I haven't been keeping up the blog too much lately. If I were a Hemingway character, I'd probably say it's because the blog gets in the way of my drinking. Still haven't managed to track down a bottle of Pernod (does anyone sell it anymore?), but a few things that I've been thinking about while I've looked:
BILLY MARTIN, THE LAWYER for Michael Vick, said something astounding but also quite telling on Thursday, as he stood on the steps of a federal courthouse after his client had pled not guilty to federal dogfighting charges: "Today, you all heard or saw Michael Vick take his first step toward proving his innocence." As we all know, defendants needn't prove their innocence -- it's up to prosecutors to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and if they fail to meet that burden, the accused go free. But I suspect that in federal courtrooms, where prosecutors have something like a 95 percent conviction rate, offer multiple count indictments (Vick faces two felony charges, but prosecutors have already announced that there may be a superceding indictment) that incline juries to find the defendant guilty of something. I suspect that smart defense attorneys recognize that whatever the legal texts say, the burden is on the defense to offer a counter narrative and evidence that proves innocence, rather than just undermine key points of a prosecutor's case. I have no particular brief for Michael Vick --I am tremendously fond of dogs (a good friend has two lovely pit bulls -- treat them with love and affection, and they're loving and affectionate animals), and horrified by his alleged conduct. But I find it even more horrifying that we may have evolved a system of justice in which prosecutors need merely suggest reasonable doubt that a defendant is not innocent, while the accused bears the burden of proof.
TO HONOR THE NEW SIMPSONS MOVIE, ESPN tonight showed the top ten "D'OH" moments in sports, in which athletes unaccountably did something stupid that cost their teams games. Nothing wrong with that, except that the top blunder was not an athlete's, but a fans, the hapless Steve Bartman. In 2003, he did something very human, something that everyone standing near him was doing -- reach for a foul ball. He happened to touch it. For this he earned infamy. Here's what I wrote back then, and time has not changed my opinion.
WATCHING THE GIANTS PLAY THE MARLINS on ESPN now. I've always sort of liked Barry Bonds -- or rather, hated him, which in sports, as in religion, is the same thing. Let me explain. When Bonds came up, he played for the hated rivals of the Philadelphia Phillies -- the Pittsburgh Pirates. I was still enough of a Phillies partisan at the time that I despised the hustling, good players on the other teams. Bonds fell into that category. Like a Pete Rose or a Willie Stargell or an Andre Dawson, when he came to the plate, he could do damage. Now that I'm somewhat less of a Phillies fan, and something less of a baseball fan, I don't have those passions. I look at Bonds and see a tremendous ballplayer. It's pretty horrible that rather than celebrate what will probably be his last season, baseball has chosen to be ashamed of it.
More next week, unless I track down that Pernod. (Just kidding)
That's a line that one of the characters, Bill Gorton, utters in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, but it might just as well have been said by Jake, Brett, Michael, Robert or just about anyone else in the book. When I read the book in high school (around the time I started drinking, so I must have been 15), I thought the line was sort of ridiculous (though whenever my less intellectually inclined friends gave me a hard time about reading a book I didn't have to read, I'd quote Bill Gorton and everyone would laugh...).
The amount of alcohol Hemingway's characters consume is kind of incredible; at some point I'll try to chart the number of drinks for one character for one day, but I'm pretty sure in advance that regardless of the character, we'll find him or her mixing some combination of wine, whiskey, bourbon, pernod and beer, starting around 11 in the morning and not stopping til 4 a.m.
I can think of a few occasions when I stayed up past 4 a.m. drinking -- the attraction was never the alcohol, but the company. To be fair, I think Hemingway gets that. But it would be hard to sustain that kind of behavior for weeks at a time, as Hemingway's characters seem to do. Or maybe the drinks in the 1920s were smaller than they are these days...
Sadly, the end of another weekend. I spent a good deal of it writing something for the drawer (as Zbigniew Herbert once put it). Also did some yardwork. And I read more Hemingway. I shouldn't have been quite so critical of him in the post below -- I sort of like Hemingway, though I've never thought of him as being anywhere nearly as profound or important a writer as his close contemporary, F. Scott Fitzgerald, or, for that matter, as good a story teller as William Carlos Williams. That said, I have a vague craving for a glass of Pernod right now...
It is not so much sentimentality as it is an ongoing desire to reexamine past assumptions in the light of new evidence that makes me want to re-read books read long ago.
