Friday, November 30, 2007

Georges Bataille: Into the Realm of the Senses

That scandalous 1976 Japanese film took its climactic scene from Bataille's novellette that dared to blend fornication with termination. The Marquis de Sade boasted that every man thinks himself a tyrant during the sexual act. Bataille, a critic of Sade as were so many of his circle, remains renowned today as an explorer into the realms that few besides the infamous noble had dared to enter. However, unlike Sade, the French philosophers who wondered about the forbidden attempted to leave coded road maps for us to follow; scatology and puerile sputtering gave way, as the philosophers (and sometime novelists) matured, into learned treatises. (Still, we forget that Sade left his share of more even-tempered arguments as well; most of his works of all sorts were burned and we have little extant of his massive oeuvre.)

Bataille and his fellows of the College of Sociology (a respectably titled front for Acéphale among other underground renegades- they apocryphally shared an interest in human sacrifice but while many were willing to be the victim, none even at the promise of amnesty could be found to be executioner) began tramping past Surrealism into the literary, religious, anthropological, and erotic zones. These had been left largely uncharted by intellectuals. His protegé (and another former seminarian) Pierre Klossowski continued in this direction if to less acclaim. In the wake of Modernism, preparing for existentialism, fighting fascism, and attracted to radical self-autonomy, these mid-20 c avant-gardists turned to Sade and Nietzsche, Catholic mystics and secular iconoclasts, for hints of where such a journey into the senses might take scholars. Without them, we'd never have had Zone Books, all those parenthetically altered titles of MLA papers, The Body as its own scholarly pursuit, Derrida, Lacan, Baudrillard, Foucault, and their own spawn-- "cultural studies" in today's "select bookstores" for tenured black-clad acolytes.

Known best for his half-arousing, half-ludicrous "The Story of an Eye," which apparently inspired a Bjork video, Bataille can be daunting. I am re-reading after a quarter-century his "Erotism" and find it tough going. Most of his writing tends towards far less salacious description than "Story." I admit being jilted by his novella "Blue of Noon." (I reviewed it last week here.) Such a genre is not my usual reading, but I find myself, in my own academic trek spurred by a few passages in "Ulysses" past a dizzying vista of ideological terrain recently, reminded of my grad school stumbling upon "Erotism" and its impact. Blame Joyce, or Nora. So, as I stumble into Bataille's study of the intersection between the violent and the sacred, the moment of death and that of erotic dissolution, the stripping of the victim and the silence of consummation, the tangling annihilation and willing sacrifice, I wanted to share a few sites that can assist the overwhelmed sightseer entering the labyrinthine chambers that comprise his formidable, if often scattered and gnomic, reclamation of the hidden.

Thanks to whomever at the University of Warwickshire transcribed the sample entry from the book for a course. These are excerpts from the opening to his "Erotism: Death & Sensuality." City Lights put Bernini's sculpture of St Teresa in ecstasy appropriately on the cover of the English translation. The introduction concludes: "Poetry leads to the same place as all forms of eroticism — to the blending and fusion of separate objects. It leads us to eternity, it leads us to death, and through death to continuity. Poetry is eternity; the sun matched with the sea."

A fuller version of the introduction, along with excerpts from "Erotism" on "Reproduction & Death" and an essay from "On Nietzsche" about "The Crucifixion," can be found at another site. Bataille again quotes de Sade with his less comforting but typically barbed thought of the day: "There is no better way to know death than to link it with some licentious image."

Bataille & mysticism expounded by a thoughtful Dutch adept at The Mystical Site. "So every marriage ends up killing its own God":

Geoffrey Roche, U. of Auckland, discusses at the final link (see below) Bataille's understanding of Sade. Bataille as the critic and heir to the Marquis can be as insistent as le Comte when it comes to the denigration of the female. Bataille tells us: "The whole business of erotism is to strike to the inmost core of the living being, so the heart stands still. The transition from the normal state to that of erotic desire presupposes a partial dissolution of the person as he exists in the realm of discontinuity." The violent climax presages death, the gap between our existence and the void. So far, so good.

But, that "he" --even taking into account Franco-pronominal prejudices-- prepares us for: "In the process of dissolution, the male partner has generally an active role, while the female side is essentially that which is dissolved as a separate entity." (qtd. from pp. 17-18 of text; p. 162 in Roche pdf.) Or, as the song goes "I'll stop the world and melt with you." Bataille does go on to note how the male's power enables his union with the female as she's dissolved, so my allegations that Bataille favors male dominance may be premature.

When discussing the frisson and the swoon, who's to say? We all, as he finds in arguing his convoluted way through "Erotism," must base our objective analysis upon our subjective experience. While Kinsey's paradigms had not yet totally displaced those of Freud when Bataille wrote these lines in 1957, Bataille betrays a fundamental assertion that the man rules the roost. Even the most transgressive of cocksure rebels, in matters of intimacy, cannot shed his Gallic and galling chauvinism.

Learning Irish Gaelic: My Amazon List

Here's 40 items: I maxed out. Shameless self-promotion, but I had to pay for many of these myself. I think I deserve some freebies now. As my blurb there introduces them:

Learning Irish Gaelic

A Listmania! list by John L Murphy "Fionnchú" (Los Angeles)
John L Murphy says: "I've studied Irish off and on, living in the U.S., from books and tapes. While I have attended an immersion course in Ireland (Oideas Gael, Glencolmcille in Donegal), most of my learning has been on a self-taught basis. Irish does not come easily to me, but the pleasures from self-disciplined study make the halting ability for me to read the language of my ancestors utterly rewarding. Therefore, my recommendations tend towards the materials that will help the independent learner of the Irish language. Also, my emphasis may be more towards a reading knowledge rather than spoken fluency. For the latter, attend classes, preferably in Ireland!"

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Michael Patrick MacDonald's "All Souls": Book Review

MacDonald characterizes himself as cursed with an "Irish whisper." That is, unable to keep the secrets he's entrusted with under wraps, blaring out what he should have kept hidden. This memoir of the 1970s through the 1990s, when Whitey Bulger's thugs replaced the anti-busing protests for media attention in South Boston, moves efficiently, with modest attention to Michael Patrick's own coming-of-age as contrasted with a fearsome family scenario of ten siblings, four of whom meet violent ends and three of whom die tragically. The one who survives might as well have died earlier; she survives a coma only to emerge a psychological and physical wreck. While this story often blurs the schooling, or lack of, that the author gained as he grew up in the midst of the anti-busing boycotts, and while you gain a stronger sense of the other members of his family rather than himself, this may be redressed in the new sequel, "Easter Rising." You get a less distinctive depiction of himself compared to his larger-than-life Ma and assorted brothers. Yet, the author appears here to deliberately focus upon his family and the violent milieu that boasts of its solidarity yet which poisons its very cohesion by such corruption on a moral level and a sociological scale. MacDonald redeems himself and his neighborhood as he grows up not only in body but in spirit, managing a buy-back gun program and learning to trust (a few perhaps) police.

The same department who sought to imprison his brother, at thirteen, as Boston's youngest suspect: such maturity for the narrator emerges gradually and realistically. His story of how he survived Old Colony, absent of maudlin sentimentality or contrived cutesy anecdotes, reflects what in his acknowledgements appended he calls "every painful and personally redemptive sentence." (265) MacDonald manages to tell a story that could have been akin to the film "The Departed" or the HBO (even though it's in Providence) "Brotherhood," yet avoids ethnic cliche and predictably pat endings. The drama of abiding by the neighborhood code that forbids snitching but vowing to break that same omerta by seeking the culprits behind two of his brothers' deaths and the imprisonment of a third adds natural tension to this narrative. Yet, MacDonald sidesteps special pleading.

Many of the memories he shares deserve repeating. For this review, three quick examples. First: the author accounts for the absence of a regular man in Ma's life as she cares for eight kids. "A man would only be abusive, tear at Ma's self-worth, and limit her mobility in life. Welfare could do all that 'and' pay for the groceries." (33). Her third (named) partner and second husband, Bob King, gets hit over the head by Ma with the wine bottle that made him drunk. When he comes to, she accuses him or stealing the "Christmas money" and he's sent off down Jamaica Ave. for the last time. Staggering down the street, to staunch his bleeding head, he holds what Michael Patrick fetched on his mother's orders: a Kotex pad.

Ma herself gets shot randomly, through the living room window, by a teen high on Whitey's cocaine, just before the episode of "Dallas" comes on that she and all of America had been waiting for: "Who Shot J.R.?" Whether evoking the terror of his brother Davey's schizophrenia at Mass Mental, the fear of rats and roaches that infest the projects, the rage of the busing protests, the desperate schemes of his Ma to stay ahead of the authorities, or the conniving that infects both cops and criminals with the same lack of morality, MacDonald holds a calm eye for the telling detail and a cool pen to record what transpired. I look forward to his sequel, "Easter Rising." He keeps to the unadorned, if often witty, accounts of "street justice" that complicate his series of vivid incidents, recalled conversations, and local lore that add up to a poignant, yet honest, depiction of what it was to grow up in what was Southie, before gentrification, integration, and disintegration.

