Thursday, June 30, 2011


More from Peter Watson's book:

The modern concept of the immortal soul is a Greek idea, which owes much to Pythagoras. Before that, most ancient civilizations thought that man had two kinds of soul. There was the "free-soul", which represented the individual personality. And there were a number of "body-souls" which endowed the body with life and consciousness. For the early Greeks, for example, human nature was composed of three entities: the body, the psyche, identified with the life principle and located in the head; and the thymos, "mind" or consciousness, located in the phrenes, or lungs. During life, the thymos was regarded as more important but didn't survive death, whereas the psyche became the eidolon, a shadowy form of the body. This distinction was not maintained beyond the sixth century B.C., when the psyche came to be thought of as both the essential self, the seat of consciousness and the life principle.

...Both Socrates and Plato shared Pindar's idea of the divine origin of the soul and it is here that the vision took root that the soul was in fact more precious than the body.

...In fact, life after death, resurrection, judgement, heaven and paradise were all Zoroastrian ideas first, along with hell and the devil.

I just like knowing who to squarely blame for things like this.

Six of One, Half-Dozen of the Other

“For all of the Catholic Church and its horrible faults, and there are many”—here, Egginton ticks off a list that includes the Church’s restricting a woman’s right to choose an abortion and proscribing condom use during the AIDS crisis—“I love the ritual of the ceremony, the smell of the incense, the stopping of time. Even though I’m a liberal and often progressive in my thinking, I’m impressed with the anchor of time that is part of religion.” It’s been more than 20 years since he took confession, but he’d like to try it again soon, he says. “I could see putting myself before the question of guilt and forgiveness.”

I wasn't finding much of value in this article about William Egginton, but man, I just had to stop and marvel at such a potent mixture of self-unawareness and fortunate privilege. Yeah, sure, if you're a woman, a homosexual, or a sub-Saharan African with AIDS, you might lack the necessary perspective from which to appreciate the pageantry of the Church. But if you're a white male professor in America, you can wax rhapsodic about perverts in gowns waving incense burners and chanting in dead languages while still being taken seriously as a voice of reason. Nice work if you can get it.

I Put the Mean Back in Meaning

Elaine Ecklund:

This would be a typical response from the atheist scientist who is not spiritual when I ask, “So how do you answer questions that have to do with the meaning of life, big questions such as why are we here, what’s the purpose of my life?” They would answer, “I don’t think those are important questions to be asking.” Those questions just don’t matter. It wasn’t that they had an answer that was different from the general public. They just didn’t think those were important questions. Now, the atheist scientists who are spiritual would give answers to those questions, and they would give them through the sense of being spiritual. They would talk about how they found awe and beauty in nature, they found awe in the birth of their children, they found awe in the very work that they do as scientists. They just couldn’t see that as being explained only by science—there has to be something else out there beyond themselves. But then they did not see that as being God, or needing to name it as theism of any sort.

So what should people take away from your study?

Many of these scientists who are atheists are not hostile to big questions of the meaning of life. I thought there would be scientists who were religious. I thought there would be probably a lot fewer scientists who were religious than people in the general public who are religious. None of those findings were surprising. But this spiritual atheist finding has really been surprising to me personally.

Yes, this is another installment of "the utterly vapid meaninglessness of the word "spiritual". But you know what makes people hostile to the "big questions of the meaning of life"? The understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all "meaning of life". The question itself betrays an inherent confusion that wears just a mite thin after, oh, about the thousandth repetition. What's the meaning of your life, other than annoying me with facile generalizations about people who supposedly walk around all day thinking of art, music and love in terms of subatomic particles? (Thank you, Martin Figura.)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Metal Gods

Jamais Cascio:

Our technologies are not going to rob us (or relieve us) of our humanity. Our technologies are part of what makes us human, and are the clear expression of our uniquely human minds. They both manifest and enable human culture; we co-evolve with them, and have done so for hundreds of thousands of years. The technologies of the future will make us neither inhuman nor posthuman, no matter how much they change our sense of place and identity.

Technology is part of who we are. What both critics and cheerleaders of technological evolution miss is something both subtle and important: our technologies will, as they always have, make us who we are—make us human. The definition of Human is no more fixed by our ancestors’ first use of tools, than it is by using a mouse to control a computer. What it means to be Human is flexible, and we change it every day by changing our technology. And it is this, more than the demands for abandonment or the invocations of a secular nirvana, that will give us enormous challenges in the years to come.

I'm looking forward to it.

We could very well destroy ourselves with our technological power, but we could just as easily be destroyed by a meteor or a mutated virus, even if we did "return" to an idyllic, Edenic existence. The human race will, in all likelihood, join the 99% of all species that once existed but have since gone extinct, only to be replaced by others. (Hey, it's just statistics.) When you realize that, it takes a lot of the moralizing fervor away from discussions of the pros and cons of technological developments. But a lot of people apparently still yearn for the dubious comfort to be found in a belief in predestination...

(Thanks to Shanna for the link)

Well, I Mean, Uh, I Don't Like Confrontations!

