A video captured from Osama bin Laden's final home has just been released. It shows him watching news coverage of himself on TV, and I find this strangely satisfying to watch, because it underscores what I have always suspected about the basic motivation behind Bin Laden's acts of terror. Why did he do the things he did? These are the three explanations I hear most often:
- He was simply evil; he hated life and goodness itself.
- He was a nutjob.
- He was a religious fanatic.
I'm quite sure that all of these explanations are wrong. It's comforting to picture Bin Laden as a person simply wracked by hatred, and other horrible figures like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin have been frequently described as vile and hateful by those who knew them. But the portrait that emerged of Osama bin Laden from books like Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 did not show a generally hateful streak. He was liked and respected by those closest to him, and he only committed acts of violence against people far away, people who must have seemed like abstractions to him.
Was he a nutjob? This is just a brainless radio show talking point, a punchline. There is not the slightest evidence at all that Osama bin Laden ever suffered from any kind of mental illness.
A religious fanatic? This is what Bin Laden wanted others to believe, but I suspect he was barely religious at all. His calls for "jihad" were entirely based on nationalistic and ethnic rhetoric. Since Sunni Islam largely coincides with an ethnic identity, it was very convenient for him to be fighting for a "religion" when in fact all signs indicate that his goals were thoroughly political and earthbound. He was a rigid traditionalist, but showed no signs of a searching, spiritual mind. Anyone can put on robes and pray, but that doesn't mean we have to believe in their sincerity. There's plenty of reason to suspect that Osama bin Laden's devotion to Islam was shallow and opportunistic.
I catch episodes of "Jersey Shore" on MTV whenever I can -- because it's hilarious, that's why -- and during a recent episode a powerful realization came over me.
I'd heard a friend complain that this show signaled the fall of Western culture due to its brainless, shameless exhibits of hedonism. Wondering about the validity of this critique, I started thinking back over various episodes and trying to catalog the instances of shameless hedonistic behavior I could remember. Here's what I started thinking of:
- Snooki and the Situation mugging for the camera.
- Pauly D. playing his music in a nightclub.
- Pauly and Vinny trying sincerely to fall in love.
- Sammi and JWoww fighting the best boxing match since Tyson/Douglas in 1990.
- Everybody dressing up, fixing their hair, checking themselves out in mirrors.
- Big communal meals, everybody cooking and cleaning (or not cleaning) for each other.
- Not much sex, lots of "smushing".
- Angelina having a full-scale freakout after the group ostracizes her, and leaving.
- Sammi having a full-scale freakout after Ronnie cheats on her, creating a drama that goes on to consume about ten hour-long episodes.
- Ronnie having a full-scale freakout after Sammi pretends to get revenge, and tearing all Sammi's possessions to pieces in an insane roid-rage, followed by Sammi leaving.
1. Here's a newly-found old video of Beat Generation/Summer of Love poet Michael McClure reading poetry to caged lions. The last section of the poem consists of McClure yelling "roar" repeatedly. The video might strike some as precious -- Steve Silberman called it "beat kitsch" in a recent tweet -- but it gets cool around the time the lions start roaring back in harmony with McClure. If you can get a bunch of lions to respond to your poetry, you must be doing something right.
2. Suzuki Beane! I heard long ago that YA-novelist Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy is her most famous book, though I liked The Long Secret even better) began her writing career with an illustrated book, Suzuki Beane, a parody of Hilary Knight's Eloise starring a punky kid with beatnik parents. But I'd never been able to find a copy of the book until I saw a link to this digital version in a Boing-Boing article that also links to a surprising TV show pilot version of the book (the show never got made, which is too bad, because it looks pretty cute). Serious fans of Harriet M. Welsch, Sport and Beth-Ellen will find many echoes of their favorite Fitzhugh books in Suzuki Beane, particularly in the affectionate depictions of the tortuous relationships that sometimes exist between eccentric, artistic parents and their stubborn kids.
1. Okay, enough of that French stuff. A recent link on Books Inq. reminded me of one of the funniest books I've ever read, the neat, smoothly vicious British satire from 1888 and 1889 called Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith.
Diary, originally published as a serial in Punch Magazine, is the fictional record of a humble but optimistic middle-class man who keeps house in the suburbs north of London. The parody of his provincial mind has a sharp, bitter sense that may remind you of P. G. Wodehouse, Noel Coward, the Marx Brothers or Monty Python (it predates all of them). This excellent article about the book from the Dabbler draws an original analogy between the character of young Lupin Pooter, the rebellious son of our respectable diary-keeping hero, and the later character of Jimmy Porter, the Angry Young Man invented by John Osborne.
It's easy to draw connections from Charles Pooter. When I read Diary I always think of the beautiful songs Ray Davies wrote for the Kinks. The character that emerges from many of these Kinks songs is Pooter:
I like my football on a Saturday
Roast beef on Sunday -- all right!
