If you've heard any recent news coverage about the peace agreement between Iran, USA, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China that will hopefully move forward this week, there's a good chance this is because the opposition in USA has been so noisy. We've seen big headlines about Republican hawks inviting Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu to speak out in Congress against President Obama's plans, and about 47 Senators who signed a poorly written letter to Iran declaring no confidence in their own President's foreign policy.

News outlets and social media channels seem to be constitutionally incapable of reporting good news -- unless the good news is about panda bears or Kim Kardashian's butt. We should all feel free to forget the noise from Benjamin Netanyahu and Mitt Romney and recognize that the signing of this Iran deal will be a great and historic thing. When this agreement is signed, there ought to be dancing in the streets -- all streets, everywhere in the world.

Our media outlets are so incapable of reporting good news that you might even have first heard about this historic Iran deal in a Literary Kicks blog post last November titled "Ending Sixty Years of Bad Karma With Iran". We're not in the breaking news business here at Litkicks, and yet we took the trouble to fill you in on the happy developments last year, while most professional news outlets remained silent until they found a tasty way to frame the news as a bitter controversy instead of a blessed breakthrough. Wake up, people! From Havana to Tehran to Obama's White House, smart politicians are trying to make good decisions, and they deserve your support.

Why is the Iran peace agreement good? Because it's a peace agreement between several nations that have been bitterly afraid of each other for six decades. This simple truth speaks for itself. Several major nations are afraid of each other right now, and a peace agreement is primarily an attempt to soothe raging paranoia.

The paranoia in pervasive. Many Americans I know are completely ignorant of the Iranian view of history, and cannot comprehend how frightened Iran is of the world powers who supported the Shah's oppressive (but oil-friendly) oligarchy from 1953 to 1979. Anybody who needs an explanation for Iran's hatred of Europe and USA only needs to read up on the history of Iran in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. That would be a valuable education for many Americans who think the problems between Iran and the USA only began in 1979.

But Iran isn't the only frightened party in 2015. Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a diagram of an imaginary bomb, while Tom Cotton seethes in the Senate. On Facebook, I hear my own friends express a sense of surreal terror that the villains in Tehran will surely take advantage of the deal to secretly build a nuclear bomb and blow up Tel Aviv, or New York City if they can reach it. This kind of primal paranoia appears hysterical when rationally examined, but the level of popular hysteria cannot be denied. Perhaps this is the nicest thing that can be said about Tom Cotton, the young pro-military Iraq veteran who has now made himself famous for writing a letter to Iran. He did not write this letter to advance his own career (though he has in fact advanced his career, and will probably be a popular face on Fox News for the next fifty years). He wrote this letter because he really thinks Iran is going to blow up the world. He's ignorant, but he's not cynical.

This kind of paranoia is what peace agreements are designed to cure. Difficult negotiations allow embattled leaders on all sides of an unbridgeable dispute to exchange information and ask questions. Peace agreements permit various kinds of conversation and commerce to slowly spin up, allowing cultural and economic interchange on new levels. They empower moderates at the expense of extremists -- and if that's not good news with regard to Iran and the rest of the world, I don't know what is.

Is it ever possible for a peace agreement to be a bad thing? Those who oppose this agreement right now point to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1938, but that famous example is full of hot air. Even a failed peace agreement like the Munich deal of 1938 does little actual damage, and of course the primary cause of the Second World War was not Neville Chamberlain -- it was the First World War.

It was right before that ruinous war began, back in the muddled summer months of 1914, that Europe's paranoid nations lost their last chance for a significant peace agreement, and instead began the process of systematically slaughtering each other for the next few decades.

Its 2015, and we're not going to make those mistakes anymore. The peace agreement between Iran, USA, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China that will be signed next week is glorious good news. I'll be dancing in the streets when it's finally signed -- even if I have to go dancing alone.


Forget the noise. Despite the loud opposition, the peace agreement that will hopefully conclude this week is a great and historic step forward for every nation in the world.

view /IranDeal
Sunday, March 15, 2015 08:41 am
International talks over Iran peace agreement
Levi Asher

I observed a strange reaction among my friends -- especially my fellow liberals -- when a new insurgent group calling itself "The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria" began capturing towns and small cities in war-torn Iraq.

There's really nothing new about this insurgent group, which represents the same Sunni coalition that lost power with the fall of Saddam Hussein and has been trying to get it back ever since. But all of a sudden, several of my friends were up in arms about the insurgency. Why? Because they're fundamentalists.

Indeed, the new insurgency is using Islamic fundamentalism as a way to gain support (and frighten Brits and Americans). It's a smart strategic move: calls to religion have always been useful recruiting tools in time of war. But what amazes me is that some of my American friends are more offended by the fact that the new insurgents are religious than by the fact that they are rampaging through towns murdering political opponents with their families.

The atrocities are perfectly acceptable, apparently ... as long as they don't start bringing sharia into it.

It's a sign of our shrill times that some people are actually more offended by religion than by war. This is fed by the common misconception that wars are commonly fought over religion. This widely-accepted belief (a belief that the late Christopher Hitchens shamelessly dined out on for a decade) must be exposed for the fraud it always has been.

A simple review of world history makes it clear: while religion is often used as a surrogate for ethnic or national identity, religion itself has never been the actual cause of any war. The holy war is a fraud.

All wars work the same way, whether religious identity plays a part or not. When religious identity plays a part, it is as identity rather than as religion. The primary engine of war is the grinding against each other of different groups, variously identified by location, history, language, ethnicity, religion or economic class. The causes, outcomes and consequences of the major wars of recent centuries do not show any pattern of being influenced by religious doctrine or popular religious belief. War is war, whether religious or not.

So why are so many of my friends terrified by the concept of jihad? I don't know, but I know that many of my friends have a natural dislike for religion, which is their right. But I cringe at the idea that political liberalism will ever become identified with atheism. This is a wrong turn, a dead end. Whether you are personally religious or not, it is important to know that religion has not been a harmful influence in the world. Rather, it has been a constant source of healing and comfort and connection. A world without religion is as unthinkable as a world without literature or a world without music.

I've recently been urging my readers to read three philosophers whose work I consider highly relevant for the political problems that plague the world today: Ludwig Wittgenstein, William James and Carl Jung. I chose these three names for several different reasons. One is their common attitude towards religion.

Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated the futility of logical or scientific arguments against religious belief. William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, an open-minded treatment of the natural human inclination towards spirituality. Carl Jung enthusiastically explored religious symbolism as a key to understanding the human soul. All three of them also appear to have been privately religious (idiosyncratically, of course, in all three cases, as should always be expected when a philosopher embraces religion).

The kind of religious sensibility that can be found in the private writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein or William James or Carl Jung is not often found in the private writings of a military leader or corrupt politician. This is one reason I rarely take a corrupt or militant politician seriously when they claim to be religious. For instance, future USA presidential candidate Paul Ryan was a devout follower of Ayn Rand until he was suddenly tagged as Vice Presidential material. He suddenly disavowed Ayn Rand and pronounced himself a devout Catholic. Am I obligated not to laugh? Similarly, I never believed the hype that Osama bin Laden was a devout Muslim. I read his biography, and I didn't see a lot of time for private refection in that life story. Osama bin Laden was a clever and egotistical leader driven to political grandiosity by a traumatic Oedipal complex. I don't suspect that there was much room in that crowded brain for thoughtful spiritual reflection, and the fact that Osama bin Laden strove to portray himself as a religious person doesn't mean he did so convincingly.

Remember when Saddam Hussein turned up in a full beard, claiming to be a devout Muslim? Well, whether religion is sincere or not, we do know that religion is often convenient to profess, and so we are not obligated to ever believe that a politician or military leader's religious beliefs are sincere when they are engaging in activities that are harmful to innocent people or to the planet. We can start making better decisions if we stop falling for the ruse.

