Monday, February 28, 2011

In this Ghost Town You Never Know What You'll See When the Sun Goes Down

Andrew Solomon:

Depression is the flaw in love. To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who can despair at what we lose, and depression is the mechanism of that despair. When it comes, it degrades one's self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself. Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself. Meditations and psychotherapy can renew that protection, making it easier to love and be loved, which is why they work. In good spirits, some love themselves and some love others and some love work and some love God: any of these passions can furnish that vital sense of purpose that is the opposite of depression.

...It is too often the quality of happiness that you feel at every moment its fragility, while depression seems while you are in it to be a state that will never pass. Even if you accept that moods change, that whatever you feel today will be different tomorrow, you cannot relax into happiness as you can into sadness. For me, sadness has always been and still is a more powerful feeling; and if that is not a universal experience, perhaps it is the base from which depression grows. I hated being depressed, but it was also in depression that I learned my own acreage, the full extent of my soul. When I am happy, I feel slightly distracted by happiness, as though it fails to use some part of my mind and brain that wants the exercise. Depression is something to do. My grasp tightens and becomes acute in moments of loss: I can see the beauty of glass objects fully at the moment when they slip from my hand to the floor. "We find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more painful than we had anticipated," Schopenhauer wrote. "We require at all times a certain quantity of care or sorrow or want, as a ship requires ballast, to keep on a straight course."

Is That Grass Just Greener 'Cause It's Fake?

Nathan Rabin:

So you can scoff and snicker all you like at the shaggy, hangdog 27-year-old next door dressed in a baggy college sweatshirt and cargo shorts, taking empty pizza boxes and beer bottles to the dumpster. He could be a loser just trying to extend his adolescence indefinitely—or he might just be getting ready to change the world with what he creates in his unkempt guy lair.

Or, or, you know, hear me out here, I know this might sound crazy, he could just be content with living a nondescript life of simple pleasures, having seen plenty of reasons in his 27 years to doubt that marriage, parenting and mortgages are really all that. No, you're right, that does sound crazy. Let's just reheat some leftovers from Atlas Shrugged and justify his existence by the tiny fraction of a chance that he might come up with some world-shaking invention.

Air Traffic Controllers of the Human Soul

By barring any Buddhist monk living outside China from seeking reincarnation, the law effectively gives Chinese authorities the power to choose the next Dalai Lama, whose soul, by tradition, is reborn as a new human to continue the work of relieving suffering.

At 72, the Dalai Lama, who has lived in India since 1959, is beginning to plan his succession, saying that he refuses to be reborn in Tibet so long as it's under Chinese control. Assuming he's able to master the feat of controlling his rebirth, as Dalai Lamas supposedly have for the last 600 years, the situation is shaping up in which there could be two Dalai Lamas: one picked by the Chinese government, the other by Buddhist monks.

Obviously I know there's political subtext to all this. But still, passing a law to prevent reincarnation? Choosing where you will be reborn as an act of political protest? Sometimes I just have to marvel at the fact that, you know, when you scratch the surface, human beings are really fucking insane underneath.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Saturday Shuffle

It's feeling like spring around here, so it's close enough to being time for another one of these.

  1. Maximum Balloon -- Groove Me
  2. Emiliana Torrini -- Fireheads
  3. Conjure One -- Center of the Sun
  4. Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions -- Drop
  5. In Extremo -- Wessebronner Gebet
  6. Peter Gabriel -- Sledgehammer
  7. How to Destroy Angels -- BBB
  8. Supergrass -- Late in the Day
  9. Radiohead -- All I Need
  10. Steely Dan -- Black Cow
  11. Basement Jaxx -- Where's Your Head At
  12. Populous -- Bottom 02
  13. Fujiya & Miyagi -- Dishwasher
  14. The Fratellis -- Vince the Lovable Stoner
  15. Meat Puppets -- Violet Eyes
  16. Elbow -- Fallen Angel
  17. Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears -- Sugarfoot
  18. The Dandy Warhols -- Insincere
  19. Goldfrapp -- Little Bird
  20. Moby -- Porcelain

Friday, February 25, 2011

We are Changed by What We Change

This is a really interesting, wide-ranging interview with Reza Aslan. I'm just gonna get out of the way and let him talk:

I mean the truth is that there is a kid in Los Angeles right now that has more in common with a kid in Indonesia because they like the same music and the same movies, than either of them have in common with their own communities. So the very concept of society has shifted. This is one thing that I never get tired of talking about, that from the dawn of humanity the definition of society and community was geographically defined. Community means, who is around me; who’s next to me? That’s my community. Until twenty years ago. From when we started walking upright to about twenty years ago, that’s what society meant. And it doesn’t mean that anymore.

...We were talking about this and it occurred to us that when we were in high school we didn’t have email. I completely forgot about this. We didn’t have email, and we didn’t have cell phones. So we were all sitting there, suddenly remembering that in order (because I had a very tight-knit group of friends in high school) to get in touch with each other we would have to call our parents. And we’d have to say, “Is Reza home?” I don’t remember it. As far as I know I’ve always had email and I’ve always had a cell phone. But to be confronted by that change is to become aware that we are living through this catastrophic global transformation.

...My very good friend Eli Pariser—he’s writing a book, he created MoveOn. He’s writing this really fascinating book—and this part is not all that unique because it’s something that most tech people would say, is that when we were younger and the Internet was coming along, the excitement was that this would be a truly democratizing thing, this was going to be the technology that not just changed the way we communicate and the way we identify with each other, but it was going to democratize understanding, it was going to create so much access that knowledge would become second-hand. Everything you want to know is now available to you. And what we found over the last half-decade is the exact opposite has happened. What the Internet has done is it’s even more fractured people, it’s become the ultimate sounding board, you never ever have to be confronted by any opposing views for the rest of your life anymore.

Guernica: We’re at a time that is very similar to the printing press being invented. I think about this all the time with my students: For a long time I would get on them, I mean, I still get on them in their essays about punctuation, but there are things students are doing with language right now that I was really upset about for a long time and then I thought, “But is it possible we are at a moment when a new language is being created?” And that is terrifying.

Reza Aslan: I always love, if you ever read Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, he essentially created spelling. Before that you spelled things however you wanted to spell it, phonetically. And then Johnson wrote a dictionary and then that’s how it’s spelled, forever, all of a sudden. So I wonder if we’re sort of in a similar place like that where if I see text-speak or something, I won’t poke my eyes out with a hot iron, but then I think, Jesus, is this how everyone is going to be writing in a hundred years? And is there anything to be done about that or is it just the evolution of language?

Guernica: And I’m also beginning to understand it. I used to get a text from someone and I’d have no idea what’s being said. But now I am beginning to understand the language. And that’s fascinating how at some point it goes beyond my choice even (if that makes sense).

Reza Aslan: But, there will always be people like you and me to complain about this.

We Came from the Breeze

I was talking about poetry with Shanna the other day, and she said she favored long narrative ballads, naming writers like Service, Kipling, Tolkien, and some Frost.