David Chapman:

Now the problem is, traditional Buddhism doesn’t actually have anything distinctively useful to teach Westerners about ethics. There’s no single ethical system in Buddhism; it has a slew of contradictory half-systems. Worse, they are mostly quite conservative, often downright horrid, unacceptable to Westerners, and overall no better than the narrow Christianity the hippies rebelled against.

So, Consensus Buddhism quietly swapped out traditional Buddhist ethics, and replaced it with “nice” vintage-1990 liberal Western ethics. Which is, roughly, “political correctness,” or the “green meme.”

This means Consensus Buddhism has more in common with progressive Christianity (Unitarian Universalism or Liberal Anglicanism) than it does with any form of Asian Buddhism. (Much of the ethical thinking that went into p.c. was done by liberal Christians. Socialism and psychotherapeutic ideology were other major sources.)

...Within Consensus Buddhism, there is a huge emphasis on emotional safety. It’s non-confrontational, unconditionally supportive, peaceful, supposedly-inoffensive. This may be appropriate for children, or for people who are severely emotionally damaged. It’s repulsive and ridiculous as an approach for grownups.

Yes. This is another reason why I will say that Buddhism has been a significant influence on me while refraining from actually identifying as a Buddhist. Much of what passes for American Buddhism bores me to tears with its relentless saccharine sweetness.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

My Jesus Christ Has Canine Teeth

Nathan Schneider:

Just as Korb was once a vegan, Niebuhr had been a pacifist, but the incarnate evil of 20th-century totalitarianism convinced him that such utopianism was tantamount to standing by at Auschwitz.

Christian love, for Niebuhr, can call us to war; by similar reasoning, Korb tells us that concern for animals can coincide with eating them.

Wow. I, uh... wow. Huh. Maybe the logic would make more sense if I were as God-besotted as Schneider is, but it does seem to me that not only is he trying to imply that eating animals is the best way to show concern for them - awfully convenient, that - but that abstaining from eating them is the equivalent of, uh, failing to oppose the Nazis? And who are these Nazis who will run roughshod over a vegan Chamberlain but quail in the resolute face of a carnivorous Churchill? Somebody 'splain this to me, please; I don't want to be arrested and charged as a war criminal next time I buy some Morningstar veggie burgers.

(I read Korb's essay; it seemed to me to be a very lengthy exercise in saying, "Eh, it's a fallen world, whaddayagonnado, thank God for situational ethics," but your mileage may vary.)

Look. I've long been tired of arguing about this with people; I have better things to do than try to defuse the predictable defensive/antagonistic reactions to people learning of my vegetarianism. I have no illusions that there ever was, or will be, a world in which suffering and death don't exist. I couldn't care less about trying to convert anyone to a meat-free existence. If that's conciliatory enough for you two, perhaps you could reciprocate by dropping the pretense of ethical justification for your choices and just admit that you simply like eating animals, regardless of necessity.

Everything Is Boring, Everyone Is Bored

Johann Hari:

I'm not against e-books in principle – I'm tempted by the Kindle – but the more they become interactive and linked, the more they multitask and offer a hundred different functions, the less they will be able to preserve the aspects of the book that we actually need. An e-book reader that does a lot will not, in the end, be a book. The object needs to remain dull so the words – offering you the most electric sensation of all: insight into another person's internal life – can sing.

There is a two-step process here. First, you accept the mundane. You accept the boredom and the toil of life in general. You even willingly push it to its extreme and sign up, for instance, to work at the IRS for the rest of your life. There you can become one with the boredom. You can have an experience that is not, on the face of it, special in any single way. But if you are truly attentive to the details, if you concentrate on the minutia like a Hasid davening before a sacred text, then you have come out through the other side of boredom into a heightened relationship to the here and now.

In fact, the collection of characters at the IRS that Wallace tracks in The Pale King are all mystics of the boring in one way or another. One character with almost autistic literalness and attention to the details of tax-code reaches states of concentration that find him levitating above his desk. Another character spent his childhood in the obsessive, body-contorting, yogi-like process of attempting to kiss every spot of flesh on his own body. These people have come to the IRS not because they've given up on life, but because they have discovered what they consider to be a secret at the heart of life. It is the boring that leads you to real reality. It is the mundane that is the door into the extraordinary. The things that seem, at first, to be exciting and pleasurable are actually a trap. They lead to emptiness.

To me, what Buddha was really looking for was a way to live a life that doesn't suck. Hedonism didn't work because hedonism sucked. It looked like fun, but it really wasn't. Austerity sucked too. It provided a kind of high, but that high didn't make him happy. Instead he found the Middle Way between the two.

Buddha was not looking for a way to make all of us clones of whoever comes along claiming to be the manifestation of "adulthood." He was not looking for a way to make us all "serious" in the conventional sense. He wasn't an authoritarian leader looking for obedient followers. He was looking for a way to help people live a life that did not suck.