[Posted to Amazon US today-- 178 before me lined up to rate this book, the vast majority at 5 out of 5 stars. The author put a link at the site to his review of "The Departed." Also, here (thanks to Carrie who's found a way out of her own private Southie as well!) Ed Hagan in an Irish Studies perspective compares MacDonald's ghetto mentality with the West Belfast memoirs of Gerry Adams:
The list of the eleven children says it all for a certain culture--born May 1956 (died 1979), April 1957, April 1958 (twins), November 1959 (died 1984), December 1961 (coma three months 1981)-- the father was frequently absent from the home which may explain the year lapse between births here-- February 1963, March 1964, (died three weeks), March 1966 (the author). Two more boys by man #4 in September 1975, December 1976. The author set a city record for his birth weight of nearly thirteen pounds.]

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

32 Poems by R.S. Thomas

Free e-book (who needs Kindle?):

Short bio & link to e-book:

I've been thinking about this poet, whose two bios by Justin Wintle, "Furious Interiors: Wales, R. S. Thomas & God" (London: Flamingo-HarperCollins 1996) and Byron Rogers, "The Man Who Went Into the West" (London: Aurum, 2006) I mean to read, although I may have to wait until the calmer reveries during winter break. Sympathetically, I can relate to his frustration. One who longed to create in a Celtic language the verse that he lacked, in his harsh estimation, the fluency to convey, even as he opted for "Nab" (nobody) as the title of his rather enigmatic biography, written in Welsh. Prose can trundle along with a second language, but how few manage poetry in their acquired tongue?

The life (1913-2000) of a Welsh vicar, a fervent republican (I found Saunders Lewis' selected writings also), and metaphysical pioneer, who wandered into the realms of pastoral, abstraction, and love in his verse that spanned nearly six decades and 1500 poems, may seem devoid of much action. He makes his wife freeze by tearing out the central heating; she got her revenge by making him at a younger age to shave his beard (which became him better in a D.H. Lawrence/ Eric Gill manner).

The blurb on Rogers' life tells of a BBC Wales Arts correspondent who countered the stereotype of this "Ogre of Wales." He ranked Thomas with pro jokesters Ken Dodd and Lenny Bruce as among the three funniest men he'd ever met. So, like us all, a Whitmanish contradictory character able to contain within one's self multitudes? Perhaps the books will reveal a man akin to some Wordsworthian figure. I find myself curious how, as with another doubting believer, Thomas Merton, one can hold fast in a religious vocation while leaving the soul open to roam and complain and revolt. While intellectually I understand the certainty of a Richard Dawkins who claims that no God exists, such hubristic confidence pales before more nuanced approaches. Dawkins appears to protest too much, although I favor his suspicion of fundamentalists.

What of those who confess the faith but remain honestly skeptical? If Pascal doubted, what of our decade's dons and pundits? Should they not gain humility? Or, as Natalie Angier suggests, will we evolve into a race increasingly more rational, as science explains it all for us? Although the newly emboldened atheist proponents condemn agnosticism as a cop-out, leaving open possibilities appears to more truly more humane, more humanistic, than denying any chance at a supernatural explanation or otherworldly force.

I wonder if such neither-or third party skepticism will be an option in our evolution into a monocultural corporate global state. Conservative critic Dinesh D'Souza recently commented on the noosphere (reminiscent of Teilhard de Chardin) that allows for a dimension we can yearn to discover beyond the time-space reduction of our 3-d universe. This for me soured Marxism, Freud, and deterministic theories: they left no room for awe or transcendence within us. Darwin certainly wrestled with the grim impact on Victorian England of his own paradigm shift. Even Sam Harris, in his "The End of Faith," acknowledges the appeal of Buddhism (admittedly non-theist in the strict sense) and meditation. And, Daniel Dennett or Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking might urge us to admire the stars and evolution if we need contemplative wonder. Can a comet comfort us?

But I digress. We can learn in a week where news from Sudan finds a British teacher jailed after she let her schoolchildren vote to name their classroom stuffed bear "Muhammed," about the need for tolerance in an era increasingly bitter about atheist vs. believer, secular NPR listener vs. megachurch SUV McMansionite. Like Merton, Thomas found himself drawn to the natural world away from the urbane intellectual realm. But, neither Merton nor Thomas could escape its lure. Who of us can in this networked century that follows their cosmopolitan one? Only a few. R. S. Thomas holds in his Llyn peninsula (one of the three places I want to visit in Wales, along with the Eric Gill/ David Jones studio and a certain bridge near the center mountains) rural retreat the ability to concentrate in a manner that eludes all but the monastically vowed, the reclusively recalcitrant, the impoverished, or trust-funded among the back-to-nature crowd.

I guess we call those those below the poverty line hillbillies or trailer trash or misers, and title those independently wealthy as New Age visionaries, mystic philosophers, or midlife seekers. I recall the late John Moriarty's own rejection of academia for such a life in Kerry and Conamara. And, how like Thomas and Moriarty (if unlike Merton, who never lived so long), or such characters as the aging Francis Stuart. Gyorgy Faludy, Beckett or Pierre Klossowski, their lives of determined iconoclasm make them all look in their twilight years like maddened gurus, who have flown too close to the sun. Unlike Icarus, they have not fallen doomed after their inventive leap. Like Dedalus, they must live with the haunted eyes of those who have seen weaker free spirits, unluckier daredevils, or simply frailer loved ones earlier perish.

Image from "100 Welsh Heroes:" Ronald Stuart Thomas around 80.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Daniel Nussbaum's PL8SPK: Review link

Not by me, as we happen already to be fans of this book which brought Dan into the world of Budget Films thanks to my wife's fan letter to him way back, but by Christian Bok on "Harriet," the Poetry Foundation's blog. For those of you unfamiliar with Dan's work, he took, in pre-Net days, the thick DMV compilation of personalized California license plates and composed poetry, stories, and humor from the vocabulary, no spelling used more than once. For example, Hamlet's most famous soliloquy:


Read more at the review, and better yet, find a copy of this Harper Collins 1994 delight bound like a plate with its silver cover, and its sequel, consigned to humbler paper, LASpeak.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Joe Boyd's "White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s": Book Review

The title refers to the Amsterdam Provos who placed bikes all over the city for people, in that idealistic year of 1967, to use for free. By summer's end, they were being stolen and repainted. This metaphor sums up the decade Boyd describes, as a promoter, go-between, and then producer of some of its best, if not most famous, music. Raised in Princeton and fresh out of Harvard in 1962, he began working with jazz musicians touring Europe. He describes the hassles and pleasures of driving them about, interceding in disputes, and learning the business. He also, throughout this uneven yet engaging narrative, reflects upon the sociological significance of what he sells to the masses.

About presenting black music to white audiences, Boyd explains how novelty creates crowds eager for a fresh sensation. When the trend ends, "the intellectuals and the wallflowers who have admired the music's vitality and originality move in to preserve or resurrect the form." As the name of the "Preservation Hall" in New Orleans indicates, this may, as Boyd shows with Aretha Franklin later on, freeze both artist and fans into well-intended but grim nostalgia. Boyd insists upon openness to all influences. His Hannibal/ Carthage label, although its 80s-early 90s heyday is beyond the time of this book, distributed wonderful records which captured the "world music" label's potential yet steered clear of exploitation or trendiness. This label revived the early records (many of which he produced) of Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, and Fairport Convention, for example. Boyd wonders why the English hated their own folk music-- as opposed to the Americans-- and argues that this disdain stems from the Norman Conquest and subsequent derision of regional accents, styles, and traditions.

As for his fellow Yanks, Boyd managed the Newport Folk Festival stage during the "Dylan goes electric" 1965 show. Considering publicity for Seeger and Dylan sparked by Todd Haynes' new film revives the claim that Seeger vowed-- I paraphrase his purported wish--: "if Dylan plugs in, I'll ax the cable," Boyd's denial of this as urban legend merits attention. He had brought on the marvelously named Texas Prison Worksong Group (four real chain-gangers who in time cut wood as they did time) and had found a real stump for them to chop on stage. Boyd tells how a mic cable came loose and how Boyd saved it from the path of an ax while Seeger, who had introduced the band, "gave me an approving nod." (101) That's all, according to this eyewitness.

Contrast Ann Powers' November 11th notes in the L.A. Times on Haynes' film:
The mythology: "I'm Not There" makes hay of two disputed moments in Dylan's early career. In the first, a Pete Seeger doppelgänger wielding an ax threatens to cut the power feeding Quinn's amplifiers at a folk festival; the second involves a folkie yelling "Judas" at the singer as he performs in London, and the crowd nearly rioting. In truth, Seeger denies touching any weaponry when Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; "I said, 'If I had an ax, I'd cut the cable,' " he told Dylan biographer Howard Sounes three decades later.

Boyd muses how the pivotal moment of the decade, the cusp between the dreams and the reality, happened that night. "Anyone wishing to portray the history of the sixties as a journey from idealism to hedonism could place the hinge at around 9:30 on the night of 25 July, 1965." (107) Dylan turned his back on the folk tradition, political song, and didactic hectoring. Instead of "Blowin' in the Wind," answers lay, if at all, within "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Boyd describes backstage the defeat of the old guard, and the young, who, chastened, "realized that in their victory lay the death of something wonderful. The rebels were like children who had been looking for something to break and realized, as they looked at the pieces, what a beautiful thing it had been." (106) The writing's a bit slack here, but the lack of specificity, I suppose, allows each reader to better imagine what he or she would have reflected upon and lamented, if he or she had heard Dylan on this much-mythologized evening.

