonsense), "a usually gratuitous and potentially distracting and counterproductive extra system of coherence that rivals the narrative, polemic, or other ideationally essential organization of the work". One of the themes that crops up in practically every film made in the 1970s is this evenhanded and observational quality that is the effect of a certain disunity regarding closure concerning the morality or psychology of the characters on the screen and the causality and temporality of visual events as they unfold. In Berliner's words:

"Although all narrative films employ a degree of perversity (without turns there is no narrative), the relatively prevalent, pointed, and superfluous narrative perversities in seventies cinema do more than delay satisfaction and narrative resolution: The preclude the definitive and satisfying resolutions characteristic of more normative Hollywood movies."
Even in the case of ostensibly lower brow fare like The Exorcist, there is the same effect at work as in other higher quality films of the same period and this effect has cognitive value for spectators: "I propose that spectators leave The Exorcist having had an experience more cognitively eventful than the film's shocks, thrills, and thematic substance can account for".

Whatever one may think of The Exorcist as a film, Berliner's account of its specifically 1970s characteristics is consistently interesting.

Following in the steps of David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson, and, to go back even further, Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation, Berliner raises the question of style as opposed to meaning as a critical category. In a chapter of a close reading of Taxi Driver, for example, Berliner shows how stylistic effects can be as valuable as and different from meaning, as a way of comprehending a work of art. Moreover Berliner defends his case very well, especially given the weight of certain traditions in thinking "meaning" the key to art's purpose. In Berliner's book, each film is analyzed with exacting scrutiny, neither abandoning the text for dubious historical or sociological claims, nor viewing the films in isolation from the cultural context in which they were made.

Many of the big commercial films are discussed in this volume, specifically those prior to the Star Wars phenomenon that arguably ushers in the 1980s. There is a subtle reading of The French Connection as a violation of police genre norms.

One of the most valuable parts of the book is the chapter on John Cassavetes. Ray Carney has been and is the undisputed scholarly expert on Cassavetes' oeuvre. Berliner adds his voice to the discussion with a perceptive essay on real life dialogue and scripted and aesthetic dialogue and how the differences between the two are negotiated by a modernist master like John Cassavetes. The one chapter alone is worth the cost of the book. Noting the dilemma that any artist faces in confronting on the one hand the false and artificial effects of "trying" to be "realistic" and, on the other, the prison of traditional and classical conventions in representation, Cassavetes hit upon a brilliant third solution.

"Cassavetes' dialogue, more than conventional, tightly scripted dialogue, prevents spectators from easily distinguishing his actors' improvisations from the improvisations of Cassavete's characters, who, like the actors playing them, appear to be composing their lines as they are speaking".
Though Berliner is aware of dimension of authorship and refers to the hand of directors and writers (and no hand is more authorial than Cassavetes), he is always keen to note that 1970s cinema is a continuum, that the films in the period all share similar features, some more than others, and that they have a certain family resemblance, that, though they do influence current cinema - (Berliner notes Eastwood's Unforgiven and P. T. Anderson's Magnolia as being particularly seventies in feeling) - they are unique in being rather unlike anything to have come before or since the 1970s.

If there is anything to the concept of a 1970s aesthetic in film and if it can be understood to have coherence, then Todd Berliner's Hollywood Incoherent is a useful introduction to such a concept.

There is much here for fans of both 1970s scholarship and cinema studies in general. In my view, Berliner's book deserves a rightful place alongside previous classics of 1970s scholarship like Bruce Schulman' The Seventies and Thomas Hine's The Great Funk. As a work of film criticism it is a welcome corrective to the excesses of theory found in other film studies. More constructively, it is a good application of the "cognitive neo-formalism" of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson. It succeeds in applying the ideas humanely, staying lose to the films in discussion, and being faithful to art as having a value more than that of mere utility.

Hollywood Incoherent, Todd Berliner, University Of Texas Press, 2010

Monday, December 6, 2010

Brief Propositions on Qualities and the Subjective/Objective Distinction





Inspired above all by an all too brief conversational encounter, with one of the most brilliant minds I have had the good fortune to encounter, I am moved to set down some brief and explicit propositions on what is objective and subjective about taste in things and culture.

As Mark Edmundson remarks in his glorious - and notorious - piece in Harper's Magazine in 1997, "On The Uses Of A Liberal Education," a course at Columbia University used to ask the following two questions to its students of literature.


One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to?


Looked at in the form of this question, some things in life are objective, they are in fact so good - so meaningful and valuable and so on - that resistance to these things, in this case books, are subjective failures to grasp objective value. I heartily endorse the question and cannot believe it would or should be seen as tyrannical or elitist, if we were to ask it of students today. At the very least we would get some deep self reflection, at least among those students with enough humility, or lack of entitlement, to approach the question with honesty. Of course I still leave open the question and possibility that such a pedagogy may well be problematic, (perhaps for reasons of psychology), though I do admire it in these lines.

Thus my first proposition is that some things have objective value and that this value is intrinsic. Moreover this value is finite and unevenly distributed. Appraising and evaluating such value is a matter of entering into the text at hand with at least a partially open mind, heart, perhaps even soul and spirit, while we are at it.

