Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Transcendentalism

Sparta by Roxana Robinson

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, July 9, 2013 06:50 pm


A Roxana Robinson novel will never waste your time with characters who are fashionably bored.

Robinson's characters are always in trouble -- are nearly or literally in extremis. Her early novel This Is My Daughter is a piercing study of a second marriage besieged by child problems. Cost is a bitter tale of a young heroin addict and his family. The new Sparta is about a Marine returning to his suburban New York home after a bad tour of duty in Iraq. In all three novels, we meet people who are pushed beyond the limit, who are facing the worst moments of their lives. Sometimes they survive, sometimes they don't.






Philosophy Weekend: John Calhoun and Confederate Ethics

by Levi Asher on Sunday, June 30, 2013 08:30 pm


This seems to be a primal aspect of human nature: we always believe ourselves to be ethically correct. It would be very surprising to hear a person openly declare that he or she lives without moral principle, and it would be even more surprising to find any society or group of people that openly declares itself to be amoral.

This fact provides a stunning contradiction that ought to be endlessly fascinating to ethical philosophers who wish to deeply challenge their own belief systems. Every past as well as current society believes itself to be moral, and yet when we discuss history we can easily identify various past societies that seem to have been highly immoral. If we examine the ways in which these bygone societies convinced themselves of their high ethical principles, we can glimpse the powerful engine of delusion itself, and discover the mechanics that make it so effective in clouding intelligent minds. We may even discover that some delusions still drive our thinking today.

One great example is provided by the nation that briefly called itself the Confederate States of America, a nation that was defeated in the United States of America's Civil War between 1861 and 1865. I'm beginning a road trip this week to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to take part in the 150th anniversary of the most dramatic extended battle of the entire war. This anniversary provides a nice opportunity for us to pause and look closely at the philosophical underpinnings of the entire secession movement in the Southern states. This philosophical system can be broadly represented by the voice of a once-great politician, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, who was a legendary United States Senator, and was the Vice President of the United States for two terms. He died before the Civil War began, but his inspiration was present for the entire period of the war, and he was taken seriously as a brilliant scholar, a passionate orator and a principled ethical thinker by both his compatriots and his enemies.






Fitzgerald's Lost Souls, or the Infernal Gatsby

by Levi Asher on Monday, May 6, 2013 08:25 pm


If you're trying to analyze F. Scott Fitzgerald's jazz age novel The Great Gatsby and you're not thinking about Dante's Inferno, you're missing an obvious connection.

The connection is easy to spot and hard to dispute, though it rarely comes up in discussion of the book. I haven't heard it mentioned at all during the big media buildup to the bombastic new Baz Luhrmann/Leonardo DiCaprio Great Gatsby movie that's opening this weekend, though I have read a few clueless movie-tie-in articles that strain to explain the enduring cultural significance of Fitzgerald's novel. These articles usually miss the point by describing The Great Gatsby as a novel about the American dream of wealth and success, or something pedestrian like that.

Explanations of Gatsby as a Randian epic about a businessman don't illuminate the book very well, and neither do theories that Nick Carraway was gay or that Jay Gatsby was African-American. I tend to stick with the standard approach: The Great Gatsby is a chic and tawdry tale of love and romantic illusion. It's written in lush but light poetic prose in a heated tone that evokes a dramatic sense of spiritual hazard. The spiritual hazard is where Dante comes in.

As a writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald liked to paint modern society in starkly religious or biblical terms. He does not appear to have been very religious, but he was raised Catholic, viewed Christian ideals warmly, and seems to have been especially fascinated with concepts of Satanic guilt and damnation. This is most clear in his titles: his first novel was called This Side of Paradise, his second The Beautiful and Damned. His short stories include: Babylon Revisited, Jacob's Ladder, Absolution.

But The Great Gatsby, the novel he intended as the pinnacle of his mature literary achievement, is also his most ambitious spiritual work, as it apppears to be loosely grounded upon Dante's Inferno, the first and most famous part of the Italian poet's epic The Divine Comedy, in which a traveler is escorted on a colorful guided tour of Hell.






Yoko Ono, Visionary

by Levi Asher on Sunday, February 17, 2013 11:46 pm


The last time I saw Yoko Ono in concert, which was just a year ago, I was handed a small blue plastic puzzle piece in a small fabric bag as I entered the club. It was a very Yoko Ono gesture, and I'm sure the piece symbolized a lot of things: the sky, world peace, an artist's anxiety in facing an audience.

Yoko Ono is a brave performer, but her anxiety and shyness is often evident when she stands on stage. It must be this shyness that drives her exhibitionism and displays of aggression; as a young experimental artist (before she met John Lennon), she created her famous "Cut Piece" (it's described in Ellen Pearlman's recent book Nothing and Everything) in which she invited viewers to cut off pieces of her clothes while she sat still. This gesture wouldn't have been as moving as it was if her anxiety were not so palpable on her face as she sat.






