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.
History has a way of turning complex philosophers into simple cliches. Through the course of my philosophical education, I've only ever heard of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as a target for refutation, a "straight man" from an earlier age of extreme rationalism, destined to be torn to shreds by the witty talents of Soren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill, William James. With skillful opposition like this, Hegel's legacy of crystalline idealism never stood a chance.
It also did Hegel's legacy no favors when Karl Marx built his advanced theory of utopian Communist society upon a Hegelian framework, though Marx explicitly stated that he was doing so by transforming Hegel's abstract intellectualism into a materialist system of thought, aiming for real-world results rather than theoretical conclusions. It's does not seem that Marx's Communism was a faithful friend to Hegelian idealism (Hegel died when Marx was 13 years old, so Hegel never knew about his most influential follower) -- but it is clear that Marx ruined Hegel's name for legions of anti-Communists. Once a bright light of the German renaissance, Hegel has taken such a terrible beating from the empiricists, existentialists, pragmatists, free market economists and philosophical libertarians who followed him that his reputation can barely be said to have survived at all, except as a symbol of obsolescence.
Can a beating like this ever be fair? Is it possible to find value in Hegel's work today, and is there any point in looking for it? Well, it's certainly possible to understand Hegel as a fuller person when one learns that he began his fruitful philosophical journey as an eager University student in Tubingen, Baden-Wurtterberg, where, incredibly enough, he shared an apartment with the future poet Friedrich Holderlin and the future philosopher Friedrich Schelling. Their dorm parties must have been intense. Hegel's early college years were the years of the French Revolution and its tortuous aftermath, of shocking political changes that rocked all of Germany and central/eastern Europe. Eventually, after young Hegel advanced to graduate studies in the Prussian university town of Jena, he would directly witness Napoleon's victorious entrance into that town, and would applaud the champion of French egalitarianism even though he was fighting against German armies.
The movies are over, J.K. Rowling has moved on to adult fiction, and yet here I am, lying curled between the couch and the heater, pinching the fat inner spine of The Goblet of Fire between my thumb and forefinger. This is my fifth time. As a teenager, I used to read by closet-light, flipping back to the first chapter immediately after finishing the last, as if expecting something new to happen. Only in Harry’s world could such an enchanted book exist ...
"One cannot read a book: one can only reread it." -Vladimir Nabokov
There is something akin to magic in reading a novel for the first time: the first brush with a new world of characters and creatures is thrilling to imagine; each turn of the page lures us deeper into the mystery of the dream; and, by the end, we arrive at a catharsis of completion and knowing.
Once the mystery is solved, however, the story does not lose its power. In rereading, one can explore the text for hidden delights tucked into each book, free from the burden of mystery and with a keener eye for dramatic irony. Throughout the series, nods and winks to future happenings and cross-textual connections shape the rest of Rowling’s ever-expanding, ever-darkening fantasy world. With a world so vast, it’s difficult to catch it all in one take.
There are a lot of ways a book called Whore Stories: A Revealing History of the World's Oldest Profession can go wrong. Fortunately, this brisk new study of the cultural history of prostitution by Tyler Stoddard Smith aims for big intellectual and sociopolitical connections, and finds quite a few.
The new movie called On The Road begins in an outdoor Manhattan parking lot. Sweaty rushed Dean Moriarty is seen in close-up, screeching big blocky cars into tight spots as customers grimace in disapproval. Dean's new friend Sal Paradise stands by, watching with admiration. Like Dean Moriarty himself, Jack Kerouac's On The Road, which Kerouac always wished to see on the silver screen, has finally arrived in New York City.
I attended a preview screening of the long-awaited film (it won't open in general release until just before Christmas) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this weekend, and sat there nearly wrenched with anticipation, because On The Road is one of my very favorite books in the world. I also had high hopes for the team behind the film: the monumental Francis Ford Coppola, who knows a bit about both epic cinema and transgressive literature, the screenwriter/director pair Jose Rivera and Walter Salles, who'd done solid work on a serious film about Che Guevara called Motorcycle Diaries. But I found it hard to imagine how any film based on Kerouac's wide, rambling, intentionally shapeless stream of consciousness novel could work.
In order to give my inevitably overflowing critical reaction to the film some structure, I decided in advance that I would review the film by posing and answering three questions. Do I love the film? Do I think people who haven't read On The Road will love the film? Finally, do I think Jack Kerouac would love the film? Here are my answers to these questions.
I dug into Neil Young's memoir Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream with a lot of anticipation, because he is one of my very favorite singer-songwriters, and because I've followed Neil's work long enough to know that a long session of candid and honest soul-searching with this brilliant and enigmatic rocker/hippie is a rare thing.
I'm also excited to read Pete Townshend's brand new memoir, but it's not the same thing. Pete Townshend has already told us his life story many times in interviews and public statements, and in his directly confessional songs. Neil Young is built of slipperier stuff, so slippery that I could barely imagine him writing a memoir at all. Now that I've read Waging Heavy Peace, which I loved and which kept me in its grip laughing and nodding in constant agreement, I know that he hasn't. This book is not a memoir. It's something else, though, and maybe this is just as good.
