Two excellent new books remind me of the vortex of interests that's always coursed beneath the surface here at Litkicks -- a vortex, in fact, that is central to the literary/artistic sensibility that has fascinated and informed me through my whole life. These interests roughly include music and literature and art and poetry and comedy and New York City, and the two excellent new books are Text and Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture by Simon Warner and The Best of Punk Magazine by John Holmstrom.
I can't actually review either of these books, because they're too close to me (in two separate ways). Text and Drugs and Rock and Roll is a thick and extensive study of various connections between popular literary and musical underground scenes of the past several decades, including both essays and interviews by Simon Warner, a Beat Generation scholar who teaches music courses at the University of Leeds in England. This is a subject I have explored in depth here on Litkicks, and Simon was kind enough to include an interview with me in this book. I'm particularly proud to be in this book now that I see what a handsome volume it is, and I'm glad that I got to spout off a bit on why "Tangled Up in Blue" is a great example of Bob Dylan writing Beat, and why Jay-Z reminds me of Jack Kerouac. The book also includes interviews with Jonah Raskin, David Amram, Michael McClure, Michael Horovitz, Ronald Nameth, Jim Sampas, Pete Brown, Steven Taylor, Kevin Ring and the late Larry Keenan, as well as in-depth sections on Jim Carroll, Peter Orlovsky, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, David Meltzer, Patti Smith, Joe Strummer, Richard Hell, Genesis P-Orridge, Pete Molinari, Ben Gibbard and Tuli Kupferburg.
I don't have much of a Philosophy Weekend post for you this weekend. I'm working on some technical improvements to the website, and I'm also pondering some big themes for the next few weekends. But all I've got to show you today is a clip from a 1993 movie about Ludwig Wittgenstein that I only discovered myself recently.
The always fascinating Derek Jarman lays out the philosopher's story in fairly straight fashion, with Chancy Classay playing the role of the groundbreaking philosopher. I particularly like the part of this clip in which Wittgenstein explains to an impudent student that he really can't absolutely know for sure whether or not he just slapped his own face. If he could know for sure, then the word "know" would not need to exist. I'm not as completely convinced by Wittgenstein's famous statement, also played out in this scene, that "if a lion could speak, we could not understand him". (But then, I've always had an affinity for cats, and I sometimes think I understand them better than I understand humans. Maybe Wittgenstein was a dog person.)
In his essay The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley describes his experiences after taking a dose of mescaline. At the end of the book, he makes this observation:
That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul. […] And for private, for everyday use there have always been chemical intoxicants. All the vegetable sedatives and narcotics, all the euphorics that grow on trees, the hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be squeezed from roots – all, without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings from time immemorial.
The use of the term Artificial Paradises by Huxley refers to a book by Charles Baudelaire, Les Paradis Artificiels, which describes Baudelaire’s experiences with hashish. Just as men have longed “to escape, [...] to transcend themselves”, so have writers tried to capture the experience on the page.
Let’s call these attempts to capture the drug experience in printed form "literature of substance" -- "substance" being a word used by David Foster Wallace to very effectively describe agents that get you high, ranging from weed to peyote, and encompassing alcohol and all other chemical and natural concoctions that are used by mankind to escape or transcend.
I've just learned that Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park/Book of Mormon fame have been animating some passages from seminal Western Buddhist author Alan Watts. The videos are excellent! Here's Music and Life, with a message well worth hearing:
There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.'
Thus spake literary critic Isaiah Berlin in a famous 1951 essay about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who he considered a classic hedgehog: a writer with a singular vision and a focused intensity. Berlin continues:
... there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel -- a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance -- and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle.
(Rock star memoirs are a hot book trend these days. But many readers may not realize that the rock memoir format has a deep history, including many excellent and unusual autobiographies that are now out of print. I'm launching a new Litkicks series called "The Great Lost Rock Memoir" designed to occasionally unearth these rare treasures. We start with a personal favorite of mine -- hah, as if they aren't all my favorites ... -- Levi)
It's a stunning loss to USA culture that we don't know anything about the Small Faces, a British "Mod" band of the 1960s. Well, I know about them, and a few of my music freak friends do, but through some accident of history this band was super-popular in Britain but never managed to cross the ocean.
