Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Ta-Nehisi Coates is Wrong, Wrong, Wrong About Nonviolence

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Baltimore native and widely respected young writer, has written a powerful article about the shocking riots that are taking place in that city this week, following the inexplicable death of an innocent African-American named Freddie Gray in police custody. The article is titled "Nonviolence as Compliance", and those three words say a lot.

You should read Ta-Nehisi Coates's article ... because he is expressing what every one of us feels as we begin to understand the depths of the problem of police abuse of African-American populations all over the USA. You should also read Coates's article because he knows Baltimore, and is speaking from a position of knowledge. Except when he gets to his last paragraph:

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.

"Nonviolence is a ruse"? The train just shot off the tracks here, and in a really bad way. The problem in Baltimore (and in the entire USA) is between police officers and innocent African-American citizens. I don't know if there is a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King anywhere on the scene in Baltimore this week, so it's weird that Coates chooses the (all too rare) political philosophy of nonviolent resistance as the target of his piece. And it's sad that this Atlantic Monthly article is now being widely spread, as if there were actual wisdom to be found in these angry and misguided words.

First There Is A Mountain

When I'm feeling stressed out, I head for nature. I found myself driving to Old Rag Mountain in Virginia's Shenandoah range this weekend.

I've done a few amazing hikes in this region: Mary's Rock, Catoctin, Hawksbill, Big Schloss, sometimes with others and sometimes alone. The challenging eight-mile Old Rag hike has been calling out to me for a while. I'm planning to leave Virginia this summer and head north (whether to Washington DC or New York City is still unknown), so I decided the time had come for me to meet Old Rag, an Appalachian mountain famous for "the scramble", a popular and slightly dangerous trail over giant rocks, into tunnels, across crevices, under ponderous overhangs. The scramble leads directly to a set of peaks marked by improbable boulders that you can stand on to get a 360 degree view.

New York City has "the ramble" -- the most beautiful section of Central Park, joining Bethesda Fountain to Strawberry Fields. But Virginia has "the scramble", and I suppose one reason I needed to climb Old Rag before leaving this state is that I couldn't bear to not complete the rhyme.

Appomattox: How a War Ends

On the morning of April 9, 1865, one hundred and fifty years ago, the main Confederate army attempted a last desperate escape from its encirclement southwest of Richmond, Virginia. The attempt was over by the break of dawn, and General Robert E. Lee sent a letter to General Ulysses S. Grant. Grant later described that he'd been suffering from a terrible migraine headache for hours on that morning, and that the moment he read Lee's letter his headache disappeared.

How does a war end? There are many different possible ways. Recent US wars in Iraq both ended badly and uncertainly, as our invading forces left vacuums of power behind. But questionable wars do not always end badly. The US/Vietnam War, which began exactly a hundred years after the US Civil War ended, was finally resolved in an luxurious European conference room by depraved and nefarious diplomats. And yet the unified Vietnam that emerged from this banal treaty turned out to be a peaceful presence in the world.

Sixteen Songs About a Ship of Fools

A few days ago I began exploring how writers from Plato to Sebastian Brant to Katherine Anne Porter have written about a "Ship of Fools". This was inspired by my discovery that sixteen different songs with that exact title have been written and performed by major rock, punk, folk and pop artists between 1969 and today, and that several of these songs are remarkably good.

How is it possible that a fairly obscure literary metaphor would inspire so many different songs? What makes the idea of a ship of fools so relevant to modern songwriters, and how do each of their songs imagine the idea? I will examine each song in detail below in search of an answer.

Ship of Fools, the Enduring Metaphor

I stumbled upon our society's most fascinating enduring metaphor by chance. Clicking around on iTunes, I noticed that I owned six different songs called "Ship of Fools".

But these weren't six different versions of one song. "Ship of Fools" was not a classic cover song, like "Dancing in the Streets" or "Hallelujah". Rather, six different songs called "Ship of Fools" were written and performed between the 1960s and 1980s by the Doors, the Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant.

Strangely, all six were good songs, which seemed to me as significant as the fact that all six had the same title. How often do six good songs show up in a row on a random playlist? What on earth, I wondered, was going on with this ship of fools? What was this meme about?

Pacifism Weekend: Why The Iran Deal Is Very Good News

If you've heard any recent news coverage about the peace agreement between Iran, USA, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China that will hopefully move forward this week, there's a good chance this is because the opposition in USA has been so noisy. We've seen big headlines about Republican hawks inviting Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu to speak out in Congress against President Obama's plans, and about 47 Senators who signed a poorly written letter to Iran declaring no confidence in their own President's foreign policy.

News outlets and social media channels seem to be constitutionally incapable of reporting good news -- unless the good news is about panda bears or Kim Kardashian's butt. We should all feel free to forget the noise from Benjamin Netanyahu and Mitt Romney and recognize that the signing of this Iran deal will be a great and historic thing. When this agreement is signed, there ought to be dancing in the streets -- all streets, everywhere in the world.

Nicholson Baker and Him: A Talk with J. C. Hallman

"Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay?" That intriguing response is one of many I elicited from J. C. Hallman, author of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, a bright, funny and expansive account of a rewarding and investigative personal journey through another living writer's unusual career.

This other writer is Nicholson Baker, whose dynamic and wide-ranging intelligence would intimidate many young critics with less gusto than J. C. Hallman. Baker's literary chops are immense and his philosophical and social convictions deeply inspiring, though his intellectual experiments sometimes leave even his most enthusiastic readers cold. Here is my conversation with J. C. Hallman about an author we both admire very much.

LEVI: So, in 1991 the up-and-coming author Nicholson Baker wrote a book called U and I in which he dared to place himself on nearly equal terms with the literary lion John Updike. I say "nearly equal terms" because the book avoided a conventional critical tone of piety and humility towards Updike, and instead brashly showcased the freewheeling talents and original visions of its author.

Now in 2015, you have written a book called B & Me in which you dare to place yourself on nearly equal terms with Nicholson Baker ... who is by now a literary lion in his own rights.

I'm happy to tell you that I think you pulled it off with great style. But I'm wondering if you felt intimidated by the audacity of your act in dreaming up "B & Me". Was it difficult to conjure up enough confidence in yourself as a writer to take on Nicholson Baker in the same format that Nicholson Baker once used to take on John Updike? Or rather was the audacity of this challenge one of the attractions of the project for you?

J. C.: As Baker suggests in U and I, writers should strive to avoid finding a groove and coasting for their entire careers, and I think I would actually find it hard to muster the energy a book-length project requires if didn’t appear daunting at first, if it didn’t challenge me, or even threaten me, in some way.

Which isn't to say that mustering the energy for a book is easy. Once I sold the proposal for B & Me –- a story in and of itself –- I went through about a month-long period of complete paralysis. I was terrified that all I’d done was invent a way to fail. That feeling started to go away only when I really got into the reading of Baker’s books and realized that my instincts about the project had been correct. From that point on, the book wasn’t easy to write, by any means, but it felt like an inspired project, and the process of emulating Baker emulating Updike forced me to find new reserves in myself.

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