I think I was in the 11th grade when I first read Hemingway -- The Sun Also Rises, to be exact. I owe to that book a less than satisfactory experiment with Pernod, the rejection of Hemingway's program--i.e., that one was only truly alive when torturing a bull or some other nonsense (the Pernod experiment and the critical distance were both important milestones in my intellectual development), and further encouragement to the notion that journalism is a noble profession that can be done reasonably well by people some of whose real passions, perhaps, are elsewhere.
I'm only a few pages into the book, but I can say two things: Hemingway, unlike Fitzgerald, is not one of those writers I feel an urge to read and reread. I was surprised at how little new I found in those first few pages. But Hemingway also makes a lasting impression. These paragraphs, for example, which I haven't read for something like 26 years, I remembered almost exactly:
She stood holding the glass and I saw Robert Cohn looking at her. He looked a great deal like as his compatriot must have looked when he saw the promised land. Cohn, of course, was much younger. But he had that look of eager, deserving expecation.
Brett was damned good-looking. She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boys. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey.
Had Hemingway written in the 1970s, Brett would have been built like a corvette, perhaps evoking bikini clad models splayed on the hoods of sports cars in automotive magazines. Compare that passage to this one, previously quoted on ideofact:
It was a clear, high, rather nervous voice. Not the voice he had expected.
He looked up. She was standing a few feet away from him. He noticed that she was wearing a black beret at a rakish angle and that she looked exciting and mysterious like someone you see driving by abroad, alone in an open car, someone unattainable and more desirable than anyone you have ever known. Someone who is on her way to make love to somebody else. Someone who is not for you.
The James in question had been working with the woman in the rakish black beret, had persevered together through numerous hardships -- not the least of which was their initial, mutual distrust. Despite all they had been through together, and despite his growing respect and love for her, he hadn't lost his critical faculties. "Someone who is on her way to make love to somebody else. Someone who is not for you."
The James in question is Bond, James Bond, and the passage was written by Ian Fleming.
An odd juxtaposition, I know, but I'm often struck by how Fleming, despite all his flaws, sometimes had a far more progressive view of women than most of his contemporaries (and, of course, those who made the Bond films)...
While pulling The Journey of Man off the shelf (I can never never remember the title), I noticed the thick whit spine of Julian Jaynes' work The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I read it as an undergraduate in college, and reread it last year.
Then as now (well, as last year anway) I came away thinking that Jaynes' scholarship at times can be rather shoddy. He intereprets wall drawings or temple architecture of cultures that have left hardly any written records (certainly not enough to make sweeping pronouncements on the interpretation of ideofacts) and insists they prove his theory, which is that the early humans were not conscious in the way that we're conscious. Rather, voices from the right side of the brain guided the left side of the brain. Schizophrenia may represent nothing more than a vestigial human mental pattern. There's a pretty well done summary of his theory at Wikipedia--read it if you want to know more about it (and see here too for more).
To give an idea of Jaynes' method, one need look no farther than the photo above or the drawing (much clearer) below of the same rock carving from Yazilikaya, Turkey, in the 13th Century BC. It depicts the penultimate Hittite king Tudhaliya IV (the smaller figure) with the god Sharruma; Jaynes interprets this as an emblem of the bicameral mind rather than a political symbol suggesting that god and king stand together. I am not saying my interpretation is more likely correct than Jaynes's, but rather that it is very difficult to reconstruct the message that average Hittites derived from their art. I'm not saying that Jaynes is a kind of Eric von Däniken, by any means -- there is far more intellectual rigor -- but nonetheless, I'm not sure that either literature or art (both of which always have their conventions) are up to the task of proving that our ancestral mental apparatus involved right brain to left brain transmissions, until modern consciousness evolved (Jaynes sees it coming to age as a result of a number of calamities around 1100 or 1200 B.C. -- bicameral societies could only sustain so much complexity and frequently broke down; the crises--climactic, human induced, etc.--of the late 2nd millenium B.C. threw different populaitons together, who had to develop more sophisticated means of organizing themselves--thus introspection, self-awareness and the origins of true consciousness...).
This latter bit is what interests me. Homo Sapiens have been around for something like 130,000 years (perhaps longer, perhaps shorter). Yet we only find agriculture around 8,000 years bp (this is a generous date), writing around 3000 BC, metallurgy around the same time -- no disrespect intended (I can barely change the oil in my lawn mower), but it's not like our ancestors went from incandescent bulbs to iPhones in a century and change.
Jaynes is groping toward an explanation of that, and while I remain unpersuaded by his arguments, I am not entirely unconvinced by them. The notion, though, that we continue to evolve -- that our consciousness or the wiring of our brain becomes increasingly sophisticated -- is a very optimistic notion.