Have there ever been sincerely religious military leaders? Sure -- it's easy for biographers to discern a politician's private spiritual character from various evidence. For instance, there's little doubt that President George W. Bush was sincerely religious -- though he wasn't much of a military leader. President Jimmy Carter was also sincerely religious. He may not have been much of a military leader either.

As for great military leaders who really have been successful, history shows few examples of deeply religious personalities. Making my own quick survey through the history channels of my mind, I can think of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson, who was known to have a deeply spiritual mind. He prayed constantly, and his letters are filled with musings on Biblical lessons.

And I can think of French warrior-saint Joan of Arc, who saw her entire improbable journey of conquest as a direct intervention by God, and who burned at the stake for her devout belief without flinching.

So that's two examples -- but Stonewall Jackson and Joan of Arc are the only two I can think of, and that leaves thousands and thousands of other examples of military and political leaders who used religion as a tool to stir up popular support and ethnic identification, but left behind little evidence that they had any actual profound religious feeling themselves.

I hope we can stop falling for the grand fraud of the holy war. Christopher Hitchens isn't around to argue with us about this today, but it's a fact that he had it wrong. It's amazing how much clarity can be obtained once we take the time to look closely at the real causes of the political mistakes our leaders make. God's usually got very little to do with it.


All wars work the same way, whether religious identity plays a part or not. When religious identity plays a part, it is as identity rather than as religion.

view /IsReligiousWarAFraud
Saturday, June 21, 2014 06:59 pm
Joan of Arc and Stonewall Jackson
Levi Asher

It's time to start putting some puzzle pieces together.

Five weekends ago I began a project by suggesting that we try to analyze some tough ethical/historical problems with the methodology of a puzzle-solver, by which I meant that we would determine a few principles or "tools" and then apply these principles or tools repetitively and mechanically until we reach a conclusion.

I originally spoke of Sudoku or KenKen puzzles, while today I'm showing a picture of a Rubik's Cube. It doesn't matter because the puzzle is only a broad metaphor for the experiment I'm trying to conduct. The goal is to obtain fresh insights that we don't seem to be able to obtain with our usual emotional and moral interpretations of history. You can't solve a Sudoku puzzle or a Rubik's Cube with your emotions, or with a demonstration of your moral goodness. You need to apply simple techniques repetitively and consistently, which leads me now to ask what simple techniques we use when trying to understand the worst and most well-known atrocities of recent history: the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the African slave trade, the massacres in Rwanda, the September 11 attacks, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Irish famine, China's Great Leap Forward, the massacre in Srebenica, the refugee death camps of Darfur, the current crisis in Syria.

The great puzzle we are trying to solve is this: why do these atrocities occur? I think the urgent need for fresh insight is obvious, since despite our hollow promises of "never again" these atrocities occur frequently today (in the list above, five of the atrocities occurred in the last twenty years, and at least two are happening right now).

The first step in the experiment is to identify the simple principles that we will apply to the known historical facts in order to reach an answer. In the previous two weekends I've proposed two:

The Ashley Wilkes Principle is the observation that every society will consider itself highly moral even as it may engage in vile activities. This is a tremendously powerful tool for ethical study, because it means that even the worst and most inhumane actors -- murderous Nazi bureaucrats, rapacious slave traders, vicious Communist minions, bomb-planting terrorists, machete-weilding child killers -- will always leave behind written and spoken evidence of the moral justifications behind their atrocious acts. No large scale holocaust or genocide or massacre or atrocity in history appears to be an exception to this rule. No matter how morally rotten any society may be, evil actors will always leave behind texts that display the precise reasoning with which they pat themselves on their backs and convince themselves that they are doing the right thing. By reading these texts, we can go a long way towards understanding why these atrocities occurred.

Blood Alienation is the name I am proposing for a phenomenon that seems to trigger nearly every major genocide or massacre or ethnic cleansing in history. This phenomenon occurs when one segment of a society becomes convinced that another segment of the same society is its mortal enemy. A transformation occurs within a society when this meme of paranoid fear begins to spread, and when it spreads rapidly and becomes common wisdom, the chances that a massacre or genocide will occur become much greater.

I began this inquiry as an experiment, and have been making the steps up as I go along -- but even at this early stage I find myself surprised at how well the two principles explain the worst atrocities of modern times. At the risk of being ridiculously reductive and simplistic, I have to wonder if the above two principles are nearly all we need to explain every major genocide or massacre of the past hundred years.

The April 1994 disaster in Rwanda is a useful case study because everything happened there so quickly that subterfuge and propaganda had no time to take root. It has become a cliche to describe April 1994 as a sudden descent into primal collective madness and tribal irrationality. Sadly, though, there was nothing primal or irrational about this very modern genocide, and the only reason it has become a cliche to emphasize the primitivistic irrationality of the terrible genocide is that most people don't bother to learn about the political agreement that triggered it -- a political agreement that the Hutu majority ethnic group believed would empower the privileged minority Tutsis at the expense of their own freedom and empowerment.

It's important to realize that there is absolutely no doubt that this pending political change frightened the Hutus and inspired the massacre. We can wonder how the roving gangs of killers could have been so brutal, but we do not need to wonder how they justified their brutalities to themselves. It's all right there in the historical record. The Rwanda genocide was an act of fear, not an act of hatred. Hatred was there, of course -- victims were constantly tortured, mutilated, insulted and raped -- but the hatred does not seem to have been the cause of the genocide. Rather, the hatred appears to have been manufactured and exploited by the still-unknown planners of the massacre, who used radio broadcasts and other media to provoke bands of killers to fast action.

In these radio broadcasts, Tutsis were constantly referred to as "cockroaches". But the massacre did not happen because the Hutu killers thought of Tutsis as cockroaches. It happened the other way around: the dehumanization of the Tutsis was necessary to inspire the massacre. It's worth noting that the bands of machete murderers had to drink themselves into near stupors in order to achieve the state of mindlessness necessary to do their work. After a few banana beers, apparently, a human being can start to look like a cockroach.

Similar patterns are easily found in other violent examples of ethnic cleansing. It seems that we are contextualizing when we characterize any genocide as an act of hatred. The hatred may be real, but it does not seem to ever be the cause of genocide. Rather, genocide is always inspired by fear, by the terrible logic of blood alienation. The hatred comes after. The fear comes first.

The Holocaust that killed six million Jews during the Second World War in Europe seems very similar to the genocide in Rwanda: a majority's fear of oppression by a privileged minority, a vile campaign of dehumanization of the targeted minority in order to provoke the violence that is considered a political or military necessity. As an American Jew whose relatives were killed in the Holocaust, I know that many of my fellow Jews see the Holocaust as an expression of hatred. The more I learn for myself, the more I realize that this perception is an illusion.

The historical record shows that religious or ethnic anti-semitism had very little to do with the motivation behind the Holocaust. Fear of Soviet-style Communism had everything to do with it. Our own understanding of Europe's history during the terrible decades of the two World Wars has become so warped that most people today don't know that there was an attempted Communist revolution in Germany after the end of the First World War, led by the tragic Rosa Luxembourg and other German Jews who wished to replicate Lenin and Trotsky's success in Berlin. The killing of Rosa Luxembourg and her fellow Jewish Communists in 1919 led directly to the empowerment of proto-fascist groups like the Freikorps and the early Nazis whose primary stated purpose was to prevent the possibility of a Jewish/Communist takeover of Germany. While we can't take the thought of homegrown Communist revolution in Germany seriously today, because Rosa Luxembourg and her partners were so completely defeated, we are not seeing history clearly if we don't understand that the possibility seemed very real to Germans in the years after the First World War.

