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).
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.
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.
"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.
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":
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.
3. Words Without Borders' July issue is about The Arab Spring.
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.
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.
The punch line of the book is that we are, each of us, battling back against our innate kindness, with which we are fairly bursting, at every turn. Why? Because "kindness is an exchange with essentially unpredictable consequences. It is a risk precisely because it mingles our needs and desires with the needs and desires of others, in a way that so-called self-interest never can ... By involving us with strangers ... as well as with intimates, it is potentially far more promiscuous than sexuality."
They may be on to something there. I plan to read the book and find out.
This odd non-fiction title doesn't take the cover of this weekend's New York Times Book Review, which is instead occupied by a much more well-worn topic: Middle East politics (a favorite subject of NYTBR chief Sam Tanenhaus). I can't say I think much of Fouad Ajami's feature article on Christopher Caldwell's Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, another book about the "Muslim threat", this time described in terms of European immigration demographics. One might expect a writer named Fouad Ajami to bristle at this book's obsession with the preservation of European ethnicity, but he loves the book. Googling the critic, I find Fouad Ajami is an American conservative scholar of Lebanese origin who made himself unique by enthusiastically supporting George W. Bush's rush to invade Iraq in 2003.
I really wish Tanenhaus would reach further beyond his usual conservative cocktail party circuit and try to find more representative international voices to review books like these, don't you?
I also think Fouad Ajami is borderline offensive with formulations like this:
A departure and a return: In the legend of Moorish Spain, Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of Granada, is said to have paused on a ridge for a final glimpse of the realm he had just surrendered to the Castilians. Henceforth, the occasion, and the place, would be known as El Último Suspiro del Moro, The Moor’s Last Sigh. The date was Jan. 2, 1492.
More than five centuries later, on March 11, 2004, there would be a “Moorish” return. In the morning rush hour, 10 bombs tore through four commuter trains in Madrid.
I don't think it's right to refer to an act of terrorism as "Moorish". And I thought Ajami's type of divisive mind-set went out of style with Dick Cheney.
Today's Book Review gets better when Jonathan Mahler praises Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. I liked McCann's last book about gypsies, and I'll give his novel about a striving wire-walking New Yorker a try (though I am getting a little sick of novels about Gatsby-esque New York City strivers).
I also plan to look at The Teeth May Smile But the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda by Andrew Rice, reviewed today by Howard W. French.
And whatever risk there was that I would attempt to read William Vollman's latest unbearable hair shirt Imperial is gone now that I've read Lawrence Downes's amusing and politely mocking account of the 1,306 page dreadnaught.
Between the new Vollman and the latest puzzle book by Thomas Pynchon that just came out, I just can't decide which one I'm more excited to not read. I think it's a tie.
I've been working hard, and I really need this three-day weekend coming my way. Hell yeah!
Another surprise guest will be writing this weekend's review of the New York Times Book Review. Check back on Sunday for, I hope, a wholly new perspective.
Till then, just a few links for a happy Spring day.
1. I've always thought Henry David Thoreau's Walden could be the basis of a great play or film. Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence (Inherit the Wind) tried something like this with The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, though this play did not place the center of action in the cabin by the pond. A new play called Walden: the Ballad of Thoreau is making the rounds, and may be showing up on public television/radio as well as on stages around the world.
I don't know anything about this actual play, but I know it's a good idea. A lot of drama took place in that little cabin, and I hope this play captures the essence of the work as well as it should. I assume that the actors in the image above are portraying Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thoreau.
2. Fordham University in Manhattan (NOT, as previously reported, Fordham's campus in the Bronx) will be hosting "Woolf and the City", a Virginia Woolf conference, featuring insights from Anne Fernald, Roxana Robinson and many others.
3. Also at Fordham, Ron Hogan and the Mercantile Library have put together quite a lineup for a fiction writer's conference.
4. The long-anticipated film based on Leora Skolkin-Smith's novel Edges now has a title and a website. I thought Edges was a fine name for a story about Jews and Arabs in Israel and Palestine, but the film will be called The Fragile Mistress, and that sounds fine too. Can't wait to see this one.
5. A website about the psychology of fiction. Oh, is that ever fertile territory ...