This first proposition is complicated by my second proposition. This is the doctrine of pluralism, whereby the differences in kind between one value and another, and, in the case of the arts, one style and another, can be so great that we are left with no Archimedean vantage point from which to choose among them, thus left to what would seem to be taste, mood, personal proclivity, inborn temperament, learned experience. In a word, subjectivity.

A lot of complications and tensions in life are a negotiation between the first two propositions.

My third proposition is that works of art have two dimensions, many times in conflict with one another, (but not always in conflict).
One dimension is immediate pleasure, or structural entertainment. That is, a quality of supporting, aiding, and reinforcing certain likes that are universal among the world's peoples. These would include things like jokes, interest in and sympathy for other people's stories and motivations, both triumphs and pleasures, pain and woes. Certain delight in this regard is formal pleasure, an excitement at watching a couple dance or love one another in representation, an excitement at reading for a plot that is suspenseful, and an attraction to art that is manipulative of our capacities for fears, longing, or shared passions. Much music, dance, and certain visual arts operate purely at this level. There are many gradations of quality in what, for lack of a better word, I call entertainment. Some entertainments are most excellent, so excellent, in fact, that they incorporate my second dimension.

This second dimension is that art can be a form of knowledge, much as physics is or other non artistic fields are. (Ray Carney and John Dewey have written about this second dimension rather well. It is borrowed from them.) In undergoing this form of knowledge we undergo an experience that will always hurt a bit (since being knowledge, there is some effort involved that is not chiefly pleasurable. Though for those with higher than average curiosity this experiencing of knowledge can itself be pleasurable in an entertaining sense. It is to this second aspect of "art as a form of knowledge" that Columbia University's question to the students was addressed.

Fourth proposition: since art can be a form of knowledge, ignorance of this knowledge is tantamount to real objective losses for those who express ignorance or resistance to works containing that knowledge. When many young people today tell me, much to my astonishment and dismay, that they dislike Emily Dickinson and prefer a more contemporary or "relevant" poem, they are actually robbing themselves of wisdom. The reason for this is that works of art are most particular. The line and meter and rhyme is set precisely in this way and not another, and the meaning cannot be found in the summary or plot of it. There are actual bits of knowledge contained in a Dickinson poem that cannot be gleamed in any other poem, however close the ideas might be to Dickinson's poetry. Moreover, they cannot be gotten in any other way than in her particular lines, stanzas, and overall formal strategies.

To not read Dickinson on grounds of personal taste, while understandable because humans do not always have the taste that would lead them to pursue things of higher than average value, is to exercise a mistaken reason. Whether on grounds of individual choice, individual sovereignty, or even cultural identity or priority, that failure to read Dickinson is to miss the greatest opportunity for undergoing rather specific kinds of knowledge. Nobody else can quite do the same thing for you, not even another poet - when we consider at least only those things which only Dickinson possesses. (This is not to claim that Dickinson is the greatest poet, but rather to claim that for the things she and only she does well you will profit from them. If you want something more nakedly erotic or frank with edgy attitude you can read Frederick Seidel. Seidel's qualities are important qualities too, but they are also perhaps overvalued at this particular historical moment.)

Since works containing the knowledge can only be gleamed from undergoing the experience of the works in question and cannot be fully comprehended in any translated or summarized form, (say in the form of propositional points taken from the work), works containing such knowledge are essential since the specific styles and choices of the work are what make such knowledge possible.

All the following leads to my fifth and final proposition. This is that quality in art has at the very least an objective component. It was created and exists in the world for others to see or read it. And by experiencing its effects one can gain or grow from it, not unlike physical exercise for the body. This quality of knowledge can be akin to a spiritual value, irreplaceable and integral.

These five propositions might culminate in QED.

But we have a confusion over the word taste. In one meaning it is a descriptive term for what somebody is liable to like or dislike. In another meaning it is a moral term indicating that certain tastes are at the very least more worthy of pursuit than others. We say that there is objectively good and bad taste, on the one hand, and on the other, talk of a plurality of tastes, my taste as opposed to someone else's taste, and how "it is all good".

Moreover there is always a subjective dimension to reality. This subjectivity is not all of reality as certain New Age mystics and Idealists claim. Neither is it unreal and this subjectivity does always, already influence the reality we share.

This sense of there being something or someone on the inside that feels, or experiences, or senses in a most special and irreducible way is one of the few things in life of which we can be sure, and yet, ironically is also one of the things to always be subject to perpetual incredulity, dismissal, and skepticism, especially among the scientific community.

I shall use myself as a particularly curious, if not peculiar example. I have written before on this blog about the domain of things that are above average. Things that I don't dislike and don't love yet I think have some merit. It is not common that I love something. I may have many likes but I really do reserve the sentiment of love for special things: for Tarkovsky and Antonioni movies, for Proust, for Fred Astaire, and for the late Freddie Hubbard.

