Eastern

When I'm feeling stressed out, I head for nature. I found myself driving to Old Rag Mountain in Virginia's Shenandoah range this weekend.

I've done a few amazing hikes in this region: Mary's Rock, Catoctin, Hawksbill, Big Schloss, sometimes with others and sometimes alone. The challenging eight-mile Old Rag hike has been calling out to me for a while. I'm planning to leave Virginia this summer and head north (whether to Washington DC or New York City is still unknown), so I decided the time had come for me to meet Old Rag, an Appalachian mountain famous for "the scramble", a popular and slightly dangerous trail over giant rocks, into tunnels, across crevices, under ponderous overhangs. The scramble leads directly to a set of peaks marked by improbable boulders that you can stand on to get a 360 degree view.

New York City has "the ramble" -- the most beautiful section of Central Park, joining Bethesda Fountain to Strawberry Fields. But Virginia has "the scramble", and I suppose one reason I needed to climb Old Rag before leaving this state is that I couldn't bear to not complete the rhyme.

A nature walk is always a literary experience, if you just allow it to be. "There Is a Mountain" by Donovan happened to come on my shuffle mode as I drove towards the beginning of the trail, and that felt like a good omen. This upbeat 1960s song finds Donovan at his most Zen:

First there is a mountain,
Then there is no mountain
Then there is.

Indeed, yes -- story of my life, in fact. This 3-minute tune from the height of the 1960s hippie era had a second life in 1971: the Allman Brothers loved it so much that they transformed it into "Mountain Jam", a 34-minute Duane Allman/Dickey Betts masterpiece in which they never bothered to sing the words at all. Now that's Zen.

The scramble was as exciting as I had hoped, and much of the excitement came from the spirit of community that necessarily occurs as hikers saunter up together to each new obstacle or wedge or overhang or tunnel, sometimes comparing different ideas about the best way to traverse, helping each other by holding backpacks, swapping camera phones for selfies. Many of the passages between and under rocks offered brilliant contrasts of shade and light. This tunnel made me think of Plato's cave, and of a Leonard Cohen song:

There is a crack in everything
It's how the light gets in.

"Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit," Edward Abbey once said. Hell yeah, though this is a necessity that many human beings probably get very little of at all. This is one of the narrow passages leading to the peak:

I wasn't sure what to expect from Old Rag, but nobody had told me I would see a giant overhanging rock that looms like Moby Dick, gliding through the ocean:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, striking a chord also found in the Tao Te Ching, once wrote: "Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience." He also once said this: "I found when I had finished my new lecture that it was a very good house, only the architect had unfortunately omitted the stairs.” Rock-hewn staircases tend to suddenly appear on the Old Rag trail at the points where they are most needed.

Nature is often hurtful. At one point I encountered a young woman on the ground worrying over a sprained ankle, surrounded by a large group of friends trying to figure out what the hell to do. I had a feeling she was going to walk it off, and if she couldn't walk it off she had enough friends to handle the situation, so I knew it'd be okay for me to walk on.

There's hazard in the hills, and there is melancholy too. Here's Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods, an enjoyable Appalachian Trail travelogue:

And thus I was to be found, in the first week of June, standing on the banks of the Shenandoah again, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, blinking at a grey sky and trying to pretend with all my heart that this was where I wanted to be.

My favorite mountain novel is probably Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, a romantic Civil War tale in which the North Carolina Smokies blooms with the fresh joyful abundance that echoes the miraculous love between the story's two heroes. The main traveller in Cold Mountain is a fugitive from the Confederate Army. He spends a lot of time hiding out and running from trouble, and doesn't have the luxury to sit and enjoy peak vistas like this one:

Old Rag is more exciting than dangerous, really, and I saw many teenagers and families with small kids on the trail. This family enjoyed a picnic on the peak. That's the way to do it.

So "Mountain Jam" is my favorite mountain song and Cold Mountain is my favorite mountain novel. My favorite single mountain quotation comes from Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums. The narrator is following his expert climber friend Japhy Ryder up a forbidding Sierra Nevada trail. When they reach the main peak, the exhausted narrator only wants to bask in pleasure and relief, but is disconcerted to discover that there are now peaks upon the peaks, and that to truly reach the very, very top of this mountain requires the most treacherous final short climb of all.

The narrator of Dharma Bums is exhausted and decides to refrain from the final difficult scramble to the very peak. He watches Japhy Ryder go up without him, and then has an epiphany when Japhy Ryder returns:

Then suddenly everything was just like jazz: it happened in one insane second or so: I looked up and saw Japhy running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps, running, leaping, landing with a great drive of his booted heels, bouncing five feet or so, running, then taking another long crazy yelling yodelaying sail down the sides of the world and in that flash I realized it’s impossible to fall off mountains you fool and with a yodel of my own I suddenly got up and began running down the mountain after him doing exactly the same huge leaps, the same fantastic runs and jumps, and in the space of about five minutes I’d guess Japhy Ryder and I (in my sneakers, driving the heels of my sneakers right into sand, rock, boulders, I didn’t care any more I was so anxious to get down out of there) came leaping and yelling like mountain goats … It was great. I took off my sneakers and poured out a couple of buckets of lava dust and said “Ah Japhy you taught me the final lesson of them all, you can’t fall off a mountain.”

The slightly ironic corollary to this great scene is that in fact you can fall off a mountain. But, well, you probably won't. I think that's what Jack Keroauc was trying to say.

You reach Old Rag's peak early in the circular hike, and then follow the blazes onward for a long and relaxing downward jaunt.

I learned about blazes when I was a kid and joined my father and stepmother and siblings on Appalachian Trail hikes. These blazes constitute their own language, but the funny thing is that even though I like looking at them, I never bothered to learn what the different variations of stripes mean. Sometimes there are two blazes together, which signifies something. Sometimes there's a blaze in the shape of an arrow, or a blaze that isn't blue.

I could easily look up this language's rules, but I never do. I find it more exciting to hike dumbly along, knowing that the meaning of every blaze on every trail is really something more primal and immediate: "You are on a path. You are following something. You are not nowhere".

As I figure out where I'm going next, this is all the direction I want, and all the direction I need.

10

A literary visit to Old Rag in the Shenandoah Mountains.

view /ThereIsAMountain
Sunday, April 19, 2015 10:18 pm
Old Rag Mountain
Story
Levi Asher

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.

