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.
"Literary Kicks," says the guy where I pick up my mail, looking at my address on a package. "What is it, sneakers?"
"Books," I say to him. "Books. I'd probably make a lot more money if it was sneakers."
With that said, here are the latest literary links, for your edification and enjoyment:
1. Novelist and critic Walter Kirn, who has suddenly begun live-blogging the Bible, ponders the Tower of Babel.
2. Alan Cumming will star in a one-man performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth.
3. Check out The Books They Gave Me: A Tumblr for images of books given by former lovers. No, I'm not going to make a Herman Cain joke.
CHEREA: He was too fond of bad poetry.
LUCIUS: That’s typical ...
CHEREA: Of his age, perhaps, but not of his rank. An emperor with artistic and intellectual inclinations is a contradiction in terms.
LUCIUS: We've had one or two, of course. But there’s misfits in every family. The others had the sense to remain good bureaucrats.
When I watch the shaky camera-phone videos of Col. Qaddafi's violent death that made the rounds last week, I think of Albert Camus's play Caligula. First performed in 1941 in Angers, France (as Camus was writing The Stranger), the historical play presents the legendary Roman emperor as a Dionysian monster, a prisoner of his own charisma and success.
Many historical dramas (for instance, Shakespeare's) emphasize the struggle for power. Camus's Caligula presents a dictator who has achieved complete power, who has reduced every single one of his fellow countrymen to submissive disgrace. With nobody able to challenge or destroy him, his only remaining goal can be to destroy himself.
The play presents Caligula's last days, after the death of his lover and sister has cast him into a final existential swoon. Bored and sickened by the insipid timidity of the senators who surround him, he gathers a council to torture the members for sport. He forces a senator to hand over his beloved wife, and proclaims idly to the group that they will all be killed in order to "reform our economic system":
I'm still on vacation. But here are some links:
1. The image above is from a teaser promo for a new movie based on Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. I don't know what to think. You be the judge.
3. Words Without Borders' July issue is about The Arab Spring.
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.
This is going to be one of the hardest blog posts I've ever written. Not because it's painful, but because the topic is controversial, and I'm going to be arguing with a giant, and my words could be very easily misunderstood. I want to talk about Jewish identity, Israel and anti-semitism.
The occasion is this weekend's New York Times Book Review, which is titled "The Jewish Question" and features book reviews by two high-profile Jewish writers on the cover: Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius, reviewed by Harold Bloom, and two books on Martin Heidegger, Heidegger: Tne Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 by Emmanuel Faye, and Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin, reviewed by Adam Kirsch.
The punch line of the book is that we are, each of us, battling back against our innate kindness, with which we are fairly bursting, at every turn. Why? Because "kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can ... By involving us with strangers ... as well as with intimates, it is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality."
They may be on to something there. I plan to read the book and find out.
This odd non-fiction title doesn't take the cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review, which is instead occupied by a much more well-worn topic: Middle East politics (a favorite subject of NYTBR chief Sam Tanenhaus). I can't say I think much of Fouad Ajami's feature article on Christopher Caldwell's Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, another book about the "Muslim threat", this time described in terms of European immigration demographics. One might expect a writer named Fouad Ajami to bristle at this book's obsession with the preservation of European ethnicity, but he loves the book. Googling the critic, I find Fouad Ajami is an American conservative scholar of Lebanese origin who made himself unique by enthusiastically supporting George W. Bush's rush to invade Iraq in 2003.
I really wish Tanenhaus would reach further beyond his usual conservative cocktail party circuit and try to find more representative international voices to review books like these, don't you?
I also think Fouad Ajami is borderline offensive with formulations like this:
A departure and a return: In the legend of Moorish Spain, Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of Granada, is said to have paused on a ridge for a final glimpse of the realm he had just surrendered to the Castilians. Henceforth, the occasion, and the place, would be known as El Último Suspiro del Moro, The Moor’s Last Sigh. The date was Jan. 2, 1492.
More than five centuries later, on March 11, 2004, there would be a “Moorish” return. In the morning rush hour, 10 bombs tore through four commuter trains in Madrid.
I don't think it's right to refer to an act of terrorism as "Moorish". And I thought Ajami's type of divisive mind-set went out of style with Dick Cheney.
Today's Book Review gets better when Jonathan Mahler praises Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. I liked McCann's last book about gypsies, and I'll give his novel about a striving wire-walking New Yorker a try (though I am getting a little sick of novels about Gatsby-esque New York City strivers).
I also plan to look at The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda by Andrew Rice, reviewed today by Howard W. French.
