"I'll Meet You Under The Words": Language Matters with Bob Holman

"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.

Sam Harris Almost Understands The Self

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.

Philosophy Weekend: Nixon and Watergate and Vietnam and Our Capacity For Shared Delusion

"It was a lust for political power." - Bob Woodward

"There is no simple answer." - John Dean

President Richard Nixon, caught in a big lie, resigned in disgrace forty years ago. As we commemorate our shared memories of this astounding political scandal today, we are unwittingly basking in a new layer of delusion and willful untruth.

Yes, we conceal the truth today about Watergate, especially when we talk about the original motive for the crime, and when we try to analyze the lessons learned. I've enjoyed watching a couple of new television shows that interview the principals in the affair, but I can't help cringing at the level of voluntary obfuscation, of creative contextualizing. The gauze of popular self-delusion about Watergate does not serve a sinister political purpose but rather serves our need for comfortable conclusions, for meaningful metaphor (which may be meaningful even when it does not reveal a truth), for the dubious entertainment of banal psychobiography. It's easier to demonize Nixon than it is to realize that the disease that brought this President down is widely shared by others.

Wilderness, 1864

Exactly 150 years today, the most grueling and relentless eight days of the Civil War in the United States of America began. These are the opening days of the Overland Campaign, in which two armies rampaged south through north-central Virginia in their final race towards Richmond, capital city of the Confederacy. They stopped frequently along the way to try to kill each other.

The Overland Campaign was recently featured in the TV series House of Cards. The crooked politician played by Kevin Spacey visits a newly dedicated (and fictional) battlefield park dedicated to the Overland Campaign, and meets a reenactor costumed as his own doomed Rebel ancestor. In real life, the park is known as the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Battlefield, and despite the House of Cards fabrication, it's not dedicated just to the Overland Campaign: there were so many fights in this region that Wilderness and Spotsylvania have to share space with Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, where major battles were fought in 1862 and 1963.

Those were also critical and immense conflagrations, but Civil War experts know the Overland Campaign was the greatest match of them all, because it was in these battles -- Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Yellow Tavern, Cold Harbor -- that General Ulysses S. Grant faced General Robert E. Lee directly for the first time. This was the big one, the championship between the two top teams. This was the Finals, and it was a hell of a fight.

The Best Article About the Velvet Underground Ever, by Lance Loud in 1975

(This remarkable article by Lance Loud was originally published as 'The Velvet Underground: A Skin-Deep View' in Hit Parader magazine, June 1975, five years after the Velvets broke up. See below for the story of the article's publication on Litkicks today.)

Right from the start, Lou's first band was labeled a "non-stop horror show", a "three ring psychosis" and a "sadomasochistic frenzy". They were rebels, their cause was the musical documentation of the 60s American Pop era. Their style and method of getting this message across knocked the wind out of a lot of people. "Not singe the Titanic ran into that iceberg", quivered a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, "has there been such a collision". All of this was an attempt to describe the three men and a girl that Lou had formed to play his songs. They were named after a tawdry porno book. The Velvet Underground.

Most people believe that the Velvet Underground was some creation of Andy Warhol. It is true that the Velvets DID become famous during their stint, in the mid sixties, with Andy's traveling disco/happening/pop art circus: The Exploding Plastic Inevitable, but the music that the Velvets played, like 'Heroin' (the smackers national anthem) 'Venus in Furs' (fetishistic S&M sex) or 'I'm Waiting For My Man' (pusher oh pusher, wherefore art thou?) was all a creation of Lou Reed and his Velvet band long before Andy caught up with them. They were the natural house band for the American Amphetamine A Go Go scene. Lou liked to say that both he and Andy were very much alike in purpose but Andy dealt with Art while Lou made his statements with music.

Philosophy Weekend: Seasons

I can't write a Philosophy Weekend blog post this weekend. I've been working too hard on some tech changes to the site that will finally launch on Tuesday or Wednesday ... and I'm also too broken up about the final show of the final season of my favorite TV show, "The Office".