Here is the trick to all of this talk of values and merit. Those names I mentioned are all objectively valuable, in part for reasons having to do with my five propositions. Yet there is a way of regarding them that is purely subjective. We may not unanimously love them or recognize them as supreme for purely subjective reasons, having to do with our personal sense of values and how we like to spend our time. The same is true, of course for our dislikes and our hates. We might hate something unworthy of our hatred, indeed, that we, like the examples of those who reject Emily Dickinson, hate to our own diminution. But we may well have no choice given our experiences, and how our brains are wired, and so on.

There is also the very real distinction between kinds of value. There is the irreducible value to simple pleasures, or what may be called craft or entertainment, as there is the irreducible value to spiritual growth and knowledge. The two may coincide, but not always.

It seems to me that it is only in setting down these matters in a clear form as I have here, can we being to have a fruitful discussion about these questions of quality. Above all, I hope to create better questions the next time around.









Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Memories: Childhood in the 1970s Part 10



For my entire childhood and most of my teenage years I did the same thing with my parents every Thanksgiving: the three of us climbed into a wide bodied tan or burgundy station wagon or Thunderbird and drove to my best friend George's house with his two parents Olly and Betty and his sullen and shy sister Val.

As I have repeated all too often, since I am a perceptual and sensual creature, this experience at George's was rife with a plethora of memorable sights, moods, and sensations.

George himself had the greatest sense of humor and we fancied ourselves a comedy team, always trying to write our own material and pretend were on Saturday Night Live. I remember little of what we concocted because our comedy, such as it was, was overshadowed by the decor of the house and the character of his family. More literally, nobody was interested in our acts since all attention was focused on Olly and then his daughter, and lastly, my own parents and their pontificating about current events. Of course his father Olly had that droopy, elaborate handlebar mustache that so reminds me of the character Nigel, as played by Harry Shearer in Spinal Tap.

If Olly's mustache weren't enough we were treated to the spectacle of him preaching and hectoring his daughter and giving hour long disquisitions on the superior virtues of Progressive Rock, particularly less known bands like Renaissance. But Olly's stache stole the show, so distracted I was by it that I remember little of content in what he had to say.

Less pleasantly, since Olly fancied himself an amateur anthropologist, he would insist upon lecturing his daughter on the habits of tribes in other cultures. Sometimes his lectures were to be held in secret, sometimes we were invited. He felt she was the one of the two with the superior intelligence and had essentially given up on his son, who was a slow learner, however gifted with wit, leaving the two of us to explore their insane 1970s house and backyard.

George and I tried to be serious about comedy. We would listen to records of Bob And Ray and Gilda Radner and Richard Pryor and George Carlin and try and figure out how they worked. What we loved about Bob and Ray was that they were a team and most droll and absurdist in outlook. (Though we would not have known to describe it as such). I remember one bit called "write if you can get work" and we really appreciated tracing comedy back to its earlier roots - before SNL. One summer my father taught us a Shakespeare class, an early variant of home schooling you might say, and I remember my disappointment that it was mostly plays like Macbeth and Hamlet on the "syllabus" since I had hoped for some comedies too, especially As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing.

George and I rebelled against his father's taste in music and I was always attempting to go to George's room as a musical oasis where I would insist on listening to Sonny Rollins records and whatever "fusion" records George had bought. But we had little time alone to listen to jazz or finish our budding comedy act as Olly would always make sure to enter the room unannounced, to reprimand his son in front of us for not being as bright as his sister, and to talk about the bands Genesis and Renaissance as what was really "cutting edge" and ahead in music.

I had never known so many clashing and vibrant shades of pastels to coalesce in one environment. Not only was the deep shag in chocolate brown covering every inch of wall space, but there were this bright pastel fuzz - I know not what else to call it - covering appliances, especially the entire bathroom, in apple green, and powder blue, orange, canary yellow, and many others. This is to say nothing of all of the artwork - all of those heavy velvet and oil paintings of historical figures and, so we were told, obscure family members from previous centuries, the paintings that literally gave me nightmares the few times I had to endure sleeping over. (The decor and the general atmosphere there was rather unpleasant for me. I wanted to visit but not sleep, let alone ever live there).

These colors bring to mind George's mother because she always made her specialty which was a grasshopper pie and we loved that dish so much. The recipe was a secret and when we were most young we had believed there were real grasshoppers in it taken from the backyard and cooked. I was not to worry because "they tasted just like Oreo cookies". I remember that Betty wore much louder clothing than my mother. Both women loved these ugly dacron things, these shapeless tops and bottoms that you sort of just pulled on, stuff with lots of elastic. But Betty loved to be inspired by, I guess, Rhoda on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, and would wear the loudest pastel checks and plaids in the largest scales.

George's mom, Betty met Olly while they were coworkers. They happened to be both postal employees, the mail carriers who rode rounds in the suburbs. Almost no mention was made of the U.S. mail nor any practical work matters at the yearly Thanksgiving. But much mention was made of how great it was that both the parents worked (!) and had good jobs they were proud of. Its equality was seen as the virtue, so in a sense, in this one respect, and in spite of some personal unhappiness that resided there, George's family was ahead of it's time.

