Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Darkness at High Noon

How fitting that the Great Purge should begin with Comrade Bushkov, the man who hung the "Grand Re-Opening! Under New Management!" signs out in front of former Soviet gulags. The system will eat itself!

The divisions taking hold among Republicans are becoming more severe as the party prepares to accuse its outgoing president of embracing "socialism."

[...]

At its meeting next month, the Republican National Committee is set to vote on a resolution formally opposing the bailouts, accusing Bush of helping nationalize the banks and taking "another dangerous step closer toward socialism," the Washington Times reports Tuesday.

Dove That Ventured Outside

I forget exactly how this became a little tradition of mine, but I always like to read this poem by Rilke every New Year's Eve. Maybe it's the theme of change over time that appeals to me at this reflective time of year. Translation by Stephen Mitchell:

Dove that ventured outside, flying far from the dovecote:
housed and protected again, one with the day, the night,
knows what serenity is, for she has felt her wings
pass through all distance and fear in the course of her wanderings.

The doves that remained at home, never exposed to loss,
innocent and secure, cannot know tenderness;
only the won-back heart can ever be satisfied: free,
through all it has given up, to rejoice in its mastery.

Being arches itself over the vast abyss.
Ah, the ball that we dared, that we hurled into infinite space,
doesn't it fill our hands differently upon its return:
heavier by the weight of where it has been.

********************
Taube, die draußen blieb, außer dem Taubenschlag,
wieder in Kreis und Haus, einig der Nacht, dem Tag,
weiß sie die Heimlichkeit, wenn sich der Einbezug
fremdester Schrecken schmiegt in den gefühlten Flug.

Unter den Tauben, die allergeschonteste,
niemals gefährdetste, kennt nicht die Zärtlichkeit;
wiedererholtes Herz ist das bewohnteste:
freier durch Widerruf freut sich die Fähigkeit.

Über dem Nirgendssein spannt sich das Überall.
Ach der geworfene, ach der gewagte Ball,
füllt er die Hände nicht anders mit Wiederkehr:
rein um sein Heimgewicht ist er mehr.

Monday, December 29, 2008

In Praise of Polyhymnia

I know, it's a pretentious post title, but I didn't want to call it something generic like "Best Albums of 2008". I'm just jazzing it up a little. That's how I roll.

At any rate, I was going to aim for the usual ten or so, but I realized that I really didn't hear ten great albums released this year. Many of the ones I was eagerly anticipating turned out to be uninspired (Dandy Warhols, Earth to the Dandy Warhols), uneven (TV on the Radio, Dear Science), or just plain bad (Primal Scream, Beautiful Future). So I'll just list what occurs to me, and maybe throw in some other notable discs that weren't actually released this year, but I played the hell out of anyway.

Beck, Modern Guilt

I was overjoyed to finally hear of the release date for this back in the summer, but that was quickly tempered by fear: how could this possibly follow the sublime one-two punch of Guero and The Information? I utterly worship those records; should I just steel myself to accept that chances are he'll never be that good again and just enjoy whatever moments he can still offer? Well, I'm happy to report that I don't have to cross that bridge for a while yet. The biggest disappointment for me was the album's brevity, barely more than a half-hour long, while on the plus side, songs like "Profanity Prayers" and "Soul of a Man" are as good as anything he's ever recorded, and several others aren't too shabby either. The worst of Beck is still better than the best of many other artists.

Favorite songs: Profanity Prayers, Soul of a Man, Volcano, Replica

The Vines, Melodia

The pop sensibilities and psychedelica of the Beatles mixed with the bipolar punk of Nirvana, sometimes in the same song. Their first disc, Highly Evolved, cast a shadow that the subsequent three haven't quite escaped from, but Craig Nicholls still writes great songs within those boundaries.


Tribe After Tribe, M.O.A.B.

African acid rock. That's how Robbi Robb described their music way back when, and I guess it suits as well as any label can. I couldn't possibly detail all the ways he and his band have influenced me. I bought their record Love Under Will on June 14th, 1994. I still remember the date because...well, because it was one of those life-altering events that make it impossible to forget where you were and what was going on. It was so heavy, but in a percussive way, not like the wall-of-guitar sound I was used to hearing from metal bands. The lyrics were abstractly poetic without being completely impenetrable. I spent months listening to it every single day, and always seemed to find something new in one of the songs. It changed not only the way I wrote music and poetry myself, but the way I thought about and understood music, for that matter. The only other two records I could name that had a comparable effect were Metallica's ...And Justice For All and Type O Negative's October Rust.

A decade and a half later, they're thankfully still at it, even though I had to buy the album through his website thanks to a lack of distribution - isn't that always the way of it? In a just world, this band would be a household name.

Favorite song: Burning Bush

Econoline Crush, Ignite

Last I had heard, their criminally overlooked 2001 album Brand New History was their swan song, but I heard of this one shortly after it had been released (late last year, technically). Picked up right where they left off, they did. I've always loved that Trevor Hurst's voice sounds like Ian Astbury of The Cult mixed with...new wave influence, maybe? Something '80s, I just can't quite place it. Sharp, punchy alternative rock with a little electronic feel added in. Bonus fun fact: a friend of mine saw these guys in a club many years ago, and the local paper had screwed up the time and date of the gig. Combined with their invisibility on most music fans' radar, this led to no one being there for the show but the aforementioned friend of mine. Rather than go back to the van or motel to sulk, they decided to treat it as a rehearsal and played their entire set while he watched, then hung out and shot the breeze with him for a while afterwards. Super cool guys.

Favorite songs: Get Out of the Way, The Love You Feel

King's X, XV

The legendarily underappreciated Texas trio, King's X. Almost every rock musician knows and reveres them, but that's never translated into record sales. They've got it all except mainstream success. Other friends of mine have gotten to open for them and share the stage for a couple songs, even, and once again, great guys. Fifteen releases later, they show no signs of letting up, and thank goodness for that.


Ladytron, Velocifero

European electro-pop. I didn't like it at first listen, but then it grew on me. Another one of those where the expectations are so high, it's almost a sure thing that you'll be initially let down, and that was the case here. I still don't think it's their best overall, but the song "Versus" would be good enough to cancel out ten more shitty songs.

Favorite songs: Versus, Ghosts

Best New Old Band of the Year: Folk Implosion

How the hell did I miss these guys back in the late '90s? I heard the song "Natural One" on the radio one day this past summer, recognized it, thought, "Hey, I like that song, I should find out who it is and look them up," and so I did. Nothing extraordinary, just great alternative rock with Lou Barlow's subdued, almost insecure voice tucked away inside it somewhere.