As with the solving of a puzzle, pieces seem to fall in place as we proceed to look at the facts in light of our two primary principles, and new combinations suddenly become possible. After a lifetime of believing that Jews were killed in Europe during World War II because they were hated, it's a tough shift to realize that they were killed rather for political expedience (and, as the Second World War proceeded, for military and strategic expedience). It's also a shocking shift to realize that the hatred that accompanied the Holocaust may have been manufactured and promoted in order to make the killings possible. And yet the historical records seem to support this interpretation. This helps to explain the fact that the few brutal and hateful masterminds of the Holocaust such as Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and Hans Frank complained often about the terrible toll it took on their men to carry out their quotas of killings. These pathetic Nazi death troops didn't get drunk on banana beer like their Hutu counterparts, but they must have found other ways to numb themselves.

There's much more to be written here, and there are many, many more disasters of the 20th century to examine. But a critical question begins to emerge: is hatred ever the cause of genocide? I'm beginning to believe it never is. Fear of a perceived mortal enemy appears to always be the cause of genocide, and this stunning realization may be the first major step towards solving the puzzle we need to solve.

I'd like to know if the suggestion I'm laying out here makes as much sense to my readers as it does to me. Am I on the right track? Am I missing anything? Please let me know, because I can't solve these puzzles all by myself.


A surprising yet obvious realization: fear, not hatred, appears to be the root cause of history's worst atrocities and massacres and genocides.

view /TheAtrocityCube
Saturday, March 22, 2014 07:50 pm
The Atrocity Cube by Levi Asher
Levi Asher

Amiri Baraka, a seminal Beat poet, angry playwright, revolutionary activist and scrappy indie publisher from Newark, New Jersey has died. The Allen Ginsberg Project blog has the scoop. Here's a Litkicks article about Amiri Baraka by Jamelah Earle from 2003.

Please feel free to share your memories or personal encounters with Amiri Baraka by leaving a comment below.


Amiri Baraka, a seminal Beat poet, angry playwright, revolutionary activist and scrappy indie publisher from Newark, New Jersey has died.

view /AmiriBarakaNewarkPoet
Thursday, January 9, 2014 09:09 pm
Amiri Baraka
Levi Asher

In his essay The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley describes his experiences after taking a dose of mescaline. At the end of the book, he makes this observation:

That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and has always been one of the principal appetites of the soul. […] And for private, for everyday use there have always been chemical intoxicants. All the vegetable sedatives and narcotics, all the euphorics that grow on trees, the hallucinogens that ripen in berries or can be squeezed from roots – all, without exception, have been known and systematically used by human beings from time immemorial.

The use of the term Artificial Paradises by Huxley refers to a book by Charles Baudelaire, Les Paradis Artificiels, which describes Baudelaire’s experiences with hashish. Just as men have longed “to escape, [...] to transcend themselves”, so have writers tried to capture the experience on the page.

Let’s call these attempts to capture the drug experience in printed form "literature of substance" -- "substance" being a word used by David Foster Wallace to very effectively describe agents that get you high, ranging from weed to peyote, and encompassing alcohol and all other chemical and natural concoctions that are used by mankind to escape or transcend.

The great-granddaddy of all substance books is the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey, a 19th century English essayist, a colleague of William Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge.

As a young student, De Quincy was a prodigy. He had such a mastery of Greek that one of his masters, quoted in the Confessions, said to another teacher: “that boy [De Quincey] could harangue an Athenian mob better than you and I could address an English one.” De Quincy passed through many schools in his youth, learned many of the Latin and particularly the Greek classics, and developed a life-long love of Wordsworth’s poetry. Unfortunately, his academic career was marred by constant moves from school to school, and especially by falling prey to some particularly inept masters and bishops who were charged with his education. At one point, young De Quincey ran away from school and led a vagabond life, wandering through Wales before ending up in London.

This itinerate existence forms the first part of Confessions – as a sort of explanation for the sources of pain that first drove him to the use of opium. He then holds forth first on the Joys, and then on the Pains, of opium.

De Quincey wrote the Confessions in London, while hiding from his creditors, a situation that was to be a constant in his life. He published the essay in serial form in the London Magazine; the piece received immediate acclaim, kicking off a lifetime career of magazine writing. Over the years, De Quincey revised and edited The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and it remains his most important and most continuously read piece.

Thomas De Quincey writes in a rambling, digressive style, peppered with quotes from poets such as Wordsworth and Milton, to lend gravitas to his pronouncements as well as to show off his considerable erudition. Once you get into the rhythm of this style, it becomes quite enjoyable, and his digressions are often quiet charming.

But what about the substances? The book is after all Confessions of an English Opium Eater, not Confessions of a Country Squire.

De Quincy is a master at describing the joys and states of mind induced by opium. He took the drug in the form of laudanum, a commonly used remedy in the 19th century. Laudanum is also known as tincture of opium. It's opium in a solution of alcohol, and it contains all of the alkaloids found in raw opium, including codeine and morphine.

Opium has been used for medicinal and recreational purposes as far back as prehistoric times. The Sumerians cultivated opium in the Tigris-Euphrates river basin. The use of opium, along with the invention of writing, then passed from Mesopotamia to Egypt, where the ancient city of Thebes became noted for its poppy fields, and the yield from the ripe pods was known Thebic opium. The Greeks used opium widely in medicine, and passed their knowledge on to the Romans. The Roman legions spread the use of the drug to Western Europe.

Opium consumption continued through the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, a medical man and alchemist named Paracelsus wrote of the benefits of opium, and created his own elixir known as arcanum which he used to cure intestinal ulcers and other disorders. It was also thought to have magical powers. Arcanum was a mixture of 25% opium mixed with henbane, crushed pearls, coral, certain oils, and a “bone from the heart of a stag”.Paracelsus also carried little pellets of opium which he called laudanum, and which he boasted could wake the dead.

An English physician named Thomas Sydenham took Paracelsus’ term laudanum, and applied it to a tincture of opium that he produced by dissolving the opium pellets in alcohol. Laudanum could also be made by dissolving opium in strong red wine or port, thus disguising the bitter taste and forming a potent liquid that could only be taken by adding drops of it to a glass of water or tea. A large draught of laudanum would result in immediate overdose and death.

De Quincey’s first encounter with laudanum came in the autumn of 1804. He was still a very young man, a year into his studies at Oxford. While visiting in London, he came down with “excruciating pains of the head and face”. The pain continued on for twenty days, and on the twenty-first, an acquaintance of his from college recommended laudanum. De Quincey sets the scene of his first encounter with the drug: “It was a Sunday afternoon, wet and cheerless: and a duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London”. Heading home through Oxford Street, he passed a druggist’s shop and stepped inside. The druggist offers up the tincture of opium, and De Quincey pays and repairs to his lodgings, still in dire pain. He takes the required dose of laudanum, measured out in drops. An hour passes. Suddenly, not only is his pain gone, but he is unexpectedly shown “the abyss of divine enjoyment”. He continues: “Here was a panacea [...] for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered: happiness might now be had for a penny and carried in the waistcoat pocket: portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle.”

From this first experience, De Quincy becomes a casual user of laudanum. At the time, the popular contralto Josephina Grassini sang at the London Opera, and it was De Quincey’s habit to imbibe some laudanum and then sit in the gallery, listening to the music of the opera, in particular to the singing of Grassini. Of his opera experience he notes “I question whether any Turk, of all that have entered the Paradise of opium-eaters, can have had half the pleasure I had”. He would also take a dose of opium and ramble through the teeming market streets of London on Saturday night, observing the poor, and in his opium-induced euphoria, feeling a great solidarity with the common man.

