Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Religion

Lonely Highways

by Levi Asher on Monday, January 26, 2009 09:26 pm


I stopped paying attention to run-of-the-mill Beat Generation product years ago, but every once in a while something truly original breaks through. Below are three excellent new Beat-related works that recently crossed my path.

It took about two seconds for me to fall for De Eenzame Snelweg, a paperback chronicle of an American journey by two young Dutch Kerouac aficionados, writer Auke Hulst and artist Raoul Deleo. The book Hulst sent me has not been translated into English (the title apparently means The Lonely Highway), but it's enough to scan and enjoy the sensitive and funny continuous cartoon strip that runs across the entire text, following a journey from New York City to San Francisco by way of Nebraska and Denver and the other usual Keroauc stops from On The Road (though, unfortunately, Hulst and Deleo don't make it to New Orleans, an essential corner in On The Road). These tourists have fun with their Kerouac -- a "Bear Crossing" road sign inspires an artistic examination of God as Pooh Bear, and I bet Jack himself would have loved the jazzy drawing of the Lombard Street Shuffle ("the world's crookedest dance") in San Francisco, where they also visit the Beat Museum. The book smoothly captures and transmits the excitement Hulst and Deleo feel as they travel in Kerouac's path. And, as the photo of the artist's rig above shows, the artwork is a scroll.

I first read Jack Kerouac's Wake Up when it was serialized in the Buddhist magazine Tricycle over ten years ago. This is an earnest, almost artless biography of Siddhartha Guatama, the sheltered prince who left his comfortable palace and became the Buddha 2500 years ago. Buddhism clearly brought out Kerouac's most reverent instincts, as the prose appears to have been carefully written and bears few marks of his signature "spontaneous" style. It's clear that Jack Kerouac felt a strong personal connection to the story of the once-spoiled wandering prince who struggled so hard to understand the meaning of desire in human existence. Wake Up, unpublished during Kerouac's life, has finally been released in book form, and seems to be more valuable than many other recent releases of unpublished Kerouac work. The book may surprise or enlighten readers who are not familiar with the spiritual aspect of Kerouac's literary mission.

The sympathetic and peace-loving Buddhist religion was always essential to the Beat Generation mindset, and it was a strong influence in the life of the magnetic and eclectic New York City semi-Beat, semi-Warholian poet John Giorno. Subdoing Demons In America: Selected Poems 1962-2007 is one of the more appealing poetry books I've seen in a while. Giorno's very approachable and casual verses remind me of the best of the short poems that often show up here on LitKicks Action Poetry. Urbane, experimental and user-friendly, they are often grounded in day-to-day experience. One poem simply contains the lyrics to the chorus of the Rolling Stones song "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" (a Buddhist plea, of course) and others seem to transcribe subway signs or the directions on a tube of suntan lotion. Unlike much of what passes for poetry these days, these sensitive, crafty verses will never leave you mystified or bored.

Three new and worthwhile Beat Generation books! 2009 is shaping up well. I'm also looking forward to catching a rare East Coast appearance by poet Gary Snyder at the New York Public Library this Saturday, January 31 at 3 pm. Gary Snyder's career is celebrated in another new book, the Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, which I haven't yet had a chance to read.





Kate and Leo in Suburbia

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, December 24, 2008 02:52 am



1. I attended a preview screening of Revolutionary Road, the new Kate Winslet/Leonardo DiCaprio film based on a highly regarded 1961 novel by Richard Yates, along with a few friends who'd all loved the Richard Yates novel. They all hated the movie. Myself, I haven't read the novel yet, so I can tell you how the film stands on its own. (I'm also reading the novel right now, so I may sound off on this topic again once I finish.)

Revolutionary Road is the tragedy of a marriage that starts off shaky and ends worse. Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio play two earnest and artistic New Yorkers who find themselves living a conformist lifestyle in a fashionable Connecticut suburb (with a street called Revolutionary Road) even though they have strong Bohemian yearnings and can't stand their neighbors. The only neighbor they like -- in one of the film's best scenes -- is a literal madman, played by Michael Shannon, in whom they find a kindred alienated spirit.

The fiesty lovers fight constantly, humor and ignore their children, dream of solving their problems by moving to Paris, all the while descending into greater and greater miseries. I can see why my friends who are familiar with Yates's novel consider the movie a simplistic and commercial betrayal of the source material, but even so, the film packs a punch. It's a bleak and unblinking stare at a troubled modern family, and Kate Winslet's performance helps carry the message. Leo DiCaprio, unfortunately, still can't act -- he sure can emote and yell, and he has a craggy face you could carve into Mount Rushmore -- but he can't act. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) is also fond of an artificial and histrionic style of acting (Winslet somehow manages to appear natural even in Mendes's hands), and it's frustrating to realize how much better this film could have worked in subtler hands.

