Monday, January 31, 2011

The Chicago Social Brain Network's "Invisible Forces & Powerful Beliefs": Book Review

Gravity's an "invisible force" we believe in, and that's about it on page one for what I hoped would be an extended analogy to the gods and minds of the subtitle. However, as I had just read elsewhere a debate where a scientist defended evolution as an unseen but valid "theory" as was electricity and gravity, that had made me wonder about those who also believe in God and, say, creationism as a valid "theory" too. So, that thought stayed with me when I found this new book.

It's compact, with the U. of Chicago Social Brain Network of scholars who each contribute a chapter on their expertise. It's accessible, for as a non-scientist I had no problem following their arguments. And, it's relevant, for they seek to bridge the gap of disdain or condescension often dividing scholars from believers who trust in invisible forces along with the models of empathy, human nature, faith, and networks studied by professors and researchers. They may name them differently, and in that defining and understanding process, this book takes shape.

If scientists can chart gravity, then they can look for patterns in brains, behavior, and biology equally invisible. The social nature of our species, John T. Cacciopo argues, shows that the real test of our survival is not for us to reproduce, but for our offspring to do so, and to pass on our gene pool. This can be done only if the parents protect their children, and invest long-term in their care and protection. This develops over millennia into empathy and compassion for one's children, and these qualities then extend altruistically to others in an intimate bond in a community.

Cacciopo uses the way salmon group in a ball against a predator as an example of behavior learned over many generations that then takes on survival success passed on to the next generations innately. While Don Browning picks this up and applies it to Aquinas' theology of care-giving promisingly, he skips away from this in perhaps too short a chapter devoted to such a thesis; other chapters also consider points I wanted more reflection upon but they dashed on-- Tanya Luhrmann's on how believers cherry-pick recollections of what happened to them to see God's hand at work intervening in their daily affairs represents another worthy subject I wish had been examined more deeply in her chapter on "How does God become real?"

Still, the range of these essays (even if a bit uneven, as so much is reduced to so short a book) by psychologists, neurobiologists, and linguists among others does represent a promising move into theinterdisciplinary conversations that universities need to make with everyday folks. While many topics such as anthropomorphism, loneliness, and psychosomatic relations seemed to end before they started, this may attest to the richness of the ideas crammed into a few pages each on these vast areas of exploration. This volume's scholarly yet straightforward, with less jargon than I feared if a lot of footnotes to back up comments that often get barely touched upon in what are after all rapidly paced chapters addressed at a wider audience.

In an age when many retreat behind the labels of atheist or agnostic vs. Christian or believer, this book tries to overcome these barriers. It does not try to prove or disprove a deity. It does ask, instead, what effect the belief in a deity or spirit or invisible force attributed to a natural emotion or a supernatural force can be analyzed according to empirical means by a professorial observer or measuring scientist. That makes it a welcome entry in a very old quest for truth. (Posted to Amazon US 1-29-11 & 2-20-11)

Saturday, January 29, 2011

"The Essential Schopenhauer": Book Review

Imagine your life as a handful of copper coins. With them you pay back the debt incurred by your birth. You pay out what you hold, over time and in space, until what you owe nature balances by your own death. So Arthur Schopenhauer encourages us to face our mortal reckoning, to tally up our fatal receipt for our earthly expenses. “For to nothing does our existence bear so close a resemblance as to the consequence of a false step and a guilty lust.” In his post-Romantic, Germanic version of the Fall, we wander this fallen existence already hopelessly having to atone for our very being. 

His reputation as a grim, stoic, and unflinchingly realistic philosopher has endured nearly two centuries. But before Wolfgang Schirmacher assembled this anthology—modifiying and arranging previous translations by E.F.J. Payne (1958 and 1974), Konstantin Kolenda (1960), and Arthur Brodrick Bullock (1903)—his massive life’s work The World as Will and Representation (1819, with a second edition in 1844 and a third in 1859, the texts of “The Buddha of Frankfurt” had not been published in a one-volume English-language reader that draws from his major work as well as his shorter, if equally formidable, essays. What remains understated is how much Schirmacher contributed to a fresh version of these standard translations. The press release credits him as a translator, while the book credits him as editor. He acknowledges moving footnotes into the main texts and brackets are scattered throughout, but the lack of help for a reader facing this philosopher for the first time does disappoint. 

This collection in the Harper Perennial Modern Thought series has a few suggested sources for further reading, and an index, but it does not mediate between the reader and the text. Schirmacher, after a brisk introduction linking Schopenhauer to The Simpsons, George Carlin, Albert Camus, and The Catcher in the Rye, leaves the reader to tackle his subject with no editorial summations, endnotes, nor explanations.

The results, living up to the daunting legacy Schopenhauer leaves for us one-hundred-and-fifty years after his death, certainly prove bracing. Twenty topically arranged excerpts make the reader confront Schopenhauer. He begins by emphasizing the driving force that moves all: the “will-in-itself.” This natural power carries all along with it, unthinkingly. This inner nature manifests itself through external phenomena. Ideas nestle within the will; forms reveal themselves as representation. But they lack consistent, eternal truth: they no more endure than the shapes discerned in clouds or on a frosty windowpane. 

He sums up his metaphysical outlook: “the world as will is the first world (ordine prior), and the world as representation, the second (ordine posterior). The former is the world of craving and therefore of pain and a thousand different woes. The latter, however, in itself is essentially painless; moreover, it contains a spectacle worth seeing, altogether significant, and at least entertaining.” This inspires Schopenhauer’s examination of aesthetics. 

In our world, we distinguish the world as will in subjects and in objects as representation. This sounds simple. What complicates this dichotomy unfolds in Schopenhauer’s determination to examine how knowledge, aesthetics, beauty, art, education, the sublime, women, suicide, ethics, eternal and temporal justice, compassion, mysticism and asceticism, and ultimately death and rebirth all align with his construction. These chapters comprise the bulk of this anthology. 

His dislike for most opera and most of Dante, his rationalization for the dissimulations women practice, his examples from gladiators, the American prairie, Australian aborigines, and weeping by mourners extend his thoughts into many surprising directions. His worldview takes in all he can imagine. For example, he reconfigures as male an object of art in terms of the subject the artist perceives as female, within which the artist brings forth by its conception the artistic impulse to create and bring forth. Once he searches for the will-in-itself as the wellspring for all nature, he never stops finding it. 

Schopenhauer aligns the dual axis within ourselves by a similar polarity. The genitals summon up the will while the brain centers “pure knowing,” the realm for representation.  He offers frank appraisals of the allurements of the body and their role in trapping life forms to continue the good of the species at the expense of the individual. For contemporaries as you and me, his steady response when confronted with what feminists have long since called the male gaze, and the rationale he gives for why women want what they do, may elicit debate and reconsideration, for he finds in the forces of sex itself our own predicament, the will-in-nature manifested in the urge to merge. His bottom line: “women exist solely for the propagation of the race.” Meanwhile males wonder why females persist with “their whole nature and action a certain frivolity” which weakens marriages but attracts suitors. 

Schopenhauer’s appeal for modern readers may also lie in his eagerness to incorporate the imperial and scientific discoveries of his peers into his panoramic survey. He shifts from a Western perspective towards India to contrast mores, customs, and mentalities. Throughout his study, he features Hindu and Buddhist (such as the latter was understood given the limits of the early nineteenth-century’s interpreters and translators) concepts. The Sanskrit injunction tat tvam asi, “that thou art,” serves as his motto. He builds his ethics on a shared compassion, a fellowship with ever-suffering humanity.

