Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Wild Tales by Graham Nash

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, October 2, 2013 08:31 am

Some of you may wonder why I'm so crazy about rockstar memoirs. Well, I guess it's because I have so much respect for the body of work the great songwriters and musicians of our lifetimes have created.

From Chuck Berry to Mobb Deep, our best rockers, strummers, crooners and rappers are among the great geniuses of our time. When a worthy musician or songwriter writes a book (thus combining two of my favorite things, books and music) I'll usually jump at the chance to read it -- for the sheer pleasure of hearing their sides of the stories, and for the privilege of plugging into their creative minds.

Graham Nash, a British pop singer with the Hollies who jumped the Atlantic Ocean and became part of the otherwise American and quintessentially hippie assemblage known variously as Crosby Stills and Nash, Crosby Stills Nash and Young and Crosby/Nash, has written a new autobiography, Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life, and of course I gobbled it up. I know of Graham Nash not only as the owner of the sweet, peach-toned high voice in beautiful songs like "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" and "Wind on the Water" but also as a political activist and even, perhaps, as a notable role model for "sensible" rockers.

Unlike every other member of CSNY, Graham Nash always evoked calm. He never become a drug fiend (that was Crosby), never showed up onstage looking bloated and dazed (that was Crosby and Stills), never swirled for years in solipsistic head trips producing incomprehensible albums (that was Neil Young, whose quirky memoir Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream I also recently reviewed).

Dear Nicholson Baker, Your Important Writing Career Called and Wants You Back

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, September 25, 2013 06:06 pm

I'm trying real hard to find a way to love Traveling Sprinkler, the new Paul Chowder novel by Nicholson Baker, who is just about my favorite writer in the world, but whose books I increasingly can't stand.

I say "the new Paul Chowder novel" the way one might say "the new Hannibal Lecter novel" or "the new Rabbit Angstrom novel", but the sad truth is that few Nicholson Baker readers were clamoring for a sequel to the first Paul Chowder novel, The Anthologist (which I reviewed and played a song from in 2010). Both Anthologist and the new Sprinkler are narrated in an arch voice by Crowder, a middle-aged literary oddball with a wayward attention span, a childish sense of humor and a wistful yearning for a woman named Roz.

Kerouac's Wheel

by Levi Asher on Thursday, September 5, 2013 08:04 pm

Jack Kerouac's poetry has just been enshrined in the prestigious Library of America series, which would have made him proud. No sooner is the book published, though, than comes the reaction. Bruce Bawer trashes Kerouac mercilessly in The New Criterion, with raw insults that go way over the top:

Grimly reconciled though one may be to the annual flood of books by and about the Beat Generation, it’s particularly depressing to see Jack Kerouac’s poetry, of all things, enshrined in the Library of America, that magnificent series designed to preserve for posterity the treasures of our national literature. To read through these seven hundred–odd pages of Kerouac’s staggeringly slapdash effusions set in elegant Galliard, outfitted with the usual meticulous editorial apparatus, and bound—like Twain’s novels and Lincoln’s speeches—in a beautiful Library of America volume is enough to trigger a serious attack of cognitive dissonance.

Well. I must admit that I too prefer Kerouac's wonderful prose to his vexing poetry. However, I can prove that Jack Kerouac is an important poet, because he has written at least one short poem that seems to mean many things to many people. It goes like this:

Philosophy Weekend: Tactile Philosophy, from Helen Keller to Jacques Lacan

by Levi Asher on Saturday, July 13, 2013 11:47 am

Tactile philosophy. These words popped into my mind when I saw a beautiful, amazing photograph of a blissful 74-year-old Helen Keller enveloped by a troupe of Martha Graham's dancers, feeling the music and visual expression through vibration and touch, raising her arms and joining in the dance. (Is this not one of the greatest photographs ever taken? Am I the only person who didn't know that this photograph has existed since 1954?)

I was already thinking about the sense of touch on the day I saw this photo. Philosophical rationalists and empiricists have long debated whether or not we experience the world through sensory data alone. This question has never been satisfactorily answered, but I bet many on both sides would agree that touch is the most philosophically final, the most authoritative, of all the human senses. Where the rubber hits the road. The stick a Zen master strikes an inattentive student with. To the extent that we develop our philosophy of life from our sensory experience of the world, it seems likely that our tactile experiences are the most philosophically influential of all.

A person may have been beaten as a child, or may have been deprived, or coddled, or forced at an early age to gain mastery of the physical world in order to survive. In all cases, we must expect this to influence that person's developing sense of ethics and morality. In this light, Helen Keller's achievement as a living example of a capable and communicative deaf-and-blind person is all the more remarkable -- not only because she transcended her assumed limitations, but because she proved that a person who experiences the world primarily through the sense of touch can have a positive attitude. She knows the world in a different way than you or I do, but she too has discovered joy. At the age of 74, she stands in a circle of moving dancers, a beatific smile on her face, and raises the roof.

Philosophy Weekend: Humbled at Gettysburg

by Levi Asher on Sunday, July 7, 2013 05:31 pm

This is the last of five blog posts inspired by the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. As I struggle to write this one today, I'm forced to admit two things that you'll very rarely ever hear me say.

First, I feel humbled. Second, I am at a loss for words.

