Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Tributes

Reviewing the Review: November 9 2008

by Levi Asher on Monday, November 10, 2008 01:57 am


It's a new day. The weather's nice, Barack Obama is going to be President of the United States, and Jonathan Lethem has written a superb article about Roberto Bolano's 2666 on the front cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review.

Steering clear of his dreaded coy side, Lethem constructs a frame of reference to help explain Bolano's dissembled philosophical narrative, and since everybody seems to be talking about Roberto Bolano these days, I sincerely appreciate Lethem's step-by-step walkthrough of this 898-page epic. Will I read this book myself? Sure, I'll give it a try, but like Sarah Weinman I feel some skepticism about this current Bolano craze. The Savage Detectives didn't pull me in, but I'll try again.

Lethem is rapturous, of course, about 2666, whereas Akash Kapur's The White Tiger gets treated rather rudely in this issue by Aravind Adiga. I've read several bloggers who do not think The White Tiger deserved to win the Man Booker Prize, and I guess I'll have to see what I think of this book too. I've got a lot of reading to do.

Robert Kagan praises Carlo D'Este's Warlord: A Life of Winston Churchill at War, 1874-1945, making no reference to the stunning case against the heroic reputation of Winston Churchill contained in Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke, which was easily the most influential and widely-discussed history book published in the last year. For Kagan to pretend Baker's book didn't pop some pinholes in Churchill's legend is disingenuous. He approaches D'Este's book reverently, despite the fact that it appears to be a rather redundant biography (aren't there already about 40 in print?) designed to be bought for Dads and Grand-dads this Christmas. Since September 11, 2001 Winston Churchill has become just as big a cottage industry as Elvis Presley or Jack Kerouac, but Robert Kagan's review fails to provide critical insight on this point. Instead, he falls right for the gimmick.

This issue contains two decent poetry pieces, neither as good as William Logan would have written. Peter Stevenson likes Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry by Donald Hall. August Kleinzahler likes James Merrill Selected Poems, and reminds us that James Merrill was of the "Merrill Lynch" Merrills (this fact takes on special resonance now that Merrill Lynch, an anchor of American finance, has just collapsed).

The endpaper delivers some serious shredded wheat for your Sunday morning, and in fact I appreciate the chewy heft very much. Richard Parker writes about an influential book about the economy, The Modern Corporation and Private Property written by Adolf Augustus Berle in 1932. I learned much I didn't know. I also learned a few things I didn't know from a full-page ad for the Sinclair Institute's "Lifetime of Better Sex" video series ("Explicit and Uncensored! Real People Demonstrating Real Sexual Techniques!"). Well, if ads like this pay for articles by serious writers like Richard Parker, that's good enough for me. This was an excellent New York Times Book Review for an excellent weekend.

Finally, farewell to John Leonard, esteemed culture critic who was the editor-in-chief of the New York Times Book Review back in the early 1970s. I hope to see new editions of John Leonard's collected writings, and I'm proud to have briefly had a chance to meet him at BookExpo in New York City last year. On that day I found him wiry, growly and certainly highly alert -- I imagined at the time that he had many more decades of good writing left to do.






Reviewing the David Foster Wallace Obituaries: September 14 2008

by Levi Asher on Sunday, September 14, 2008 08:46 pm


I occasionally grazed a David Foster Wallace book, but I never finished one. The New York Times writes in a brief death notice today that Infinite Jest was "roughly, about addiction and how the need for pleasure and entertainment can interfere with human connection". I didn't know that, probably because I only got through the first 50 pages of the 1079-page book. As far as I could tell, the book was about footnotes.

The brief death notice above is better than the Times obituary by Michiko Kakutani, which must have been written very quickly. That's the only possible excuse for Kakutani's extravagant and boring prose in this long piece. Kakutani's style guide clearly allows cliched phrases ("laugh-out-loud funny"), tired imagery ("Mobius strip-like digressions") and sonorous language ("a dark threnody of sadness"), as these sentences show:

But while his own fiction often showcased his mastery of postmodern pyrotechnics -- a cold but glittering arsenal of irony, self-consciousness and clever narrative high jinks -- he was also capable of creating profoundly human flesh-and-blood characters with three-dimensional emotional lives.