All of this Thanksgiving celebrating was to end abruptly. Firstly, when my own parents divorced in my middle twenties, and my mother actually left "home" to move to another state in the south. Secondly George's parents divorced, a few years later. Both my family and his had been married for a good twenty or thirty years. It was rumored that George's father had a penchant for streetwalkers and other activities of the kind. Last I heard he gave up his interest in anthropology and progressive rock for Bible Study, and became a serious Christian. (Presumably the streetwalkers were also given up, considering his newer religious interests as well).

Both Olly and Betty remarried. (Olly remarried twice, his wives becoming younger I believe). So did my father. My mother never remarried. Betty married a rather handsome wealthy businessman with whom she appears happy. Valerie, her daughter, also married a businessman, albeit one with progressive interests. To this day George and I remain unmarried.

My mother attempted to hold a Thanksgiving meeting/reunion over there many years later, after both families' divorces. Both my mother and Betty invited other women over and all husbands were out of the house, (having been expelled from the marriages), leaving in essence an all female Thanksgiving, with the notable exceptions of George and I, having to overhear the turkey conversation of that table. The spectacle of that day, especially the frank, brutal and graphic conversation of these obese, middle aged (and senior) women sitting around a table and discussing the sins of the male sex was truly of of the most disturbing experiences of my life. Gone too was the decor of that earlier period. Everything was light, airy, streamlined and tastefully bland.

I was most shocked that they would carry on like this with me and George present, as if we were not people who would be disturbed by being privy to their authentic sentiments. Even well into adulthood, I had no way to make sense of divorce, and who was to blame, and above all, I felt such a sense of loss, and our dependency as children on the vagaries and convictions of adults; and as adults, our dependency on the wills and often conflicting beliefs of other peers.

George's sister had grown into a beautiful woman with a career in accounting. I remember her telling me on that final Thanksgiving day that I had to make decisions in my life about which parent with whom to side and that she felt my father and her father were villains.

"Why would you ever want to have anything to do with your dad?" was what she bluntly asked me. She was most unhappy that I could not assent: I mistakenly insisted that it was their business and that we could never fully understand. She has never forgiven me, I think, for that statement, though on the face of it, it seemed at the time a sensible one. For Valerie was happy because she was free from her father and leading an accountant's life, and I was a confused man living as a musician in Boston and coming down to a very changed Florida and all I could remember was all of the fun George and I had as children in that crazy seventies house.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

My Childhood in the 1970s: Part Eleven

If you will recall my first love, rather my first love who was actually a peer and not a teen working for the family business (Carla), or an English teacher (Ms. Miller) or a celebrity stranger (Jacqueline Bissett, Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant etc.), you will remember Lydia. Of course I got distracted by Lydia's mother because of, well, Ms. Rodding's Miles Davis records and the fact that Ms.Rodding (who was the first woman to explain to me the Ms. formulation, in great earnestness) was more like Ali McGraw, that is, a fully developed woman, than her daughter. I also got distracted by Lydia's best friend Sally. But it appeared to me then and it feels in my memory now that Lydia was more important to me than anybody else, at least with a certain degree of romantic equality.

But as we talked, usually in and around the expansive trees that populated the freaky free school - the one with the headmaster's van and other local color - we shared all that we had on our minds, especially our shared love for the movie Annie Hall, which was the only "adult" movie Lydia's mother allowed her to see. (Seeing R rated and G rated movie was a weekly event for me of course). People then as now love to fit our individualities into the fashion and framework of celebrity examples, and Lydia was always told that she looked like Diane Keaton (!) No similar comment was made as to my likeness with Woody Allen.

Such long talks over hours gives you an idea, not only of our lovely time together, but also of the absolutely irresponsible attitude of a school that would allow so many hours pass by with kids spent outside in the afternoon, with no clear classes, grades and other traditionally accepted parts of school life.

What I had not revealed before dear reader was that after many years apart, I suddenly got the idea to contact her. I had just spent my first year away at a boarding school and I was curious to see a childhood friend now that we were teenagers and I was in high school.

In life we often must look back in order so that we may understand the present. Partly in fidelity to this particular truth we must slightly leave the 1970s behind - alas and alack - and venture into....the 1980s, albeit a very early 80s that in many respects is not so far apart from the late 1970s.

I gathered the courage to contact Lydia, after more than five years. I had just finished a freshman year in high school and was prepared to go off to a dream of an institution called Interlochen Arts Academy, one of the very few schools I experienced that I can call with some justification decent, if not excellent. I was unable to drive and called up Lydia. Inexplicably and with some horror I realized that one of my own parents (I cannot and do not want to remember which) had called Lydia's mother to set things up. That is, I had not even had the opportunity to speak with her since we had both entered adolescence, or puberty, or whatever the experts are calling it these days. Somehow, I was told by my mother in her usual manner, which is to say like a female drill sargeant (or female PE coach), I was to be "dropped off" and left in the company of Lydia in one of those early 1980s vast shopping malls, meeting in the parking lot.

Nothing prepared me for the shock which was the sight of an adolescent Lydia. Everything about her was so radically changed, from hair, to clothing, to the excess of makeup and accesories, that I had to literally ask twice if it were her, if she indeed was Lydia. I do know I must have said Lydia several times to her for confirmation, to say nothing of validation.