...everything starts looking like a nail...er, or something. Interesting story on the debate over whether modern homo sapiens evolved in one place and dispersed, or evolved in multiple places. Not being a specialist, I tend to prefer the single spot origin--even the single individual origin (imagined quite well in a passage in this book).
I like John Hawks' very measured response to the claim of single origin proponents that they've proved their case:
“I’m really thinking just the opposite of this paper,” Hawks said. “There are differences in the skull between populations, including their variability, but it is mostly due to very recent effects and not the origin of modern humans.”
At the end of the day, a resolution to the "Out of Africa" debate may be impossible, he said. Most of the evidence can be interpreted as supporting both human-origins theories. “It’s really hard to find observations that distinguish the two,” Hawks said.
“The multiregional idea is identical to the recent African origin idea, except for its prediction that Europeans and Asians were part of the single population of origin and didn’t become extinct.”
In any case, I think measuring skulls is a fine hobby. I have a replica of a neanderthal skull here at ideofact corporate headquarters, complete with Harvard baseball cap, that stares over my shoulder as I type...
Apparently the default style for a haunted house is still the Victorian model, with high-backed chairs, rotted filigrees, oval portraits of sour men with dead eyes and string ties, and the general sense of emotional suffocation we associate, however inaccurately, with the Victorian house. But that’s old. Very old. If the Victorian house was scary in a 40s film, it’s because it was from the Grandma era, half a century ago. The modern equivalent would be a style from the 50s no one builds any more – say, a classic one-story rambler.
I rather like horror films, but I have to say that they suffer from our increasing incredulity regarding the supernatural. In my experience, the devout are far more frightened by Darwin than Dracula. Meanwhile, Hollywood assumes that those of us with open minds are willing to fret over the proper verse of poetry to be recited, or the proper artifact or icon or talisman employed to kill some horror, when we can see perfectly well that a bazooka would be far more efficacious...
I suspect that the most compelling themes in horror are to be found in science rather than superstition. H.P. Lovecraft developed a sort of Darwinian horror -- odd species of quasi humans intermingling genetically with humans--or hunting them; discoveries of vast civilizations dating back to the paleozoic era; cults devoted to the worship of primordial life forms that once ruled the planet...
There are of course other possibilites, ranging from the implications of the nonexistence of time to the physiology of the brain (what if climate triggered an evolutionary regression to the bicameral mind, so that the new generation was guided by voices?). And, of course, a perennial favorite will always be the one Lileks mocks (perhaps appropriately, owing to its execution) -- the horror that man can inflict on his fellow men...
In The American Way of Death Revisited, Jessica Mitford quickly gets to the heart of the matter. The funeral business in America is predicated on the highly dubious assertions (made only by funeral directors, and never to their customers) that seeing the body of the dear departed restored through the magic of embalming to something of a lifelike, even robust state, is a crucial element of the grieving and coming to terms with death. In order to make this last supposedly comforting image memorable, every element must be choreographed, stage managed -- and expensive.
As I've read the book, a few questions and thoughts have occured to me:
1) Why is it that much of the best American journalism, whether it's Upton Sinclair or I.F. Stone or Jessica Mitford or George Seldes, happens outside of mainstream journalism? (And why was the most successful muckraking text ever, in terms of social impact -- Upton Sinclair's work The Jungle, a novel rather than a lengthy newspaper series?)
2). Why isn't Jessica Mitford more celebrated? This puzzles me somewhat -- I vaguely knew who she was, but she's far less well known than, say, Rachel Carson. Having read a bit of both, I think that's a shame -- Mitford's work has a certain revelry to it that makes it far more engaging than Carson.
3). If I die (I've decided to be optimistic about it; I also vaguely suspect that should I ever buy another lotto ticket, I'll win, and any day now the IRS will decide that it no longer needs me to pay taxes), I want to cremated, and have my ashes scattered -- preferably on the head of someone I don't like.
4). I think some of the best journalism takes an approach analagous to that of cultural anthropologists. Mitford examines in great detail the narratives offered by funeral home directors, their trade magazines, their seminars and sales manuals, examining in great detail how the industry views itself and its customers. These passages can often be the most revealing things in the book.
I owe a few people emails and some comment responses -- I'll get caught up tomorrow (I promise). In the meantime, I wish you all could join me at the bar below...
I didn't mean to, but it appears I will end up taking the night off. Latin translations, physical exercise, and a book that arrived through the good graces of Amazon all conspired to divert me.