...

The reader could not help but feel that Mr. Wallace had inhaled the muchness of contemporary America -- a place besieged by too much data, too many video images, too many high-decibel sales pitches and disingenuous political ads -- and had so many contradictory thoughts about it that he could only expel them in fat, prolix narratives filled with Mobius strip-like digressions, copious footnotes and looping philosophical asides.

...

Although his books can be uproariously, laugh-out-loud funny, a dark threnody of sadness and despair also runs through Mr. Wallace’s work.

Even some of the worst writers at the New York Times Book Review could have written a better piece. It's no surprise that the blogosphere has more moving essays on this weekend's sad news. Here are Ed Champion, Amy King, Garth Risk Hallberg, Jeff Bryant, Ben Casnocha, Mark Hemingway, Tom Nissley.

For me, this doesn't feel like Kurt Cobain's suicide. Cobain's songs were so emotionally naked that nobody had to ask why; at least six songs on In Utero explained why. One of my favorite writers, Richard Brautigan, killed himself, but Brautigan's best novel In Watermelon Sugar worked just fine as a suicide note. The poetry of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton did too. As for Yukio Mishima, his most famous short story "Patriotism" was about suicide, and Mishima's entire literary/political career pointed to his chosen "heroic" ending.

But I never saw suicide in a David Foster Wallace book or article. Undoubtedly I will read his work differently now. One point that several of the blog writers above suggest that Michiko Kakutani completely fails to grapple with is that Wallace's suicide immediately changes the way we read and understand his work.

When a famous artist commits suicide, this suicide is their final statement. Kurt Cobain, Richard Brautigan, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Yukio Mishima, Anne Sexton, Hunter S. Thompson and David Foster Wallace all must have understood -- and may or may not have regretted -- the way they were inevitably punctuating their careers. It's changed the way we thought of the earlier artists named above, but how will it change the way we think of David Foster Wallace?

I'm not an expert enough to answer this, but I look forward to reading more illuminating pieces about this sad death of a writer in the prime of his career on blogs and elsewhere. And I'd love to hear what you have to say about DFW, and about how this news affects your understanding of his work.

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Out of respect for the loss of one of our most popular and influential postmodern authors, we'll skip reviewing this weekend's New York Times Book Review, which features a cover article on The Forever War by Dexter Filkins by Robert Stone, whose best paragraph is not in this review but in the accompanying "Editor's Note":

As for the 2008 presidential election, Stone had this to say: "If, in this campaign, illusion triumphs over what we must believe is reality, we will fail as a nation. There is, after all, a point of no return. If McCain wins, history is here big time, scythe, sackcloth and all four horsemen."

I wonder what David Foster Wallace, whose most recently published book was a journalistic study of John McCain, would have said about that. But apparently Wallace was dealing with a private apocalypse all his own.





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.





George Carlin: Safe at Home

by Levi Asher on Monday, June 23, 2008 12:56 pm


Language was George Carlin's playpen. Here he is on the difference between baseball and football:

I enjoy comparing baseball and football.

Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game. Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle.

Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park.The baseball park! Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.

Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life. Football begins in the fall, when everything's dying.

In football you wear a helmet. In baseball you wear a cap.

Football is concerned with downs - what down is it? Baseball is concerned with ups - who's up?

In football you receive a penalty. In baseball you make an error.

In football the specialist comes in to kick. In baseball the specialist comes in to relieve somebody.

Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness. Baseball has the sacrifice.

Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog... In baseball, if it rains, we don't go out to play.

Baseball has the seventh inning stretch. Football has the two minute warning.

Baseball has no time limit: we don't know when it's gonna end - might have extra innings. Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we've got to go to sudden death.

In baseball, during the game, in the stands, there's kind of a picnic feeling; emotions may run high or low, but there's not too much unpleasantness. In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least twenty-seven times you're capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.

And finally, the objectives of the two games are completely different:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! - I hope I'll be safe at home!