And whatever risk there was that I would attempt to read William Vollman's latest unbearable hair shirt Imperial is gone now that I've read Lawrence Downes's amusing and politely mocking account of the 1,306 page dreadnaught.
Between the new Vollman and the latest puzzle book by Thomas Pynchon that just came out, I just can't decide which one I'm more excited to not read. I think it's a tie.
I've been working hard, and I really need this three-day weekend coming my way. Hell yeah!
Another surprise guest will be writing this weekend's review of the New York Times Book Review. Check back on Sunday for, I hope, a wholly new perspective.
Till then, just a few links for a happy Spring day.
1. I've always thought Henry David Thoreau's Walden could be the basis of a great play or film. Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence (Inherit the Wind) tried something like this with The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, though this play did not place the center of action in the cabin by the pond. A new play called Walden: the Ballad of Thoreau is making the rounds, and may be showing up on public television/radio as well as on stages around the world.
I don't know anything about this actual play, but I know it's a good idea. A lot of drama took place in that little cabin, and I hope this play captures the essence of the work as well as it should. I assume that the actors in the image above are portraying Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau.
2. Fordham University in Manhattan (NOT, as previously reported, Fordham's campus in the Bronx) will be hosting "Woolf and the City", a Virginia Woolf conference, featuring insights from Anne Fernald, Roxana Robinson and many others.
3. Also at Fordham, Ron Hogan and the Mercantile Library have put together quite a lineup for a fiction writer's conference.
4. The long-anticipated film based on Leora Skolkin-Smith's novel Edges now has a title and a website. I thought Edges was a fine name for a story about Jews and Arabs in Israel and Palestine, but the film will be called The Fragile Mistress, and that sounds fine too. Can't wait to see this one.
5. A website about the psychology of fiction. Oh, is that ever fertile territory ...
Writing a post for a food blog has proved an interesting challenge. Most of my work concerns war, trauma, and the changes wrought by war on young men and women. My culinary abilities extend only in a very limited direction toward the barbeque grill and frozen pizza. However, I would like to share two experiences that involve food and war and that may shed some light in an ancillary way on my story "The Cabalfish" which appears in Dzanc Press’ anthology Best of the Web 2008.
The Unholy Fast
From 2005 to 2006 I worked in the hottest, most southern part of Iraq, serving as a Civil Affairs Officer for the city of Safwan. Temperatures in August and September peaked around 140 Fahrenheit and the idea of ‘dry heat’ was only a myth. Wind, when it blew, came from the south, off the Arabian Gulf. While not humid in the same way as, say, Mississippi, it wasn’t dry heat. We likened the feeling of the climate to opening an oven, sticking your head inside and turning on a sandblaster (grit in the air).
During this time, September of 2005, I had 9 interpreters working for me, all of them Sunni of varying degrees of pious devotion, though the least devote of them was certainly more religious than most Christians I know. Ramadan began, which meant fasting from dawn till dusk every day. Wanting to experience their culture and gain their respect I agreed to fast with them.
The first day I was on mission for 16 hours. The first four hours were easy: early morning. Cool day. Listening to the wailing muezzin call from the minarets in town I felt like I was doing something good and meaningful, knowing what it was to suffer, to be unable to afford the luxuries of clean, cold water and good, hot food. The next four hours got more difficult. Soldiers on my patrol ate lunch, albeit carefully so as not to offend the townsfolk in Safwan, the interpreters on patrol with them, or me. They thought I’d gone a little crazy, not to eat or drink that day at all. Again, the next four hours, pretty easy. It heated up to its normal peak temperature. The air conditioners in the HUMVEEs struggled and the crank casing, the interior of the HUMVEE, radiated heat. My clothes under my body armor were drenched in sweat, a good sign that I’d drunk enough the night before to prevent dehydration. By evening, though, the last few hours before sundown, my tongue began to swell. I felt a coating of sticky ‘leather’ on it. I had a headache. The creases of my uniform were caked with salt from evaporating sweat. I began to worry that I wouldn’t make it through. We pulled into our base just as the sun set. I clearly remember the taste of the first bottle of water I drank, cold, tingling, almost hurtful. Then dizziness hit me. I steadied myself against the wall of the mess hall for a minute or two. By the time I reached the food line I had recovered, drank two more bottles of water, and was ready to eat.
The second day the effects hit me more strenuously. The day wasn’t any hotter. But the remembrance of the previous day’s suffering and the ill-timed opening of a bottle of Gatorade by my driver nearly made me falter in my resolve. That Gatorade, red colored, smelled so sweetly of sugar that I could taste it flowing in the air between the driver and my mouth. My sense of smell has never felt so sharp. I craved it but resisted.
