New York City

Tom McCarthy is a popular British avant-garde novelist with a forbidding public image. He writes technological dystopian fiction that looks at the world with the same cold sinister stare as that of Chuck Palahniuk or William Vollmann, and he physically resembles Dwight Schrute from "The Office". He doesn't come across as a very warm person.

But is this a mirage? I'm liking Tom McCarthy more and more with each new book, and I'm starting to understand the earnest moral passion and conviction behind the sociological concepts that animate his literary experiments. When I first began reading him, I was slightly put off by his cackling, sarcastic persona. I was also mystified by the fact that he balances his fiction writing with "propaganda" on behalf of a shadowy organization devoted to experimental investigations into death.

Yet his novels somehow compel me in, and once inside a Tom McCarthy novel the cold persona quickly starts to fall away. There is in fact something strangely warm, human and relatable about Tom McCarthy, which is why he's emerging as the most interesting postmodern author on the scene today.

I've just finished Satin Island, a new Tom McCarthy novel nearly as mind-blowing as his signature work, Remainder. Satin Island is not as sharply plotted as the astonishing Remainder, but it is a smoother ride, more joyfully and consistently composed, a beautiful and enjoyable exhibit of highly observant prose. In place of a plot, Satin Island reads like a fabric of ideas, a quilt of threads ranging from Claude Levi-Strauss to Jacques Derrida to William S. Burroughs to James Joyce.

The book is narrated by a young anthropologist who has been co-opted by a gigantic mega-corporation to help produce a functional study of every facet of human existence, a project called Koob-Sassen that vaguely resembles a nightmare we may all lately be having about the all-powerful secret control systems that the NSA might be building right now, if they really are as evil as we sometimes think.

We never understand the full nature of Koob-Sassen, but we can see that it is some kind of attempt at oligarchic world control, and that the successful execution of the project requires extremely clever and innovative thinking on the part of the hired anthropologists, who frequently compare notes around the office. To control everybody else, these anthropologists must be the smartest people in the world, must figure out every game, every scheme:

As I stepped out of the blind spot back into time and his office, he asked: Have you ever been to Seattle, U.? Behind him, through the floor-to-ceiling windows, cranes, clouds, bridges, aeroplanes, the Thames all jostled for position. No, I answered. It's interesting, he said. Oh yes? I asked. How so? Well, he replied the truly striking thing about the city is its lack of Starbucks outlets: driving around, you don't see a single one. That's strange, I said: I thought Seattle was where Starbucks came from. Exactly, he said: you'd think the town would turn out to just be one giant Starbucks. But instead it's all Joe's Cappuccino Bar, Espresso Luigi, Pacific Coffee Shack and the like. So what's the story there? I asked. What's the story indeed? he repeated. This is exactly what I asked my driver, and do you know what he told me? Penman looked up from his device. I shook my head. He told me, Peyman said, his gaze now drifting over to his monitor, that these were Starbucks: stealth ones.

McCarthy is a highly connective author, and Satin Island streams forth with literary references. The tiny man inside a giant bureaucracy calls to mind Franz Kafka's The Castle. The frightening (and probably already accurate) notion that a corporation can hire skilled anthropologists to develop capabilities for mass mind control evokes Dana Spiotta's Eat The Document. The vision of one of these anthropologists struggling to maintain his sense of self within this creepy milieu beckons J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands, in which the mega-corporation is the US government during the war in Vietnam, and in which the researcher goes horrifyingly insane.

McCarthy's greatest gift is his sly and unpretentious writing style, his sensitivity for realism, his light touch with a heavy idea. In Satin Island, he captures a universe in which everything is just slightly off, just slightly inferior to what it's supposed to be. Reality appears to the narrator to have become a cut-rate version of itself, as when he goes to the funeral of a close friend and is appalled at the lack of effort that goes into the funeral, especially when he hears speeches filled with banal and generic non-facts that don't even accurately describe his close friend who just died.

In a Tom McCarthy universe, even something as benevolent as a good idea is likely to sickeningly turn over and expose its soft underbelly. One day the narrator is thrilled that he has discovered the answer to a puzzling mystery involving dead parachutists. He is bouncing off the walls with excitement about his discovery. A few pages later, he realizes that his brilliant idea is not only wrong but wasn't even very well thought-out to begin with, and his mood crashes with the hammer-blow of this truth.

Satin Island reads like a fabric, and in fact fabrics are all over Satin Island: the shroud of Turin, the complex textures of fine satin and rough dungaree denim, the silk of a parachute, even the fabric of humanity found at the lower tip of Manhattan island when the hero of the novel visits the Staten Island Ferry but decides not to get on. As I finished Satin Island I began to understand that Tom McCarthy writes these novels because he actually cares about humanity. He's worried about us all, and about what we've done, and what we're about to do next:

I lay awake for a long time, thinking of what she'd said. Levi-Strauss claims that, for the isolated tribe with whom an anthropologist makes first contact -- the tribe who, after being studied, will be decimated by diseases to which they've no resistance, then (if they've survived) converted to Christianity and, eventually, conscripted into semi-bonded labour my mining and logging companies -- for them, civilization represents no less than a cataclysm. This cataclysm, he says, is the true face of our culture -- the one that's turned away, from us at least.

