Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove

by Tara Olmsted on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 08:58 pm

There's a moment in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove when Ben Greenman (the book's co-writer and the co-manager of Questlove’s the Roots) makes the observation that the Roots is one of the few bands – perhaps the only band – left in hiphop.

Philosophy Weekend: Slavoj Zizek and the Dream of Yugoslavia

by Levi Asher on Saturday, July 27, 2013 09:00 pm

Last weekend I mentioned two keys to appreciating Slavoj Zizek, the popular but controversial Marxist philosopher. First, I said that his philosophical stance is one of defensive advocacy rather than constructive theorizing, that he is best understood as a self-appointed "lawyer for Marxism". Second, I said that Slavoj Zizek can best be understood within the context of the startling history of the country he is from -- by which I refer to both Slovenia, the country he is from now, and Yugoslavia, the nation in which he was born.

I'd like to discuss both points in more depth, and explain why I think these approaches to Zizek's work help in understanding the fervency of his ethical mission.

The Ballad of J. T. Laura

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, July 24, 2013 08:29 pm

I never understood why anyone called Laura Albert a fake writer. When she invented J. T. LeRoy, she formed the basis of an enduring emotional and artistic chemistry with a wide variety of readers. Isn't this what a real writer is supposed to do?

Some accused Laura of creating a fake persona, but J. T. LeRoy was never meant to appear real. The cagey identity was part of the character's psychology, and a part of the psychology of the character's milieu. Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy was fake in a fake world -- an uncertain truck stop hustler, a boy dressing as a boy dressing as a girl, who was sometimes asked to dress as a girl dressing as a boy dressing as a girl. J. T. LeRoy "himself" was supposed to be a male writer, but when secret mastermind Laura Albert sent a real person out to schmooze in fashionable parties as J. T. LeRoy, she sent a girl dressed as a boy. Anybody who ever thought J. T. LeRoy was supposed to be "real" was completely missing the point.

Laura Albert has her say about her past scandal and other things in a fun Interview magazine interview with Adam Langer. Laura is a friend of Litkicks, and it just so happens that Adam Langer is a friend of Litkicks too, since his comic novel The Thieves of Manhattan got a great review in these pages a couple years ago. Thieves is an anarchic send-up of literary author scandals, so he was a great choice to ask J. T. Laura questions about her past. As for Interview itself, Andy Warhol's legendary magazine still looks great. This article's photos are by Steven Klein.

Philosophy Weekend: Slavoj Zizek, Marxism's Lovable Lawyer

by Levi Asher on Saturday, July 20, 2013 11:26 am

The philosophy blogosphere (to the extent that such a thing exists) blew up this week after Noam Chomsky opened a can of whoop-butt on Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. The American philosopher characterized the three European celebrities as posturing phonies who inspire cultish devotion even though their theories cannot be boiled down to meaningful principles. Zizek, the only living representative of Chomsky's three targets, responded by chiding Chomsky for supporting Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s -- a confusingly musty response, since even a brilliant philosopher ought to be allowed to make one mistake every forty years or so.

Still, a little feud between superstar left-wing philosophers is always fun, and I was able to observe with amused interest because I tend to look kindly on both Chomsky and Zizek (as well as on Derrida and Lacan). Chomsky is on strong ground when he slams these Europeans for being incomprehensible, since he himself has been consistent and intelligible (if sometimes insufficiently charismatic) during his entire long career. But I'm sure that Zizek does not merely engage in "empty posturing". I have myself been able to gain value from reading Zizek's essays and books, even though he tends to meander exhaustingly and dazzle disconnectedly.

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.

Yak Ballz Does T. S. Eliot

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, June 18, 2013 08:20 pm

it seems strange, like yellow smoke
pushin' up against the window panes
and ain't a damn thing changed
i know, cause i been trying to find an antidote
while women come and go
talking of michelangelo

What! These lyrics wafted past me this weekend during a family gathering, and stopped me in my tracks. Has somebody finally turned my favorite poem ever into a hiphop track? And if so, what the hell took them so long? The track is Homework by Yak Ballz, a rapper from Flushing, Queens. The mermaids are slinging crack, and it's all good.

Ray Manzarek

by Levi Asher on Monday, May 20, 2013 08:33 pm

I saw Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors who died today, at a poetry show with Michael McClure at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York City a few years ago. I was awestruck by both legends on that stage: McClure for being a Beat Generation poet and Ray Manzarek for being the most exciting keyboard player in the history of rock, the architect of the "Light My Fire" sound, a key literary/avant-garde scenester of the hippie and post-hippie era, and the enabler of Jim Morrison.