I really don't know how to describe the change. I am not a great or even particularly good literary stylist. I do not do novels or short stories. I wish I could magically imbide some of the vapors of an Elkin, a Roth, or especially, given our subject, an Oates.

The Lydia I remember was a deeply hippie styled girl. She had wild curly brown hair and full lips and slight but pleasing curves and went about in bell bottomed dungarees and tie dyed or denim halter tops. That may have accounted for a lot of why I loved her. That form was all that I knew.

The new Lydia, you might say, was what was called a "valley girl". She was wearing so many shades of plum, teal, fuchsia and pink that my senses were overwhelmed. I felt as if I couldn't see her. She had this enormous skirt and these large hoop earrings, like a bargain basement version of Cyndi Lauper, you might say. For all I know she might have had incredible style for the time, but I was too shocked by the change to fully be in the moment and relate to the newer her.

It was a date of sorts. Indeed you might say that we saw a perfect date movie, if you believe in such categories, which I adamantly don't. The film was called Valley Girl.

As I recall I loved it but she didn't. This started a lifelong pattern of gender reversal where we would see these studio or even independent movies that were seen as aimed towards a female market or sensibility and it was always I who ended up liking the movies while my female date would hate it. Thus the fallacy of over generalizing and stereotyping.

We ate sushi which I had never had before, and for which I had little appetite and she did most of the talking, about things which seemed far removed from her childhood concerns. Instead of her stories or her flute she talked of New Wave pop music and how much more conservative she had become, at least more so than her out of date parents. And she had to mention her puzzlement at why our parents had set things up as they did. She made it clear in so many ways that she was engaging in an empty formality and, in her words "she was not the same girl" that I had known and with whom I had spent time",  above all making it clear that "I hadn't seemed to change at all".

I was consumed by philosophical thoughts the whole evening, even during the movie which was rather well written and acted. Thoughts like these: what is identity? How and why do people change? What is the nature of that change and is there a deep core that remains unchanged? I really wanted to know. These are questions that are still important to me.

The worst part of the date was its conclusion. As she walked me to her car. I reached over to kiss her something I had never done with her and had always wanted, perhaps because we had always seemed so young. And here I assumed that we could act more like, well, adults. Yet she pushed me away most fervently explaining that she didn't really feel about me the way that "everyone" knew that I did. She said she had to get back to do homework and listen to some music she felt I would just hate, something called Men At Work, or Haircut 100. I forget which.

My first kiss was not a kiss at all but a great risk, a mishap. How much better was the backstage smooching as a child, so primitive and polymorphous, and rooted not in traditional intimacy but bodily brute drive. Why there was even a group involved as it was group kissing with several girls. Conversely, this business of the couple seemed to me woefully overrated to me. I wondered what the fuss was all about for close to a year after that.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Gradations of Evaluations


There is a matter of daily life that is little discussed, even less understood and yet holds a key to our understanding of value. I am referring to the mode whereby we are engaged with an object with some interest, we find it serviceable in some way, functional, and yet, for a variety of reasons we do not exactly love or fully embrace the object in question. Too valuable to be mediocre yet too compromised to be great we might use words like average or okay to accurately express our reception.

It is a pity that this mode is so little discussed since it comprises the majority of our artistic experiences in this life (or it ought to, lest we are too promiscuous with our enthusiasms). One might say that the majority of experiences in life are like this as well. They are not irritating or tedious, yet do not create strong joy either. But we might find things to like in them.


This positive acknowledgement of that which is okay or "good enough" is pervasive in other parts of cultural life. It is certainly a key concept in newer psychologies, such as the concept of the "good enough parent."

One of the cultural reasons why this mode is underrepresented and under appreciated is the hyperbolic nature of our popular media and our linguistic habits. When the word "awesome!" is used to describe practically everything we experience to the point where it it functions as a thoughtless preposition rather than a superlative adjective, this can only signify our inability to take seriously the distinction between our likes and our loves. We might lose our appreciation of the above average.

Inability to read in this way accounts for the extraordinary enthusiasm for works which do not merit the volume of attention, especially mass cultural attention, upon them.

For example, whatever the merits of the epoch shaking show Madmen - i.e. the wardrobe is authentic and attractive, the drama is entertaining by contemporary standards of entertaining representation in drama, the behavioral and narrative events are emotionally absorbing - the show is not of the excellence of, say, Anton Chekhov. Yet one would never know this to read the reviews and reception of this award winning show. Curb Your Enthusiasm, on the other hand, is a kind of comedic masterpiece. It is rather like Chekhov! Indeed, one of the reasons why Curb Your Enthusiasm is superior to much of the rest of dramatic television is that it absolutely refuses to "glamorize" or overtly dramatize our terrible dailiness. This is not only because it is a comedy, because certain non-comedic dramas traffic in a similar dailiness (the films of Mike Leigh are an excellent example).