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Why Tom McCarthy is emerging as the best postmodern novelist on the scene today.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015 07:47 am
Satin Island, a novel by Tom McCarthy
Story
Levi Asher

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.

Acker may be best remembered for writing very frankly about painful topics like child rape and prostitution. But she was also a blazingly original theorist with a constant urge to liberate classic fiction/poetry texts from any sense of ownership, property or meaning. She called herself a "pirate" and freely spliced together texts belonging to other writers, acting decisively upon the impulse that would eventually find expression in David Shields' Reality Hunger. One example of a literary cut-up that did not get Kathy Acker into trouble was her novel Don Quixote, in which a terrified young woman lying on a bed in an abortion clinic transforms herself into the knight Don Quixote, and eventually selects a dog as her Sancho Panza. This book didn't get Kathy Acker into trouble because Miguel de Cervantes was long dead.

But she did get in trouble when she cut up a comically commercial sex scene from a Harold Robbins bestselling potboiler into her own transgressive novel, and her account of the agony she went through when Harold Robbins demanded an apology (and her own publisher refused to stand behind her) stands today as a vivid, pained document of the agony of a struggling writer drowning in a world of misunderstanding. This account, titled Dead Doll Humility, may be the most accessible thing she ever wrote. If somebody wants to read one thing by Kathy Acker, this piece would be a good choice. It begins in screaming caps:

IN ANY SOCIETY BASED ON CLASS, HUMILIATION IS A POLITICAL REALITY. HUMILIATION IS ONE METHOD BY WHICH POLITICAL POWER IS TRANSFORMED INTO SOCIAL OR PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS. THE PERSONAL INTERIORIZATION OF THE PRACTICE OF HUMILIATION IS CALLED 'HUMILITY'.

CAPITOL IS AN ARTIST WHO MAKES DOLLS. MAKES, DAMAGES, TRANSFORMS, SMASHES. ONE OF HER DOLLS IS A WRITER DOLL. THE WRITER DOLL ISN'T VERY LARGE AND IS ALL HAIR, HORSE MANE HAIR, RAT FUR, DIRTY HUMAN HAIR, PUSSY.

As the piece progresses, the author's voice becomes tentative and weak following the repeated application of public disapproval and apathy. Dead Doll Humility presents the losing struggle of a writer clinging desperately to the right to write, against all opposition:

Want to play. Be left alone to play. Want to be a sailor who journeys at every edge and even into the unknown. See strange sights, see. If I can't keep on seeing wonders, I'm in prison. Claustrophobia's sister to my worst nightmare: lobotomy, the total loss of perceptual power, of seeing new. If had to force language to be uni-directional, I'd be helping my own prison to be constructed.

There are enough prisons outside, outside language.

The Los Angeles Times article by Carolyn Kellogg that caused Kathy Acker's name to fly happily before my eyes yesterday offers some good news: a new book of letters between Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark called I'm Very into You: Correspondence 1995--1996 has just been published by Semiotext(e), which describes the correspondence as "a Plato's Symposium for the twenty-first century, but written for queers, transsexuals, nerds, and book geeks".

A Plato's Symposium for the twenty-first century is a tall order. But there's no doubt that our current epoch can use more Kathy Acker.

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Kathy Acker's "Dead Doll Humility" presents the struggle of a writer to persevere against all opposition.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015 09:02 am
Kathy Acker, Writer
Story
Levi Asher

"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.

The first journey in Language Matters is the most stirring. On the northern tip of Australia, Aboriginal families live peacefully and intermingle freely in small neighborly clusters-- and yet, entire vast different languages are spoken within these family groups. Nobody in this area is monolingual; to speak each of your neighbors' languages is a sign of respect, even though languages like Kunwinjku and Amurdak may be as different from each other as, say, English and Polish.

Some of these distinct languages are only kept alive by individual family networks or, in one extreme case, by a single person. Language Matters focuses on an elderly man who is the last person on earth to speak the language he grew up with. The kind of loneliness he must feel is barely visible in his dignified face, as he calmly delivers halting explanations of living words that will soon be lost.

It's because a language is more than words that no academic transcription can ever capture the essence of a language that was once alive. In this documentary's last segment in Hawaii, poet W. S. Merwin salutes the elusiveness of language, quoting a Hawaiian verse that can be translated, but not translated well, because the Hawaiian rhythms and sounds are part of the verse's meaning. In Hawaii, as in Wales, schools have been built by tuned-in educators and linguists and caring community members to keep their cherished ancestral languages alive. We visit children in schools where they are instructed to only speak Welsh or Hawaiian.

Of course, the fact that these children are immersed in Welsh or Hawaiian at school does not mean they will not learn other languages too. But there is clearly a heavy cultural significance here; to embrace Welsh or Hawaiian is an act of protest against the conformism of an English-speaking planet. The significance feels more acute in northern Australia, where the critical mass to keep dying languages alive does not exist.

