On Monday, March 25th, I'll be schlepping out to Massapequa Park on the Long Island Railroad with some of my kids in tow, off to Bubbe and Zayde's for Passover. We'll have a great time -- games, food, talk -- and then at some point during the ritual Pesach dinner there will come the moment when I'll whisper to whoever is sitting next to me (probably my sister Sharon, because everybody else is tired of hearing me complain). Here's what I'll say, what I say every year: "I really don't like this part."
I'm talking about the celebration of the ten plagues, which apparently God inflicted upon the families of the Egyptian ruling class in order to help Moses and the Jews escape to Israel. There's a whole lot of weird ritual at this point. We recite the list in unison, dipping our fingers into red Manischevitz wine (grape juice for the kids), flinging the drippings onto our plates as we recite. Yes, we do this, and it always brings uncomfortable laughter. Here's the top ten list, straight from Exodus and the Haggaddah:
I once had a chance to play a sitar for a few minutes. To a guitar player, a sitar feels like a crazy contraption, a transformed beast. There are strings and frets, but the frets are curved, arching up high from the neck so that the strings can be bent not up or down, as with a guitar, but in and out, leading to a warped, spacy effect. Then there is a second set of strings under the raised strings, which are never touched at all. These are the sympathetic strings, which drone in sympathy with the melody. There is no such thing on a guitar. No wonder sitar masters like Ravi Shankar inspired so much awe when they entered the popular music scene in the 1960s.
Ravi Shankar has died at the age of 92. During one peak of his amazing long career, he collaborated on several projects and concerts with George Harrison of the Beatles, who saw in the subtle, spidery complexity of the sitar's sound a new way to advance the art of pop/rock lead guitar. Promoted to sudden celebrity status by Harrison and others, Ravi Shankar used his fame in the west to serve as as a cultural ambassador for India, for Bengali culture, and for Hindu traditions. He was invited to perform at the most epic rock concerts of his age, including Monterey Pop in 1967 and Woodstock in 1969. In 1971, Shankar and Harrison created together the Concert for Bangladesh, the first large-scale charity rock concert, which featured Leon Russell, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. Here's his opening number from that concert (as always, when playing for western audiences, Shankar would have to begin by explaining that the sounds the band just played had not been the first song; it is customary for classical Indian musicians to tune up onstage, often producing a hypnotic cacaphony that sounds like strange music).
I was talking with friends about the post-Thanksgiving "Black Friday" shopping craze that has become an increasing meme in the United States of America over the past few years. The prevailing opinion among my friends is that this trend represents yet another terrible new turn towards casual violence, selfishness and greed in our craven society, and reports of maniacal frenzies at spots like this Walmart in Moultrie, Georgia seem to bear this interpretation out. One person caught in the Moultrie, Georgia frenzy was quoted expressing disgust about what went down:
Pete Townshend of the Who has been writing his autobiography for his entire career, starting with the band's first single "I Can't Explain". His rock opera "Tommy" was the symbolic autobiography of a shy and sensitive teenager who becomes a rock star ... transformed into a tall tale about a deaf, dumb and blind boy who uncovers an unnatural skill at pinball (Townshend's electric guitar, of course, was Tommy's pinball machine). The pinball wizard then becomes a famous religious leader until his shallow followers get bored and overthrow him. Tommy is a witty, self-mocking tale about childish wonder and spiritual overreach, and Pete Townshend would go on to reenact a real life version of the same story -- the ascent to fame, the inevitable cruel betrayal of the fans -- over and over again throughout his life.
The same storyline recurs at least four times during Pete Townshend's fascinating new memoir Who I Am. This new book is a worthy summation of a prodigal career, and a satisfyingly revealing (if occasionally compulsive and over-protective) autobiography.