Jessica Mitford also wrote a book on prisons; I ordered a used copy, which has yet to arrive.
By signing a name on a check, a forger signs his death warrant. The sentence of a man convicted of mail fraud never ends; part of his penalty is to forever wonder if the footsteps behind him signal abuse, degradation, and perhaps death. A woman struggling with a legacy of sexual abuse and drug addiction is punished with further sexual abuse.
More complete stories are here, including this obversation, which is in accord with something I've thought for quite a while:
I saw all this stuff about Abu Ghraib. People were outraged that this was happening overseas, but this is also happening in our nation's capital. It's happening to people who need drug treatment. It's happening to 19-year-old girls who have low selfesteem. It's happening to people who are arrested for the first time after being completely strung out. This is happening in our country.
This strikes me as being an intolerable state of affairs.
Just a brief observation that is the beginning of a longer conversation. I recall well discussions (a very few of which I participated in) on Little Green Footballs and other sites in which some offered fairly strident criticisms of Islam and what Muslims believe, and others responded with charges of racism. Regardless of whether I agreed or disagreed with the attack (as often as not the latter), I found the countercharge of racism to be absurd--a religion is not, after all, a race.
I have changed my opinion somewhat. I tend to think now that it may be easier to change one's race than one's religion (though neither, I think, is altogether impossible).
A while back, I ordered The Collected Poems: 1956-1998, by Zbigniew Herbert; because I asked Amazon to ship it with a backordered item (I don't think I actually asked Amazon to do this, since I have Amazon Prime--I suspect that occasionally the Amazons frown on particular works and perniciously delay their shipping), it didn't arrive unti today. In any case, I'm glad it's here. I am not a particularly avid fan of poetry (although I suppose I read more of it than the average person): much contemporary poetry strikes me as purposelessly vague or forced. In the second book of De Rerum Natura, Lucretius uses snake handed ones instead of elephants, in the first book, he substitutes bearers of scales for fish. Much modern poetry strikes me as suffering from the same defect: hiding simple ideas in needlessly complex language.
Herbert is the opposite -- crisp, clean, economical with words, a minimum amount of embellishment. There is something bracing about reading him.
The discovery this volume brought is Herbert's prose poems (I've read his essays -- Still Life with a Bridle is among the most important books I've ever read), but had never encountered these shorter gems. It is better to reproduce one than to try to characterize them:
ANYTHING RATHER THAN AN ANGEL
If after our death they want to transform us into a tiny withered flame that walks along the paths of winds -- we have to rebel. What good is an eternal leisure on the bosom of air, in the shade of a yellow halo, amid the murmur of two-dimensional choirs?
One should enter rock, wood, water, the cracks of a gate. Better to be the creaking of a floor than shrilly transparent perfection.
Of course, our material selves -- our atoms, the Latin poet quickly points out -- will enter rock, wood, water, the cracks of a gate, in time. For some reason, theologians are not satisfied with this species of immortality.
It's the Fourth of July, so naturally my thoughts turn to the Internal Revenue Service, and this observation: There are films, books and television shows celebrating secret service agents, the FBI, the CIA, ATF agents, the OSS, the Judge Advocate General's Corp, but none, that I can think of, in which IRS agents figure as the heroes. (In the Untouchables film, Al Capone is busted for tax evasion, but Agent Oscar Wallace is never identified as a member of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (which is what the IRS was called back when it busted Capone).
This strikes me as an unfortunate lapse in our culture. The IRS and its agents are often portrayed negatively (in both drama and comedy -- the audit seemed to be a fairly stock episode premise in the 1970s, I seem to recall), but rarely does the public get a glimpse of the difficulty of pursuing sophisticated tax cheats, including billionaires, multinational corporations and offshore scammers. I wonder if this might be, in part, because Hollywood itself indulges in so many tax shelters that the notion that an IRS agent could be anything other than someone to be gotten around doesn't occur to them.
Incidentally, the title of this post comes from a classic Charly Patton song, available for free here (though I've never used Rhapsody so caution is recommended); the lyrics are here. Note this bit from the lyric site:
COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Due to certain social, economic, and political paradigms in place at the time of their composition, many early blues songs were improperly copyrighted or not copyrighted at all. Many bore no composer credits. Many were ripped off by unethical music publishers who falsely claimed authorship and copyrighted them in their own names. Many that were once copyright-protected are now in the public domain due to publishers' or composers' failures to properly renew the copyrights. Many have since been ripped off by unethical performers or music publishers who have pretended to be the composers for the purpose of securing a belated copyright or who have claimed "arranger's" credits on songs they falsely swore were "traditional" when in fact the songs were composed by the people who originally performed them on record.