Yet Revolutionary Road is worth catching, if only to see the stars of Titanic gloriously reunited. I was surprised that the preview audience didn't gasp during the scene where Kate Winslet fingers a brochure for the Cunard Cruise Line as she makes plans to sail with her family across the Atlantic Ocean. Once again, Kate and Leo don't make it to the other side.

2. The new Pal Joey ended up getting trashed in the New York Times. I think the show deserves a more sympathetic review, even with its many problems. It's still about a hundred times better than Little Mermaid or Legally Blonde.

3. Maud Newton introduces Iceberg, an exciting new iPhone e-book approach pioneered by ScrollMotion. In other e-book news (and there seems to be a lot of e-book news lately), Project Gutenberg is going mobile.

4. Heartbroke Daily is about one writer's persistent lovesickness.

5. I told you last week that I am going to begin an extensive writing project here on LitKicks in January. I first conceived this as a book idea, but since I am already working with an agent on a different book proposal I am going to begin writing this one right here on LitKicks in occasional blog-post segments, not necessarily chronological, and I will continue until I either tell the entire story or decide to stop.

The story is about me, specifically about my work in the internet industry in the last fifteen years. I have seen a lot -- and survived a lot -- since launching LitKicks in 1994 and leaving my job in the financial software industry to work for Time Warner's first internet startup in 1995. In the years to follow I became a spoken-word poet, helped to launch one of the web's first advertising networks, insulted Bill Gates in person, published a book, built BobDylan.com, drank too many martinis, became a paper millionaire, went completely broke, got a divorce, watched my kids grow up, endured a year's employment in what must have been one of the most dysfunctional technology departments in the history of mankind (at A&E Network/History Channel), fell in love, and found a new footing online in the age of blogs and Web 2.0. I watched the birth of the dot-com industry, the birth of Yahoo, the birth of Amazon, the birth of Java, the birth of XML, the birth of Google, the death of the Pets.com sock puppet, and the incredible hair of Rod Blagojevich (okay, Blagojevich's hair isn't in the book, but everything else is).

I have been burning to tell some of these stories for a long time, and I hope to do so in a way that is both entertaining and intellectually stimulating. I'm not a big Ernest Hemingway fan, but my method in telling this story will be to follow his advice in what must have been one of his best lines: "Write the truest sentence you know."

Truth? That's a tall order, but these stories need to be told. Some former Silicon Alley colleagues of mine may not like some of the things I'll say. Hell, I may not like some of the things I'll say. But in my opinion the only reason to write a memoir (James Frey notwithstanding) is that you want to tell the truth, and that's exactly what I plan to do. I hope you'll check out the first installment, which should appear just after New Years Day.

We'll be closing down (and putting up our annual Action Poetry retrospective) between Christmas and New Years. Yesterday I posted a video from Godspell, and in the same spirit, here's an even better random video I found on YouTube, an extremely intense version of Gethsemane from a Peruvian production of Jesus Christ Superstar. This is my idea of a good Christmas video. Enjoy, and see you in January!







Reviewing the Review: December 21 2008

by Levi Asher on Sunday, December 21, 2008 08:22 pm


I don't know if the intense Jeanette Winterson has written much book criticism before. But her review of Forrest Gander's As a Friend in today's New York Times Book Review reads like it's her first time, and I mean that as a compliment. Rarely does a critic seem so eager to drink a book in, as when she tells us that Gander:

... returns words as meaning instead of blurring them as data. So much writing is just about conveying information, using words that are readily interchangeable, underpowering language so that it never reaches the point of calibration; the right register of what we feel, or of how it feels to feel.

She seems to be reviewing not just one captivating book but literature itself. She echoes Kerouac (perhaps a bit too closely) here, describing a character in the book:

So it is with anyone real, unlike the measured platitudes and balanced phrases that hallmark the increasing army of unreal people, who never want to risk a wrong word and so speak only in cliches.

This level of excitement could be hazardous, but Winterson has the skill to make the piece work. I think many NYTBR readers will join me in checking out Gander's book as a result.