The remainder of the decade takes up three-fifths of the text. In it, Boyd runs the UFO club (but has little to say about Pink Floyd, the house band, as opposed to his later dealings with Denny and the Incredible String Band, for instance), discovers Nick Drake and the ISB, deals with the Jimi Hendrix documentary film rights, learns show biz as he swims with the sharks from Warners, Island, Apple, Polydor, and continues to feed his own smaller pond at Witchseason Productions. He even wades briefly--thanks to his earnings in Tinseltown-- alongside producer Don Simpson into a particularly pricy pool manned by a sailor-capped former sci-fi scribe.

He hits SF and LA, does the drugs and shares the gossip, but remains discreet. It's only as an aside that you learn his girlfriend during much of this time had been Linda Peters before she became Richard Thompson's partner! He notes how Richard's band turned "a rebuke into an inspiration" when the release of "Music from Big Pink" by The Band caused the Muswell Hill soft-rockers turned on by the West Coast SF sound to turn towards their own country's treasure-trove of ballads and reels in what became their their third Boyd-produced LP of 1968. My favorite photo of the band rehearsing for this LP, halos of light around their hair, heads bent over fretboards or gazing out pensively, graces the illustrations at the center of this volume. (A discography of Boyd's productions 1966-74 also appears.) Amazing to recall how "Liege & Lief" bettered even "Unhalfbricking" and (my favorite) "What We Did on Our Holidays," their first record to feature the formidable, and as told by Boyd, unforgettably determined, Sandy Denny.

One caveat: common to many books on music, and perhaps unavoidably, if you have not heard the music of many of the makers he introduces you to, you may not appreciate much of their impact. Drake, Fairport, Denny, and the ISB gain the most attention, but for a few efforts on which Boyd also manned the boards, say, Dr. Strangely Strange's pair of LPs, Nico's brilliantly grim "Desertshore," or two of John & Beverley Martyn's records in the early 70s, you gain only cursory mention. I don't know what the discography's LP by Muleskinner sounded like; Boyd barely mentions his later work with Maria Muldaur, although her 1973 hit that must have lined Boyd's pockets well, "Midnight at the Oasis"! An annoying song, but more popular than much of what he gives attention to here.

His Ivy League learning surfaces intermittently but to well-deployed effect. He compares the popularity of "The Beggar's Opera" from 1721-1790 in London with a cultural revolution's need to "feed the public's appetite for titillation," of hob-nobbing with the declassé and the rogues. (I think of "Rent," "Hair," or "Les Miserables" today.) He tells how the French in the nineteenth century "refined the process by which the newly enlarged bourgeoisie avoided boring itself to death." This could be Mick Jagger in the Bahamas, Joe Strummer in the Home Counties, or Johnny Rotten in Marina del Rey: "Adventurous sons left the safety of the middle-class hearth, lived in sin with seamstresses in garrets, took to drugs or drink and espoused radical philosophies. They would then create a daring novel/ play/ painting/ poem/ opera to provide vicarious thrills for those still working at their respectable jobs, earning enough as a result to reassume the trappings of bourgeois life in their old age." (157)

The last century's twist was to draw the audience deeper and closer into this demi-monde. Thanks to psychedelics, this experience of transcending one's origins could change you as a participant rather than as an spectator: "at UFO, the grinning crocodile of psychedelics wrapped its lips around your ankle, dragged you in and licked you all over." (158) But, the revolution turned out to be merely another trend. Police, money, and violence soon eroded any potential for dramatic change, and the bicycles in Amsterdam symbolized the failure of any "14 hour technicolor dream," as the reproduced UFO billing promised for 29/30 April 1967, to materialize beyond a will o'the wisp.

Yet, whether it was Los Lobos listening to Fairport's "A Sailor's Life" and realizing their own band could gain from a blend of traditional roots music with their own rock, or Boyd's own efforts to produce and distribute a folk-rock innovation that enlivened both adjectival genres, the promise of the 60s did, perhaps, survive the busts and the withdrawal symptoms and the long come-down. His last pages provide an eloquent eulogy for what the Sixties offered. He ponders how the leading guru, Dick Alpert- Baba Ram Dass, was able to leave drugs behind while his followers became submerged, and often dragged down, by the forces unleashed that pulled so many "towards chaos and mediocrity." As heroin and cocaine replaced mushrooms and marijuana, Boyd suggests that the music and the ethos suffered terminal declines. He doubts that the tunes of the Sixties will prove any more durable than those of later decades. Prosperity then favored dropouts who could live the bohemian lifestyle on very little cash; today, such time and money are both at a premium unaffordable for most of us, unless we're trust funded.

Boyd causes you to consider if the post-1973 decline from a period of "dangerous laxness" when debt-free students could threaten the Pentagon and the French government's stability was not a conspiracy. Even if coincidental, the collapse of an economy that enabled so many to think, play, and perform (however ineptly) proves a sobering coda for Boyd's reflections. As a producer, he laments the decline of studio sound that captured the buzz in the air of musicians laying down the backing tracks live, and the digitized isolation of today's sounds. So much music survives today, but atomized onto iPods and downloads rather than on radio and in concert, the community that fueled such creation and consumption of music also provided, thanks to technological advances in the studio, an overload that short circuits the old adrenalin of a concert or hearing an LP with friends in a crowded flat when so few could, in Britain, afford even a phonograph in the early years of the Sixties.

"Much of the Sixties is mirrored in that Sunday night at Newport, when Dylan sent Pete Seeger fleeing into the night with the jubilant aggression of his music-- music inspired by Seeger himself." (269) The explosion of the decade ignited audiences with electricity, but this also drowned out the sounds of Skip James or Thelonious Monk and "blew their minds with the simplistic sounds of the Grateful Dead. Few took time to mourn, as we did backstage at Newport, for what was so heedlessly tossed aside." Once, he recalls, "when the mode of music changes, the walls of the city shake." (268) {Plato said this of Pythagoras, I remember.} Now, "when the mode of music changes, the walls of the city are covered in corporate ads sponsoring superficially subversive artists." (271) Or, in other words, putting choice seats on AmEx for the Rolling Stones tour sponsored by Ameriquest?

Review posted to Amazon US today. Author's Website:

P.S. Although Serpent's Tail refused the request of Cliff Furnald, the editor of "the online magazine of the world's music," for this book or its companion CD for me to review there, I did enjoy the read. But I did not buy it; I waited until the library obtained it. Why? I do feel compelled to mention this churlish rejection as a my own protest against a kind of post-Sixties corporate stinginess that prevented Furnald and his ancillary store-- which sells much of Boyd-related music from Topic, Transatlantic, and other Fairport-affiliated bands and singers as well as great tunes worldwide-- from a deserved opportunity to share with the site's readers and listeners my review of this book/ CD set. Furnald, and Boyd, represent the ideals of the decade that created such music and persist, four decades after the Summer of Love, in sharing by the latest media the wonders of the world's songsmiths with us today.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Learning Welsh: Resources

Iechydd da! "Good day!" Dia duit. As if Irish isn't daunting enough. Mutations "go leor," fearsome changes, dialectical brawls that make Corca Dhuibne vs. Gaoth Daobhair look like a playground spat. Literary and spoken versions diverging apace with the red shift of the galaxies according to the Hubble constant. But, after thinking about R.S. Thomas and getting Byron Rogers' recent bio (still meaning to read Justin Wintle's one from last decade on the same) on this fractious nationalist vicar who, learning his native tongue (yes, I understand the contradiction) too late, could not write in it the verse which, many claim, makes him the pre-eminent poet of the last part of the last century in English, I figured perhaps returning to find out more about Cymraeg and Cymru would be inspiring. Or, at least make me appreciate my lack of Irish fluency better.

In 1979, staying near a village near the Pennine moors, Upper Cumberworth ("homestead of the Cymri" as one of their last interior North-Central outposts near the vanished realm about which Ted Hughes wrote a Yorkshire-themed collection titled "Remains of Elmet")-- with my decidedly raven-curled and dark-eyed hostess Rachel, whose father was Liverpool Welsh and had studied at Aberystwyth-- I heard on a jaunt to Fishguard (Abergaun= "mouth of the river") a Celtic sentence or two spoken for the first time.

Rachel looked Welsh, and although we had to look puzzled and wait for the question to morph again into our imperial form of address, I was taken by this interaction. The assumption entered into a casual exchange between strangers: that Rachel was Welsh and that she could speak a language other than English-- one that had endured 4,500 years in this part of the island. The bond that was offered chafed against the sundered tie. Emigration from Wales had dissolved ancestral link that connected her family to its roots. Yet, her genetic inheritance still attracted the gesture made by the lads who stopped her. (Me, I don't know-- I guess I was either Irish or American or German for that matter to them-- if not a Brit. Another reason why when travelling I tend not to speak up much, preferring to blend in and observe.)

It was one of those happenstance moments that defines a path for a lifetime. Two Pembroke (we were in Dyfed, formerly Pembrokeshire) Corgis walked with their owner on the shore. Dog loving me took this as a good omen. Locals asked Rachel where she'd gotten the fish & chips she carried as we walked along waiting for the ferry to Rosslare and my first, albeit brief, glimpse of Ireland.