Language Matters features stunning dance sequences and beautiful nature photography along with narration and interviews by Bob Holman, who turns out to be very good at this kind of thing. I've known Bob Holman for years via his Bowery Poetry Club, and we published a piece he wrote about slam poetry attitudes called "15 Rules For Hecklers" in 2010. Language Matters is the kind of project Bob Holman is born to do, and if we're lucky he'll do more and more.

There are, after all, so many more endangered languages around the world. I remember visiting my grandmother and her sister in Brooklyn and being amazed by the Yiddish newspapers they read, printed in blocky Hebrew letters completely incomprehensible to me. I was ignorant not only of the language my grandmother spoke, but even of her alphabet.

It occurs to me now that my grandmother was actually making a choice in continuing to read Yiddish while living in Brooklyn for over 70 years. Of course she was perfectly fluent in English, but Yiddish gave her and her sister a connection to the world they wanted to be living in. I never asked her what this language meant to her, and now I wish I had.

Language Matters appears to be a television documentary about remote cultures and faraway peoples. It turns out to be a show about us all.

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A new documentary showing on PBS explains the deep cultural significance of regional languages, many of which are destined for extinction.

view /LanguageMatters
Monday, January 26, 2015 09:22 pm
A Welsh poem embedded upon a building.
Story
Levi Asher

What can a pacifist say about racism? A lot, it turns out. The pacifist perspective is badly needed when rage abounds, as it does right now following the decisions by grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City not to indict two policemen who killed two unarmed African-American men.

"American society's admiration for Martin Luther King increases with distance," writes Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, in an article subtitled with blunt words: "Violence works. Nonviolence sometimes works too."

Ta-Nehisi Coates has also been exploring the evergreen idea that racism can be corrected by war on his Twitter account, evoking the North's victory over the South in the American Civil War as a relevant moral victory, and declaring that:

This got a lot of retweets and responses, and the increasingly popular cultural critic doubled down:

The conversation spread. Inevitably, the popular idea that World War II was also a "good war" because it ended the Holocaust (ignoring the fact that World War II also created the Holocaust) was invoked:

Ta.Nehisi Coates's statements here are hardly new or shocking. But it is shocking and upsetting that statements like this seem to carry the force of truth, and that pacifists should fail to challenge this rash idea. Pacifists need to speak with a louder voice, especially since facts are on our side. History shows that war is often a primary cause of racism, and that war is nearly always an enabler of its worst offenses. War doesn't correct racism; it generates it.

How can a pacifist begin to speak about racism, when emotions are high and words seem misplaced? First, we can point out that the obvious fact that wars tend to pit ethnic groups against each other. This makes it nearly self-evident that war aggravates feelings of ethnic hatred, that militarism is likely to be a primary cause of racism.

Once we begin to look at the actual evidence, it becomes clear that war and racism are hopelessly entwined, that they amplify each other, and that even the fear of possible future war can be a tremendous enabler of racism. An acclaimed recent history book called The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 by Alan Taylor hammers this point home (we wrote about this book earlier this year in a blog post titled "Blood Alienation"). This important book shows that fear of a militarized slave revolt played a gigantic role in the South's debates over the future of slavery in the decades before the Civil War. This fear originated with news of the bloody Haitian revolution of 1791 to 1804, and was increased by Nat Turner's attempted slave uprising in Virginia in 1831.

Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy counters the popular idea that greed was the primary engine of the slave economy in the American South. Greed may have been the original motivation for the wide acceptance of slavery -- sure, there was a lot of money in sugar cane and cotton. But The Internal Enemy shows that an obsessive fear of black uprisings began to dominate government policy in Southern states before the Civil War. Paranoid fears that white women would be raped en masse during a slave uprising added a psychotic edge to this fear (this meme would later justify many lynchings after the Civil War).

Alan Taylor's book suggests that an overwhelming fear of race war left Southern states incapable of rational decision-making when the time came for these states to follow the rest of the enlightened world and outlaw slavery. The North could outlaw slavery, and so could England, because their smaller slave populations didn't present a significant internal threat. States like Virginia saw their slave populations as a terrifying and highly capable militant presence (a fact that has been largely lost to history until Alan Taylor's book) and thus could not converge upon moderate and humane practices with regard to this internal enemy. Fear of race war defeated every Southern impulse towards moderation.

To suggest that war helps to fix racism is to suggest that a recovering alcoholic take a drink to steady his resolve, that a tank of gasoline be used to fight a fire. No serious thinker can look at the historical evidence and continue to believe that this method can work. Of course, we know that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a serious thinker, and many of his Twitter respondents probably are too, so we can only conclude that they have not looked at the evidence.

One key point of evidence is the fact that the loss of the Civil War created a shared white/black society that never came to peace. Instead, after 1865, many Southerners dealt with the humiliation of a crushing military defeat by turning the refusal to assimilate with blacks into a badge of defiance and pride. As movies like D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation show, it became a sign of military distinction among prominent Southerners after the loss of the Civil War to refuse to associate with the victors of the war, either white or black. This type of "victory" was not a good ground upon which to build a civil society between whites and blacks.