This is another skinny (24 pages) issue of the Book Review, but it manages to cram in a decent amount of literary and intellectual material. Kathryn Harrison teaches me a new word in her review of Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris (I've suffered occasionally from "paralysis of the soul", but I didn't know there was a six-letter term for it). Liesl Schillinger describes two newly translated German novels, Settlement by Christop Hein and New Lives by Ingo Schulze. I don't love the way Charles Taylor hints at the identity of the real-life model for a celebrity writer character in Bruce Jay Friedman's Three Balconies. I assume the "wildly charismatic, self-destructive, marginally crazy" 1960s writer is meant to be Norman Mailer, but either way I don't think a reviewer should hint that a book is a roman a clef and then leave us guessing about the identity of the target.

The "humanities" quotient today is through the roof: Scott Stossel discusses American Therapy: The Rise of Psychotherapy in the United States by Jonathan Engel, Anthony Gottlieb walks us through Giordano Bruno: Philosopher, Heretic by Ingrid D. Rowland, and Kenneth Woodward sniffs at Beyond Tolerance: Searching for Interfaith Understanding in America by Gustav Niebuhr (Woodward, who also writes about comparative religion, seems annoyed that Niebuhr didn't write the book Woodward would have liked to write).

There's also an enthusiastic full page on poet Jeffrey Yang's abacedarian Aquarium and a Gregory Maguire piece on Laura Miller's The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia.

With so much high-minded content spread among 24 pages, who can possibly complain? Well, that's what they pay me for. I can't stand fatuous superlatives, as in Alex Wichtel's glossy cover piece on actor Christopher Plummer's autobiography In Spite Of Myself, which assures us that Plummer is the "finest classical actor of North America". I have nothing against Christopher Plummer, but in fact I once long ago trucked my sorry ass all the way out to Stratford, Connecticut to see him play Iago in a lavishly over-praised Othello featuring James Earl Jones in the title role. Joe Papp's humble Public Theater/Shakespeare in the Park has always been my local playing field for Shakespeare, and over the years I've been privileged to enjoy William Hurt as Oberon, Raul Julia as Macbeth, Kevin Kline as Hamlet, Diane Verona as Ophelia, Raul Julia as Prospero, Kevin Kline as Lear and much more. Midsummer Night's Dream with Hurt and The Tempest with Julia (and Barry Miller as Caliban) are the two productions I remember most fondly, and I also remember leaving Stratford, Connecticut after the wildly over-praised Othello wondering what the hell the big deal about Christopher Plummer's Iago was and why I had bothered to leave New York City just to see it. I'm sure In Spite Of Myself is a fine book, but I wish Alex Wichtel had spared the usual hyperbole, and I also wish everybody would admit that the only reason this is a "big book" is that Plummer played the nice-guy husband in The Sound of Music. It's not going to make the bestseller list because of his classical work.

Today's issue also contains a typically bland and predictable Henry Alford endpaper that I'd like to complain about. However, this is overall a worthwhile and well-intentioned Book Review.

I'll be on vacation by the time next weekend's NYTBR appears, but I'll be back working this beat again on the first weekend of 2009.





Black Wednesday in Publishing-Land

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, December 3, 2008 09:52 pm


1. It won't make the evening news, but this was a rough day of historic proportions in the book biz. Random House, Simon and Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Thomas Nelson all announced layoffs, top-level firings or, in the case of Random House/Doubleday/Alfred A. Knopf/Dial/Bantam Dell/Crown/Nan Talese/Broadway, major consolidations that will affect the future of book publishing in America.

In the midst of this mayhem, it's interesting to read in GalleyCat that a paperback trend is sweeping publishing. We've only been yelling for this sweep for years, but despite GalleyCat's optimism, there is evidence of an opposing trend: book prices are getting higher. Like malnourished children whose bellies grow, new hardcover prices are swelling -- $40, $45 -- even as retail spending drops. Affordable (paperback, small) book publishing is the right answer, yes -- but I am not as confident as GalleyCat is that publishers are moving towards this trend anywhere near as quickly as they should be.

2. The great folksinger Odetta has died. I've seen her in concert twice, once at a Gerde's Folk City reunion where she was stunning, and once at a strange Greenwich Village event called the Microtonal Festival which celebrated experimental musicians and vocalists who used tones between the twelve notes of the scale. It might surprise those who think of Odetta as a traditional folksinger to know that she was considered by experts in the field to have a rare way with microtones, and that she delivered the best performance of this night, belting out a few old spirituals and showing us all how much room there really was between a C and a C#. I don't know if that show was recorded, but here's Odetta singing "Rock Island Line" and here's her "Water Boy".

3. Natasha Wimmer, translator of Roberto Bolano, will be appearing with Francisco Goldman at a very special Words Without Borders event Thursday night, December 4, at Idlewild Books in Manhattan.

