A few days ago I began exploring how writers from Plato to Sebastian Brant to Katherine Anne Porter have written about a "Ship of Fools". This was inspired by my discovery that sixteen different songs with that exact title have been written and performed by major rock, punk, folk and pop artists between 1969 and today, and that several of these songs are remarkably good.
How is it possible that a fairly obscure literary metaphor would inspire so many different songs? What makes the idea of a ship of fools so relevant to modern songwriters, and how do each of their songs imagine the idea? I will examine each song in detail below in search of an answer.
"Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay?" That intriguing response is one of many I elicited from J. C. Hallman, author of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, a bright, funny and expansive account of a rewarding and investigative personal journey through another living writer's unusual career.
This other writer is Nicholson Baker, whose dynamic and wide-ranging intelligence would intimidate many young critics with less gusto than J. C. Hallman. Baker's literary chops are immense and his philosophical and social convictions deeply inspiring, though his intellectual experiments sometimes leave even his most enthusiastic readers cold. Here is my conversation with J. C. Hallman about an author we both admire very much.
LEVI: So, in 1991 the up-and-coming author Nicholson Baker wrote a book called U and I in which he dared to place himself on nearly equal terms with the literary lion John Updike. I say "nearly equal terms" because the book avoided a conventional critical tone of piety and humility towards Updike, and instead brashly showcased the freewheeling talents and original visions of its author.
Now in 2015, you have written a book called B & Me in which you dare to place yourself on nearly equal terms with Nicholson Baker ... who is by now a literary lion in his own rights.
I'm happy to tell you that I think you pulled it off with great style. But I'm wondering if you felt intimidated by the audacity of your act in dreaming up "B & Me". Was it difficult to conjure up enough confidence in yourself as a writer to take on Nicholson Baker in the same format that Nicholson Baker once used to take on John Updike? Or rather was the audacity of this challenge one of the attractions of the project for you?
J. C.: As Baker suggests in U and I, writers should strive to avoid finding a groove and coasting for their entire careers, and I think I would actually find it hard to muster the energy a book-length project requires if didn’t appear daunting at first, if it didn’t challenge me, or even threaten me, in some way.
Which isn't to say that mustering the energy for a book is easy. Once I sold the proposal for B & Me –- a story in and of itself –- I went through about a month-long period of complete paralysis. I was terrified that all I’d done was invent a way to fail. That feeling started to go away only when I really got into the reading of Baker’s books and realized that my instincts about the project had been correct. From that point on, the book wasn’t easy to write, by any means, but it felt like an inspired project, and the process of emulating Baker emulating Updike forced me to find new reserves in myself.
GET RID OF MEANING. YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU: NOW EAT YOUR MIND.
I saw Kathy Acker's name fly by in a tweet yesterday. Her name carries power for those who remember it. Alternative and transgressive literature blossoms in today's Internet-powered cultural scene, but there was a time (back when Ronald Reagan was President and a lot of things were lamer than they are today) when Kathy Acker was the only young punk writer in the world with any amount of fame. That was a lonely era for a serious indie voice of the streets, but Kathy Acker played her role with style and class.
She died of cancer in 1997, when she was only 50 years old and had a lot more writing to do. Looking back at her body of work today, it seems clear that empowerment was always her mission. Her literary role models were men -- William S. Burroughs, Charles Olsen, Jerome Rothenberg -- but her influence seems to be most strongly felt among woman writers who heard her call for empowerment via unapologetic self-expression. Her influence can be traced through many voices that have dared to be brash over the years, from Patti Smith, Mary Gaitskill, Tama Janowitz and Maggie Estep to JT Leroy, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Porochista Khakpour, Paula Bomer. Every one of these controversial writers must have had to dig deep within to find the confidence to write without fear. They may not have followed Kathy Acker's direction, but they did walk in her trail.
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.