But you can see in the poems I've shown you, this driving, pounding beat, this rhythm that underlays the words and carries it strongly, til it almost echoes. That's why I got disillusioned with free verse. Sure, once in a while you find one that still manages that rhythm, but they're so far between, I just gave it up.

On the other hand, as evidenced by the Bashō quotation up in the top corner, I consider Eastern poetry a cornerstone of my poetic worldview; haiku was the first form that really enthralled me, especially for its connection to Zen Buddhism. When Buson says:

I go, you stay;
Two autumns.

The space in the poem is so vast, and with time being measured in "autumns", you get the sense of his melancholy without having to hear him say in so many words, "I'm lonely. I miss you." You feel his sadness without hearing the words that might numb you to it by dint of their familiarity. We hear those kinds of straightforward sentiments so often, we forget to really feel what they symbolize.

Robert Haas elaborated on this indirect way of expression:

The insistence on time and place was crucial for writers of haiku. The seasonal reference was called a kigo and a haiku was thought to be incomplete without it. In Bashō's poem quoted above, for example, the phrase aki fukaki, "deep autumn" or "autumn deepens" is traditional and had accumulated references from earlier poetry as well as from the Japanese way of thinking about time and change. So does the reference to snow—yuki, which can also mean "snowfall"—in Buson's poems. It is always connected to a sense of exposure to the elements, for which there is also a traditional phrase, "winter bareness." The practice was sufficiently codified and there was even a rule that the seasonal reference should always appear either in the first or third unit of the three phrase poem... These references were conventional and widely available. They were the first way readers of the poems had of locating themselves in the haiku. Its traditional themes—deep autumn, a sudden summer shower, the images of rice seedlings and plum blossoms, of spring and summer migrants like the mountain cuckoo and the bush warbler, of the cormorant-fisherman in summer, and the apprentices on holiday in the spring—gave a powerful sense of a human place in the ritual and cyclical movement of the world.

In a chapter devoted to the poet Issa, Sam Hamill pointed out the ubiquity in his poems of mono no aware (a sense of beauty intensified by recognition of temporality) and sabi (a kind of spiritual loneliness). Two of my favorites of his, both in honor of the deaths of his young children:

This world of dew
is only the world of dew—
and yet...oh, and yet...

A Buddhist equanimity tries to assert itself in the face of intense suffering, but the all-too-human emotions refuse to be pacified. Gets me every time.

Windy fall—
these are the scarlet flowers
she liked to pick.

Again, the indirect focus, not on his daughter, but on the memories attached to everyday objects. The pain of it seems to hit me harder this way.

The Eastern poets appealed to me because that's how so many of my insights appeared to me -- a sudden, intuitive flash, a widening of the eyes, a sharp intake of breath. The words came later, and sometimes just got in the way. I can appreciate a rhythmic story, but when it comes to getting at what seems to me to be the heart of the poetic experience, I tend to feel that the less words, the better. In this case, the poet's job isn't to lay it all out and say Here's what happened, here's how it happened, and here's why it happened, it's to place words sparingly around the experience without trying to land directly on it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Long Time Ago I Never Knew Myself

Steven Hyden:

Grunge set me off on a journey I’m still on. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and their peers used rock stardom as a vehicle for exposing gullible teenagers like me to parts of life that were previously obscured or hidden from mainstream view. Records, movies, books, ideas—all it took was a casual reference to something you’d never heard of an in interview or an album’s liner notes to point you toward another avenue to explore, which then led to more avenues. These bands don’t matter? My God, if you were like me, they gave you the world.

This music changed me. It was important to me. I guess it always will be.

I have a very vivid memory of sitting at my high school graduation, staring at all the caps and tassels in front of me, thinking about all my peers and their talk over the previous weeks about their futures. They seemed so sure of themselves, sure of why they were going to college and sure of what they would do with the education they got there. What was wrong with me? Why didn't I have that sort of self-assurance, or at the very least, why couldn't I fake it?

There was one small kernel of an idea in my head that alleviated the worst of the anxiety, though. I was already starting to tell people that I wanted to be a musician.

Just a couple years earlier, though, I didn't even have that. I was an average student, one of those blessed/cursed with so much "potential", if only I would "apply myself". Those Bs and Cs could so easily turn into As and Bs if only I would put in that little extra effort. But I wasn't terribly interested in most of what was being taught, and as I got into the high school years, those Bs and Cs started occasionally turning into Ds and Fs, mostly when it came to post-algebra math.

It became a ritual almost every nine weeks, the "family meeting", which essentially meant a lecture from my dad about the latest report card while my mom tried to stake out some meaningless middle ground, pleasing no one. He was well-educated and successful in two different lines of work, and impressed repeatedly upon me the need to start thinking seriously about my future and the need to start preparing for it immediately. Get those grades up. Get involved in some extracurricular activities; colleges like to see someone who looks "well-rounded". You're isolated from your peers. You're isolated from your teammates. You don't want to end up with no money and no options when you're older, do you? Do you have any ideas of what you want to do with your life? Once, when I was maybe about fifteen or sixteen, I remember staring at a spot on the table in front of me and saying in a small voice that all I really knew that I loved doing was listening to music. His response was to start talking about the sort of work you can do within the record industry. Office-related work, which had nothing to do with what I was saying at all. At one point, he talked about sending me to military school with the idea that the stricter regimen might keep my mind from wandering. For a kid who found ordinary school brutal enough, this was the closest thing to hell I could imagine. I remember going up to my room, digging out the saddest song I knew at that point to listen to repeatedly, and crying myself to sleep.

I thought about suicide a lot those days.

So sick of not fitting in, so sick of wondering why I couldn't fit in, so sick of just living in constant fear of everything. I had shoplifted a bottle of sleeping pills at one point, which I kept hidden in my room. Just knowing it was there was a strange comfort, knowing I had a clear way out if things ever got too bad, and luckily, I never reached the limits of my endurance.

It almost seems quaint now, thinking back to how easy it was to feel so isolated in those pre-Internet days. Adolescents have always felt that way and still do, of course, but I think there was a slightly heavier burden to bear when, for many of us, there was really no way to find out about other people, other ways of thinking and acting. We didn't even have cable TV at the time. If you didn't fit in with the people around you, that was your problem. You knew the kids you went to school with, and that was pretty much it. And I didn't care to know many of them. On graduation night, I got my diploma, walked back into the school to return my cap and gown, stood around for a minute in the cafeteria watching them all cheer and slap each other on the back, and thought to myself, Why am I still standing here? I don't give a fuck about any of these people. I walked on out and went home. I've never seen most of them since.

I listened to a lot of heavy metal at the time, and Metallica was a particularly valuable lifeline for me. I had started letting my hair grow and getting tattoos. I was playing drums at the time, and corralling a couple friends to play other instruments. But the year after I left school, there was a video on TV from a band called Nirvana.