4. Also at Idlewild, apparently a new hot spot: Ben Greenman celebrating Correspondences on Friday, December 5.

5. And then comes the big Literary Trivia Smackdown 2.0 this Sunday at 4 pm, and you better believe I'm studying up on my American Lit. Our opponents at PEN America have been announced: David Haglund, Meghan Kyle-Miller, Larry Siems and Lilly Sullivan. They sound smart, so please come to the Small Press Indie Book Fair and cheer your favorite lit bloggers on! For real.

6. New Nixon tapes! Choice bits:

"Never forget: The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. The professors are the enemy."

All your base are belong to us, Nixon.

It's a happy Christmas for Watergate buffs like me, what with the new tapes and the release of the film version of the play Frost/Nixon. Haven't had this much fun since Mark Felt turned up.

7. Christopher Hitchens points out that the widespread decision to use the city name "Mumbai" rather than "Bombay" actually carries an implicit political message, and possibly a fraudulent one. I was not aware of this, though I remember hearing similar things at a panel discussion regarding the recent attempt to replace "Burma" with "Myanmar". Since many of us are in the dark about this, it seems that major news organizations like the New York Times (Clark Hoyt, are you out there?) ought to address the significance of these name changes directly.

8. Dewey, a litblogger, dies.

9. Frank Wilson remembers the once-popular novel Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac's affectionate tribute to the fashionable Buddhism of the Beatnik era, on its fiftieth birthday. This is one of my favorite Kerouac novels.

10. Jay-Z gets typographical.





Reviewing the Review: November 2 2008

by Levi Asher on Sunday, November 2, 2008 11:52 am


I happily begin William Logan's review of Words In Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review, wondering if Logan intends to explain everything that's wrong with the poetry of Bishop and Lowell as he previously has done in these pages with the poetry of Frank O'Hara, Hart Crane and Derek Walcott. But no -- this is a love letter to a book of love letters, and now I realize that today William Logan is finally telling us what he likes. We begin:

A poet should never fall in love with another poet -- love is already too much like gambling on oil futures.

Well, better than mortgage futures. A dubious assertion, but Logan sticks with it, developing the theme:

... therefore never have to wake to the beloved’s morning breath the morning after.

Is this not a problem easily solved by toothpaste? Well, of course, Logan is just riffing here, and by the third paragraph I've thrown aside my skepticism and begun enjoying the ride. He can't resist overwriting, but who cares? Why shouldn't a poetry critic bravely charge under the banner of bold intensity? Here's how William Logan encapsulates Robert Lowell's literary style:

His heavy-handed youthful verse, solemnly influenced by Allen Tate, laid down a metrical line like iron rail. (If Lowell's early poems seems stultified now, they were boiled in brine and preserved in a carload of salt.)

That's not bad at all. Yes, his ambitious overwriting repeatedly triggers my doubting reflex, as when he relates the rather pointless detail that Elizabeth Bishop once

... fell in love during a stopover on a long freighter cruise, while being nursed through an allergic reaction to a cashew fruit.

A cashew fruit? A quick glance at Wikipedia suggests that "cashew fruit" is what you can buy a can of for $4.49 at your local supermarket, so why the fancy talk? Then, Bishop and Lowell endorsed each other:

... trading blurbs, logrolling as shamelessly as pork-bellied senators.

Logan can keep one of the two metaphors; I'm sure he knows they do not mix. The poems Bishop and Lowell write are "as different as gravy from groundhogs", and that really doesn't work either. There are also problems of fact: the friendship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne cannot be described among various literary "hothouse friendships came to grief", since there was never true reciprocity there: instead, Melville hero-worshipped the older and more esteemed Hawthorne for a short time before Hawthorne began brushing the excitable novelist off.

Still, William Logan's enthusiasm is highly refreshing, and even his over-delivery is more pleasing than offensive. I'll be happy to read any article he ever writes.

This weekend's Book Review includes Judith Warner's intriguing introduction to Stephane Audeguy's The Only Son, which imagines the life and thoughts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's long lost older brother. But the good times screech to a halt when Gary Rosen, reviewing Descartes' Bones by Russell Shorto, delivers this shocker:

Though Descartes’s name has come to be associated with unrelenting rationalism, he was "as devout a Catholic as anyone of his time," Shorto writes, and looked to theology to support his system. As Shorto recognizes, our own fundamentalists, religious and secular alike, might draw some useful lessons in modesty from Descartes's example.