After the loss of the Civil War, the humiliation of invasion and defeat replaced the fear of slave revolt as the main ingredient in the cauldron of racism that has been swirling in the post-Confederate states ever since. The rebellion is over, but the hatred that lingers after the loss of a hard-fought war still pollutes this section of American society today. This appears to be a frequent phenomenon after a war is lost. The Nazis who congregated in Germany after the loss of World War I were also sore losers. Sore losers do a lot of damage.

It's very good that slavery was ended between 1963 and 1865. But military vanquishment by blockade and invasion was the worst possible way to achieve this result, because racial integration was imposed by a hated enemy rather than accepted from within. This is not a good model for the future of our planet. I hope that those who think of war as a redeeming force will consider the alternative of pacifism, which is a broad, flexible and (hopefully) emerging philosophy.

Pacifism often includes the belief that peace is a redeeming force for society as a whole, and that the best way to achieve a peaceful world -- which means a world without racism -- is to follow the peaceful methods of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Since social sicknesses like racism are generated by the culture of hyper-militarism, the best way to cure these sicknesses is to cure our addiction to the culture of hyper-militarism. Romantic paeans to noble war by Atlantic Monthly writers do not help this case.

Pacifists should explain that evidence of the damage war does to our society is present in human history at least as prominently as nitrogen is present in the air we breathe. (For anyone who is curious: nitrogen makes up 78.09% of the air we breathe, though nobody ever talks about all this nitrogen. Fear of violence and perception of internal threat probably accounts for at least 78.09% of our problems with racism, and nobody ever talks about this either.)

Besides quoting Alan Taylor on public attitudes in pre-Civil War Virginia, what other historical facts can a pacifist cite against the ridiculous suggestion that war can correct or cure racism? Plenty, plenty, plenty. We can remember that the entire practice of human slavery is based on military conquest, that a slave is a prisoner of war or the descendant of a prisoner of war. We can speak of all the atrocities of the past hundred years, every single one of which took place in the context of total war: Bulgaria, Armenia, Ukraine, Nanking, Poland, Czechoslovokia, Hungary, Romania, Tibet, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria.

We have previously noted here that genocide is always enabled by war, that genocide never occurs outside of the context of war. Pacifists need to help explain that genocide, like racism, is a direct by-product of militarism. It is impossible to imagine that we will ever have a world without racism, or without genocide, unless this is also a world without war.

Scratch a racist and you'll find a militarist. Remember the outbreak of anti-semitism enabled by the Dreyfus Affair in France? In fact, Dreyfus was considered a "German Jew", and the entire explanation for the vicious attacks against Dreyfus can be found in France's stunning loss to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, and to the fear of Germany that became a French obsession after this loss. It's a vital and little-known point that Dreyfus was not singled out because the French had suddenly become intolerant of Judaism. He was singled out because as an ethnic Jew he was suspected of having ties to Germany.

The pattern repeats over and over: a war is fought, and racism follows in its wake. Or a war is anticipated, and racism becomes a sensible policy. What about the slaughter of Native Americans in 19th Century USA? Like the slaves in Virginia, like Dreyfus in France, like the Armenians in Turkey, the Native Americans were seen as an internal threat, a strategic liability in time of war. We didn't kill the Native Americans because we hated them; we killed them because we were scared of them. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, did the USA force Japanese-Americans into concentration camps because we suddenly hated them? No, we forced them into concentration camps because we were afraid of them. Wherever war arrives, racism follows.

War as a cure for racism? A worse idea has rarely ever been suggested. I don't blame Ta-Nahesi Coates for expressing his frustration at American racism in 2014 by praising the outcome of the Civil War. But war is no prescription for racism, and I hope nobody thinks that the Civil War stands as proof that a good war can exist. And what would have been the result of this "good war", I'd like to ask Ta-Nehisi Coates, if the Confederacy had won?

I don't blame Ta-Nehesi Coates for writing what he feels. But I do blame my fellow pacifists -- are you out there, anyone? -- for not speaking up more effectively to join the conversation and share some historical insights when emotional paeans to the nobility of war are widely shared. The fact that many people seem to agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates and few people are pointing out the flip side of his story shows once again what we've observed here before: committed pacifists need to do a much better job of making our voices heard, of saying what needs to be said when it needs to be said.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks violence is sometimes necessary to combat the evil of racism. How can a committed pacifist respond?

view /PacifismAndRacism
Sunday, December 7, 2014 10:10 am
Police frontlines in Ferguson, Missouri
Story
Levi Asher

Exactly one hundred years ago today, there was still some hope that the monstrous war that had just broken out between (in quick succession) Serbia, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, France, Belgium, Great Britain and Turkey might be over by Christmas. A quick victory was what all the military experts on all the sides had promised, after all.

The Great Fraud wasn’t over by Christmas. Today, we mostly think of the First World War as the prelude to the grudge match that followed it, the Second World War, which was somehow even more destructive. Today, the shrill pitch of global politics shows that we have never really managed to emerge from the cloud of moral poison that emerged from Central Europe in 1914. La Grande Illusion still surrounds us today.