On the middle of the night's return, I also recall being catcalled by local louts as I entered the Kingdom again. I hesitated. I was unsure if I could stroll in as easily as a subject of the Queen, but nobody seemed to care that I was an American in this unlikely port of (re-)entry. Crown security was much more casual back then about such matters, although we were held up an awfully long time before departure. The boat had been boarded and police wandered about amidst squalling megaphones. There were mutterings of the IRA's threats as we waited for the ferry earlier that day. The tension of the Irish campaign churned with dormant memories of what being regarded as English in the principality where holidaymakers meant. I had already enjoyed the lyrical if somewhat sentimental novels of Richard Llewellyn, and not only "How Green Was My Valley." "Green, Green Was My Valley" written in his grumpy retirement in the 1970s lamented not only the closure of the mines but the arsonists who attacked the vacation homes. My sympathies were and remain with the Meibion Glyndwr. Rachel and her innocently uncomprehending sort earned resentment from our Celtic cousins who remained behind, under such invasion by us outlanders for centuries. We forgot our mother tongues, and, like R.S. Thomas or myself (can't speak for Rachel), we labor all the more to regain what to a child comes so much easier.

Irony also entered that resort town. Fishguard's the location of "the last attempted invasion" of Albion. In 1797 a few clueless Gauls were apprehended on the same strand where the Queen's chosen breed trotted. The next "year of the French" resulted in the failed Rising of 1798 with thirty thousand dead Irishmen: history certainly remained relevant.

I was staying with the Johnsons for six weeks on a summer exchange program after I won an essay contest sponsored by the State of California on the quadricentennial of Sir Francis Drake's landing in the Bay Area. Later, the Manx held their assembly-- I think it was on the Fourth of July whose spectacular sunset over Denby Dale lingers in my mind-- and on the BBC I listened to a bit of that revived language also. Ned Maddrell, (arguably) the last native speaker of Manx, had died less than five years before. (See my recent review here of Mark Abley's "Spoken Here" and its chapters on both Manx and Welsh.) And, in the sunny July garden "off Carr Hill Road" (as the postal address went-- "car" comes from a P-Celtic "car[r]"), I read the now famous Jon Savage review, "Death Disco," of a nearby band's debut LP (Sounds, Melody Maker, NME all being my constant companions then along with gammon crisps, lemon curd & Bakewell tarts), "Unknown Pleasures" by Joy Division. Bilberries (blueberries to me) from the fields. Also, my first pints of Guinness at the Toss o'Coin. What a way to bridge my high school- into- college summer; I turned 18 in England! Yes, Rachel had a boyfriend already, Simon in the RAF; he and I went to Mass together in Barnsley, and he was quite a genial gentleman.

I reviewed on the British Amazon site a while back Pamela Petro's "Travels in Another Language" about her experiences trying to speak Welsh while visiting foreign places where, she reasoned, the conversationalists would be less likely to lapse into Saesnag. She had studied, as so many do, at the Wlpan (the only word in Hebrew likely to have been commonly adapted into a Celtic language, I reckon) and at courses at the University campus in Lampeter (whose site no longer has a link to the on-line tutorials, however). Surfing the Web today after a search for Sain Records revealed disappointingly little about their activist past, I wandered into language links.

I credit the post-colonial Beeb for great sites for adult learners in both Irish and Welsh. Following links, I noticed a second Californian writer who learned Welsh at an Wlpan. I guess it's like Oideas Gael, but financially larger and so grandly scaled. There's one year-round in the formerly deserted village of Nant Gwrtheryn. Again, the contrasts between the relatively intimate facilities for Irish learners and the extensive support for adults learning Welsh continues to astonish me; certainly Sabhal Mór Ostaig on the Isle of Skye has developed too a strong Hebridean presence. (I've read "A Waxing Moon"-- a history of SMO-- by Roger Hutchinson and meant to review it but cannot find my notes taken from the ILL copy.) The state sponsorship of Irish, contrarily, as letters continue to castigate Conradh na Gaeilge and the like for their lackadaisical efforts, makes the resurgence of Scots Gaelic and Welsh all the more admirable, undertakings that relied more on community energy than hidebound bureaucracy.

Here's a link to a review of what Thomas published (for the great publisher Y Lolfa, the Celtic cousin to Cló Iar Chonnachta "as gaeilge") about her joys and pains: "You Don't Speak Welsh." http://www.clwbmalu

BBC's Learn Welsh:
Mark Nodine's Welsh course on-line:
Harry Campbell's Welsh Informationary:

Shariah Program: Language-learning links from all over the world (including Ulpan/ Wlpan):

P.S. Image on right= "I'm learning Welsh." Tá mé ag foghlaim Breatnáis. Tá beagan Breatnáis agam. In Irish, the surname anglicized as "Walsh" is really "Breathnach," or stranger/ outsider/ foreigner. Compare "Wallace" in Scotland, as in Braveheart's William W. who, of course, fights the lisping Normans from England via France, Normandy via their marauding progenitors the Northmen or Vikings. Not to be confused with Wallachia near Transylvania or the Galizianers from Galatia on the border of present-day Poland and the Czech lands. (Not to be confused with the Galatians in Asia Minor who received a letter from Paul.) Gaul was conquered as were those Continental Celtic bastions by Rome, who at least named Cambria for the Welsh, Britannia for England, and Alba for Scotland. Confusingly, "Galles" is French for the Welsh. The Welsh speak a Celtic language but not a Gaelic one. Theirs is P-Celtic, or "Brythonic." Welsh, in English, derives from a term for stranger in post-Roman days as Britain was invaded by the Anglo-Saxons. Thus their term "wealasc" (cf. "commonweal"). Contrarily, "Cymraeg" denotes one of the people, a true native and not a sissified Saes in Welsh/ sinister Sasanach in Irish!

P.P.S. Britain derives from Prydain-- the same word used by the late Lloyd Alexander in his splendid tales that revive the Mabinogi. Brittany comes from the flight of the Celts from Britain into non-Frankish "Armorica," as the Romans called it. When the Irish call for "Brits out," they really mean "English," but this is complicated by the Union and the fact that many of the soldiers who were stationed in the North were Scots, or Welsh. (See "Soldiers & Innocents," Russell Celyn Jones' novel.) Many of those who first invaded Hibernia in 1169 were Normans who had taken over Wales a century earlier. And you all know that the Scotti were Gaelic migrants from Ireland, right?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Steven Stark's "Meet the Beatles": Book Review

I realize I cannot begin to read Jonathan Gould's Beatles social history unless I dash off my review of Stark's similar if shorter study. So, posted to Amazon US today...

As a child of the 60s, the Beatles' music can be recalled in my mind more easily and indelibly than any other tunes. This both hinders my objectivity as a listener and heightens my pleasure at reading about them. This book, a sort of condensation of the detail that can be found within such newer studies as the weighty Bob Spitz biography (also reviewed by me) and Jonathan Gould's 2007 social history "Can't Buy Me Love," (which will be reviewed by me, and which does not mention Stark!), efficiently retells the familiar story. Where, as the author admits right away, it differs remains in the stress given the cultural factors.

Not a professional scholar of the group, and not a hagiographer of the band, Stark writes with less passion than Spitz and less range than Gould. The book does move over the later years too rapidly, and while it lists many sources consulted, the references within the text are less easily cross-referenced. This does ease readibility but may frustrate those wishing for more exactitude. The music, likewise, appears but cursorily covered compared to the social impact. Songs remain understated. You will not find the day-by-day chronicle or the musical cut-by-cut analyses; Stark cautions us early on that other books have done this already. So, any reader needs to understand that this book offers instead an overview, if chronologically ordered, of the wider implications of the Beatles upon their decade. John and Paul gain the most notice; relatively little to Ringo and George has been given. There is very little attention paid to the songs. Artistic trends and packaging of the band and its records receive little direct interpretation. For instance, the discussion of "Revolver" ignores totally its cover art!

But, for a relatively brisk read, Stark does add nuances that pleased me. For instance, reminding us of the power of the limited range of TV and radio, the single-sex enrollment of English schools that encouraged students to imitate in drama the (absent) opposite sex, nostalgia and romanticism as literary forces in Britain, the gender-bending tradition of British humor and fashion, Liverpool's ties to the American South but not the African American diaspora, the ambiance of the art school, or the influence of drugs of various types on the band. The Hamburg years and the fact the Beatles played a thousand gigs before coming to America make clearer their musical and psychological development before 1964.

Also, rarely noticed points to those of us less than totally obsessed, such as that Ed Sullivan did not even learn of the band's fame prior to the show until he had been delayed on a plane due to the band's landing ahead of him causing congestion, make this a worthwhile version of another explanation for the band's prominence. He explains why they made it when Elvis, the Stones, or earlier musicians did not. He emphasizes the group dynamic that changed how audiences regarded collective endeavor in the arts. Most of all, Stark shows why in regard to the counterculture, gender roles, intellectual currents, and their quasi-religious allure, the four young men were able to lead the boomers into a revolution after all-- not the one Yoko might have expected, but one that changed hairstyles, demeanors, LPs, and the process of how artists relate to and are in turn changed by their fans.