Can a NYTBR critic writing about Rene Descartes possibly not know that the philosopher was not a modern secular rationalist like Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins but rather a Continental Rationalist, which is something completely different? The lines above clearly indicate so. To confuse "rationalist" and "Rationalist" is like confusing "democratic" with "Democratic". Rene Descartes was one of a small set of famous religious thinkers whose primary mission was to reconcile traditional faith with scientific method. His rationalism was intrinsically religious, whereas today's athiestic so-called rationalists are closer to the Continental Rationalists' opposite party, the British Empiricists, who emphasized skepticism over faith and abandoned the idea -- the basic idea of Contintental Rationalism -- that God can be approached through reason.

Confusing, sure, but a critic who reviews a book about Descartes for the New York Times Book Review must know the difference. A quick Google search indicates that Gary Rosen has written for Commentary and works for a progressive science foundation. He must be a smart guy, but the above gaffe indicates that he's about as qualified to review a book about Rene Descartes as Sarah Palin is to talk about Supreme Court decisions she disagrees with.

This is a better than average NYTBR, which is a good thing since many American readers need to be distracted in this tense pre-election weekend. A useful Jon Meacham essay about Presidential reading habits delivers the hopeful news that Barack Obama has read Gandhi's great autobiography and is familiar with the work of Nietzsche, and I hope he'll hold the teachings of both geniuses close to his heart once he (I pray) becomes President of the United States. John McCain is stuck on Ernest Hemingway's war novels, of course, and I hope America's leading guerrophile will have plenty of time to read and reread For Whom The Bell Tolls in coming years. McCain, you old hawk, the bell tolls for thee. Two more days.





Big Thinking: Plato and the Republic of Your Soul

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, October 21, 2008 02:09 am



Plato's Republic is often described as a book about politics, a philosophical discussion of the ideal state. It's an odd fact, though, that the book only uses politics as a metaphor for the individual human soul, and that the book is intended as a work of psychology rather than politics.

The Republic consists of several long conversations culminating in Socrates (Plato's mouthpiece) describing five different types of governments, and then describing the five personality types that correspond to each type of government. The book constructs, finally, a "republic" -- but it is the republic of your soul.

The idea that each human being is a government resonates with many other psychological or spiritual models and ideologies. Jesus may have been thinking of something similar when he said "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden." Or, in Buddhist cosmology, one might say that the invididual desires that bedevil a confused person are like "citizens" that must be made peace with. An enlightened person governs his owns needs, goals and ideas with wisdom and care.

Plato's Republic presents a model for the ideal human soul as a city-state ruled by a truly wise, loving and attentive "philosopher king". The concept of the "philosopher king" has been much quoted as Plato's prescription for good government, but in fact the actual text develops the idea only as a metaphor, and never states whether or not Plato or Socrates believe such a state to be possible or desirable in the real world. The concept of the "Philosopher King" describes Plato's (and Socrates's) prescription for being a good person, not being a good government.






Reviewing the Review: August 10 2008

by Levi Asher on Sunday, August 10, 2008 05:19 pm


Today's New York Times Book Review is mild, competent and enjoyably readable. I don't know if it's the Book Review or me, but I just don't find I have much to say about it. This rarely happens.

I can't use the excuse that I have no time. It's 4:30 pm on a lazy Sunday afternoon and I just had time to watch three innings of a losing Mets game on TV, along with several Olympic swimming races from Beijing, and I've already read every article in today's issue. I just don't find myself with anything worthwhile to say about any individual piece, and I'd rather not fake it. Instead, I'd like to use this space to talk about Random House's decision to cancel the publication of a major novel (they'd paid author Sherry Jones a large advance) called The Jewel of Medina about the life of one of the prophet Mohammed's brides.

As many bloggers representing diverse points of view have remarked, this is a highly disappointing move, and what's most disappointing is the way Random House is handling the controversy:

Random House deputy publisher Thomas Perry said in a statement the company received “cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.”

“In this instance we decided, after much deliberation, to postpone publication for the safety of the author, employees of Random House, booksellers and anyone else who would be involved in distribution and sale of the novel,” Perry said.

It's offensive that the book won't be published -- I don't believe the hearsay that it is unworthy of publication, since Random House paid a lot of money (reportedly $100,000) for it -- but it's even more offensive that Random House is resting their position on a blatant appeal to their own willful ignorance. Again:

"... the company received “cautionary advice not only that the publication of this book might be offensive to some in the Muslim community, but also that it could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.”

Well ... why didn't they ask some radical Muslims and find out? It's not like they'd have to send a rocket to the moon to find an opinionated Muslim, but you'd think so from the distant tones of this public statement.