However, it's a hell of a lot funnier when he tells it:



Farewell to one of our comic greats, certainly safe at home.





Bo Diddley, Lyricist

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, June 4, 2008 12:52 am


"I walk 47 miles of barbed wire"

I first went to see Bo Diddley at a great New York nightclub called Limelight, a converted gothic church between the West Village and Chelsea, on July 26, 1987. This was a big comeback show for Bo Diddley, who had recently made his face familiar on MTV playing the pool player with the box-shaped guitar in George Thorogood's video for "Bad to the Bone". Curious about the swaggering guy in the Thorogood video, and vaguely aware of his music, I went and bought a Bo Diddley album and found a treasure chest of primal, hard-driving, joyful, funny three-minute blues-rock songs I could listen to over and over. I jumped at the chance to see him in concert, and managed to squeeze into the fifth row of the packed nightclub to gaze up at his thick hands laying that pulsing tremolo over those Bo Diddley chords on that beautiful box-shaped guitar. Bo Diddley was pretty old in 1987, but he wasn't too old to snarl his lyrics, or to enjoy himself. It was 75 minutes of the Bo Diddley beat, leavened by the Bo Diddley sense of humor. I don't know which I enjoyed more, the beat or the humor.

The Bo Diddley beat is such a good beat (and by the way, of course he didn't invent the beat, he just figured out how to do it on an electric guitar) that listeners may mistake this for his only credit and neglect what a good writer Bo Diddley was. Like his friend and partner-in-crime Chuck Berry, Ellis "Bo Diddley" McDaniels lived to tell stories and create characters. His songs are what made him famous, even more than his beat. His words were as simple as his guitar playing, and just as strong. Many blues fans don't even know that Bo Diddley wrote this song, which became a blues staple and a Muddy Waters classic:

Now when I was a little boy,
At the age of five,
I had somethin' in my pocket,
Keep a lot of folks alive.
Now I'm a man,
Made twenty-one,
You know baby,
We can have a lot of fun.
I'm a man,
I spell M-A-N ... man


Bo Diddley's greasy hambone style was always rooted in humor. Influenced by earlier raunchy vaudeville acts like Butterbeans and Susie, Diddley often worked comedy routines into songs, most successfully with his maracas player Jerome Green as comic foil. He had a couple of hit singles with Say Man and Say Man, Back Again:

Bo: Say man
Jerome: Yeah, what's that?
Bo: Speaking of your old lady, I seen that new girl you got.
Jerome: Yeah, ain't she nice?
Bo: Yeah, she's got everything a man could want.
Jerome: Sure has!
Bo: Hair on her chest, a mustache, everything a man could want ...


Sometimes Jerome is straight man, and other times Bo gets stuck with the role:

Jerome: Say, look here
Bo: What's that
Jerome: I can do what you're doing
Bo: Then how come you not doing anything?
Jerome: I got you doing it


The humor frequently reflects the tradition of aggressive boasting that also characterizes today's gangsta rap:

500%, mo' man
A livin' dream
Bo Diddley, baby
Mo' man than you ever seen
Strong and handsome
And a teasin' tan
Bo Diddley, baby
A nat'ral born man


I'm drivin' a '48 Cadillac
With Thunderbird wings
Tellin' you baby, that's a runnin' thing
I got wings that'll open
And get her in the air
I think I can take it away from here


Other times his leery, suspicious barbs recall Groucho Marx, as when he sends up the children's song "Mockingbird":

Bo Diddley buy his babe a diamond ring
If the diamond ring don't shine
He gonna take it to a private eye ...


Bo Diddley died yesterday at his home in Archer, Florida. Some obituaries I've read call him an ornery man, referring to his bitterness over the greater fame of several of his early-rock pioneer peers. I don't know if he was ornery or not, but he seemed quite happy with life at the Limelight concert on July 26, 1987. The concert was such a big success that immediately afterwards a second Bo Diddley concert was announced, this time to be recorded for a live album featuring Rolling Stone lead guitarist Ron Wood and an impressive lineup of musicians. I got tickets for the show at the Ritz on November 25, 1987, but found it disappointing compared to Limelight four months earlier. I blame the overly professional band. Like Chuck Berry in concert, Bo Diddley just needs a spirited and sloppy trio to thrash in the background, and can be easily overpowered by slick backup musicians. There was also no need for Ron Wood to join Bo Diddley on guitar, as everybody in the audience knew: when Bo Diddley's on stage, you don't need another guitar.