Buddhism is about enjoying your life. The goal of zazen practice, if there is one, is to learn how to enjoy living as thoroughly as you can. This is what I am working on. Nothing else. I am working on having as much fun while I'm here as I possibly can without hurting anyone or impeding their ability to have fun.

This is why I sit and stare at walls every day. No other reason.

Now Peter Toohey has written a short book defending drudgery. Dismissed in the past because it is not a big, passionate emotion like love or hate, boredom, he argues, should be respected and cherished rather than feared and reviled. It is adaptive, “in the Darwinian sense.” Not only can boredom “illuminate certain very famous pieces of art and literature,” but, “boredom has in some ways been a blessing.” This distinctly un-romantic effort strikingly rejects older philosophical ideas warning that dullness might lead to crime, addiction, or death. “Boredom doesn’t cause anything,” Toohey proclaims. But his book does not merely aim to transform boredom from ugly duckling to swan. It strives to prove that so-called existential boredom might not exist.

Boredom itself has been around under various guises and names—acedia, horror, tedium vitae, and melancholia—for centuries. Common wisdom has it that modern boredom began during the Enlightenment, with increased leisure time and the loss of faith. It grew with modernity and rose to epidemic proportions in nineteenth-century France, and, thanks to technology and the expansion of the self, it has become ubiquitous in our times. For Patricia Meyer Spacks, in Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, boredom is nothing less than an “explanatory myth of our culture.”

I just thought it was interesting to notice all these variations on a theme recently. I'm not necessarily making any grand claims for dullness (though I will proudly assert my claim to be the most boring person you know) but it seems we all agree here that an excess of stimulation interferes with an ability to focus, yes? And that amazing things can develop in your awareness when you stop letting your eyes and mind wander? Thoughts need time and space to sink their roots down deep in order to become interesting, and the quietude of what most people call boredom is a good place to find them.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

And if You Gaze Into the Abyss...

Keanu Reeves has written a poetry book...

And that's when I clicked "close tab". I don't need to know. I just don't.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sound Barrier

Derek Thompson:

Summer concert season is upon us, a time for most music lovers to leave their headphone jacks at home and mingle in the sticky air on picnic tables and open pavilions. But it's just another three months for those who love music and don't care for concerts. Like me.

For me, music is a scrim lowered into the world. A scene moves around me, and a separate group of thoughts and senses develops behind the melody inside a sheen of privacy. Fader on you, solo track on me. I listen to music to be alone.

I'm no agoraphobe. I watch football at bars and baseball in stadiums, but sharing sports with 10,000 fans feels as natural to me as sharing music with a thousand strangers feels unnatural. Watching sports compels me to reach out, to high five, to shout and connect. Listening to music inspires all the opposite reactions: internalization, thoughtfulness, something private and quiet.

Same here. I've always appreciated the intricacies of studio wizardry over the spontaneity of live shows, though I sense that puts me in a minority. I've seen a few great club shows, but the majority of the arena/pavilion spectacles I've gone to have been largely forgettable. Music frees my mind to better focus and concentrate, which I like to do in solitude anyway.

Trying to Find the In-Between

I hate, hate, hate having to go for nearly a week without writing, but I just finished a thirteen-hour day at work. Monday was a sixteen-hour day. Etc. I am a burnt cinder at the moment.

So, anytime one of you wealthy readers wants to act as a patron and send me a few thousand bucks a month, I can get back to popping grapes in my mouth all day while writing for your entertainment...

Friday, June 17, 2011



Footsteps, sweat, caffeine, memories, stress, even sex and dating habits – it can all be calculated and scored like a baseball batting average. And if there isn’t already an app or a device for tracking it, one will probably appear in the next few years.

Brittany Bohnet, who was converted into a self-quantifier while working at Google, says she expects these gadgets will follow us in all aspects of our lives – even the most private. “Eventually we’ll get to a point where we use the restroom and we’ll get a meter that tells us, ‘You’re deficient in vitamin B,’” she says. “That will be the end goal, where we understand exactly what our bodies need.”

Socrates, Socrates; what do you have to say now, old chum? How about the overexamined life? Is that worth living?

I'm hoping that all this sustained narcissistic attention acts much like a magnifying glass and burns a hole in the very fabric of space/time through which our world can tumble, but that's probably just me.

All Juice, No Seeds

For now, researchers and consumers can only assume that when presented with a full pipeline of new drugs and better data on the safety, efficacy and public acceptability of male contraceptives, pharmaceutical companies will eventually see an opportunity for their profit margins. The hope is, "If you make it, they will come," NIH's Blithe says.

Yes. Yes, I suppose they will. Not that they weren't already. In fact, that's kind of the problem, isn't it?

That's from an article in Scientific American, talking about trying to develop a new male contraceptive. Scientific American. So, uh, I guess it's safe to say that pun was unintentional...?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Lucubratio (II)

I've just started reading Peter Watson's Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention, from Fire to Freud, and I liked these words of wisdom in the introduction:

This is perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from a history of ideas: that intellectual life - arguably the most important, satisfying and characteristic dimension to our existence - is a fragile thing, easily destroyed or wasted.