The First World War is almost always remembered by historians as a foolish and massive human tragedy, and that's why a mood of dignified sadness and cosmic frustration hung in the air on November 8 in the Celeste Bartos room of the New York Public Library, where an impressive group of historians and activists gathered for a day-long event called Voices for Peace, 1914-2014.

The host was Lewis Lapham, and the theme of the program appeared to have been inspired by Adam Hochschild's important recent book To End All Wars (which I read and reviewed here on Litkicks), a survey of the long-forgotten pacifist and activist movements that tried to prevent the slide to futile madness in Europe in 1914, and a reminder that the philosophy of pacifism has a long tail.

Adam Hochschild, holding the seat of honor next to Lewis Lapham, emphasized the shock of the fast slide to total war, which took nearly every progressive European thinker by surprise. Many political pundits and activists had been absorbed in lofty socialist or idealistic agendas when the war broke out. "The Internationalist dream went up in smoke at this moment," Hochschild said.

I was glad to find Michael Kazin on this panel, as I had also once read his biography of the famous Christian revivalist William Jennings Bryan, a perennial Democratic candidate for President who is now mostly known as the anti-Darwin foil in Inherit the Wind. I'd originally read A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan because I was interested in Bryan's career as a religious revivalist, but I was fascinated by the unexpected discovery that this farm-country traditionalist was also a devout pacifist who did God's work in trying to persuade President Woodrow Wilson not to enter the European war. At the New York Public Library panel, Kazin spoke of the wide variety of anti-war activities in the USA before and after we entered the war in 1917, including a women's march down Fifth Avenue and popular songs like "I Didn't Raise My Son To Be A Soldier".

The final member of the morning panel was Jack Beatty, NPR pundit and author of The Lost History of 1914: Reconsidering the Year the Great War Began. Beatty stated crisply a key point that is too often forgotten: there is a single human emotion that is the engine of war. The emotion is not greed, not hatred, but fear.

After the morning panel we heard stirring tributes by Jessica Tuchman Mathews and David Nasaw to Andrew Carnegie, another famous figure of history who is not typically remembered as a pacifist, though he dedicated his life to the cause. Nasaw referred to Carnegie as a "fool for peace", and told enough stories to justify this honorific that I will certainly feel much more humbled by the benefactor's good intentions the next time I walk into Carnegie Hall.

The afternoon session "Where Are the Voices for Peace Now?" was designed to pivot the conversation from history to activism, and this was the session I was most looking forward to. Lewis Lapham had invited a lively group, anchored by the peace and ecology activist Leslie Cagan. Next to Leslie was Steve Fraser, whose upcoming book The Age of Acquiescence criticizes our society's complacency about abuses of capitalism.

An interesting dynamic became evident as Cagan and Fraser each tried to answer the question "where are the voices for peace now?" in light of their own backgrounds and familiar activist communities. Leslie Cagan spoke of pacifism in terms of its connection to issues of racial equality, environmental policy and gender discrimination. She pointed out that the world's biggest consumer of fossil fuels is the United States military.

Steve Fraser, meanwhile, became so enmeshed in a tangent about economic justice that I started to feel annoyed, because I began to suspect that he believes we will only be able to solve the problem of war after we overthrow capitalism. Personally, while I probably will be happy to help overthrow capitalism, I am definitely not willing to wait to overthrow militarism until that's done first and I certainly do not agree with those who say that peace is impossible until Wall Street is defeated. (I personally think it's the other way around: we won't be able to solve most other problems in the world until we discover peace, and once we do discover peace, many other problems will easily cure themselves.)

The third panelist was David Cannadine, an extremely vivid and confident speaker who at one point deservingly lambasted an elderly questioner who complained about Cannadine's kind words about Barack Obama. As much as I enjoyed Cannadine's performance, I felt that his approach to the panel was disappointing in the same way that Cagan's and Fraser's was: he was not primarily there to speak about pacifism. He spoke convincingly of issues of leadership style, and of the odd twists of history that determine our fate, but he did not indicate at any point during this panel that he felt there were any significant voices for peace worth mentioning today. Nor, for that matter, did Cagan or Fraser.

This is not David Cannadine's or Leslie Cagan's or Steve Fraser's fault. They're probably right: pacifism currently has no currency at all as a political philosophy. Former New York Public Library president Vartan Gregorian addressed this directly in his introduction to the event when he pointed out that pacifism never recovered from the debacle of the Munich peace agreement that empowered Nazi Germany to seize Czechoslovokia in 1938. David Cannadine referred to this later when he pointed out that "pacifist" is now considered equivalent to "appeaser". This is indeed the major challenge that any pacifist must be able to respond to today. But anybody who considers this a fatal challenge to pacifism is certainly not trying hard enough.