I'm not going to try to outline everything significant about that fact; Hyden has spent ten installments going over the same topic and still had to leave a ton of stuff out. For me, the important thing was I finally had a template for a new way to live in what the media would begin referring to as grunge. Here, in magazines and on MTV, were people who looked like me while embodying a passion that I never allowed myself to acknowledge, let alone express. Here were people who talked about literature and poetry in interviews and made it sound fascinating. Here were people who made an example of how to live in a way that didn't embrace the mindless hedonism of typical L.A. rock music, or the empty, acquisitive values of society in general. How to live -- the question I had been trying to answer for myself without even knowing how to ask it. I read William Burroughs because Kurt Cobain talked about him. I read Charles Bukowski because the Red Hot Chili Peppers mentioned him in a song. I heard Henry Rollins talk about reinventing himself from a scared, weak little kid into a hardcore punk legend with the help of some philosopher named Nietzsche. I had a brief handwritten-letter correspondence with Otis from Animal Bag. I could go on for hours. Like Hyden said, it only took the mildest of references to send me off on another ravenous search for more knowledge and experience to add to my expanding worldview, and the search itself was intoxicating.

One day, I came down the stairs softly and overheard my parents talking in the kitchen, unaware of my presence. My dad was telling my mom about this regrettable path I had taken, saying that as far as he could see, I had doomed myself to a subpar life of subsistence wages. No decent woman would ever be interested in me, given the way I looked. He felt that he had done all he could, and was resigned to having to wash his hands of whatever I became. My mom was agreeable as always. I stood there for a moment thinking, and then continued on my way out the door. As far as I was concerned, I was on my own from then on.

I spent the next ten years or so focused on writing and recording music, until developing RA. By then, I had given up on the idea of making a living at music anyway, but I didn't need that fantasy anymore. I had made a life out of it. I gave it my heart, it gave me the world. I'll always be grateful.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

And So the Conversation Turned Until the Sun Went Down

I haven't disappeared, I just spent a long weekend visiting with a close friend. Taking turns reading out loud, trips to the mountains to enjoy the almost-spring weather, and lazing around on the couch watching TV. Life is very good. Back to the blogospheric grind as soon as I catch up on sleep.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Give Up Your Vows

Aspects of this evolution in attitudes towards work had intriguing parallels in ideas about love. In this sphere, too, the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie yoked together what was pleasurable and what was necessary. They argued that there was no inherent conflict between sexual passion and the practical demands of raising children in a family unit, and that there could hence be romance within a marriage - just as there could be enjoyment within a paid job.

Initiating developments of which we are still the heirs, the European bourgeoisie took the momentous steps of co-opting on behalf of both marriage and work the pleasures hitherto pessimistically - or perhaps realistically - confined, by the aristocrats, to the subsidiary realms of the love affair and the hobby.


Most of these marriages would be a hell of a lot better if the sexually unsatisfied partner had a discreet affair, but that puts the other partner in a socially untenable situation. “Open marriage” is something for dirty hippies or sleazy swingers, not an upstanding member of society.

...If we want to do something about the high divorce rate, we might want to get real about making sexual satisfaction a precursor to marriage, and also about the role of a discreet, mutually agreed-upon affair as a safety valve. Of course, religion and social norms rule that out-of-bounds.

There's a lone genius—possibly evil and certainly entrepreneurial—behind Ashley Madison. His name is Noel Biderman, and he's the chief executive officer of Avid Life Media, based in Toronto. "Monogamy, in my opinion, is a failed experiment," he declares. It's unclear if Biderman actually believes this—he's married and has two young kids—but like Hugh Hefner before him the business he has created pretty much requires that he say it. Behind his desk, in an office so lacking in embellishment it almost looks like a hastily assembled low-budget film set, is a large flat-screen monitor promoting his company's flagship brand. It reads: "Life is short. Have an affair."

...Research suggests that 20 to 40 percent of heterosexual married men and 20 to 25 percent of heterosexual married women will have an affair during their lifetime. Moreover, men have an evolutionary prerogative to spread their genes as widely as possible, while women are driven to find a mate and try to gain access to the best genes out there by any means necessary.

It is my Buddha Nature to be omni-sexual. If you pluck one string on a well-tuned guitar the one next to it will vibrate because it's the nature of sound waves. Well, my husband picks a certain chord. Then you, you hit this string and you over there, this string. You can't hit her string. Your frequency is completely different. It's not confusing to me. You can't pluck my husband's string and he can't pluck yours.

Rationally speaking, it probably would make a lot of people much happier if the tangled threads of sexuality, love and marriage could be teased apart. Who can even begin to tally up how many decent relationships have been ruined because of a misguided notion that a burning passion, which by definition is temporary, can be sustained over years and decades? You're not allowed to sign legally binding documents under the influence of drugs or alcohol, but people make hugely important decisions all the time while high on the sorts of chemicals that infatuation releases. Maybe the old way had merit, of looking at marriage as a way of protecting property and heritage, while discreet affairs were for getting rid of those irrational passions before they caused damage in everyday life.

For some people, though, sexual attraction isn't just a simple matter of finding someone physically attractive and at least tolerably pleasant to have a couple hours of fun with. Sometimes the qualities that others look for in a relationship are what make a person sexually desirable in the first place. Even as a young, studly musician, I never had any interest in casual sex. Granted, some of that was due to my withdrawn nature which made such intimate contact with strangers too overwhelming to contemplate, but some of it was because I just couldn't find anything stimulating about looking at people like they were a piece of attractive meat, independent of personality.

I know that sounds pretentious and contrived, like the kind of guys who joke about how much more often they get laid now that they've learned to talk like a feminist, but it's true. I was watching Louis C.K.'s recent comedy special Hilarious, and he talked about how depressing it is as a newly-divorced 41 year-old trying to redevelop his atrophied social skills on the dating scene, only to be repulsed by the shallow, predictable identities that people all wear. "Who are you? What are you all about?" "Uh, I'm The Girl That All The Guys Want To Fuck!" You've seen one, you've seen them all, from the bimbos to the broheims. It's like everyone learned their social skills by watching thousands of hours of beer commercials.

Speaking of which, I wonder sometimes why we associate superficial attractiveness with sexual desire anyway. Is it really the product of relentless advertising? Are we just Pavlov's dogs, trained to connect a certain body type and charisma with all the subtle signals that get the lizard brain going? Is there any logical reason to expect that someone who looks handsome or pretty will be more pleasurable in bed? Or would the evolutionary psychologists say that we're drawn to certain features that somehow indicate good genes?

I have no idea what to think about any of this. This is why I'm a hermit.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

They Act Like Earth Was Terrestrial Prison

Stefany Anne Golberg:

In the end, Caruncho and Fernández say they want to separate romance from reality, but their diagnosis leads to a conclusion no less romantic, and no less religious, than the legend: that our own bodies can generate within us a sensation of the divine. From this, maybe the romantics and neoclassicists can be brought together for a new notion of genius, one that allows for, and sometimes necessitates, ecstatic irrational reveries that must still be grounded in practice if good works are to be produced. After all, visions alone are not enough. If Chopin hadn’t practiced his piano, he may never have gotten past the Polish border. But his experience of the sublime, whatever its cause, was a real factor in his ability to compose as well.