Also, why has no one ever told me about the Journal of the History of Ideas? My gods, it's like sacred nerd scripture! Check out his list of some articles that were current at the time of writing:

Plato's effects on Calvin, Nietzsche's admiration for Socrates, Buddhism and nineteenth-century German thought, a pre-Freudian psychologist of the unconscious, (Israel Salanter, 1810-1883), the link between Newton and Adam Smith, between Emerson and Hinduism, Bayle's anticipation of Karl Popper, the parallels between late antiquity and Renaissance Florence.

*deep, shuddering sigh*

I've always said that I consider myself "intellectual" if you define the term as being interested in ideas for their own sake, regardless of any practical import they may have. And I've known for a long time that I loved Isaiah Berlin's explanatory blend of history and political philosophy. This? This is about as close as I ever expect to get to finding my "thing" (I refuse to honor Calvin by referring to it as a "calling"). Oh, I'm in love.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Having worked at night my entire adult life, I find it difficult to adjust to staying up late and sleeping for eight or so hours straight. So here I sit in pitch darkness, my face illuminated by only my computer screen, trying to find things to write about.

It has been fun, but I’ve also mostly just wanted work to be over, so I could do “real writing.” And that never happens unless you take a lot of time off, because otherwise your work writing uses up all your potential real writing juice. And then one day you’re old, and then shortly after that, you die.

I had been kvetching a little about the learning curve involved in training for my new job, but I've realized something here: It could be much worse. I could be the staff writer for a place like Salon or Slate, with my master's in English or my journalism degree, using my toe to stub out the flickering remains of my dreams of publishing an influential book of poetry or the Great American Novel as I listen to my editor tell me to produce a few hundred words on transfixing events like the release of 24,000 pages of Sarah Palin's emails, or the latest twists and turns in the whole guy-named-Weiner's-weiner saga, or any of the other bits of effluvia that make up our 24-hour news cycle until I can't take it anymore and forcibly eject my brains through the back of my skull with the help of a bullet. At least I enjoy the writing I do.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

No Furniture So Charming as Books

When I go to a bookstore, I like to stand at the end of an aisle and look down the length of it, pretending that I'm at home, admiring my own library. So, yeah, looking at beautiful bookstores and beautiful bookshelves is pretty much like dying and going to bibliophile heaven.

Oh Henry

Paris Review:

...What’s your take on the romantic notion of the artist in isolation? Is a Henry David Thoreau laughable in this day and age? —Kate

Of course writers need solitude—that’s where the writing happens—but I’m with MacLeish: if you’re going to have anything worth saying, you’d better start by taking an interest in other people. That means living among them; sexting doesn’t count. The two big dangers for contemporary fiction, it seems to me, are people not reading enough and people not hanging out enough. These dangers were unimaginable in Thoreau’s time. His solitude is full of remembered texts and remembered conversations. His clean slate is a palimpsest. But to spend your days alone and online isn't just bad training, it also makes for lousy material.

References to my "Thoreau-esque" existence have become a bit of a running joke between me and a couple friends. I always feign annoyance at being compared to a poser when it comes to being a hermit, quoting Edward Abbey in response:

Henry was no hermit. Hardly even a recluse. His celebrated cabin at Walden Pond - some of his neighbors called it a "shanty" - was two miles from Concord Common. A half-hour walk from pond to post office. Henry lived in it for only two years and two months. He had frequent human visitors, sometimes too many, he complained, and admitted that his daily rambles took him almost every day into Concord. When he tired of his own cooking and his own companionship he was always welcome at the Emersons' for a free dinner.

So, yeah, what's "laughable" is the fact that Hank is still an eponym for austere isolation (the virtues of his prose aside). I live three miles from town! I've been in this house in the woods for four years so far! I can count the number of friends I've had visit me here on one hand with fingers left over! And I've only left the house once since last Tuesday! Where's my recognition?

Without Addition or Diminishing

Jessica Bennett:

Surely everyone in a relationship wrestles at some point with an eternal question: Can one person really satisfy every need? What we’ve learned, it turns out, is that the answer may be no. But if you believe Haag, that doesn’t mean the end of marriage—it simply means a revision of our norms. “Giving ourselves the license and permission to evolve marriage is perhaps the unique challenge of our time,” she writes. In other words: Weiner may indeed be an ass. But, as Haag puts it, perhaps we can have our cake and eat it, too. Let's just be honest about our marital motives.

In many ways, I agree that the venerated ideal of lifetime, monogamous pair-bonding is unrealistic and the source of no small amount of human misery. I agree that no one person can satisfy every need (more on that in a bit). But what struck me about this article was the apparent assumption that people are compelled to be as intimate as possible with those who share their deepest interests, that "evolving marriage" necessarily means sleeping around. I don't think of myself as the ne plus ultra of stoic resignation or ascetic renunciation, but I have no problem with the idea of having close friends that I choose not to sleep with because I already have a partner that I want to be exclusive to. Yes, that could very well be just me being weird. Casual sex has never been my thing, and that's likely due to my shy, withdrawn personality. But it seems like the principle is simple enough to be attractive to others: we are not in any way obliged to push things as far as they can possibly go.