Philosophy Weekend: Kierkegaard's Birthday

by Levi Asher on Saturday, May 4, 2013 06:32 pm

What do you buy a morose Danish philosopher who invented Existentialism for his 200th birthday?

It doesn't really matter anymore, since Soren Aabye Kierkegaard is dead. He died at the young age of 42, already at this time a mostly broken man, an obsessive writer, a lonely bachelor, and a frequent subject of popular ridicule. Like Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka and F. Scott Fitzgerald (with all of whom he shares some sensibility), he died at a low point of literary success, without much reason to expect that later generations would rediscover his work and call him a genius.

But I believe Soren Kierkegaard died a happy man, because he was that rare philosopher who found answers to the hardest questions he asked, answers that satisfied him completely. The questions were of religion, and of how to live a good life, and his answer involved the "leap of faith" or "leap to faith" (a phrase he invented). Kierkegaard was a devoted Christian, but he defied the philosophical norms of his age by expressly refusing to try to justify his belief with reason or logic. The power of religious faith, he pronounced, was in believing without reason or logic.

His belief in Christianity made him a great religious writer. What made him a great Existential writer was the implicit principle that underlies his argument for religious faith: the principle that we human beings regularly think, live and make decisions without reason or logic.

This was as much a "eureka" moment for Western philosophy as Rene Descartes's cogito ergo sum two centuries before. Though Kierkegaard had to struggle to explain his ideas to his bewildered Danish and European intellectual peers during his life, his idea of religion as a leap to faith would spring incredible gardens of original modernist thought: inheritors of Kierkegaard include Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, William James, Paul Tillich, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean-Paul Sartre and many more.

Dusklands: Coetzee's Essential Debut Novel

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, April 16, 2013 09:48 pm

Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands is out of print everywhere I've looked, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career.

Dusklands was published in 1974, years before Coetzee started hitting his powerful stride with The Life and Times of Michael K. and Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. Since I couldn't buy the book in bookstores or order a new copy online, I satisfied myself at first by reading summaries of what Dusklands appeared to be: a divided narrative constructed of two invented "found manuscripts", the first an American military psychologist's report of propaganda efforts during the Vietnam War, the second an early Dutch South African explorer's report of a journey into the unknown regions of the continent.

Eventually, as I recently waited for Coetzee's new novel The Childhood of Jesus to be released in my country, I broke down and ordered a used copy of Dusklands online. It probably wouldn't be any great Coetzee, I figured, but I wouldn't mind a small minor work, a glimpse at the uncertain youthful voice of a later genius.

Oh. My. God. Did I have it wrong.

Now that I've read this tour de force, which may be the most bleak and upsetting book J. M. Coetzee has ever written, I am wondering if it is out of print for a completely different reason. Perhaps the book is out of print because its horrific violence and sense of menace is too hard for readers to handle. Imagine a combination of Joseph Conrad and Harold Pinter -- with a lot more blood and torture than each. But this disturbing book appears also to be at least a small masterpiece. I remained gripped and compelled by the narrative for days after reading the final pages.

The Clock Exploded: A Taste of Richard Hell

by Levi Asher on Monday, April 8, 2013 11:14 pm

If proof is ever needed that some of our most talented creative geniuses keep a low profile, we only need to look to Richard Hell, an experimental poet, ex-punk star, novelist and now memoirist, who lives a humble but glorious life around downtown New York City and graces us with a new book every few years. He is one of my favorite living writers, a marvelously inventive and truthful observer of humanity and critic of life. His new book is a bratty and colorful autobiography, I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.

Born somewhere in the United States of America to a Jewish psychologist father and a southern Methodist mother, Hell quickly booked out of there and headed for New York City, where he made a living working in bookstores and cinemaphile collector shops and eventually played bass guitar, wrote and sang for three seminal punk rock bands, Television, the Heartbreakers (with Johnny Thunders, not Tom Petty), and finally his own outfit, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He had a signature hit with the Voidoids, "Blank Generation", but found that he was not cut out for the rock star life -- not even with all the heroin and crystal meth he applied to heal the pain.

He retired from rock in the early 80s to become a full-time writer, even though this meant he'd be scraping for a living until his dying day (as far as I know, has never attempted a lame "comeback" as a musician, though many old Voidoids fans like myself would surely like him to). He proved himself as a serious novelist in 1997 with Go Now, a tale of twisted love, and again in 2005 with Godlike, a modern-day retelling of the literary legend of Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. I could not resist quoting this author liberally when I reviewed Godlike on this blog in 2005, because his shimmering nuggets of prose are simply so beautiful that I enjoy typing them in. After reading I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp, I feel an urge to honor this excellent book by sharing quotes again.


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