Unfortunately, those halcyon days of early drug use didn’t go on forever. De Quincy remained a casual user of opium for eight years, up until 1813. At this time, he was brought low by an acute stomach ailment, one that he first experienced in his vagabond youth. The pain was so intense that he began to take laudanum every day. And here he discovers the law of opium: the more opium you take, the more you need to take, as the body builds up a tolerance that requires greater and greater amounts of the drug to attain the same pleasure. Accompanying this is the sickness you experience when the drug wears off. It is here that you enter the hell of addiction. Your primary purpose in taking the drug is not for the euphoric feeling it once gave, but to avoid the dreadful drug sickness.

De Quincey enters a period in which he rarely leaves the house, and his sleep is tormented by strange and terrible dreams. He seems to be living in a half-waking half sleeping hell. He is unable to read, unable to work, and unable to reduce his dependency on opium.

He begins to stockpile opium and manufacture his own laudanum by dissolving the narcotic substance in port or Madeira wine. He notes that “I [...] have taken happiness both in a solid and liquid shape, both boiled and unboiled, both East India and Turkey.” Opium is typically boiled and strained to remove impurities, and De Quincey’s preference for boiled opium becomes clear in a philosophical discussion on philosophers that he regards as inhuman moralists: “An inhuman moralist I can no more endure in my nervous state than opium that has not been boiled”.

Finally a crisis enters his life -- what it is he doesn’t say -- that leads him to the realization that he will die if he continues on with opium as he has, He begins to reduce his dosage, slowly at first, but enough over time that he is able to keep his consumption of the drug to manageable amounts.

De Quincey remained an opium-eater until the end of his days. He produced a vast amount of writing during his life and died at the age of 74, which was a fairly ripe old age for the times. Other than his severe addictive period, the opium did not seem to slow his literary output. And he left us an essay that shows us both the pleasures and pitfalls of opium use, as well as adding some wonderful description of the drug state to our literature, our substance books. He provides us with this paean to his drug of choice:

Oh! Just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; [...] thou buildest upon the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain, cities and temples, beyond the art of Phidias and Praxiteles – beyond the splendour of Babylon and Hekatompylos: [...] Thou only givest these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh, just, subtle and mighty opium!

* * * * *

The poet Charles Baudelaire was also interested in the effect of various drugs on human consciousness. In Artificial Paradises, he treats the effects of wine and hashish, and then offers up a summary of De Quincy’s Opium Eater. For Baudelaire, wine is the substance most convivial, most humane, that which inspires everyone from the lowliest worker to the noblest aristocrat:

Who has not known the profound joys of wine? Everyone who has ever had remorse to appease, a memory to evoke, a grief to drown, a castle in Spain to build – in short everyone – has invoked the mysterious god hidden in the fibers of the vine. How great is the spectacle of the wine, lit by an inner sun! How real and ardent is the second youth that man sips out of it.

Baudelaire's assessment of hashish is more tempered. He describes the phases of hashish intoxication – an initial phase of uncontrollable hilarity, followed by the intensification of the senses and hallucinations, leading to a state he calls by the Oriental word kef:

It is a calm and placid beatitude. Every philosophical problem is resolved. Every difficult question that presents a point of contention for theologians and brings despair to thoughtful men becomes clear and transparent. Every contradiction is reconciled. Man has surpassed the gods.

The poet also notes the effect of hashish on the sense of time: “One lives several lifetimes in the space of an hour”, and comments on the fact that certain people experience a feeling of dread or paranoia while under its influence. But his overall assessment is that hashish is a substance that wastes too much nervous energy. His ultimate verdict: “Hashish belongs to the class of solitary pleasures; it is made for the pitiful creatures with time on their hands. Wine is useful, it yields fruitful results. Hashish is useless and dangerous.”

Baudelaire did not smoke hashish. Rather, he took it in a form developed by the Arabs, a form which was brought back from Egypt by Napoleon’s soldiers returning from the disastrous Egyptian campaign. The Arabs prepare a hashish concentrate by boiling the flowering tops of Indian hemp, that is, the cannabis plant imported from India, or grown in Algeria, in a combination of butter and water. This creates a greenish substance with a powerful odor of cannabis that is often masked with vanilla, cinnamon or other aromatic spices. It can be rolled in a ball and swallowed, or dissolved in a cup of coffee. Baudelaire mentions that doses range from 15 to even 30 grams, which would be a powerful jolt of hashish, especially when ingested.

Baudelaire lived in a bohemian milieu in Paris, and he was introduced to hashish through his friend, the writer Théophile Gautier, to whom Baudlaire dedicated his masterpiece Les Fleurs du Mal. Gautier and Baudelaire were members of “Le Club des Hachichins” -- the Hashish Eaters Club. This was a group of artists, musicians and writers who met on a monthly basis to ingest hashish and revel in its effects.

The Club des Hashichins met in rooms in what was known at the time as the Hotel Pimodan, currently the Hotel Lauzan, located on the Quai D’Anjou on the Ile-Saint-Louis, one of the oldest sections of Paris, and one of only two islands in the middle of the Parisian Seine.

Let’s follow Gautier to a "meeting" of the club, as he described it in his essay Le Club Des Hashichins.

He arrives on the Ile-Saint-Louis on a dreary December night. Although it is only six o’clock, it already completely dark. A thick fog rises up from the Seine, and he gropes his way along the wet paving stones until he finds the entrance to the Hotel Pimodan. It is the mid 1800s, but even at this date the hotel is ancient. He climbs the ornate staircase and arrives at the designated floor. He rings the bell, and enters a room that has not changed since the 17th century.

His fellow members are gathered around a table, and each takes a measure of the green potion, followed by a coffee. They then sit down to a light repast, while the drug takes affect and general hilarity spreads among the guests. They repair to the salon, where Gautier begins to experience hallucinations and is fascinated by the ornate decoration of the room, which takes on an enhanced brilliance and life under the influence of the drug. He enters the kef (or, kief) stage, a state of trance-like calm in which he can no longer feel his body, and in which his mind sails along on rolling waves of hallucinations and reveries.

After a period of intense joy, he suddenly experiences what William S. Burroughs calls “the fear”: a moment of paranoia and panic. He attempts to flee the hotel. His feet are like lead, and he struggles to the door. The stairway which he ascended earlier is now an endless passage descending into bottomless chasms. After what seems like hours he exits into the courtyard of the building. The tiny courtyard has taken on gigantic proportions and the surrounding buildings resemble structures from ancient Rome and Babylon. He decides to return to the salon, re-climbs the stairs he had with so much difficulty descended, and loses consciousness.

When he revives, he sees that is it is still 9:15 -- it appears that time has stood still. Finally the spell is broken, the hashish wears off a bit, and it is now 11:00. Gautier’s coach is awaiting him, and he again descends the stairs and makes his way home.

* * * * *

Paul Bowles, the American writer who lived as an expatriate in Morocco for most of his life, adds another dimension to the literature of substance. Instead of describing his own experiences with kif, he created a character, a young kif smoker, allowing us to enter his world and his consciousness.

The story is called “He of the Assembly”, which is the name (translated into English from the Arabic) of the young kif smoker. The story is in a City Lights collection of four stories called A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard.

“He of the Assembly” on first reading seems like nonsense. There are two characters, each on separate plot trajectories, whose paths intersect at the end to the detriment of one of the two. On close examination, however, we see something quite different. Bowles has carefully constructed a tale that begins with a man named Ben Tajah. Ben Tajah has just returned from a journey. While walking through the market square, he finds an envelope lying on the ground, which he picks up and takes to the Café of the Two Bridges. At the café he opens the envelope. It contains a paper that says “the sky trembles and the earth is afraid, and the two eyes are not brothers”. He is instantly terrified, thinking that this is the work of Satan.