7

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
Story
Levi Asher

Twenty-five centuries ago, a Hindu scholar named Panini produced an analysis of the Sanskrit language so remarkable that later language theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure would eventually cite it as the foundation of linguistics itself. Panini shows up in Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, a new book by novelist and computer programmer Vikram Chandra, who describes the ancient scholar's achievement thus:

His objects of study were both the spoken language of his time, and the language of the Vedas, already a thousand years before him. He systemized both of these variations by formulating 3,976 rules that -- over eight chapters -- allow the generation of Sanskrit words and sentences from roots, which are in turn derived from phonemes and morphemes ...

The rules are of four types: (1) rules that function as definitions; (2) metarules -- that is, rules that apply to other rules; (3) headings -- rules that form the bases for other rules; and (4) operational rules. Some rules are universal while others are context sensitive; the sequence of rule application is clearly defined. Some rules can override others. Rules can call other rules, recursively. The application of one rule to a linguistic form can cause the application of other rule, which may in turn trigger other rules, until no more rules are applicable. The operational rules "carry out four basic types of operations on strings: replacement, affixation, augmentation, and compounding."

This is interesting on its own, but a reader who shares Vikram Chandra's familiarity with technology will probably notice how much fun Vikram Chandra is having here with words that have become standard computer programming jargon: "rules" and "metarules", "override", "recursion", "trigger", "operations on strings". The problems that concerned Panini as he read the Rig Veda in 400 BCE are apparently the same problems that concern software developers around the world today.

Geek Sublime is subtitled "The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty". I suspect this catchy subtitle was suggested by the publisher's marketing department, because it promises a much simpler equation than this unique work actually delivers. There's nothing very original about finding beauty in computer programs, which have aspired to be "elegant" since the days of FORTRAN and COBOL. Geek Sublime does touch upon the familiar topic of beauty in its first chapter, "Hello World!", but only as the starting point for a series of independent explorations that refuse to combine and intersect in predictable ways. I expected Geek Sublime to be an extroverted book, an accessible work of non-fiction, but in fact I'm now sure that Vikram Chandra wrote it with a novelist's mind, and even with a novelist's refusal to tie up loose ends.

Geek Sublime turns out to be a work of imagination and suggestion, a core dump of various ideas that have obsessed its author as he writes fiction and codes algorithms on the same keyboard. This is not a book that can be described by a flowchart, but it delivers something more worthwhile than a pat message: an invitation into the author's own peculiar ideas about language and logic as they manifest themselves in our everyday lives.

The topics Chandra touches upon here include:

The Soul of the Indian Programmer: In the early 1950s, India's government had the bright idea to start setting up the IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) system and importing mainframe computers for its fledgling computer scientists to learn on. This program was, obviously, a gigantic success, even though the soul of the Indian programmer remains mysterious to others, techie and non-techie alike. As a member of this global community, Chandra explains its contradictions, such as an alleged attitude of humility that masks a competitive intensity strangely invisible to outsiders. As an American-born techie who has often had the pleasure of being outnumbered by Desis in cubicle farms, I particularly enjoyed Chandra's point of view about the meaning of technology in the life of a modern Indian immigrant to America. I also enjoyed learning a few new words -- like jugaad, a creative workaround designed to solve a tough problem -- that I've never actually heard in any office, since the Indian programmers I work with (unlike Vikram Chandra) communicate with me exclusively in English. The richness of this vocabulary makes me wish they wouldn't always do so.

Gender and Ethnicity in the Workplace. Vikram Chandra recognizes the character of Raj in the TV comedy "The Big Bang Theory" all too well: an Indian "brain", awkward and unconfident, lacking the bull-headed masculinity of another techie stereotype: the superhero invincible programmer who can handle the toughest languages and debug the worst disasters with ease. This leads Chandra into a topic he has less first-hand knowledge of: the difficulties female programmers face in the overwhelmingly male world of software development.

This is a very relevant topic today, but like the book's subtitle it may have been grafted onto this book in an appeal for sales-worthy relevance, as Vikram Chandra really doesn't have anything new to add to this much-discussed controversy, except to point out that Indian programmers also sometimes struggle to fit into raucous American workplaces. These sections of the book are less successful than others also because Chandra seems to lack firsthand observation: while this novelist certainly is a real computer programmer, he does not appear to have held a full-time job in a technology department for a long time, and does not have his own stories to tell.

The Search for Elemental Roots of Language: modern programming languages are designed to be expressive and readable, which means they are abstracted by several layers from the actual physical instructions that are executed by the computer processor itself. These physical instructions are called "machine code" and are written in machine language, which is expressed in hexadecimal expressions that correlate to a more readable format known as "assembly code" written in assembly language.

In describing the work of the ancient linguist Panini, Chandra points out the traditional belief that Sanskrit words have roots in primal sounds that actually express the true nature of the universe. This is a lovely belief (of course, for all we know it may be true), especially when considered alongside the primal electronic structures known as logic gates, the tiny physical circuits that actually run machine code instructions on the processor chips that live deep inside each computer.

Like Chandra, I am also a longtime admirer of logic gates, and I can sense the novelist's true techie nature as he obsesses over the psychological metaphors these circuits provide, and when he provides photos of actual logic gates built with Lego blocks, movable by gears and dials.

The search for a physical corollary to language may be closer to Geek Sublime's elusive core than anything else. The book is much more about rootedness than about beauty -- though I guess "The Rootedness of Code, the Code of Rootedness" would not have worked as a subtitle.

This section unintentionally reveals how rapidly the field of software technology is changing, because the examples Chandra uses in this section would have made more sense twenty years ago than they do today. (Like me, Chandra became a computer programmer in the 1980s, though unlike me he was able to make enough money writing to stop coding full-time.) In the chapter titled "The Language of Logic" Chandra implies that C# programs are compiled into machine language instructions that run directly on a processor's circuits. While this might be true if he were writing in C++, a language that has stubbornly resisted virtualization, Vikram Chandra is actually simplifying a much more complex story here, since modern computer languages like C#, Java and PHP tend to run in virtual environments that sever the programmer's direction connection with the computer's physical circuitry. If a computer is like a film projector, it's a simple fact that C# and Java and PHP programmers do not get to ever create the film that runs on the spool. In the age of cloud computing and virtual machines, we are much farther away from the physical chip than we were twenty years ago when Chandra was actively hacking for a living.

Dhvani and Rasa: along with new Sanskrit words for various flavors of technological frustration and revelation, I'm happy to learn from Geek Sublime a new vocabulary for artistic expression. Dhvani and rasa appear to represent the full appreciation of the meaning of a work in both an objective and subjective sense, and that's as much as I can confidently explain about these fascinating words, which I did not know before I read Geek Sublime. I may need to read the book a second time -- or follow up on some of the Sanskrit texts it beguilingly teases -- before I can try to explain these terms better. Till then, though, I'm happy to have them in my toolkit, where they may find some use.

Like the fascinating vocabulary it presents, Geek Sublime is certainly a work of depth and serious purpose. It's not the trendy nonfiction book it pretends to be, which is why I suspect it may actually be a novelist's latest novel in disguise. It works well enough that I'm looking forward to checking out the author's earlier ones.

1

A novelist and computer programmer explores the intersection of the two worlds.

view /GeekSublime
Sunday, February 15, 2015 10:08 am
Geek Sublime by Vikram Chandra
Story
Levi Asher

There are some days when only a very old poem will do. Sometimes a 2600-year-old poem. Here are a few selections from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work. -- Levi

Chapter 43

The softest things of the world
Override the hardest things of the world
That which has no substance
Enters into that which has no openings
From this I know the benefits of unattached actions
The teaching without words
The benefits of actions without attachment
Are rarely matched in the world

Chapter 44

Fame or the self, which is dearer?
The self or wealth, which is greater?
Gain or loss, which is more painful?
Thus excessive love must lead to great spending
Excessive hoarding must lead to heavy loss
Knowing contentment avoids disgrace
Knowing when to stop avoids danger
Thus one can endure indefinitely

Chapter 20

Cease learning, no more worries
Respectful response and scornful response
How much is the difference?
Goodness and evil
How much do they differ?
What the people fear, I cannot be unafraid
So desolate! How limitless it is!
The people are excited
As if enjoying a great feast
As if climbing up to the terrace in spring
I alone am quiet and uninvolved
Like an infant not yet smiling
So weary, like having no place to return
The people all have surplus
While I alone seem lacking
I have the heart of a fool indeed – so ignorant!
Ordinary people are bright
I alone am muddled
Ordinary people are scrutinizing
I alone am obtuse
Such tranquility, like the ocean
Such high wind, as if without limits
The people all have goals
And I alone am stubborn and lowly
I alone am different from them
And value the nourishing mother

Chapter 29

Those who wish to take the world and control it
I see that they cannot succeed
The world is a sacred instrument
One cannot control it
The one who controls it will fail
The one who grasps it will lose
Because all things:
Either lead or follow
Either blow hot or cold
Either have strength or weakness
Either have ownership or take by force
Therefore the sage:
Eliminates extremes
Eliminates excess
Eliminates arrogance

Chapter 22

Yield and remain whole
Bend and remain straight
Be low and become filled
Be worn out and become renewed
Have little and receive
Have much and be confused
Therefore the sages hold to the one as an example for the world
Without flaunting themselves – and so are seen clearly
Without presuming themselves – and so are distinguished
Without praising themselves – and so have merit
Without boasting about themselves – and so are lasting
Because they do not contend, the world cannot contend with them
What the ancients called "the one who yields and remains whole"
Were they speaking empty words?
Sincerity becoming whole, and returning to oneself

2

Five verses from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work.

view /Tao2015
Monday, February 2, 2015 09:25 pm
Rippon Train Station in Virginia
Story
Levi Asher

The past week was a rough ride on the literary Internet. Thursday brought the sudden death knell of HTMLGiant, a rollicking community website frequented by writers like Tao Lin, Zachary German, Megan Boyle, Noah Cicero, Marie Calloway and Blake Butler along with a wide cast of erratic contributors and scattered postmodernists. This lively website always reminded me of the fun and psychotic days when Litkicks ran message boards.

The good news is, HTMLGiant is staying alive through October for one last gasp, promising to unleash a series of farewell blog posts "because if there’s anything this website deserves it’s an uncontrolled flameout". That's the way to do it, HTMLGiant!

The bad news, though, is that the immediate impetus for HTMLGiant's closing is a charge of sexual abuse that has been leveled against the novelist Tao Lin, who happens to be probably the most successful and popular member of the whole "alt-lit" crowd.

I haven't seen Tao in a few years but I used to enjoy talking with him at New York City literary events. I always had a positive impression of this quirky young writer. I would be very sorry to see his career destroyed for any reason, though I agree with others that if he has committed an act of violence against another person, he cannot be easily forgiven. I don't understand the detailed facts about this case, but it is clear that people have been hurt, and that is sad.

The Tao Lin news wasn't the worst bombshell on the scene for me this week. Ed Champion, one of my closest friends, and my longtime "traveling partner" on the literary blogging scene, has had a severe mental breakdown. This didn't happen suddenly. Several of us have seen this coming for the last few years, especially the last two, as various paranoid tendencies got the better of him.

A dumb offense against another writer has (rightfully) generated tremendous backlash against Ed, who has by this point really hit bottom. Unfortunately for himself, he generated a lot of damaging publicity in doing so.

I felt particularly close to the events this week because the other writer who finally called Ed out on his increasingly offensive behavior was the novelist Porochista Khakpour, who is also a good friend of mine. I reviewed her novel The Last Illusion recently, and saw her read from this novel at a Virginia book festival just three weeks ago.

I wrote extensively about my personal feelings about the really frightening crisis that has occurred between two of my good friends and several others in the publishing/lit-crit community on my Twitter account, particularly in a stream of about 50 tweets on September 30 and September 28. Please go there if you'd like to read my perspective on the whole story.

All I'd like to say here is that I think Porochista did the right thing to speak out loudly when Ed started threatening her, and that I really hope Ed gets well. Many people have enjoyed his work at EdRants.com or Bat Segundo over the years, and I hope the literary community can find some sympathy for a guy who made big mistakes and is now suffering for them.

* * * * *

I call this Philosophy Weekend blog post "From Chaos" because life feels chaotic right now. But the emphasis is on the "From", because I'm making some good changes on Litkicks right now. If you're a regular reader, you may have noticed that I've been gradually reducing the frequency of blog posts, which used to come at the rate of two or three a week. Starting now, I'm going to stick to a slower pace of one blog post a week.

This will help me keep the quality level high (quality is always more important than quantity when it comes to blog posts, don't you think?). It will also help me work on a new project I'm cooking up, something that is currently being born, but will take a little while more before it can emerge from the chaos.

I will still be writing often about philosophy and politics and ethics, but this weekend's blog post will be the last one called "Philosophy Weekend". Now that I'm doing one blog post a week, they'll all just be "Literary Kicks". This may take some getting used to, but I think it will work out fine.

I began Philosophy Weekend in June 2010 after ending a weekend series devoted to the New York Times Book Review because that had stopped being fun. I wanted to start using the Litkicks platform to share thoughts about the issues that were most on my mind at this time, particularly issues relating to history, sociology, psychology, politics, religion and philosophy. I think the series was a success, and I am thrilled that Litkicks readers embraced the experiment and kept up a steady level of intelligent and provocative debate in our comments. I hope this keeps going, and I have no doubt that it will.

I'll be continuing to write about the same topics, but it will no longer be a separate section. I like the symbolism that the last Philosophy Weekend blog post is named after the primordial Greek god Khaos, while the very first Philosophy Weekend blog post was named after Sisyphus. Pretty cool, eh? That's how I'm going out. I like to think dear Friedrich would approve.

* * * * *

A note about the artwork: before I began writing this article, I googled "primordial chaos" and found this image on the page of an artist named Vivi-Mari Carpelan, who has very nice work.

11

Why this is the last blog post in the "Philosophy Weekend" series.

view /FromChaos
Friday, October 3, 2014 08:47 pm
Primordial Chaos by Vivi Mari Carpelan
Story
Levi Asher

I moved to northern Virginia in 2009. There were a few good surprises down here for this lifelong New Yorker, like the easy proximity of the thrilling Shenandoah mountains and rivers, and the rich, stark beauty of several Civil War battlefield parks that dot the region in a wide arc around Washington DC.

I found a few bad surprises here too, like the fact that this state hates public transportation. Train tracks are everywhere in northern Virginia, but you can't catch a train into Washington DC to see a baseball game or visit a national monument on a weekend, because there are no trains for people. This probably has more to do with Virginia's desire to keep people from Washington DC out than its desire to keep Virginians in. It ends up having both results.

So I found some good and some bad when I moved down to Virginia, and I also found some funny/crazy. Like the politics, which are entertainingly out of control.

I thought New York politics was unpredictable, with the likes of Andrew Cuomo, Mike Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani running around. But our Eric Cantor and Dave Brat and George Allen and Ken Cuccinelli have got them beat. The crazy reached a crescendo this week with the stunning news that our once popular and likable former governor Bob McDonnell has been found guilty of accepting bribes from and delivering favors to a businessman named Jonnie Williams.

This businessman had befriended the governor's wife, Maureen, who was also charged with the same crimes. Only two years ago, many believed that Bob and Maureen McDonnell were destined for the White House. They will now be spending many years in jail.

Normally a husband and wife found guilty together could take solace in each other's company, but this is not possible here because Bob's lawyers unsuccessfully attempted to pin the blame solely on Maureen, who had apparently been the conduit for most of the gifts. Surprisingly, these gifts were not substantial political donations given with insidious intent for major policy changes, but rather trivial and showy displays of wealth traded for minor favors: a Rolex watch, a loaner Ferrari, a Louis Vuitton handbag, a lavish wedding for one of the McDonnells' five children.

Attempting to defend himself while throwing his wife under the bus, Bob McDonnell declared in court that their marriage had broken down years ago, that Maureen had been infatuated with Jonnie Williams, and that she had engineered the bribes without his full understanding, even though he had delivered small favors in return. The jury didn't buy it. Worse, the tawdry testimony shockingly contradicted the public image of this conservative "pro-marriage" Republican politician, because McDonnell's appeal was always grounded in his Christian fundamentalist background, and on his outspoken belief in family values.

If I were a vengeful liberal Democrat, I would be gleeful about the ungraceful fall of Bob McDonnell. This would be especially easy for me because I had always found McDonnell extremely uninspiring, as plastic as a middle-aged Ken doll.

But I'm avoiding the temptation to gloat about the scandal, because I always try to look beyond petty politics towards grander themes. I also can't pretend to believe that Democratic politicians are much less likely than Republicans to get caught committing outrageous crimes. (Yes, I still remember John Edwards and Rod Blagojevich).

After the verdict came out this week, I found myself defending poor Bob and Maureen McDonnell to a few friends who declared themselves disgusted with the former Governor's dishonesty and greed. Curiously to my friends, I could not agree that dishonesty and greed had much to do with the fall of Bob McDonnell. That seemed to me a shallow and superficial explanation. As we so often find to be the case lately, once we even begin to look deeply at the facts of a crime, we find that the common explanation of the motivation does not stand up to close examination.

I don’t think we discover anything interesting by identifying greed as Bob McDonnell's fatal flaw, because this makes greed sound like a disease that inhabited and infected him. Everything would have been fine, according to this model, if a good man hadn’t been spoiled by an unfortunate psychological toxin. Uncontrollable urges of greed infected Bob McDonnell first, according to this model, and then his second sin of dishonesty followed as he began lying to cover his secret tracks.

However, an examination of McDonnell’s evident courtroom strategy contradicts this. He never acted like a person with a guilty secret. The former Governor insisted on testifying extensively in court to protest his innocence. He even made the devastating decision to publicly break with his wife, who is not only the mother of his children but had also always been the public symbol of his political stance in favor of strong "traditional" (read: not gay) marriage, all to establish his innocence. It's hard to imagine a man who knew he was guilty making so dramatic and destructive a choice.

It turned out that he could not persuade a jury to believe in his innocence, but the terrible personal sacrifice McDonnell made to try to prove his innocence strongly suggests that he believed he was innocent himself. The Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde model of a good man with a demonic other side does not match this behavior. Dr. Jekyll would not have bothered to try to prove in court that he did not sometimes turn into Mr. Hyde.

Another reason the superficial explanation falls short is that Bob McDonnell showed no lifelong pattern of greed for wealth. If he'd ever really prized expensive watches and prestige cars and lush weddings for his children, he could have pursued a career in banking or finance instead of electoral politics. He had the born gifts to make a lot of money legally: a winning personality, a capable leadership style, enough brains to earn a law degree. A career in politics is nowhere near as lucrative (even with the bribes) as a career in business or finance, which suggests that Bob McDonnell was more interested in the ego gratification of becoming a successful public figure than in the material gratification of quietly attaining wealth.

So, if Bob McDonnell was not possessed by inner demons of uncontrollable greed, what can explain his crimes? The first key is found in the fact, revealed during the trial, that Bob and Maureen McDonnell were not wealthy at all, that their finances were nearly a mess. As available financial records show, this political family with five kids was always struggling to manage its budget, even while living in the Governor's mansion. They never took the time to cash in on book contracts or speaking engagements, and never managed to put serious money into their own bank accounts even as the Governor's low-tax/high-growth policies helped other Virginians who were much more wealthy than they would ever be.

Bob and Maureen were both from modest middle-class backgrounds, and both had worked hard to gain success. Strangely, once they met Jonnie Williams and began receiving his gaudy gifts, Bob and Maureen McDonnell developed a strange habit of getting their pictures taken with these displays of wealth. They were not only eager to drive around in the white Ferrari seen at the top of this page: they were eager to be photographed in it.

Some journalists speculated that a well-publicized photo of McDonnell showing off a new Rolex wristwatch hurt his defense. But it's an essential point that the impulse to be seen wearing a Rolex is different from the desire to own a Rolex. If you ache to own a Rolex, you suffer from greed. If you ache to be seen wearing a Rolex: well, you are suffering from something, but it's probably not greed.

It all comes together when we consider a third essential point: Bob McDonnell was a rising star in a Republican party that worshipped financial success. He was not personally wealthy, but he was eager to continue to rise in a social milieu that valued wealth as a primary proof of grace.

With this last point, we now have enough evidence to piece together an entire theory of Bob McDonnell's downfall. He thought he was supposed to accept these gifts. The whirlwind of his fast rise into national politics, and perhaps the stress of being considered a likely Vice-Presidential pick for the fabulously wealthy Mitt Romney, had left him grasping for a foothold in a world above his station. He was trying, foolishly, to play the game of big-money politics correctly when he accepted the bribes.

It was not urges to gluttony but rather feelings of inferiority that deluded Bob McDonnell into accepting gifts from Jonnie Williams. Jonnie Williams appeared to the Governor to represent something greater than what he himself had: vast wealth in the private sector, a know-how about the muscle power of money, an inborn ease with the world of luxurious possessions.

It's entirely possible that Bob McDonnell didn't care at all about Rolexes or Ferraris. He only cared to be seen with them. He hinted at this during his trial testimony when asked about his wife's acceptance of a Louis Vuitton handbag. "I wouldn't recognize a Louis Vuitton handbag if I saw it," he said. Courtroom reporters speculated that this line didn't persuade the jury, but perhaps it should have. It may be the truest thing he said during the entire trial.

I find it remarkably useful to analyze news events in the way, to look past the surface and try to construct a psychological story that encompasses all known facts of the case and still rings true. This process often has the positive side effect of generating a general sense of sympathy, and indeed I do feel very sorry for both Bob and Maureen McDonnell right now. I didn't like them much when Bob was Governor, and I never thought he deserved to be Governor, but I also don't think that he and Maureen deserve to be utterly disgraced.

Reporters said that Bob and Maureen both wept (separately, in different parts of the courtroom) during the reading of the verdict. I suspect that Bob McDonnell cried because he was surprised, because he really does believe himself to be innocent. In the broadest sense, he really was innocent, too innocent — a babe in the woods, lost in the hall of Rolexes, playing a game whose rules he didn’t understand. It’s because he was so innocent that he was just found guilty.

As sorry as I feel for Bob McDonnell, I feel even more sorry for Maureen McDonnell, who was just demonized and ridiculed (“a nutbag”) by her own husband's lawyers and witnesses in a public courtroom. I’m sure she would have preferred to have spent the time being waterboarded. Maureen's core motivation, it turns out, was her poignant love for a flashy, glad-handing businessman. Her beloved Jonnie Williams also turned witness against her, so it’s disturbing to imagine how alone she feels right now. She seems nearly as tragic a character as Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina.

The entire saga of Bob and Maureen McDonnell seems to take on the dimensions of a Buddhist fable. They were both starry-eyed with maya, with the endless refractions of glittering illusion. The handsome and confident Governor appeared to be Vice-Presidential material, but he was staggering inside, trying to figure out the rules of a game that was playing too fast, all the while trying to deal with the soul-crushing disappointment of a marriage gone bad while smiling for the photos with his wife on his arm. Both were in the grip of mad desire, the wheel of samsara. The luxuriant objects they reached for turned out to be empty. It all dissolved into dust.

I refer to this as a Buddhist fable because the concepts of karma and dharma seem to ring truer in our eternal judgement of Bob and Maureen McDonnell than words like “guilty” or “corrupt”. This is useful when we compare (as we should) their behavior to our own expectations of how we might behave in their place. If we believe the Governor and his wife were suddenly possessed by insane greed for shiny possessions, we can flatter ourselves that they caught a disease we don’t seem to have fully caught ourselves yet, and that, temporarily at least, we are safe from ever making similar mistakes.

But once we understand that they were blinded by maya in the grip of dharma, we can begin to relate more personally to their stories, and hopefully pick up some deeper lessons from the tawdry affair. This is why Buddhist fables are useful. If any of us think we are too smart to avoid ever making the kinds of mistakes Bob and Maureen McDonnell made, even in our own humble little worlds, we’d probably do well to start checking our own maya every day.

5

The Bob McDonnell scandal was about much more than greed. If you ache to own a Rolex, you suffer from greed. If you ache to be seen wearing a Rolex: well, you are suffering from something, but it's probably not greed.

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Friday, September 5, 2014 11:13 pm
The Buddha watches over Bob McDonnell
Story
Levi Asher

In one remarkable moment in The Last Illusion, a new novel by Porochista Khakpour, a shy and vulnerable young man who was raised as a bird in a cage meets an impetuous young woman who seems to understand him. He then meets her sister, who is so enormously fat that she lives her life in bed, occasionally dressing up in a tiara and gown and high-heeled shoes under her blanket.

We expect Zal, the young man, to become infatuated with Asiya, the passionate and intelligent young woman, and in fact Zal does like and respect Asiya very much. But it's Willa, the gigantic sister who lives in bed that Zal falls instantly and completely in love with.

He knew by now that it was not polite to stare -- people had done it to him all his life, until recently, it seemed, when he appeared closer to normal -- but he couldn't help it. He had never seen a person like this, all flesh, rolls and rolls of flesh, with some amber-colored curls clinging to a huge head with two tiny eyes that were almost hidden and a tiny pair of rose lips tucked into all that slightly ruddy face ... She was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.

Zal is loosely based on a birdish hero of the great Persian epic The Shahnameh, and Khakpour's novel hints that Willa might be based on a character in this epic too. After she tells him about the disturbing childhood events that compelled her to retreat to bed and become huge, he notes that something about the story "felt ancestral, ancient, but very much a part of him, like when Hendricks read him those bedtime stories of the great bird and its human son, the young albino, the story that had given him his name."

This inspired me to begin Googling for clues about an enormous female character or a character named Willa in The Shahnameh, but I wasn't surprised or disappointed when this search turned up no results. The Last Illusion is a maximalist novel, a glorious mound of everything-ness, and it reminds me more of John Irving, Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut more than of any ancient heroic epic poem. It's also a very modern American novel fully rooted in its vivacious young author's New York City hipster milieu, and it carries cultural references from Criss Angel Mindfreak to DJ Screw. With this wide a background, how can I even begin to guess what "ancestral, ancient" notes Willa is meant to evoke? For all I know, she may symbolize Gaia the Earth Mother, even though Gaia comes from ancient Greece instead of ancient Iran, or, who knows, she may represent the spirit of Willa Cather. This novel is big enough to contain all of these possiblities, which is one reason it's so much fun to read.

Last Illusion may not appear at first glance to be fun to read: it opens with a vision of a tragically abused child in Iran, and mostly takes place in the years and months leading up to the morning of September 11, 2001. The fact that it is fun to read is due to the very original sensibility of its author, who has ignored conventions and expectations and delivered a tour de force that defies categorization. All Persian epic associations aside, I read The Last Illusion with strong sense memories of the three writers I named above -- John Irving, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut. I detected this influence not only in the comic-manic fast-shifting plotlines but also in the warmth, generosity and openness of its main characters, Zal and Asiya and Willa.

The Last Illusion ends up being a novel about a few people who feel like freaks until they find and help each other. It takes place during the moment of the millennium, and it contains a millennial sense of dread and anticipation. Zal is a brave young loner who needs a friend, and Asiya turns out to be his guide even into the mysteries of sex, which they both self-consciously half-enjoy. More often their supportive relationship feels more like Harry Potter and Hermione Granger's than like a romantic affair, while Zal's obsession with Asiya's sister feels more like a sexualized embrace of the world as a whole.

The love between all of them turns out be based on badly-needed trust, and within his newfound crazy adopted family (which includes, just to keep it interesting, a pot-smoking brother who keeps trying to beat Zal up for invading his space) the birdlike hero finds just enough traction to ground him on his feet for the next shift in the Earth's axis, which they all watch with horror as a loony famous magician prepares to make New York City's two tallest buildings disappear on a September morning. All the phony illusions in this unusual book turn out to be unexpectedly and accidentally real, including friendship and love.

1

'The Last Illusion' is a novel about a few people who feel like freaks until they find and help each other. It takes place during the moment of the millennium, and it contains a millennial sense of dread and anticipation.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014 08:24 am
The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour
Story
Levi Asher

I recently heard about a British Library project to reassemble and digitize a 17th century illustrated edition of the Ramayana, a classical Hindu epic. This sounds pretty cool, and it reminded me of a different edition of the Ramayana that I once owned myself.

This was just a cheap pocket paperback, a novelization of the great poem, published alongside a similar edition of the other great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. These two books, the life work of a young American translator named William Buck, were designed to be accessible and enjoyable versions of their extremely long and complex originals. Of course the great epic poems had to be condensed and simplified to fit into these forms, but the popular paperbacks provide a rich reading experience that must capture at least some of the significance of their gigantic counterparts.

William Buck's Mahabharata is the one I read all the way through and remember most vividly, because it's a colorful, wise and beautiful long tale that begins with the household altercation that resulted in an elephant head being placed on the body of a boy named Ganesha, the son of Shiva, who is noted (in the story that surrounds the story) as the scribe who is writing the text:

Listen --

For three years Vuasa composed the Mahabharata in his mind, and when it was finished, he summoned Ganesha to be his scribe.

Shiva's son came and asked, "Why call me?"

Vyasa replied, "Do you not remove all obstacles and barriers? You are the god of thieves and writers. Write down my book as I tell it to you."

Ganesha swished his trunk around. "OM! But there are books and books. Is yours a very good one?"

"Yes."

Ganesha laughed, and his huge belly shook. "Well just let me get rid of all these things ..." He set down the conch shell and the lotus, the discus and axe that he held in his four hands. "... and I shall write for you; but if once you stop the story, I will leave and never return."

Vyasa said, "On this condition: if you don't understand what I mean, you must write no more until you do."

"Done! The very day I was born I made my first mistake, and by that path I have sought wisdom ever since."

Buck began translating the Mahabharata in 1955, the year Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl, and his production seems to reflect a nascent Beat sensibility. This can be seen in the fresh and bright language, in phrases like "you are the god of thieves and writers", in the idea that the entire Mahabharata must be proclaimed in a single burst of breath, and in the idea that Ganesha must completely understand the story as he is writing it down. I don't know if Jack Kerouac ever read William Buck's translations, but he would have approved.

The Mahabharata is a morality tale about a war that was fought between two family clans in the north India region between the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. Its most well-known scene is that of the apparition of Krishna in a chariot driven by Arjuna, a heroic soldier who suffers a Hamlet-like moment of hesitation before going into battle. This scene provides the setting for the Bhagavad Gita, the most famous section of the work. The rest of the tale, as told by William Buck, is the legend of the family that fought this war. It includes creation myths, encounters with nature, romantic confusions and sexual escapades, journeys into forests, cosmic games of dice.

