1. Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly, includes pieces by J. G. Ballard, Jorge Luis Borges, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Philip Roth, Rudy Rucker and Robert Crumb. Here's the full table of contents.
2. And the Nobel Prize in Literature goes to ... some dude I never heard of! Which kind of surprises me, since I thought I sort of knew this space. Anyway, meet Tomas Transtromer of Stockholm, Sweden. Words Without Borders has him, of course.
3. I couldn't find any Tomas Transtromer at Asymptote, another new journal of international/translated literature I've started looking at, but they do have Robert Walser (translated by Susan Bernofsky), Lin Yoade and a new translation by Mani Rao of an old Upanishad.
I hung around the Occupy Wall Street protests in downtown Manhattan last week for a couple of days. Here are a few things I saw that I liked:
- a quiet meditation circle, just a few steps from noisy Broadway, where about 60 people sat in peaceful contemplation
- a great march that proceeded west on Wall Street, north on Broad Street, up to the Federal Reserve Bank, and back to Wall
- cops that were mostly friendly
- cheerful rapport between protesters and Wall Streeters at work ("join us!" "yeah, whatever")
- well-organized free food for those living in Zuccotti Park
- a vast do-it-yourself protest sign-painting operation
- a few highly active drum/dance circles and horn jams
- various informal information stations where tourists could ask questions
- an open performance spot, where a young girl sang a song and a poet read a poem
- a small group earnestly discussing techniques of non-violent resistance
The best moment for me came Friday night just after dusk, when I began hearing that a general assembly was about to take place somewhere nearby. Curious as to what exactly an #occupywallstreet general assembly would consist of, I asked around and got pointed to a spot in the middle of Zuccotti Park. There seemed to be nothing going on at this exact place, so I hopped up to sit on a wall and wait. A few minutes later a group of people who turned out to be the regular facilitators of each evening's general assembly began to gather around me. I had picked the right place to sit, and was now in the center of the action.
Soon somebody right next to me yelled "Mic check!", and a group of people milling around us yelled back "Mic check!". At this call, others began to melt into the group, and people began to sit down on the park's paved floor. Soon there were about 250 people gathered around. Four of the facilitators sitting next to me stood up and introduced themselves, and one of them explained how the communication in this large group was going to work.
1. I've read a few good tributes to the late Beat/hippie poet Ira Cohen, a good guy I used to see around the East Village a lot. I did a poetry reading with him at the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus in 2002, but I never knew that Ira Cohen invented the 70s-era headshop art trend known as Mylar painting. (Photo of Ira Cohen from a video by Laki Vazakas).
2. You may have heard the news: e-books are hot. This time around, I'm on the bandwagon. I'll be attending the BookExpo gathering next week in New York City, and I'm sure electronic publishing will be the biggest buzz there. I'm a few days behind schedule with my new Kindle book ... the title and cover will be revealed soon. I'm very happy with the ongoing sales figures for my first Kindle book, Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), and I'm proud that this book has remained in the top 100 Kindle bestsellers in the Politics->Ideology category for the entire month, and was #40 on the list this weekend.
Mexico. The land of intrigue south of the border. The place where Dean and Sal headed for ultimate kicks. The destination of choice for taking it on the lam, as in “I’m goin’ way down south, way down to Mexico way” in the Hendrix reading of “Hey Joe”. So many images of Mexico, most of them on the dark side. Think back to the opening scene of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where Humphrey Bogart is down and out in Tampico.
I wanted to get away from the endless Chicago winter. I wanted to feel sun on my face and soft breezes blowing through my hair. I wanted to go to Mexico. So I booked a flight to Querétero, a colonial town in the central highlands, and packed my bags. What to read, though? Graham Greene? Not in the mood. I wanted something dark that penetrated to the heart of my image of Mexico, but I wanted a writer other than Greene. Browsing through the stacks at the library, I found it. Under the Volcano, by Malcolm Lowry.
1. Scientists have discovered linguistic signals indicating that sperm whales may refer to themselves by names when they speak. Sounds like the kind of fact Herman Melville would have been interested to hear. It also makes me think of T. S. Eliot's cats with their "ineffable, deep and inscrutable singular names".
2. Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, a tremendously popular book of philosophical poetry first published in 1923, will be adapted into a film, apparently with a series of directors contributing interpretations of separate chapters.
Is Ayn Rand correct when she declares that the pursuit of self-interest is the primary motivating force of our lives, and that a fulfilling sense of human ethics can be built around the honest recognition of the pursuit of self-interest?
This is a gigantic question. It tends to stir up passionate responses, as we discovered last weekend after I brought up the question. The "Ayn Rand principle" has become a philosophy of life to many people, because it provides a refreshingly straightforward, direct and affirmative sense of morality. The Ayn Rand principle provides a chin-up ethic that people can actually live with.
The problem is, ethical considerations aside, the Ayn Rand principle is nonsense words. It's pure applesauce. Ayn Rand had an Oprah Winfrey-like ability to communicate strong messages to her readers, and her ethical philosophy seemed to say a lot. But it doesn't stand up to close examination at all. Let's start with the concept of self-interest and apply a little introspection.