By the third day, about noon, I felt truly sick. Headache, grumpiness, dizzy spells despite several of liters of water and a good solid breakfast before sunrise. I had noticed throughout the first days of fasting more than one Iraqi worker laboring in the heat as they drank water, ate snacks, even spit -- a thing I couldn’t contemplate with my moisture-less tongue. My interpreters dismissed them as lazy Shi'a and contrasted the Shi'a’s disobedience against their own more observant Sunni rites. However, on this third day I caught one of my interpreters drinking secretly while he thought I wasn’t watching. I called him on it.
“Bob,” I said (his real name was Bashar, but we Americanized all their names). “What are you doing?”
“I have a fatwa,” he said.
“From my imam. Workers in the heat, we can make up the days of fasting after Ramadan when we aren’t working.” Bob began to laugh.
They’d conspired, all nine of them, to hide the edict from me: a great joke on their boss. Over the course of the year, I grew very close to all of my interpreters. But I never again abstained from food or drink while on mission.
In winter, travel between northern and southern Kuwait along the infamous ‘highway of death’ from the First Gulf War reveals an interesting sight: the barren reaches of the desert blossom with tents. All the urbanized Kuwaitis return to vacation, relive their Bedouin roots, by erecting family and tribe shelters in the barren desert, brightly striped tents, pampered racing camels in pens, flashing neon bulbs on hastily constructed fences to outline one nomad’s claim from the next.
My interpreter Sam and the sheik of his family set their encampment directly under a mega-power line not far from our base camp. There wasn’t another family within several miles of their compound, which made it safe to visit, though the cracking electricity in the lines above their tents oddly offset the quiet of the desert and the purported rationale behind their vacation, the return to Bedouin roots. They invited me and several of my sergeants to a traditional dinner.
One of my sergeants brought a whoopee cushion. The boy children loved it, ran giggling with it to the women’s tent, across the compound, where we heard but did not see, the women of the family as they laughed and employed the device.
The sheik waved his hand. We sat on cushions around the edges of the tent, twelve or thirteen of Sam’s cousins and uncles. One or two of them spoke English. I spoke halting Arabic. Sam translated in a steady flow of encouragement, tall-tales, and history. A tray of rice, yogurt and vegetables was laid between us. It’s centerpiece: a whole lamb cooked with its head intact. The sheik motioned to us, as his guests, to begin eating. Sam demonstrated in the air. Cup fingers together, scoop, pluck at the meat, insert into mouth. I tried. It wasn’t bad, though the lamb was a bit gamey. Smothered in yogurt sauce, I actually enjoyed it. That is, until the sheik plucked some brains and mucus-y matter through the empty sockets of the lamb’s eyes.
“Delicacy,” said Sam.
I could eat no more, though, when the pipe was passed that evening, and pictures taken and hands shook, I knew the experience and authenticity of the evening were well worth the trauma of watching the sheik enjoy his supper.
1. Check out these visualizations of the entire Jack Kerouac novel On The Road, created by artist Stefanie Posavec. The sample above is the most analog of the series, which shows how colorful vector graphics can be used to display various data points about any novel. I'm not sure how exactly this would be turned into meaningful information, but I like looking at it. (Via Boing Boing, which also shares this Beat pastiche today.)
2. If an artist tried to chart a Richard Brautigan novel in vectors, I'm pretty sure the result would look something like a cup of bowtie pasta (al dente) in white cheddar sauce. Here's an interview with the late novelist's daughter Ianthe Brautigan, who wrote a very good book about her father several years ago and is now, I'm glad to hear, working on a novel.
3. "All of this makes one wonder where the proponents of a 'clash of civilizations' are going to find another civilization to clash with." Hosam Aboul-Ela on Words Without Borders blog.
4. Good for London. By the way, if you or anyone you know would like a wider understanding of the historic context behind the world's bottomless outrage at the Chinese government, I strongly recommend reading Mao: The Untold Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. This is an unabashedly partisan book, but fact-filled and important nonetheless. I wrote an article about it here last year.
5. Back to the fun side of life: The Office is coming back! And John Kraskinski's film of a David Foster Wallace book is actually going to happen, though, interestingly it is a book of short stories rather than a massive novel as originally hinted. Based on this interview, I am really looking forward to seeing this film.
6. Former gawker Emily Gould has joined GalleyCat! Since I like Gawker and I also like GalleyCat, I think this is pretty cool. In terms of relative talents, Gould is certainly a heavyweight here; this is sort of like when Joe Walsh joined the Eagles. As far as expected changes go, I am expecting to see many more exclamation points in GalleyCat! It's already happening! Somebody else is joining GalleyCat too.