As in Eastern frameworks, so in Schopenhauer’s pioneering vision: he locates the tension between “occupied time” of the passing moment for the individual within temporal limits as opposed to inconceivable presences outside time and space, themselves in his model non-existent beyond those within these defining limits. He evokes the life-and-death struggles of an insect as vividly as he does the agony of a son who cries out at a gravesite for a departed father, even one who he has come to hate. For readers a century on the other side of Einstein and relativity, such thoughts challenge all the more, for what perhaps has been proven as well as disproven in the years since, as Freud and Darwin, Marx and Jung, quantum physics and cosmological Big Bangs and Big Crunches beckon today’s thinkers towards horizons that in the early 1800s had only begun to be glimpsed within telescopes. 

He stresses the commonsensical basis of his enterprise. “To repeat abstractly, universally, and distinctly in concepts the inner nature of the world, and thus to deposit it as a reflected image in permanent concepts always ready for the faculty of reason, this and nothing else is philosophy.” He has no time for piety. “I suppose I will have to be told again that my philosophy is cheerless and comfortless simply because I tell the truth, whereas people want to hear that the Lord has made all things very well. Go to your churches and leave us philosophers in peace!” 

Caught in the ever-changing moment, people need to turn to a calm acceptance of their frailty. The species will endure, but the individual, Schopenhauer unflaggingly repeats, remains all too weak and committed more towards a perpetuation of the species rather than its own satisfactions after the momentary pleasure of (at least human) reproduction has passed.  As with all evolved organisms, he narrates in often spellbinding fashion, people endure the tug of hunger and the fear of death as the will-in-life in action, deep within us beyond conscious control. These desires contend with the “sexual impulse” and a mother’s “passionate care for the offspring” as signs of the communal, species-oriented demands equally rooted and primordially ineradicable. 

A few who seek escape from the flesh may overcome these nagging reminders of mortality. They may wrench themselves outside--as it were by willpower they may force an exit from their own bodies and minds, if briefly. After all, ascetics renounce these instincts in search of liberation from their unending demands. Schopenhauer tells powerfully of the difficulty involved in tearing one’s mind away from the harangues of one’s body, and he convincingly narrates both the saint’s triumph and the profane man or woman’s surrender to such internal, inarticulate, and indomitable commands that defy logic or reason.

Ultimately, death awaits all organisms. Schopenhauer offers neither platitude nor nostrum. Instead, he concludes that our innate will-to-life lures us by the sensual, retains us by the fear of death, and battles the freedom of nothingness, when liberation comes for all who wear themselves out within decaying minds and enfeebled bodies. From the phenomena which encapsulate and entrap suffering and misery, he asks, why should we not seek the ease of a death that eternally follows the eternity which preceded our birth? Before conception, we had nothing to fear, being nothing then: the same condition as the nothing to which we—as far as we know—will return.(Featured at Pop Matters 1-29-11. In shorter form to Amazon US 12-14-10 & 2-20-11)

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Mark E. Smith & The Fall": Book Review

“Always different, always the same,” so the late John Peel commented on his favorite band. With ninety-six songs in twenty-four Peel sessions recorded over twenty-six years [reviewed by me on Amazon US a few years back] with perhaps nearly as many line-ups, this Manchester-based band, or now, business enterprise under its manager, Mark E. Smith, continued to present its vision—or is it his?—of unclassifiable songs, originating alongside punk or lumped with post-punk. They have outlasted even Peel. Smith and whomever he hires churn out weird tales. As a gnarled, snarly, inverted assemblage, spoken-word recorded on Dictaphone or cassette, it may mix with assaultive garage riffs, twisted rockabilly, repetitious Krautrock, off-kilter pop, and relentlessly inventive, if bafflingly referenced lyrics snarled and spat, cut-up or crooned. This challenging, entertaining, and maddening sound is directed by one who was there at the beginning, but one who claims from the start not to have identified with punk, or even to have liked most of its music.

An academic presentation of Smith and his band’s contributions may contradict the “Prole Art Threat” of “Northern white crap that talks back,” to use two of its leader’s venerable phrases, but the time is right, argue Michael Goddard and Benjamin Halligan from perhaps the closest university to Smith’s home turf, in Salford. They compile twenty contributions, from professors and theorists, fans and artists. Of course, these cite Baudrillard and Foucault, Deleuze-Guattari and Guy Debord, as well as the online lyrics that decipher Smith’s transmissions, and the interviews and confrontations he has arranged as part of his carefully sustained cranky public persona to bait the press whom he professes to mock and distrust.

This pose as North Manchester Northern English outsider, from a band who took its name in 1976 from Camus’ novel instead of “The Outsiders” as an alternative choice, comes with fiercely regional, if often impenetrable, allusions. Yet, in spite of Smith’s stance, the band deserves to be treated as intellectuals. From a famously autodidactic leader, a teen dropout, the lyrics, artistic representations, and music of The Fall pose a formidable body of work that keeps itself fresh by never staying the same.

Goddard and Halligan place The Fall within a chaotic, shape-shifting, straight-talking, diligently crafted ethos. This Northern attitude, they suggest, “effects an oblique take on the world, neither essentially condemnatory nor celebratory, neither entirely humorous nor doleful.” Rather than measly or slovenly, this approach instead boasts the steady (or shaky) skills of Smith and those now his hired hands. Twenty-eight studio albums to date, about one a year, enrich a legacy few musicians can match.

Richard Witts rejects the mythologizing of Tony Wilson’s Factory Records and Joy Division in the era that spawned The Fall; Madchester’s reign in the early ‘90s receives contempt for its exclusion of The Fall from its narrative. This book aims to restore the Fall to a scenario less council flat and more urban Modernist. Katie Hannon’s account of the band’s Mancunian roots circles this editorial attempt without ever pinpointing what makes Smith’s embattled, beloved Northside of the city so different from the Southside that Factory and Wilson championed.

One difficulty of this study is that for non-Mancunian readers, the locality that roots Smith in his sounds and words does not translate easily to those of us who have only the band’s many records to listen to and struggle with. The academic contributors tend to stress The Fall’s “psychogeography.” However, the actual sounds of the band, the quirky appeal of Smith’s idiosyncratic vocal delivery, the unexpected nature of the songs: these do not always get the verbal depth they deserve.

For instance, Hannon touches upon Smith’s anarchic and esoteric nature, his cut-up similarities with the Beat poets, his early work with mental patients at Prestwich Hospital, and his Velvet Underground-like influences, but such promising comments take about as much space in her essay as it took me to type them here. Mark Fisher’s solid article on Pulp Modernism concentrates, as do many chapters in this study, on the earliest albums, those from around 1978-82. This is understandable, as Grotesque (1980) presents a vision of Northern England as (al)chemically derived and demonically deranged as any conjured up by Smith’s beloved stories by M.R. James or Arthur Machen.

Fisher invites the reader to become a critical listener: “The rockabilly on ‘Container Drivers’ or ‘Fiery Jack’ is slowed by meat pies and gravy, its dreams of escape fatally poisoned by pints of bitter and cups of greasy spoon tea. It is rock and roll as working man’s cabaret, performed by a failed Gene Vincent imitator in Prestwich. The ‘What if?’ speculations fail. Rock and roll needed the endless open highways; it could never have begun in Britain’s snarled up ring roads and claustrophobic conurbations.”

This essay stands out as one that leads the audience along into a closer hearing of the music and a reading of the lyrics. It moves between the songs and their content so interpretations arise. In what Andy Wood sums up as “the war against conformity,” he reminds us how The Fall gain scant attention even in standard punk and post-punk accounts. Smith rebelled early against the simplistic slogans and agitprop politics of his punkish, then “rockist” peers. The subtitle of this volume sets up politics as a main field of inquiry, but it seems for Smith that clichés and dogmas sprang from those marketed as rebels as rapidly as from the corporate system they claimed to resist, as they signed to major labels. The appeal of The Fall is that they reject the easy chants, the notes that never take you by surprise.