Works for me. I don't get why so many people think our most sublime experiences are diminished unless we pretend they descend, uncaused, from some mysterious dimension outside of space and time. Again, I blame Plato.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Poking at the Giant Eyes of Ancient Gods

But up to now the moral law has been supposed to stand above our own likes and dislikes: one did not want to actually impose this law upon oneself, one wanted to take it from somewhere or discover it somewhere or have it commanded to one from somewhere.

- Nietzsche

In conversation with Shanna the other day, the topic of Carl Jung's work came up. I casually mentioned that I wasn't much of a fan of his (or of his follower Joseph Campbell). Impudent as always, she wanted to know what exactly I didn't like about him. Grumbling and grousing at having my authoritative pronouncements questioned, I named a few things. But while looking for a remembered citation on Wikipedia, I saw a brief paragraph that largely encapsulated my answer for me:

Jung's work on himself and his patients convinced him that life has a spiritual purpose beyond material goals. Our main task, he believed, is to discover and fulfill our deep innate potential, much as the acorn contains the potential to become the oak, or the caterpillar to become the butterfly. Based on his study of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Taoism, and other traditions, Jung perceived that this journey of transformation, which he called individuation, is at the mystical heart of all religions. It is a journey to meet the self and at the same time to meet the Divine. Unlike Sigmund Freud, Jung thought spiritual experience was essential to our well-being.

Achoo! *Sniff* Sorry, Plato's overpowering cologne always makes me sneeze.

I had an elderly neighbor once who constantly urged me to read Campbell, and when I did, I realized why she was always giving me a hard time for supposedly failing to fulfill my talent as a writer or musician. To her, I was being a petulant acorn. The Little Engine That Wouldn't. I had been given this gift, didn't I see, and I was being dishonest to myself and depriving the universal spirit of my contribution to the whole by refusing to see how much I could maximize my potential. I knew she meant well, but it was hard not to be offended by what struck me as a slightly arrogant position. Who exactly was she to tell me what I should be doing with my life? Just because she thought it was a "waste" to live a nondescript life in a small town with my girlfriend and her kid, it was now a universal edict? Did I get any say in what I wanted to make of my life and how I wanted to arrange the various components in order of importance? I didn't want to be a Hero; I just wanted to be a cipher, to live unseen and enjoy my ordinary life.

This is what I don't like about Jung, or Plato, or anybody who cares more about generalizations over particulars, composites over individuals. I don't understand this idea that the greatest thing, the ultimate achievement, is to submerge your identity in some oceanic whole. It makes me think I'm listening to moths rhapsodizing about the flame. I know that this limited perspective that we call our individual identity has no permanent, underlying essence to it, but I love it all the same.

And I don't understand this urge to shrug off the yoke of responsibility for what we do with our lives and seek to fall into some preordained pattern, some preexisting script, where we just have to show up and let destiny take care of the rest. Well, actually, I suppose I understand it, but I don't respect it. You're not in sole control of your life, of course, but you are in charge of deciding what constitutes living well, and doing your best to embody it.

There is no moral imperative here. Your life is yours to fulfill or waste as you see fit. Sometimes I think we act like we're driving cars with no brakes; we only ever stop mindlessly accelerating when we hit something. But not every dream is obligated to become a goal. Not every talent is destined to lead to riches and recognition. And abstention can be just as much evidence of wisdom and self-mastery as failure of nerve.

Premature Congratulations

Sarah Firisen:

There does seem to be no doubt that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube had a significant role to play in giving a voice to the democracy-seeking citizens of Egypt & Tunisia and helping them to create a community of international supporters. If there ever is a judgement day, surely Mark Zuckerberg’s sins of inflicting Farmville and Mafia Wars on the world will be more than outweighed by the events of the last month of so.

And this makes me wonder, will people now stop saying that they don’t see the point of social media and that it’s an absurd waste of time? Of course, many of the things that people choose to spend their time doing on social media - see above comments re: Farmville and Mafia Wars - may not be the most productive things they could be doing. But, the same is true for almost everything; the fact that some people spend their time reading Harlequin romances, doesn’t negate the value of reading in general.

Whether its Second Life, Twitter, Facebook or a plethora of other offerings, there are many worthwhile, often beneficial uses of social media: disease support groups, public awareness campaigns, news feeds, educational programs, and more. Yes, there are an awful lot of videos of cats dancing on YouTube, but YouTube has also become a vital means of communication in and out of Tunisia and Egypt.

Perhaps some people spend too much time on social media; there may be a legitimate reason to worry about young people’s lack of in-person interactions with each other, and of course, there are the usual very valid concerns about privacy, viruses and spam. But can we all just finally agree that, while these concerns are legitimate and need to be discussed and addressed, social media is not a total waste of time and that it’s no longer okay to just wildly fling out the judgement that people who use it “need to get a life”?

I can only speak for myself, of course, but I feel confident in asserting that I have always been judicious and measured in my accusations of life-lacking with regards to social networking, so, sure, we can agree here. YouTwitFace™ can indeed be used in service to various worthy causes, especially when time and mass signatures are of the essence. At the same time, it's also true that social media, with all the attendant gripes about decaying social skills she mentions, is a symptom of our culture's relentless drive to increase speed for its own sake, a drive which contributes to a number of other social ills that can't be easily vanquished by an online petition. And curmudgeons like me with a particular interest in wordsmithery will always insist that the most lamentable thing about online communication flowing downhill to the sea level of social networking is the lost opportunity for people to take advantage of a text-based medium to become better at expressing their thoughts through writing. But as long as we don't completely devolve into communicating through clicks, grunts, ringtones, hoots, whistles and emoticons, I guess I can grudgingly admit that social networking isn't totally useless.

About that revolution thing, though. Like most Myrrhkins, I don't have anything pertinent or intelligent to say about developments in Tunisia and Egypt. I'm merely content to pride myself on not being one of those idiots making the achingly predictable puns on that Bangles song. (You know which one I mean. I'm not even going to say it.) However, I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb to suggest that when today's headlines are talking about a U.S.-funded military junta taking power in Egypt, suspending the constitution, and declaring martial law for the good of the people in the name of eventual (maybe) democracy, you might want to hold off on jabbing that Like button for the time being. Old-timers with some perspective can tell you that history isn't necessarily quite as enthralled with the seemingly instant results of clicktivism as you are; there's still plenty of time for blood to start flowing and wheels to start rolling backward.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Eyes of Confusion Looking for a String

James Miller:

The moral of these philosophical biographies is therefore neither simple nor uniformly edifying. For anyone hoping for happiness, or political wisdom, or salvation, philosophical self-examination seems in practice to have led to self-doubt as often as self-trust, to misery as often as joy, to reckless public acts as often as prudent political conduct, and to moments of self-inflicted torment as often as moments of saving grace.

I found myself thinking, as I read his book, about this gap between theory and practice and wondering if maybe the problem is in the folly of ever thinking that the raging floodwaters of life can be tamed and neatly channeled by rational principles in the first place. Socrates/Plato was wrong about many things; what if the idea of intellectual consistency being a prize virtue is another? What if the attempt to define people by unbending logical principles is just as misguided and doomed to failure as the search for some mysterious essence called the soul to define them by? What if the True, the Good, and the Beautiful do not necessarily harmonically converge?