Just as the afternoon panel failed to name any individual voices for pacifism who are making a significant difference today, it also failed to identify any highly relevant peace organizations in the world. There is Greenpeace, and there is Occupy Wall Street, and there is Amnesty International and Medecins Sans Frontieres, and these are all more or less tangentially pacifist to some degree. But these organizations each have specific purposes other than world peace itself. This panel discussion was called "Where Are the Voices for Peace Now?", but it seems the world has a big empty space where a vibrant peace movement should be.

Or does it? Would we have been able to name some examples of voices for peace today if Lewis Lapham had invited Medea Benjamin, or Yoko Ono, or Nicholson Baker? Maybe so, and I wish they could all have been included, along with many others too. But the truth that was revealed by this afternoon session's scattered attention span is an important truth in itself, and I think it had to be revealed to help us realize what we must do next.

It was such a subtle omission that I barely even noticed it myself until near the end of the question-and-answer session, when somebody else pointed it out: "I'd like to bring this back," he said, "to the main question, which really hasn't been discussed at all. Where are the voices for peace today?"

I left the room with the question still in my head, and I'm going to keep thinking about it. If we don't know where the peace movement is in the world right now, maybe we need to get off our butts and create one.

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Lewis Lapham, Adam Hochschild, Michael Kazin, Jack Beatty, Leslie Cagan, Steve Fraser and David Cannadine discuss pacifism at the New York Public Library.

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Sunday, November 9, 2014 11:08 am
Lewis Lapham, Adam Hochschild, Michael Kazin, Jack Beatty at the New York Public Library
Story
Levi Asher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

(I didn't make it to the Brooklyn Book Festival this year, but Tara Olmsted did, and here's her report! -- Levi)

The Brooklyn Book Festival can be a mixed bag. At its worst the annual autumn event is complete chaos: no consistent theme, hot and crowded rooms, poorly moderated panels, no-show authors, smug hipsters as far as the eye can see. This year's list of participating authors is less exciting at the outset than in previous years: the type of book being discussed on all the panels feels pretty much the same, as if some kind of homeostasis has been achieved.

But at its best, the Brooklyn Book Festival s a platform for small, independent presses.  Publishers like Melville House, New Directions, & Other Stories, Europa, Other Press, Archipelago and Greywolf are there. (Technically some of these are not exactly indie publishers anymore, like New Directions, which has been absorbed by the big five publishing conglomerates. I still consider the presses “indie” because they’ve managed to retain the literary identity and traditions on which they were founded.)

Smaller indies are here too: Zephyr, Bellevue, The Head & The Hand. There are literary magazines: BookForum, The Paris Review, NYRB and Lapham’s Quarterly. And many of Brooklyn’s independent bookstores attend, including WORD, The Community Bookstore and Greenlight.  There’s a lot to discover at the outdoor booths.  And for me the highlight of the festival has always been (and remains) the author panels.

"Catch a Fire: Social Collapse in Multiple Voices" began one panelist short (a fairly common occurrence at book festivals). The Somali author Nuruddin Farah was unable to attend for reasons that were not explained.  But the smaller panel created an opportunity for the two present authors to expand their discussion beyond their individual novels and discuss the politics of Jamaica and Somalia.

Marlon James’ novel A Brief History of Seven Killings opens in 1976, Jamaica - the year men armed with machine guns invaded Bob Marley’s home and opened fire, seriously injuring his wife and manager. Marley received only minor wounds and went on to perform at the free “Smile Jamaica” concert two days later.  And then he left Jamaica, choosing not to return for two long years. Taking those events as the novel’s launching point, James goes on to explore the history of Jamaica and the Jamaican diaspora over the next three decades.

Marlon James is a charismatic speaker and the scope of the book, as he describes it, is impressive:  687 pages, 76 characters, written in Jamaican patois, set in both Jamaica and New York City. The panel's moderator hinted at moments of disturbing violence, which James defended as being necessary. He didn’t seem to believe in trivializing violence by sterilizing it. James also spoke on the topics that interested him and had crept into his writing: the politics of the island where he was born and its role in the Cold War; stereotypes and expectations he’s encountered as a Jamaican author; his views on politics as they relate to his writings; and, in response to one audience member’s question, which of Marley’s albums was the soundtrack underscoring the events in his novel (Rastaman Vibration is the correct answer, not Exodus).

Nadifa Mohamed’s novel is set 13,295 kilometers away in Somalia. The Orchard of Lost Souls follows the lives and fates of three women at the outbreak of that country’s 1987 civil war.  Like James, Nadifa Mohamed did not discuss her novel’s plot at length. She talked instead about her relationship to the place where she was born and the current wave of the Somali diaspora.  She and her family immigrated to England when she was only four years old, and so her experience is completely different than those of the (more conservative) Somali expats arriving in London.  She spoke of the ways in which the country where she was born is and isn’t home, and of how the characters in her novel both experience and perpetrate acts of violence.  The common theme for both both authors -- as for many authors on the panels I attended this year -- was our relationships to the countries where we are born and what that means in the wake of ever increasing globalization.

My next panel, again dealing with international literature and authors, was called "Cultural Collisions: Around the Day in Eighty Worlds".  I’m still not sure exactly what the title had to do with the actual panel.