This restlessness ignores conventional musical finesse, and in this way stays true to punk’s spirit. Yet the essays themselves tend to idolize earlier versions of the band with its dynamic closest to the (post-)punk era. This conservatism by many contributors diminishes the notable mid-‘80s shift when Smith’s then-wife Brix entered. She instigated a more accessible, less-DIY production (often under the inspired guidance of John Leckie, who is never mentioned) that attracted more listeners abroad, greater distribution, and frequent radio play.

Too many nods to the punk era overlook much of what fans call the third period of the band, post-Brix (even if she among fifty-odd others was not alone in quitting and then rejoining the line-up at least once!) This incarnation of the band has been as unstable as any pre-Brix, but this decade’s strong albums such as The Real New Fall LP (2003) and Fall Heads Roll (2005) get passed over, as do the inventive The Light User Syndrome (1996) and astonishing Levitate (1997), two records that remain the best of the ‘90s by any band, let alone one twenty years on by then.

Other essays treat improvisation, Badiouian ethics, the Peel Sessions, otherness, sonic distortion, typography, Smith’s handwritten labels and collages (see any Pavement cover for an visual and sometimes a sonic homage to him that Smith resented greatly) , and fanzines. These entries rightly examine these impacts from various media. Yet, with so few illustrations as to make their absence in the cases of the visual elements all the more frustrating, the paucity of editorial inclusion of necessary images weakens the usefulness of this ambitious, often perhaps too-sober (Smith’s lyrics remain rare for me: I laugh and/or snicker aloud when hearing some) study for those who do not have all the albums and singles in their original and varied vinyl versions to call up for consultation.

To sum up, for me as an academic but first of all a longtime fan, this entry to the “Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series” succeeds partially. It reminds the committed audience of the curious spell Smith and bandmates cast over their listeners. Yet, it falls short in many essays of capturing the visceral punch, the amusing lurch, and the impressive range of the musicians whose talents Smith has been able to harness.

All the same, those in Media Studies will welcome its philosophical citations and theoretical apparatus. Erudite newcomers may gain grounding to shuffle the back catalogue if not so much the erratically great and predictably middling later recordings; these are overlooked by many writers here. Experienced listeners will gain necessary context that supplements two books published in 2008: Renegade, Smith’s odd autobiography strangely itself “ghosted” by or to Austin Collings, and the “whatever happened to?” tracking down by Dave Simpson of all the ex-members he could find that appeared as The Fallen.

These bookend Goddard and Halligan’s compilation, and play off of what Janice Kearns and Dean Lockwood show (and they to their credit summon up Imperial Wax Solvent [2008] as a contemporary witness to Smith’s powers of conjuration) as Smith’s eerie craft. From his own ghostwritten, dictated account, they quote him: “I wanted to write out of the song… I wanted to explore, to put a twist on the normal. People think of themselves too much as one person—they don’t know what to do with the other people that enter their heads.”

John Peel mused that this pioneering band still sounded terrific years later, unlike James Taylor. Smith emphasized, ten years into the band: “Most people of my age, their tastes atrophied 20 years ago… I genuinely dread the idea of that happening to me.” An early label, who released some of the band’s best singles, was called Step Forward. That sums up this enigmatic, elusive, and illusionary, shambolic, inspired and demented band under its visionary leader. “The Fall are about the present, and that’s it.” (Featured at PopMatters with my title, "The Sound of an Autodidact's Snarl" 1-24-11. Posted to Amazon US 1-27-11 & 2-20-11. Thanks to "Stefan" for an eagle-eyed correction via PM.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jennifer Wright Knust's "Unprotected Texts": Book Review

Cleverly titled, this survey of "the Bible's surprising contradictions about sex and desire" opens provocatively. Knust, a professor of New Testament and early Christian studies at Boston University and an "American Baptist pastor," recalls her own shaming as an adolescent for presumed sexual indiscretions when she transferred to a new school. She compares her strict, abstinence-only fundamentalist upbringing with her adult interpretations of an ancient text. She insists a more mature, nuanced understanding that "biblical teachings regarding desire, marriage, and the human body are entirely inconsistent and yet thoroughly fascinating."

Unsystematically, the Bible does not offer any unified "sexual code" of conduct. While it defines morality, texts may conflict with each other about the people and groups mandated to follow particular precepts. Instead of a single, monolithic arbiter of sexual standards, the Bible for Knust does not represent the last word on sex and desire any more than on the acceptance of slavery or the reasons for the pain of childbirth.

She dismantles the "sexual guidebook" advocated by literal readings of the Bible by conservatives today. Knust presents in her first chapter issues about desire, controlled and freed. The Song of Songs, followed by the examples of Ruth, Jonathan, and Bathsheba, complicate how eroticism is contained outside the expected family structure. Desire may leap beyond the bounds of matrimony, to aim at another man, a king, a non-Israelite, or a woman not married or married to another.

Marriage, therefore, expands beyond an easy definition. Property rights, in the Middle Eastern patriarchy, dominate views of women as controlled by men, even if as the previous chapter showed, these expectations may be overcome. Male honor and female submission appear stronger as the Bible grows; by New Testament times, celibacy replaces marriage as an ideal. Self-control becomes the Christian recommendation, rather than the Jewish covenant that calls for its tribesmen to achieve immortality through their own progeny. The various viewpoints of marriage and divorce in passages of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are compiled into helpful charts that remind us of their different textual justifications, and of their subtle or obvious divergences.

Paul's letters complicate his message about the permissibility of marriage and divorce. As an "evil impulse," the sex drive for early Christians replaced the Jewish blessing of intimacy and the command for fertility with a warning against "sex for its own sake." Jesus appears to advocate the control of marital desire; Paul and his fellow pastoral writers expect that the end-times will come soon, and therefore anticipate a new age when sex will not be necessary, as bodies themselves will have been transformed into sexless entities.

Widows, wives, and virgins all receive instruction, meanwhile, within the new Jewish and gentile convert communities, as to how to reconcile control of passion licitly, if they cannot resist marriage at the risk of extramarital damnation. Again, a chart delineates how advice on sex, desire, and marriage in Paul differs from the letters attributed to him from those psuedonymously credited as Colossians and Ephesians, and then compared to other pastoral letters in the New Testament. These bolster Knust's claims for a diverse collection of constraints or permissions on these topics.

For the Old Testament, the Jewish lists of malefactors against sexual statutes makes for challenging interpretations. Religious misbehavior often overlaps with illicit sex, according to what non-Israelites and gentiles practice. Knust in her fourth chapter disappoints those who seek a harbinger of sexual liberation in a Levantine or Mediterranean cult of sacred prostitution, despite the fulminations of Jewish prophets and Christian preachers. Prostitution may have been popular, but Knust carefully dismantles any sacral role, based on non-biblical texts as comparisons to the rhetoric of biblical moralists. Instead, the enemies of Israel or of Christians earn the disgust of the faithful who tend to equate monotheism with fidelity, and paganism with debauchery. Idolators become confused in biblical texts with prostitutes, incest and forbidden unions find a range of permissive as well as prohibited forms, and perversion overlaps between sexual transgressions and the ritual customs of those outside the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic law, or the Christian community.

What is the worst imaginable sin in the Bible? A surprising answer: humans mating with angels. Knust begins her fifth chapter by exposing this crime. Sodomy, a term notorious but also erroneous, can be blamed not on the Almighty's aversion to male-male sex but the cultural sin against hospitality as that city's wickedness lay in the attempted violation of angelic visitors, guests of Lot, rather than the Sodomite's threat to rape the males in Lot's house who merited his protection. After all, Lot offered his two daughters' virginity as a bargain to appease the selfish and lustful citizenry.

