1. This rather remarkable painting, titled Hansel and Gretel, was painted by Zelda Fitzgerald in 1947.
2. Speaking of difficult literary ex-wives: earlier this year I wrote an article about T. S. Eliot's Possum's Book of Practical Cats and the Broadway show Cats in which I suggested that the authors must have invented the character of Grizabella to represent Vivienne Eliot, the great poet and critic's first wife, whose life ended in a quiet mental institution. A strongly-worded comment has been posted to my blog article by an anonymous person who appears to be familiar with the T. S. Eliot estate. This person agrees with my conjecture about Grizabella, and points out that a controversy remains over the Eliot estate's attitude towards Vivienne Eliot's legacy. If you're interested in this topic, please read the long comment by "Coerulescent" and judge for yourself.
3. The Moth, an excellent literary storytelling revue, wanted to hear stories about "transformations". I don't think they could have chosen a much better participant for this challenge than Laura Albert, who delivered a moving piece about becoming and unbecoming J. T. Leroy, and about the ridiculous hassles that followed her "exposure". I'm proud to say I stood by Laura even when few others did. Congrats to Laura for finding her way back as a writer; watch the video!
This week's scary news of a sudden attack on South Korea by North Korea brought North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il into the spotlight again. But, all too often the analysis of this dangerous politician's motivation and character takes a quick dive into comic disbelief. "He's a loon." "He's out of his mind." "Kim Jong-Il is a nutjob."
This material can make good comedy -- and, listen, I don't understand the haircut either. But I sure hope nobody thinks "Kim Jong-Il is a loon" can substitute for real insight. A statement like this is, rather, a display of no insight. It signifies that some logic or explanation for Jong-Il's actions exists, and that we are blind to it. A statement like this is the opposite of insight.
We love comedy and satire in the United States of America, and we often have fun with the shrill, hysterical personalities of our military opponents. There's nothing wrong with this, unless we allow it to become a dead end for our own knowledge. When it comes to understanding North Korea here in the USA, this seems to have taken place. Kim Jong-Il is a Saturday Night Live skit, and as far as most Americans know, that's all he is.
Is Kim Jong-Il actually crazy? The evidence for this is slight, though his embattled leadership position has probably pushed his sanity towards the edges. However, we don't even have strong information about whether or not Kim Jong-Il is the prime decision-maker within the government, so it may not matter whether he is insane or not. Often in history we have misunderstood our enemy's internal workings. (For instance, during World War II it was generally believed among US and British military strategists that the Prussian military leadership was driving military strategy in Nazi Germany, when in fact this took place within Hitler's Nazi Party, a completely different organization. If we had known this during World War II, we could have helped the Prussian military clique overthrow Hitler, as it was desperately trying to do).
Like the government of every nation in the world, North Korea's is run by some kind of hive mind, and if we don't want to blunder our way through the Korean crisis (the way George W. Bush seemed to blunder through every foreign engagement for eight years) we are going to need to dig a little deeper and try to understand this hive mind. We're going to have to challenge our own intellects a little more.
1, Prompted by Tom McCarthy's trendy new novel C, AbeBooks presents a tableau of one-letter (or two-letter) books. It's a lot of fun to look at. Of course, I'm an old school techie, so to me C will always be the title of a classic book by Kernighan and Ritchie.
2. Those are the 26 letters of the alphabet in books, and here's the 50 states of the United States in movies. Some of these choices are superb, like Gummo for Ohio, Napoleon Dynamite for Idaho, The Wizard of Oz for Kansas, October Sky for West Virginia, Bull Durham for North Carolina and The Ice Storm for Connecticut. Taxi Driver is not a bad choice for New York, though I would prefer Goodfellas or The Godfather. But the map also misses a few. River's Edge is a better choice than First Blood for Washington, Angel Heart is better than Southern Comfort for Louisiana, Porky's is better than Scarface for Florida, and Ferris Bueller is better than The Blues Brothers for Illinois. I can think of plenty better choices for California -- I saw Fast Times For Ridgemont High, and didn't even know it was a California movie. Finally, Deliverance for Georgia? Nothing wrong with Deliverance, but there's this flick called Gone With The Wind ...
The San Francisco Chronicle said John Reed "excels in the realm of the strange". Reed is the author of four previous books, including Snowball's Chance and All the World's a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare. He teaches creative writing at the New School and Columbia University and is on the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle.