This included the Brazilian author Paolo Scott (Nowhere People), Mexican author Valeria Luiselli (Faces in the Crowd) and Cuban author Mylene Fernandez-Pintado (A Corner of the World).  All three books are translations.  Anderson Tepper, a Brooklyn Book Festival staple, was an excellent moderator as always, allowing each author to discuss their books in depth and give short readings.

Nowhere People is the first and only Brazilian novel about that country’s native population -- the Guarani Indians -- a subject on which Scott expressed strong feelings. Brazilians, according to Scott, avoid addressing race in a way that is detrimental (and shameful) to the society as a whole.  His novel tells the story of a young Brazilian man who is drawn into the world of an indigenous girl he sees walking along the side of the road.

Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd and Mylene Fernandez-Pintado’s A Corner of the World are so different that I’m not sure how they all ended up on the same panel. Luiselli’s book moves in time between modern New York City and 1950’s Philadelphia. Her characters are a young Mexican translator living in Harlem and the real-life poet Gilbert Owen (who the author described as “an all-right poet”). Taken directly from the back cover: “As the voices of the narrators overlap and merge, they drift into a single stream, a mingling that is also a disappearing act, and an elegiac evocation of love and loss”.  Fernandez-Pintado, in contrast, has written a love story set in modern Havana, a story about a society that lacks choices and opportunities.

I’ll say it again: the Brooklyn Book Festival can be a mixed bag. Particularly this year. The panels for which I harbored the highest expectations turned out to be terrible. And the one’s I felt lukewarm about turned out to be fantastic. But where else can you spend an entire day lining up to hear (mostly) obscure authors talk about books that will never make it onto the New York Times Bestseller List?

At the Brooklyn Book Festival I feel as if I’ve managed to escape the influence of Amazon’s algorithm, NPR recommendations and the Colbert bump. For one day a year I get to be on my own. Which is enough to bring me back in 2015.

4

Tara Olmsted finds a mixed bag at the annual book festival in downtown Brooklyn.

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Friday, September 26, 2014 09:35 am
Brooklyn Book Festival 2014
Story
Tara Olmsted

Nothing I can write today will be as relevant as an event that took place in New York City and various other places around the world today: the biggest climate march in history, attended by over 300,000 people. The Huffington Post has the scoop.

The specific policy mission of this march is to deliver a message of solidarity before the beginning of the United Nations Climate Summit. This large group of concerned human beings seems to be doing a great job of making its voice heard.

We haven't written much about ecology here on Philosophy Weekend, a strange omission considering the writers and philosophers we like best here on Litkicks: Henry David Thoreau, William James, Yoko Ono, Gary Snyder.

As a political writer, I tend to focus on pacifism, but in fact pacifism and environmentalism are sibling philosophies. Both spring from a consciousness of the natural world, and from an appreciation for the gifts of human existence. It's hard to imagine how somebody could be a pacifist and not an environmentalist.

However, I've recently become aware that USA presidential candidate Rand Paul, the only conservative candidate brave enough to support a pacifist philosophy, has taken stands against sane environmental regulations. I'd love to hear from any Litkicks reader who understands Rand Paul's politics how it is that the only candidate who can clearly see the folly of our military policies can fail to see the folly of our lack of environmental regulation. One would think that the same awareness of common sense concerns (nature, and our freedom to enjoy it) would make any libertarian a natural environmentalist. What am I missing here?

Are there interesting literary or philosophical angles of environmentalism that we can explore here on Literary Kicks? Of course there are, and since I feel bad that I didn't make it up to New York City for today's big march, I am going to pledge to try to make this happen. I hope we can explore the meaning of ecology both from spiritual and political angles. If somebody can post a comment answering my question above about the Rand Paul position on ecology, which really ought to be smarter than it is, that might get things off to a good start ...

10

Nothing I can write today will be as relevant as an event that took place in New York City and various other places around the world today: the biggest climate march in history, attended by over 300,000 people.

view /ClimateMarch2014
Sunday, September 21, 2014 06:56 pm
Climate March September 21 2014 New York City
Story
Levi Asher

If you're on the east coast of the USA these days, you might catch a painted bus called Furthur running up and down the seaboard. This colorful vehicle is named after the original Furthur that took novelist Ken Kesey, Neal Cassady, Ken Babbs and the rest of the Merry Pranksters across the country on a famous road trip 50 years ago. I caught up with Zane Kesey and the giant rolling metaphor he designed for his father when they finally rolled into Brooklyn, New York last month.

Ken Kesey is a writer we have always appreciated here on Litkicks, both before and after he died in 2001. Kesey may be more often remembered for his crazy bus than for his great books these days, but we shouldn't forget that it was the critical and commercial success of his powerful novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1962 that made the bus journey in 1964 possible.