Mating and marrying outside the tribe mattered often not at all if the men were Israelite and the women not. What was allowed or condemned tended to depend on whether the fleshly progeny that may result from dalliances or alliances could be traced to its claims as reliably Jewish property. Land, goods, and power grew in this fashion for the Jewish people.

But when Israel felt threatened by assimilation, the acquisition of foreign wives and wayward women among the Canaanites and surrounding enemies, as defined by the Jewish community, stood for danger. Degeneration of the race feared, the stranger turns enemy: lest  acceptance brings him or her in to the wary tribe as a friend, an intimate, a rival, or a beloved. Old Testament passages inveigh against the lure of the exotic; the careful proscriptions against mixing, against crossing boundaries characterize Leviticus.

Foreskins, semen, and menstrual blood accordingly elicit minute attention for Jewish legalists and Christian dogmatists. Knust's final chapter examines these attitudes towards parts of the body, and what they stand for, emit, and permit for those faithful to a covenant of blood or baptism. As that arrangement shifts within the Christian revelation and revision, circumcision alters from an outward identifier for Jewish membership into a inner symbol, one that can no longer be demanded as an telling signifier as gentiles enter and finally dominate the new Church. Knust in this section excels. She interprets the evolution of circumcision within the Jewish and Christian communities, both charged with fulfilling a command that itself becomes superseded as the latter denomination separates from its origins and the ceremony transforms into a negotiable set of interpretations.

While readable, at times Knust's own interpretations rely on what is left less immediately accessible to readers. She may enumerate with an endnote to a scholarly article her support for a claim, a defined term, a word that escapes easy translation, but her own narrative would have benefited from more elaboration, if not within the chapters than in her notes, of textual cruxes. Similar to Michael Coogan's recent "God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says,"[also reviewed by me at Amazon US] Knust amasses sifted evidence but she discusses it in the appendix inconsistently. On homosexuality, she often rushes through material that deserves elucidation; about non-procreative heterosexual activity, despite the hints of her preface, her book oddly stays nearly silent. 

Concluding, she rejects any reduction of this diverse set of texts over centuries and peoples into a consistent arrangement of dogmatic assertions. The imperfection of a Bible that Knust does not regard apparently as divinely dictated but humanly flawed only heightens its relevance. She encourages an openness "to the divine Word instead of closing our minds and hearts by acting as if we already know what God thinks and wants." She argues for a readership mature enough not to accept the stoning of Jezebel any more than it would support slavery by chapter and verse. She hopes for a higher regard for the marginalized, the persecuted, and the harried in the biblical texts to balance the conventional roles assumed by patriarchs, prophets and preachers, themselves in this exegesis shown to be as full of foibles as those they harass, harangue and harm. (Featured, without the hyperlinks, at the New York Journal of Books  on 1-25-10)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

J.C. Hallman's "The Story Within the Story": Book Review

How do writers react to other writers? Here's thirty responses. They capture what their collator calls "creative criticism," and while "this temporal splatter of essays" stays messy in its seeming refusal to order the selections in an always logical order, their "inconvenient realities" may better address the elusive but identifiable craft (or lack) inherent. For, this volume convenes the studies of experts who lack tenure worries. They also largely ignore academic stodginess. They use their personal stories to address what they like and don't like in their predecessors' fictional works.

It begins with Charles D'Ambrosio's juxtaposition of his brother's suicide with Salinger's "Catcher on the Rye." After this, Virginia Woolf expounds on Hemingway's "Men Without Women." The essays go on, rearing up against each other, and Hallman's arrangement while eluding my easy grasp does challenge the reader to puzzle out his strategy. Like a mix-tape composed by one fan for another, Hallman as a writer may be hinting at subtler connections eluding my more distant attention. Rushdie on "The Wizard of Oz," Heaney on T.S. Eliot, Nabokov laboriously correcting etymological blunders by critics of "The Metamorphosis" exemplify the masters who weigh in.

But, mingling we find Dagoberto Gilb reflecting on his own Mexican mother's relationships with stepfathers and other men in light of Cormac McCarthy's similar portrayals in his Border Trilogy. Hallman advances what ticked him off years ago about how critics misread "The Turn of the Screw," and we get related and impassioned essays by such as D.H. Lawrence on "Moby Dick" and, for once, following it, Geoff Dyer's inspired rant on D.H. from his "Out of Sheer Rage." On the other hand, Phyllis Rose and Alain de Botton share their readings of Proust separated by nine entries. Camus on Melville nears the end of the collection, far away from D.H.L.

For one, don't trust the title. Susan Sontag's "Loving Dostoevsky" turns out to be about Leonid Tsypkin's novel "Summer in Baden-Baden." David Lodge in fine form surveys "Waugh's Comic Wasteland" but stopped short of the later works; Milan Kundera on Kafka wanders about as much as he narrows in, a delightful quality shared by E.B. White on "Walden."

I'll end with what many readers might do themselves, a short list of a few favorite quotations. Here's my three. Walter Kirn happens to be my age more or less; he and I read "Catcher in the Rye" the same year of high school; his was by assignment, mine by choice. Both of us felt the same: "The learning, sophistication, and experience that Holden threw away in a few days would have lit up my small-town high school for a year." (305)

Lodge in Waugh defines their shared genre (for Lodge too is a bit underrated but for me one of the leading novelists today, light in touch but weighty in meaning): "Satire in any era is a kind of writing that draws its energy and fuels its imagination from an essentially critical and subversive view of the world, seizing with delight on absurdities, anomalies, and contradictions in human conduct. It is not the disposable wrapping around a set of positive moral precepts." (368) While Lodge's essay dispensed with the personal touch early on, it remained for me a highlight, clarifying as it happens some difficulties with Waugh that I had when recently tackling "Vile Bodies."

Finally, Kundera uses his own experience of Prague under totalitarian rule to delve into Kafka. Life without secrets may appeal to party hacks or State functionaries. "One big family" becomes the mythic ideal for society. I wondered as today we wonder about the reach of Google or Facebook, identity theft and corporate control, or the exchange of data for discounts from franchises and retailers, how much more rather than less applicable Kundera's warnings might be. How might Hallman's colleagues-- academics and critics enamored of the reach of globalization and online media, 24/7 openness, always being wired and tapped into and on call-- react to this?

"Lyrical souls who like to preach the abolition of secrets and transparency of private life do not realize the nature of the process they are unleashing. The starting point of totalitarianism resembles the beginning of The Trial: you'll be taken unawares in your bed. They'll come just as your mother and father used to." (391-2)

Not the volume I'd have expected when opening it to find such a topical observation, but it proves the efficacy of many insights gathered here under literary criticism. As we humanists insist to our dwindling enrollments, these perspectives on life as well as letters demand attention. This volume fills a gap in the shelf, where students of life and of literature find a connection and a challenge to the status quo in a time where the demands of profit and commodity overwhelm the sensitive and the skeptical voices insisting upon introspection, ideals, and intellectual power.

(Posted to Amazon US 4-26-10; there I have reviewed also "The Devil is a Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe" and "The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game" and "In Utopia". Also, see my review of his recent story debut, "The Hospital for Bad Poets".

The last two reviews are also at PopMatters: "The Hospital" and "Utopia". Visit his website:

Friday, January 21, 2011

Comórtas óraidíochta leis 'An Leamhan'

Thug muid breith deag duine a chiontú faoi láthair. Rug Léna agus mé orainn comórtas óraidíochta ina Loch Airgid De Céadaoin seo caite, an 22ú lá de mhí na Nollag. Chuir lucht iomaitheoirí isteach ar dhuais.

Tharlaigh sé ina gclub oíche 'na dTiarna' ina tséiléir mór. Shroich muid ar áit go luath, mar d'iarr muid ag thairg cuidiú le timire na cluichí óraidíochtaí. Bhí trí beirt bhreithiúna ag rogha go géarr ansin. There were three pairs of judges chosen quickly there.