Immediately we enter the consciousness of He of the Assembly, who is also at the Café of the Two Bridges. He is listening to the wind in the telephone wires. He also has a thought concerning the eye: “the eye wants to sleep, but the head is no mattress”. We discover in further reading that He of the Assembly has been smoking kif all day. We also discover that he is quite young compared to Ben Tajah. But first we enter his cannabis induced waking dream. Initially the boy thinks about escaping from a policeman. He imagines the policeman chasing him, and he imagines running into a house where an old woman is stirring a big kettle of soup. Then he enters his own thought: the old woman becomes real, she tells him to climb down into the kettle of soup to escape from the policeman. She unfurls a rope ladder and hangs it over the side of the kettle. He of the Assembly climbs down the ladder, and at the bottom is a rowboat. The policeman, joined by two others, rushes into the house. The old woman throws the rope ladder down into the kettle. Now the boy is afraid for the old woman, who he knows the policeman will take to the commissariat. The boy comes out of this dream and notices Ben Tajah, who is leaving the café.

Now we get a brief sketch of Ben Tajah. He is a poor man living in a one room apartment. He has a stall in the market where he sells coathangers and chests. He is alone. He had a wife, but had to turn her out because she was a wild girl from the mountains who broke everything in his room. He has a sexually transmitted disease which he tries to cure by putting the vials of penicillin from the doctor around his neck in a necklace. He is an uneducated and superstitious man.

When Ben Tajah arrives at his room, he searches for the envelope, but he cannot find it. He imagines that someone took it while he was walking home. Then he thinks that he never had the envelope. He wants to go back to the Café of the Two Bridges to see if the proprietor remembers seeing him with the letter.

Meanwhile, He of the Assembly has re-entered the kif world where he had escaped from the police through the soup kettle. He decides to go looking everywhere for the old woman who helped him escape. Then he is chased by a real policeman, and in running away he encounters Ben Tajah, who has been standing in his doorway, trying to decide if he should go back to the Café of the Two Bridges. He takes the boy up to his room. The two of them smoke some kif. The boy goes in and out of various kif dreams. Ben Tajah worries about the letter.

The two of them decide to go back to the Café of the Two Bridges to take a glass of tea. At the café, it occurs to Ben Tajah that the boy may have been there earlier, and had seen him with the letter. He asks the boy if he remembers him. The boy says he did see Ben Tajah, but no letter. They sit and talk, and eventually Ben Tajah tells the boy the words in the letter: “the sky trembles and the earth is afraid, and the two eyes are not brothers”. The boy has never heard these words before, but he tells Ben Tajah that he has, and will try to remember where he heard them. They leave the café and return to Ben Tajah’s room. All along the way the boy says he is trying to remember where he heard the words. Finally, he makes up a song to go with the words. Ben Tajah is relieved. He thinks he must have heard the song on the radio somewhere. They both go to sleep.

Except He of the Assembly does not sleep. He waits until he is sure that Ben Tajah is sleeping. Then he gets up, and takes Ben Tajah’s money out of his pockets. In among the bills is the envelope. The boy holds it to a candle and reads the fateful words. He holds the letter and then the envelope to the candle and burns them, scattering the ashes across the floor. Then he leaves with the money in his pocket, and goes home to his aunt’s house, where he lives. He has a bit of kif hidden under his pillow, and he smokes it. Before going to sleep he thinks: “a pipe of kif before breakfast gives a man the strength of a hundred camels in the courtyard”. Thus the story ends (and thus the story collection gets its title).

Rather than directly describing the effects of kif, Bowles puts us in the mind of He of the Assembly, so that we experience the dreamy, surreal world of the boy as if we are the ones smoking. The contrast with the sober but superstitious Ben Tajah heightens the sense of unreality that we experience through the boy’s eyes. Bowles also shows us that the reveries of the boy are those of someone raised in the Muslim world, and thus reflect his culture and experience. De Quincey observed that “If a man ‘whose talk is of oxen’ should become an opium-eater, the probability is that (if he is not too dull to dream at all) he will dream about oxen. “ Baudelaire also observed that the effects of hashish vary based on the personality and background of the person using the drug. Bowles makes no such pronouncements. He merely puts us into the mind of the kif smoking boy, and we experience his cultural background as well as the way that it colors his kif world.

* * * * *

At the end of his autobiographical novel Junky, William S. Burroughs writes:

Kick is seeing things from a special angle. Kick is momentary freedom from the claims of the aging, cautious, nagging, frightened flesh.

Burroughs is echoing Huxley’s idea of transcendence and escape. He continues: "Maybe I will find in yage what I was looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yage may be the final fix”. In a previous paragraph he states: “I decided to go down to Colombia and score for yage”.

In 1963, Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg published a book called The Yage Letters. This is correspondence between the two on their trips to South America, describing their search for and experiences with yage (pronounced ya-hay). The Yage Letters is substance book as travelogue.

The first part of the book recounts, in letters to Ginsberg, Burroughs’ trip to South America in 1953, in search of yage. His first stop is Colombia. Here Burroughs casts a jaundiced eye on the local population, and searches for the substance yage, which is reputed to induce visions and bring spiritual enlightenment. According to Burroughs, it also increases telepathic powers in the user.

Yage is also known as Ayahuasca. It is made from the vine of the banisteriopsis caapi plant, and mixed with leaves from shrubs of the Psychotria genus of plants, and boiled into a liquid concoction. The leaves contain dimethyltriptamine, the powerful psychedelic agent known as DMT. Mixing the DMT with the banisteriopsis caapi vine allows the DMT to pass through the stomach and activate centers in the brain that cause hallucinations and visions.

Burroughs’ first encounter with this concoction is in the jungles of Colombia. He visits a Brujo -- a sort of shaman who mixes and administers the yage. The Brujo hands him a black liquid in a dirty red glass. Burroughs downs the mixture, and hands the glass back to the Brujo. The Brujo and his assistant both partake of the brew, which Burroughs describes as a “bitter foretaste of nausea.”

Burroughs narrates what happens next:

In two minutes a wave of dizziness swept over me and the hut began spinning. It was like going under ether, or when you are very drunk and lie down and the bed spins. Blue flashes passed in front of my eyes. The hut took on an archaic far-Pacific look with Easter Island heads carved in the support posts. The assistant was outside lurking there with the obvious intent to kill me. I was hit by a violent, sudden nausea and rushed for the door hitting my shoulder against the door post. I felt the shock but no pain. I could hardly walk. No coordination. My feet were like blocks of wood. I vomited violently leaning against a tree and fell down on the ground of cotton. I kept trying to break out of this numb dizziness. I was saying over and over, ‘All I want is out of here. ‘ An uncontrollable mechanical silliness took possession of me. Hebephrenic meaningless repetitions. Larval beings passed before my eyes in a blue haze, each one giving an obscene, mocking squawk. (I later identified this squawking as the croaking of frogs). I must have vomited six times. I was on all fours retching and groaning as if I were someone else. I was lying by a rock. Hours must have passed [...]

My arms and legs began to twitch uncontrollably. I reached for my nembutals with numb wooden fingers. I must have taken me ten minutes to open the bottle and pour out five capsules. Mouth was dry and I chewed the nembutals down somehow. The twitching spasms subsided slowly and I felt a little better and went into the hut. The blue flashes still in front of my eyes. Lay down and covered myself with a blanket. I had a chill like malaria. Suddenly very drowsy. Next morning I was all right except for a feeling of lassitude and slight back-log nausea. I paid off the Brujo and walked back to town.