Georges Bataille's "Blue of Noon": Book Review

Not nearly as memorable as the surrealist pornography of "The Story of an Eye," nor as thought-provoking as his study of the tangling of the great death and the "little death" of orgasm in his sex- and- mortality, violence- and- the sacred exploration "Erotism," this slim novel, as the author's uncomfortable tone betrays in its afterword, appears half-finished and abandoned rather than meant as it is for publication.

Lazare's fanatical devotion to the Left and especially Dirty's penchant for decadent and unsanitary lifestyle choices remain the most powerfully characterized moments, but too much of the novel remains as jittery and haphazard-- albeit Bataille argues in the afterword he meant it to be read as such-- as comparatively mundane next to the strong opening vignette of Troppmann and Dirty in one of literature's most effectively rendered dives, even by Parisian standards.

As one who has read plenty of Céline, a bit of Sade, and some of Sartre's fiction, this novel held some interest. Yet, it seems too slack, too dragged down by ennui. Far less erotic than a reader of "The Story of An Eye" might expect, this instead recalls Bataille's protege, Pierre Klossowski (his novels have been reviewed by me on Amazon; he's the brother of the painter Balthus) and his philosophical protagonists who also are prone more to shuffling about rather than coupling energetically. The extravagant claims left by readers here appear unfounded, given the turgid pace of its pages and the uneven tone of the narrative.

Images: American edition in blue; British in silver. Which female image do you prefer? Penguin there, a small indie publisher here. It figures. Review posted to Amazon US today; most people raved about this novella far more than I did.

Michel Faber's "Vanilla Bright Like Eminem": Book Review

With a nod to the American market, what in Britain two years ago appeared as "The Fahrenheit Twins" now comes, after the success of his Victorian triple-decker "The Crimson Petal and the White," as Faber's third collection of his more usual genre, the short story. If you're wondering about the similarity with his blockbuster, doorstopper of a novel (I'm told a sequel's in the works), there's only one story, "Flesh Remains Flesh," that takes place in the mid-19c., and this was one of the weakest entries, in my opinion. However, even this macabre tale displays Faber's genial wit, his edgy sensibility of an outsider, and his fascination with the outré amidst the mundane.

These stories often depict a character out-of-sync with society, or one who shifts slightly away from the norm and finds wonders or horrors. The first two, "The Safehouse" and the slightly less successful "Andy Comes Back," present protagonists who in the first case leave and the second case return from the margins. Faber conjures up a marvellously sinister take on the Panopticon and an Orwellian society of surveillance and suspicion in "The Safehouse" and ends it perfectly. He does this with "Andy" and the "Eyes of the Soul" also, and after three strong stories that begin this collection, "Explaining Coconuts" veers off into an off-beat satire of a deadpan recitation of the properties of that magical fruit to an audience of lustful middle-aged rich men; impossible to explain the tone of this story, but it's almost extraterrestrial in its strangeness. It reminds me a bit of his haunting novel "Under the Skin" in how it evokes an alien sensibility within otherwise ordinary surroundings.

"Finesse" takes what appears a predictable encounter of revenge between a female doctor whose family has been held hostage by a dictator and his need for an operation and manages to rework this conflict satisfyingly. Likewise, "Less Than Perfect" takes adolescent angst and longing for the unattainable woman and presents an encounter that proves more faithful to reality than most fiction; "The Smallness of the Action" tries this with a harried mother caring, or not caring for, her infant but the touch is too heavily ironic here for the reader to care. "A Hole with Two Ends" makes the Scottish Highlands (the author's adopted home) into a wilderness akin to the harsh savannah. "All Black" balances a breakup with a man's male lover with his weekend visit with the man's daughter after he's been separated from his wife-- complicated enough-- and sets as a backdrop to this domestic set-up what appears to be a catastrophic plague of oncoming global darkness. An ambitious story, but Faber manages to keep the familiar and the terrifying blended in perfect proportion.

"Serious Swimmers" dramatizes an addict who must begin to care for her long-estranged daughter; at a public pool under the eye of a social worker, her courage becomes no less engrossing than the quest of an ancient superhero. "Someone to Kiss It Better" efficiently details the downfall of a thug, "Mouse" sets the worlds of gaming and nature and desire against each other neatly, and "Tabitha Warren" handles the decline of a hack bestselling writer of treacly animal-narrated potboilers brilliantly in her rendition of a cat's true stream-of-consciousness narration. It's both funny and poignant.

So is "Beyond Pain," when the unlikely pairing of a Scots small-town musician for a death-metal band and his Hungarian girlfriend brings them into a moment of beauty at a roadhouse csardas. The title story movingly relates the one moment in a father's life when it all comes together perfectly as he watches his daughter rub his son's spiked and bleached hair on a train. Faber's humanism softens and sculpts this final entry.

I wanted to conclude with a few samples of Faber's prose, for those unfamiliar with his style. Whether depicting the world outside or the torment within, Faber avoids the predictable yet keeps his control of the human. Like George Saunders, he manages to provide a moral grounding while he enters the altered, deformed, or stunted sensibility of the nonconformist, the misfit, or the repressed Everyman. All of these sixteen stories are worth reading, twelve are recommended, and half of those I found met the already high expectations I had for this writer after his two novels.

"All around Neil and Sarah, the picture quality of the world was being adjusted as if by brightness and contrast knobs on God's remote control: the sharper contours of grass and scarred earth were sharpened further, almost luminescent, while the duller stretches were retreating into darkness." (The Highlands, in "A Hole," 133-4)

"He seemed unconvincing as a new arrival to the world. There was a darkness in his brow, a slyness to his eyes, a set to his mouth, which made him look like he was a man already, as if her womb had been some sort of a public bar where he'd already spent half a lifetime sipping beer, swapping grievances with his mates, and staring at women's breasts." ("The Smallness," 141, as the mother looks at her son.)

"In the lurid electric light of the train interior, traveling backwards with my eight-year-old daughter at my side, I suddenly realize that my gorgeous, talented, award-winning partner's play wasn't really about anything, except being gay. Judged next to any children's story, it had no plot to speak of." (One moment of self-scrutiny, "All Black" 157)

{Posted to Amazon US today.}

The Way to Market Station

Miss Templeton, my correspondent from (as my wife mused on our way Monday again down South) the "Northern California [which] has always treated us well," asked me to post here about my impressions of The City. Strange attraction, ever since seeing it at the age of ten on my first trip there or anywhere. Despite what my spouse and I agree is a marked humorlessness (compared to us; Leo noted how I laughed at parts of "No Country for Old Men"-- Yeats reference, no?-- last night when nobody else in the theater made a peep, even though it was a Coen Bros movie; it takes a lot to make me audible, although "Pulp Fiction" memorably inspired similarly risible moments amidst a funereal congregation) among the denizens of PC SF, I could live there happily. The fresh air, brisk wind, gentler sun all invigorate me. My recent trips to the Pacific Northwest the past two Octobers have only strengthened my longing to roam towards greener and cooler climes. When Layne'd ask me where I'd like to be if money was no object, it and Galway (despite--like SF come to think of it, or LA-- its increasing congestion, Eurotrash, and monocultural commodification) vie for the top spot. And both, recent findings confirm, drew me in long before I realized my maternal bond and the power of nature over my nurture in the dusty smoggy chaparral far to the south and west of these coastal ports and foggy harbors.

I sure could stay in my second dream city at the Hotel Vitale, across from the Ferry Building and The Embarcadero, tucked near the Bay Bridge, as my second suite. The feng shui ambiance, the earth tones, the giant bathtub, even the porn-track chill-out ambient CDs that they had playing in the room for turn-down (Earth, Wind, Fire, Air: the first one chthonically sluggish, the airy one stuffed with sighs, and the other two will have to wait until next time; "The Reindeer Room" Xmas mash-up will never have a next time): all this spoke of a certain quality that this boutique hotel aimed at and took down blissfully. I knew we were the intended demographic for this shrine to tasteful profit discretely but definitely purveyed. While not spawn ourselves, I imagined this site attracts such; the classical station that sponsored the holiday fest at the Embarcadero Center immediately north and delayed our dinner at Sens again showed an all-out celebration that a small city can better energize than the sprawl that separates so many of us in the Southland Basin (what a piquant term for our topographical shelf).

The scene at the hotel bar (a subdued El Toro Stout, but I figured it might have been a local brew?) that night where Layne and I retreated post-dinner with Jerry & Anna reminded me how little I get out on the (any) town, and how sheltered my daily routine is from the realms of venture capital, internationally deployed affluence, and black-clad indulgence. The party across from us looked and sounded like 1.5 generation Chinese children of privilege; the constantly expanding one next to us might have been Lebanese but we had no idea of what was said but I did catch a bonjour and some version of "salaam" in the salutations. The hotel's booklet proved markedly thoughtful. For, rather than a xerox of local churches to pray at or pizzerias take-out menus or a postcard, it mused over the array of choices-- where to lunch and dine for a week, fourteen places in all reviewed; wine country tours; the usual New Age messages; predictably quirky sights evinced an intelligent awareness of the charm of this opulent Baghdad by the Bay.

Then, as the midnight banging by a shouting derelict of the metal Angel sculpture immediately below our window commemorating two men killed there in the dock strike on "Bloody Thursday" 1934 reminded us, the contradictions of a hotel offering free yoga classes with the past of a decidedly more raucous port of call remained. Gazing out from the eight floor down on a stoic palm in the mist along the shore in the park where the Ferry Building meets the Embarcadero Center, I entered my "tree pose" Sunday morning. As I perched, I thought of Anna & Jerry getting ready to go to Mass. The generations of Irish in the City, the shift from the past to the present. A church bell did ring, but I could not tell where.