Imagine my chagrin, a few paragraphs later, to find Rousseau, one of my least favorite philosophers, forcing me to grudgingly tip my hat to him:

When Montaigne tried, and failed, to emulate the stoic composure of Seneca, and chose instead to describe himself as he really was in his Essays, he was finally able to step outside the tradition of moral perfectionism that had linked the philosophical ideals of Socrates and Plato to those articulated by Seneca and Augustine. And when Rousseau subsequently, and even more spectacularly, proved unable to live up consistently to his own daunting standard of virtuous conduct, he was unafraid to draw one possible conclusion: "You want people always to be consistent"—the classical idea of rational unity. "I doubt that is possible for man; but what is possible for him is always to be true: that is what I mean to try to be."

Saturday, February 12, 2011

I Celebrate Myself, and Blog Myself

Ian Brunskill:

The superficial similarities are certainly striking. His avowed interest in every aspect of his own life and character and their frank revelation in prose of sometimes improvisatory immediacy have (to Bakewell and others) suggested affinities with the world of blogs and social media today. It would be wrong, however, to push this too far. Montaigne’s literal self-centeredness has more in common with the self-portraits of the Renaissance painters who created the form (one element in an evolving complex of ideas about Man and his place in the universe), than with the compulsive exhibitionism of today’s Facebook or Twitter users. For Montaigne it’s a matter not of self-display to the world, but of self-discovery in the world and through engagement with it. Writing in the way he does is essential to that process, as he quietly contemplates the workings of his own mind. He has none of the blogger’s fear of silence or the desperate modern need to connect and communicate.

...The happiness he pursued was not the personal pleasure of utilitarian thought, let alone the “quick boosts” and easy (if esoteric) gratifications of modern self-help. His goal, as Bakewell reminds us, was the eudaimonia of Greek philosophy, an altogether fuller conception of human flourishing and joy. And he attained it by not seeking it. He focused, to borrow Minogue’s phrase, not on happiness itself but on concrete particulars, bringing to their contemplation what Bakewell describes as another “little trick” taken from the Greeks: ataraxia, which might be rendered equanimity or imperturbability. The result could be described in Montaigne’s case as a productively detached kind of engagement with life.

...There may be a lesson, nonetheless. At the very least, Montaigne’s example offers a valuable counterpoint to a media-driven, mediated modern culture that blurs the distinctions between public and private spaces, and public and private selves, and in which constant communication seems sometimes to mean no more than unceasing noise. Montaigne was happy in a way that no blogger ever could be. There is, in the end, something to be said for the little room behind the shop.

Emphases mine. I had been thinking about this myself as I read Bakewell's book, the difference between the sort of (literally) self-centered writing Montaigne did, and the more self-absorbed type of attention-seeking communication in social media. (I would also point out, though, that Brunskill is too quick to conflate blogs with Facebook and Twitter; some very good writing by almost any standard is being published on Blogspot and Wordpress.)

Personally, I think it's a bit of a silly conceit to act as if one can approach a topic from a purely neutral, objective view, or at least to act as if removing all explicit elements of a first-person narrative confers greater objectivity. I realize that a lot of what I'm doing here is "self-discovery in the world", a "detached engagement" with it, but I certainly hope it doesn't read like someone wallowing in his own thoughts out of narcissistic delight in what a unique snowflake he thinks he is. I aim to engage with ideas and events by grounding them in my own perspective, partially because I don't have the pedigree to write as a disinterested scholar anyway. I write about whatever interests me to a group of strangers on the Internet who don't know anything about me as an everyday person, and under a pseudonym at that, because the larger topics are really what matter here. I like to think I'm expressing the parts of myself that are most worth knowing, but in the hope that they'll resonate in other people's lives and reflect something else back.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

In Your Eyes

For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.

- Rilke

I've never found Descartes terribly interesting, but I read something last night that I liked: in a letter to his friend Marin Mersenne, he mentioned having begun trying to live his life under the motto, "To live well, you must live unseen." Of course, having seen the persecution of Galileo and the burning at the stake of more than a few philosophers and heretics, he could have very well meant that to live at all, you must avoid the wrathful attention of the Church. But still, my thought was wow, how very Taoist of him!

The people of the world excitedly run about as if they were going to miss the yearly, royal, sacrificial feast, or as if they were going to be the last one to climb a high tower on a beautiful spring day.
I alone remain quiet and indifferent.
I anchor my being to that which existed before Heaven and Earth were formed.
I alone am innocent and unknowing, like a newborn babe.
Unoccupied by worldly cares, I move forward to nowhere.
The people of the world have more than enough.
I alone appear to have nothing.
The people of the world appear shrewd and wise.
I alone look foolish.
I like to be forgotten by the world and left alone.

It also occurred to me that his motto was a much more succinct way of saying what I was trying to get at in this post. Being "seen" can be a description of the ways in which our identities are fixed and reinforced in the sight of others. For people who think of philosophy not as scholarly hair-splitting over the ultimate nature of things, but as the search for how to live well, how to best pursue truth and integrity, the weight and pressure of other people's attention can be a hindrance, trapping us in egotistic responses to their expectations.

Lords of Misrule

The host of HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" said O'Reilly's interview with President Barack Obama before the Superbowl was "astounding" and disrespectful, and forced Obama to swallow a great deal of "guff."

The Fox host interrupted the president 42 times in the 15-minute interview, as O'Donnell recently revealed on his show.

"I just feel like the most difficult part of his job must be to squelch the rage that somewhere must be inside and say, I'm the president of the United States. You don't talk to me like this. I'm not some left -- I'm not Al Sharpton, you know. I won this job," Maher said.

"And Bill O'Reilly, who claims he's such a patriot, how unpatriotic to treat a president that way. How does that look to other countries when you're interrupting and belittling."

Me, I would think the most difficult part of the job would be to look in the mirror and find even a spark of humanity in your reflection after seeing pictures like these, but yeah, sure, I guess swallowing guff from some peon has to be pretty harsh as well. What will the neighboring countries think?!

Anyway, Bill, bravo for the attempt to play the "My star-spangled boner is bigger than your star-spangled boner" card in some sort of ironic-yet-ineffectual reverse psychology judo flip, but everyone should know by now that you can't shame the shameless, you can only intern them in re-education camps. Now, as far as the craven, genuflecting, belly-crawling, boot-licking sycophancy, I'm afraid I can only award you a bronze after such strong performances from fellow courtiers Roger Ebert and the one ring-kisser to rule them all, Rick Perlstein.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Take Your Low Heels Off and Put Your Whore Heels On

Brad Warner:

The connection between The Secret and Buddhism may not be altogether clear, but it’s there. I have a fiend who works a large Buddhist bookshop in Los Angeles. A couple years ago she told me that The Secret basically kept the store afloat. The store’s impressive stock of just about every Buddhist book currently in print wasn’t selling for sour beans, but copies of The Secret were flying out the doors so fast they could barely keep it in stock.