Bhí an halla lán go doras go tapaidh. Chruinnigh ceiliúrai go leor agus lán tí níos mó ann. Thosaigh muid an céilí agus thug muid barúil i dtaobh sceáláí éagsúlaí faoi téama ainmithe dóibh na 'teacht abhaile'. Ní raibh ábalta eang a chur i mbata scóir is lú seacht sa chéad, mar sin féin.

Bhí teorainn ama na gcúig noimead, leis noimead eile chomh 'téarma na ngrást' ag achan cainteoir suas ansin. Mheas muid go raibh tríu deireanach na gcuid na gcainteoirí den chéad scoth, má tógtha de thaisme. Bhí maith linn ag éiste scéalaí faoi seach uncáil buile ag cóisir dinnéar na Nollag, greanntraigéide fir óg ar feadh ag díle báistí anois in ár gcathair, agus teacht ar ais chuig do thir dhúchais fir óg eile ag rugadh ach ní tógadh ina Vitneam é.

Cur cuairt an eolas chuig 'An Leamhan'. Téann siad in urrus comórtas. B'fhéidir, cloisfaidh tú amharclann seo féin (gan ghlór againn?) ar an Ráidió Náisiúnta Phoblachtach amárach. 

A "contest of eloquence" with The Moth.

We passed judgment upon ten people recently. Layne and I caught a 'contest of eloquence' (~StorySlam!) in Silverlake the past Wednesday, December 22nd. A group competed for a prize.

It happened in the 'El Cid' (~Spanish-Arabic 'The lord') nightclub in a grand cellar. We arrived at the place early, because we sought to volunteer to judge the speaking-games.

The hall filled to the doors quickly. The many celebrants and a very full house gathered there. We started the festivity and we passed our opinion on the various stories told about the theme assigned to them of 'homecoming.' We weren't able to tally a score less than seventy percent, however.

There was a time-limit of five minutes, with another minute as a 'grace period' for each speaker up there. We reckoned that the final three of the speakers were of the best quality, if chosen by chance. These speakers pleased us respectively with stories listened to on account of a mad uncle at Christmas dinner, a young man's tragicomedy during torrential rain here in our dry city, and coming back to one's native land by another young man born but not raised in Vietnam.

Pay a visit for information to 'The Moth'. They sponsor the contest. Perhaps, you may hear this very show (without our voices?) on National Public Radio in the future.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Young Prisms' "Friends for Now": Music Review

This San Francisco band recalls a calmer assault, similar to The Aislers Set of a decade ago from that city, but with muffled male (rather than an alluring female) vocals buried in the steady waves of noisy pop. Like The Jesus and Mary Chain, Young Prisms combine a love for late-‘60s wall-of-sound Southern California melody from the slightly psychedelic detour into a head full of sand and with a determination to cover up that sunny vibe with lots of guitar, drums, keyboards, and distortion. The results may make this group’s album louder than that by another of their municipal peers, Film School [see my two reviews on them in the previous two blog entries], but again the resemblance to early-‘90s shoegazing establishes yet another familiar connection.

Familiarity dominates this album. It succeeds to set a mood of a rather altered state of mind, but the tunes resemble one another more often then not. They do not compel the listener to repeat enough of them to search for deeper meaning, or hidden delights. Whatever lyrics may surface are yelps and sighs, vocal harmonies and exclamatory snips. While this deepens the ambiance of their delivery of textured indie-rock that hearkens back to their salty forebears down the California coast nearly fifty years ago, it also leaves the songs on this album remarkably consistent, and sometimes, sadly, rather inert.

For variety, they may speed up the rhythm and add distortion, but this seems sometimes as if the same song is played faster. The effect does not dazzle the listener, but it may move the audience to jiggle and bop. Most of the tunes elicit a languorous feeling instead, and this record would fit a lazy, foggy morning or a woozy, tipsy night.

“Friends for Now” will please those who seek a blast of fuzz to clear out their psychic miasma. The pedals and boxes are used on and off on this record, however, as many songs prefer to progress at a steadier rate. While appearing at noise-pop festivals, Young Prisms appear on these recordings to keep the volume lower. This creates more consistency, but the record makes you take notice when the sound levels alter.

Shoegazing and neo-psychedelia share a passion for layers. Guitars float and distend. Keyboards waft and shimmer. Drums echo and flange. Voices whir and whisper. Young Prisms have this technique down. Where future releases from this young collective could progress is if they mix their apparent influences with their own impressive stamp upon a genre that, as with No Age and Darker My Love from Los Angeles, indicates a way to mingle the legacy of the late ‘60s with the early ‘90s but that does not stop at an respectable repetition of a blend content to pile on more guitars, more layers, more tremolo.

More heft may be needed. Many neo-psychedelic bands appear to start off heavy and get lighter by the third album. The Black Angels and Darker My Love have shown this in their current releases, which while respectable are not as impressive as their previous, more dirge-like, far more intense music. Young Prisms, by emphasizing their penchant for swirling production, may avoid the direction of their higher-profile peers in exploring the possibilities of expanding the vocal range, as the potential on this debut full-length show a band that deserves more time to fill in their vision of what they want to be on record.

On stage? I bet they blast out these tunes. I look forward to a second album that does the same. (Reviewed at PopMatters 1-19-11)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Film School's "Hideout": Music Review

This follows the self-titled debut with less of The Cure, more My Bloody Valentine, in their less feedback-driven stage, and perhaps downbeat moments from the early-90s shoegazer-pop bands. Greg Bertens sounds not as much like Robert Smith. However, as my review of their first CD noted (in my previous entry here), he's an amazing student and I complement him on his channeling Smith and bandmates' sound into their own. It's more an homage than mimicry, somehow.

The best songs here are the loudest. "Lectric" dares to turn up the speed and the volume and moves with swagger. The closer, "What I Meant to Say," stands out for its evocation of neo-psych such as Lilys in its careful attention to layers and interplay. The rest may boast the talents of Colm Ó Ciosóig of MBV, but it's closer to the bandmember from Snow Patrol also credited.

If the latter affiliation's a plus, you'll like this CD. It tends towards mopey pop rather than full-out sonic blasts, and I miss those. Perhaps more original than the s/t record (also reviewed by me), but this San Francisco-based, but very British-styled group appears to be getting looser and lazier rather than tighter and heavier. It lacks the experimental snatches that could be found on the first record. Instead, it opts for a softer, subdued, more accessible sound. Less derivative of The Cure, and for that the band deserves points for trying. Yet, oddly, I still favor their imitations of earlier British indie bands (it makes sense they are signed to Beggars Banquet) more than most of the songs on this respectable, but too safe a record. (Posted to Amazon US 9-14-09)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

"Film School": Music Review

Not The Cure but an amazing simulation for much of this San Francisco-based but very Brit-indie styled band's debut. Greg Berton sounds more like Robert Smith as the songs progress, until by track 5, "Breet," I defy you to tell the difference. That's an oblique form of not only flattery but admiration, for I liked FS' take on early/mid-period Cure as much as the original band. Track 6, "11:11," starts off like "10:15 on a Saturday Night," and FS can summon up the nagging, melodic, puffy malaise of their influences well.

The last songs edge into My Bloody Valentine's less-distorted, earlier pop style; and The Verve perhaps can be recalled in these grooves, which rely heavily on atmospheric density and mordant moods. (This move towards more distortion and less Cure-like structure will continue on their 2007 follow-up, "Hideout," reviewed by me in my next entry.) I like this approach, even if the shift away on the latter portion from Smith-like vocals only accentuates the album's previous reliance on a venerable indie-pop template. I'm confused by the promotional material from their apt label-- given its forebears-- Beggars Banquet. I hear no trace of "The Who" or "drone" or "obscure electronica," not to mention "metal," and barely a trace now and then of "Floyd." I do hear "alternative 80s" clear if not always loud.