I looked out at the streetcars in the haze from the fitness room, and thought of brawling longshoremen and Pinkerton men with guns. My adopted family, from mines, railroads, tenements, and factories. Me, the introverted Ph.D. with an increasingly pantheistic, agnostic, or devout mindset depending on day, meal, or mood. Teaching immigrant techies at one college and ESL fashionistas at another. Grafting a new branch, or twig, or root, of my family tree into my own search for identity. Coming to a city that had always beckoned me in my own hunt for books, for ideas, and for stimulation. And now, the morning before, beginning in that same hotel's lobby, my own journey within had deepened and joined a new tributary.

Layne and I stayed in a curved fourth-floor (what fast elevators to 430) room facing the corner of Steuart and Mission towards the Rincon Post Office with its giant WPA murals full of gloating capitalists and noble Amerindians. The pioneer trek had among its bearded harbingers of Manifest Destiny a fallen and elongated dead white European male with an arrow clean through his bull's eye Christian breast. The final mural had flags of Allies united against the Axis of Evil; the hammer and sickle as prominent as Old Glory. Anton Refrigier did not sound like an artist from Moscow, but he certainly kept the strikes, the labor unrest, and the agitation endemic to the city vigorous in the largest extant (they were going to demolish it in the 70s) collection of such New Deal art in the nation. As Layne and I had met at the L.A. Terminal Annex for our first tete-a-tete, with its own murals, this symbolic and entirely happenstance juxtaposition of FDR and forging intimate bonds between loved ones, the strangers who become family, was all the more powerful and poignant. Even though the friezes in the modern addition to the building with fake-bas relief people of color and disability, sexual preference and gender from the 80s looked as ancient as the WPA ones, given the billowing hair, the giant eyeglasses, the adding machines and Commodore-era computers the noble proles in ambulatory diversity toiled over in Soviet Realism poses, hailing the triumphs of Alioto, Feinstein, Milk, and Moscone.

Walking through the Ferry Building Friday night after our arrival, I thought of Miss T strolling these same corridors among organic tomatillos and caviar and Niman Ranch burger joints. Everyone looked fit, educated, tailored, and decidedly NPR, a few homeless inevitably aside, although I am sure they would share the ideology of listener-supported public radio. At the comfortable Stacey's bookstore on Market St, the only non-franchised seller remaining that I could find after Macdonald's (I know) and the Argosy (I think) had closed in the Tenderloin adjacent and Hunter's had long shuttered its Union Square doors, I browsed among the remainders and a surprisingly extensive British history section. Wishing I could buy far more than the four cheapies I did, I allowed myself only Irish-themed deep discounts as discipline: Heaney's collected prose, "Finders Keepers," Roddy Doyle's memoir of his parents, "Rory & Ita," Chet Raymo's eclectic thoughts on "Climbing Brandon," and Miroslav Kupta's splendid coffee-table depiction of "Celts: History & Civilization," probably the third repackaging of the unaffordable 1991 giant Rizzuto-ish volume I had long craved of the UNESCO exhibition of artifacts.

I popped in and out of the California History Museum and Railway Museum gift shops in search of magnets for me or t-shirts for sons, but a tight budget kept me solvent. I walked along Market and Mission, in between near Yerba Buena Park a Daniel Liebskind (he who's designing the Twin Towers replacement?) double-cubed Jewish Museum which remained behind a construction banner. Fence around the Torah? It looked like two glassed-over Rubik's Cubes had fused into the backside of St. Patrick's. I wanted to enter this brick survivor of the Gold Rush days, as I remembered, attending my only MLA convention in 1987, it alone standing on the north side of the street among totally razed lots near the Moscone Center. But, a wedding was starting. Now, fifty-story towers loom nearby and all around you see shiny blocks: the Metreon, malls, museums, and chainstores all show a south of Market renaissance, at least if you can pay the price of admission.

On my failing iPod (the headphone wire now broke off following the battery's demise--an external one from replaces it awkwardly but for now affordably until my finances recover and the WGA strike ends our already increased penny pinching), I shuffled up a local band, The Aislers Set, with "The Way to Market Street." These indie stalwarts, led by Amy Linton, sound like Ronnie Spector covering Joy Division; while their three CDs all are uneven, at best, as on that song, they combine innocent hope with desperate isolation. They sum up the appeal of those long vistas as the fog swirls around the tops of the corporate pricks of glass and steel, the clouds that shut out the glare but also cloak the trenchcoated, scarved, and mittened figures that, so unlike my hometown, fill the elegant bars and rush past you on the canyoned sidewalks. Aislers Set sound both cocky and forlorn, true heirs to that frontier spirit that settled this peninsula a century and a half ago. I like walking in a city so tall that the sun rarely hits me while I can enjoy the day's breeze. The literacy, the civility, and the intellectual nature of SF lures me. As a child, I loved the pages of the two hardcover (bought at Fedco) Sunset Magazine picture books, one of LA, one of SF. The latter had a wonderful drawing of a cross-section line of Victorian houses, and how they followed the contours of the rippling terrain in their unending rank and file. I could spend long days learning such neighborhoods and what in the strangely familiar black-and-white names (many Irish) of its street grid already lurks in my memories as half-lived. It's a dreamlike array of towers and slopes and chill, under a sky as changeable as Donegal's.

Yet, the sheer bulk and compacted mass of SF also reminds me of its introspective demands. Without an horizon or hillsides or much of a sky, you need to drive into the mind. Like London, it's a city near water yet one that prevents you from staying for long by its shore. Unlike London, or Dublin or Belfast (all four cities from my blinkered ken), SF by its libertine heritage and open-mindedness encourages you to burrow into the flesh. Where else would I pick up the paper to read a letter from a girl from the South (US not Cal) who'd never heard of "transgendered" folks until she moved to SF. She reminiscences of not one but two ex-boyfriends who then opted for that operation. Other letters railed about animal rights, proclaimed what makes the homeless better than ourselves, and chided us on the evils of whatever lingered in our habits predating the Aquarian Age. So again, the combination of idealism and ideology. You get a city full of people from everywhere else, just like LA.

Yet, in SF, you also find the expectation that such diversity rests on not celebrity, fashion, or sloth, but on the inner demands of commitment and solidarity. You may choose your faction, as long as it falls on the proper side of the red-state/ blue-state divide, but you must align and march along. There'd be no Critical Mass demo of bicyclists in LA, no Castro District equivalent WeHo Halloween Party protests (over its cancellation this year!), or no historic preservation efforts - like the Painted Ladies houses in a row-- as successful in LA as in SF, most likely. The dance to a different drummer calls all Californians, perhaps, but I think it's far less often a solo performance booked up North. In LA, it's one at the beach, another in a loft, a third in the car. While both cities preach liberty, LA rewards the hustler whereas SF invites the conniver: a subtle distinction. This Golden State blend of openness and order characterizes, in a more unforgiving manner, the distinction between the hedonism of my too-familiar Lotus Land of laid-back City of Angels and the discipline of this alternative, fortified, and severe utopia four hundred miles away.

Image: While the blog title today comes from a song on their 1998 debut, "Terrible Things Happen," here's a better cover for the SF theme from The Aislers Set latest, 2003's "How I Learned to Write Backwards." I heard it playing at Ameoba Records in Hollywood, one of the few institutions we have in common with Berkeley and the Haight. I wish we had Acme Bread here-- oh for that Onion Loaf-- and the Speakeasy Prohibition Ale I imbibed at Sens was worth the $8 (!) a bottle, almost. I nursed it the whole meal. Rivalled Belgian's Duvel or London's Young's (a brewery in Wandsworth still with its pet ram) Old Nick Barley Wine for fiery alcohol-fueled savor.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

All About My Mother

Nod to Pedro Almodovar. My narrative lacks spiked gazpacho, erotic toreadors, or PMS, but it does share with that Spanish cineaste a bit of revelation, release, and redemption. This is the woman, Anna, who introduced me and my dear wife to her husband, Jerry, last Saturday night as "John, my son." At once bridging the man who was raised with a different (and alas far less distinctive) name and the infant who she last saw in an incubator four-and-a-half decades ago. I realize this is the third post in a row featuring me in a photo-- what a year this has been professionally, linguistically, and personally. More thoughts will follow, but for now, this picture can replace my thousand words.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Rang 4, 7 Iuil 2007, Oideas Gael

Tá stiúrthóir teanga go hiontach, Liam Ó Cuinneagáin, Ian ó Béal Feirste (Rang 5-- tá sé an-maith mac leinn!) Liam Ó Dubhlain-- muinteoir go deas againn-- agus Liam Óg anseo. Bhí sé cinéalta. Is muinteoir é. Sílim go raibh peileadóir ó Liatroim. Bhí siad sa teach tabhairne Ui Rhobartaigh. Ceapaim aít go bhfuil nios cuanna ná Teach Bhídi ina nGhleann Cholm Cille.