The authors of The Secret draw upon the general public’s vague understanding of the Hindu/Buddhist concept of karma, couple that with a few mystical sounding pseudo-spiritual superstitions and latch it all on to that perennial best-seller greed. The result is a vaguely Eastern sounding philosophy that says just wish for something real hard and it’ll come to you. If you want that BMW bad enough, picture it in your mind’s eye and you’ll get it.

In the Family Guy episode Brian watches as his novel tanks while books about this kind of soft-soap spirituality sell by the truckload. So he cynically puts together his own version of the same thing and it’s a big hit. Sadly, this is not so far removed from what’s really happening.

My friend Brucekowski (thus dubbed because his name is Bruce and his writing showed the influence of Bukowski) and I hatched a similar scheme many years ago, as we sat there watching hippie burnouts and self-absorbed yuppies attempt to save the Earth by throwing all their recyclables in the wrong bins. Being within driving distance of presidential estates like Monticello (Jefferson), Ash Lawn (Monroe), Montpelier (Madison), and even Mount Vernon (Washington) at a stretch, our idea was to gather rocks, dirt, sticks and moss (and maybe even gravestone chippings) from the grounds and sell them in little baggies, which would be placed under pillows or dangled from rearview mirrors, where they would emanate that Founding Father aura to... I dunno, make you smarter, more eloquent, virile, you name it. We didn't really get that far with the plan. But of course we immediately saw the potential for workbooks, $4.99/min. phone lines, and other additional merchandising tie-ins. Smooth operators are standing by...

So, what do you say? I mean, here I am blathering on a blog for my own amusement, and obviously you all don't have anything better to do if you're reading this. And we could all use some extra money, yes? So are we going to put our heads together and bring this idea to fruition or what? If it sounds unscrupulous to you, think of it this way: at least we'd be preventing people from spending that money on The Secret. We would use our newfound wealth for good, not evil!

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Death Will Seem Surreal Soon in the Sunshine Afternoon

I've mentioned before how I'm sort of lukewarm on Stoicism as a philosophy, but I always liked Epictetus' advice that "In the very act of kissing a child, we should silently reflect on the possibility that she will die tomorrow." Not because it will somehow make it easier when death finally comes, but because living with that acute awareness of how fragile and unpredictable life can be makes it easier to truly appreciate what you have when you have it.

I was at the doctor's for my yearly checkup today. As I was leaving, the receptionist asked when he wanted to see me back.

"Next year."

"Okay, would you like to go ahead and make that appointment now?"

"Uhh... um, yeah, sure."

I hesitated for a moment because I suddenly had the odd thought that it seemed awfully cocksure to make an appointment that far in advance. Who knows whether we'll all still be alive by then? Car accidents, aneurysms, defective heart valves, suicide, various terminal illnesses, a meteor strike — there's an awful lot of ways for even the youngest and healthiest of us to go when you stop to think about it. If you ask me, prognostications should be limited to a week ahead, maybe two if you're feeling brave. After that, they should be appended by, "...assuming we're still alive then, that is." It would only be honest.

I didn't share my musings with her. She didn't look like someone who would appreciate a disquisition on ancient philosophies. Besides, the phone was ringing.

Yeah, that's the thing Epictetus forgot to mention — cultivating such a fey sensibility can turn even routine small talk into a ripe opportunity for awkward embarrassment.

Monday, February 07, 2011

I Need a Scratch from the Hand of the Ass that Sold Me the Itch

We are currently living in a new golden age of television, a medium that has been liberated by cable broadcasting to explore both fantasy and reality with greater frankness and originality than ever before: as witness shows as different as the now-iconic crime dramas The Sopranos and The Wire, with their darkly glinting, almost Aeschylean moral textures; the philosophically provocative, unexpectedly moving sci-fi hit Battlestar Galactica, a kind of futuristic retelling of the Aeneid; and the perennially underappreciated small-town drama Friday Night Lights, which offers, among other things, the finest representation of middle-class marriage in popular culture of which I’m aware.

With these standouts (and there are many more), Mad Men shares virtually no significant qualities except its design. The writing is extremely weak, the plotting haphazard and often preposterous, the characterizations shallow and sometimes incoherent; its attitude toward the past is glib and its self-positioning in the present is unattractively smug; the acting is, almost without exception, bland and sometimes amateurish.

Worst of all—in a drama with aspirations to treating social and historical “issues”—the show is melodramatic rather than dramatic. By this I mean that it proceeds, for the most part, like a soap opera, serially (and often unbelievably) generating, and then resolving, successive personal crises (adulteries, abortions, premarital pregnancies, interracial affairs, alcoholism and drug addiction, etc.), rather than exploring, by means of believable conflicts between personality and situation, the contemporary social and cultural phenomena it regards with such fascination: sexism, misogyny, social hypocrisy, racism, the counterculture, and so forth.

That a soap opera decked out in high-end clothes (and concepts) should have received so much acclaim and is taken so seriously reminds you that fads depend as much on the willingness of the public to believe as on the cleverness of the people who invent them; as with many fads that take the form of infatuations with certain moments in the past, the Mad Men craze tells us far more about today than it does about yesterday.

I don't have any critical talent or deep insight when it comes to art; I'm just a dude who knows what he likes. After seeing so many people in the blogosphere wanking themselves silly over Mad Men for so long, and after kicking myself for waiting so long to see what all the fuss over The Wire was about, I finally decided a couple months ago to get the first season through Netflix in case it really was worth all the hype.

No. It was not. This dude did not like it. I didn't even finish half of the season. You can either take my unsophisticated word for it, or you can read the rest of the article by Daniel Mendelsohn to get a more nuanced analysis.

The Personality Is the Political

Looks like somebody needs to put one of those breathalyzer ignition interlocks on their Blogger dashboard:

I was in rush hour the other observing some self-centered dude blocking four lanes and snarling traffic for blocks to spare himself a minor inconvenience and it occurred to me that the logical result of our recent embrace of vulgar libertarianism is a total breakdown of social order. Even in rush hour traffic where it's vital to everyone's survival that we observe certain norms, there always seems to be some entitled, selfish ass in an expensive car making it worse for everyone else these days.

No, if vulgar libertarians ran society, every road would be privately owned and require a toll at both ends, so I doubt you'd see many scenarios like the one above, because the exorbitant cost would prevent most of us from driving anyway.

But that's neither here nor there. Hey, y'all! Would you like to see what happens if we all were to filter our everyday experiences through a stunted, warped mentality that insists on framing absolutely everything as a partisan political issue? Well, gather 'round and let me spin you a tale! When I was a teenager, I used to do volunteer work at a recycling center in a university town. You can imagine a lot of the typical patrons: ponytailed liberal academics, idealistic students, affluent suburban bobos. The kind of people who shopped at the organic grocery up the street and probably had at least one bumper sticker or t-shirt from Northern Sun. Now, one would think, wouldn't one, that a person who has invested the time and energy into keeping their trash and recyclables separate and driving to town on their own time to dispose of the latter would care enough to do it right. But bitter experience speaks through me to you and swears that it is not so.