So, this may not be what those following the blurbs may expect, for the advertising words don't match the sounds here often unless "alternative 80s." It's perhaps a good choice for those already nostalgic for the days of "college rock" on the original artists released by Beggars Banquet, however. In this homage and reply to these bands, Film School provides a record that does not update these predecessors so much as thank them. (Posted to Amazon US 9-14-09)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Lashon hara, Gun Club, Fourth Precept

There's a term I learned when studying Judaism twenty years ago, lashon hara. It stuck with me that "unkind words" represented a key concept in ethical foundations for a student of the Torah. It's one of the first concepts that I connected with in Jewish ethics, perhaps as a corrective to a tendency for sarcasm, insult, self-recrimination, backbiting and negativity in my own habits of speech in which I'd been raised and which I'd inculcated unknowingly. The past few days, my nation's been caught up in its own reversion to a habit of unkind words, maybe meant as chastising or corrective, but often sounding to me as vindictive and cruel.

For my Contemporary History class yesterday, studying the aftermath of WWI and the 1920s and 1930s, I defined "socialist, communist, and fascist." I reminded my students of their true meanings. Coming home, I had to fill in the context at the dinner table for "blood libel" as that denotation has been wrenched apart from its connotation last night. I've been on the blogs and about the net and I've seen the papers even if I promptly turned off the inevitable CNN 24-hour blitz that impinged on our home a few days ago.

On a couple of places, as the news unfolded and grew and accusations and blame resounded, I posted this in reference to my own encounter with students not perhaps that different than the one accused of shooting the people in Arizona last weekend. People had been debating about how we can protect ourselves from a deranged killer. People blamed the young man, and those who they reasoned set him off unreasonably.

As a college instructor, I can verify that we do have a culture, influenced by progressives (Foucault? Laing?), that allows students with mental problems freer rein. Even when myself or classmates have reported that we feel threatened, we were told by supervisors that we cannot do anything unless physical violence occurs. A "hostile environment" caused by said student who's imbalanced is outweighed by that student's civil rights; nor can counseling be demanded. I'm not diminishing the tragedy or shifting blame, but explaining context behind such tragedies.

I feel weary, but as one who educates as well as prattles, I figure I'd get my thoughts out. (I append as an aside that we also have a society where conservatives have shut down many mental institutions and continue via their cronies in the "healthcare providers" industry to limit access to psychiatry and treatments as affordable for most Americans, while tax cuts endure as sacred, businesses slash worker's coverage, and insurance companies remain formidable.) I know what it's like to have a student mouthing off and disrupting a course. I know what it's like to have to hear out a student who lacks stability despite his or her book smarts. And, I've come home frustrated with not knowing what to do, or feeling I lack the protection I need for me and the majority of the class to continue comfortably at the expense of the rights of a single student whose presence unsettles even the most patient and tolerant of us.

I teach Public Speaking, I teach literature, I teach modern history, and I teach Technology, Society & Culture this term. Four courses to a total of ninety students, most of whom read little and who are techies and gamers instead. So, these slightly jostled and jumbled reflections are germane, if for my own needs perhaps, to get out of my head the static and noise. Too-familiar with resentment and score-setting, I need wisdom.

My own politics may be now as shifty as my denominational or philosophical views, in that I find myself in teacher mode, seeing all sides, hearing all voices, until I wonder sometimes where my own allegiances remain. After twenty-six and counting years in a classroom, you tend to become either open-minded or closed. I hope I've kept the former quality, even if my few liberal friends berate me for my flexibility in entertaining what I may not advocate deep down, and my fewer conservative friends may despise me for wooly-headedness. Parts of the right remind me of populism, but their elected descendents pretend to spurn the government while seduced by lobbyists; parts of the left recall the Progressives of a century ago, but they are too beholden to the same business interests without which no supposedly reforming candidate can win or keep office today. In class, I can argue for any position, and in the ballot box I may be as hard to pin down.

I keep anonymity for all mentioned among my own varied fellow travelers herein. But a true comrade of mine, veteran of many real and cyber-battles to defend first Irish republican activists and then those who challenged the leaders who took over the movement in the wake of their cynical revisionism, alerted me to an article that aligned with my own reactions. She told me about  "A Dysfunctional Moment in American Politics" by Wendy Kaminer, courtesy of the contrarian site Spiked.

Some commentators there lean considerably closer than I do for Second Amendment rights for those not constituting "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State," who stress instead only the remainder of the statement "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Capitalization aside, and commas inserted or deleted depending on the version, but an insistent faction of our population promotes the latter clause on t-shirt and bumper sticker without convincing us, or me at least, of the validity of the former as a prerequisite. Nobody can argue that the deluded Arizona shooter constituted part of any "well regulated Militia."

So, how do we square conservatives who assert this right via their anti-statist reactions against a liberal defense (at least in terms of the media and the dominant voices in this debate this week, and perhaps of the silent majority of the citizenry) that attacks those from a reactionary right as deadly wrong, responsible for the massacre of innocents goaded on by inflammatory websites and target-practice videos? I sense payback, bitterness at the victories eked out by those now in charge who will have to leap some ideological and political bounds to justify their own anti-government, anti-gun control views against the casualty list caused by a crazed dropout with no discernable sense given a favorite reading list of Hitler and Ayn Rand alongside Marx and Orwell, Huxley and utter babble scoured and mashed and fried from the most marginal and insensible of websites and conspiracy theories and monetarists and fools. All poured into half a brain to aim a gunsight.

Yet, I find myself annoyed with those who rush to judge conservatives as if blaming them all for the actions of a schizophrenic. This tends to be the gut reaction of many whose comments I've read on sites I frequent. Coming from a background, an upbringing, and a lengthening career where I mingle with far more traditional students than my colleagues at more selective colleges, I find myself daily engaged with working-class, immigrant, first-generation students, many vets, who pay my wage. They lack clout; I lack tenure. This is the workaday cadre whom progressives boast about empowering and whom conservatives claim among their recruits. I wonder if those with power or affluence talk with--rather than talk down to--those with whom they differ. Or do they hear or see them as soundbites on radio or television or the net or YouTube? I try to listen.

Many commentators, professional and amateur, appeared to mix glee with bitterness at a chance to excoriate the far-right. While I do not reside there any more than I do the radical left, I found myself taken aback by this opportunism. Amidst righteous indignation, I also found score-setting, caricaturing, and vitriol, as if hatred spewed more hate. Those defending humane values and gentler dissent themselves were outshouted.

So, I welcomed a fresh approach. "Spiked," as with "Standpoint" whose columns by Nick Cohen (of the "Observer") I enjoy (if not always agreeing with, but then, who do I always agree with anyway?) my colleague introduced me to, offers this view that gets as ticked off by the smarmy left as it does the slimy right. I also think the distance instilled in some British-based sites eases what in the U.S. turns more and more a corporate-directed merging of the pundits and shock jocks into what passed once as "news," as my wife's informed me regarding the easing of FCC rules about "commentary" vs. supposedly objective TV journalism. British reporters for ideologically identifiable papers may certainly parade their own biases, but their critical perspective on American entertainment disguised ineffectively as detached coverage does sharpen my gaze.

I shared my comrade's link, and highlighted in my comment box on FB this from Kaminer: "Any actual, causal connection between the attack and the degeneration of political discourse will probably never be clear." I waited for dissent or support.

First, an author who has published two high-profile, well-received memoirs (reviewed by me) of growing up tough among the down and out asserted his determination on FB to place Kaminer's comments within the true threats he saw tilted far more to the lunatic right rather than the remnants of some countercultural left.