Philosophy Weekend: Kant on Beauty

by Tim Hawken on Thursday, January 31, 2013 08:11 pm


(Today's blog post is by a guest philosopher, Tim Hawken, who lives in Western Australia and is the author of two novels, 'I Am Satan' and 'Hellbound'. Tim holds a Bachelor of Arts from Deakins University with a triple major in Philosophy, Literature and Journalism.

The image of an Immanuel Kant tattoo is by Aron Dubois.)

Picture yourself walking into a bookstore with a friend. You pick a copy of Les Misérables off the shelf, party because of the shiny ‘movie edition’ cover, party because you’re curious to see what all the fuss is about. Turning to a random page you read the quote:

When love has fused and mingled two beings in a sacred and angelic unity, the secret of life has been discovered so far as they are concerned; they are no longer anything more than the two boundaries of the same destiny; they are no longer anything but the two wings of the same spirit. Love, soar.

Stunned by the beauty of the words you read them out loud to your companion. He snorts in derision and picks up Ann Coulter's latest book. Running his fingers across the jacket photo, he says to you, without a hint of sarcasm: "Now, she’s beautiful."






Chelsea Redux

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, April 25, 2012 09:07 am


1. This looks to be pretty special:

The Tenant’s Association of the Chelsea Hotel presents a rare screening of Andy Warhol’s 1966 masterpiece, Chelsea Girls, introduced by poet and Warhol superstar Rene Ricard.

Rene Ricard is one of the few surviving members of the cast, and was a close friend and associate of Warhol from 1965 until the artist’s death in 1987. In a rare public appearance, Rene Ricard will discuss the making of the film and offer reflections on Warhol’s larger career as painter, author, publisher and wit.

Chelsea Girls was shot in various rooms in the Hotel Chelsea (and the Warhol Factory) over three weeks in the summer of 1966. Rene Ricard lived in the hotel at the time, and he remains a current resident.

Appearing in the film, amongst others, are Nico, Ondine, Brigid Berlin, International Velvet, Mario Montez, Ingrid Superstar, and Marie Menken, with music by the Velvet Underground.  Filmed at a cost of $3,000.00 The film grossed $130,000.00 in its first five months of its release, making it perhaps the most successful underground film of all time It has since earned cult status as one of the most stunning and provocative cultural documents of the 1960s, and is considered by many to be Warhol’s filmic masterpiece.

Filmed in black and white and color and shown on two screens simultaneously, the film runs three hours and fifteen minutes.

At the premiere of the film at Jonas Mekas' Cinematheque, the film sequences were listed on the program accompanied by fake room numbers at the Chelsea Hotel. These had to be removed, however, when the Chelsea Hotel threatened legal action.

Today the residents of the Chelsea Hotel are fighting to retain and preserve one of the great cultural landmarks of New York City. The Chelsea Hotel is not only a historic landmarked building, but also a living national treasure, and a vital part of the intellectual and artistic heritage of New York. Residents have incurred great expense fighting evictions and what they consider to be the illegal demolition of over a hundred rooms in the historic hotel.

2. The first of May is also International Workers Day, and should be a big day for the Occupy movement around the world.

3. The PEN World Voices Festival is about to begin, and has a fantastic lineup.

4. New York City's Center for Fiction presents Mothers on the Verge including Leora Skolkin-Smith (Hystera) and Jessica Keener, whose sensitive 1970s memory novel Night Swim I've recently enjoyed.

5. I had a very negative initial reaction to the news that a team of transcendentalist video game designers from the University of Southern California has created an electronic interactive version of Thoreau's Walden (still and always my favorite book in the world). But the preview visible at the link above really doesn't look so bad. And while it's true that playing a video game is nothing like living in a cabin in the woods for two years -- well, come to think of it, reading a book is nothing like living in a cabin in the woods for two years either. So I guess I won't judge this project until I get to see it for myself.






Philosophy Weekend: Nietzsche in America

by Levi Asher on Friday, March 2, 2012 06:28 pm


"On Sunday, April 27, 1913, in her Yonkers, New York, home, sixty-seven-year-old Jennie Hintz tried a new way of practicing her piety. She did not need the assistance of clergy, nor did she need to go to church, as she had given up her faith almost a half century earlier. The kind of devotion she experimented with had nothing to do with institutional Christianity, or Jesus, or the sacraments of her youth. It simply required her to put pen to paper and express in unguarded prose what Friedrich Nietzsche meant to her.

Her writing took the form of a long handwritten letter to Nietzsche's sister and literary executor, Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, to give thanks and praise for her brother's life and though. Hintz, a self-described "spinster", introduced herself as a "great admirer of your brother's philosophy and his morals." She explained that she had been reading Nietzsche's works for over a year and a half, starting with "Beyond Good and Evil", the only Nietzsche volume in her local library at the time ... She said she felt drawn to Nietzsche because "in many points I had already arrived at these truths before he expressed them, but I remained mute keeping them for myself." She did so, she explained, because in dealing with people more educated than she, Hintz found she was not listened to or taken seriously. But reading Nietzsche let her know that there was someone she could relate to."