Importantly it is because Curb Your Enthusiasm confronts most directly the dilemma of the individual and the collective or community in ways that avoid the temptations of solutions. Madmen, on the other hand, cannot escape from a need to flatter our advanced progressiveness concerning class and gender, specifically even as it romanticizes a past that is objectively so much superior to our own in terms of quality of commodities, design, fashion, and so on. It wants us to enjoy the past vicariously, without having to specifically undergo too painfully the oppressiveness of the past, if, for example, we are women. This contradictory two-step is perfectly accomplished through that rather new Bill Condon influenced genre of contemporary costume drama, where getting all of the period details correct becomes the theme of the work, a mode that afflicts our cinema as well. (Walk The Line, Ray, Kinsey, and An Education all do this).

We imagine so extravagantly the past because we are unable to imagine sufficiently, save for a few bright figures like Larry David, the present. The problem is in part linguistic.

What has been lost is the kind of language used to describe most of daily life, which is, after all, concerned with events and states of consciousness which are neither bad nor great. They are not even mediocre. Rather they are are a curious yet most common variant of "okay".

Curiously and almost paradoxically, the inability to deal with the middle of life and art is connected with a loss of reverence for the "high" and loss of suspicion or skepticism for that which is "low". Everything that is merely passable is defined upwards and the "high" might become invisible or irrelevant. In her new book The Age Of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby makes the claim that we have lost a truly middle-brow culture, a phenomenon I can't help but be convinced is connected to the lack of a place afforded the "middle" in life; or at least a feeling for and understanding of the middle as a conceptually real and distinct, though large, part of culture.

In the current issue of Raritan, (Summer 2010 Volume xxx, Number 1), critic Robert Boyers, in an essay entitled "Pleasure Revisited", offers an evaluation of our inability to evaluate and even read that makes me see in him as close a kindred spirit as I could ever hope to find. Since his essay is such a perfect distillation of a background theme throughout these blogs I am compelled to quote him at great length. His word shall be the last.

"The militancy required to dismiss certain kind of work as 'popular' or 'pandering' or 'obvious' is rarely in evidence in our culture, where trash may be solemnly studied in the academy and accorded respect for its political content, and professors of literature no longer think it a part of their function to educate taste or rescue their students from escapist fantasy".

"If pleasure was, not long ago, associated with the capacity on the part of most writers, artists, and intellectuals to maintain a certain spiritual militancy that would allow them to savor works uncommonly rigorous or demanding, works that withheld from their audience an easy or immediate gratification, and that militancy is no longer felt to have anything to do with the pleasure most of us seek, then a momentous change has surely occurred. The reluctance to invoke certain distinctions brings in its wake an increasing inability to make them. thus do we see the blurring of boundaries between one kind of thing and another, the debasement of the language of value and description into meaningless labels or the borrowing of terms that once had a particular meaning for entirely alien purposes".

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Truth and Falsehood

These days, given the dominance of scientific methods, there is little actual respect accorded the results of a human being sitting alone in a room. It is true that many resultant works from such a scenario are beloved: there are mass market fictions and non fictions that are created from isolation, there is this blog you are currently reading and, of course, millions of others. However the currency of Truth is not of the essence in isolated pursuits. Rather these days scientists, especially of the hardest variety are very much of a mind like Patricia Churchland, who flatly stated that there could only limited progress in understanding from a person sitting alone and thinking. If you thought this was bad, and wondered whether progress could be made through relation and conversation, biologist Simon Levay is on hand to assure us that no progress could be made in the realm of understanding human sexuality from sitting around and discussing it. Apparently sexuality is such a third person, objective part of life that only, say, brain imaging and controlled studies could get at the truth of sex.

These are views of life that could only arise when a significant part of the elites or leading intellectuals in a given culture have implicitly or explicitly rejected the notion of first person experiential consciousness, or at the very least, have relegated such consciousness to an illusory movie that plays as a result of neurons firing. The problem with this view is not that it is reductionist per se, but that it is so extreme and radical a reductionism.

These are the sort of sentiments and assertions which naturally flow from an age of the brain. Everything that is not strictly the product of specifically scientific laboratory experiment, as in minute monitoring of brain states and so on, is seen as unreliable and in some quarters unreal and speculative.

In such an age, one that Karl Popper would rightly call "scientistic", disciplines like philosophy and psychology are essentially getting replaced by neuroscience. What good is sitting alone in your room, as wrote Kander and Ebb in Cabaret, when you can go to the lab and find out why you really are the way you are, rather than relying on your poor misguided memories, recollections, feelings, everyday reasoning, ordinary observations?

On all of these blogs I have been sitting alone in a room typing. Quite literally too, as unlike many of my contemporaries it has not and is not on a laptop amidst a crowded public space, say, a coffee shop. Would you have more implicit respect for me dear reader were my results not dreamed up from out of my brain but backed by "studies" - able to posted all over the relationship section of the Huffington Post, with keywords like "controls" and data and all sorts of though experiments like dividing people in rooms and getting responses to games and puzzles involving ethical issues and life situations? If it involved the sort of topical fears and fads of the moment, like food and nutrition issues, and our perceptions of each other, and the roots of Tea Party racism, or why and how we are altruistic or religious, or selfish according to some research group, would not my blog be a little respectable?