Honorable Mentions:

Sigur Rós, Með Suð í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust

Takk...and Ágætis Byrjun will always be the gold standard for me when it comes to these guys, but while this may not be on the same level, it's still Sigur Rós. 'Nuff said. Favorite song: Inní mér syngur vitleysyngur

The Fratellis, Here We Stand

Good ol' raucous rock 'n' roll. Not quite as good as Costello Music to me, but still fun, and that's all that matters here. Favorite songs: Mistress Mabel, Jesus Stole My Baby

VAST, BangBandSixxx

Jon Crosby leaves behind his folk-traveling minstrel experiments for a return to the industrial/electronic rock that he started with. Favorite song: Lift Me Up
Eisbrecher, Sünde

German tanz-metal, slightly - and I mean slightly - less skull-crushing than, say, Rammstein. Favorite songs: Kuss, This is Deutsch

The Black Crowes, Warpaint

The roots-rocking, rabble-rousing brothers Robinson finally got back together and put out something new, hilariously taking a bite out of Maxim in the process. Once again, this doesn't compare for me to their best work (Amorica and Three Snakes and One Charm), but I still enjoy it and think the Crowes deserve better than to be constantly slagged off as Stones/Faces ripoffs. Favorite songs: Oh Josephine, Locust Street

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Oceanic Whisper


The more we think about all that has been and will be, the paler grows that which is. If we live with the dead and die with them in their death, what are our 'neighbors' to us then? We grow more solitary, and we do so because the whole flood of humanity is surging around us. The fire within us, which is for all that is human, grows brighter and brighter – and that is why we gaze upon that which immediately surrounds us as though it had grown more shadowy and we had grown more indifferent to it. But the coldness of our glance gives offense!
Behavior that is excited, noisy, inconsistent, nervous constitutes the antithesis of great passion: the latter, dwelling within like a dark fire and there assembling all that is hot and ardent, leaves a man looking outwardly cold and indifferent and impresses upon his features a certain impassivity. Such men are, to be sure, occasionally capable of neighbor love – but it is a kind different from that of the sociable and anxious to please: it is a gentle, reflective, relaxed friendliness; it is though they were gazing out of the windows of their castle, which is their fortress and for that reason also their prison – to gaze into what is strange and free, into what is different, does them so much good!
- Nietzsche


But the really reckless were fetched by an older, colder voice, the oceanic whisper: "I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing. That is how I shall set you free. There is no love; there are only the various envies, all of them sad."
- W.H. Auden

Cool article. My favorite part:

"Solitude is a healthy way of being alone with oneself. One engages in an inner dialogue," Dumm says. "One of the things that our culture really tries to discourage is thinking, reflection, seriousness. I think that we have to have more confidence in our ability to be thoughtful people. We spend an enormous amount of time worrying about ourselves, but not an awful lot of time caring for ourselves. Caring for ourselves means thinking very seriously and carefully about the conditions under which we're living our lives, and how others are living theirs, and taking instruction from the way that others have lived their lives."

The part I would take issue with:

While technology has given us all sorts of novel ways to connect and stay in touch -- from Facebook to texting to Twitter -- Cacioppo contends that such digital communications are great if they facilitate and enhance face-to-face interactions, but they can increase feelings of loneliness if they are a substitution for in-person interaction. He compares online communication as a balm to loneliness to eating celery when you're hungry; it's food, but it's not going to fill you up like a nutritious meal.

I've always been a solitary person, content to spend hours or even days alone with only superficial social contact, and I've never considered it a problem. Others have, as I've been accused of being everything from rude to mute to mentally retarded for my tendency to speak very little to strangers or mild acquaintances, and then only when spoken to. I have very little ability or patience for meaningless small talk, and wish other people didn't feel the need to drown out the sound of the wind whistling through their heads by jabbering about nothing in particular. I am definitely one of those who most often feels "lonely" in a crowd or a social gathering where I don't really have time or freedom to be alone with my thoughts. I don't know whether it's a question of being overly cerebral or intellectual (not in the "good lord, I sure am a genius" sense, but in the sense of being analytical and dispassionate) or perhaps some genetic factors, but it is as close to being an essential part of my being as I think a person can have. Personally, the Internet (and especially the blogs) has been a godsend for a social misfit like me. I suppose I would be considered by Cacioppo to be one of those who use it as a substitute for face-to-face interaction, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

I've found just as much, if not even more intellectual stimulation and interesting characters online in the last several years than I have in the previous few decades of real life. I feel just as much affection for Roy Edroso, Scott & S.Z., Heywood J. and IOZ as people I encounter in the course of a day; maybe in a different way, but no less meaningful. I wouldn't claim that I "know" people I interact with on the blogs in the same way that I would in person, but who cares? This sort of medium allows you to distill the most interesting parts of what people are all about, their better essence, without the dross that makes up much of their lives. I don't "know" the artists whose work I treasure either, but my life is no less enriched just because I haven't seen them sitting around in their underwear scratching themselves. In fact, that might lessen the effect they've had on me, might diminish some of the magic. I don't doubt that for most people, they need to regularly see a smiling face or feel a warm body near theirs to feel well-adjusted, but I'll take passionate written exchanges of ideas over up-close-and-personal yammering about the weather any day and feel completely satisfied.


"When evening comes, I return to my home, and I go into my study; and on the threshold, I take off my everyday clothes, which are covered with mud and mire, and I put on regal and curial robes; and dressed in a more appropriate manner I enter into the ancient court, of ancient men and am welcomed by them kindly, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born and there I am not ashamed to speak to them, to ask them the reasons for their actions, and they, in their humanity, answer me; and for four hours I feel no boredom, I dismiss every affliction, I no longer fear poverty nor do I tremble at the thought of death; I become completely part of them." 
- Machiavelli

Speaking of art...I've been single for the last few years, and long ago passed the grace period where people left you alone out of respect for a recently failed long-term relationship. Now I get hints from everyone from my mom to my friends, who ask if I'm dating again, who was that girl they saw me talking to, don't I get lonely around this time of year, and so on. It's a shame that thanks to centuries of moping Romantics, the epigones of Young Werther disingenuously turning all the best reasons for being a lone wolf into hackneyed clichés, nothing I could say won't sound like sour grapes or desperate posing or overcompensating. But the truth is, I realized some time ago that music is what makes me happier than anything on earth, with literature a close second. The most transcendent moments I've ever experienced have been in the grip of a song or a beautiful passage in a book. I know what it's like to be in romantic love, of course, and I've had moments in a relationship where I felt very happy and content, but still, that sublime sense of dissolving in something much bigger than my tiny ego, of almost existing temporarily somewhere beyond space and time - that belongs to art. Perhaps for all the pleasure Nietzsche has given me with his grandiose, bombastic literary style and quirky insights into the nooks and crannies of life that make me laugh at the discovery of things I never would have thought of on my own, I'm moving more towards a Schopenhauerish view of life, to escape the horrors of the world via the contemplation of art. (I haven't thrown any talkative old ladies down a flight of stairs yet, but there's still plenty of time for that.)

So, yes - I might be the only person bounded in the nutshell of my house on Christmas Day, but as long as I have a rack full of CDs and shelves full of books, I will count myself a king of infinite space.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Honestly, Abe?

The broader point of Digby's post is fine with me, but when it comes to "anti-Lincoln cranks", allow me to put forth an alternative view: I think Lincoln was one of the worst presidents for not letting the South secede in the first place. Seriously, why do we venerate the guy? He made clear many times that he only cared about keeping the union together, he had views of blacks that would make Strom Thurmond applaud, he freed the slaves as a tactical manuever, not a moral one, and thanks to that stupid fucking move of keeping the southern states in the union by force, we're still cursed a century and a half later with recalcitrant, angry, anti-intellectual rednecks who insist on voting their prejudices and bitter resentments. If he had let them go, they would have eventually noticed their northern neighbors enjoying luxuries like basic literacy, shoes and toilet paper and come crawling back begging to rejoin.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

There Must Be Some Mythunderstanding

Hey, I'd be fine with letting our own snake-handlers have their religion in public schools as long as we could have an alternative like this. Of course, religious instruction in an academic sense has never been the name of the game, just the opportunity to preach to a captive audience while preening and making a spectacle of themselves, despite some fairly clear instructions to the contrary.

Monday, December 15, 2008

O Tempora, O Mores!

This must be some of that post-partisan comity I've heard so much about. Ah, it's nice to see that Sensible Liberals and voices of right-wing reason like the New York Post (headline: Bush Dodges Crazy Iraqi's Flying Shoes) can come together to sing along with Eric Cartman: Respect mah authoritah, you ungrateful wogs! When we want to hear what you think, we'll waterboard it out of you!

(My only complaint is that dogs are noble animals, and in no way deserve to be slandered by having George W. Bush named as one of them.)