This recourse to silence and blissful ignorance reflects a broad belief among pro-war Americans -- this belief is a pillar of both the George W. Bush worldview and the John McCain worldview, unfortunately -- that there is little value in communicating with "the enemy" about political or social issues. The gulf is so wide, apparently, that there's no point even trying to talk across it. In fact, open public discourse is the obvious answer that Random House missed.

Why didn't they invite a few prominent scholars representing various sectors of the worldwide Muslim community -- Shiites, Sunnis, liberals, conservatives, Arabs, Asians, Africans, Europeans and Americans -- to participate in an open discussion of whether or not Sherry Jones' book is offensive, and if so why? It's highly likely that the dialogue would result in a positive finding for the book, and the whole thing would add up to a great opportunity for pre-publication awareness. Am I asking too much that a publishing company -- a publishing company -- might resort to open public discourse, rather than cloaked corporate legalism -- to resolve what is essentially a literary and spiritual issue?

Random House is not an oil company or a beef processing concern or an aerospace conglomerate. Random House is supposed to be the most respected and prestigious major book publishing company in the world. Hah.

I don't usually generalize about large organizations, but the way Random House is handling this problem represents a new low in timid, insipid corporate publishing behavior. It's not too late for them to announce a new decision, and I hope they'll do so. Otherwise, we must conclude that Thomas Perry and the other executives responsible for this cowardly move simply have no business working in the honorable field of publishing, a proud craft for the intellectually courageous.

* * * * *

Okay, the Book Review. Sarah Churchwell hates the new novelisation of the JonBenet Ramsay murders by Joyce Carol Oates. Geoff Dyer hates the new book about running by Haruki Murakami, and he also hates running and he also hates Haruki Murakami. Stephen Burt kind of doesn't like Juan Felipe Herrera's poetry because the poems were obviously written for performance rather than print, but manages to eke out some praise for his colorful poetry nonetheless. Robert Olen "Pulitzer Prize Winner" Butler just keeps getting weirder and weirder, which isn't to say I'm not intrigued enough to check out Intercourse, 50 stories about historical figures or famous people having sex. Caryn James like the new Doris Lessing, I think.

And I promise to stay more on topic when next weekend's newspaper arrives.





Alexander Solzhenitsyn

by Levi Asher on Monday, August 4, 2008 02:54 pm


As long as we wake up every morning under a peaceful sun, we have to lead an everyday life. There is a disaster, however, which has already been under way for quite some time. I am referring to the calamity of a despiritualized and irreligious humanistic consciousness.

To such consciousness, man is the touchstone in judging and evaluating everything on earth. Imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects. We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. The split in the world is less terrible than the similarity of the disease plaguing its main sections.

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one's life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President's performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.

It would be retrogression to attach oneself today to the ossified formulas of the Enlightenment. Social dogmatism leaves us completely helpless in front of the trials of our times.

Even if we are spared destruction by war, our lives will have to change if we want to save life from self-destruction. We cannot avoid revising the fundamental definitions of human life and human society. Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him? Is it right that man's life and society's activities have to be determined by material expansion in the first place? Is it permissible to promote such expansion to the detriment of our spiritual integrity?

If the world has not come to its end, it has approached a major turn in history, equal in importance to the turn from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. It will exact from us a spiritual upsurge, we shall have to rise to a new height of vision, to a new level of life where our physical nature will not be cursed as in the Middle Ages, but, even more importantly, our spiritual being will not be trampled upon as in the Modern era.

This ascension will be similar to climbing onto the next anthropologic stage. No one on earth has any other way left but -- upward.
-- Alexander Solzhenitsyn at Harvard University, 1978

Russian author, historian and political philosopher Alexander Solzhenitsyn has died at the age of 89. As the full text of the Harvard address above demonstrates, he despised Russian communism, and despised the glib commercialized freedom of Western Europe and America no less. In the tradition of Fyodor Dostoevsky, he believed above all in human salvation through religious transcendence, though at times (as in this ill-received Harvard address) he seemed to relish the notion of an agonizing worldwide transformation more than any possibility of self-realization and peace that might follow such a change.

In this sense, he also resembles Dostoevsky (whose greatest work, like Solzhenitsyn's, followed a long period of painful imprisonment for crimes against the Russian state). Solzhenitsyn was best known for two works -- the simple and spare A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and the more ambitious Gulag Archipelago, which introduced a tone of bitter satire (the Soviet prison bureaucracy is described mechanically as a "human sewage system") into the dissident's voice. Both books were so widely celebrated by anti-Soviet political thinkers that it's hard now to evaluate the author on strictly artistic grounds. He does not seem to measure up to Dostoevsky's psychological brilliance, nor to Chekhov's poignant sense of humanity. But his courageous devotion to truth and his confident authority as a political gadfly give him some standing alongside Russia's earlier literary greats.