Never has a culture been more obsessed with the truth and falsity of itself and its representations of itself. Perhaps, not coincidentally, never has a culture had more plainly fallacious views of things. (Some of the more improbable religious beliefs are held by over half the population). The two problems are connected because we fail to honor both Poetry and Science. We have forgotten that each have work to do, but, they are not meant to be in tandem. (There is that knee-jerk Holism again in wanting to merge the two).

This split between Truth or fact on the one hand, and illusion and imagination on the other, has been a problem for much of human history. It is not inevitably a problem, for example, that we must have parts of life that are imagined or pretend and parts of life that we take to be as factual as the ground beneath our feet, nor is it a problem that these two are kept separate in some way. It was such a problem for Plato that he would have banned poets from his Republic. Plato, for all of his unscientific pontificating about ethereal forms, had a suspicion of the poets because he was only concerned with that which could be said to be really existing. He thought human culture should be a kind of news program, whereby people are saved from the sorts of dreams and nightmares that come when people spend too much time alone.

(Interestingly enough, just as I write this scientists have discovered that it is bad for us to think alone. I am not a conspiracy minded soul but is this a mere coincidence that this proof of the perils of thinking alone is revealed at the very moment when we only respect team generated scientific discovery?)

We do justice to neither poetry and science and eventually one of the domains might, in an almost colonial manner, come to play the role of or replace the other.

This project is akin to Churchland's project when she insists that there is no "spooky" stuff. By "spooky" she means that there really aren't real values in the world floating in the ethers like Justice and Love and Beauty and so on. These are rather mere metaphors for habits we have gotten into in perception perhaps a result of some crude atavistic need to reproduce and similar stories. She is not saying the feelings aren't real; she is not saying we should stop using words like Love and Justice but that we have been wrong about their meaning and source all along. In essence we have been as wrong about ourselves as we were about chemistry and physics in previous centuries before further proof was available.

Of course to do this move is a damning indictment of this richest of cultures we inherit. It is also a way to flatter the present at the expense of our rich past. Could it be that Shakespeare has less truth or fact in his plays because he lacked our scientific advantages?

Or it is possible that one can make genuine discovery or progress in non scientific ways, in ways that consist of sitting alone in a room or talking to others in an informal context?

This blogger - your weary, jaded, middle aged musician and amateur philosopher, clad in my three piece flannel lounge suit (though with no pipe or martini in sight) is alone in a room and here to assert, without consulting the proofs of science, without benefit of experiments however controlled, that Love, Justice and Beauty and Truth are actually quite real. Indeed I submit that they are as real as tables and chairs. That they do not have an actual physical location in space or even in our brains is no argument for their non-existence. I know that this is a terribly old fashioned view, I know it is very unhip. While it does have a venerable and historically ancient pedigree, it might strike, you dearest reader, as simply too simple or traditional to be possibly true.

Yet this was the view of some of our greatest minds in many cultures around the globe. The details and tones might differ but the sentiment is the same: we have selves, our world is thoroughly suffused and shot through with value. We are conscious. We have experiences.

What I am talking about is not a religious view. Indeed one need not be religious in the slightest to hold to what I am now saying. The religious themselves play the same game as the scientists. They want to live in a world where all is reduced to third party or third person evidence; it is just that their criteria for what counts as evidence is so thoroughly baroque as to run to the opposite extreme to Churchland. Whereas she wants to edit and chisel cut away all non essentials within a hairbreadth of life, many if not most of our religions want to expand indefinitely until every part of our Soul is accounted for, explained, and mastered. The result is, in spite of the profound differences (Science makes a fetish of evidence, Faith makes a mockery of it) rather similar. I sense in both a touch of the Fundamentalist.

We live in a fundamentalist culture, as today's election results in the United States in part attest. We think in terms of ultimatums, in terms of final causes and at our worst, final solutions.

Let us never lose sight of the individual. It is the individual who is precious. Descartes made many an error but one thing he got right is that the one thing we can be sure of is that we are undergoing an experience, and through that experience we exist, though I would not want to limit it, as Descartes may have, to only thought.

After the earnestness of this blog I promise my next one will be more colorful. I promise to make sure and be more chatty and intimate, to "reach across the aisle". I promise to have some pictures to delight, amuse or distract.

But remember, after all, I am just a guy sitting alone in a room.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Halloween Memoir



Sometimes it appeared as if every day, or at least every weekend was like Halloween at the Hampton household.

Firstly there was my father's weekly visits to the local ancient warlock Lester, a warlock who lived in a trailer filled with books on Satanism and Black Magick. I was many times forced to stay out in the hot car in the Florida sun, which in November might feel like May; I never knew exactly what was going on in that trailer and somehow I felt I was better off in that car. Merely the sight of Lester's beard, which to me seemed to extend to his knees, was enough to frighten me.