There were four Small Faces: the theatrical Steve Marriot on guitar and vocals, pensive Ronnie Lane on bass and vocals, snappy drummer Kenney Jones, and artistic keyboardist Ian McLagan, who in 2000 wrote a wonderful memoir of his long music career, All the Rage: A Riotous Romp Through Rock & Roll History. It's a revealing sideman's view of the hilariously warped hippie-era rock scene and lifestyle.
The news that the remains of England's King Richard III have been positively identified in a car park in Leicester is a big deal for historians. It's an even bigger deal for Shakespeareans.
A great Shakespeare character has been found! Richard III was one of the playwright's most infamous villains, along with Iago and Edmund. The ancient rivalries between the House of Lancaster and the House of York are long forgotten, but the historical King Richard's reputation has been completely sealed: he is the smarmy, sarcastic hunchback who hisses "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York" to open his eponymous play. For centuries, Richard III has been one of the major Voldemorts of the popular imagination.
I've just thoroughly enjoyed (and learned much from) a graphic novel biography of Bertrand Russell. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth was written by Apostolis Doxiadis, Christos Papadimitrio, illustrated by Alecos Papadatos, Annie Di Donna and published in 2009. It was recommended to me by a young and voracious reader of comic fantasy/adventure novels who thought the subject matter would appeal to me. He was absolutely right.
This book breaks my pattern of slight prejudice against Bertrand Russell, which was grounded in two things. First, like many enthusiastic Wittgenstenians, I've been all too aware of Bertrand Russell's role as the straight man to the curvy-thinking Ludwig Wittgenstein during the height of the analytic philosophy craze at Cambridge University just before the First World War.
Russell was the hard-headed mentor, according to this well-known narrative, and Wittgenstein was the brash young student who surpassed the teacher, blowing Russell and Alfred North Whitehead's pretentious Principia Mathematica apart by revealing the naturally obvious fact that, all blackboards of incredibly complex scribbled formulas aside, logic is actually not based on deeper foundational truths at all, but simply is. (I'm sure Wittgenstein would have said it better, but it was Wittgenstein's revelation that turned Russell's years of hard work from a live theory into a museum piece.)
If there is such a thing as a typical volume of letters, The John Lennon Letters edited by Beatles expert Hunter Davies is certainly not it. John Lennon didn't write the kinds of letters that Henry James or Vladimir Nabokov did.
Though he wrote many hundreds of songs, John Lennon was not a prolific letter-writer. He tended to keep it short, and his impatient, impulsive epistolatory style, packed with half-puns and gutteral utterances, indicates some proto-form of A.D.D. But Lennon had a strongly visual and artistic mind, and he always took the time to illustrate his chaotic notes and scribblings with cartoons and diagrams. He also wrote in a cheerful, loopy hand, and this is why editor Hunter Davies made a smart decision to create the complete volume of John Lennon's letters (the first serious volume of collected letters, as far as I know, of any rock musician) as a facsimile collection, with high-quality photographic reproductions printed on thick, good paper.
Pete Townshend of the Who has been writing his autobiography for his entire career, starting with the band's first single "I Can't Explain". His rock opera "Tommy" was the symbolic autobiography of a shy and sensitive teenager who becomes a rock star ... transformed into a tall tale about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who uncovers an unnatural skill at pinball (Townshend's electric guitar, of course, was Tommy's pinball machine). The pinball wizard then becomes a famous religious leader until his shallow followers get bored and overthrow him. Tommy is a witty, self-mocking tale about childish wonder and spiritual overreach, and Pete Townshend would go on to reenact a real life version of the same story -- the ascent to fame, the inevitable cruel betrayal of the fans -- over and over again throughout his life.
The same storyline recurs at least four times during Pete Townshend's fascinating new memoir Who I Am. This new book is a worthy summation of a prodigal career, and a satisfyingly revealing (if occasionally compulsive and over-protective) autobiography.
We seem to be living in the age of rock star autobiographies, of course, and Pete Townshend's book appeared on bookshelves at the same time as that of of a fellow introspective searcher, Neil Young, whose Waging Heavy Peace is an uplifting, rambunctious self-portrait but fails as a memoir, because a memoir must dig deep into the dark regions of self-analysis and painful honesty, and Neil Young didn't seem to want to go there. Pete Townshend in Who I Am, on the other hand, is happy to go there.