We seem to be living in the age of rock star autobiographies, of course, and Pete Townshend's book appeared on bookshelves at the same time as that of of a fellow introspective searcher, Neil Young, whose Waging Heavy Peace is an uplifting, rambunctious self-portrait but fails as a memoir, because a memoir must dig deep into the dark regions of self-analysis and painful honesty, and Neil Young didn't seem to want to go there. Pete Townshend in Who I Am, on the other hand, is happy to go there.
How can I possibly capture the wealth of goodness inside two thick new volumes of classic lit comix, The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons and The Graphic Canon, Vol. 2: From "Kubla Khan" to the Bronte Sisters to The Picture of Dorian Gray? There is a lot of depth here. These collections must be seen.
The three-volume anthology is the work of Russ Kick, one of the editors of the alternative-minded Disinformation website, and Kick's curious sensibility leads to a blissfully broad vision of multicultural literary classicism, from Coyote and the Pebbles: A Native American Folktale by Dayton Edmonds and Micah Farritor to the Mahabharata illustrated by Matt Wiegle to the Arabian Nights, adapted by Andrice Arp to Hagoromo: A Japanese Noh play, adapted by Isabel Greenberg. (And those selections are all from the first volume; I've barely begun to enjoy the second, and a final third is heading our way.)
The great works of western literature are here too, of course: The Odyssey by way of Gareth Hinds, a transgressive Hansel and Gretel by S. Clay Wilson, George Eliot's Middlemarch via Megan Kelso. I can't possibly write about all the pieces that deserve attention in one blog post, but I would like to show a few panels.
Cal Godot asked a good question in response to last weekend's post. When I use the terms "will" and "desire" in the context of ethical philosophy, am I using the terms interchangeably?
Yes, in a strict logical sense, I am using the terms interchangeably. Both "will" and "desire" point to the same thing, the same mysterious and omnipresent phenomenon of human (and animal) life. Yet there is a world of difference between will and desire.
The difference is not in the thing the words points to, but in the connotations captured along the way. The term "will" calls to mind three provocative philosophical texts that have become classics of the modern Western tradition: Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Presentation, Friedrich Nietzsche's The Will to Power and William James's essay collection The Will to Believe. Thus, "will" connotes European romanticism, existentialism and American Pragmatism. It carries a muscular, vigorous, dramatic and conflict-ridden sense. It feels Napoleonic and Apollonian.
I can never guess which of my Philosophy Weekend blog posts will turn out to have legs.
Nine months ago, researching the origin of the word 'altruism', I learned that the term had been coined by Auguste Comte, a 19th Century French philosopher I had heard of but knew little about. Comte had developed a humane and optimistic system of political, ethical, scientific and metaphysical philosophy called Positivism, and during his lifetime Positivism was a gigantic sensation around the world. Intrigued, I wrote a blog post to wonder what it signified about our own culture that a major 19th Century philosopher with an ambitious platform of international peace, respect for human diversity and freethinking scientific rigor had fallen completely off the radar immediately after the disaster of the First World War.
What I didn't expect was that my blog post would start getting lots of hits from Google, and would become one of my more popular Philosophy Weekend posts (I do watch my traffic statistics, not to feed my ego but to discern trends in reader interest). Then, a mysterious late comment appeared on my Comte post that brought a big smile to my face. In response to my statement that Positivism was defunct today, and this commenter posted a single sentence reply:
Well, we are not quite that dead, are we?
This was accompanied by a link to Positivists.org, a well-designed website with an active Facebook page and a lively blog. The new web presence is apparently the work of an eager German philosopher named Olaf Simons who appears to have some clue how to use social media to spread a message. Positivism lives!
Exactly sixty years ago, in May 1952, 81-year-old Zen Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki began teaching a regular course at Columbia University. 39-year-old modernist composer John Cage attended a few of his lectures, and this is the electric point of contact that starts everything buzzing in Nothing and Everything - The Influence of Buddhism on the American Avant Garde: 1942 - 1962, a new book by Ellen Pearlman.