He, after I posted Kaminer's article, responded to her claims: "I can't remember the last time the left held target shooting practice with targets set on the right. I don't like the left use of the word "Fascist" for anyone on the right. It's as wrong as the teabaggers calling Obama a communist or fascist or whatever mix of labels for "un-American" that they want to use. But what goes way beyond that type of vitriol (which is bad and stupid) is the very specific call to arms that we have gotten from the right. Seriously, when is the last time we heard that from the left? The Weather Underground? The Black Panthers? Those movements were completely destroyed. By contrast, the right wing revolutionary movements will not be destroyed by our government. They are encouraged."

As for me, I have earned contempt for pointing out to liberals that "teabagger" itself is an anti-gay slur, but this nitpicking has not won me admirers. I am with him on the abuse of "fascist" by the left, and I'd add "nazi," "socialist," and "communist," as I noted above. His last sentence may be up for argument. Who in "our government" encourages the reactionary, armed and discontented, may depend on who and where. A lot.

A wise friend of mine, on FB in this case but as a true friend in person as well even if we gently bicker a bit, responded to my advocacy of Kaminer's nuanced position: "This kind of violence has been intentionally fomented. The fear that drives it has been obviously used for political gain - and now that the worst has happened there's a desire to split hairs over the exact reasoning of the unreasonable in order to pin it down to something that nobody has to feel guilty about."

Echoing this, I cited the words of this same friend anonymously at True Liberal Nexus . Its blogger, Tamerlane, and I often agree, if sometimes we disagree or diverge. In response to his "Blood on Your Hands" entry, which points the accusing finger at the Gun Club (not the swamp-punk band of the same name whom I love), I typed in: "I may split hairs as a professional hazard, being a teacher, but my friend’s point aligns with yours, TL. But I wonder about causality, even for insanity." I continued in classroom mode:

"My discussion question: how is this shooting different or similar to, say, the attempts on Gerald Ford by Sara Jane Moore & Squeaky Fromme? Did not the climate then also become infected by talk of revolution from the margins to take out our leaders?"

Tamerlane replied: "Moore & Fromme were immersed in fringe radicalism. I can’t speak to the “climate of revolution” in 1975 — there may have been some residual from the Vietnam War protests, but this feels different to me today than what I recall from my childhood.

One major difference is that Moore &  Fromme were bad shots, had malfunctioning pistols with only 4 -6 bullets. That, and nobody had used gunsight imagery urging people to “target” Ford."

He quotes the guilty who goaded on with their fiery slogans the fury that now claims innocent lives. Gunsights, cross-hairs, surveyor's marks, blood libels. I get it. But, I'm tired. Heartland veterans vs. Bay Area progressives, Irish radicals vs. "Don't Tread on Me" resurgents, surfers and hunters, I count them all among FB friends in my small-c catholicity, so I can't please either side. You may understand why I move on now, for recess.

Psychologist Seth Segall, retired from teaching at the Yale School of Medicine, and author of "Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings" (SUNY Press , 2003). posted this at his blog "The Existential Buddhist" on January 10th, 2011. I was alerted to this by the poet-critic Ben Howard, whose "One Time, One Meeting: the Practice of Zen" blog I read regularly and link to from my own.

Dr. Segall titled this essay "The Fourth Precept" . A few years ago I might have dismissed this with a skim as too out of touch with reality. Now I think it's more in touch with my own reverberations than the increasingly unreal society I find myself distanced, or alienated, from. (I cite nearly all of his article below for my own recollections and for future reference; I've already pondered it quite a bit.)

The current public discussion over the role vitriolic political rhetoric plays in creating an atmosphere that increases the likelihood of violent actions is as good a time as any to revisit the Fourth Buddhist Precept.

The Fourth Precept reads:

Musāvāda veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

I undertake the vow to abstain from false speech.

“False speech” is a faithful translation of “musāvāda,” but most Buddhists interpret this precept more broadly to include all forms of wrongful or harmful speech. The Pali Canon identifies four types of wrongful speech: 1) lies, 2) backbiting and slander, 3) abusive and hurtful speech, and 4) frivolous talk. This would include speech that is harsh, untruthful, poorly timed, motivated by greed or hatred, or otherwise connected with harm. Gossip, misleading arguments, verbal bullying, incitements to violence, rage outbursts, malicious ridicule, and poorly worded or ill-timed truths that cause pain without benefit all fall into the category of wrongful speech.

Thich Nhat Hanh has interpreted the fourth precept to include all forms of unmindful speech and unheedful listening:

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and compassionate listening in order to relieve suffering and to promote reconciliation and peace in myself and among other people, ethnic and religious groups, and nations. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to speaking truthfully using words that inspire confidence, joy, and hope. When anger is manifesting in me, I am determined not to speak. I will practice mindful breathing and walking in order to recognize and to look deeply into my anger. I know that the roots of anger can be found in my wrong perceptions and lack of understanding of the suffering in myself and in the other person. I will speak and listen in a way that can help myself and the other person to transform suffering and see the way out of difficult situations. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to utter words that can cause division or discord. I will practice Right Diligence to nourish my capacity for understanding, love, joy, and inclusiveness, and gradually transform anger, violence, and fear that lie deep in my consciousness.”

and elsewhere:

“Do not say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people. Do not utter words that cause division and hatred. Do not spread news that you do not know to be certain. Do not criticize or condemn things of which you are not sure. Always speak truthfully and constructively. Have the courage to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten your own safety.”

It’s hard to improve on either the aspiration or the advice!

Mindfulness of speech allows us to carefully guard what we’re about to say. If we’re aware that we’re about to say something we might regret, it’s helpful to pause just long enough to ask ourselves four questions:

1.Why am I saying this?

2.Is it completely true?

3.Is it the right time to say it?

4.Is it liable to result in benefit or harm?

If the motivation is self-serving or hateful, if it’s not completely true, if it’s poorly worded or ill-timed, or if it is likely to cause more harm than good, then don’t say it. It’s simple.
(Seth Segall then discusses various forms of lies, some less harmful than others)

Inflamed political rhetoric fails a number of important karmic tests. It is 1) not fully truthful, 2) spoken out of aversion, 3) slanderous and/or demeaning in intent, and 4) crafted to ignite passion rather than reason. What good could possibly come from it?

As the Dhammapada notes:

“If you speak… with a corrupted heart, then suffering follows you — as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox that pulls it.” [1]

Words, like actions, have consequences, and set the stage for our future happiness or misery. This is the implacable law of cause-and-effect. We can refrain from causing harm to ourselves and others only through mindfulness, discerning wisdom, and a compassionate heart.
This week the reckless use of language has not only clouded and impeded a true national dialogue on the important issues of our time, but it also has contributed to tragic deaths and injuries caused by a deluded mind with a semi-automatic weapon.

He ends with a request for peace for all beings, and who can disagree? When I was younger, as I wrote about at record-setting length nearly two years ago as Pax Christi Passover, I wanted to join the Navy, I wanted to shoot, I wanted to fight, I wanted to revolt. My reading, my films, my music all changed, but this mentality stuck with me until I found a gentler appeal from the Franciscan ethos, the Catholic Workers, the principled anarchists I met in college and after. My religious allegiances shifted, ebbed, flowed, halted, twisted, eddied. My blog documents my journey inside and outside. I don't tell all here, nor may I ever, but these sentiments, in the bold rather than spineless manner of their articulation, do inform my present situation.

Starting the new year and my commute to work and back, I've opted for classical music instead of rock. I felt I needed downtime on the freeway. I kept it up this week. Not sure how long, and it's no New Year's promise, but I need a change from the constant barrage of diatribes, accusations, and recriminations. May this article posted here add to the need for peace rather than detract from it. May we all long for calm resolution.