It's interesting to look back at a 1974 New York Times review of the just-published Gulag Archipelago by Stephen F. Cohen:

"The Gulag Archipelago" is a non-fictional account from and about the other great holocaust of our century -- the imprisonment, brutalization and very often murder of tens of millions of innocent Soviet citizens by their own Government, mostly during Stalin's rule from 1929 to 1953.

How quaint! There was a time in 1974 -- with our new friend Chairman Mao's genocidal crimes still largely unrecognized, with the citizens of Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina still innocent of their futures -- when we thought the 20th Century would only rack up two holocausts.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn may or may not have had all the answers, but the celebrated former prisoner did seem to know the most important questions.





Jesus, Etc.

by Jamelah Earle on Thursday, May 29, 2008 11:55 pm


When I told Levi I was going to write about some memorable characters from literature, I thought I had several of them in mind. Because I've read a lot of books, and I mainly won't read a book if I don't enjoy at least one of the characters in some way, even if it is to appreciate how completely awful the character is. As I browsed my bookshelves earlier thinking about which characters I would include in my post, I kept noticing the usual suspects, suspects so usual that they don't even bear mentioning, and I figured there was really no point in writing a post about fictional characters that don't bear mentioning. So I looked some more, and found some things that are less usual, which I present to you now.

1. Joe Panther

The protagonist in two crime novels written by Andrew Masterson, The Last Days: The Apocryphon of Joe Panther and The Second Coming: The Passion of Joe Panther, the eponymous Joe Panther is a wickedly smart, wonderfully sarcastic, beer-drinking, drug-dealing investigator. And he's also... Jesus. You know that whole son of God thing with the dying on the cross and being raised from the dead on the third day? That's the one. Minus the ascending into Heaven and sitting at the right hand of God the Father forever and ever amen, that is. Yep, instead of that, he was inexplicably left to wander the planet and has been doing so for a couple of millennia, witnessing human folly and the uprising of organized religion and developing a bitterness toward his father. Both books are entertaining yarns, mixed with a fair bit of Christian history and theology (obviously in many ways turned on its ear) and despite the fact that their premise alone is enough to offend many people nearly to death, they make for enjoyable Saturday afternoon reads. Sort of modern-day noir with an angry, irreverent Jesus as the hard-boiled, world-weary private eye. I'm not sure that the books were ever published in the United States, and the tiny bit of research I've done suggests that they weren't (my copies were sent to me as gifts from a friend in Australia, which is the country the author hails from and where the novels are set). But when it comes to thinking about fictional characters in terms of memorability, it's pretty hard to beat Jesus, the crime-solving heroin dealer.

2. Margery Kempe

I read The Book of Margery Kempe a couple of years ago. It's still sitting on my shelf and I can see it as I type this. Or I could see it as I type this if I didn't have a voluminous feather boa hanging off of the edge of my closet door, obscuring my view. Damn feathers. Why must they be so fabulous? I don't know. What I do know is that when I'm looking at my books (sans feathers) and I notice Margery Kempe's autobiography, I always have the same reaction: I shake my head. Granted, I had to go back and read my initial assessment (linked above) to remember details of her story, but I remembered that she had a penchant for wailing uncontrollably all the time because she was just so overcome with her love of Jesus or because she wanted people to notice how overcome she was with her love of Jesus, or whatever. In any case, the thing that has stuck with me over the past two years, and will most likely continue to stick with me in the future is one tiny detail: that woman was nuts.

3. Rebecca deWinter

The title character of Daphne duMaurier's Rebecca dies before any of the novel's action takes place, and she never makes any supernatural appearances as a ghost or anything, but her presence is so fully defined in the novel that she inhabits every page, much like her memory haunts Manderley and the new Mrs. deWinter. She's the most powerful figure in the novel (though the housekeeper Mrs. Danvers is easily the creepiest) and I think it's telling that the greatest character in the book isn't even really there.

4. Trout Fishing in America

Yes, I think Trout Fishing in America is a character in Richard Brautigan's novel of the same name, mainly because Trout Fishing in America explains things. And also is responsible for one of my favorite bits in all of American literature, or of all literature, period. Seriously --

The Reply of Trout Fishing in America:


There was nothing I could do. I couldn't change a flight of stairs into a creek. The boy walked back to where he came from. The same thing once happened to me. I remember mistaking an old woman for a trout stream in Vermont, and I had to beg her pardon.

"Excuse me," I said. "I thought you were a trout stream."