If it were just one of the dimmer lights at Pandagon, I wouldn't think too much of it, but I was really amazed to see how many people, bloggers and commenters alike, had a similar reaction as I checked out what several other liberal blogs made of this. Here you have a feeble, impotent expression of rage, of no real threat to anyone, but that didn't stop people from hyperventilating over the fact that dear lord, one of those barbaric mud-people actually threw something at an elected official of the United States government! (Quick! Back to the safety of the gated community! Where's those nuclear launch codes?) What if had been a stick of dynamite cleverly disguised to look like a shoe, huh?! What if someone does that to Obama one day, what then?!

(Well, if he actually makes good on all his bellicose threats towards Iran, I'd say flying shoes would be the least of what he would deserve. But let's hope it doesn't come to that.) But all kidding aside, I guess that good old American Exceptionalism runs deep, even in liberals. Hey, if there were any justice in the world, hundreds of our officials would be lined up at the Hague for their war crimes trials, but that's no reason to get all huffy about it! Don't you know we're the indispensable nation?

Seriously, what the fuck do you expect Iraqis to do, send a scathing letter to the editor? Post a vlog on YouTube calling Bush names? It's fucking obscene for people like this to cluck their tongues disapprovingly at people who have been forced to live through a hell they could never imagine. In fact, just try to do that, you cosseted motherfuckers. Imagine being that weak and powerless. Imagine standing a dozen yards from the smirking monster who had invaded your country using the most risible, transparent lies as a fig leaf, who had sent one entire quarter of your population into exile or an early grave, and ask yourself what you would do. What would you do, you fucking cowards? Stand in line, raise your hand and voice strong reservations about his actions, possibly even ask for an apology?

If Americans had any guts, they'd be pelting this bastard with garbage and rotten fruit any time he stuck his head out in public. Thank goodness not everyone in the world is that meek, frightened and whipped.

Do You Feel Epistemological? Well? Do Ya, Punk?

Grampa Simpson Clint "Steely Gaze of Intellectual Incuriosity" Eastwood says the unexamined life was damn well good enough for the old-timers, so it oughta be good enough for you wisenheimers, and stay outta my yard, you goddamn kids...

Tough guy Clint Eastwood believes America is getting soft around the middle - and the iconic Oscar winner thinks he knows when the problem began.
"Maybe when people started asking about the meaning of life," Eastwood, 78, growls in the January issue of Esquire.
The actor/director recalls the deeper questions were rarely posed during his Depression-era California childhood - and says that wasn't a bad thing.
"People barely got by," Eastwood recounts. "People were tougher then."

Yeah, living hand-to-mouth and never knowing whether you were going to have food, let alone a job next week will do that to ya. Still, I imagine living one of John Calvin's wet dreams is one of those things that looks a little more bracing, invigorating, and character-building in hindsight; in real time, not so much. As Aristotle himself said* in Nicomachean Ethics, "Fuck you, you cranky old coot."

*not really.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Simplify, Sim--

Am I the only one who finds that ironically amusing? Unnecessary repetition in a phrase being used to symbolize the need to strip away superfluous ornamentation and clutter? Perhaps Thoreau was just a student at the School of Redundancy School.

Anyway! I recently had an email correspondence with a former teacher in which she apologized a couple times for her "verbosity" - in this case, writing about three or four good-sized paragraphs per email. It wouldn't have even been two pages of a book if printed out. I thought, what a shame it is that anyone should feel bad about expecting you to take a whopping several minutes of your day to read something they felt was important enough to share with you. It reminded me of something Susan Jacoby wrote:


E-mail, often cited as the savior of written communication and as a worthy successor to obsolete snail mail, has delivered the coup de grâce to the traditional letter.

[...] I know this because of the haste and inattentiveness with which my close friends and I approach the reading and writing of our own e-mail today. Neither I, nor anyone I know, turns to e-mail with anything like the sense of anticipation and pleasure that used to accompany my opening of the mailbox. How could we?

[...] When I receive an e-mail from someone dear to me, I am happy. But the contents usually amount to, "Hi, I was thinking about you when I read this article the other day," followed by a link. And I answer in the same nondiscursive way. When I first went online, I was excited about e-mail because I thought it would replace the long letters I used to send and receive, but I soon found that lengthy e-mails elicited very brief responses - even when the person was someone who liked me or loved me. So I started replying in kind.

There undoubtedly are a few people who save their e-mail correspondence with good friends and who write e-mails as interesting as the letters many of us used to write during the snail-mail era. For the most part, though, e-mail as a medium really is the message - and the message is short.

I've always been one to put a lot of time and effort into my own emails, occasionally saying (and only partially joking) that I aim for them to be events. And I greatly prefer them to handwritten letters - my handwriting is terrible, for one thing, but also for the ability to easily choose aesthetic touches like color, font size and style, and especially for the ability to add hyperlinks, something that I think adds much more depth to an email that wouldn't be possible in a traditional letter, unless you wanted to have endless footnotes and parenthetical asides, which I've always felt makes for a distracting reading experience. I have no problem with the medium at all; it's just a question of how much effort you care to put into it. The majority of people I write to usually send back terse three-or-four line responses if they bother to respond at all, so I understand Jacoby's frustration here, but it's not a question of a monitor versus a piece of paper, or a keyboard versus a pen. My co-blogger Arthur and I have written some incredibly ostentatious emails just for the fun of writing and crafting them. The future may belong to the small mammals texting each other in their retarded lol-speak, but it's still possible to be a big, plodding thesaurus-saurus and enjoy it. Just make the effort.


S.O.S. texted from a cell phone.
Please tell me I'm not the only one
that thinks we're taking ourselves too seriously.
Just a little too enamored with inflated self-purpose.

Constant entertainment for our restless minds.
Constant stimulation for epic appetites.

Don't lose touch.

- Against Me!

Of course, that raises the question of why no one ever makes the effort. Jacoby blames the "culture of distraction", and I partially agree - the fun 'n' games aspect of our wired world certainly places a lot more demand on the attention of people with ever-shortening spans. Who wants to sit at the computer for forty-five minutes concentrating on communicating with one person when you could be instant-messaging several others rapid-fire while watching TV and listening to music in the background?

But the culture of work is where I would mostly look. She looks back fondly on her correspondence with her then-
fiancé in the '60s and is skeptical of the thought of a similar correspondence being possible today through email, but other, more important changes than the means by which we write to each other have occurred since then as well. It's a cliché, but unfortunately no less true, that people are too busy working all the time to pay (with wages that have been stagnant since the early '70s) for all the stuff they never have time to enjoy because they're too busy working, and on and on in an Ourobouran frenzy. One of the greatest philosophers ever, Bill Watterson, noted this in a strip featuring Calvin's dad, where he groused about how modern technology had only made people expect everything to get done instantaneously, and said that if we wanted more leisure time, we'd invent machines to do things less efficiently. With all the "labor-saving devices" we've invented in the last half-century or so, why are we all working longer hours for less money than ever before?

I would just suggest that it's because few people take a reflective view on life, work and leisure. They never figure out a way to make time for those things, like good conversation and time to relax (not merely collapsing in a vegetative, catatonic state or an alcoholic stupor, but actually relaxing), and by the time they start to wonder how it could be done, they've probably got themselves stuck on the hamster wheel of working just a little longer to get a little extra money...only to realize that what was once just a temporary extra effort quickly becomes a required norm, especially once everyone else starts doing it too. Maybe Max Weber was on to something, and we've just thoughtlessly inherited a tradition of slaving away beyond all practical need to prevent idle hands from doing the devil's work, or in the hopes of receiving some slight reassurance by means of material blessings that an insanely hateful, fickle God favored us for a trip to paradise. Maybe we just need to develop a stronger concept of art for art's own sake in our notoriously practical, no-nonsense business-oriented culture, to do certain things just because they're inherently fun and valuable, not as means to an end that never comes.