His most recent title is Tales of Woe, published by MTV Press. The book is a compendium of true-life tragedies. However, Reed has done something subtly yet artistically important: instead of choosing tales that have a redeeming moral message or happy ending, he has deliberately chosen ones that do not. And he has done so for a morally serious reason: he wants to underline that life is sometimes brutally unfair. Justice, in other words, can be the result of how human beings do (or do not) organize their affairs as much as it can be the result of providential "forces".
I spoke with Reed by email and phone in August of this year.
FINN: Is the book partly an antidote to the Pollyanna-ish "arc" of so much contemporary culture? In other words, was it written in part to say, this is part of the truth of life on earth?
JOHN: That's it, exactly. Sin, suffering, redemption. That's the news, that's the movie, that's what they tell you to keep your hope alive, to keep you from accepting how much unhappiness there is, not only in your life, but in the world. It's not an accident, that story, it's a convenience of the class that own us. You'd think that model -- sin, suffering, redemption -- would make you feel better about life. Maybe it does for a few minutes, but it can't really help; you try to apply that model to your life, you'll meet with misery and resistance, because that model is bullshit.
As soon as Barack Obama became President of the United States two years ago, I started hearing about "socialism" in America. Opponents of Obama's platform have raised widespread suspicions that his entire presidency is a conspiracy to establish government control over every aspect of our lives. These critics often use words like "socialism", "Marxism", "fascism" and "tyranny" interchangeably, and have so successfully spooked many trusting American citizens that an entire Rally To Restore Sanity (and/or Fear) became necessary in Washington DC this weekend.
Still, of course, the fear remains. And, in fact, vigilant citizens of every nation in the world should always fear government tyranny, because we've seen horrific examples of it in recent times. Frank Dikotter's history book Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 is a real eye-opener for anybody who lives in comfortable freedom and can't quite picture what real tyranny might feel like.
This book will fill in the blanks, and you'll never forget it. From 1958 to 1961, Mao Zedong's Communist Party-led government carried out an experimental program of food redistribution that literally condemned tens of millions -- yes, tens of millions -- of its own rural citizens to slow, painful death by starvation. Farmers were forced to combine their private farms into collectives, and when these collective harvests failed to meet their unrealistic quotas of food, the farmers were forced to continue to work without eating, until they and their families simply died. Government representatives invaded private homes, poking with long sticks for hidden stashes of food, even as the citizens lay dying on the floor (the government representatives, of course, were well-fed).
It's easy to make fun of many Republican candidates in the 2010 election season (especially when their slate includes Christine O'Donnell). But American conservative politicians have a strong following, and their ideals and programs deserve serious consideration.
Because I take my own (fairly liberal) political ideals very seriously, I've made an effort during this election season to listen as sympathetically as I could to a variety of conservative voices. I've paid more attention to populist voices than intellectual ones -- that is, I read conservative blogs, watched Fox News and listened to Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin on the radio, and didn't bother reading the National Review, or the New York Times Book Review's Buckley-esque political pieces. I was more interested in hearing from the Tea Partiers than the Ivy League.
I paid attention to our most popular conservatives to see if they had anything to teach me, and also to see if I had anything to teach them. On the positive side, I was able to appreciate their emphasis on principles -- liberty, economic simplicity, government by Constitution. I was also able to appreciate the sense of humor and rebellion that helps to explain the popularity of some conservative commentators.
On the negative side, I discovered that today's Republican party -- the one that's expected to take over a majority in the House of Representatives after election day -- has shockingly little substance when it comes to fixing the economy. You thought Christine O'Donnell was an airhead? Listen to John Boehner try to explain how he's going to reduce the staggering budget deficit and keep tax breaks for the wealthy at the same time. It's as if he really thinks you can pay off the national debt with words.
Sometime during the crazy mid-1990s, young graffiti artist and Chicago activist William "Upski" Wimsatt wrote Bomb the Suburbs, one of the quintessential early Soft Skull books. The title was an attention grabber, though of course to "bomb" a place is to spray-paint your tag on a wall, and no call to violence was ever intended.
But a few more crazy years have passed since the mid-90s, and some places around the world really have gotten bombed -- Oklahoma City, New York City and the Pentagon, Iraq and Afghanistan -- and the title of Wimsatt's new book Please Don't Bomb The Suburbs (published, this time around, by Akashic) deals with these changes head-on. The author's introduction explains the conundrums he's faced:
I had nothing to do with the Oklahoma City bombing. It was 180 degrees opposite of my values and worldview. Yet suddenly, the title of my book wasn't so cute anymore. After September 11, it became even less cute.