The live album was released but quickly forgotten, because it wasn't a great show. But I remember a moment towards the end that you won't catch on the album. Diddley, perhaps sensing that the band wasn't hitting it hard enough, started shouting at them. "Come on!" Then he started pogoing. Up and down. The whole bulk of him. "Come on, man!" he shouted at Ron Wood, who presumably had never seen such behavior from Keith Richards.

Ornery? The guy was 58 years old and at least 250 pounds, and he was pogoing onstage at the Ritz. That's not any kind of ornery I know.

I walk 47 miles of barbed wire,
Got a cobra-snake for a necktie,
I got a brand new house on the roadside,
Made from rattlesnake hide,
I got a brand new chimney made on top,
Made out of a human skull,
Now come on take a walk with me, Arlene,
And tell me, who do you love?
Who do you love?
Tombstone hand and a graveyard mind
Just 22 and I don't mind dying.
Who do you love?


The New York Times has put up some very good articles about Bo Diddley, and here's a note posted at NewCritics.





What Walt Disney Knew

by Levi Asher on Monday, May 19, 2008 10:55 pm



1. Fiction writer Oakley Hall (inspiration, obviously, of the band Oakley Hall) has died. I did not know this author's work well, but once when I was a kid a long time ago I heard him read a wonderful short story called "What Walt Disney Knew" on the radio. I've been trying to find a copy of the story, or any proof that the story exists, ever since. The story begins (if I remember correctly) when a lone traveler picks up a stranger hitchhiker who tells him about an alien race of humanoids who once inhabited our planet. They were superior to us in most ways and life was like paradise, but through some ironic twist (which I can't remember) they died off, and very few people know the secret that they were once here. But Walt Disney knew. And he left us a clue about them: they had only four fingers.

As I retell this story now, I wonder how much of it I have made up. I wonder if it was even Oakley Hall who wrote it, because I've never found it in one of his books. If anybody knows where I can find this story, please let me know. And if anybody knows what Walt Disney knew, let us know too.

Good timing department: Jonathan Zeitlin of the Mezzanine Owls happens to mention Oakley Hall in a recent Book Notes at largeheartedboy.

2. Forget what Walt Disney knew. What did Walt Dizzy know? If that rings a bell, you probably know that classic-era Mad cartoonist Will Elder, also known as Bill Elder, has died. I can't say enough about Elder's brilliant work with Harvey Kurtzman, which can be found in books like The Mad Reader. Elder was responsible for "Starchie", "Mickey Rodent", "Sherlock Shomes" and so very much more. "Little Annie Fanny" was a disappointing sequel, but the Mad Magazine work will live forever. The New York Times obituary is particularly good on the influence of Elder's signature "margin work". There's some good video at Tom Richmond's Mad Blog.

3. Deconstructed album cover art (via Gawker).

4. Leora Skolkin-Smith on Leon Wieseltier and A. B. Yehoshua.

5. Bat Segundo interviews Cynthia Ozick.





Pinky in Istanbul, Macbeth in Moscow

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, March 18, 2008 09:55 pm


1. Carolyn "Pinky" Kellogg is in Istanbul! Nice to see a busy blogger getting away for a literary journey.

2. Arthur C. Clarke has died. I mainly know of Clarke for living in Sri Lanka (and reporting from there during the 2004 tsunami) and for co-writing an amazingly great movie with Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey. I've also read the original Arthur C. Clarke short story that inspired this movie, "The Sentinel". This humble story only contained the short middle sequence in the film, the discovery of a sentinel (aka "the monolith") sending signals to Jupiter from a crater on the moon, and it contained no bone-thumping apes or Richard Strauss music, so I was always more impressed by the movie. I don't know a lot about Arthur C. Clarke but I think I'll be learning more in the next few days.