Friday, December 12, 2008

BASHO'S POND: Aphorisms on Poetry and Poets

Poetry, Eros of Absence.—The sixth sense is the sense of loss. The ab-sense.
*
Advice to a Bad Poet.—Try to write a bad poem. You may write a good one by mistake.
*
Poetry humiliates ideas: it runs them to earth.
*
Poetry is what is gained in mistranslation.
*
The Oyster.—Give me one small imperfection and I will build a perfect world around it.
*
Taming the Theorizing Impulse.—Apollo has a frenzy all his own.
*
Don’t let your intellect make you stupid.
*
Poets take nothing for granted. This is their gift.
*
Look at the world as it performs itself on the time-lapse film of your imagination and growth and decay are suddenly sudden. The corpse of a deer is hyperactive with a zoo of living things feeding on fruitful rot. As the flower grows it exfoliates so quickly you can see it turning inside out. Finally the death appears, that which was innermost and most germane; now it is like ripeness from the seed.
*
A poet is a topological magician who turns things inside out to demonstrate their true properties; before our very eyes they bare the life and death inside them as a single thing.
*
Poets are closer to Heaven than the rest of us and also closer to the ground. Sacred and a bit silly. Monkey gods…
*
Poet: More godlike and more monkey than the rest of us. (Stevens: a touch of the peasant).
*
The poet: a kind of god. A kind of dog.
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Animals walk on all fours. Poets walk on all metaphors.
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Language: the clew and the labyrinth.
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The paths that thread this wilderness of words are made of words.
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Theseus, look down at the thread you are holding: fiber within fiber, it too is a labyrinth.
*
Piranesi.—The labyrinth has no hope, it is lost, it has given up on itself. What you are threading is the structure of despair.
*
The anti-taxonomy that is poetry picks apart dense categories, like balls of thread, into the separate filaments of their exceptions: oddities, hybrids, border phenomena, the hapax legemenon, the lusus naturae. These threads are then reassembled in Borges’ Emperor’s Catalogue.
*
Words bead at the mouth of the world like the fat dew of the honeysuckle.
*
Analyzing great poets is like shining a flashlight into a Klieg light. They illuminate us almost infinitely more than vice-versa.
*
Wilde Reading Dante in Prison.—When he looked down at the paper, his eyes, whose powers of resolution suffering had greatly magnified, saw not the lines but that which lay under and between the lines: an intricate cross-weave of fibers resembling worms, or rope.
*
Wilde’s sin was to live in the world as if it was his private Eden.
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Pose was Wilde’s repose.
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Because Wilde refused to take anything solemnly we assume he took nothing seriously. This is a mistake.
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There is a certain kind of poetry, full of a desperate cleverness, a plangent sophistication of philosophical abstractions, a snarky academic hipness, and dark intimations of Foucaultian knowingness, that can only be called “grad studenty.”
*
The plop of the frog in Basho’s pond: the splash the poet makes. The sound of one hand clapping: the poet’s fame.
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Entertainers amuse, poets bemuse.
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Poetry is the most beautiful vampire that has ever known me.
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Once you have run through the totality of rhymes for a word you seem to have exhausted the totality of the world (insofar as it has no totality).
*
A poem is an actor narrating the story of itself. It must deliver its lines flawlessly or we will not suspend our disbelief in it.
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In poetry, a poised complexity of tone is one of the last signs of mastery. Just as in learning a foreign language one masters intonation last of all.
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We are too hip to want to write a “classic” anymore. We only want to write something that will have an influence and be remembered. In other words, a classic.
*
If you are willing to spend hours, or perhaps days, or perhaps years, worrying over the arrangement of three words, or the choice between two words, or the choice between one word and no words at all, then perhaps you will become a writer.
*
Some of us are authors only in order to be readers. No one is writing the books we want to read, so we write them ourselves.
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A poem should end a little abruptly, a little sooner than it should. This frees its profoundest reverberations. A too-neat closure would merely trap them inside the poem. You wouldn’t feel them in your bones.
*
A poem should stop just short of where you expect. If the poem were a car, you would be thrown slightly forward in your seat. You would suddenly feel the forces at work, their weight and speed and power. You would feel shocked—pleasantly shocked.
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Poetry teaches you what you are. Not in a pedantic way, more like the rope around Villon’s neck: It will teach my neck the weight of my ass.
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All poetry is experimental poetry.
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Poetry offers the naked poverty of everything but its excess.
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A great poem seen through the prism of a mediocre imagination looks impossibly awkward, like a whale in a swimming pool.
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Sometimes the part of you that only wants to write meets the part of the world that only wants to be written. Poetry is a kind of dating service for words and things.
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Writing is the art of writing down precisely what you did not know you meant until you wrote it down.
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Revising constantly is like playing a game of chess in which you get to take every move over and over again until your opponent finally resigns. At this rate, monkeys would defeat Grand Masters. (Perhaps the same monkeys who wrote the works of Shakespeare?)
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Poets are intellect’s ombudsmen.
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Poet’s Skepticism.—Sure it works, but does it look good on paper?
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The poet’s syllogism: I think, therefore iamb.
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The poet, that symbol-minded fellow.
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Dryden and Pope discovered the grandeur of stupidity.
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Blake, a brilliant mystic, hated the intellectually sophisticated with a sophisticated passion.
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Poe: three-quarter poet.
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Is it still possible to celebrate our American days through the sunlight of Whitman’s profane Ordinaries?
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Frost hid behind the mask of having no mask.
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It has been said that in America you are either a saint or a stranger. Stevens disguised himself as one of the saints, the better to survive among them as a stranger.
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Stevens.—Every poem is a last look at the ducks.
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The more puzzled and puzzling Ashbery’s poems appear to us, the more we believe in their authenticity. A kind of confidence game in reverse.
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The frightening fecundity of Neruda’s early work: each line contains several poems, each word several lines of poetry.
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Neruda as Walt Whitman as Magic Realist.—A torrent of surreal metaphors, each one born pregnant with other metaphors, all pushing for an explosive birth, in a war of extravagances—and here and there in the storm of these dreams, he is sitting in the barber’s chair, dropping off his clothes at the dry cleaner’s...
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Rimbaud.—I is not only another, I is several others, including me, myself, and I forget the other. This causes a systematic derangement of the census.
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A way with words? Away with words!
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I own the copyright to my poems, not their meaning.
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Beware doctrine, beware theories. The poem knows better than you do what the poem is about. It does not take orders from the Ministry of Meaning.
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There is meanness in expecting everything to mean. And a kind of mediocrity.
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The power of poetry is not that it gives us metaphors but that it gives us metaphors that turn out not to be.
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The silences in a poem say more than what is said.
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The poet makes words out of the absence of words.
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The mockingbird's cadenza has no beginning and reaches past its ending as if it had no end.

Arthur Chapin

Monday, December 08, 2008

No, Pollyanna, No

I'm being somewhat unfair by referring to Digby that way, but I don't care. I'm really tired of seeing this kind of tripe.
That is not to say we didn't invade other countries on trumped up rationales or thin evidence. We certainly did. But it was a given among western democracies after the two horrifying wars of the 20th century that wars of aggression were a no-no. But just as Bush and Cheney decided that 9/11 changed everything such that even the civilized taboos against torture were out of fashion, they openly flouted and then discarded the world's consensus on this issues after WWII. We became what we had once abhorred.