"I'll meet you under the words". There's a large building in Cardiff, Wales with a poem embedded directly into its front wall. The poem is written half in Welsh and half in English by Gwyneth Lewis, who is part of a vibrant Welsh-speaking renaissance that draws in families, musicians, writers, artists, hipsters and academics all across this ancient land. Welsh began to disappear centuries ago when Wales became part of England, but some have managed to generate a significant new sense of community by striving to keep the language alive. When these folks gather for festivals, dances, hip-hop beatbox sessions and poetry slams, they really are meeting under words.
Gwyneth Lewis is profiled in Language Matters, a delightful and captivating two-hour documentary currently running on PBS. The documentary is directed by David Grubin and hosted by poetry raconteur Bob Holman, who visits three locations around the world where great languages are in danger of disappearing: northern Australia, Wales and Hawaii. The films make the case that irreplaceable cultural knowledge is entwined into these regional languages, and that every time a regional language is lost, a way of thinking is lost as well.
I used to read short stories all the time. At one point, I was more into short stories than novels.
Well, why not? This was back when Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Tama Janowitz, Lorrie Moore, John Updike, Cynthia Ozick, Alice Munro and William Trevor were all putting out stuff on a regular basis. It sure did seem like a golden age.
I never put much stock in golden ages, though. I'm sure there are just as many good short story writers out there today as there were in the Breakfast Club years. But I'm not always sure who these short story writers are. So, I made it a point to read three recent volumes by three acclaimed short story writers recently. I must have chosen well, because I struck gold of some sort with all three.
Flings by Justin Taylor
I almost had a bad experience with Flings by Justin Taylor. This is probably because I didn't begin on the first page, but instead skipped ahead to the one story named after a Phish song. This turned out to be one of the only stories in the book I didn't like.
Justin Taylor is the kind of hip young over-educated brooklyn writer I might never have noticed if he didn't have one quirk that caught my attention: his substantial knowledge of the Grateful Dead and Phish. Stereotypes about batik-wearing aisle dancers aside (and really, these stereotypes have become extremely stale), there is a lot of fresh energy and intellectual depth in our long-running jamband subcultures, and it's about time a hip young over-educated brooklyn writer decided to turn these subcultures and their fringe members into material for fiction.
I thought Justin Taylor really nailed the aching sweetness of modern-day hippiedom with his clever novel The Gospel of Anarchy, which is about a houseful of collegiate Florida neo-Situationists who conjure up a new religion from the filth of their communal kitchen. I remembered this book for its warm characters, but I was left cold by the selfish and thick-headed Dad who takes his gloomy children to a Phish concert in "Mike's Song", the first story I read in Flings. Perhaps I came to this story with unfair expectations, but I can't help hoping that a story about a Phish concert will capture some of the joyousness of the actual event. I didn't get the point of this story, and I couldn't help wishing Taylor had written with the mood of the story's setting instead of against it.
I then had a rough time with the opening story of Flings, which is also the title story of the collection. I found myself wearied by the endless stream of jumbled hapless college graduates who work for non-profits and try heroin and gossip about each other. Finishing the story, I had no idea what I was supposed to feel. I later read the acknowledgements at the end of the book:
"Flings" is, among other things, in loose homage to Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves'
To which I thought: thanks a lot, Justin, but you could have at least told me about the required reading in advance. All would be forgiven, of course, if the story worked on its own, but I don't think it does.
Fortunately, Flings immediately got better for me once I proceeded to the next story, Sungold, a playful romp that takes place in a college-town vegan pizza chain store, featuring a few of the wan anarchists and naive idealists Taylor draws so well. Then I loved Poets, maybe the best story in this book, which follows two egotistical young creative writing program junkies from their sophomoric beginnings to the eventual ravages of middle age, literary obscurity and romantic disconnection.
Even if it doesn't manage to find joy at a Phish concert, Justin Taylor's Flings is a delightful postmodernist grab bag, an accessible series of experiments in irony and attitude. The collection's title describes the book well: some of these flings don't fly, but that's the nature of a fling.