How sad. The revenue man has more in common with the blues man than he does with the record producer...
From Book One of Lucretius' The Nature of Things in Frank Copley's very readable translation (try saying the lines aloud):
But since I've shown that nothing can be created
from nothing, nor, once in being, brought to nothing,
there must be atoms made of deathless stuff
to which all things may finally be reduced
that matter may be on hand to build new things.
Atoms, then, are of solid single substance;
no other way would they have been preserved
till now, through endless time, to build new things.
The conservation of matter was something arrived at by the early atomicists through inference and reason; quite a contrast to those who approach things from a different perspective.
Hassan Butt, who belonged to a radical Islamist group in the United Kingdom, has written a fascinating piece in the Guardian in the wake of the spate of failed car bombings in the U.K., asking Muslims to renounce terror. This passage made me think of Sayyid Qutb:
There isn't enough room to outline everything here, but the foundation of extremist reasoning rests upon a dualistic model of the world. Many Muslims may or may not agree with secularism but at the moment, formal Islamic theology, unlike Christian theology, does not allow for the separation of state and religion. There is no 'rendering unto Caesar' in Islamic theology because state and religion are considered to be one and the same. The centuries-old reasoning of Islamic jurists also extends to the world stage where the rules of interaction between Dar ul-Islam (the Land of Islam) and Dar ul-Kufr (the Land of Unbelief) have been set down to cover almost every matter of trade, peace and war.
What radicals and extremists do is to take these premises two steps further. Their first step has been to reason that since there is no Islamic state in existence, the whole world must be Dar ul-Kufr. Step two: since Islam must declare war on unbelief, they have declared war upon the whole world. Many of my former peers, myself included, were taught by Pakistani and British radical preachers that this reclassification of the globe as a Land of War (Dar ul-Harb) allows any Muslim to destroy the sanctity of the five rights that every human is granted under Islam: life, wealth, land, mind and belief. In Dar ul-Harb, anything goes, including the treachery and cowardice of attacking civilians.
And here's a quote from Qutb's Milestones, reprinted in 2 Qutb 9:
The callers to Islam should not have any superficial doubts in their hearts concerning the nature of Jahiliyyah and the nature of Islam, and the characteristics of Dar-ul-Harb and of Dar-ul-Islam, for through these doubts many are led to confusion. Indeed, there is no Islam in a land where Islam is not dominant and where its Shari'ah is not established; and that place is not Dar-ul-Islam where Islam's way of life and its laws are not practiced. There is nothing beyond faith except unbelief, nothing beyond Islam except Jihiliyyah, nothing beyond the truth except falsehood.
I don't know if he'll respond, but I emailed Hassan Butt to ask whether he knew Qutb's works, and whether they were an influence on his thinking. If I get a response, I'll let you know.
I'm certainly not ready to read it untranslated yet, but Lucretius' The Nature of Things strikes me as a work that is more important now than when it was written, more than two millennia ago.
Inspired by the philosopher Epicurus (I am fairly certain I am not an Epicurean -- quietism doesn't strike me as being an honorable or practical response to life), Lucretius set about applying the atomic theory -- the notion that we, our buildings, the glass I'm drinking from as I write -- are made of tiny invisible particles.
Democritus of course originated the theory. Matter persists, but objects undergo change. A shield rusts, an amphora cracks and the pieces crumble -- thus, these things must be made of smaller things that retain their integrity, even as the larger object (our bodies among them) disintegrate. Epicurus, who came up with the notion that these atoms swarm in clouds -- combining and splitting apart from one another -- was more interested in ethics than physics. Lucretius, the poet, was interested more in the physics -- and their implications -- than in ethics.
Lucretius gets a lot right -- the notion that even the most effete chardonnay sipping poets among us descend from brutish, uncouth, hairy ancestors; that plants preceded animals; that the constant variation and recombination of atoms explains the diversity of life (we of course recognize this as happening, not on the atomic level, but rather the molecular); that there may once have been massive animals roaming the earth. He also gets a lot wrong -- for example, he rejects the notion that land animals coud share an aquatic ancestor.
But so what?
The other book I'm reading -- Ernst Mayr's What Evolution Is -- puts poor Lucretius to shame when it comes to reciting evidence. Mayr is right about a lot more than Lucretius -- but they're part of the same conversation. Lucretius, like Democritus and Epicurus, is postulating based upon the empirical evidence of his senses and his reason. In a 2,000-year-old poem.