I could not have kept count of how many patrons (we called them "inmates" of the "psycho center"), having brought themselves all this way, refused to walk the additional thirty yards to the other end of the parking lot to dispose of whatever they were holding. You could tell them at a glance. "Excuse me, where does the brown glass go? Oh. Down there? In that bin? Oh..." They would look at their destination, back at the bag of imported microbrew empties, back at the other end of the lot...and sure enough, you'd find that bag sitting on the steps of the newspaper trailer a few minutes later, right behind where they had been standing. Half of our day was spent just removing all the material that some illiterate, lazy bastard had insisted on dumping in the wrong bin while we were otherwise occupied. These were the same types of entitled, oblivious twats who would hand their bags and containers to anyone nearby with dark skin or a working-class appearance; my friend Brucekowski once had to mollify an angry black academic who was on the receiving end of that treatment from some clueless yuppie woman, despite his expensive suit and Mercedes. And since we started this conversation speaking of vehicles, I saw a few accidents in the parking lot, where nothing more complicated than a three-point turn and a 10 MPH speed limit was involved.

Just one more anecdote, you say? All right, then! A school friend of mine who worked at Whole Foods once thanked me for bringing my cart back to the store before ranting about how many customers left theirs out in the parking lot—initially, the store must have figured that their save-the-earth clientele would be conscientious enough to walk the carts back themselves out of a spirit of hippie camaraderie. They soon learned better, and put cart returns in the lot so that people could save time and a few steps and get to the gym faster, where their expensive membership allowed them to run in place on a treadmill.

What does it all mean? I ask myself as I sit here in reflection on my mountaintop, running my fingers through my long white hair. Just this: a significant number of human beings are short-sighted, selfish, and thunderfuckingly stupid. They act that way on foot and behind the wheel of a car. Are they the majority? I don't know, but there are certainly enough of them out there to ruin your day if given half a chance.

She Just Loves Me for My Big Dictionary

Huh. I don't know that I care too terribly much about choosing sides in this new war over Dictionary Atheism. Fucking splitters.

But don't despair! I haven't lost my taste for pedantic digressions. Having been reminded that the Greek word pneuma is often translated in a religious context as "soul", I wonder if I finally have an answer to my question. Apneumic? Apneumatic? Let's open up a new front in the assault on religious belief! If nothing of you survives your death, what difference does it make whether something called God exists or not?

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Animae Magnae Prodigus

In his book Examined Lives, James Miller closed his chapter on Socrates with a quotation from Nietzsche I don't recall ever seeing before:

I know of no better aim of life than that of perishing animae magnae prodigus, in pursuit of the great and the impossible.

It reminded me of a passage from Five Faces of Modernity, by Matei Calinescu:

Even enthusiastic defenders of utopia like Ernst Bloch speak of the "melancholy of fulfillment" and stress the importance of the "not-yet" in the vision of the future. But to what extent is a consistent philosophy of the "not-yet" possible nowadays? Unfortunately, the modern utopist cannot afford to follow Lessing, who in his famous apologue imagined himself choosing, at God's invitation, between all Truth and just the active search for Truth (with the condition of never finding it). It was not too difficult for Lessing to make up his mind, and without hesitating, take the active, though endless, search—for "absolute truth belongs to Thee alone," he told God. Lessing's way of putting the problem would hardly make sense in a world where God—even as an abstraction or working hypothesis—is dead and everybody knows it. The heroic optimism of infinite search justified by the sheer greatness of a transcendent goal has been lost by modernity. The goals of the modern utopist are supposedly immanent and within reach, and to postpone attaining them would be irresponsible, despite the "melancholy of fulfillment."

But what if the search leads you to the realization that there is no singular, absolute Truth good for all people at all times, only a multiplicity of truths, recurring in different guises in a cycle of forgetting and rediscovery? What if our misguided notions of final resolutions in time are what cause the melancholy of fulfillment? What if our valuing of "consistency" is just another manifestation of our strange yearning for essence, for permanent, fixed identity?

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Word Made Grilled Flesh

So, having just emerged from the shower, imagine my surprise as I walked across my bedroom toweling off, my Adonis-like physique exposed in all its glory, only to see a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses ambling right past my window on the way to the front door. I haven't had any of them stop by here in probably three years! In a moment of inspiration, I seized upon the idea of inviting them in to deliver their spiel if they would in turn allow me to read them some selected passages from Nietzsche and Dawkins. I thought the exchange would make for an interesting blog post (the things I do for you people!) But alas, I was on my way to meet Arthur for lunch and had no time to spare! What a shame to waste such a rare opportunity!

So I killed them and took them with me. We had them sliced and served over fettuccine noodles in alfredo sauce, with a Caesar salad and garlic cheese toast on the side. I don't drink alcohol, so I just had water. Arthur had a soda. Conversation was pleasant, centering on 19th-century authors, the state of writing in a digital age, and the nature of life as bohemian intellectuals in the twilight of the American Empire.

As I was cleaning up the bloodstains on the porch upon arriving home, I noticed where one of them had dropped a copy of The Watchtower, with this issue's cover story, "The Garden of Eden: Myth or Fact?" The first few pages fluttered in the breeze, hoping to attract a reader. I put it in the recycling bin and came inside.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

"It Isn't Fair, It Isn't Right," He Screamed, and Then They Were Upon Him

Montaigne wrote in his Essays about witnessing a killing during the salt-tax riots in 1548 in Bordeaux. In Sarah Bakewell's telling:

A few tax collectors were killed. Their bodies were dragged through the streets and covered in heaps of salt to underline the point. In one of the worst incidents, Tristan de Moneins, the town's lieutenant-general and governor—thus the king's official representative—was lynched. He had shut himself up in the city's massive royal citadel, the Château Trompette, but a crowd gathered outside and howled for him to come out. Perhaps thinking to earn their respect by facing up to them, he ventured forth, but it was a mistake. They beat him to death.

...In this case, Montaigne thought that Moneins had failed because he was not sure what he was trying to do. Having decided to face the crowd, he then lost his confidence and behaved with deference, sending mixed messages. He also underestimated the distorted psychology of a mob. Once worked up into a frenzy, it can only be either soothed or suppressed; it cannot be expected to show ordinary human sympathy. Moneins seemed not to know this. He expected the same fellow-feeling as he would from an individual.

I imagine most people who strive for authority and power over others, whether spiritual gurus or political leaders, instinctively know this lesson. A mass audience does not permit indecisive weakness. Make up your mind, plant your feet, and right or wrong, don't allow yourself to be swayed. In most instances, though, the best and healthiest stance to take toward life is probably a lighthearted skepticism -- "I'm not sure, but I guess we'll find out." Don't get too attached to your conclusions, don't develop tunnel vision, don't let your impulses carry you away. But when it comes to our leaders, we demand and expect confident assertions followed by decisive actions, even (or especially) when the stakes are highest. No one respects Hamlet-style waffling here. He who hesitates in order to calmly reflect is lost. Don't think, just act.

I just find it interesting to consider how often the most power accrues to those least given to introspection and judicious caution. Wait, did I say interesting? I meant terrifying.

Learn to Swim

Speaking of impoverished worldviews:

Indie band The White Stripes formally announced their breakup today. People in 2003 are very upset.