Wait, what? Western democracies didn't "wage wars of aggression" after World War Two, we merely "invade(d) other countries on trumped up rationales or thin evidence"? You say "to-MAY-to", I say "Ohai! Weer in yur kuntree, killin all yur d00dz!" Is this what the kids today mean by "American Exceptionalism"? All that other bad stuff didn't count, because we really meant well, gosh darn it, and besides, the USSR was worse?

See, here's the thing: if you think the CIA hasn't been happily torturing people since its founding, you're a gullible naïf. I mean, what leftist, even of the milquetoast variety, hasn't heard of this little point of national pride? Did we just accidentally stumble into that? Did some other country set that up on our soil as a prank while we were sleeping? How do you square that sort of thing with this historical memory loss that pretends that all this started in January, 2001? I mean - um...wait...hold on a sec...I'm sorry, what?

Oh, hey, it's Salvador Allende! What's up, Sal? Did you have something you wanted to add?

Yeah, I'm still fucking dead, here. And I see that fat frog-faced fuck Kissinger is still hale and healthy, not swinging in the breeze!

I know, Sal, I'm sorry. Anyone to the left of Mussolini was potentially a Communist, you know. It was practically inevitable we'd come barging on in.

Fucking tell me about it. Hey, how ya like that Ahmadinejad? Better than Khomeini, at least, huh? Good thing you overthrew my secular, soft-on-Communism ass, wouldn't you say?

Mohammed Mossadegh! Why, it's like a Ghosts of American Boogeymen Past parade in here all of a sudden! Hey guys, glad you stopped by, sorry for the bloodthirsty imperialism and all, but I gotta finish this post, a'ight? Later.

Anyway, here's some ugly truth: the only thing Bush really did differently than recent presidents was to go about running the empire like the lazy, ne'er-do-well fratboy fuckup he's always been. He just simply didn't bother to put any gloss on it. He couldn't care less about putting any effort into telling you that a shit sandwich was really something from a five-star restaurant. He just let it all hang out, and smirked at you for gaping in shock. That's right, America - you walked in on your beloved Uncle Sam, unshaven, unwashed, drunk in a wifebeater t-shirt and stained boxer shorts, and halfheartedly yanking himself to a bukkake video starring Iraqi victims of our "liberation" - and you didn't do anything about it. He put it right in your face and smirked about it, and you consoled yourself by pretending that it was all his fault, that if we could just get rid of him, it would all go back to the way it was, when we were the indispensable nation, the city on a hill, and everyone loved us, and mistakes were made, and we might have broken several tiny countries when all we wanted to do was stroke their soft fur, but it was only because we cared too much, and we always apologized a few decades later anyway, and...

Sigh. Really, Chomsky and Zinn should be required reading for high-schoolers here. It's going to be a fun four-to-eight years.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

READ MY APOCALYPSE: Aphorisms on Religion and Philosophy

Which would be the greater miracle, if the human race were created by God or if it came into existence by chance? Perhaps those monkeys really did type Shakespeare…
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Suppose, as some do, that the Big Bang was just part of a cycle of bangs stretching backwards and forwards forever… So when God said Let there be light, He was just reinventing the light bulb?
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The world does not need faith so much as it needs credit.
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Apocalyptic thinking is least appropriate in a real emergency.
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The Middle Ages turned religion into a neurosis. We have turned neurosis into a religion.
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The St. Peter Principle: Every clergyman rises to the level of his spiritual incompetence.
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Heaven is a gated community.
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In my Father’s house are many McMansions.
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I let Jesus into my heart... Now all He does is watch TV and leave crumbs on the sofa.
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I have listened to the call of Being. It is a recording.
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Did Nietzsche have a system? Yes. But it was a nervous system.
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The Owl of Minerva is a fly-by-night operator.
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The Tree of Knowledge stands on a trunk full of facts. Next to it sways the Flower of Poetry on its ghostly epistème. The Tree branches out, the Flower opens up. They evolve in different directions and are radically the same. Think your way to the roots.
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Dendrites: tiny knowledge trees.
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Truths are misconception’s exceptions.
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Synergy.—A poetaster, a mediocre musician, a scatterbrained philosopher, a sloppy philologist: from the intersection of these incompetencies rose Nietzsche’s incomparable genius.
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Epistomological Proposition in the Form of a Cheap Suit Joke.—Q. How is epistemology like a cheap suit? A. It keeps coming apart along the “seems.”
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Pale Ontology: 1. The study of all delicate ghostly things that will forever shimmer just beyond the grasp of the mind. 2. Branch of philosophy that studies the gradual but inexorable falling away from us of that night we pledged eternity to each other on the beach beneath the stars as a fundamental predicate of Being. 3. Science that measures the perpetually receding earliness of things.
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He kept bumping his head into walls. In an open field he stumbled through the absence of walls.
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Take a thing for granted and you no longer see it. Look at it too closely and it disappears.
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The anti-chameleon has the uncanny ability to maladapt to any surroundings.
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Everything is necessary; nothing is sufficient.
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The improbability of Nietzsche: a nineteenth-century Prussian Lenny Bruce.
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Nietzsche reads on the page like a great stand-up comic.
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Nietzsche and Untimeliness.—Untimeliness is essentially a comedic position and requires perfect timing.
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Nietzsche harvested the peculiar ripeness of the untimely.
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The difference between ripeness and decay is a matter of taste.
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Yes, Virginia, there is tragedy in Heaven, but it is set to music by Mozart, illustrated by Botticelli, and narrated by Oscar Wilde.
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Life is a one-way street—but look both ways.
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The origin did not happen, it is happening.
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Infinity is never finished.

Arthur Chapin

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Joy of Violent Movement Pulls You Under


Let us stop thinking so much about punishing, reproaching, and improving others! We rarely change an individual, and if we should succeed for once, something may also have been accomplished, unnoticed: we may have been changed by him. Let us rather see to it that our own influence on all that is yet to come balances and outweighs his influence. Let us not contend in a direct fight – and that is what all reproaching, punishing, and attempts to improve others amount to. Let us rather raise ourselves that much higher. Let us color our own example ever more brilliantly. Let our brilliance make them look dark. No, let us not become darker ourselves on their account, like all those who punish others and feel dissatisfied. Let us sooner step aside. Let us look away.

Nietzsche's not referring to issues of criminal justice per se; rather, in keeping with his recurring theme of resentment, the ways we concern ourselves with others' business more than our own, the ways we take revenge for petty slights, and most importantly, the ways in which that drive for revenge (or "justice", if you want to break out the linguistic cosmetic kit) warps us the longer we hold on to it. I had that beautiful passage in mind as I listened to some of the Inspector Javert-wannabes I know gloating over the news of OJ Simpson finally going to prison for a long time.

It's not the issue of whether he was guilty fourteen years ago or guilty now that concerns me. I just find it interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see people who have lived the last decade-plus paying little or no mind to the details of Simpson's life suddenly becoming giddy at the thought of him spending the rest of his life in jail, as if this had been some festering psychic wound that had been preventing them from getting a good night's sleep. I can understand the Browns and Goldmans feeling good about this, but everybody else - Jesus, seek some help.

I guess what bothers me is the thought that these are the kind of people that can tell themselves that this somehow makes things "right", and believe it. I'm certainly not arguing to abolish laws or concepts of criminal justice, merely pointing out what I thought was so jejune as to be common sense, needless to mention: you can't change the past and no amount of punishment will bring back the victims; you'll just create more grieving friends and relatives. I vaguely recall a passage from one translation of a Taoist text - the Hua Hu Ching, I think - that was referring specifically to war, but it applies here: something to the effect of it being an absolute last resort, of course, and the need to treat it as an occasion of mourning that it should have come to this, to take no joy in the prospect of violent action. Of course, this is a culture that breaks out the same sadistic jokes about prison rape every time a famous (or infamous) person goes to jail (I mean, fantasizing about Martha Stewart being sodomized in prison? Really?)