Friedrich Nietzsche, that strange, alluring bird. His prose could soar, but what happened when this bird landed on the earth? I knew as soon as I heard about the new American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that this book would be valuable, and I could barely wait to read it. I'm a gigantic fan of Friedrich Nietzsche, but his outrageously original books (some of the best include The Birth of Tragedy, Beyond Good & Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Ecce Homo) often leave readers in a state of vertigo. His slashing rants against phony moralists and smug academics were clearly designed to reverberate, but exactly how did they reverberate? To understand a philosopher so conscious of conflict, we must understand the conflicts his own ideas created, because these conflicts are the very manifestation of the philosophy. The fact that this sickly German professor became a celebrity and an icon seems as unlikely as his works themselves, and just as laden with meaning.






Philosophy Weekend: Three Quotes

by Levi Asher on Wednesday, February 22, 2012 07:23 pm


Three quotes I like, not necessarily related in any particular way:

When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed,- and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went before the sun, and spake thus unto it:

Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest!

For ten years hast thou climbed hither unto my cave: thou wouldst have wearied of thy light and of the journey, had it not been for me, mine eagle, and my serpent.

But we awaited thee every morning, took from thee thine overflow, and blessed thee for it.

Lo! I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that hath gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it.

I would fain bestow and distribute, until the wise have once more become joyous in their folly, and the poor happy in their riches.

Therefore must I descend into the deep: as thou doest in the evening, when thou goest behind the sea, and givest light also to the nether-world, thou exuberant star!

Like thee must I go down, as men say, to whom I shall descend.

Bless me, then, thou tranquil eye, that canst behold even the greatest happiness without envy!

Bless the cup that is about to overflow, that the water may flow golden out of it, and carry everywhere the reflection of thy bliss!

Lo! This cup is again going to empty itself, and Zarathustra is again going to be a man.

Thus began Zarathustra's down-going.






New Books Report: Sepulveda's Shadow, Civil War Literature, A Vonnegut Conversation

by Levi Asher on Monday, March 7, 2011 07:10 pm


Here are three books I've recently enjoyed. I'll cover a couple more next week as well.

The Shadow of What We Were by Luis Sepulveda

Chilean novelist and activist Luis Sepulveda lived through his nation's greatest political humiliation -- the overthrow of its democratically-elected leader Salvador Allende by rightists (backed by USA President Nixon's CIA) in September 1973 -- and now recalls that era in The Shadow of What We Were. This deceptively lighthearted comic novel presents a modern-day reunion of aging freedom-fighter heroes, fugitives, dreamers and organizers from 1973, now elderly men grown weak and bittersweet, gathering one last time to carry out a mission against the powers that still oppress them. Sepulveda skillfully balances the morose political overtones and deep sense of national loss with warm, wry dialogue and layered pop-culture references -- we catch glimpses of The Watchmen, Reservoir Dogs and The Magnificent Seven -- that point our attention to what has really conquered Chile since the days of Allende and Pinochet: western culture, and the complacent spirit of entertainment.






Philosophy Weekend: Outside of Society

by Levi Asher on Saturday, October 23, 2010 08:20 pm


"Outside of society!" shouts Patti Smith in one of her best songs, Rock and Roll Nigger. The phrase expresses not a reality but rather only a dream for many of us. For a small few, it's an actual choice.

I've never lived off the grid, but I've always been drawn to the idea. The impulse to withdraw from modern suburbia and reinvent society in capsule form has a long intellectual history; it was a driving force of the French Enlightenment, New England Transcendentalism (Louisa May Alcott spent part of her childhood in her father's commune) and the 1960s hippie revolution. During that golden age, Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters lived in a cabin in Palo Alto, Timothy Leary held court at Millbrook, New York, while Allen Ginsberg's poetic entourage gathered around Cherry Valley, New York. But Charlie Manson was also building his own society at Spahn Movie Ranch outside of Los Angeles during these years. Many of the most well-known off-the-grid communes since the end of the 1960s have similarly been disaster stories: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple in Guyana, David Koresh and the Branch Dravidians in Waco, the lonely Unabomber in his Lincoln, Montana cabin.

Some of the original hippie communes, though, did not fail, and managed to evolve. My older and younger sisters both experimented with communal societies at different points in their lives, and I once visited my younger sister for a weekend while she lived on the edge -- half in, half out -- of a rural commune in northwestern Vermont that sustained about 75 regulars and many more visitors. The informal commune -- people lived in separate shacks, but spent their days together -- had existed quietly and successfully for years. I hope it's still there.






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