I can't help but wonder how much of this mindset is an offshoot of our narcissistic, therapeutic age in which our own self-esteem and gratification are what matter most, where the idea that we should ever have to be deprived, voluntarily or not, of something we want is an intolerable offense to our sense of entitlement (those primal urges being our truest nature expressing itself, after all). Looking around at society in general, it seems to me that learning to tell the difference between wants and needs is far more imperative than worrying over how precisely to customize your soulmate.

There is no one person who meets my every need. How could there be, aside from simply being a projection of my own wishes, rather than an autonomous individual? But not all needs are created equal, obviously. One of the most valuable qualities I enjoy in others is when they're different enough in taste and temperament to be challenging and interesting. I don't want to surround myself with clones; what fun is it to have conversations with people who you already know agree with you on everything? There's a few core needs which have to be harmonized for a relationship to be stable, but it seems to me there's a lot of others which aren't nearly that important, and it's not a betrayal or failure if they're not being met.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

A Whole Climate of Opinion

Joshua Knobe:

But when I mention this view to people outside the world of philosophy, they often seem stunned that anyone could ever believe it. They are immediately drawn to the very opposite view. The true self, they suggest, lies precisely in our suppressed urges and unacknowledged emotions, while our ability to reflect is just a hindrance that gets in the way of this true self’s expression. To find a moment when a person’s true self comes out, they think, one needs to look at the times when people are so drunk or overcome by passion that they are unable to suppress what is deep within them.

For once, I don't even know where to begin quoting Nietzsche on the idea that there even is one single "true self", let alone one we can ever be completely conscious of. So I'll turn my attention elsewhere, confident that you will join me in dismissing the validity of the notion.

W.H. Auden wrote about Freud's legacy:

To us he was no more a person
Now but a whole climate of opinion.

Under whom we conduct our differing lives...

Yes, and it drives me slightly mad when confronted with the above belief, one of what I feel to be the most enduring parts of Freud's work, even among people who who would rightly roll their eyes at the idea that they ever wanted to fuck their own mothers or that their personality quirks are derived from conflicted feelings over their excretory functions. Why does a fleeting urge count as more of an honest expression of someone's nature than their more-or-less consistent behavior over a longer period of time? The neocortex is not necessarily the lie to the amygdala's truth.

It reminds me somewhat of how religious apologists are always insinuating (or outright claiming) that human nature is such that, left to our own devices, everyone would really prefer to be raping, robbing or pillaging, and that's why we need religion, or at least a belief in God, to keep us in line. Atheists wearily reply that it never seems to occur to these people that maybe we've considered what it would be like if we were to act on those impulses and have consciously decided against it, either because we don't consider the consequences worth the risk, or because we value the more subtle pleasures involved in being so-called civilized over those of immediate gratification.

In both cases, there's a core assumption that your knee-jerk impulses are more real, true, or valid, and that anything beyond them is a façade of after-the-fact rationalization, sublimation, or fraudulent deception. But they're not necessarily any of those things; they're just simpler. Thoughtful consideration isn't necessarily better or worse or more right or wrong than acting on impulse; it's just different. No one would consider a rough draft to be truer than the finished painting, novel or song; what if you attempt to cultivate your life like a work of art? What counts for more then, the inchoate jumble of competing ideas, or the realization of the overall vision?

Free to Go

Jane Briggs-Bunting:

Physician-assisted suicide’s most prominent advocate died, in a hospital where he was being treated, of natural causes. Curious that... But I have to wonder as he neared his own death why he did not choose suicide.

I just chose this particular example for its concision, but I've seen this same achingly predictable reaction all over the place in the last several days. Dear Internet, you do understand the important distinction between a legal right as opposed to a moral obligation, a solemn promise, or a blood oath, yes? Was Kevorkian on record saying that he definitely, assuredly, absolutely would commit suicide at some point, make no mistake about it? I don't know and I don't care, but that at least would justify this being a "curious" event. And even then, all we'd need to conclude is that he changed his mind. I know, crazy, right?

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

My Swearing Doesn't Mean Any More to Me Than Your Sermons Do to You

Otto: You pompous, stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, giant, twerp, scumbag, fuck-face, dickhead, asshole.
Archie: How very interesting. You're a true vulgarian, aren't you?
Otto: You're the vulgarian, you fuck!

The Stranger: There's just one thing, Dude.
The Dude: And what's that?
The Stranger: Do you have to use so many cuss words?
The Dude: What the fuck you talking about?
The Stranger: Okay, Dude. Have it your way.

Yet the idea persists that the use of swear words by writers is fundamentally uncreative and indolent—that the lazy man’s “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is “Fuck this shit."