I know David Foster Wallace was a brilliant writer, but I've never been able to enjoy his ponderous novels. So I looked forward to the posthumous publication of Fate, Time and Language: An Essay on Free Will, a paper he wrote to earn his philosophy degree at Amherst College in the early 1980s. I was especially excited to read this work because I was also a philosophy student in the 1980s. I figured I'd be able to relate to this work more than I ever could to his fiction.
Fate, Time and Language is getting a lot of attention, partly because it's the first book release from the acclaimed postmodernist's archives since his inexplicable suicide (another book, a novel called The Pale King, will come out in April, 2011). Because it's a philosophy text addressing the question of free will, there is an implicit hope that the book may explain something about Wallace's work, or perhaps even illuminate the tragic thought process that led him to kill himself. It's also being floated as a serious work of contemporary philosophy, even a groundbreaking one.
I think Fate, Time and Language will have a lot of sentimental value to DFW fans, and is also valuable as an earnest, carefully composed demonstration of philosophical argument, or dialectic. However, I'm sorry to say there's nothing groundbreaking about this essay. It's thoroughly the work of a smart student. While I don't disagree with Columbia University Press's decision to publish it, I do find it hard to believe that Wallace, if he were alive today, would be particularly proud of it, except as a relic from his past. And I don't think it does readers a service for anyone to hype the book as an actual advancement in its field.
1. Just Kids, Patti Smith's beguiling memoir of late 1960s New York, the Chelsea Hotel, Robert Mapplethorpe and the early 1970s St. Mark's Church punk poetry scene, has won the National Book Award! Quite impressive. I totally called this back in February, you know. The winner's circle above includes Jaimy Gordon, Terrance Hayes, Kathryn Erskine.
2. Doonesbury turns 40! I grew up with this comic strip. I used to especially love the counterculture literary references: Uncle Duke was Hunter S. Thompson, and several characters lived at the Walden Puddle Commune. (This was probably a reference not only to Thoreau's Walden but also to B. F. Skinner's then-fashionable Walden Two.)
Before I found out Patti won the National Book Award I was going to illustrate today's blog post with a picture I found of Zonker scuba-diving in Walden Puddle. The image is too good to waste, so here it is:
3. Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review has written a book, The Complete Review: Eleven Years, 2500 Reviews, A Site History, about his experience creating and maintaining that website and the accompanying blog Literary Saloon. I've read it, and it's a charming, candid look at the kinds of questions, decisions and private struggles that animate the life of a serious independent blogger.
Some readers weren't sure if I was presenting a joke or a parody last weekend when I proposed the invention of three new words. I wasn't, and I don't see why it should be strange for me to try to use this blog as the launching pad for useful new terms that could, if widely adopted, improve the precision of discussions we're already having.
As a software developer, it feels natural for me to invent new words. We developers invent words -- variables, classes, constants, properties, methods -- all the time. Good naming helps us think, and helps future developers who may later read our code.
Based on the comments last weekend, some of you out there understood what I was trying to do, and one brave commenter even tried to use the three new words I'd just invented in actual sentences. That's the spirit! Of course, it will take more than "bluth", "fruth" and "swuth" to dissolve the clumps of misunderstanding and ill intention that clog our public dialogues, and I'm going to complete the first proposal for a Pragmatist's Vocabulary today with three more terms representing three more popular varieties of quasi-truth.
Yeah, I'm going to stick with the rhyme scheme. Why not? Also, once again, there are political connotations to the misuses of "truth" that I'm targeting here, but I'm trying to cite examples equally supporting both sides of today's social/political spectrum, because a Pragmatist's Vocabulary is too valuable to be partisan. Here goes:
Three days ago my country celebrated Veteran's Day, often a tough day to navigate for committed American pacifists like me, because of course we support and love the human beings who suffer and risk their lives in US military operations, but we don't necessarily believe that these military operations actually help to make the world more free and democratic, or achieve anything good at all. Yet our country is deeply devoted to its vast military infrastructure, and many of us have friends and family members in the military, and pacifists will often find themselves bitterly shouted down if they ever dare to suggest that US military actions around the world tend to kill lots of innocent civilians for no good reasons.
So we've read William James and come to understand that truth, out here in the real world, is often a willful interpretation of reality. Okay, but then, to paraphrase an old joke about the weather: now that we now that popular truths are often a thin veneer, what are we going to do about it?
One reason we debate and analyze the nature and meaning of truth is that it has such great power over our everyday lives. Both as individuals and as the collective "we" -- population groups, communities, nations -- we make decisions every day according to what we believe. But there are times when individuals or groups are swayed or snowed over by truths -- "truths" -- that are hard to rationally believe in. At times like these we ought to be able to deploy the understanding we've gained by reading philosophers like William James, Friedrich Nietzsche and Ludwig Wittgenstein, so as to regain our own sense of power against these fraudulent quasi-truths. Yet we often stand powerless in the grip of popular delusion.
Part of the problem, I think, is language. Words are the primary tools in a philosopher's toolkit, but we lack a vocabulary to help us easily categorize, reveal and identify the various contortions of truth that often plague our lives. I'd like to propose a few new words, a new "Pragmatist's Vocabulary", for several different kinds of quasi-truths. By creating these words, we will hopefully be able to discuss the intricate varieties of popular "fact" more handily in the future. I've got three new words in mind today, and since these are all varieties of truth, I'm going in for easy rhymes. Here we go: