I stumbled upon our society's most fascinating enduring metaphor by chance. Clicking around on iTunes, I noticed that I owned six different songs called "Ship of Fools".

But these weren't six different versions of one song. "Ship of Fools" was not a classic cover song, like "Dancing in the Streets" or "Hallelujah". Rather, six different songs called "Ship of Fools" were written and performed between the 1960s and 1980s by the Doors, the Grateful Dead, John Cale, Bob Seger, World Party and Robert Plant.

Strangely, all six were good songs, which seemed to me as significant as the fact that all six had the same title. How often do six good songs show up in a row on a random playlist? What on earth, I wondered, was going on with this ship of fools? What was this meme about?

I knew that the concept of a ship of fools can be traced back to Book Six of Plato's Republic. Socrates and Adeimantus are discussing the different models by which a government can rule wisely, and Socrates offers this analogy to Adeimantus:

Imagine then a fleet or a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than any of the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better. The sailors are quarreling with one another about the steering -- every one is of opinion that he has a right to steer, though he has never learned the art of navigation and cannot tell who taught him or when he learned, and will further assert that it cannot be taught, and they are ready to cut in pieces any one who says the contrary.

They throng about the captain, begging and praying him to commit the helm to them; and if at any time they do not prevail, but others are preferred to them, they kill the others or throw them overboard, and having first chained up the noble captain's senses with drink or some narcotic drug, they mutiny and take possession of the ship and make free with the stores; thus, eating and drinking, they proceed on their voyage in such a manner as might be expected of them. Him who is their partisan and cleverly kaids them in their plot for getting the ship out of the captain's hands into their own whether by force or persuasion, they compliment with the name of sailor, pilot, able seaman, and abuse the other sort of man, whom they call a good-for-nothing; but that the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and that he must and will be the steerer, whether other people like or not-the possibility of this union of authority with the steerer's art has never seriously entered into their thoughts or been made part of their calling.

Now in vessels which are in a state of mutiny and by sailors who are mutineers, how will the true pilot be regarded? Will he not be called by them a prater, a star-gazer, a good-for-nothing?

Socrates is suggesting that we cannot always listen to our mob mind when we make decisions as a community; we must discern our smarter instincts and repress our dumber ones. On a political level, Socrates appears to be suggesting that a simple democracy may descend to dysfunction and chaos. Indeed, one of the main ideas of The Republic is that a wise captain must guide the ship of fools.

Plato's analogy of a boat filled with stupid people (interestingly, no translation of The Republic actually includes the phrase "ship of fools") resembles the same philosopher's famous analogy of the cave, which appears in the same book. The cave-dwellers who cannot see the light are the fools on Plato's ship.

Socrates and Plato are pointing to something beyond the political here, though. We've mentioned before on this site that The Republic is a a work of psychology over all. The ship of fools that most concerns Socrates and Plato in The Republic is the clamor of stupid voices inside each of our own stormy minds. To thrive and live well, each human soul must appoint a wise captain for itself.

The metaphor of a ship filled with fools emerged anew in 1494 when a German theologian named Sebastian Brant wrote a popular book of verse called The Ship of Fools, known as Narrenschiff in German or Stultifera Navis in Latin. A satire on various aspects of contemporary society, the book was translated into several languages and was a gigantic hit all over north and central Europe.

Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools poked fun at judges, politicians, clerics, academics and merchants by satirizing them as characters on a small ship crowded with questionable characters. The "fools", who apparently like to wear comical pointed hats in various illustrations for the book, were understood at the time to correspond to well-known or influential people in European church, government, commerce or royalty. The fact that the book dared to confront powerful targets for their foolish or immoral ways probably explains its popularity with all levels of readers.

Like Erasmus's similarly-titled In Praise of Folly, Brant's book gave Gutenberg's newly invented printing machines a workout in the 16th century. A modified English language version by Alexander Barclay spread the book's popularity even further by adding new verses mocking British celebrities and archetypes of the era. Various editions of the book inspired artists like Albrecht Durer, whose woodcut images of a boat crowded with fools became popular on their own.

A famous painting by Heironymous Bosch (seen at the top of this page) is believed to have been inspired by the Durer woodcuts. Despite its once vast popularity, Sebastian Brant's Ship of Fools is not often read or discussed today. The topical references make the satire hard to penetrate five centuries later, and it doesn't help that you need to know your classical Greek and Roman mythology to get many of the jokes. The archaic medieval language also provides a rough reading experience, yet it is possible to read and enjoy Brant's book, and often the meaning of a verse shines through:

We are full lade and yet forsoth I thynke
A thousand are behynde, whom we may not receyue
For if we do, our nauy clene shall synke
He oft all lesys that coueytes all to haue
From London Rockes Almyghty God vs saue
For if we there anker, outher bote or barge
There be so many that they vs wyll ouercharge.

Four and a half centuries later, Katherine Anne Porter set the great metaphor afloat again when she wrote a novel called Ship of Fools in 1962. Like Sebastian Brant's Narranschiff, Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools was a huge commercial success and a #1 bestseller.

This book took place on a German luxury cruiser heading across the Atlantic Ocean in the portentous 1930s, just as Hitler's Nazi Party was beginning to threaten the weak democracy of the Weimar Republic. This ship's passenger list includes both proud Jews and harumphing Nazis, along with various other unsettled souls, angry lovers, lonely has-beens, ruined businessmen, rebellious children, and one wise small person named Glocken who spends his life crossing the ocean back and forth, as if searching there for the home he's never found.

Katharine Anne Porter is said to have spent 30 years writing "Ship of Fools", basing it on the memory of a boat trip she took herself in 1931. The popular novel was transformed into a successful 1965 movie directed by Stanley Kramer and starring Vivien Leigh (in what would be her final performance), Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin, Simone Signoret, George Segal and Oskar Werner.

Like Brant's book of verses, this movie doesn't appear to have wide currency today, but it was a big international blockbuster in its own time. One Spanish version was called El Barco De Los Locos.

The use of "locos" in this translation of the title raises a question, though. Is a ship of fools a ship filled with crazy people, or stupid people, or professional clowns? This particular title indicates a ship filled with crazy people, but that's only one of several possible interpretations of the phrase.

In Plato's original analogy from The Republic, the ship is filled with stupid people. These people may begin to act insane once the results of their stupid decisions begin to reap disaster, but the core of their problem is that they are too dumb to operate a ship.

However, the Ship of Fools described by Sebastian Brant and illustrated by Albrecht Durer appears to depict a ship filled with rude and disreputable characters who may be professional clowns.

These characters wear funny pointed hats like those worn by theater clowns or court jesters, who were also known as fools. Interestingly, the hats in Durer's "Ship of Fools" woodcuts resemble the hat worn by Max on his boat ride in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Maurice Sendak knew his Albrecht Durer; maybe he was trying to suggest that being a fool on a ship can be fun, especially on a solo voyage.

As I pondered the enduring cultural significance of an ancient anecdote about a boat packed with dumb and/or crazy people, I ended up spending nearly ten bucks buying every song I could find on iTunes called "Ship of Fools". It turned out there were several more to find.

I still hadn't discovered even half of the artists who'd created distinct songs titled "Ship of Fools" -- Erasure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Sara Brightman, Ron Sexsmith, Flyleaf, Fucked Up, the Scorpions, Soul Asylum. I obsessively bought every one of these songs, and this act of faith paid off well when I found several gems in the playlist of sixteen songs I eventually created from this binge.

Here, for your enjoyment, is a detailed rundown and analysis of sixteen songs called "Ship of Fools", listed in order from my least favorite to my most favorite, with videos of what I consider the best five songs on the list: Sixteen Songs About A Ship of Fools.


From Plato's Republic to Sebastian Brant medieval satire to Katherine Anne Porter's bestselling novel, the idea that we are sailing on a ship of fools has intrigued many minds.

view /ShipOfFools
Monday, March 23, 2015 09:59 pm
boat full of dumb crazy people, by Heironymous Bosch
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.


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

You may have heard about Wittgenstein's poker, or Wittgenstein's nephew or Wittgenstein's mistress or Wittgenstein's ladder. For some reason that I don't fully understand, people like to read books about Wittgenstein's stuff.

Well, it's fitting that Ludwig Wittgenstein shows up in a lot of postmodern novels and pop-culture texts, because he really is that good, and his works really are that relevant today. This enigmatic Jewish-Austrian-Catholic 20th Century philosopher and schoolteacher's fame has grown after his death to the extent that he is now widely regarded as the most important thinker of our age.

There are many other literary treatments besides the four freakishly similar titles above. Ludwig Wittgenstein appears as one of the key signifiers in David Foster Wallace's The Broom of the System, a novel I didn't like very much. He also shows up in a new collegiate novel by Lars Iyer, Wittgenstein Jr, a comic whirl about a professor who is not Ludwig Wittgenstein and the unruly students who mock his lectures. I've just started this one and I'm at least enjoying it more than the David Foster Wallace.

But the best stuff I've been reading lately about Wittgenstein is Wittgenstein Day-by-Day, a serious and well-researched Facebook page that tracks Wittgenstein's diary entries as they were written 100 years ago. I've liked this project since its inception, but I began to feel riveted by it when we reached the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One in August. In the autumn of 1914, young Ludwig did the same thing most of his proud fellow young Austrians did. He signed up immediately to fight for his country and his emperor.

This required him to leave England, where he had been carrying on an extraordinarily fruitful collaboration with Bertrand Russell, because England was now Austria's enemy. The 25-year-old logic prodigy found himself on a guard boat called the Goplana on the River Vistula in September 1914. Wittgenstein: Day-by-Day narrates a short daily summary of his daily observations as these new surroundings begin to sink in.

Thursday 17th September, 1914: In his private diary, LW records that the previous night passed quietly, and that he had been on guard duty. The Goplana has sailed up the Vistula to Krakow, whose outskirts, he fears, will be ‘completely occupied by Cossacks’. He also reports that yesterday morning the Lieutenant left the ship and didn’t come back until noon today. No one knows what to do, and they don’t even have money to buy food. Nevertheless he finds himself still in good spirits. ‘Keep thinking about how I can maintain myself’, he finishes.

The young philosopher's format is consistent: he notes the military developments and actions of the day, along with his personal activities and emotions. He tries to find time to "work" -- that is, to indulge himself in his favorite hobby: the analysis of language and meaning, and the attempt to discover the logical foundation of logic itself.

Saturday 19th September, 1914: In his diary, LW records that yesterday evening he had to work up to 11pm on his searchlight. In the night it’s extremely cold, and the men have to sleep in their boots. LW slept badly. He hasn’t changed his clothes or his boots for four days. He worries what will happen to him in Krakow.

LW notes that a proposition like ‘this chair is brown’ seems to say something enormously complicated, since if we wanted to express it in such a way that nobody could raise objections to it on grounds of ambiguity, ‘it would have to be infinitely long’.

(The idea here seems to be that everyday propositions must have a single complete analysis which respects the ‘requirement that sense be determinate’ (Tractatus 3.23), this being equivalent to their being *wholly* unambiguous. Any temporary incompleteness in the specification of a determinate sense can only mean that the end of the analysis hasn’t yet been reached. It’s notable that LW prefers to imagine that the analysis might be infinitely long rather than contemplate the possibility that there’s no single correct analysis, or that the correct analysis represents the proposition as being in *any* respect ambiguous).

If young Ludwig is unhappy about his sudden change of circumstance from Cambridge to the Eastern Front, he barely shows it in this journal. Occasionally he expresses feelings of stress. He consoles himself at times with religious homilies.

Monday 21st September, 1914: In his diary, LW reports that this morning the Goplana arrived in Krakow. He had been on searchlight duty all night. Yesterday, he records, he did a lot of (philosophical) work, but he isn’t very hopeful, ‘because I lacked the right overview’. He also had a discussion with his platoon leader, which cleared the air a little. But today he is a little out of sorts, being still ‘so TIRED’ from many emotions. He notes that he has heard nothing from Vienna, but that he did receive a card from his mother, sent on August 20th. In the evening, though, he received the depressing news that the Lieutenant who had been his commanding officer has been transferred. ‘This news depressed me deeply. I can’t give an exact account, but it’s a compelling cause for despondency. Since then I’ve been deeply sad. Although I am free by the Spirit, the Spirit has left me!’. He ends by recording that he found himself able to do some (philosophical) work in the evening, and that this made him feel better.

From the calm tones of the journal entries up to October 17, 1914, it appears possible that Ludwig Wittgenstein himself did not even know how perilous a position he was in as he stood searchlight duty on this rickety guard boat.

The Vistula River was a hotspot in the autumn of 1914, and I'm not talking about wi-fi. He and his boat the Goplana were right in the middle of the Russian invasion of Galicia, a brutal and massive offensive that completely overran Austria's defensive position on its own territory. The Battle of Galicia in 1914 will go down in history not only as a bloody massacre, but also as a failure of management and planning that would crush the confidence of the Austro-Hungarian army, foretelling years of disaster still ahead.

Today, it's commonplace to ridicule every aspect of Austria's entry into World War One, since we know how the war will end. But in 1914 Austria-Hungary had not yet been crushed, and its a notable fact that a young man as bright as Ludwig Wittgenstein would join its army unthinkingly to defend the society that had raised him so well. He was in the First Army, under the leadership of General Viktor Dankl, who would be briefly celebrated on the home front as a hero for this army's early exploits before it became fully clear that the 1914 battles in Galicia had been a Russian rout.

As his journal entries made clear, Wittgenstein manned the searchlight on the Goplana -- almost too perfect a metaphor for a philosopher on a boat! We know that he was thinking about logic as his light beam pierced the dark skies over the gloomy Vistula. Was he also thinking about the decisions his army's leaders were making? Did he feel confident in Austria's fate, or had he begun to question the foundations of the military logic that had put him on this boat?

Wittgenstein's hopeless adventure with the anguished Austro-Hungarian First Army will presumably be continuing to play out as the centenary of the First World War proceeds on Wittgenstein Day-by-Day. This excellent Facebook page is the work of John Preston of the University of Reading's Philosophy Department. Preston also maintains an informative Wittgenstein Chronology.

I don't know if John Preston is thinking about turning these wartime journal extracts and summaries into a book, but I hope he does. It's a no-brainer what the book should be called: Wittgenstein's Searchlight. At least it'll sell.


For some reason that I don't fully understand, people like to read books about Ludwig Wittgenstein's stuff.

view /WittgensteinSearchlight
Saturday, October 18, 2014 11:40 am
Wittgenstein's journals on Facebook
Levi Asher

D. G. Myers, a celebrated literary critic, professor and blogger, died quietly of cancer in late September. For many like me who only knew D. G. Myers through his writings and online presence, his death was no surprise. We had read about it on A Commonplace Blog or in Time magazine, or in his much-praised podcast for the Library of Economics and Liberty just a few months before he died.

As his cancer worsened, D. G. Myers also expressed his feelings in occasional bursts on his beautiful Twitter account. Always a writer first, his tweets were unfailingly elegant, measured and dignified. Even when he could only manage bitter humor and wry regret for his family's shared suffering as he tweeted his way through chemotherapy during his last weeks on Earth:

D. G. Myers accomplished many impressive things during his literary life: he was a celebrated professor, wrote a book about the history of creative writing programs called The Elephants Teach, was a columnist for Commentary magazine until he got ceremoniously fired for supporting gay marriage. But his online writings and tweets should be numbered among his works. I've extracted just a few samples from his final month to pay tribute to D. G. Myers.

In his last month, Myers knew that he was about to die, and shared this fact with us. He expressed himself often with a bitter sense of humor about the terrible injustice he felt at his own fate: a vigorous man in his early sixties, a father of a close family with young children, a man with so many more books he wanted to read before he died. Myers never raged, because he was too proud a critic to lose his temper, but he also did not go gentle.

He interacted often with other tweeters (including myself), and had a natural, easygoing online voice. Occasionally, he'd offer a raw opinion:

He'd tweet about his struggles to collect his writings before he died, and about the indignities that faced a literary writer who had lost all commercial potential:

He'd tweet about baseball, or writing, or his wife and children, or Israel, or any combination thereof:

Or he'd paint a picture:

Or another:

Sometimes (especially when the physical pain seemed to be getting to him) he seemed to be tweeting koans:

D. G. Myers's religiosity made him unique as a cancer memoirist. He was a devout Jew, and his unabashed enthusiasm for religion clearly gave him strength. He spoke up often on behalf of conservative positions, most of which I disagreed with him about, but I always sensed that he favored conservativism because he favored traditional religion.

Judaism appeared to be one of his major areas of knowledge, and his Biblical and Talmudic inspirations enriched his writing. It certainly also helped him cope with his disease, bestowing upon him a placid and philosophical attitude that was probably alien to his argumentative nature. At least, he must have understood, he didn't have it as bad as Job.

A Jewish son makes a father very proud right here. These might be his best tweets ever:

Or this one might be. It's the one I'll remember the most:

* * * * *

I had a few wonderful interactions with D. G. Myers via our blogs or Twitter. Philip Roth was his favorite novelist, and in 2010 I wrote a smart-ass consideration of Philip Roth. I was very surprised when D. G. Myers called it "a spectacular read". I was actually hoping he wouldn't read it, because I didn't think it would meet his standards. I've rarely felt more honored than by this tweet.

Later, D. G. Myers and I discovered that we had an obscure favorite in common: Richard P. Brickner, who had been my writing workshop teacher at the New School. Myers believed that Brickners's 1981 novel Tickets was an unheralded masterpiece of the 1980s, and I agreed. I've never met anyone else who's even heard of this book.

D. G. Myers and I also shared an interest in the postmodern fiction of the 1960s, though his knowledge of the era is much more scholarly than my own.

Thank you for the photo at the top of the page to Gil Roth of Chimera Obscura, who had the honor of taking the picture that Myers chose for his last Twitter profile. You can listen to the Chimera Obscura/Virtual Memories podcast with D. G. Myers here.


Celebrated professor, literary critic and blogger D. G. Myers kept in touch with his readers on Twitter as he died of cancer in September 2014.

view /DGMyers
Thursday, October 9, 2014 09:25 pm
Literary Critic and blogger D. G. Myers
Levi Asher

I always wondered how I would react if I ever found somebody else using the "Litkicks" name.

I can't see myself ever sending a "cease and desist" letter through a lawyer. That just wouldn't be my style, and it would betray the various vague but passionate stances I have taken as an artistic libertarian and copyright anarchist. Now that I actually find a community organization in London advertising a series of events as "LitKicks", I'm facing my first test of my ideals. How should I react?

The organization is apparently the Jewish Community Center of London, and they're putting on some good events including a reading by Howard Jacobson, who is the kind of writer we like here at Litkicks (he's also a current Booker Prize nominee for his new novel J).

So, how should I react? Should I be offended that these literary folks in London either a) haven't heard of my own Litkicks, despite all the work I've put into it over the years, or b) have heard of Litkicks, and decided to use the name anyway? Do I send a threatening note? Do I have any ability to actually prevent them from using the name in a different country, or in fact in any part of the world? If I were in their position, how would I feel if I were asked to stop using a certain name? (It would probably make me defiant rather than contrite.)

After thinking hard about this, I realized that of course I have to live up to my ideals. I will not be sending the Jewish Community Center of London a threatening letter. But I will use this page (I assume they'll find it eventually) to ask them nicely to please think of another name for their literary series. I hope they will decide to respect the fact that I've been using the name Literary Kicks for a long damn time, and have certainly put in the sweat equity to earn the exclusive right to the name.

I've told the story before of how the words 'Literary Kicks' came to me in a supermarket vision one day twenty years ago, and how the complete idea for this website only revealed itself to me after I thought of the name. Since then, I have seen other websites come and go with names like "Literary Chicks" (yes, they covered chick-lit) and "Literary Clicks" (apparently their Buzzfeed-like strategy didn't sustain them). I didn't pay any attention in those cases because their names were silly and I knew the sites would disappear. The difference with this community center in London is that they might actually be planning to stick around for a long time. In that case, I hope they'll decide to find a new name. There are plenty of choices out there. "Book Kicks" is available, though admittedly it doesn't trip as nicely on the tongue.

What good is it being an artistic libertarian and copyright anarchist if I don't sometimes have to risk something I care about for the sake of these beliefs? So, my own patience and idealism will be tested as I wait to see if and how the Jewish Community Center of London responds to my public request. If they ignore me and go on using the name, well ... I guess we'll coexist, and it probably won't do me or my website any harm.

It will probably do them more harm than me, since, let's be honest, I've got Google locked down. I'm pretty good with SEO, and I think it's safe to say that they're never going to get to the top of the page on Google (or for that matter as long as they're going head to head with me on page rank.

If the JW3 doesn't change the name of their series, people will probably start to think that I'm running these events in England (a neat trick for this American). Well, in that case, at least I can take comfort in the fact that the JW3 is presenting serious literary events with good authors like Howard Jacobson.

That's the kind of false credit I can feel real pride for. If they're going to use my name, at least I hope they never let the quality drop.


I always wondered how I would react if I ever found another organization using the "Litkicks" name.

view /SayMyName
Wednesday, September 10, 2014 11:47 pm
British community center swipes Litkicks name
Levi Asher

Two children's books I loved as a kid (and still love as an adult) have been republished in attractive new editions. Whether you've read these two books before or not, they are awesome and well worth checking out.

Funny thing, a trollish article titled "Against YA: Adults Should Be Embarrassed to Read Children's Books" by a person named Ruth Graham was recently published on Slate -- an obvious attempt at clickbait, and clearly the work of a bullying personality similar to that of the mean kid who kept throwing eucalyptus seeds at Mitch and Amy in Beverly Cleary's Mitch and Amy. (But that's another story.) Am I embarrassed to be remembering children's books? Hell no. These are two of the best books I've ever read.

The Pushcart War was the most famous book by a children's author named Jean Merrill. Published in 1964, it's a gentle satire about a protest movement that breaks out in New York City against a greedy oligarchy of trucking companies whose gigantic trucks have made life unliveable in residential neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side.

The delight of Pushcart War is in the storytelling, which is perfectly calibrated and delicately naunced. Look, for instance, at the names of the three trucking company executives who are the heavies of the fable: Moe Mammoth of Mighty Mammoth, Walter Sweet of Tiger Trucking, Louie Livergreen of LEMA (Lower Eastside Moving Association). Just on the edge of comedy, but also real enough to grab your attention and hold it.

Then there are the heroes of the book, the pushcart peddlers whose livelihoods are threatened as New Yorkers flee the streets to avoid the unpleasant trucks: Frank the Flower, Harry the Hot Dog, Maxie Hammerman the Pushcart King, Carlos, Mr. Jerusalem, Morris the Florist, Eddie Moroney, Papa Peretz. They decide to fight back by blowing up truck tires with pins blown from pea shooters. This disruptive act (a precursor, of course, to Occupy Wall Street) is eventually successful, and the action that gets us there is so enjoyable that I can't believe a movie of Pushcart War has not been made yet. (And it's too bad they've waited so long; James Gandolfini would have been a great Moe Mammoth).

The favorite character that evolved for me (as I read the book over and over as a kid, and later again as a young writer scouting for technique) was General Anna, seller of apples and pears, a noble, quiet old woman with a primitive pushcart who can't even figure out how to use a pea shooter. Determined to support the movement despite her disability, she blows up truck tires by simply placing pins into tires by hand.

The Pushcart War, appropriately for a book published in the era of Rachel Carson and Marshall McLuhan, touches upon issues of both ecology and mass media. We see how the grassroots movement is suddenly helped by a glamorous movie star named Wenda Gambling who makes an unexpected statement in support of the pushcart peddlers' cause. Then, the book's memorable closing sequence presents another reflective moment of media awareness. After the fighting is all over, and the offensive trucking companies have been chased out of town, we learn that the events described in this book have been commemorated by a statue of General Anna in New York City, emblazoned with the words: By Hand.

By hand. Those words on that statue of General Anna killed me when I was a kid. It's great news that the New York Review of books has republished this wonderful children's novel, and I hope new generations will discover it.

There are five All-of-a-Kind Family Books, and I devoured them all as a kid. They contain stories about a poor Jewish family on New York City's Lower East Side in the years before and during the First World War. They are an "all of a kind family" because Papa and Mama somehow turned out five magnificent girls: Ella, Henny, Sara, Charlotte and Gertie. A baby boy named Charlie eventually joins the crew, and during the course of the five books we follow the oldest children into early adulthood.

I'm not sure whether or not these books were so readily available to me as a kid because they describe my own family heritage (my grandparents were poor Brooklyn Jews, not poor Lower East Side Jews, but everything else about the story is my grandparents's world). Maybe out in the midwest people read Little House on the Prairie and in Boston they read Little Women and in Scandinavia they read Pippi Longstocking. In my house, we read All-of-a-Kind Family.

Sydney Taylor's vignettes were often demonstrations of psychological deftness. Mama was the master psychologist: she would play motivational head games with her daughters, like hiding pennies in various dusty corners of a room to inspire the girls to dust thoroughly enough to find all the pennies. The precise descriptions of the candies and treats they would then run and buy with their pennies and eat one by one while lying in bed remain more vivid to me today than the famous food writing of Proust.

All five All-of-a-Kind Family books will eventually be published in fresh new editions by the awesome new venture Lizzie Skurnick Books. The first one out is More All-Of-A-Kind Family, but I am most looking forward to the first book in the series, which contains my favorite Sydney Taylor story of all.

This is the story of the night that Sara decides she doesn't want to eat her soup.

Sara is the middle child in the family, and the character who most seems to represent the author Sydney Taylor (her real name was Sarah Brenner). Sara is the child the worst things happen to, as when she loses a library book, or when she decides she doesn't want her soup.

Dinner is a big deal in the All-of-a-Kind family dining room. Papa has a stern rule: all food that is served must be eaten. If Sara won't eat her soup, then Sara won't get her next course, or any other course. But she won't eat her soup, for no reason that even she can identify. Stubbornness and hunger and tears ensue. As a little kid, I considered this enigmatic story just about the most brilliant piece of psychological writing of all time.

Years later, I would read about Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, the law clerk who "would prefer not to". I loved Melville's story, but I immediately thought: "right, like Sara and the soup". Ahh, humanity! These wonderful books are full of life, and it's great news that they are being published in bright new editions that will reach future generations of readers.


Two great children's books have just been republished: Pushcart War by Jean Merrill and More All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014 12:37 pm
Pushcart War and More All-of-a-Kind Family
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.

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

I've been trying to philosophize about the Ukranian crisis in real time. This is always hazardous. Last Saturday morning, February 22, I invited readers to look at six images representing the history of Ukraine and to suggest three more that help fill out the story we are trying to understand. The idea was to try to puzzle out new insights about the enigmatic and confusing geopolitics of this Eastern European country, which has endured terrible conflicts and sufferings for centuries.

I thought this would be a worthy Zen type of philosophical/political exercise -- but I felt the sand of the mandala falling out under me when, just as I hit "publish" on my blog post, news blared out all over social media that the embattled Russian-sponsored President had suddenly fled the city of Kiev. This meant that the violent Kiev uprisings of the past weeks had turned into a successful revolution. Huge news! But I regretted having published my blog post about Ukraine's history on this hopeful and joyous day in Kiev and around the world. My blog post had a gloomy and angry tone that did not match the jubilation I even felt myself as I watched reports of Ukranian citizens celebrating on the streets of Kiev.

Even so, my intrepid and erstwhile Litkicks commenters came through in the clutch and answered my challenge with several great sets of images (see the comments on last weekend's post to enjoy the selections). I was glad that Subject Sigma remembered the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and also shared the image of a beautiful breadbasket Ukranian field that is at the top of this page.

I'm also glad there were images of comparable American atrocities, and of a Ukranian soccer team and the Orange Revolution. All of the responses were smart and helpful. I hope the point of this visual exercise was to show that a systematic use of imagination and metaphor can turn up surprising new connections. (Imagination and metaphor is, in fact, a key tool for any problem-solver and puzzle-solver, but the tool is not often used very well in political debate.)

I promised to put up my own three selected images today, and I will do so. However, dramatic and upsetting events are unfolding today, as I write the final draft of this blog post on Saturday afternoon. There are strong indications that Russia is about to invade Ukraine through the Crimea, and may have already done so. A fast-changing news-flash environment is no fertile ground for philosophical thought, but I promised you three images today, and I'm not going to go back on my promise. After you look at these, please feel free to post a comment with your own three images, or with any thoughts you wish to share about the crisis between Russia and Ukraine.

Here are my three images, representing my thoughts about the source and meaning of the conflict currently occurring in this country.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

As a descendant of Galician Jews, I can call Ukraine one of my homelands. My ancestors lived in shtetls and towns near Lvov, in the western part of the Ukraine that has often been part of Poland or Austria-Hungary or Russia, but has always been called Galicia. This is the land of Fiddler on the Roof, along with many other Slavic, Nordic or Baltic ethnic cultures. An ethnically mixed empire, the Ukraine included Jews, Ruthenians, Russians, Cossacks, Poles and Lithuanians, and they mostly managed to live in peace for many centuries.

Even though many of my fellow Americans have roots in Central Europe, there is very little understanding of the political structure of this vast land. There is some awareness of the Austria-Hungarian Empire, but very little awareness of an earlier empire that was once very prosperous and progressive in Central Europe, and in which many of our various ancestors lived. I'm talking about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was at one time the largest government in Europe. I have recently immersed myself in reading about this little-known empire, which was unfortunately destroyed in the series of maneuvers known as the Partition of Poland. A lot of things started going badly in Central Europe after the Partition of Poland. ("Poland" was actually the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a union of two separate crowns.) What I find most inexplicable about the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is that the existence of this vast, powerful empire seems to have been lost to history. Nobody knows about it. My own Jewish ancestors prospered as a part of this empire for centuries, and yet I don't think anybody in my family has heard of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

As you can see from this map, much of Western Ukraine was once part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This is helpful context when trying to understand later events in Ukraine.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson describes a disastrous cavalry charge that took place during the Crimea. I personally dislike this poem, and strongly disagree with the attitude expressed in these famous lines:

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldiers knew
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die

Personally, I prefer to reason why, and I would have been dismay'd if I were sent on a cavalry charge towards certain death. I guess that's why I'd never be a good soldier. Anyway, the charge of Lord Cardigan's Light Brigade took place in the Crimea at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854.

A Memorial for the Holodomor

If you don't know much about the horrifying genocide inflicted upon the vast population of Western Ukranian peasants in the 1930s by Josef Stalin's Soviet Union, I urge you to read The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine by Robert Conquest. This genocide equals in brutality and absurdity the Jewish Holocaust that occurred a generation later, and the worst crimes of Pol Pot in Cambodia or Mao Zedong in China. The Holodomor is little known to the world ... except in Ukraine, where it is a major part of shared national consciousness. This tragic history certainly helps to explain Western Ukraine's political hatred for Russia. The trauma of a past genocide also helps to explain why Ukraine's political culture in the past century has often been violent, excessive, morally corrupt, power-driven. It is a traumatized land, and it's good that after decades of silence Ukranians have finally begun to memorialize the Holodomor. This statue is part of Kiev's Holodomor memorial, which I hope to visit some day.


I asked you to send three images of Ukraine to fill a row of nine. Here are my choices.

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Saturday, March 1, 2014 08:01 pm
A farm field in Ukraine
Levi Asher

I'll never forget where I was and how I felt when I read the closing pages of Paul Auster's City of Glass, the first and most crucial part of his New York Trilogy, and a formative book for me as a reader and writer.

City of Glass was a mock mystery novel. It opened with a noir-ish phone call that led a vulnerable narrator into a drama involving cruel language experiments that had been performed on a newborn child by a diffident and crazed professor. The child was now an emotionally disabled adult, permanently traumatized into an infantile state, and the professor was threatening to terrorize his victim again.

As the novel proceeded, the boundaries between the key characters began to bend and morph. Words were the mechanism of torture; the professor was trying to discern what natural or spiritually pure language an infant deprived of human contact would eventually speak. Words were also the breaking point of the novel's thrilling facade, as the disconnected mind of the professor's victim began to reveal itself in the narrator's own increasingly disconnected tale. The moment that most knocked me out in this book, I remember, was at the very end. The narrator has lost track of the desperate man-child he is trying to protect. He sits alone in an empty room, now lost beyond logic and sanity himself, and discovers without surprise that some mysterious person is laying out food for him to eat. This impossible but perfectly placed shift in the story completes the narrator's trajectory towards his own state of infantile helplessness -- a plot twist so unexpected but yet so perfect that I as a reader felt the room spin around me as I read it. I must have muttered incomprehensibly as I burned through these final paragraphs; I may have fallen off the couch where I was splayed out, gripping the book like a bungee cord over the chasm of existence. The infantilization described in the novel's final pages felt so powerful to me that I felt I had become infantalized myself for an infinitesimal blip of time.

By the time I crawled through the final pages of this poundingly satisfying first novel in a trilogy, I was a Paul Auster fan for life, even though I would discover that the remaining two novels in the New York Trilogy felt like a coda to the first. Ghosts and The Locked Room nicely complemented and completed City of Glass, but they didn't punch nearly as hard. I continued to eagerly read new Paul Auster novels as he published them -- Moon Palace, Leviathan, The Music of Chance -- and I liked them all, but gradually began to feel that all the novels after City of Glass were explorations into the beauty of random pointlessness, demonstrations of literary serendipity, easy and pleasant enough to read but lacking in definite reward.

My relationship with Paul Auster eventually became one of love/boredom. Never love/hate -- just love/boredom. It shows what a very fine achievement City of Glass was that it could sustain for me a lifetime of mild interest and appreciation even though it seemed the long body of work that followed was an elaborate encore.

Eventually I started to detect a fatal tendency towards cuteness in Paul Auster's novels, and I completely stopped keeping up with new ones even as his popularity grew. I tried harder with his numerous fragmented autobiographies, which he published throughout his career in short and often conceptualized installments: a biography of his father, a biography of aging. Auster's pen-pal J. M. Coetzee also wrote an autobiography in fragmented installments, but with more precision and economy; I kept reading Coetzee's, but eventually stopped reading Auster's. However, his latest literary memoir Report from the Interior grabbed my attention with its first pages, which thrillingly return to the core experiment that so animated City of Glass: the attempt to understand the mind of a newborn child. Report From The Interior opens with a journey into a lost state of innocent awareness.

In the beginning, everything was alive. The smallest objects were endowed with beating hearts, and even the clouds had names. Scissors could walk, telephones and teapots were first cousins, eyes and eyeglasses were brothers. The face of the clock was a human face, each pea in your bowl had a different personality, and the grille on the front of your parents' car was a grinning mouth with many teeth. Pens were airships. Coins were flying saucers. THe branches of trees were arms. Stones could think, and God was everywhere.

This is how the memoir begins, and the attempt to deeply imagine and understand the world in the way a newborn child does obviously calls to mind the professor's experiments in City of Glass. Auster himself is engaging in the sincere scientific inquiry that fired his insane villain's passions. The final curious mention of God in this passage also recalls The New York Trilogy by connecting the idea of psychological innocence with the idea of spiritual innocence. As I idly perused this opening paragraph in Auster's new book, I immediately understood that he was finally returning to the core theme of his best book, and I happily decided to give the new book a full read.

Auster persists with the journey into innocent awareness as Report From The Interior proceeds:

The world was of course flat. When someone tried to explain to you that the earth was a sphere, a planet orbiting the sun, with eight other planets in something called a solar system, you couldn't grasp what the older boy was saying.

But young Paul Auster slowly becomes more worldly, as he must. He watches "Felix the Cat" but then learns what a cartoon is. The sharp tone of the book's early pages begins to wane, even as the stories remain clever and affecting, and eventually Report From The Interior is just another Paul Auster book.

The use of second person remains constant through the text, and is occasionally disconcerting, as when Paul Auster informs all of us readers that we all grew up in an old white house on Irving Avenue in South Orange, New Jersey (I don't know about you, but I did no such thing). He later justifies the device by signing the book "Love, Paul" -- so that the whole text is a letter from the author to his younger self. Fair enough, and the use of second person doesn't detract from the book's pleasures. A meandering impulse to share endless small facts and details eventually does.

'The Diary of Anne Frank'. India becomes an independent country. Henry Ford dies. Thor Heyerdahl sails on a raft from Peru to Polynesia in 101 days. 'All My Sons' by Arthur Miller. 'A Streetcar Named Desire' by Tennessee Williams. The Dead Sea scrolls are discovered. Somewhere over a dirt in the western United States, an American jet breaks the sound barrier.

It's a deep plunge from the peaked curiosity of the book's opening pages to this rushed litany, which will remind every single reader in the world of a Billy Joel song. This happens on page 63, and at this point I began to find myself skimming the pages more than I wanted to admit, even as young Auster becomes a teenager and a voracious reader, grapples with Jewish identity and the disappointing reality of American anti-semitism, exchanges letters with his eventual first wife Lydia Davis, observes from a distance the anti-Vietnam War riots in late 1960s-era Columbia University.

I think that Report From The Interior must be one of Paul Auster's more interesting later books, though I'm not a good judge as I've managed to read so few of them. The memoir closes with an unusual touch, a long sequence of amusing, beautiful or memorable images from Paul Auster's childhood, including cultural heroes, TV photographs, news headlines, commercial images. The blank presentation of this long and continuous visual series suggests that Auster still wants to find new ways to see the world with innocent eyes, and to allow us to do the same. He had it for this book's first few pages, and the attempt is worthy in itself, always a thrilling exercise, until the glass shatters.


Paul Auster's latest memoir Report From The Interior echoes a theme about early childhood from his great postmodern mystery novel City of Glass.

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013 10:50 am
Paul Auster's City of Glass and Report From The Interior
Levi Asher

(This blog post about my lifetime of Lou Reed concerts from 1979 to 2011 is the second of three parts. Here are part one and part two.)

It's Sunday morning, exactly one week since Lou Reed died. I've been touched by many tributes since then, and as I publish the final part in my three-part reminiscence of my 32 years of Lou Reed concerts, it occurs to me that my first two installments have been soundly negative about Lou Reed's musical career from 1979 to 1989 (roughly, his Chuck Hammer period and his Robert Quine period). I suppose I'm wallowing in the disappointment of his mediocre 1980s as a literary device, to set up the happy surprise of his return to form in that decade's last year. His work improved suddenly, almost magically, in 1989, and stayed good (even occasionally great) from that point on.

Lou Reed's career began with a 12-year run of amazing, anarchic, uneven, impossibly brilliant and beautiful music -- from the first Velvet Underground album in 1967 to Take No Prisoners in 1978. This 12-year run forms the core of Lou Reed's classic body of work. In 1979 he radically changed his style, suddenly establishing a mood of sobriety and rigid control in concert and in the recording studio. He now seemed intent on subverting the anarchy and spontaneity of his earlier works. Some people love his tightly controlled, emotionally searing 1980s albums, from The Blue Mask to Mistrial. I find them suffocating and depressing, but that doesn't mean I begrudge Lou Reed the right to have created the work he wanted to create at this time.

In fact, he was probably saving his own life, because his ten-year period of artistic sobriety corresponded to a more personal form of sobriety. Several of his songs from the 1980s tell a stark tale of recovery from alcoholism ("Underneath the Bottle", "The Power of Positive Drinking", "Bottoming Out"). Though I criticize most of the music Lou Reed produced during the 1980s, I would never criticize his personal sobriety, and I'm simply thankful that Lou Reed did what was necessary to get his act together during these years. His successful and apparently permanent recovery from various substance addictions must be inspiring to many others who suffer through the same bleak trials.

I don't dislike the music of Lou Reed's "sober decade" because I dislike sobriety. I dislike it because I don't believe a sober artist must be a boring artist. The true purpose of Lou's difficult recovery became apparent in 1989, when a miraculous change seemed to occur in his style and demeanor on stage. The gauze began to fall off the mummy's face. Smiles began to crackle on Lou Reed's lips, and an artist was reborn -- now as a middle-aged adult, but, oh, with new stories to tell. Starting with the album called New York that dropped like a giant raindrop in a drought in January 1989, Lou Reed seemed to be enjoying himself again.

New York was funny, and transformative. A song called "Romeo and Juliette" kicks the album's door open with a punchy beat, itchy, infectious guitars.

I'll take Manhattan in a garbage bag
with Latin written on it that says
"it's hard to give a shit these days".
Manhattan's sinking like a rock
into the filthy Hudson, what a shock.
They wrote a book about it, they said it was like ancient Rome.

For the first time in over ten years, Lou Reed was writing about topics other than his own neuroses. After a decade of looking inward, he was looking outward again. In the songs on New York he cursed out corrupt New York City politicians by name, paid tribute to Andy Warhol with Mo Tucker on kettle drums, came out of the closet as an ecological-minded liberal with a song about saving the whales, belted out rockers like "Busload of Faith" and "Strawman" and "Hold On" with a joy in his voice that we haven't heard since he shouted "DO THE DOOG!" on "Head Held High" on Loaded. He even got in touch with his Jewish ethnicity (finally) and forgivingly called out Jesse Jackson's anti-semitism to the tune of a head-spinning guitar jelly backbeat on the truly weird and wonderful track "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim". New York gave Lou Reed his first hit single in years, the rocking three-chorder "Dirty Blvd". The album was fresh, and it was fun.

He had completely shed his old band and was back with a new gang, featuring a skillful and delicately melodic guitar player named Mike Rathke. Rathke was not a bombastic electric shredder like Robert Quine or Steve Hunter, but rather a throwback to the gentle Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground, who laid down lovable, country-tinged, Buddy Holly-esque solos on songs like "Pale Blue Eyes" and "Oh! Sweet Nuthin". For the first time since the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed had a guitarist who could play sweet.

This meant that Lou could now play rough again. With Robert Quine in his band, it had been Lou Reed's task to play the softer solos in his songs, because Robert Quine surely was not going to play a soft solo, and Lou Reed really wasn't very good at it either. Now, with Mike Rathke in the band, Lou Reed could play "ostrich guitar" again. It was the nicest sound we could possibly hear.

Though New York presented the ecstatic image of a dormant artist springing back to life, the album doesn't completely wear well today, since it contains so many topical political references to New York City politicians. It's a "newspaper album", like Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin' or John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Sometime in New York City. Well, every album doesn't have to be timeless, but there are at least a few timeless songs on this one. Even better, just at the same time that New York came out, Lou Reed was working on something else.

Yeah -- when Lou Reed is on, he's on. The songs from New York began to leak out to the radio stations in early January 1989 (many rock radio DJs have good taste in music, which means they were also very thirsty for good new Lou Reed in 1989, so New York got a lot of instant radio play). Just around this time, a strange short bulletin announcing a preview presentation of a musical tribute to Andy Warhol by Lou Reed and John Cale appeared in the New York Times and the Village Voice. Which was why I was now standing in line outside St. Ann's Church on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights.

Montague Street is the street immortalized by Bob Dylan in “Tangled Up In Blue”, which only added to my sense of musical anticipation as I waited outside an old church in what felt like a vain hope that Lou Reed and John Cale were about to reunite, and that I would be there to see it.

This was rather too good to be true, since they hadn’t worked together since Reed kicked Cale out of the Velvet Underground in 1968. Twenty-one years ago. That’s why everybody standing in line outside the church was buzzing with questions, questions that none of us knew the answer to.

Some of us on line recognized the rock critic Dave Marsh a few steps ahead of us in the crowd, and I thought of asking Dave Marsh what he thought Lou Reed and John Cale were up to, and if they were even going to perform together or maybe just read a press release or play a record or show a painting. Who knew? I considered asking Dave Marsh, but he looked like he didn’t know either. The newspaper listings had told us exactly three things: 1) John Cale and Lou Reed had written a tribute to Andy Warhol, 2) it was called Songs for Drella, 3) they were going to preview it here today. Beyond this, nobody had the scoop.

In the Velvet Underground, John Cale had been Lou's artistic opposite pole: a cool, ironic Welshman with classical training, a dignified bearing, an affection for feedback and noise, and a wicked interest in dark subjects. Like Lou Reed, John Cale established a solo career after the Velvets broke up, though he lacked Lou's ability to write fetching pop songs and did his best work with other artists like Nico, Iggy Pop, Phil Manzanera, Patti Smith and Brian Eno.

John Cale was built to collaborate, whereas after firing Cale in 1968 Reed had never once collaborated on equal terms with another artist. Since the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed always played with the Lou Reed band. This is why it was so surprising to hear that Reed would be appearing with double billing with another artist. The fact that the other artist was John Cale pushed this to a further realm of unbelievability.

I could barely believe I was standing in this line for this event, and until the doors of the ornate church opened and our long line began to slowly shuffle inside, I was figuring 50-50 odds that a guy with a clipboard would come out and tell us the show was cancelled. "Sorry, Lou and John got in a fight backstage. Show's not going to happen." Even after we made it inside and clamored into tight wooden pews, I could barely believe this was going to be real.

There’s something rich and moving about the inside of a church. Even so, we could have been seated in an airplane hangar or in the food court of a shopping mall and a hush would still have fallen over this crowd when, finally, two skinny, clean cut, black-clad men quietly shuffled into position on stage and nodded politely to the audience. There they were: Lou Reed, looking slightly astral and spooky, on stage left, equipped with an electric guitar and a mic. John Cale, sporting a quaint Prince Valiant haircut and a calm smile, behind a simple electronic keyboard on stage right. Beguilingly, an electric viola stood on a stand at his feet.

There was no rock band set up, no drums, no bass, no colored lights, no roadies, no introduction from a promoter to fire up the crowd. The crowd waited in silence until Cale began to play a fast, choppy sing-song piano figure, and Lou began the recitative “Small Town”. Lou didn’t touch his guitar. The song appeared to be about young Andy Warhol, a child in Pittsburgh:

When you’re growing up in a small town
Bad skin, bad eyes, gay and fatty
People look at you funny
When you’re in a small town

A strange thing happened after the song ended. This was a rock concert -- wasn’t it? The song stopped and the crowd clapped, and we then fell back into total silence. Classical music silence. Church silence. I had never seen this happen before at any concert, much less a Lou Reed concert. The crowd was awed into a complete hush.

The second song was “Open House”. John Cale’s keyboard figure brought forth a deep, smooth moodiness, punctuated by heavy echoing notes. Lou Reed sang the lyrics, and during the chorus he finally hit a chord on his guitar, and just let it ring. I was starting to feel a tingle of … hmm, this is pretty good. Lou was singing in the voice of young shy Andy Warhol after arriving in New York City, scrounging for work as an advertising artist, and starting to make interesting friends:

You scared yourself with music
I scared myself with paint
I drew 550 different shoes today
It almost made me faint

By the time this song ended – again to enthusiastic clapping followed by complete awed church silence – I was starting to notice that this church silence was having a positive side effect. It seemed to me that Lou Reed and John Cale appreciated the audience's respect. They must have been nervous themselves, debuting what appeared to be a rock opera with only two instruments and no rhythm section. But it was going over, in a big way. They must have noticed this, and it must have given them heart as they began the next set of songs, which were harder, louder, more guitar.

Cale and Reed were both tuned into a precisely minimalist vibe. Cale played repetitive, vaguely Shoenberg-esque multi-tone figures. Reed seemed to be feeding off the same idea as Cale, scratching out hard repetitive guitar rhythms, sometimes ringing, sometimes choppy, that bounced off the sonic surface of Cale’s tonal washes. The pure two-instrument equilibrium was unlike any sound I had ever heard before.

The sound recalled the Velvet Underground, but the Velvets always aimed for a muddy mix, sonic chaos, and Reed and Cale tonight were locked in like clockwork, completely attuned to each other’s rhythms. The lack of bass and drums made a huge difference. "Negative space" as visual artists say. The silence in the church became the third instrument in the room.

It's unusual to hear an entire album for the first time in concert, and when the songs are this good it's a revelation. There were several aggressive, angular hard rock numbers built around repeated themes -- “work”, "images”, “starlight” -- all of which featured Lou Reed's powerful voice. There were a few gentler songs, mostly featuring John Cale's lilting voice, including an enchanting number called “Style it Takes”. After every song, the crowd burst into happy applause and then fall back into awed total silence. I looked around at one point and saw Dave Marsh the rock critic grinning. We all couldn’t believe our good luck to be present at this event.

There was so much I instantly loved about Songs for Drella -- the affectionate tribute to artist Andy Warhol, who had been the Velvet Underground's earliest sponsor, the sharply rendered lyrical portrait of Andy's improbably life and career, the smart instrumental work of John Cale.

But what I remember most is Reed’s guitar playing -- guttural, decisive, deliberate. Many of the wailing bends he reached were atonal, yet just close enough to the notes they hovered around to sound exactly right. At one point during the song “Forever Changed” Lou hit a note of some strange cosmic mid-tone that sustained and fragmented visibly in the air for several seconds, before he blasted it away with an E chord. He chopped and dug at his strings, and then he let chords ring for four measures, eight measures, sixteen measures. The sounds echoed off the walls and harmonized with the next chord he hit.

They did the entire album-length song suite that would eventually be released as the album Songs For Drella, and that was it. There was a big standing ovation, of course, and Reed and Cale acknowledged it gracefully and silently before ducking away. It was a short show, no greatest hits, no "Rock and Roll" encore. We didn't need to hear anything more.

Ten years earlier, I had sat with the noisy, jaded crowd at My Father's Place in Roslyn listening to Lou Reed play my favorite album Berlin and bitterly resenting the fact that the band was playing it wrong, that Lou was singing in a distant monotone, that the crowd around me was noisy and inattentive. I felt like I was seeing Lou Reed but I wasn't.

Now, I was in a church with the most attentive and awed concert crowd I had ever seen, and now Lou Reed wasn't singing his words like he was reciting them from memory but rather like he was feeling them in the moment as he sang. This was my fifth Lou Reed show, but I was pretty sure it was the first time I had found Lou Reed.

Two months later Lou played New York City again, this time in a Broadway theatre, the St. James, with Mike Rathke and Rob Wasserman and the new New York Lou Reed band. It couldn't have been quite as amazingly great as the St. Ann's Drella show, but it wasn't far from that peak. He opened with the awesome "Romeo Had Juliette" from the latest album, followed by the touching "Halloween Parade", a tribute to Lou's friends who had died of AIDS, and then by the hit single "Dirty Blvd.". I don't remember for sure, but I'm pretty sure the show's first set was the entire new album, more or less in order. The second set was older songs, but he only did a couple of his most classic numbers -- "Sweet Jane", of course, and "Rock and Roll" and "Walk On The Wild Side".

I vastly preferred the new songs, because Lou was a singer who could never hide his boredom with old lyrics. He sang the new songs like he'd just written them over breakfast, and that made all the difference. I also dearly loved his new band with Mike Rathke and Rob Wasserman, though I was slightly disappointed that Maureen Tucker didn't come out to play kettle drums on Dime Store Mystery, as she had on the record. Well, I guess a Velvets fan can't have all his dreams come true.

I had a few chances to see Lou Reed after March 1989, but I passed on them, mainly because I was truly satiated. I didn't think any other concerts would equal the two great shows I had seen. I was also now in a different state of mind myself regarding music. I had recently been listening obsessively to hiphop and gangsta rap (a genre that has a few things in common with Lou Reed: vignette-style storytelling, urban attitudes, lush rhythm tracks, complex beats).

I didn't see Lou again until February 1997 when he played a club I really wanted to hear him in: the tiny and acoustically excellent Knitting Factory, a showcase club for jazz and experimental music in Tribeca. I showed up for the night's early show, intending to hang out for the late show too if the earlier one passed my inspection and if the bouncers didn't kick me out and make me buy a second ticket.

Lou Reed was now in his mid-50s, but seemed to be having yet another recent surge of popularity due to the popular movie Trainspotting which had featured his early song "Perfect Day". I'd always liked "Perfect Day", one of many excellent tracks from Transformer, but the song wasn't really well known until Trainspotting. Lou opened with "I'll Be Your Mirror", an unexpected surprise, and followed it with "Perfect Day" and then a stirring "The Kids" from Berlin.

I stayed, of course, to see the later show. This is the complete setlist of the last Lou Reed concert I would ever see:

I'll Be Your Mirror
Perfect Day
The Kids
Romeo Had Juliette
Busload of Faith
Dirty Blvd.
Set the Twilight Reeling
Doin' the Things That We Want To
Hang On to Your Emotions
Finish Line
Egg Cream
White Light/White Heat
Satellite of Love
Walk on the Wild Side

The Knitting Factory sets were far from perfect -- I still don't think Lou ever managed to reproduce the sonic greatness of the Berlin album onstage, and he still suffered a bad tendency to recite his older lyrics in emotionless syncopated monotone. A couple of years later, this tendency would mar a series of Velvet Underground reunion concerts, which I only caught on video but was not sorry to have missed. Lou didn't rise to the occasion as a vocalist at all. He only does, it seems, when his songs are freshly written. Lou Reed was no method actor; if he wasn't feeling the lyrics, he clearly had no ability to pretend.

In 2011 I went to a Yoko Ono concert, a charity event to generate funds to help the victims of a terrible recent earthquake in Japan. I was mainly excited to see Yoko Ono with her reformed Plastic Ono Band, and it was a night of powerful music. Cibo Matto delivered a delightful "Aguas de Marco". Sean Lennon played MC and host for the entire evening, and he played bass for his Mom in a cathartic screaming set, and then introduced moving sets by Patti Smith and Anthony Hegarty, aka Anthony, an unusual vocalist I'd first heard of when he sang "Candy Says" on the worthy late live album Animal Serenade with Lou Reed. Then Lou Reed came out to jam one vocal performance with Yoko Ono.

What can I say about my last glimpse of Lou Reed in person, as he sang onstange with Yoko Ono, another of my musical heroes? It was a late moment in a great, ear-pounding concert, and I honestly can't even remember what Lou and Yoko sang. If I knew at the time that Lou Reed would die two years later, and that this would be my last look at him, I would have paid closer attention.

This was my last glimpse of Lou Reed, who I first saw when I was 17 years old, 32 years before. Lou Reed was now much older. I was now much older. He was also much better, and I hope I am also much better.

Maybe this is why the findings of my 32-year stalking of Lou Reed in concert may be valuable. It shows that a visionary artist can maintain great inspiration and dignity in older years, and can even regain lost inspiration and lost dignity. (Interestingly, yet another of my other musician/songwriter heroes, Bob Dylan, is also a rare example of this story. Like Lou Reed, Dylan also mostly sucked during the 1980s, and also managed to become relevant again after that dispiriting swale of a musical decade.)

Also like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed didn't validate his late career by returning to the styles and customs of his early years. Lou's work after 1989 is totally unlike anything he did before. He never returned to the crazed, unpredictable musical approach of his early masterpieces -- and likewise his early albums lacked the easy-rolling mirth and humane wisdom of his mature work. Lou proved that perpetual innovation is possible, that an artist can remain vital and relevant through the course of his entire life.

I believe Lou Reed lived a very happy and blessed life. It was an honor for me to sit in the audience nine times and bask in his performance art. (Iincidentally, I had a few other in-person glimpses of Lou Reed that I'm not writing about here, including a tribute to an Allen Ginsberg memorial event at St. Mark's Church in 1997, a concert celebrating Harry Smith's Anthology of American Music in which he performed alongside Nick Cave and David Johanssen in 1999, and one encounter on a street corner right outside St. Mark's Bookshop one summer day, in which I suavely stood there and gaped and said nothing.)

From 1979 to 2011, I went looking for Lou Reed on stage. When I was young, I went to his concerts looking for his masks -- the bright yellow mask of Transformer, the olympically miserable vocalist of Berlin. I was furious when I found that Lou Reed had taken these masks off.

Later, I was able to go to concerts without heavy expectations of what the artist would bring ... and later Lou was also able to relax onstage and deliver much of the musical beauty I had come to demand.

During my first Lou Reed concert, when I was 17, I bemoaned the fact that the show I was at sounded nothing like Rock and Roll Animal. Well, I ended up seeing a couple of shows that were maybe even better than Rock and Roll Animal, or at least equally great, and totally different. In the end, I found the Lou Reed I had gone looking for. And he found me.


The glorious rebirth of Lou Reed's musical career in 1989, when he was 47 years old, is an inspiration not only to recovering addicts but also to fans of great music and lyrics.

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Sunday, November 3, 2013 08:25 am
Lou Reed with Mike Rathke on guitar in 1990
Levi Asher