Undaunted by his first yage experience, Burroughs decides to try some Yage prepared in the fashion of the Vaupes region. This yage is a cold water infusion with a light red color. That night Burroughs drinks a quart of this liquid over the span of an hour. He again experienced the blue flashes and a slight nausea ( but no vomiting). He says: “the effect was similar to weed. Vividness of mental imagery, aphrodisiac results, silliness and giggling. In this dosage there was no fear, no hallucinations or loss of control. I figure this is about one third of the dose that Brujo gave me”.

Seven years later, Ginsberg travels to Peru to experience Yage and to recount his experiences in letters to Burroughs. After some initial pleasant experience with Yage, or Ayahuasca as he refers to it, Ginsberg attended a formal yage session led by a main he calls the Maestro. He sat in huts with the others who were to try the concoction. This time the brew is prepared fresh. Ginsburg takes a dose of the Ayahuasca or Yage and lays down, expecting pleasant visions, when he begins to get high, “and then the whole fucking Cosmos broke loose around me, I think the strongest and worst I’ve ever had […]. I felt faced by Death, my skull in my beard [..] got nauseous, rushed out and began vomiting, all covered in snakes like a Snake Seraph, colored serpents in aureole all around my body, I felt like a snake vomiting out the universe. Ginsberg experiences an intense fear of Death and Madness."

Eventually the fear subsides and Allen can sleep. He later writes about the bad trip to Burroughs, who replies, “there is nothing to fear.” Then Burroughs lays on his Hasan Ibn Sabbah riff. Hasan Ibn Sabbah, the old man of the mountain in a tale going back as far as Marco Polo, who created the Hashasseens , who took hashish before battle to give them extraordinary courage and strength. The motto of Hasan Ibn Sabban is “noting is true, everything is permitted”. Bouroughs will explore this idea and interweave into his cut up books, notably The Nova Express. What solace this brought to Ginsberg is anyone’s guess.

So in the Yage letters we get some local scenery, albeit twisted and contorted by Burroughs’ cynical world view. We get some visions, and much retching and vomiting in the jungle night, filled with mosquitos and snakes. A travelogue on the dark side of the hallucinogenic drug experience.

Let’s return to Aldous Huxley, whose quotes on man’s desire to find escape and transcend we encountered at the beginning. On a spring day in California, 1953, he took a dose of mescaline, and proceeded to see the world in a new way. The play of light in his garden, the color of the books in his study. He experiences the transcendence that he wrote about earlier.

‘This is how one ought to see,’ I kept saying as I looked down at my trousers, or glanced at the jeweled books in the shelves, at the legs of my infinitely more that Van-Goghian chair. ‘This is how one ought to see, how things really are.’

Huxley observed the hallucinatory effect of mescaline and then wrote about in in a thin volume titled The Doors Of Perception. The title comes from a line in William Blake’s poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

We have thus taken a brief tour of some of the “canon”, if you will, of the literature of substance. We have seen that fascination in, reliance on and reverence for transcendent or escapist substances goes back centuries, and is reported by English Gentlemen, French Poets, American Expatriates, Beat Writers and British Intellectuals. The common thread is the writer’s attempt to feel or see something outside of normal human experience – to feel pleasure greater than that given to us through normal means, to see visions, to experience that sense that we are one with the universe, that we can truly see the world and the beauty of nature.

Some may see this as wrong, or depraved, to rely on substances to reach an epiphany, or merely to escape the tedium of everyday life. Others may say “why not?” - echoing Burroughs’ Hasn Ibn Sabbah – “nothing is true, everything is permitted.” Whatever your position on this, we have these books that describe various adventurous writers and their experience with substances. Think of the texts as guidebooks to our unconscious self, where the writer facilitates the route to the unconscious through the ingestion of a powerful substance. For most of us, the desire to escape or transcend is ever present.


Various literary views of opium, hashish, laudanum, kif, yage and other substances by Aldous Huxley, Thomas De Quincey, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Bowles. Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.

view /LiteratureOfSubstance
Tuesday, April 23, 2013 08:04 pm
An image of an opium smoker from a Baudelaire book
Michael Norris

"Literary Kicks," says the guy where I pick up my mail, looking at my address on a package. "What is it, sneakers?"

"Books," I say to him. "Books. I'd probably make a lot more money if it was sneakers."

With that said, here are the latest literary links, for your edification and enjoyment:

1. Novelist and critic Walter Kirn, who has suddenly begun live-blogging the Bible, ponders the Tower of Babel.

2. Alan Cumming will star in a one-man performance of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

3. Check out The Books They Gave Me: A Tumblr for images of books given by former lovers. No, I'm not going to make a Herman Cain joke.

4. Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, not so surprisingly, turns out to have been a natural artist.

You've probably noticed that I write about the Occupy Wall Street movement a lot lately. Yeah, so I do. Here are your #occupy #ows links for the week:

5. Keith Gessen, whose satirical political novel All The Sad Young Literary Men was reviewed in these pages in 2008, has written a really good piece about his experience getting his ass arrested in front of St. Paul's Church near Zuccotti Park.

6. Poet Robert Haas, meanwhile, got beat up in Berkeley, California.

7. Comix hero Alan Moore contemplates the V for Vendetta mask phenomenon he inadvertently created with his V for Vendetta. I haven't read V For Vendetta but I did read his earlier Watchmen and was very impressed.

8. Packing for the Revolution.

9. Of course, the most dangerous large protest movement currently taking place in the world right now is in Cairo, Egypt, a revival of the springtime Occupy Tahrir Square movement that toppled Hosni Mubarak and inspired the USA version. If you only have time to watch one Occupy movement, this is probably the one to watch.

Sneakers, the guy says. I should've just sold sneakers.

view /StillKicking2011
Tuesday, November 29, 2011 08:06 pm
Levi Asher

CHEREA: He was too fond of bad poetry.

LUCIUS: That’s typical ...

CHEREA: Of his age, perhaps, but not of his rank. An emperor with artistic and intellectual inclinations is a contradiction in terms.

LUCIUS: We've had one or two, of course. But there’s misfits in every family. The others had the sense to remain good bureaucrats.

When I watch the shaky camera-phone videos of Col. Qaddafi's violent death that made the rounds last week, I think of Albert Camus's play Caligula. First performed in 1941 in Angers, France (as Camus was writing The Stranger), the historical play presents the legendary Roman emperor as a Dionysian monster, a prisoner of his own charisma and success.

Many historical dramas (for instance, Shakespeare's) emphasize the struggle for power. Camus's Caligula presents a dictator who has achieved complete power, who has reduced every single one of his fellow countrymen to submissive disgrace. With nobody able to challenge or destroy him, his only remaining goal can be to destroy himself.

The play presents Caligula's last days, after the death of his lover and sister has cast him into a final existential swoon. Bored and sickened by the insipid timidity of the senators who surround him, he gathers a council to torture the members for sport. He forces a senator to hand over his beloved wife, and proclaims idly to the group that they will all be killed in order to "reform our economic system":

CALIGULA: The wills are to be signed by residents in the capital this evening; within a month at the latest by persons in the provinces. Now, you don’t have time to waste.

INTENDANT: Caesar, you don’t seem to realize . . .

CALIGULA: Listen carefully, idiot. If a balanced budget has paramount importance, human life has none. That is self-evident. You of all people should admit the logic of my plan. Since money is the only thing that counts, you must cease to set any value on your life. I have resolved to be logical, and inasmuch as I have the power, you will see what logic will cost you! I shall eliminate contradictions and contradictors. If necessary, I'll begin with you.

INTENDANT: Caesar, my good will can be relied on, that I swear.

CALIGULA: And I can guarantee mine too. Just see how ready I am to adopt your point of view, and consider the Treasury as an object of capital importance. You should be grateful to me for playing your game and with your own cards. In any case, there is a touch of genius -- or should I say, common sense -- in the simplicity of my plan, which clinches the matter. I give you three seconds in which to make yourself invisible. One ...