Indeed the whole environment could be quite a scare. All of the colors of shag carpeting and all of those cheap and wretched slick oil paintings of sad clowns at George's house, especially bathrooms in bright shades of peach and bubble gum pink and maroon and rust, and lime and aqua blue and so on were enough to frighten. I had forgotten all of the many thick oil paintings that seemed to cover every bit of wall space at the neighbors. Often at night I would imagine that the figures in the paintings could move or come to life to attack me in my bed. Especially the clowns. There was one painting of Abe Lincoln that was particularly frightful. It was velvet which always seemed to me worse than the oils. It took many decades for me to accept him as a benevolent figure after exposure to that amateur paining of Lincoln. In grade school I would argue with the teachers, "Abe Lincoln couldn't have done all that good stuff. He stares at me late at night and threatens to come out of this velvet painting and molest me".

(This brings up another issue at the time: the ever present threat of the child molester. We were told to trust no male anywhere, especially if in a car.

This warning was actually borne out when, in the middle of midtown Manhattan, an obese man in a minivan circled around me in 1980 with chant "hey little boy you are cute come here come here little boy" over and over like a mantra. I can't imagine with that kind of approach this apparent pedophile got many results. I just laughed at him while running in the other direction).

Secondly there were the cheap horror movies that played with abundance for in the buck a movie theater. All the ads you see in the blog above I probably saw.

Last, but not least, me and my best friend George, under the doubtless diabolical influence of my father, got the idea of acting out stuff. Somehow my father developed a taste for imitating the most evil figures he could come up with and playing games with us kids based on such villainy. I believe he was either a vampire of some kind, or worse a slasher serial killer. When he was the vampire he would wear fangs and a black cape and come out from behind bushes to bite our throats.

But it was when he was a killer that dad went far beyond what in our jargon addled contemporary culture we would call boundaries. He had this toy rubber knife and he would hide in the cavernous plant where our products were created and jump out at us like a crazed killer, "stabbing" us with that rubber knife. Though it was a kind of make believe, that rubber could really hurt and my father showed no mercy in his attacks. When we closed our eyes we could almost feel as if he had transformed or become possessed by the spirit of a crazed killer.
We had the perfect environment for hide and seek games because the plant and other buildings in the area were highly industrial and filled with all kinds of shadows at night. It was never clear to me then nor is it clear now what to feel about any of this acting. It seems as if our only role was to play victim and protect ourselves from getting killed which was a futile effort when faced with someone twice your size with a rubber knife.

Between all of these antics and having to perform the magic shows you can understand if my tastes now run towards, shall we say, the realistic, the less than fantastic.

It was worse after the distribution of The Shining because the Jack Nicholson character was a real inspiration and my father would basically "imitate" that character with us boys "cast" in the role of son Danny running for our lives. There was a real relish in the most macho kind of sadism here. To this day I am most sensitive to any kind of cutting imagery in cinema. I have a horror of broken glass as well.

Then there were the events in the neighborhood that seemed a kind of natural horror. There was the little girl who seized my balls forcing me to the pavement.

And then there were the stories. There was the slick used car salesman who sold my dad our beloved red thunderbird convertible with the white vinyl top: a salesman who, in his leisure time at home got mad at his television and took an imposing shotgun and essentially blew up the television set: one of those huge Magnavoxes with the knobs. His story always changed. When he was sober he would say he shot up the television because he was mad at Phil Donahue because Phil Donahue was not "family oriented". (His words). When he was drunk, which was considerably more often, he said he shot his television so as to spare his wife. His wife eventually left him for fear that she would be next. (Her words)

And of course the kinds of Christians who were always coming around to preach and tell their stories had a rather Gothic kind of Christianity as the emphasis was always on Satan and Satan's deeds, and the condition of Hell, and who was going to Hell and who wasn't and so on.

It did not help matters that my father's relatives would come over and talk of demons and demon possession. Certain rules were made very clear. Right before a visitation by a devil or demon you would hear a distinct sound like a hammer or anvil. How often I would lie sleepless in my bed listening for that sound, whether I "believed" in such things or not.

It was rumored too that the rock band that practiced across the street were devil worshippers. Everybody in the neighborhood said so. They would play all night into the night; their music was so out of tune and sluggish, so warbled and incoherent I often wondered if I would ever develop a taste for this weird kind of music called rock with which everybody around me was so enamored.

My uncle the preacher would invariably visit my father and always ask him: "have you done any more thinking about (thumb pointed downward) up there and (thumb pointed skyward) DOWN there?" with a gleeful smile, all the while tapping his foot in a most arrhythmic manner, a nervous tic, while too, his children would proceed to dismantle our house while their father complained that he could not treat those boys because "where we are we haven't got a proper Christian pediatrician." (At the time I honestly didn't know what this saying met. Up there and down there? Why, of course, it is Heaven and Hell. What else?) You will recall that in this subculture, since then now part of mainstream culture, everything had to be Christian, whatever that meant. There was Christian dentistry and Christian agriculture, and Christian music and Christian schooling, and for all I know, Christian legislature. How little I knew then that these folks would only grow in influence.

Because of all this and more, I do not remember a single Halloween.

Fear has such a bad reputation in our current cultural moment. It is viewed as an illusion, as groundless, as something to be overcome so that we may be better people. No sentiments could be further from the truth. Groundless fear may be a problem, but there are some things in life that are best to be avoided.