I can't remember where I obtained my own copies of these paperbacks, but I know I read them while I was studying philosophy and religion in college in the 1980s, and that I recognized the secondhand paperbacks as relics from the Summer of Love, clearly designed to appeal to hippies who listened to Ravi Shankar and George Harrison and to fit into bookshelves alongside Trout Fishing in America, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five, Steal This Book, Soul on Ice, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, A Child's Garden of Grass, The Joy of Sex, The Tao of Physics, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Siddhartha. The strange and short life story of William Buck seemed to add to the sense of a hippie mystique.

Every edition I have ever seen of these books (I lost my first pair, which looked like the ones pictured above, but was able to purchase new editions of Buck's Mahabharata and Ramayana on Amazon) contains the same short introductory story, which relates that William Buck was a 22-year-old in Carson City, Nevada when he discovered an ancient Bhagavad Gita in a library. He became a Sanskrit expert in order to translate these books, struggled to find original texts to translate, toiled to nearly insane dimensions to untangle the obscure narratives and characters encapsulated within, and died in 1970 at the age of 37 while working on a third epic, the Harivamsa. That is the only information about William Buck I have ever been able to find.

I've tried hard to find more information about William Buck. What did he look like? (No photograph, as far as I know, has ever accompanied the books.) How did he get such a cool name, and why did he die so young? The biggest question of all is this: how did a 22-year-old in Nevada manage to learn Sanskrit, and how did a non-professional translator manage to do such a great job with these two impossible texts?

Other readers must have asked the same question, because a Google search brings up several admiring mentions of William Buck, all containing the same sparse facts listed above and none beyond. It reminds me of an old joke about Homer: "Did you hear the news? They discovered that Homer did not write The Oddysey and The Iliad. It was a different Greek blind poet with the same name." The joke, of course, is that we know nothing about Homer except that he was a Greek blind poet who wrote The Oddysey and The Iliad.

Today, one might say "Did you hear the news? William Buck did not translate the Mahabharata and Ramayana. It was a different 22-year-old in Carson City, Nevada with the same name." Indeed, the name of William Buck seems to rise to epic proportions itself. The Mahabharata, like many great epics, is a tale within a tale within a tale. The mysterious William Buck has always felt to me like a character in the story that surrounds the story that surrounds the story -- scribbling madly like Ganesha but never failing to understand.

9

The mysterious William Buck began creating his Mahabharata in Carson City, Nevada in 1955, the year Allen Ginsberg wrote Howl, and his production seems to reflect a nascent Beat sensibility.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014 02:52 pm
The Mahabharata and Ramayana by William Buck
Story
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.

3

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

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Saturday, March 22, 2014 07:50 pm
The Atrocity Cube by Levi Asher
Story
Levi Asher

It's because I respect musicians who bravely venture into the dark literary territory of autobiography that I am so fascinated by musical memoirs. It's also why I'm sometimes critical of them. I have high standards regarding what a good memoir should be.

My standards are high but simple. An autobiography of a musician or any other artist must be written in a voice that feels distinct and artistic. It must tell a coherent story in chronological form. Most importantly, a good memoir must tell the truth.

On these terms, I criticized Neil Young's Waging Heavy Peace for lacking story coherence, and for substituting undercooked present-tense for thoughtful past-tense. I knocked Steve Tyler's Does The Noise In My Head Bother You? for an inconsistent voice: the first few chapters about Steve's childhood and teenage years were very well written, but once Steve grew up and got famous the book shifted in tone to something like a People magazine interview about his rock star lifestyle. That ain't memoir.

Today I'm going to tell you about a memoir that I bet you never heard of, even though there's a good chance you dearly love the legendary rock band the author of this autobiography played drums for.

I bet you don't know that Nick Mason -- who played drums for Pink Floyd and is the only member of the band who played at every single Pink Floyd concert and on every single Pink Floyd record -- wrote a book called Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd in 2004. Or maybe you've seen this book around and maybe even bought it, but I bet you didn't read it, and didn't know that it contains a full-fledged personal autobiography that is beautiful, warm, informative, funny, inspiring and reflective. Why don't you know this? The publisher screwed it up.

Nick Mason's book should have been published as a straight memoir, like Pete Townshend's memoir or Bob Dylan's memoir or Patti Smith's memoir. Instead, probably because of Nick Mason's lack of celebrity (all the members of Pink Floyd kept a low profile), Inside Out was published as a big coffee table book, crammed with full-page color pictures and Hipgnosis artworks. Sure, the photos are striking, and there's no doubt that Pink Floyd's visual experimentations are good enough to fill a coffee table book. However, the horrible "two-for-one" idea of packaging Nick Mason's autobiography with an visual record of the history of Pink Floyd seriously devalues Nick Mason's text, obscuring his thoughtful words like so many clouds.

Let's face it -- people don't read coffee table books. They buy them as presents, they decorate with them. Inside Out is expensive, and it's the size of a large dinner plate. It's as heavy as a brick. The pages are thick shiny cardboard, so you have to pin the whole contraption down with a wrestler's grip to read a damn page. And you can forget about carrying it on a train or taking it to work for lunch hour. Inside Out was not designed for actual reading, and that's why nobody reads it. There isn't even a Kindle version available.

Could it be that Chronicle Books, publisher of the American edition (and an otherwise excellent and innovative publishing company) didn't know that a Nick Mason memoir would sell on its own, that Pink Floyd is one of the most popular rock bands of all time, that Pink Floyd fans read a lot of books? Have they seen Pink Floyd fans? This book could have been a number one bestseller -- after all, many Pink Floyd albums were.

Word of mouth would have boosted sales, because Nick Mason has a very natural voice and a charming British sense of humor. Here, he's talking about the hangers-on who began to show up after The Wall hit it big:

As always there was some political and financial repercussions as the album climbed the charts. We had lawyers representing all and sundry trying to scramble aboard the gravy train. One voice heard on the album after we recorded a random turning of the TV dial belonged to an actor who thought the success was primarily due to his contribution. We offered him a settlement with the option of doubling the amount if he gave it all to charity. He took the half for himself.

Mason is an observant, detail-minded and philosophical writer. He often muses about the technology of music (or, equally often, the technology of racing cars or lighting systems or houseboats) as it relates to human nature.

I loved the sound he [Alan Parsons] could get on tape for my drums. In rock music, getting this right is still one of the great tests for any engineer. Since the drum's original use was to spur on troops to warfare, rather than winning over a maiden's fair heart, it is hardly surprising that many a battle has been fought over the drum sound.