CALIGULA: Two ... (the Indendant hurries out.)

CAESONIA: Is this really you, Caligula? Was that supposed to be some kind of a joke?

CALIGULA: Not exactly, Caesonia. Let's say it was a seminar in public administration.

SCIPIO: But this isn’t possible, Caligula.

CALIGULA: That's the point!

SCIPIO: What do you mean?

CALIGULA: I mean, I’m concerned with the impossible, or rather with making possible the impossible.

SCIPIO: That’s nothing more than the pastime of a lunatic.

CALIGULA: No, Scipio. It’s the vocation of an emperor. (He lets himself sit down, wearily) I've finally understood the uses of power. It gives the impossible a chance. From now on my freedom will not be limited by convention.

CAESONIA: (sadly) I doubt if this discovery of yours will make us any happier.

CALIGULA: Perhaps not. But it might make us more profound.

Bored to tears by his own infinite power, Caligula searches for new ways to glorify himself, eventually settling only for the aesthetic thrill that comes from humiliating his friends and enemies. Perhaps this Caligula was once an idealist and an altruist (as Qaddafi once was; his Green Book glows with conviction), but he cannot handle absolute power without turning into a sadist, and this condition has now overpowered and doomed every humane idea he may ever have had.

In the end, Camus's Caligula escalates his crisis of boredom to the point that even his weak countrymen finally assassinate him. He appears to relish his fate:

CALIGULA: Everything seems so complicated. Yet everything is quite simple. If I'd had the moon, if love were enough, all would be changed. But where can I quench this thirst? What heart, what god would be as deep and pure for me as a great lake? Neither this world nor the other world has a place for me. Yet I know, and you know that all I needed was for the impossible to be. The impossible! I've searched the confines of the world, along all my secret frontiers. I stretched out my hands. See, I still stretch out my hands, but I always find you confronting me, and I've come to loathe you. Helicon! Nothing, nothing yet. Helicon! Oh, this night is heavy, heavy as all of human suffering. Helicon will not come. We shall be guilty forever.

(The shadows turn into Caligula’s killers. The patricians watch, but hold their coats over their faces while others surround Caligula and repeatedly stab him. Caligula chokes and laughs as if embracing death.)

CALIGULA: In history, Caligula! In history!

(Caligula’s body drops and the killers move triumphantly, but he pulls himself up to his knees)

CALIGULA: I’m still alive!

(He dies, but the killers begin to strike at his body again until he turns into a bloody mass, blending into the red gloom)

view /QaddafiCaligula
Tuesday, October 25, 2011 01:26 pm
Levi Asher

I'm still on vacation. But here are some links:

1. The image above is from a teaser promo for a new movie based on Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. I don't know what to think. You be the judge.

2. It was fifty years ago that Ernest Hemingway took his own life. David Ulin has some thoughts about Hemingway's impact (and lack of impact) today. Also, the FBI really was spying on him.

3. Words Without Borders' July issue is about The Arab Spring.

4. In the New York Review of Books, Geoffrey O'Brien considers Terence Malick's new film The Tree of Life in light of the philosophical writings of William James.

5. Cormac McCarthy: Are We There Yet?. Fyodor Dostoevsky: Rent Was Too Damn High. John Knowles: I Hate You, I Love You, No Homo. A website called Better Book Titles was funny the first time I told you about it last year, and it's still funny today.

6. The telephone logs of Robert Creeley, always a digital culture pioneer, as found art.

7. Remember when I published my memoir of the Silicon Alley boom and crash, one chapter per week, in 2009? Brad Lisi of the Nervous Breakdown is now beginning a similar weekly memoir experiment, consisting of curated cut-ups from his younger writings. It's tentavely (very tentatively) titled "Possible Title". I don't know if Listi's experiment s in any way inspired by mine, but I'm glad he's doing it, and I'll be reading it. I hope more writers and bloggers will try similar things. I remain convinced that everybody has a good memoir inside them, if they'd only take the trouble to write it. Everybody.

8. Novelist Colson Whitehead will be playing in the World Series of Poker.

9. The truly great guitarist/songwriter Trey Anastasio of Phish may be starting to get the intellectual respect he deserves. An extensive interview with Ross Simonini in The Believer.

10. Some folks are kickstarting a movie about Nelson Algren.

11. HTML Giant: What are your favorite tricks in literature?

12. Art About Books.

13. More art: very appealing covers of Jazz-era Chicago Magazine, which never equalled The New Yorker in reach or reputation, but sure tried, and now seems like a bizarro version of it.

14. A strange published anecdote about a teenage prank committed by Ann Beattie may not be as interesting as the negative reaction it's getting.

view /Vermin
Wednesday, July 6, 2011 08:51 am
Levi Asher

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.

4. Rainn Wilson of The Office explains why he is a Baha-i, and why he wrote a book called Soul Pancake: Chew on Life's Big Questions. Looks like some wise stuff -- I may chew on some of these questions myself.

5. The history of Soft Skull, which may or may not be coming to an end.

6. A friend alerted me to the Yale Repertory Theater's production of Dostoevsky's Notes From Underground, starring Bill Camp. Looks good, though I still like my version too.

7. . "It ain't fair, John Sinclair". A video performance by the Michigan activist, poet and one-time manager of the MC5, directed by Laki Vazakas.

8. Breaking the Poetry Code: where poetry and electronic publishing meet.

9. If Other Directors Made The Social Network. My favorite: Christopher Guest.

10. Antonia Fraser has written a book, Must You Go, about her marriage to the late playwright Harold Pinter.

11. The Most Difficult Book I Punched In The Face.

12. Wikileaks and War Poetry by Daniel Swift.

13. Ten things that get called (mostly incorrectly) "Kafkaesque".

14. A much-needed documentary about the great, anguished, complicated 1960s-era folksinger/protest singer Phil Ochs, There But For Fortune.

15. Taoism is being allowed a revival -- a very modest one, but a revival nonetheless -- in China.

16. Reza Aslan talks about the latest Words Without Borders anthology Tablet & Pen on the Colbert Report. Also don't forget The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, also from Words Without Borders, edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris, and here's a website of literary international jokes called An International Joke.

17. Wanderlust, a dynamic display of "history's greatest journeys, from Magellan to Kerouac".

18. 20 Awesomely Untranslatable Words From Around The World.

19. Speaking of words, I'm pissed off that bluth was not chosen as the Word of the Year. Maybe it'll make the list for 2011.

view /SeaOfPossibilities
Wednesday, November 17, 2010 11:35 pm
Levi Asher

This is going to be one of the hardest blog posts I've ever written. Not because it's painful, but because the topic is controversial, and I'm going to be arguing with a giant, and my words could be very easily misunderstood. I want to talk about Jewish identity, Israel and anti-semitism.

The occasion is this weekend's New York Times Book Review, which is titled "The Jewish Question" and features book reviews by two high-profile Jewish writers on the cover: Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England by Anthony Julius, reviewed by Harold Bloom, and two books on Martin Heidegger, Heidegger: Tne Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy in Light of the Unpublished Seminars of 1933-1935 by Emmanuel Faye, and Stranger From Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness by Daniel Maier-Katkin, reviewed by Adam Kirsch.

Two more featured reviews within touch on the "Jewish Question" theme: Friedrich Nietzsche by Julian Young, reviewed by Francis Fukuyama and The Life of Irene Nemirovsky by Oliver Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt and Dimance and Other Stories by Irene Nemirovsky, reviewed by Francine Prose.