This idea rests on the assumption that “bad” words really are bad—and ditto writers who use them without exceptional justification. In crime fiction, foul language is justified on the ground that it is lifelike. (Art just imitates that shit.) In Go the Fuck to Sleep, foul language is not simply justified but justification: The whole book is about the taboo status of the word fuck. By contrast, outside of books like Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word or Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, it’s difficult to justify profanity in serious nonfiction.

But do we need such a justification, beyond the one a writer might mount for any word—i.e., that it works? There is, after all, no such thing as an intrinsically bad, boring, or lazy word. There is only how it is deployed, and one of the pleasures of profanity is how diversely you can deploy it.

...Writers don’t use expletives out of laziness or the puerile desire to shock or because we mislaid the thesaurus. We use them because, sometimes, the four-letter word is the better word—indeed, the best one.

Difficult to justify in serious nonfiction? Well, yeah; if the purpose of the writing is more to impart information rather than tell a story or create an atmosphere, gratuitous profanity would seem like the author's voice getting in the way. Otherwise, what's all this disapproval of rhetorical laziness and wrath? Take that prim and proper "seven deadly sins" shit and upper-class sneering back to the Victorians.

Repetitive verbal tics are what annoy me the most. There are people who abuse expletives, but it annoys me in the same way as hearing someone constantly saying "ya know," "like," and "um" in conversation too. The art is in the creative mindfulness you put into it, not the materials you use.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Smurf Heil!


The Smurfs, the blue comic strip characters, are anti-Semitic and racist, treating blacks like moronic primates, a French author has claimed.

Antoine Bueno, 33, a lecturer at the eminent Sciences Po political sciences school in Paris, says the blue figures represent an "archetype of totalitarian society imbued with Stalinism and Nazism."

...Bueno, a speech writer for François Bayrou, the leader of the centrist Modem party, says the Smurfs are like white colonizers of the 19th century in the way they view Africans.

He also claims that the Smurfs' arch-enemy, the wizard Gargamel, is a classic anti-Semitic caricature of a moneygrabbing Jew.

Bueno writes: "Gargamel is ugly, dirty, with a hooked nose, fascinated by gold."

Papa Smurf, the village's elderly white-bearded leader, is portrayed as a dictator, whose red hat and trousers are a nod to Stalin.

Smurfette, the only blond female, created by Gargamel, to wreak havoc among his enemies is a misogynistic take on Aryan woman.

Personally, I always thought somebody must be living in a "mushroom village" to dream up a lost tribe of little blue people to begin with. But leave that aside for now; let's just stick to the sociopolitical subtext here. What about Jokey Smurf? Haymarket-era anarchist, right-wing schizophrenic like the Unabomber, modern-day religious terrorist, trickster god, or simply the raw, destructive, mindless chaos at the heart of existence? Discuss.

The Clouds Should Know Me By Now

"You," Grand argues, "are like a cloud: something that persists over long periods, while simultaneously being in flux. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made."

Eh. I agree with the basic idea, but the way it's worded here still seems to imply some sort of mysterious, immaterial essence. "You" are a combination of the stuff of which you are made, the form it takes, and the time and place in which it exists, how's that?

Coloring Inside the Lines

Stephen Fry:

Indeed it is one of the paradoxes of art that structure, form and convention liberate the artist, whereas openness and complete freedom can be seen as a kind of tyranny. Mankind can live free in a society hemmed in by laws, but we have yet to find a historical example of mankind living free in lawless anarchy. As Auden suggested in his analogy of Robinson Crusoe, some poets might be able to live outside convention and rules, but most of us make a hash of it.

Reminds me of a Nietzschean aphorism:

It will be the strong and domineering natures that enjoy their finest gaiety in such constraint and perfection under a law of their own; the passion of their tremendous will relents in the face of all stylized nature, of all conquered and serving nature. Even when they have to build palaces and design gardens they demur at giving nature freedom. Conversely, it is the weak characters without power over themselves that hate the constraint of style. They feel that if this bitter and evil constraint were imposed upon them they would be demeaned; they become slaves as soon as they serve; they hate to serve. Such spirits – and they may be of the first mark – are always out to shape and interpret their environment as a free nature: wild, arbitrary, fantastic, disorderly and surprising. And they are well advised because it is in only this way that they can give pleasure to themselves.

You know what else this topic reminds me of? The band Morphine, one of my absolute favorites. A drummer, a baritone saxophonist, and a vocalist playing a two-string bass. And yet, and yet, within those almost-claustrophobic confines, some of the most deeply enchanting music I've ever heard was created. Boundaries enhance creativity, in art and in life in general.

This Literature Smells Like Ladyparts

In an interview at the Royal Geographic Society on Tuesday about his career, Naipaul, who has been described as the "greatest living writer of English prose", was asked if he considered any woman writer his literary match. He replied: "I don't think so." Of Austen he said he "couldn't possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world".

He felt that women writers were "quite different". He said: "I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me."

The author, who was born in Trinidad, said this was because of women's "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world". "And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too," he said.