As the anecdotes accumulate in Inside Out, one suspects that the punchlines only work so well because the stories have been worked out over dinners and wine for decades. Well, this is one reason storytellers go to dinner parties -- to practice -- and it's one reason that older people write such good memoirs.

The passage of years probably also helped to strengthen Nick Mason attitude in life. He appears throughout the career of Pink Floyd to have been a humble, accepting and nonjudgmental person. This is a good trait in a drummer, who has to get along with guitarists and singers, and it must have come in particularly handy for Nick Mason, who spent two decades as half of a rhythm section with Roger Waters, Pink Floyd's genius bassist and a notoriously difficult man.

Mason hints wryly in Inside Out at scenes of near-abuse from the temperamental Waters in cold studios on sleepless nights. But he also makes it clear that he considers Roger a lifelong best friend. On the first page of the book, he and Roger Waters are fellow teenage architecture students in a London school, along with a third architecture student and jazz keyboardist named Rick Wright. The first time Roger Waters spoke to Nick Mason at this school was to ask to borrow his car.

The vehicle in question was a 1930 Austin Seven 'Chummy' which I'd picked up for twenty quid. Roger must have been desperate even to want me to lend it to him. The Austin's cruising speed was so sluggish that I'd once had to give a hitch-hiker a lift out of sheer embarrassment because I was going so slowly he thought I was actually stopping to offer him a ride. I told Roger the car was off the road, which was not entirely true. Part of me was reluctant to lend it out to anyone else, but I think I also found Roger rather menacing. When he spotted me driving the Austin shortly afterwards, he had his first taste of my penchant for occupying that no-man's-land between duplicity and diplomacy. On a previous occasion, Roger had accosted Rick Wright, who was also a student in our class, and asked him for a cigarette, a request Rick turned down point blank. This was an early sign of Rick's legendary generosity.

I love this opening sequence, and I also like the way a closing sequence in the book's final chapter echoes it perfectly. Here, the late-period post-Waters Pink Floyd is picking songs for Division Bell.

At band meetings we now started whittling down the possible songs to the probables. We set up an extremely democratic system whereby David, Rick and I would each award marks out of ten for each song, regardless of who had originally generated the piece. This should have worked smoothly, had Rick not misinterpreted the democratic principles underlying the voting system. He simply awarded all of his ideas the full ten points, and everything else got nil points. This meant that all of Rick's pieces had a ten-point head start, and it took David and me a while to work out why this new album was rapidly becoming a Rick Wright magnum opus …

The same issue reappeared a decade later when we were selecting tracks for inclusion on 'Echoes', the compilation album which required input from David, Rick, myself and Roger. As well as the oars being poked in by a whole galley-load of record company executives, engineers, producers and managers, this time we had to deal with the fact that Roger, like Rick before him, would only vote for his own tracks. God bless democracy.

It's fitting that Nick Mason, Roger Waters and Rick Wright were architecture students, because Pink Floyd's amazing record albums were among the most diagrammatic and conceptually ambitious of the classic rock era. The albums they are most famous for today, though they are not my favorite Pink Floyd albums, are The Wall (a heavy psychological dissection of Roger Waters's personality problems), Wish You Were Here (their gentlest work), and Dark Side of the Moon (their most complete masterpiece). As great as these three records are, I sometimes resent the way they overpower Pink Floyd's previous career, which was even better. I also resent the fact that the blatant, earnest, almost adolescent expressionism of these three rage-filled albums has left an impression that adolescent rage was all Pink Floyd was ever good at. In fact, their earlier records were their best, and these lack the mawkishness of their more famous works.

I'm taking about the amazing experimental albums they recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s, like Soundtrack from More, Ummagumma and Atom Heart Mother. This was after they recovered from the loss of Syd Barrett (whose Pink Floyd-created solo albums during these years are also masterpieces) and all four members of the band began reaching their potential and fully exploring the possibilities of their ensemble.

These were also the years in which Nick Mason's ability to create dramatic and dynamic drum parts became most evident. His name is often neglected when listing drum legends like John Bonham of Led Zeppelin or Keith Moon of the Who, but Mason's clever, theatrical drum style put him in their class. For a glimpse of Nick Mason and the entire band at peak power, here's A Saucerful of Secrets from the Live at Pompeii movie:

The release of Dark Side of the Moon in 1973 ended Pink Floyd's reputation as a collegiate prog band. They transformed into blockbuster rockers, specializing in massive stadium concerts (two of which I was lucky enough to see in my teenage years). During this period Roger Waters began to dominate the band, and much of Nick Mason's later story in Inside Out is about the power struggle that eventually took a surprising twist when David Gilmour and Nick Mason managed to wrest Pink Floyd slyly out of Roger Waters's hands and recreate the band without him. (As a Roger Waters fan, I mostly lost interest in Pink Floyd at this point.)

Nick Mason reveals many musical secrets in this book, such as the fact that he had to play the heartbeat in "Speak to Me" on a drum because their tapes of real heartbeats sounded too "stressful", that the climactic crescendo that segues between "Speak to Me" and "Breathe" is a piano chord played backwards, that Rick Wright played the melody of "See Emily Play" on the fading notes of the Wish You Were Here album as a tribute to Syd Barrett, who Nick Mason remembers as a once "delightful" former band-mate who frighteningly lost his mind.

Nick Mason was as sane as Syd Barrett wasn't, and as calm as Roger Waters wasn't. Together, Barrett and Gilmour and Waters and Mason and Wright produced a body of work that equals that of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, though Pink Floyd has never reached their level of wide acclaim.

This may be because the members so rigorously avoided celebrity -- an avoidance that might have been grounded in necessity, since they didn't really have the personal charisma to achieve it. Pink Floyd was music by nerds, for nerds. That's why I'm sure Inside Out would have sold so well: nerds read a lot of books.

Note: While this review is about the American edition of Inside Out, I see that there is a British edition which may be easier to read, and thankfully is available on a Kindle. This British edition, which I have not seen, apparently also includes an update about Pink Floyd's reunion (including Roger Waters, finally) at Live 8 in 2005. This wondrous 25-minute reunion can be enjoyed in full right here. It'll probably make you want to read this book, and I suggest you try the British edition.


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Pink Floyd's drummer has written a clever and honest autobiography, though unfortunately the book's format will keep readers far away.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2014 04:17 pm
Nick Mason and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd
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Levi Asher