I'm just always wary of people who are absolutely certain what other people "deserve", whether positive or negative.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Abort Christ

Um, what?
"PPIN's move has enraged various anti-abortion organizations—Indiana Right to Life and the Indiana Family Institute among them. Jim Sedlak, vice president of the American Life League and executive director of Stop Planned Parenthood, an anti-abortion group based in Stafford, Va., condemns the certificates as a continuation of Planned Parenthood's "annual attacks on the Christian community at Christmastime."

I just recently donated money to my local Planned Parenthood, and they didn't mention anything about an annual tradition of attacking the Christian community! What, is that only for those who donate $100 or more? I want to knock over some nativity scenes and hang a life-size Santa on a crucifix, too! It's not fair! I guess I just have to get my Christian hate on by the usual vicarious route of listening to Scandinavian black metal bands.

I'd hate to hear what Mr. Sedlak would think of my annual holiday tradition of masturbating to my treasured copies of North Polesmokers; Hos, Hos, Hos; O Cum All Ye Faithful; Santa's Sack; Threeway in a Manger and Kris Kringle's
Naughty List: Workshop Buttsluts, Vol. 9. It's like a sperm genocide!

LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE STALKING OF HAPPINESS: Aphorisms

In the beginning was the logo.
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Answer a fool according to his folly, so you can sell him something
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The Hollywood conglamourate.
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We grew up watching television. Little did we know that it was watching us.
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Lacrimae rerun.
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Jerry Springer, Reality Television.—To produce and consume mediocrity in a solipsistic cycle, like those primitive microorganisms that feed on their own feces, reduces us to trash watching trash talking trash to trash.
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One Jerry Springer Show Guest Insults Another.—A noise annoys a noise.
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Reality imitates Reality TV.
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In Ireland, said Joyce, the sow eats her farrow; here the farrow eat the sow.
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In this country, life imitates kitsch.
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Kitsch kills.
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We turn to kitsch in order to evade the authentic, that is, the painful complexity and sorrow of things (which extends into ourselves, making the cant of the self-righteous a form of inner kitsch). It is a rigid reaction formation against cognitive dissonance, wearing the face of Snow White.
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Snow White was Hitler’s favorite movie. Walt Disney was an anti-semite.
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Kitsch is the symptom of a failed encounter with otherness. The ultimate reduction of otherness is the primordial dichotomy of friend and enemy (Carl Schmitt); it leads down to the binary “us-them” logic of macrophages and the immune system.
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Kitsch begins with garden gnomes and ends in the camps.
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Carl Schmitt: Hobbes on steroids. Captain of Nazism’s intellectual goon squad.
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Landfill, oil refinery, nuclear power plant… Mall after strip mall, a lurid red glow in the night… Not scenery, obscenery.
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Perhaps nothing can be pre-empted that is not in some sense pre-empty.
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American optimism will be the death of us all.
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The ambiguous promise of happiness this country has extended to its citizens since its founding document is responsible for some of our worst pathologies. The right to “the pursuit of happiness” can be willfully misread as “the right to happiness.” On this reading my unhappiness is an outrage against the intent of the Founding Fathers. There are fateful corollaries to this wish-fulfilling reductiveness: If I am not happy, it must be because someone has stolen my happiness; that person must be punished (the mass murderer at the shopping mall, college campus, office). Whatever makes me happy belongs to me by right; or simply: Whatever I want is mine, because I want it (the stalker, whose stalking is a perverted pursuit of happiness). Finally, the synthesis of avenger and stalker: the serial killer.
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Shopping.—The object is to extract as large a percentage as possible of the total volume of merchandise available in the world outside and place it in your house so as to reproduce a simulacrum of the total Shopping Mall of the World.
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Fleurs du mall.
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Shopaholics.—For those who shop too much, pharmaceutical companies have devised a special drug. The sales volume puts extra money in the pockets of drug company shareholders, thus increasing their purchasing power.
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The cure for consumerism is another product. The system of making money knows how to make money off the breakdowns that occur in the money-making system.
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Wall Street investment bankers and others of their kind are essentially addicted to money, as others are addicted to drugs. It as if they snorted not only cocaine through those hundred dollar bills, but the bills themselves. Those caught possessing over a certain amount should have to enter rehab or face jail time.
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If the “invisible hand” is so impartial, why does it keep giving poor people the invisible finger and wealthy people an invisible hand job?
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Henry James wrote that the two most beautiful words in the English language were “summer afternoon.” That was before global warming.
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Vestibulocracy: government by lobbyists.
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Narcocracy: government by cartels of drug lords and/or pharmaceutical companies.
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Kallocracy: government by spokesmodels. Fascist dictatorship of the Melrose Place master race.
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Mediacracy: government by television executives. Interchangeable with mediocracy, government by hyper-hyped nonentities elected by focus groups.
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Troglodocracy: Government by yahoos.
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Proctocracy: Government by assholes.
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Without rednecks how would a plaid sofa get from the showroom floor to the side of a road?

Arthur Chapin

Saturday, November 29, 2008

I Fake It So Real I Am Beyond Fake

Brad at Sadly, No!:

Has anyone else noticed that a lot of wingnut punditry consists mainly of lecturing everybody on the need to be self-reliant while simultaneously
begging for money? It’s almost like they don’t actually believe the stuff they’re writing…

I know it's an ingrained assumption for many liberals that everyone in the right-wing clown car - or at least those that have achieved some measure of fame and power - are only cynically pretending to believe shit that they laugh about in private, but it's a little too farfetched to think that they just put on the crazy person mask before they head out the door every morning, and revert back to a level of relative sanity at home to chortle over how they put one over on the rubes yet again. Brad may be kidding here, but it's a common knee-jerk reaction every time something is mentioned about one of the usual provacateurs: they're just in it for the money, they don't really believe that bullshit, Dubya only talks like he got kicked in the head by a horse in order to bond with all the genuine idiots, and so on.

If you've ever tried to be someone you're not, to act differently for the sake of impressing someone, say, you know how grueling it is to try to be of two minds. You can't just be natural, since you have to try to consciously maintain this fiction. You have to try to constantly look over your own shoulder, to think about how to act and speak rather than just doing it. At some point, if you don't just give up, it becomes far easier to convince yourself that the fiction is reality, hence the cognitive dissonance that makes our interactions with wingnut relatives so entertainingly surreal. Stephen Colbert is funny because he knows he's putting on an act, he's conscious of it and can play around with it. His role model, Bill O'Falafel, comes across as an impetuous, blustering asshole because he is one, he really believes his own bullshit. People don't get that hysterically defensive if they're just playing a role. He might suspect and fear somewhere deep down that he's a fraud, but he hasn't accepted it and come to peace with it, hence the fireworks any time he's challenged.

There's also the simple truth that a lot of people - perhaps most - are just plain stupid, dishonest and prone to putting themselves at the center of the universe. It's only hypocrisy when other people do it; there's always extenuating circumstances when their actions don't match up with their rhetoric. They lie to each other and themselves all the time, and they don't have the intellectual integrity to challenge their own assumptions for the sake of maintaining any sort of ideological consistency. They really are as stupid and incoherent as they appear; I don't know why people want to complicate the picture by attributing the self-awareness and intelligence to Limbaugh, Coulter, Malkin, O'Reilly, etc. necessary for living such a huge lie, turning it on and off at will, and in full public view, no less. Occam's Razor, people, use it. No need to imagine a clever, manipulating superego at work when a raw id will do just fine.