He's right, of course. And it's even worse in the blogosphere, where writing isn't nearly as polished and sublime as in the upper echelons of world literature. I can't count how many times I've read a passage that may as well have been written with a finger dipped in menstrual blood. Honestly, womenfolk, I know you can't help it, but writing can only ever be subpar when you get your ovaries all over it. Attend me: a properly written paragraph should greet the reader with a flinty gaze that vaguely hints at violence and a square, determined jawline dotted with three-day stubble, not a beaming grin and a giddy hug. The prose should roll around the tongue like the taste of undercooked meat, not comfort food. Evocative of potpourri, breast milk and clean linen, never; gunsmoke, sweat and freshly oiled leather; ahh, that's the stuff.

But really, you shouldn't be worrying your pretty little heads over this literary business anyway.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Meat Puppets

Those who were born in mid-to-late 20th century America take this for granted; I grew up eating meat seven days a week, usually for lunch and dinner, sometimes for breakfast, too. But the phenomenon is global: there’s more than twice as much meat available per person than there was in 1950. Citizens of most developed nations have gone down the same path, and as the poor become less so, they buy more meat, too.

...The extreme example is China, whose soaring meat consumption is dramatically affecting the global markets for corn, soy, poultry and pork. But even here in Turkey, which is hardly an economic miracle, the diet is rocketing into the 20th century, moving away from the traditional and toward the inevitable.

Turkey’s diet was classic Mediterranean, of course, high in all kinds of plants, olive oil, some dairy (yogurt and feta, mostly) and a bit of fish, lamb or goat. Now it’s a jumble: a rural grocery store I visited displayed American-style breakfast cereal and plenty of soda front and center, along with (good) local vegetables, industrially produced dairy, and a small supply of expensive, stylishly packaged legumes and grains. There was no fish, lamb or goat, but there were at least 10 cuts of beef and lots of chicken. (Chicken consumption has nearly tripled here in the last 20 years.)

As cheap and plentiful as meat is, I've still been surprised by the reminder of how much more expensive groceries get when you have an actively carnivorous member of the household adding to the shopping cart. I have a rediscovered appreciation for how far you can stretch a hundred dollars' worth of plant-based foods.

Ode to a Beard

Although Parks And Recreation is currently in its annual downtime, Nick Offerman has still found a way to bring stability to the world through his facial hair: He’s growing out his reassuringly stalwart Ron Swanson mustache into a full-on beard—not just as a vacation from his character, but as part of an effort to conserve water for World Environment Day, which takes place this Sunday. Offerman has teamed with Budweiser in the “Grow One. Save A Million” campaign, asking other men to join him in not shaving, thereby helping to save the average five gallons of water every guy consumes when he uses his non-electric razor.

So not only does my dashing, smartly-trimmed beard, especially when paired with mirrored shades and my ever-present Fidel cap, endow me with a romantic magnetism, hinting at the secret pain and oceanic depth of sensitivity in my world-weary soul, suggesting that here is a man equally at ease composing poems by candlelight for his beloved or leading a revolutionary uprising of the oppressed and downtrodden, causing ladies to fan themselves and swoon in my presence, eyes a-fluttering and hearts a-thumping, but it gives me environmental awareness cred to boot? Almost doesn't seem fair, does it?

P.S. Five gallons of water to shave? Fellows, you know you can turn the faucet off when you're not rinsing your razor, right?

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Word Salad Days

Brad Warner ain't gettin' paid.

Thomas Friedman, though -- now there's a fella what's gettin' paid. Paid handsomely. The man is probably doing the backstroke through his own private bank vault right this minute.

For writing things like this.

Or, previously, this.

And even though it feels about as sporting as watching a canned hunt, I insist you read this and this.

Again, this man is filthy rich and respected as an intellectual, while countless talented, thoughtful writers are forced to beg a small audience for pocket change to keep their Internet connection on. I have no interest in understanding a world in which this state of affairs can exist, only renouncing it.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Don't Feel Like Satan, But I am to Them

He has fled,
My only companion,
My splendid enemy,
My unknown,
My executioner-god!...
Come back!
With all your afflictions!
All my tears gush forth
To you they stream
And the last flames of my heart
Glow for you.
Oh, come back,
My unknown god! my pain!
My ultimate happiness!...

- Nietzsche

Wrath James Wright:

Perhaps everyone is fully capable, even after years of brainwashing and indoctrination, of living without religion. Perhaps it is the initial agony of accepting a world without an all-powerful father figure that I am trying to spare my loved ones out of some misguided sense of mercy. I certainly don't mean to suggest that there would be mass suicides or even homicides as some believers suggest (as if the only thing preventing them from raping and killing is their belief in god.) What I'm suggesting is that those other things that they are currently using religion to cope with i.e. stress, drug addiction, alcohol addiction, loneliness, hopelessness, poverty, etc, would become overwhelming without their beliefs. Surely, most would survive and learn other means of coping with life, but it would be naively optimistic to believe that everyone would. Thousands of people a year commit suicide after getting clean and sober and thousands more run right back to the drugs. There is no question that religion is just as powerful a drug as the pharmaceutical variety and can be just as hard to kick.