1. Just Kids, Patti Smith's beguiling memoir of late 1960s New York, the Chelsea Hotel, Robert Mapplethorpe and the early 1970s St. Mark's Church punk poetry scene, has won the National Book Award! Quite impressive. I totally called this back in February, you know. The winner's circle above includes Jaimy Gordon, Terrance Hayes, Kathryn Erskine.
2. Doonesbury turns 40! I grew up with this comic strip. I used to especially love the counterculture literary references: Uncle Duke was Hunter S. Thompson, and several characters lived at the Walden Puddle Commune. (This was probably a reference not only to Thoreau's Walden but also to B. F. Skinner's then-fashionable Walden Two.)
Before I found out Patti won the National Book Award I was going to illustrate today's blog post with a picture I found of Zonker scuba-diving in Walden Puddle. The image is too good to waste, so here it is:
3. Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review has written a book, The Complete Review: Eleven Years, 2500 Reviews, A Site History, about his experience creating and maintaining that website and the accompanying blog Literary Saloon. I've read it, and it's a charming, candid look at the kinds of questions, decisions and private struggles that animate the life of a serious independent blogger.
(Longtime friend of Litkicks Kelly Nagle and her daughter Allyson are so enthusiastic about a new series based on Arthur Conan Doyle's classic detective stories that we're running here, for the first time, an article written by a mother-daughter team. Kelly is a librarian in Tampa, Florida, and Allyson is a college student. -- Levi)
Sherlock, the popular BBC series starting this week on PBS, is brilliant, witty, a must-see. It's set in present day London. Sherlock is a little younger than usual – about twenty-something - totally uncivilized and pure genius. He's also a self-admitted sociopath (not a psychopath, as some would have it). Watson, back from the war in Afghanistan, natch, becomes his flatmate and keeper. The rest of the favorite Holmesian characters are here: Mycroft, Mrs. Hudson (Favorite line: "I'm not your housekeeper, dear"), Inspector Lestrade and possibly even Moriarty.
1. This image of P. G. Wodehouse's bookshelf is just one of the incidental delights to be found in the BBC's literary video archive, In Their Own Words. Other authors showing their remarkable presence in these historical broadcasts include Virginia Woolf, Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark, William Golding, Robert Graves and E. M. Forster and J. R. R. Tolkien (via drmabuse).
(Just one minor note about the text accompanying the P. G. Wodehouse interview, in which the shy humorist plays incessantly with his pipe and tries to give honest answers to tough questions: Wodehouse did live in Eastport, on Long Island's East End, but Eastport ain't the Hamptons, not really even close. But what would the BBC know about Long Island?)
2. Jonathan Franzen's upcoming novel Freedom is getting major, major news coverage, including the cover of Time magazine (he's the first novelist on the cover of Time since Stephen King ten years ago). I haven't read the novel yet, but I liked his previous family saga The Corrections and am looking forward to reviewing Freedom for another web publication as soon as my review copy shows up. In the meantime, here's a piece from The Millions about all the other writers who have been on the cover of Time since the magazine was founded in 1923.
1. Natalie Merchant has recorded a double album, Leave Your Sleep, containing her own musical settings of classic poems by Mervyn Peake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, e. e. cummings, Charles Causley, Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Edward Lear, Jack Prelutsky, Arthur Macy, Ogden Nash, Charles E. Carryl, Nathalia Crane, Robert Louis Stevenson and Christina Rossetti. I haven't heard it yet but definitely want to. Natalie will be at the Union Square Barnes and Noble in New York City on April 14 for a talk with Katherine Lanpher.
I can't focus on the New York Times Book Review on a historic weekend like this one.
I am glad the health care reform bill has passed, for the following simple reasons:
• The insurance industry is as rotten as every other sector of high finance, and needs reform badly.
• Health insurance is ridiculously expensive.
• I'm not worried about socialism, Marxism or Maoism in America. I believe the most dangerous 'ism' in American government is militarism.
• I find it hard to believe Republicans are suddenly worried about deficit spending when they didn't mind spending a trillion dollars to let George W. Bush play war hero in Iraq. (See above, "the most dangerous 'ism' in America is militarism").
I'm definitely caught up in the political "game" right now, but I would like to take a moment to rise above my partisan point of view and look critically at the whole process that is about to culminate in Barack Obama's signing of the bill, a process that began the day Barack Obama got elected in November 2008.
1, A font face captures Franz Kafka's handwriting, which turns out be rather pretty in a Kafkaesque sort of way.
2. Tablet Magazine interviews eternal Fug Tuli Kupferberg and points us to his excellent YouTube Channel. I love the audience participation in this little-known literary facts video, in which Tuli reveals that T. S. Eliot was Jewish, that Walt Whitman was heterosexual, that Homer's Iliad was actually written by a guy named Iliad, and that when Dylan Thomas drank himself to death his drink of choice was strawberry milkshakes. All true.