And ultimately, what the fuck does it matter? Does it make the slightest practical difference whether Ann Coulter believes her own ever-increasing hysterical slander, or whether James Dobson honestly believes in Jesus and thinks he's living a good Christian lifestyle? Does it harm the discourse any less whether Michael "Savage" Weiner is really a bloodthirsty fascist or just playing one on his radio show? Given the undeniable fact that people like them have thousands of followers who damn sure do think that way, why is it so hard to assume the same about the people at the head of the idiot parade? Why this obsession with secret motives, as if unmasking one individual's inauthenticity will somehow cause all their followers to rethink their assumptions? Did all the televangelist scandals of the '80s do anything to put a dent in the number of people willing to send money to a rich guy on tv waving a bible around?

It just seems to me that the left is going to have to find an effective way to engage this shit, as distasteful as it is, because scoffing and expecting the majority of people to see through it just isn't working.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Jesus Saves (By Clipping Coupons and Shopping Wisely)



Another contestant for the "Crazy, Cynical, or Just Plain Fucking Stupid?" guessing game. As always, I don't think the choices are mutually exclusive, but when it comes to the nonexistent War on the Winter Solstice, I do think it's more cynical than anything else. As many gleefully noted last year, Bill O'Falafel can't even be bothered to sell "Christmas" rather than "holiday" ornaments on his own website.

Henninger's column is only unique for the way he tries to find a way to blame the undependable laziness of loan-defaulting shiftless darkies on militant Northern atheists sticking it to big-box greeters. But as he well knows, and as Heywood points out again: it's the consumerism, stupid.

Department stores want to sell as much shit to as many people as they can, so of course they're always going to seek the path of least resistance, not wanting to drive potential customers away over something as trivial as the mumblings of an underpaid teenager or senior citizen standing at the front door. And maybe, just maybe, there is a basic sense of wanting to be respectful of all the different ways people spend this time of year, religious or not. How much of a twisted, rancid asshole do you have to be to convince yourself that that's a bad ideal to aim for?

And I've seen it myself - the same people who will talk over Thanksgiving dinner about their plans to boycott Best Buy over their use of "Happy Holidays" will go stand in the freezing rain outside of Wal-Mart at three a.m. the next morning and get into a fistfight over who gets to be the first one in the door to buy the electric back-hair shaver with extendable arm. What the fuck does any of this have to do with the supposed Christian virtues? As Nietzsche wondered in amazement back in the 1880s: when you see all the things that Christians gladly participate in along with all of us hellbound sinners, you have to wonder where they draw the line between themselves and the world. What does it even mean to call yourself a Christian when you don't do a single thing differently than the rest of us?

It's bad enough that these shitheads turn a genuinely beautiful time of year into yet another round of culture warfare just for kicks, but what really infuriates me is the way they deride the secularism that has, ironically, helped make Christianity the strong, vibrant social force it is here. I'd be glad to go the way of Europe and have an official national church if it meant that religion itself would wither and fade away as a consequence; you'd think these idiots could realize, as did early evangelicals in the late 1700s, that it's better for them if church and state stay as far apart as possible.

Christianity had about a 1500 year run of being synonymous with state power, and during that time, we never did see any of that peace and love stuff become official policy. In fact, as late as the 18th century, you could still have cases like the 21 year-old Thomas Aikenhead, executed for blasphemy. Or Jean Calas, posthumously found innocent after having been tortured to death. Or
Jean-François de la Barre, tortured, beheaded and burnt for the absolutely heinous, horrific crimes of not removing his cap for a religious procession, possessing a copy of a book by Voltaire, and being suspected of having vandalized a wooden crucifix. But in the 250 or so years since we separated church and state here, it's become common sense that killing someone over differing religious beliefs is unthinkable. Again, how much of a twisted, rancid asshole do you have to be to not be proud of that fact, let alone try to change it?

...adding, 11/29: We have met the barbarians at the gates, and they are us.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Now I'm a Believer, Not a Trace of Doubt in My Mind

While I'm on the subject...

I've always found it odd that the primary virtue in Christianity is belief. Credulity. Not intellect or moral actions, but ability to indefinitely exist in a state of ignorance without complaining. Those other things may be important, but without believing this particular story, without eliminating all doubt, no eternal bliss for you!

But belief is only a temporary measure, something only necessary until proof can be displayed. In any other context, what would we think of someone who insisted rather forcefully on the need for you to trust him, but seemed determined to string you along indefinitely?

1) You're walking along, minding your own business, when some dude comes up to you with his hand outstretched, which seems to be clenched around an object.
"Hey, buddy! Look here! See my hand? In it, I have a key to a storage facility that's packed to bursting with treasure beyond your wildest dreams. Anything you've ever wanted, it's in there! Now – do you believe me? Because I want to give it to you! That's right, I want you to have it, but only if you believe what I'm telling you! No, you can't see the key or the storage facility first; you just have to trust me! Because if you don't – well, I'm going to have to throw you in jail, where you'll be tortured horribly every day for the rest of your life. So, whaddaya say?"

2) The fear of death. Something that's plagued people all throughout history, from Neanderthals to moderns. We have a man in Jesus who claims to have the answer to this; a guarantee that we don't really die, that we'll be reunited with all those we loved in everlasting bliss – as long as we believe in him. What would we think of a scientist who claimed to have a cure for cancer – assuming we had very good cause to believe him – but refused to prove it, and refused to share it with anyone unless they swore a personal loyalty oath to him? Or, not only that, but what if he threatened to somehow give cancer to anyone who refused? Is that the ne plus ultra of morality? And what does it say that our sense of morality today is so far beyond the one expressed in the Bible? Doesn't that illuminate the provincial mindset of that day and age, limited by their place in history? Is that consistent with an omniscient deity?

They Fill You Up With the Devil's Cock and They Come in the Name of the Lord

Paul Bloom:

And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

A few random thoughts after reading the article:

I really, really hate the word "spiritual". I hate the metaphysical overtones. I hate the fact that it's usually one half of a shallow, stupid dichotomy, the other half being "organized religion". I know we're supposed to get the impression that a "spiritual" person is an independent-minded individual who doesn't let religious authority figures tell them how to think or behave. In my experience, it's just as likely, if not much more so, for self-identified "spiritual" people to be dilettantes who hold a lot of incoherent ideas, perhaps due to their tendency to treat the world's religious and philosophical traditions as a sort of Whitman's Sampler, accoutrements for accessorizing your inner lifestyle. Mix and match, create your own! I prefer the terms "reflective" or "contemplative" or "philosophical" if I need to indicate that I spend a lot of time looking at the bigger picture and pondering where and how I fit into it.

It's interesting to see how much the pro-religion argument, especially when advanced by people who aren't devout believers themselves, comes down to a Hobbesian claim that believing in inescapable cosmic justice prevents the majority of people from acting on their baser impulses. Misanthropic as I can be, I'm not so quick to assume that all my neighbors are just aching for a chance to rape, rob and pillage, and are only being held in check by the thought of a divine eye upon them and a fiery prison awaiting them. Not to mention the obvious fact, as alluded to above: do we really need to go through the ways in which believers from George W. Bush on down have committed utterly horrific crimes while managing to justify them through select scriptural readings? In a country that identifies itself as 80-90% Christian, it can't be atheists committing all the crimes. Somebody's got some 'splainin' to do.

But speaking of hell, let me just say this: I don't think anyone seriously believes in it. Try this thought experiment: imagine you were living in Germany in the 1930s, and somehow, you came across a list of people scheduled to be rounded up by the Gestapo the next day. You see a close friend or relative's name on there, so you speed to their house and rush in, frantically telling them to grab a few things and get the hell out of there, only to have them dismiss your claims with an incredulous laugh and go back to what they were doing.