...I'm sure many of you have gone through a period of malaise and ennui after realizing at last that all this religion crap was a lie. Many of us struggled mightily on our own roads to intellectual freedom. I'm sure we know many others who abandoned the journey unable to handle the stress of a world without the dream of God and heaven. Tolstoy is probably the most famous example of this and nutcases like Kirk Cameron, the most recent. Should we have dragged Tolstoy screaming into the light when he admittedly found the conclusions reason brought him to "Too horrible to contemplate"? Should I drag my mother and grandmother screaming into the light no matter how painful they might find the experience? Or should I leave them in peace and concentrate on those who are perhaps not quite as brainwashed? Who have not been deluded for quite so long? Does suggesting that some people are unable to change make me an elitist?

What's so bad about being an elitist anyway? We don't have to get into that now; I just think it's a valid question.

But yeah, I agree. It's not really about whether or not people are capable of living without metaphysical fantasies; of course they are. The question is whether, given the context of any given individual life, it's realistic to expect them to. The "intelligent and better-educated" people Dawkins mentions are likely to have broader, more cosmopolitan, more cerebral self-images that aren't quite as bound up in the tight social confines of family, faith, and small communities. And a shattered self-image has more to do with why people find life no longer worth living than the objective material conditions of their lives:

Most people who kill themselves actually lived better-than-average lives. Suicide rates are higher in nations with higher standards of living than in less prosperous nations; higher in US states with a better quality of life; higher in societies that endorse individual freedoms; higher in areas with better weather; in areas with seasonal change, they are higher during the warmer seasons; and they’re higher among college students that have better grades and parents with higher expectations.

Baumeister argues that such idealistic conditions actually heighten suicide risk because they often create unreasonable standards for personal happiness, thereby rendering people more emotionally fragile in response to unexpected setbacks. So, when things get a bit messy, such people, many of whom appear to have led mostly privileged lives, have a harder time coping with failures. "A large body of evidence," writes the author, "is consistent with the view that suicide is preceded by events that fall short of high standards and expectations, whether produced by past achievements, chronically favorable circumstances, or external demands."

...To summarize this first step in the escape theory, Baumeister tells us that, "it is apparently the size of the discrepancy between standards and perceived reality that is crucial for initiating the suicidal process." It’s the proverbial law of social gravity: the higher your majesty is to start off with, the more painful it’s going to be when you happen to fall flat on your face.

For a lot of people, their faith isn't just a creed they consciously assent to. They couldn't conceive of changing it any more than they could think of changing their family members, or their relationship with the rest of their community. And most importantly, they wouldn't want to, regardless of how inescapably rational of a choice it was made to seem. Psychology will usually trump philosophy in these instances.

The line between "can't" and "won't" is exceedingly difficult to make out, but it really only matters for the purpose of assigning blame anyway. I wouldn't feel a need to blame people for failing to abandon all traces of metaphysical belief, as if they were obligated to me, to society, or to their own potential to do so. It's enough to live one's own life as a counterexample, there for anyone to take inspiration from if they want it.

An M.C. to a Degree That You Can't Get in College

Louis Menand:

If you are a Theory 1 person, you worry that, with so many Americans going to college, the bachelor’s degree is losing its meaning, and soon it will no longer operate as a reliable marker of productive potential. Increasing public investment in higher education with the goal of college for everyone—in effect, taxpayer-subsidized social promotion—is thwarting the operation of the sorting mechanism. Education is about selection, not inclusion.

If you are friendly toward Theory 2, on the other hand, you worry that the competition for slots in top-tier colleges is warping educational priorities. You see academic tulip mania: students and their parents are overvaluing a commodity for which there are cheap and plentiful substitutes. The sticker price at Princeton or Stanford, including room and board, is upward of fifty thousand dollars a year. Public colleges are much less expensive—the average tuition is $7,605—and there are also many less selective private colleges where you can get a good education, and a lot more faculty face time, without having to spend every minute of high school sucking up to your teachers and reformatting your résumé. Education is about personal and intellectual growth, not about winning some race to the top.

...It’s possible, though, that the higher education system only looks as if it’s working. The process may be sorting, students may be getting access, and employers may be rewarding, but are people actually learning anything? Two recent books suggest that they are not. They suggest it pretty emphatically.

I would have surely loved the intellectual environment of college. But I've found that certain technical work, the kind you do with your hands in the outdoors, can possibly net you between one and two thousand dollars a week. My brother was telling me that some of his friends are promising him that a plum bartending job can get you even more than that. Even so, I'm casting an appreciative eye on the possibility of sharing a house with two or three other people, all of us making roughly four hundred a week, which would take care of everything we need and most of what we want, while allowing plenty of time and energy for things like, well, a genuine passion for intellectual pursuits. (Another friend was telling me that working an overnight stocking job allows him far more leisure for his writing than he ever would have had in academia.) A good life is very much in reach, even - especially - if you do an end run around the system.