It’s easy to get angry when listening to Sam Harris, a stubborn young philosopher who recently made headlines for joining Bill Maher to condemn the entire religion of Islam on TV (Ben Affleck took the smarter side in this debate). Sam Harris is a pop-culture philosopher with a message of urgent, fervent atheism -- though he has so little respect for religion that he doesn’t even prefer to define himself by this negative belief (there is no word, he points out, for people who don’t believe in Greek myths or in astrology, so we shouldn’t need a word for those who don’t believe in Christianity, Islam or Hinduism either).
I find Sam Harris writings and statements about religion dull and unperceptive. Part of the problem is that he's an overconfident philosopher, heavily armed with a degree in neuroscience from the University of California at Los Angeles. He's so sure of his atheism (he does not want to call it atheism, but I still may do so) that he fails to realize his rote paragraphs have failed to win us over.
Over and over, he lays out a scientific or semantic principle and concludes that he has proven some point. He believes that abstract concepts can be clearly defined and that arguments can be won by declaring logical truths, which is to say that he lives in a world before Nietzsche, before Wittgenstein, before Derrida. This gives him a confidence in his conclusions that is awkward for a more existential philosopher to behold.
However, Sam Harris should not be written off as a hack. He is an energetic philosopher who has managed to establish himself as a voice for other fervent atheists, many of whom congregate at his admirably useful website Project Reason. He has a long career ahead of him, and he has even shown significant signs of improvement -- when he stays off the topic of Islam and away from television talk shows.
It's because words are such effective tools of communication that we sometimes fail to realize how often we communicate without them. A conversation is sometimes a physical exchange. These conversations carry meaning that can only exist in the physical realm.
We signify to each other with words, with gestures, with emotional expressions. We also signify with commitments, with actions, and when this occurs (as it constantly does in our everyday lives) we are able to see that logical meaning is itself a physical thing. We can't say what we want to say without putting our bodies into it.
For example: my wife and I go to a wedding of a friend of hers who we haven't seen in a while. We both like the bride and groom a lot, and we used to enjoy hanging out with them, but tonight we barely get to talk to the marrying couple because they are so busy running around being the bride and groom. Still, we are glad we came to the wedding, because we are able to express something to the couple by being there. They know that we are there because we want to celebrate their marriage, and this recognition (which might not take place till weeks later when they see their wedding photos) amounts to a happy conversation that could not have been carried out if we were not there. We could have sent a card, and the card could have had many more words on it than we had a chance to speak. But the card would have expressed not more meaning but less than we expressed by being there.
Sure, every other obituary of 86-year-old Brooklyn novelist Daniel Keyes is going to talk about Flowers for Algernon. And, yeah, that was his best book. But I'm going to talk about The Touch, simply because I remember this novel well, and because nobody else is going to mention it.
As a lonely middle school kid, I was so desperate for good books that I would bottom-feed the local library stacks, looking for off-hit books by writers who were (I could already tell at my young age) literary one-hit wonders. This is why during the waning years of the Summer of Love and the waxing years of the Me Decade I read Love, Roger by Charles Webb (author of The Graduate), David Meyer is a Mother by Gail Parent (author of Sheila Levine), This Perfect Day by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby). And it's why I read The Touch by Daniel Keyes, author of the powerful Flowers for Algernon. I suppose I was also attracted to The Touch by the mod cover design, which reveals Daniel Keyes trying to reach a hip adult literary audience. That never quite happened, but we'll always have Flowers for Algernon.
I recently listed Ludwig Wittgenstein as one of three essential philosophers who can add surprising clarity and vital new perspective to frustrating debates about ethics, political ideology and the practical problems of our planet. What’s most essential about Wittgenstein is not the conclusions he has drawn about ethics and politics. It's the dynamic and truthful way of thinking that his method represents.
Ludwig Wittgenstein is unique among the great Western philosophers. He is the only major thinker to have become famous as a philosopher twice: first for laying out a belief system and then for returning to destroy his earlier work. Indeed, the remarkable fact that he spent the second (and greater) half of his career refuting everything he achieved in the first half is itself an example of the sublime conductivity of his thought process. It takes a hell of an open mind to do that. And a whole lot of courage.