3. Bud Parr on Patrick Stewart as a Stalinesque Macbeth.

4. I love the Morning News Tournament of Books, our literary March Madness. I am rooting for Remainder by Tom McCarthy to win, or if not that On Chesil Beach. I'm un-rooting for Lethem and Ferris.

5. And, also on the Morning News ... speaking of movies that are better than their books, here's the Morning News on Movies That Are Better Than Their Books. And they were nice enough to ask me to contribute one! I'll tell you, I had a hell of a time choosing anything over Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but I had to put this one ahead. Click in to find out what I picked. Hell of a movie.

6. Chasing Ray on Obama's speech.

7. Where is Encyclopedia Brown now? (via The Millions).

8. Rejections.

9. Onion.





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.





Cassady Day

by Levi Asher on Monday, February 4, 2008 03:35 am



Neal Cassady, the real-life model for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac's On The Road, died forty years ago today, on February 4, 1968. There was recently much celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of On The Road, and it provides a sad perspective to put these anniversaries together and realize that On The Road gave Neal Cassady exactly one decade of literary "fame" before he died at the age of 42.

This anniversary seemed like a good occasion for me to email Carolyn Cassady a few wide-ranging questions, which she was kind enough to answer from her home in London:

Levi: So much has changed in the world since February 4th, 1968. Or has it? If Neal has been looking down on us all for all these years, what do you think he would say about the state of the world in 2008?

Carolyn: If Neal were watching us since the time he departed this planet, I think he would feel as I do that it is in a very sad state. He was such a loving person, and there is so little evidence of that in the affairs of the world. Acquiring money and/or power at any cost appears to be the religion and goal. Every time there's an "improvement" in products, they're much worse. Selfishness.

Levi: I know that you and Neal were interested together in the teachings of spiritual leader Edgar Cayce (by the way, I had a piano teacher as a kid who was a Caycean, so I know a little about it). Have you remained involved with this movement, and what do you think about it today?

Carolyn:Neal and I used the Cayce connection as the springboard for further studies in occult lore. We didn't continue after the first few years with just that. We explored all the scriptures from early Eastern systems, the Theosophists, Max Heindel, etc etc., and I became interested in Astrology. I am poor at interpretation, but I get a little. Otherwise, the teachings of that accumulated search and the present-day Truth movements, like Unity satisfy my needs nicely, and I try to live by the wisdom of the ages as best I can.

Levi: How do you feel about today's literature? What books have you recently enjoyed reading, and are there any newer writers you like, or any newer or older writers you can't stand?

Carolyn: I'm not an authority on today's literature. I read very few novels; I like biographies, documentaries and maybe historical novels. I have read more English writers since moving here, and I havaen't read any more American ones. I have enjoyed Julian Barnes, Jude Morgan, Roddy Doyle, Peter Ackroyd to name a few. I do read reviews in literary magazines so remain interested in trends.

Levi: Can you think of any surprising truth or fact about Neal Cassady (or about the times you spent with Neal and Jack Kerouac and the rest of the gang) that the world does not yet know?

Carolyn: My dear, my book is full of surprising truths about the lads, but not enough people read it or read it carefully. So there are still masses of myths and misinformation everywhere.

Levi: Is the date of February 4, 2008 going to be an especially significant one for you and your children? And do you have any thoughts you'd like to share on this 40th anniversary?

Carolyn: I remember February 4 with affection both for Neal and for Anne Murphy, who's birthday it is. I understand the Beat Museum in San Francisco is celebrating Neal's birthday on the 8th, but I am not included in that in any way -- except Neal's children will be there. I always think of Neal with gratitude for teaching me so much wisdom about life; I feel privileged to have known him, and I miss him always. He was a unique individual in spades.


* * * * *

Carolyn also told me: "You know how tired I am of living in the past, but I guess it's what makes the present." I don't like living in the past either, but I'll make an exception for Neal Cassady, because he has always been one of my very favorite Beat Generation figures. Some of the very first articles published on Literary Kicks were about the connected careers of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, the Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey, and probably the very first exciting and impressive thing that happened to me after launching LitKicks was that I was put into contact with Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow, who had circulated a short article about the origin of the Grateful Dead song "Cassidy" online. I asked if I could give the piece a home on LitKicks, he happily agreed, and you can still read his excellent piece about "Cassidy" and Cassady here.