Is grianghraf eile ag Oideas Gael. Bhí muid ar an halla. B'fhéidir seo tháinig muid ina dhiadh sin go raibh ár scigaithris beag. Is an ceathrú rang againn: (ar thaobh na láimhe clé) Kevin ó Virginia, Keith ó Londáin, Brona ó Caisléan na Barraigh, mise féin, Brenda ó Dúin Phádraig, Emily ó Califoirnea (agus baint amach céime ise féin ó na Ollscoil Loyola Marymount agus mé féin!), Máire ó Dóire, agus Cadogan (fear céile Bhreanda). Go raibh maith Keith leo-- agus an craic faoí an currach!

Tar eis sin: chuir mé nota seo go Keith anocht, ach nil mé abalta cur seo daoine eile acu trí AOL. Mar sin, tá sé ag cur seo anseo arís, a chairde agus gaeilgoirí go raibh a compánach liom astu.

[Go raibh maith agat, Keith--- agus agaibh. Tá sibhse mhic leinn go hiontach!

Tá blog agam. Chuir mé anois dhá grianghraf air go raibh ag déanamh Keith. Mar sin féin, caithfidh mé ag cur grianghrafaí eile Ghleann agam le samhraidh caite ar blog seo nuair go mbeadh leathanta saoire agam! Scriobh mé giota beag as gaeilge ar blog agam anois agus arís. Afach, tá 'obair fhadálach í seo' (de réir foclóir De Bhaldraithe). Ach, chríochnaigh leabhar ar foghlamoiraí fásta inniu, 'Triblóid' le Colman Ó Drisceoil, faoi mangairí drugaí agus Bán Gharda dána Bhaile Átha Cliath. Léigh mé séisean nuair go bhfuil ag teastal ar an trén agus busanna go dtí áit le obair agam. Thosaigh leabhar sin riomh chuaigh mé go Oideas Gael. Afach, chaith mé uair go leor ag déanamh seo nóta daoibh!

Tá mé ag súil le scéala uaibh go luath.

Is fearr Gaeilge bhríste ná Béarla cliste, nach bhfuil?])

Monday, November 12, 2007


Well, it's called "Writing Skills GNST 400," but it's a five-week, six-hour crash course in developing students' ability to comprehend advanced grammar and create short essays. Although the intricacies of English compressed into 8:30--2:30 Saturdays in a chilly, flourescent, and hissing classroom overwhelmed both me and my fifteen students, many of whom you can see here, they all survived the all-day final (first a 100-question test and then an in-class essay) and most of my charges still smile. A dozen are Korean, one Indian, one Japanese, and one Vietnamese. Yes, there were two young men in the class, but one is obscured in the shot and the other must be off camera. I don't get to wear jeans at my "regular" teaching gig; this is the first time I did for this final class meeting, so pardon my sartorial lapse. The photo opportunity was a last-minute surprise to end the day and the course. I am fifth from left, in case you were wondering.

Yoojoung Park, who took this picture (and somehow turned up second from right), showed me a portfolio she had done a decade ago in her native country of 100 airbrushed drawings of her graduation project: those designs had been selected by her instructor to depict, and at times create (photos were also included) of a thousand original mock-ups for dresses and fashions based on a Mickey Mouse theme! The FIDM students will face the same challenge. They learn to sew, draw, envision, market, and present their creations. I cannot imagine a more arduous task. I hope that my instructions help them succeed in their demanding coursework. Project Runway awaits!

John Moriarty's "Invoking Ireland" Book Review

Moriarty considers the "Transcendent Immanent," which "is bountifully immanent in the the herb that heals us, the cancer that kills us." (197) As this book is one of three written in the last year or so of his life, stricken down by three forms of the latter force of nature, I paused to reflect on the power that engages this combination of fictional narrative and mystical musings upon Ireland's mythic past and forlorn present. Reading his earlier autobiography, "Nostos" (to which he completed a sequel immediately prior to his death last June, "What the Curlew Said"), I often became disenchanted with his repetitive prose. I tended to drift off for long stretches under his incantatory, recursive, and steadily chiding rhythms. While I recognized that I may have been encountering a dazzling intellect and a sensitive soul, I recoiled from the attitude. Warming never much to Yeats, Lawrence, or Blake, I sensed Moriarty sought to reclaim their poetic mantle, while tinting such an ornate cloak with a embellished Celtic motif. The whole pattern appeared too intricate for easy appreciation, too heavy for ordinary wear. It appeared to cobble together aboriginal, Navajo, Norse, Egyptian, Christian, alchemical, and Irish contexts into what Kevin Kiely critiqued in Moriarty's career as repeating hubristic Causabon's Key to All Mythologies, famously one of (for me) the best parts of "Middlemarch"!

I had a soft spot for poor Causabon, and my generosity towards Moriarty despite his shamanic mannerisms continues. Like Blake and Yeats, he's gravitating towards the pre-Christian, and even the pre-Celtic, notably, as he seeks answers for what he urges us to accept as an "Én-flaith," a Bird-Reign of ecumenical oneness with the natural world, one of the fatal hawk and not only the gentle dove. In a striking passage he cites Patrick's double-edged question to Bran: "How perfect is an otter's face when he has a brown trout between his teeth? What does the trout think?" (144) Moriarty, perhaps driven by his own mortality's pace, in this book takes on this puzzle. He never answers it, and how can he or any of us truly? He takes a couple of hundred pages, nevertheless, meditating over it by recalling Irish stories, from both before and after Patrick, and struggles towards an acceptance of a realm that would call Irish people beyond a mere Republic towards a reign of deeds done in harmony with the greater culture that urges all life towards breakthroughs into the eternal, beyond the mind and certainly the body that we fill with poison and the earth that we foolishly pollute in our warp-spasm. He doesn't use this phrase from CúChullain as I recall, to be fair, but the death-rattle of our own end-time, Moriarty would agree, can only be countered by a healing and a reverence towards Danu, the primordial presence that emanates only when her back is turned away from us.

I was surprised that he did not connect this to G-d's showing to Moses from behind, but as the author admits, this collection of tales is a set of tarot cards, a shuffling of many themes he has already drawn upon before. So, perhaps in his other books over the past fifteen years, he forged such a link. The inconclusive, speculative style of his thought on the page perhaps lacks a drama that, as I have only read, he possessed in his vocal presence. Parts of this are in Latin or Old Irish, and while some is translated, some eludes those of us less educated than the Causabons or George Eliots of our degenerate century. Such, on the other hand, is the discipline that rewards the adept.

Alan Titley, one of the pre-eminent critics in Irish, in "The Irish Book Review" noted the accuracy of Moriarty's translations, and my limited ability can verify this. Moriarty does, as Titley praises, enter into the spirit of the texts he gathers, and he resurrects many stories and tells them with vigorous compassion and hard-won wisdom. Rilke, D.H. Lawrence, Ted Hughes, Mircea Eliade, Marguerite Porete, William Law, Thomas Traherne, and Indian (in both senses of the adjective) sources speckle, as veins in quartz, his own integration of other-worldly reflections from around the world and across the centuries. Moriarty's range remains impressive. I am not sure how to build the Bird-Reign after ending this retelling of Irish sources, but I am impressed with his erudition put towards the cause of not self-promotion, as with so many scholars, but the betterment of us all, the weak and the struggling and not only the tenured and the acclaimed. His own decision, decades ago, to leave academia behind for his own vision-quest informs and enriches his work. While critics may scoff at his magpie eclecticism and his gnomic tone, I admit he earns my respect as well as my occasional bafflement. Luckily, a glossary explains most of his coinages, borrowings, and untranslated (in the text) phrases from Sanskrit or Irish.

Out of such materials has Moriarty left us to roam the ruins and to attempt to rebuild. His publisher, The Lilliput Press, will be issuing a pricy (250 euro!) spoken-word CD set to fund a hedge-school project he had dreamed of in his native Kerry. In print, and as I have observed about "Nostos," Moriarty's reflections can, taken at random, appear almost random or half-crazed. I suppose this is the prophetic tone. He seeks the oracular, and although I perhaps wished in this slim volume more direct suggestions for how to heal an Irish psyche and transform yearnings for territorial dominance into spiritual ecumenism, Moriarty-- as with earlier sages and gurus-- leaves the hard work of change with those of us who must follow the message with the mission.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

How Hollywood Saved God

So goes the title of newest The Atlantic Monthly's article by Hanna Rosin on the cinematic bowdlerization of Phillip Pullman's earnestly atheistic trilogy's "His Dark Materials"' first installment, "The Golden Compass." I asked my sons if the books were worth it, and they agreed, but cautioned that I'd look like a geek reading them on the train. Still, the theology, or response to such, intrigues me. Last night, they asked me up for (to them) Must See TV. A rare opportunity to bond, up on my bed-- they both were sick and now I am too. So, paterfamilially, they drew me away from pondering the late Irish mystic John Moriarty (see yesterday's entry; if William Blake knew Gaelic, aboriginal lore, and Egyptian arcana) to watch "South Park."

I admit the first episode I viewed (the second on the video game "Guitar Hero" sent up the rock-star biopic) was the sort that was better than I had feared. If you take lines (I paraphrase, alas) like "Jesus Christ left a rabbit to rule in his place" as seriously as millions did "The DaVinci Code." The end proved even clever. The rabbit, Snowball, true heir(ess?) to Peter's throne, nibbled and twitched. His/her only reply ["ex cathedra" in matters of faith or morals], remained a silent one. We were left to interpret for ourselves, as were the pleading functionaries at the Vatican, about what Jesus wanted his church to tell people about how to live their lives.