So, instead of a thoughtful existential blog post, here's one of my old favorite scenes from that show, the Nobody But Me lib dub that opened season 7.

The Awful Movie Dr. Seuss Made in 1953

Caryn and I watched an old movie on cable TV recently that left us traumatized for days. Ironically, the movie was trying to be a light-hearted and whimsical children's musical. It was written by Dr. Seuss in 1953. The movie left us traumatized because it was so very, very bad.

I'm talking about the legendary but little-watched 5000 Fingers of Dr. T, a live action film about a boy who hates his piano teacher. This was the only movie Dr. Seuss ever tried to make, and it went over so badly with audiences in 1953 that he never tried again, and the movie nearly disappeared from view. It was almost crazy and psychedelic enough to gain a second life as a midnight cult flick, but it's too excruciatingly boring for the midnight circuit. It's hard to watch without wincing ... often.

5000 Fingers doesn't start out too badly: a sweet kid is suffering through a piano lesson in an antique parlor (this setting must recall Theodor Seuss Geisel's own childhood in Springfield, Massachusetts). The boy falls asleep and has a bad dream in which he's persecuted by his nasty piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker, who is also scheming to marry the kid's widowed mother. In this dream, the kid wears a glove on the top of his beanie, is chased by weird chubby thugs in brightly colored suits who resemble proto-Oompa-Loompas, dodges a pair of roller-skating old men sharing a common beard, and is forced to participate in a 500-kid piano performance on a swirling 5000 key piano.

I assure you that I just made the movie sound better than it is.

David Amram on Wonderama

While we're watching counterculture moments on television from the 1960s,here's something else I just stumbled across: the joyful jazz composer, performer and beatnik David Amram on the kid's show Wonderama. He demonstrates his favorite instruments, and naturally leads a jam session with the kids, who are way into it.

Amram turns 82 years old this weekend, which means the promising new film David Amram: The First 80 Years must be nearing its second birthday ... and I haven't seen it yet! I hope this documentary film will reach more theaters, and will get a much-deserved spot on public television or some other music channel. One thing's for sure: audiences will love it, because Amram never fails to win an audience over. Here's the trailer for the film:

A Midsummer Night's Beatles

A Midsummer Night's Dream is probably the funnest play William Shakespeare ever wrote. It winds down, after several twisted noctural love stories resolve themselves, with a usually hilarious (if performed well) play within a play, staged by several "rude mechanicals" from the local forest who've been enlisted to enact the legendary story of Pyramus and Thisbe before the court of Athens. A charming video has just emerged of the Beatles in 1964 performing this segment of A Midsummer Nights Dream for a British television show -- and handling their Shakespeare surprisingly well.

The video may look like pure chaos if you're not familiar with the play, but in fact this section of Midsummer Night's Dream is meant to be a moment of theatrical anarchy, as the rude mechanicals break character, mumble their lines and stumble over each other just as the Fab Four do here. Paul McCartney has the most lines to speak as Pyramus, the male lead (he also utters the words "Now I am dead", echoing later conspiracy theories). John Lennon wears a gown and gets in touch with his feminine side as Thisbe, the female lead (the role is typically played by a man). Ringo is deft as the Lion, managing a very subtle roar, and even the quiet George Harrison grows into his role as Moonshine. Based on this evidence, all four of the Beatles could have been Shakespearean actors if they'd wanted to be.

A Glimpse of Ray Bradbury (and Groucho)

Here's something unusual: a 1955 appearance by science-fiction author Ray Bradbury on Groucho Marx's famous TV game show "You Bet Your Life".

Stocky and hearty, the 35-year-old author is at this time already a successful writer, but not yet a famous one. He cites his accomplishments to Groucho: stories in the New Yorker, the screenplay to the recent film version of Moby Dick, a novel called Fahrenheit 451. Groucho Marx fails to come up with a great moment of improvisational banter with Ray Bradbury, settling for a weak bit about "rider" vs "writer". Clearly, the show couldn't be brilliant every night.