How would you react? Would you just calmly shrug your shoulders and say something like, "All right, guess you'll find out soon, but don't come crying to me, because I warned you!" Or would you hit them over the head, if that's what it took, and drag them to safety, figuring that they would eventually thank you for it?

Yet when it comes to a place that is, by definition, infinitely worse than a Nazi concentration camp, we see people react with blithe indifference to the thought of their close friends and relatives, not to mention the vast bulk of humanity, ending up there. Anyone who honestly believed there was such a place would be an utter wreck from the emotional strain of imagining people, especially those they love, being tormented there with no chance of reprieve. But without a place like hell, what use is a savior? Who cares what Jesus said about anything if there's nothing to be saved from?

It amuses me to wonder if one of the most enduring institutions on earth could only exist as long as people refrain from spending five minutes thinking through such logical implications.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Distinction Without a Difference

Perusing my newest favorite blog, I came across an excerpted passage by one John Michell, harrumphing that his backwards-looking idealization of a time before socialism, secularism, materialism, et al. has absolutely nothing in common with fascism, nosiree, nuh-uh, no way:
But there is a world of difference between the gross literalism and inhumanity of a totalitarian system and the high idealism of a radical traditionalist.

Which reminded me of a brilliant passage by Steven Ozment in his book A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People:

The belief that momentary feelings of unity or visions of perfection can survive permanently into everyday life this side of eternity is the ante-room of nihilism and fascism. Such beliefs give rise to ahistorical fantasies, which can never materialize beyond the notion. To the extent that they are relentlessly pursued, they progressively crush the moments of solace that precious moments of grace can in fact convey. Historically such fantasies have spawned generations of cynics, misanthropes and failed revolutionaries who, having glimpsed resolution, cannot forgive the grinding years of imperfect life that still must be lived.

Which I think speaks for itself.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Redemption Song and Dance

Thanks to an unexpected stay in a waiting room without a book of my own to pass the time, I recently became far more aware of the trials and tribulations of Britney Spears than I ever thought I would. (It was either the gossip mags or the Antlers, Ammo & Assholes With Guns shit, so...) I learned all about the drama during and immediately following her public derangement, about how a family's love vanquished drugs, depression, estrangement, and scheming manipulative boyfriends. Now little sis is busy churning out young 'uns, Mom's hawking a tell-all book, and Britney's back to performing; everybody loves and supports everybody else as they hold hands and walk towards the light, happily ever after, cue the syrupy strings, amen.

*sound of needle scratching record*

I do feel sorry for Britney the person. It's easy enough to ignore vapid celebrities, so I don't see any point in wasting energy hating them. Especially child stars, who probably haven't had much say in anything about their lives. If I could snap my fingers and give her a life far removed from all that, I'd be glad to.

When it comes to Britney the abstract spectacle, though, I have to say that I'm at least glad to see The Narrative
disrupted by this turn of events. You know, the teleological redemption narrative that has launched a thousand Lifetime channel movies and People magazine cover stories. Embrace the chaos, Britney! Think cyclical, not linear. As James Wolcott once brilliantly said regarding Oprah being snookered by James Frey:

[...] Oprah and her disciples have no problem with rough stuff as long as the sinner or victim find a rainbow of redemption at the end of the alley. They wanted to believe the worst in the book because it made for a steeper arc of ascension...

The whole concept of redemption seems fishy to me, another form of sentimentality. How many people do you know have found redemption? What does “redemption” really mean? It’s got a lofty religious sound, but the vast majority of people improve or worsen in varying degrees over time, and even those who radically turn their lives around or pull themselves out of the abyss still have to go on doing the mundane things we all do, often suffering relapses or channeling their sobriety and sadder-but-wiser maturity into passive-aggressive preening of their own moral goodness. Most change for better or worse is undramatic, incremental, seldom revealed in a blinding flash or expressed in a climactic moment of heroic resolve.

Encore Presentation

Looking for something else, I stumbled across this from earlier this year. I know the stories are several months old, but, you know, your puny cultural constructs such as "linear time" and "the news cycle" are as nothing to me, foolish mortal! Mwahaha!

Anyway, this
kind of shit is largely what motivated me to write this post to begin with.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Crucify the Insincere Tonight


Is there something wrong with these songs? Maybe there's something wrong with the audience!

- Against Me!

Still just a rat in a cage, eh, Billy?

I saw the Pumpkins in August and got treated to much of the same:
taking the stage an hour and twenty minutes late a la Axl Rose, two extended trippy jams (honestly, if you expect people to sit through twenty minutes straight of echo, delay, chirping birds and bubbling bongs, pass out some fucking LSD already), griping about middle-aged fans who are stuck in the past and only want to hear the old songs (from the guy who just covered a godawful Pink Floyd song), and only a couple songs from each of their earlier albums. Oh, but there was the, ah, unique encore: a cover of Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime", complete with kazoo solo - seriously. Billy's alternate lyrics: "In the summertime, when the weather is fine/ you can stretch right up/and shoot yourself in the head...you can tell everyone to fuck off." The next day, I checked their website and saw that they were supposedly only doing a two-week warm-up tour, and had already announced that they were going to play the same setlist every night. Apparently it was such a success they decided to do it some more. (I remember rolling my eyes upon reading, several years ago, that Billy was taken with New Age pseudo-philosopher and fellow chrome-dome Ken Wilber - maybe some of that narcissism has rubbed off? Not that Corgan has ever been a shrinking violet...)

Of course, I'm all in favor of artists following their muse wherever it may take them, and Billy Corgan has already given me so many songs that I'll be listening to all of my life, so even if he decides to make a whole record of kazoo covers, I don't really have any right to complain about it. What does piss me off is the attitude that people who aren't down with your current aesthetic sensibilities are somehow fake or fair-weather fans, as if we're obligated to be equally enthused about subpar music.

I first became aware of them in late '91 thanks to a tiny blurb in the back pages of a guitar magazine, listing this "folk-rock" band as someone to watch out for in the future. I bought Gish and loved it immediately - as most of my friends were asking me if I had heard this new band called Nirvana, I would say yeah, but I really like this band called the Smashing Pumpkins. "Smashing Pumpkins?! What next, Ravishing Rutabagas?! Haw haw!" Two years later, they were blasting "Cherub Rock" along with all the other Lollapaloozers.

I found something to like on all their records. Of course I loved the My Bloody Valentine-derived wall of sound of Siamese Dream, and the Flood-produced stripped down sound on Mellon Collie. Even on Adore, I felt "To Sheila" and "Pug" were as beautiful as anything Corgan had ever written. Machina didn't really grab me, but there were still a few good songs, and the net-released follow-up, Machina part Deux, had another song, "In My Body", that I rank with any of their more famous songs. And the Aeroplane Flies High box set of b-sides and other unreleased material was an incredible grab bag of diverse songs. Everything from full-on aggro-metal to soft acoustic ballads to techno-oriented songs to just plain unique things that I can't compare to anything else; I've enjoyed all of it.

Zeitgeist, though, was just plain flat, uninspired and boring. Oh, the critics tried to warn me, but I figured, hey, it's the Pumpkins; there's got to be something on there I'll like. Nope. Even after several listens, I can hardly remember any of the songs. It's not that it's radically different than their past efforts, it's that it just sounds like leftovers that weren't good enough to make any of the last few records. It's insulting to be told that it's somehow my fault for not being able to appreciate that, as if I'm one of those baby boomer-types, listening to a radio station that only stops playing the same classic rock bands from the 60s and 70s long enough to play a "new" band who blatantly mines that exact same territory. I listen to a pretty eclectic range of music, so it's not that I'm threatened by change, Billy - it's just that, to quote the cultural critic Butt-head, "I don't like stuff that sucks."