"I'm not," she said.

Sometimes I think about that and giggle. Good on you, Trout Fishing in America.

5. Laura Wingfield

Tennessee Williams is often so dramatic (fitting for plays, I suppose). And I love so much of his work and the steamy humid Southern boiling heat of it all, but in all of that, The Glass Menagerie is like a tiny gentle gasp. Sure, it's probably more obvious to pick Blanche duBois or Maggie the Cat, but it is Laura Wingfield that I remember the most strongly. The first thing I read by Tennessee Williams, I picked this play up when I was 14 and by the time I got through Tom's closing speech, I was crushed. I'd reacted emotionally to things I'd read before that point, but I'm not sure I'd ever been completely crushed by something yet. And Laura, the center of the play, hangs in my memory like a beautifully delicate translucent piece of glass. I'm feeling a little crushed now, actually, just thinking about it.





Mahirishi Mahesh Yogi Dies

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, February 6, 2008 11:26 pm


Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, born as Mahesh Prasad Varma in Jabalpur, India more than 90 years ago, has died of natural causes in his home in Vlodrop, in the Netherlands. This unique individual built an astonishingly popular and enduring worldwide organization out of a simple Hindu practice: meditation.


Mahesh's innovation was to translate the Hindu religious rite of Yogic meditation into a minimal format that could easily fit into the busy lives of 20th Century humans around the world. Transcendental Meditation, which became the brand name for his particular approach, involved no spiritual mysticism, and was compatible with any religious or even non-religious viewpoint. Each person was given a "mantra", a secret word, which they would focus their minds upon for 20 minutes at a time, approximately twice a day. This practice became popular around the world in the 1960's, especially in late 1967 and early 1968 when the Beatles briefly declared themselves members of the Mahirishi's movement.

Whether following the "TM" technique or not, meditation has become a part of American culture, and Mahirishi Mahesh Yogi is largely to thank for this undeniably positive development. People meditate in many different ways, but Mahesh's organization is still highly active. The great film director David Lynch wrote a book two years ago called Catching the Big Fish that explains how the practice of TM has made his career possible. Here he talks about his first experience with the technique:

So in July 1973 I went to the TM center in Los Angeles and met an instructor, and I liked her. She looked like Doris Day. And she taught me this technique. She gave me a mantra, which is a sound-vibration-thought. You don't meditate on he meaning of it, but it's a very specific sound-vibration-thought.

She took me into a little room to have my first meditation. I sat down, closed my eyes, started this mantra, and it was as if I were in an elevator and the cable had been cut. Boom! I fell into bliss -- pure bliss.


According to Jonathan Gould in Can't Buy Me Love, the Beatles had a more complex ongoing relationship with the Mahirishi's philosophy than is commonly known. John Lennon and George Harrison were the two who took it seriously, and according to Gould the song "Across the Universe" was originally written as a description of the experience of meditation:

Thoughts meander like a
restless wind inside a letter box
they tumble blindly as
they make their way across the universe

Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world
Nothing's gonna change my world

I am not a practitioner of Transcendental Meditation or any other specific approach, but I have been very influenced by this practice because I was introduced to it by my grandparents many years ago. My grandmother Jeannette Schwartz had attended one of the Mahirishi's introductions to meditation in the early 1970's, and became a lifelong convert. My grandfather Sidney enjoyed meditating too, and all of us grandchildren were given mantras and instructed to do our twenty minutes at a time together, twice a day, whenever we visited. I wrote some more about this when Grandma Jeannette died on Valentine's Day, 2002.

My grandparents never stopped meditating, and I have occasionally kept up the practice myself, though truly I'm a mediocre meditator at best. It seems to me that David Lynch or other enthusiastic followers of TM may alienate people with this "elevator drop pure bliss" stuff, since I've meditated a lot and find that it's usually nowhere near that exciting. Still, meditation does feel good, and it does help you expand the way you are thinking about the things in your life.

The Mahirishi has taken much criticism for his sometimes simplistic teachings, not to mention his often outrageous style. He giggles a lot and has been criticized for avoiding serious real-world politics and basking in luxury while the world suffers. He has generally worked as a peace activist, and as a sardonic, good-natured critic of Western materialism. Unlike other "modern mystics", there is nothing remotely cultish or megalomaniacal about the Mahirishi, or about his Transcendental Meditation movement.

It's too simple to be a cult. TM is all about this: 20 minutes at a time, twice a day. That's the whole thing. That's what the Mahirishi says you should do, and who thinks it's not worth a try?

Here are some other articles worth a look.





Pages

Subscribe to Religion