If the idea of a bus trip in 2014 to honor a bus trip in 1964 sounds strange, we should recall that Kesey's original bus trip was itself an homage to Jack Kerouac's On The Road (which it enacted in reverse, California to New York) as well as a forward-looking and freewheeling hippie Dada experiment. We can't know for sure what sociological and countercultural expectations Kesey had when his first journey began, but it's obvious that the author was aiming to create a spontaneous living novel, even though the debris of the journey overtook its chief and he never transformed the journey into a book of his own. It fell to visiting journalist Tom Wolfe to write the definitive book about the bus trip, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

I had all these literary themes on my mind as I strolled over to a bar called Brooklyn Bowl in Williamsburg at dusk on a Friday night and found the bus placidly parked on the corner in front of the bar. A happy gang of tie-dye-wearing hippies, clowns, musicians, dusty travelers and eager tourists milled around.

The bus had generated a lively and talkative sidewalk scene, though I had trouble finding anyone who could fill me in on the concrete details of how the cross-country journey had been going, whether expectations were being satisfied, and where I could find out more of the dirt and the details than were being posted on Facebook. I eventually found a friendly guy who seemed to be a member of the core traveling group, and he let me step onto the empty bus to take a selfie (posted above).

However, when I tried to ask him serious questions I quickly learned that he was coping with the crowd of interested tourists (a group which, unfortunately, he thought I was a part of) by delivering only oblique answers in the form of ciphers and koans. Recognizing this technique as Prankster-speak, I didn't push too hard for answers to my questions, and instead wandered inside the bar where a Grateful Dead band called Half Step was tuning up for their first set. I found Zane Kesey working a table stacked with t-shirts, keychains, bumper stickers and other Kesey-related paraphernalia (the one thing that was missing, I'm sorry to say, was books).

I was eager to chat with Zane, but I quickly realized that the conversation would go nowhere, because the room was too noisy, and because he was busily working the t-shirts-n-stuff table all by himself. I had a few questions for him about his father's legacy -- I was particularly interested in asking about the play Twister, a postmodern parody of The Wizard of Oz that had been one of Ken Kesey's later works, and which I'd always been curious to learn more about. Zane brightened up when I asked this question, but there was clearly no opportunity for a serious conversation as the band began to play across the room. I hope I'll get another chance to chat with Zane about his father's legacy some day.

I was not at all disappointed that I couldn't engage in a serious literary discussion of Ken Kesey's works with his son or with anybody else at this gathering, since no Prankster would ever answer a question seriously anyway, which meant the inhabitants of the bus were doing it right. I decided to switch gears and enjoy the music, and had a great time dancing with a happy half-Brooklyn half-Prankster crowd to the wonderful tones of Half Step.

The band struck the right chords for the night, and they cooked.
As they began their first song, I thought to myself that if they really knew about all the Ken Kesey/Neal Cassady/Grateful Dead connections, they would prove it by doing 'Cassidy' or 'The Other One'. They did both.

My encounter with Furthur only lasted one night. But Beat scholar Brian Hassett had a longer encounter with the 50th anniversary Furthur crew in Bethel and Woodstock earlier in August, and he has more stories to tell.

3

An updated Further arrives in Brooklyn, New York to mark the 50th anniversary of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters' famous bus ride.

view /Kesey2014
Tuesday, September 2, 2014 08:04 pm
A Levi Asher selfie in an empty Furthur bus
Story
Levi Asher

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.

The Touch was about what happens when radioactivity intrudes upon the life on an ordinary American family. An industrial engineer is briefly exposed to some dangerous dust during a laboratory maneuver. This soon changes everything in his life, as gossip about his accident causes even his best friends to fear his touch of death, so that he and his pregnant wife are suddenly ostracized. We see how an industrial accident ends up turning into an even worse human accident, a collapse of civility, a descent into blind prejudice.

This is a bleak book, but also thrilling in its creepy sense of a systematic mindless menace invading our lives. I distinctly remember being gripped by a couple of vivid scenes: the stunned engineer rushing into a shower to wash off the dangerous substance, and later the frustrated and ruined man taking out his anger on a lump of clay in a studio. (The book's toxic hero, if I remember correctly, worked as an automobile model sculptor).

The Touch was a bleak book, and, well, Flowers for Algernon was a bleak book too. Especially that gut-punch ending, and the way the narrator and hero Charly's mental condition was reflected in the language he used in these final pages.

It's a funny thing: I always hated this book's cover. I thought the book had a lousy title too. Flowers for the mouse? How about some damn flowers for Charly? He suffered a lot worse than the mouse.

Daniel Keyes, fortunately, appears to have lived a happy life, though he never repeated his single great success, which was also turned into a mediocre movie called Charly (an even worse title!) starring Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom. Before he was a novelist, Daniel Keyes worked in the comics business in New York City, where the germ of the idea that became Flowers for Algernon was first pitched as a possible comic book plot.

Daniel Keyes lived in Brooklyn, making it a good bet that many young writers must have run into him often at corner delis and on Prospect Park walkways without knowing that he was the author who wrote the novel they loved in junior high, like I did too.

0

Daniel Keyes, author of "Flowers for Algernon" and "The Touch", has died at the age of 86.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014 07:53 pm
The Touch by Daniel Keyes
Story
Levi Asher