You know, I certainly don't expect much from the kind of vacuous moron who writes at a site like Gawker. But reducing an artist's entire identity to that fleeting moment in media consciousness when they achieved a perfect balance between indie credibility, mainstream success and novelty... I mean, it would be one thing if he said, "Ahh, they always sucked ass anyway; who cares." But it's so much more depressingly shallow to put it as, "Ahh, anything more than five minutes old is, like, so totally lame-o and not worth paying attention to. I mean, 2003?! Did they even have smartphones back then? Whatevs!"

Did hipsters exist back in Old Testament times? Because if so, the Great Flood suddenly seems eminently rational and defensible.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Whole Goddamn World Is Riding on Words for Thousands of Years

We get closer, therefore, to the true wickedness of Melville's book, when we see this reversal. What Ahab hates most thoroughly is the idea that the universe might be inscrutable to the last; that ultimately there might be "naught beyond." He therefore holds desperately and passionately to the idea that there is an ultimate, final, and universal truth about how things are; that there is, in other words, a traditional kind of monotheistic God. This misguided passion for monotheism, the book reveals, is the most dangerous and deadly kind there is. Melville's genuine wickedness, in other words, consists in his portrayal of Ahab's monomaniacal monotheism as itself the incarnation of what the universe most abhors.

...Since Karl Jaspers's 1949 book The Origin and Goal of History, historians and sociologists have emphasized a cross-cultural turn in the first millennium BC that Jaspers called the Axial Revolution. This revolution introduced the idea— through Plato's metaphysical philosophy, the Buddha's conception of Nirvana, and various religious notions of Eternal Life—that there is a good beyond what we can find in the everyday conception of human flourishing; that there is a transcendent good that is the nature of the Divine. As Charles Taylor explains it:

The Axial Revolution tended to place the Divine on the side of the ultimate good; while at the same time redefining this as something which goes beyond what is understood as ordinary human flourishing: Nirvana, Eternal Life.

It is precisely this conception of "going beyond" that Melville's faceless whale encourages us to resist. Rather than searching for some reasoning things behind the mask as Ahab insists on doing, Ishmael thinks we should nurture the moods of everyday existence—the mood of the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, and any others we can learn about or discover—for the meanings they already offer.

I've never read Moby Dick, but Dreyfus and Kelly's book makes me want to.

What they're saying is simple: our lives are full of meaning, just as they are. But to echo Alfred North Whitehead ("The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.") and Nietzsche ("Christianity is Platonism for "the people"), we've been trained by two thousand years of history to see everything around us as inherently meaningless; only things that last forever without changing have any true substance or meaning. And since nothing actually does that...

The thing that really staggers me is thinking about how we really have no idea what we even mean by desiring that the things we love should last forever. I mean it quite literally: we're not even capable of wrapping our minds around the concept of such an existence, yet we ruin our lives worrying about the possibility of not attaining it. What would it even mean to exist as human beings unbound by time? What need would there ever be to act? If you could get what you think you want, to have eternal life in something like your individual form, don't you realize that the lack of temporal constraints would render your "life" utterly meaningless? You could take a twenty-trillion year nap in heaven, wake up, and still have the exact same neverendingness stretching out before you. As Alan Watts said, having "all the time you want" is one thing; having, literally, "time without end" is another. The latter would actually be much more like what we call hell, a nihilistic prison that would drive us mad. We couldn't possibly exist in such a state with our identities as we understand them. We need the boundaries of time, loss and death to give our lives meaning. With no possibility of change, nothing flowing to break up the stagnation, life would lose everything worthwhile about it.

Earlier in the book, they talk about Dante's Divine Comedy, where his impoverished vision of paradise is where you spend eternity "contemplating the radiance of God", a radiance that obliterates your identity and former, earthly passions like so many moths in a giant flame. Again, this sounds like pure hell. If people weren't so utterly ignorant about what they're asking for, you'd have to conclude they're utterly insane for wanting it. And for this, people have spent centuries denigrating the very things that make life worth living. What a tragedy.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Gorgon Gaze of the Expectant Audience

Brad Warner:

As Mr. Choprah has learned, people will pay good money to be told by a religious authority figure that they will live forever. People have paid damn good money to hear that from religious authority figures for a very long time and in cultures across the globe. It is quite a reliable strategy for making a living.

...I don't necessarily think that Mr. Choprah is cynically exploiting his readers by telling them lies. He says what he says in order to create a reassuring feedback loop from himself to his readership and back again that helps relieve his own fears of death. This is also a time-tested strategy and appears to work for some people.

The question of the exact ratio of witless fraud to manipulative liar that constitutes Deepak Chopra is an academic one, and not all that important. The results are the same in any case, no matter what he truly believes in his heart of hearts.

But "believe" is kind of a funny term when you really think about it. What does it mean to really believe something? Does it mean you are about as sure as you can be without having direct proof, as in believing that gravity will still be in effect and the sun still in the sky tomorrow? Or does it mean something more like hope? Either way, as with all abstract concepts, the term exists in contrast to its opposite, doubt. Claiming to believe something implicitly allows the possibility of doubt. And when we're talking about such a momentous and emotionally charged issue as the possibility of life after death, you can bet your sweet bippy that the boundary between "things we know to be objectively true" and "things we desperately want to believe are true", poorly demarcated at the best of times, becomes practically nonexistent.

What I find interesting is in the way Brad puts that: Chopra is just as much a prisoner to his audience as they are to their own perceived need for someone wiser than them to tell them all the answers. Yes, I know, the poor bastard, imprisoned in his several mansions. Forced to endure a retinue of underlings fanning him, popping grapes into his mouth, and throwing themselves across mud puddles for him. What I mean is: Deepak, being a confused shaved ape like the rest of us, though a fantastically rich one, is no different when it comes to falling prey to the fear of nonexistence. I'm willing to allow that he has genuinely wondered about all the big questions in life just like anyone else. But if there ever were a time when he felt free to do so, surely he doesn't have that freedom now. Whether by happenstance or design, he's been presented, or presented himself, as a guru. Does he truly believe he has all the answers? Well, the positive reinforcement from his devoted fans probably helps assuage any private doubts he might have. As the bank account keeps growing, and the adulation pours in; as his identity as a sage gets ever more firmly cemented in place by the feedback he gets from hundreds, thousands, millions of others, he had better believe it for the sake of his psychological well-being. There's no way he can ever allow himself to say those simple words, "I don't know." No one has time for a wise man who qualifies his statements constantly with things like, "Of course, that's just my opinion...I could be wrong...I'm no more of an expert on this than you are...I've never considered that before, actually...fucked if I know." Well, if you don't have any clear answers, then why should we listen to you? And if no one's listening to me anymore, who am I?

Being able to freely admit ignorance is what keeps us mentally supple. It's what keeps us from being too proud to learn anything new, too afraid of losing face to ask a question, too stubborn to change our mind when necessary. But few, if any, would have the courage to face an audience of people trained to hang on your every word and do just that. The more you come to see yourself as a person with a message, the less chance you'll retain that flexibility. The worst thing that could happen to any sincere truth-seeker would be to look back over their shoulder and see an army of followers looking back at them.