Collectively, the understanding of Jewish identity that emerges from these four pieces resembles what I call the Philip Roth Paradigm: the idea that Jews are essentially different from other humans in some way, that we carry some moral legacy that gives us special status in the world. This paradigm has a corollary: the idea that anti-semitism is a different kind of hatred from other kinds of hatred.

I have a lot of respect for the elderly critic Harold Bloom, who is introduced (rightfully) in reverent terms in the "Up Front" section:

Harold Bloom is probably the most prominent — and the most formidable — literary critic and commentator in America today ... He is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles, reviews and introductions. He has taught at Yale for 55 years and, in an e-mail message, promises that he “will go on teaching" ... “Anti-Semitism is an inescapable interest, though I have never suffered it personally,” Bloom writes. “My four grandparents and many other relatives were murdered in the Shoah.”

Who am I to take on Harold Bloom? Well, I am also an American Jew. My four grandparents were not murdered in the Shoah, but my Grandma Clara's entire family back in a town called Potok Zloty near Lvov were, so I guess I have a right to speak on the Jewish question too. I'm sorry to say that the old lion has gone soft. This is a poor article, beneath the standards of the New York Times.

The article, allegedly about Anthony Julius's book of British history, is a howl of protest on behalf of the nation of Israel. Here's how it begins:

Anthony Julius has written a strong, somber book on an appalling subject: the long squalor of Jew-hatred in a supposedly enlightened, humane, liberal society. My first, personal, reflection is to give thanks that my own father, who migrated from Odessa, Russia, to London, had the sense, after sojourning there, to continue on to New York City.

With a training both literary and legal, Julius is well prepared for the immensity of his task. He is a truth-teller, and authentic enough to stand against the English literary and academic establishment, which essentially opposes the right of the state of Israel to exist, while indulging in the humbuggery that its anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. Endless boycotts of Israel are urged by this establishment, and might yet have produced a counter boycott of British universities by many American academics, whether Jewish or not. However, under British law the projected boycotts may be illegal. The fierce relevance of Julius’s book is provoked by this currently prevalent anti-Semitism.

He returns to the topic of Israel (neatly shuffling Julius's book aside) for the piece's big finish, the final four paragraphs:

At his frequent best, Julius refreshes by a mordant tonality, as when he catalogs the types of English anti-Semites. The height of his argument comes where his book will be most controversial: his comprehensive account of the newest English anti-Semitism.

To protest the policies of the Israeli government actually can be regarded as true philo-Semitism, but to disallow the existence of the Jewish state is another matter. Of the nearly 200 recognized nation-states in the world today, something like at least half are more reprehensible than even the worst aspects of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians. A curious blindness informs the shifting standards of current English anti-Zionism.

I admire Julius for the level tone with which he discusses this sanctimonious intelligentsia, who really will not rest until Israel is destroyed.

I end by wondering at the extraordinary moral strength of Anthony Julius. He concludes by observing: “Anti-Semitism is a sewer.” As he has shown, the genteel and self-righteous “new anti-Semitism” of so many English academic and literary contemporaries emanates from that immemorial stench.

The suggestion that anyone around the world who protests against Israel is an anti-semite is extremely offensive, and I hope it goes without saying that it's incorrect. Many, many people around the world who do not hate Jews wish to protest against Israel, and I can't imagine why Harold Bloom thinks they ought to be satisfied that "something like at least half" of the nation-states in the world are more "reprehensible than even the worst aspects of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians". (Half? That's not a record for Israel to be proud of. No wonder people are protesting.)

The moral superiority of the Jewish people is the unspoken assumption of Harold Bloom's piece. There's no other way for the argument to add up. Certainly nothing in this piece has any power to change anyone's mind. It does not reach for a universal statement to any other race, religion, gender or group that might feel victimized. He's preaching to the synagogue. It's a pep rally for the pre-convinced, and it offers nothing at all but a cold hand in the face to anyone who wishes to fairly represent the Arab side of the Arab-Israeli wars.

I imagine that many people around New York City and around the world will throw this issue of the Book Review across the room in anger. I'd be surprised if many of them pick it back up, and I don't know why they should.

The assumed moral superiority of the Jewish people also seems to underlie the essays of Adam Kirsch, one of many younger lions in today's neo-conservative field who aspire to someday reach Harold Bloom's status. This moral superiority is usually understood to come from the experience of the Jewish Holocaust in Eastern Europe between 1933 and 1945, which is understood to have been an unusual occurence in history. The fact that World War I and World War II were nothing but bloody barrels of genocide and mass murder for every society in Central Europe is often forgotten. The fact that there were other genocides during the 20th Century is shuffled aside, with polite nods to the poor Armenians in 1915 or that mess in Rwanda. But there was never anything else like the Holocaust.

These people don't know much about history, and they've probably watched Schindler's List too many times. Genocide, in fact, is a common disease of our times. How many people know about the Holodomor in Soviet-occupied Ukraine in the 1930s, when millions of peasants were physically starved to death by Stalin's enforcers? These were the lands of the Jewish Holocaust -- but it is barely known at all that the Ukraine had suffered a gigantic holocaust a decade before.

Stalin's genocide numbers were lower than those of the 20th Century's murder champion, Chairman Mao. Can somebody remind me what about the Jewish Holocaust was unique? But this sense of uniqueness all too often feeds into the popular myth of Jewish moral superiority, the idea that we as a people can do no wrong. This myth was born in the Holocaust, and is enthusiastically nursed today by many Jewish intellectuals like Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Harold Bloom and Adam Kirsch. An impressive squad, but the myth remains that: a myth.

I don't believe in Jewish moral superiority for a minute. I think we're pretty much the same as everyone else. I believe strongly that Israel has a right to exist, and I'm happy to debate this with anyone who disagrees. I can tell you in one sentence why Israel has a right to exist. Because there are people living there, and they have nowhere else to go.

That is, in fact, the only reason any nation needs to exist (and Israel is hardly the only nation in the world that exists because its people have nowhere else to go).

Harold Bloom, once a fierce and self-critical thinker, is now suggesting that the world must support Israel because of Shakespeare's depiction of Shylock. This is a shocking confusion of sentimentality with politics, and this self-pitying article will not persuade a single person who does not already agree with it. Bloom fail.

The Francine Prose and Francis Fukuyama pieces are much better, and really don't deserve to be lumped with Bloom's and Kirsch's effusive displays at all (for the record, it is NYTBR editor Sam Tanenhaus, not me, who did the lumping).

Fukuyama leaves me very eager to read this new biography of the great Friedrich Nietzsche (who was, just for the record, a hundred times more important as a philosopher than the wordy and deadly-boring Martin Heidegger). I have no complaint with Francine Prose's well-written piece, but even her recounting of Irene Nemirovsky's story here fails to reach beyond Jewish identity for a universal significance. In fact, Irene Nemirovsky died in the Holocaust because she was a Jew, but also because she was a Russian Jew. To be a Russian person at all during World War II was very bad luck. To live in the cities of Leningrad or Stalingrad was a death sentence. The death numbers throughout Russia were absolutely staggering. Auschwitz was hardly the only horror in town.

There are several gutter comparisons in these essays. Harold Bloom quotes Anthony Julius: "Anti-semitism is a sewer". Adam Kirsch describes his book's mission as "expelling [Heidegger] from the ranks of the philosophers into the cesspool where Nazi ideologues like Alfred Rosenberg dwell."

I would prefer to say: war is a sewer. War is a cesspool. Hatred is a sewer. Racism is a cesspool.

Would Harold Bloom and Adam Kirsch stand behind these more universal statements of truth? I hope they would, if they intend to have any moral authority at all.

Please let me know what you think, if you have anything to say on this topic.

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Sunday, May 9, 2010 08:24 pm
Levi Asher