I often wonder if-- as Diarmuid O Murchu suggested (see last week's blog review) spirituality will supplant religion. How, against the Rock of Ages of billions and billions served? Yet, O Murchu noted, many who proclaim allegiance in the congregation may endure many dark nights of their souls. He hints that the faithful may be fewer than the denominational rolls report. I suppose that's akin to how many hundreds of millions of us register as Republicans or Democrats vs. how many Americans piously believe that Hilary or Rudy will redeem our cynical plutocracy.

If we should evolve into a less credulous species, as science batters the borders of ancient scriptural explanations for how the leopard got his spots, will the contemplation of the stars, as Sam Harris seems to suggest in "The End of Faith," satisfy our yearnings for the transcendent? Can we praise DNA? Comets? Hurricane Katrina? The San Andreas Fault? Stillborn babies? Or the life force that brings the triple cancer that killed Moriarty and which--if in single but no less malignant a form-- threatens the life of one of my wife's friends today?

What force is left to venerate, if one remains unconvinced of the transcendent? Pullman muses that no Hollywood film voices what could be, for millions, the concerns too many articulate only in the safety of their conscience, never aloud. Is part of progress an increase in secularization? Surely the Cold War that led to today's endless war on terror both show the folly of creeds that belie the divine spark. Our substitutes, Marx or the mall, have failed to liberate us far from Allah or the Pope.

We abandon creeds, then lament their loss. As O Murchu and Moriarty warn, this expectation that goods and knowledge will assuage our lonely hunger will be cruelly betrayed. However, less piety and more liberal attitudes are trades for education and wealth, according to a global pattern. Is this any comfort? We live in an exception to this rule. The U.S. apparently is alone in its religiosity compared to Western nations; certain of the Arab countries also prove dishearteningly recalcitrant. Dubai, as yesterday's NY Times reported, jails homosexuals. But in secret. Publicity might ruin their P.R campaign. They beckon us to partake of air-conditioned Xanadu.

Consumer frenzy meets fanatical Wahhabism. NPR or Promise Keepers. Retail therapy or another box ticked off by the shrink as a DSM insurance code. Postmodern tradeoffs.

So, I cannot help, as I muddle mentally, in passing along inadvertently or directly my own lack of faith. My sense of wonder at my cultural inheritance, so rooted in Catholicism, and my unease with this legacy continue to both accumulate. The news also brought an article about Orthodox Jews in Israel. A cellphone that cuts the daily going rate from six to two cents a minute for a gizmo marketed for the black hats. Yet, on Shabbas, the rate jumps censoriously to $2.60 a minute to punish the stick-gatherers and lighters of fire. Technologically, they build the fence around the Torah. Such phones-- like ISPs shorn of temptations parallel to those Orwellian information highways in China our hi-tech firms sell its despotic regime to monitor dissidents and hunt freedom-seekers-- limit surfing on the Net. National Geographic videos remain popular in certain Bet Shamesh shops. But, they clip scenes of animals copulating.

My wife sighs: is this the inevitable path any organized religion leads to? That of thou shalt nots? I recall us hearing Richard Dawkins as we drove back to Tacoma from Seattle. Before static overcame the NPR affiliate-- that is, when you leave behind the blue-state veneer for the red-state basecoat-- we heard Dawkins reiterate his blame on those who are liberal believers but who by their tolerance allow room for the fanatics to fulminate unopposed. We remain, democratically if lackadaiscally, open to endless rounds of disputed questions lacking chapter-and-verse answers.

It's a world where Adam Gadahn, son of a Jewish hippie drop-out from Orange County comfort, winds up being raised on a goat farm in what remains of rural Riverside County. After his heavy metal teendom, he becomes now Al-Qaeda's English-language spokesman for its videos. He hectors us in dar-al-harb to convert or risk death. This freedom provided for those who vow our damnation leaves me uneasy about the merits of limitless trust in open borders as the only alternative to Patriot Acts. And, I speak as one who has been unable to find out from TSA if or if not my common-as-dirt name is on or off the watch list. Their letter responding to my request could have been cited in "Politics & the English Language" for its ambiguity.

Are we setting up, as destructive technology allies with fundamentalist hatred, another holocaust? What was then a blitzkrieg, now a jihad against the subhuman, the infidel? Nuclear power meets with rogue operatives, arcane learning with training camps to brainwash discontents from the middle classes, the sons of immigrants, the converts from suburbia; how will the Enlightenment's virtues triumph? Back again to O Murchu, Moriarty, and Desmond Fennell: three Irish thinkers who warn that our own greed and luxury in turn foment only more anguish. They are a few of those prophets who wander among doubts that neither frequent flyer miles nor Range Rovers can ease.

So, the makers of films that flinch from genuine expressions of doubt and unbelief recoil at the mere possibility that God does not exist, unable to state this even for dramatic effect in an adaptation of novels aimed at thoughtful teens who may have longed for the alternative to Narnia. O Murchu reminds us that many of us pass in our youth and adulthood through many stages of being lukewarm at best towards religion, yet are impelled to seek out the spiritual. We search without direction, he warns, dissuaded by religious proponents but discouraged by arcane whimsy or occult flimsy. Perhaps, honest discussion of Pullman could move many seekers into confidence in their own direction. Instead, we get Catholics putting out a 24-page booklet warning of errors in Pullman. It does smack of the Index Prohibitarum. Yet, ignorance runs rampant in the media and pop culture regarding Christianity. Nothing wrong on the one hand; as a medievalist after all, I wish the Church had done more to counter the hype of the "Da Vinci Code." If we want honesty on religious debate, we need to be fair to the historical and factual record.

But, I also wish the Church could stimulate an open discussion of the story Pullman-- with more sophistication than Dan Brown's caricatures and conspiracies-- has created. Such a symposium would boost the profile for both Catholic and unbeliever-- and so many who waver, who wonder, and who cannot take a side or a stance that they will never later reject or revise. That too is human nature. The mainstream Hollywood moguls, as with "The Golden Compass," for all of their Westside and Sundance and Cannes poses and purported liberalism, will not sanction voices which express secularism if the First Amendment threatens a Christmas audience or triggers a Baptist boycott.

Many pundits forget how varied and winding are the paths to enlightenment. They either inflate the claims of Dawkins or Harris, or diminish the beauty of, say, Philip Groening's documentary "Into Great Silence." (I have written of this on my blog before; this is a paean to the seduction of renunciation for God alone. Yet, its maker himself remains a doubter, and all the more respectful for that of the committment his subjects have vowed.) Moriarty drifted away from the Church in the 1960s only to return to a revamped notion of it that he could live with, combined with his own syncretism, before his death. O Murchu grew up in Cork never meeting a Protestant until he was a young man. Fennell began his career as a theological correspondent in the days of Vatican II. All three still comment on an Ireland which has become utterly transformed spiritually since their youth, or even mine, so sudden has the change been. They warn, despite the failures of the Church, that men and women need guidance. We cannot give over the course of our souls and spirits to a society that sees us only as investment opportunities, target markets, or 59 types of Claritas-generated demographic fiefdoms.

In closing, I wonder what "His Dark Materials" conjures up as an answer to replace our prayers. I disagree with Pullman's put-down of his fellow Oxonian Tolkien, but I respect Pullman's wish for a story that takes the side of the devil's advocate, so to speak. As in the origin of the trilogy's title with Milton's "Paradise Lost."

No wonder why we're turning out little agnostics in our household, at best--or worst. So, to balance the ledger and in the Jesuit spirit of my college education, I foolhardily encourage both doubters and deniers, true believers and campus crusaders a final word that even Pullman could learn from. Here's a reminder of how radical an Greek Christian saint could be in imagining a God beyond our conception! Michael Miller writes this last comment (after providing this saint's citation) about "Apophatic Theology" on today's IFSB discussion list devoted to study of that most austere order of monks, the hermit Carthusians. Not a Yahoo Group many readers of Pullman may belong to, or vice versa, but in such dialogue as my blog invites,I the twain shall indeed, and verily forsooth, meet! Off now, Shabbat night, to seek out yoga with wife via cable, in my old Loyola sweatshirt, before reading Moriarty.

"[God] himself neither is nor becomes in any way at all any of the things that are or become, since he can in no way be ranked naturally with the things that are. Therefore, it is more appropriate to say that he is not, because he transcends being.
He has an existence that is simple and unknown and inaccessible to all,
utterly beyond any understanding, and beyond any affirmation or negation."

St. Maximos the Confessor, "Classics of Western Spirituality" (Paulist Press, N.Y.) pp. 34-35.

I believe that apophatic theology or negative theology is at the center of Christian theology. At its center is the fact that God's nature is completely unknowable. If we speak of God as good or all-powerful, this has to do with our needs and the limitations of our language; "good" means something different from the sort of thing we mean when we speak of good pizza or even a good deed. Apophatic theology says that while God may not be understood and is unknowable, we participate in God's being through sharing in God's divine energies. But God is finally unknowable, and, because of his infinite otherness we can only approach- but never fully arrive at- God.
Image: Eva Green as the Witch Queen flies over "a landscape denuded of religious imagery," according to the Atlantic's caption.