Gettysburg 150: Longstreet and Lee and the Quintessential Battle

by Levi Asher on Monday, July 1, 2013 11:49 pm

What happens when an irresistible force meets an unmovable object? In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 150 years ago, 51,000 people died or were severely wounded.

I'm in Gettysburg now, soaking in the historical moment with Civil War buffs, reenactors, curious locals, traveling families, bikers, historians, writers, artists, unidentifiable visitors from North and South. Everyone is friendly -- happy, even, which is strange when you consider the disaster we are here to remember. The only way to know which of the two sides any person might feel they represent is to look at the license plates on their cars.

Philosophy Weekend: Derek Jarman's Ludwig Wittgenstein

by Levi Asher on Sunday, April 28, 2013 11:52 am

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.)

Philosophy Weekend: Denial of Death

by Tim Hawken on Sunday, April 21, 2013 11:44 am

(A few months ago, I received an email from an Australian writer named Tim Hawken who had a few article ideas for Litkicks. I published his Kant on Beauty and Heidegger on Art, and it was only after this that Tim revealed to me that he was writing these pieces under the stress of a family health calamity. For more of the personal story behind today's article, see this post on Tim's own blog. The photo of a deconstructed wristwatch is from a photo essay also on Tim's blog, entitled "Timeless" -- Levi)

Two years ago my wife was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. At 29 years old, she was told that she was going to die. The revelation turned our world upside down. Certainties we held previously about our lives were washed away like sandcastles built in the tidal zone. Only small mounds of faith remained, but the idea of a distant, pain-free death in our twilight years, having lived a full and happy existence, had been demolished.

Instantly, the ‘bucket list’ mentality came into play. We began building a catalogue of things to do before eternal darkness swept in. We quit our corporate jobs and traveled the world. After a year on the road, a reassessment of our life goals led us both back to study: philosophy for me, nutrition for her. What I have come to realize in these recent tumultuous years is this: we were always both dying; we just didn’t realise it yet. Death, of course, is life’s only real certainty. So, why did being told something we both should have known already change our perspective so much?

Philosophy Weekend: Heidegger on Art

by Tim Hawken on Wednesday, March 27, 2013 11:03 pm

(A few weeks ago, guest blogger Tim Hawken wrote about Immanuel Kant's aesthetic theory. Here's his second Philosophy Weekend piece, on a related subject. Hawken lives in Australia and is the author of 'I Am Satan' and 'Hellbound'.)

You arrive at a contemporary art show with a friend. Excited about the new and interesting things you’ll see, you hurry toward the entry. Out in front there's a stunning installation. It’s a car with pummelled-in sides. Red and white paint is flaking off the doors to reveal rusted panels underneath. The bonnet, however, is flawless blue. The sheen of the paint almost glows with newness. Standing, admiring the work, you say to your friend that perhaps it’s a commentary on America’s motor industry: embattled, but still turning out quality work. The featured artist for the evening emerges from the front door. You’re about to praise his vision, when he smiles sheepishly, indicating the car, “perhaps if I sell some pieces tonight, I’ll be able to fix it up a bit more. It’s still just a heap of junk right now. I’d better get it out of the way before anyone else arrives.” Taking his keys out of his pocket, he jumps in, struggles to start it and rumbles off to the car park.

Embarrassed, you look down to your feet. So, that wasn’t art? Just a few moments ago you were sure it was brilliant. Does it stop being art now that the ‘artist’ called it junk? Or is it still art because you made it so in your mind? Your friend shakes her head at you and walks inside. The question you want to yell after her chokes on your tongue: What makes art, ‘art’ anyway?

J. M. Coetzee, Master of the Enigmatic Novel

by Levi Asher on Monday, March 11, 2013 08:43 pm

Ask me to name my favorite living writer, and I just might name J. M. Coetzee, formerly of South Africa, now of Australia. I think his best novels are Disgrace, Elizabeth Costello and Slow Man, and I also get a tremendous kick out of his two recent meta-fictional adventures in psychological self-deconstruction, Diary of a Bad Year and Summertime, the latter of which has sometimes been mistakenly assumed to be the third volume of his ongoing memoir, following Boyhood: Scenes From Provincial Life and Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II. But Summertime, a fragmented third-person narrative about a dead writer named John Coetzee, is no memoir.

Strangely, I'm more likely to recommend his late period works than his most famous novels, which are his earliest ones: Waiting for the Barbarians, Life and Times of Michael K and The Master of Petersburg. These books won the author a Nobel prize, but the stone-faced dead seriousness of these downbeat parables can be hard to take. As he got older and more successful, Coetzee seemed to become lighter or warmer-hearted, and began challenging himself to write more playful, experimental and archly self-referential novels. Word is out that his very latest novel, The Childhood of Jesus, may be the most expansively allegorical, spiritually provocative and magnetically enigmatic of them all.

I haven't written as much about Coetzee as about other writers, though I have brushed past his great works here, here and here, and have also discussed his vegetarian principles here. There is something forbidding about Coetzee's stern countenance that always makes it feel unseemly to gush about his work. An admiring review of Childhood of Jesus in Coetzee's hometown rag The Australian says something smart about the difficulty of writing critically about a writer who seems to plumb such mysterious and deep sources of emotion and meaning with his stark, minimalist texts:


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