The following year I got a chance to interview John Allen Cassady, Neal's son, which was a very special event because John had not spoken out in public about his experiences as a child among Neal, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the rest of the Beat crowd before. This interview meant a lot to me (and also helped put LitKicks "on the map", which I appreciated very much). I always sensed a deep, earthy warmth emanating from the members of Neal Cassady's family (and if you've ever dealt with literary estates or families, you know that deep, earthy warmth is not often what emanates from these sources). This seemed to speak, as did many other indicators, for an essential simple human goodness at the heart of Neal Cassady's legacy in this world.


* * * * *

"Did You Hear Neal Cassady Died?"
-- The Washington Squares

Did you hear Neal Cassady died?
Lying on the tracks down in Mexico
Did you hear Neal Cassady died, last night?

Can you see Neal Cassady drive?
An old car and a girl in heaven alive
Can you see Neal Cassady drive, last night?

He was a-lying on the tracks down in Mexico
What a sad, sad, lonely way to go
for the king of the hipster daddy-0's ...


Two years after On The Road became a smash success, Neal was arrested and convicted for selling a small amount of marijuana and spent two years separated from Carolyn and his children as a prisoner in San Quentin. Jack Kerouac never stopped blaming himself for ruining a hard-working family man's life by making him a celebrity lawbreaker and a target for law enforcement. After returning home following two years in jail, Neal juggled his job and large family precariously along with his crazy wanderings among Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and various crazy hipsters coalescing around the growing San Francisco music scene.

Neal was found dead by the side of a railroad track in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico where he'd been staying with friends. According to Carolyn Cassady's Off The Road, he had walked a quarter mile south towards the nearby town of Celaya when he seemed to have stopped walking. The manner of his death has always seemed significant -- of what? I'm not sure. But I tried to estimate where exactly this might have been on Google Maps, and this satellite image may show the spot:



Best wishes to the Cassady family. Of course, the spirit lives on.






Ira Levin’s Perfect Day

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, November 13, 2007 09:02 pm



I just read on Sarah Weinman's site that Ira Levin has died. Ira Levin was the author of Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, two bestselling novels I enjoyed greatly when I was a kid in the 70's reading under the influence of my Grandma, my mom and my sister. These books were both made into excellent movies, of course (Roman Polanksi's chic spin on Rosemary's Baby was especially good) but the books were fun to read too. Ira Levin specialized in conspiracy theories: Rosemary's Baby presented a Satanic conspiracy and Stepford Wives a male chauvinist conspiracy. But Ira Levin wrote another conspiracy novel, This Perfect Day, which I also read as a teenager and liked perhaps even better than the other two.

Why did teenage me read this strange and even then little-known book, which depicts a rebel named Li RM35M4419 (nickname: Chip) who takes on a totalitarian government managed by a giant computer named UniComp? I guess I had a lot of time on my hands, but this often paid off, and This Perfect Day was a very exciting and rewarding read. I don't want to give away the core secret conspiracy that is revealed during the course of This Perfect Day, but perhaps I can suggest that some readers may want to honor this author's death not by rereading the familiar bestsellers but by finding copies of this one instead. You can read the Wikipedia page above if you don't mind a spoiler (no, UniComp is not gay) and I'll just say that the book does come up with a good payoff and stands up to 1984, Animal Farm, Slapstick, Brave New World and other totalitarian fables. Like these novels, it touches upon fascism, Stalinism and Maoism, but Ira Levin has more fun with these concepts than any of the others (except maybe Slapstick, since nobody ever had more fun with a concept than Kurt Vonnegut).

The book also offers a highly original message that has something to do with co-optation of the underground. Dana Spiotto's recent Eat The Document tells a similar story in a very different way.

I'll update this page with more links about Ira Levin as I find them. Farewell to a highly original author, Ira Levin of New York City, 78 years old.






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