Both men were trailblazers. Suzuki is remembered today as a premier ambassador for Eastern religion in the West, and as the author of the influential books Introduction to Zen Buddhism and Essays in Zen Buddhism. But, Ellen Pearlman reveals in the first chapter of Nothing and Everything, Suzuki had not been considered a very "successful" Buddhist as a young Zen student in Japan. He found a far greater calling as a highly visible foreigner in the West than he could have ever found if he'd stayed in Japan, since his idiosyncratic personality rubbed many Zen masters the wrong way. It was Suzuki's ability to translate key Asian texts into English that gave him a foothold in the United States of America, and he eagerly grabbed the opportunity to pursue his own unique vision of a global Buddhist awakening.
John Cage had already earned a reputation as a rule-breaker in the field of avant-garde music by the time he attended the elderly Suzuki's lectures at Columbia, but it wasn't until after he was exposed to Zen Buddhism (from Suzuki and several other sources) that he was able to conceive of his signature work, 4'33, which thrilled and outraged the world of classical music with its unspeakable simplicity. The composition indicated that the performer should sit at a piano (or any other instrument) and maintain four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.
It's impossible to encapsulate modern, avant-garde and experimental arts within any formula, but Nothing and Everything's purpose is to follow a single thread of excitement among several 20th century innovators within American art, music, theater and literary scenes that was caused by a rising awareness of traditional Buddhist religion and philosophy. The first to follow John Cage were the Dada-inspired innovators of the Fluxus movement in the early 1960s, Alison Knowles, Jackson Mac Low, Num June Paik, Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono (who, beyond the scope of this book, would eventually collaborate with John Lennon to present crystalline expressions of Fluxus ideas to the entire world, and become its most famous practitioner).
It's hard for me to describe how big an influence the Beastie Boys have had on my life. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, I found lifesaving inspiration in records like Paul's Boutique and Check Your Head that I could not have found anywhere else. If it were not for the Beastie Boys, I'm pretty sure there would have never been a Literary Kicks.
I know a bit about the Beastie Boys. I've seen them in concert several times, though the live format didn't play to their strengths. The best way to listen to the Beastie Boys is with earbuds in, the world shut out. Their recordings were dense, complex and sophisticated, their rhymes expertly crafted for maximum effect. Each of the three had a highly distinct voice; you can listen to any line in any Beastie Boys song and immediately know whose voice you're hearing:
Congressman and Republican party rising star Paul Ryan, who has never made a secret of his admiration for Ayn Rand before last week, has suddenly caught a bad case of Vice President fever. Rand's Objectivist ideology is too extreme for many American voters, and so Paul Ryan has begun a campaign push to erase all traces of her influence on his thought.
“I reject her philosophy,” Ryan says firmly. “It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas,” who believed that man needs divine help in the pursuit of knowledge. “Don’t give me Ayn Rand,” he says.
Well, there are several components to Ayn Rand's philosophy. Epistemologically, she is a rationalist (as was Thomas Aquinas, though his humbler rationalism was more subtle than hers). Psychologically, she is a devout Egoist. Spiritually, she is an atheist (and this is the part of her philosophy Paul Ryan is most eager to distance himself from, even though his newfound and highly convenient embrace of traditional Catholicism isn't impressing several other influential Catholics). But I don't think any of these things should matter very much to voters. Most of us couldn't care less what Paul Ryan thinks about epistemology or psychology or religion.
Paul Ryan was elected by his fellow Republicans for a critically important post in the House of Representatives. He's the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and in this capacity has defined the detailed direction for the USA federal budget for the Republican party. The Paul Ryan budget proposal drastically cuts services that middle class Americans rely on, while lowering taxes for the very wealthy (most obscenely of all, it fails to cut military spending; we can't pay to send poor Americans to college, but profit-bloated military contractors keep getting a blank check). Mitt Romney has called the Paul Ryan budget plan "marvelous". Perhaps the most important question at stake in the upcoming November 2012 elections is whether or not this country will adopt the Paul Ryan budget plan beginning in 2013.