Why would we ever expect Neil Young to deliver anything straight? When this artist sees an expectation, he must defy it. His best songs are highly sincere but never direct, and he likes to get in his own way. Neil Young suffered from an overdose of fame and popularity in the Woodstock/Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young era, and then spent the 70s caroming from country-rock to proto garage/punk to bleary psychedelic experimentation. He tends to push his supple artistry just to the brink of comic annoyance, like in the guitar solo on "Down By The River" that consists of a single thudding flat note repeated 20 times ... followed by another 20, and another. Many readers won't like Waging Heavy Peace because his prose often aims for a similar thud-like effect as this famous guitar solo. And the effect works better in a minor-key blues ballad than it does in an autobiography.
I don't think we really want to solve the puzzle of desire. What would we do afterwards? But the puzzle seems to be impossible to solve anyway, so we can enjoy pondering it forever. Here's a passage that caught my attention in "Variations on Desire", the opening piece in Siri Hustvedt's appealing new collection of essays, Living, Thinking, Looking.
"As a joke, Steffen introduced me as whomever occurred to him at the moment. I was an orphaned painter, an undercover Spartakist, a science protege on scholarship. Steffen introduced me, and then I had to keep up the lies -- that was the game. I was a saxophone player in Bix Biederbecke's band. I was a Swedish mesmerist. When I was asked about the leg, I talked about dogfights high above the Somme; when they wanted to hear my award-winning poetry, I said the poems were so Futuristic they hadn't been written yet. All it took was a straight face.
There was one lie that made me seem more interesting than all the others. Everyone wanted to drink with me, get high with me, and sleep with me when we told them I was a movie director. It was the lie that turned me into the center of attention and opened the tightest twat. One night over dinner, Joachim Ringelnatz -- the whimsical poet who wore a sailor's uniform wherever he went -- eyed me funny and asked if I wasn't a bit young to be working for the cinema, "fur's kino".
I had my mouth full of lamb's stew, so Steffen came to my defense. "Don't you read the papers? Klaus is a prodigy! The youngest director in Neubabelsberg!"
I put down my fork, swallowed, and pointed a finger. "Joachim," I said. "I don't work fur's Kino. I am Kino!"
Three years later, I was in charge of my own set in Neubabelsberg, the largest studio in Europe, making a movie that I had written. The producers, the stars, the cameramen and the newspapers all called me Kino, the name I had given myself over Horcher's lamb stew. I was a prodigy, the youngest director in Ufa's history. The lie had become truth."
What glorious chaos! Kino by Jurgen Fauth is the most enjoyable book I've read this year. It's a wild, caroming romp that crashes into German history, Nazi mind control, American pop culture decadence and modern cinema snobbery. The crazy plot soars from beginning to end.
Eric Erlandson, one-time guitar player and songwriter for Hole, has written a torrentous book, Letters to Kurt, addressed to the virtual presence of his close friend and occasional rival, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana.
Driving and listening to another fascinating self-help audio book. Nothin' like Six Stinkin' Hats to make your drive-by commute a quantum weep for all existence. I put on the WHITE one. The morgue sheet. A blank slate. Just the facts. Where you lay heir apparent with self-inflicted wound head. NO witnesses, 'cept for me and the whole damn world. Your left hand on the barrel of a Remington 20-gauge resting between your legs, pointed at your chin. A spent shell-casing. A wallet for identification. You stabbed your spiel into a pile of dirt with your pen. Like all good martyrs you wrote in RED. Burning records like a fireman on fire. Melting down your punk rock past. Tchotchkes for the toilet, turds for the mantle. Hey, put that hose away, man. Pout it out, gloom it or gloat it before you just plain blow it. Life's butt a joke. A hypodermical hoot. You're supposed to laugh at the punch lines, not kick and cry in your birthday suit, eating away at your cancer in the blood of your BLACK.
On first glance I passed over Your Brain On Love, a Diane Ackerman article on the New York Times psychology blog with a Valentine-ish title that indicated the kind of soft piece I usually skip. But a Facebook recommendation sent me back for a second look, and this time I read further and was excited to find an important, convincing piece about the psychology of love that happens to touch directly on some very difficult and esoteric points about the nature of self that I've been struggling to express on this blog.
Diane Ackerman, whose A Natural History of the Senses I enjoyed years ago, wrote this piece to communicate a fact that isn't widely understood: the emotion we call love has a clear physical and neurobiological presence. This physical presence can be seen clearly on standard brain scans, and the neural signals correlate with verbal surveys of elderly spouses who still gaze with wonder upon their spouses. The fact that love has a strong physical presence in our brains appears to be beyond scientific doubt.
Furthermore, Ackerman explains, the brain regularly changes as a result of the physical affects of loving or being loved. These changes impact every aspect of our conscious and subconscious lives, making each of us deeply dependent, to our very core, to our very sense of self-identity, on our connections with others. Our social selves, it turns out, are the deepest selves we have. Our loved ones provide the basic infrastructure of our minds.