Fast-forward to 2008. A lot of my friends were involved in the Obama campaign. I had been campaigning for social change for twenty years. This was the most exciting and important campaign of my lifetime. I was already volunteering. And one of my friends asked me to be on an advisory committee. Exciting. *Just send me your resume, you'll be vetted and then* --
Whoa, vetted. Forgot that part.
"Outside of society!" shouts Patti Smith in one of her best songs, Rock and Roll Nigger. The phrase expresses not a reality but rather only a dream for many of us. For a small few, it's an actual choice.
I've never lived off the grid, but I've always been drawn to the idea. The impulse to withdraw from modern suburbia and reinvent society in capsule form has a long intellectual history; it was a driving force of the French Enlightenment, New England Transcendentalism (Louisa May Alcott spent part of her childhood in her father's commune) and the 1960s hippie revolution. During that golden age, Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters lived in a cabin in Palo Alto, Timothy Leary held court at Millbrook, New York, while Allen Ginsberg's poetic entourage gathered around Cherry Valley, New York. But Charlie Manson was also building his own society at Spahn Movie Ranch outside of Los Angeles during these years. Many of the most well-known off-the-grid communes since the end of the 1960s have similarly been disaster stories: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple in Guyana, David Koresh and the Branch Dravidians in Waco, the lonely Unabomber in his Lincoln, Montana cabin.
Some of the original hippie communes, though, did not fail, and managed to evolve. My older and younger sisters both experimented with communal societies at different points in their lives, and I once visited my younger sister for a weekend while she lived on the edge -- half in, half out -- of a rural commune in northwestern Vermont that sustained about 75 regulars and many more visitors. The informal commune -- people lived in separate shacks, but spent their days together -- had existed quietly and successfully for years. I hope it's still there.
Since it's our mission here to discuss popular (rather than academic) philosophy, we can hardly ignore the emergence in the last two years of the Tea Party, a raucous and highly ideological political protest movement that has grown powerful among conservative and/or Republican American voters, and aims to transform the nation.
As a proud liberal, I disagree with almost everything in the Tea Party's loosely defined platform. But I try to always treat my opponents with respect and empathy, and I am disappointed that so many of my fellow liberals have been reacting to the emergence of this grassroots movement by trying to wish it away, and by emphasizing its worst evident characteristics over its better ones.
It's not hard to find noisy Tea Party protestors expressing racist hatred towards President Barack Obama, or saying disturbingly uneducated things about Islam, or carrying signs that cry out for spell-check. It's also not hard to find fault with heroes of the Tea Party movement like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Bachmann, Rand Paul, Sharron Angle and Christine O'Donnell, and to claim that their obvious flaws -- Sarah Palin's glib overconfidence, Glenn Beck's rabid rage, Christine O'Donnell's hilarious weirdness -- represent the flaws of the movement at large.
But, as always in a principled argument, we'll all benefit more by analyzing this movement according to its best rather than worst characteristics, thus allowing its opposition (which I'm a part of) the chance to win in a fair fight. The Tea Party phenomenon is admirably idealistic and philosophical at its core, and I've spent some time trying to discern (by reading blogs, reading newspapers, listening to talk radio and watching Fox News) the basic intellectual principles behind the Tea Party movement.
It's amazing the way obviously flawed ideas and beliefs can become widely accepted as certainties. Take, for example, the certainty that war is inevitable. I hear over and over that there is absolutely no chance -- zero, nil, nada to the power of nada -- that there can ever be true peace between, say, Israel and Palestine.
Likewise, India and Pakistan will continue to fight forever, and so will North and South Korea, Russia and Chechnya, Iraq and Iran, Tamil and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, China and Tibet, Croatia and Serbia and Bosnia and Kosovo. Or, as one variation on this belief goes, if these hatreds were to ever stop, they'd be replaced by others as bleak and violent.
We hear this everywhere. We hear it from our friends and our relatives, in blaring newspaper headlines or in scholarly books by authorities like Victor Davis Hansen. We see it on the morning and evening news (and, on this rare topic, it doesn't matter whether you watch Glenn Beck on FOX or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC -- the lead story is not going to be about the possibilities for long-lasting global peace).