Illustration: Eric Gill, 1915, Tate Gallery. Note again the Dhammapada quoted above: “If you speak… with a corrupted heart, then suffering follows you — as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox that pulls it.” [1] "Dumb Driven Cattle"

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ag cur cuairt an chéad uair go Muir na tSaltún

Chonaic muid an láthair tógála a faigthe mar oidhreacht ó seanathair Lheon agus Niall faoi deireanach i ndiadh a bhás. Nach fhaca Léna an ionad sin riamh. Dhúisigh muid ar moch ar maidín. D'imigh le breacadh an lae. Fuair mé é, i dtrátha an mhéan lae, leis cabhair ó Mapaí Google, ina leath-díthreabh ar thoir na Muir na tSaltún.

An gcloiseann tú faoi loch salainn mór ina measc trá ghaineamh ar thuas na teorann Meicsicigh? Go minic, go cluintear de réir cladach lán leis iasc marbh agus uisce ro-sháile. Tá fírinne, go cinnte é. Shiúl ár teaglach an trá folamh trasna talamh go déanta leis cnámha ó éisc Naomh Peadar (~tilapia).

Líonann siad gach áit. Mheas muid go raibh sáile tirim ar dtús ansin. Ach, d'fhoghlaim muid go bhfuil ar tír ag líonadh leis mín agus luaith a dhéanamh na éisc bocht. Níl éisc eile máire inniu ina loch, mar go bhfuil ro-sháile. Éiríonn peileacáin suas an uisce marbh.

Thiomaint muid go láthair ag ceannaithe fadó le h-athair Lhéna. Sílim go ag tógtha sé an áit ar feadh i lár na Seasca. Thóg an foroinn na gCathair na tSaltún chomh ionad saoire an tráth sin. Léigh mé ag ainmithe cláir sráide le hómós de lucht réalteolaí na Gemini agus gluaistáin spraíul na Detroit.

Baineadh stad asam le hiontas. Tógann tithe nua máguaird. Ar gach taobh, faigheann tú an teacht stucó donn dul chun fásaigh. D'inis Léna orm go tógáil duine Meicsicigh ansin. Tá praghas ar lascaine; níl tír i gcéin ann.

Ar an laghad, ceapaim go mbeadh siocháin ansin, in amanna. Ag trasna an loch gorm, tá mullach rósach ansuíd. Tá spéir mhór as cuimse os cionn.

Bíonn 60F amháin meán lae sa gheimreadh ann. Beidh aimsir shamraidh thar an ceart 120F go minic. Ní mbeadh lucht go leor go mbíonn ábalta go maire go fad go héasca ansin.

Mar sin féin, níl tithe go leor in aice leis an muir anois. Bhí tonn tuile ina Seachta. Mhil talamh riascach. Dhún cuan. Fhilleadh muid ar ais ar ár bhaile an bealach difríúl le riamh. Chuaigh muid chun bóthair go bpairc náisiúnta Anza-Borrego. As bóthar, ach bhí maith linn an radharc tíre na gealaí ann.

Fhilleadh muid ar ais ar ár bhaile an bealach difríúl le riamh. Chuaigh muid chun bóthair go bpairc náisiúnta Anza-Borrego. As bóthar, ach bhí maith linn an radharc tíre na gealaí ann.

Shrioch muid an baile turasóireachta na Shiulian, ach ní mhaith liom é i gcomparáid le gleann níos hálainn Naomh Isobel. Bhí cuimhne liom scéal le John Steinbeck ina gCalifoirnea níos ar thuaidh. Is brea liom cuasach glan agus go cuinn.

Dhún sean-mhisean Spáinneach go Pala de réir na Nollag (!); d'fhág muid go tapaidh mar raibh casino nua is mó go greanna ag éirí ansin anois. D'íth muid i mbruachbhaile dTemucula i mbialann Iodáileach. Ar fad, chríochnaigh muid triu ag bruachbhaile gan chríoch chéad mile agus dhá uair, go luath titim na hoíche, go gCathair na hÁingeal.

Paying a visit to the Salton Sea for the first time.

We saw the building plot that had been gotten by inheritance from Leo and Niall's grandfather recently after his death. Layne had never seen that location. We rose early in the morning. We left at the break of day. By the middle of the day, I found it, with help from Google Maps, in a semi-wasteland east of the Salton Sea.

Have you heard about the great salt lake in the midst of sands north of the Mexican frontier? Often, somebody hears on account of the shoreline full of dead fish and too-salty water. This is true, for sure.

Our family walked on the empty beach across land made of bones from St. Peter's fish (~tilapia). They filled every place. We thought that there was dry salt-water at first there. But, we learned that there's on shore filling with ground-up bits of poor fish. Other fish cannot live today in the lake, since it's too-salty. Pelicans rose up over the stagnant water.

We drove to the lot that was bought long ago by Layne's father. I judge that he obtained the place during the middle of the Sixties. The subdivision of Salton City as a holiday resort started at that time. I read the street-signs named in homage to the group of Gemini astronauts (cannot find this word, only "astronomers") and to the sportive motorcars of Detroit.

I stopped in wonder. New houses are built all around. On every side, you see a brown stucco house in the barrenness. Layne told me that Mexican people build there. There's reduced prices; the land's not faraway.

All the same, not many houses are there nearer the sea now. There was a tidal wave in the Seventies. Marshland was destroyed. The harbor (~marina) closed.

At least, I think that there may be peace there, sometimes. Across the blue lack, there's a rosy summit beyond. A vast sky's there above.

It may be 60F at noon in the winter. Summer weather will be over the limit of 120F often. There's not many who'd be able to be able to live a while easily then.

We returned back to our home by a different way than before. We set out on the road to the Anza-Borrego National Park. Out of way, but we liked the view of a lunar-like landscape there.

We reached the touristy town of Julian, but I didn't like it compared with the lovelier valley of Santa Ysabel. It reminded me of a story by John Steinbeck in a California farther to the north. It's for me a lovely hollow, green and quiet.

The old Spanish mission at Pala was closed on account of Christmas (!); we left quickly due to the ugly new massive casino rising there now. We ate at an Italian restaurant in Temecula. At last, we finished through the suburbs without end a hundred miles and two hours, after early nightfall, to the City of the Angels.

(Eolas as Béarla/Information in English: Alt faoi An Muir na tSaltún le Joel K. Bourne ina Iris Geografach Náisiúnta/National Geographic Magazine article by Joel K. Bourne about the Salton Sea. Aiste ghrianghraf le Scot Londain/Scott London's photo-essay. Clár Vicipéid/ Wikipedia page. Foinse ghrianghraf/Photo source: Gerd Ludwig, NGS.)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Dilmah Lover's Leap: a tea for me

This maker advertises his teas as "ethically grown." Dilmah, founded by Merrill J. Fernando, seeks to revive the tea trade in his native Sri Lanka, and to grow blends that favor local regions in this island rather than cheaper pekoe dust and mass-production methods that fail to move multinational profits back into the community. Similar to what some coffee exchanges are doing, Dilmah aims to do for tea-- to help Third World economies and sustain rural livelihoods.

I have liked their Ceylon Supreme and English Breakfast teabags;, and their Ceylon Estate fancier trapezoidally shaped net-bag brand. They have a clean, organic mouthfeel that holds up well to milk and sweetener, the way I prefer tea. They also have a line of green tea, and a pricier Watte estate line.

This gourmet Watte line seeks as with wine varietals from a single region to give, for the first time for tea, an appellation to bestow on a particular estate. These are more complex, aspiring to what a vineyard might seek to grow over decades to sell as its special concoction. So, I tried "Lover's Leap."

On the "Watte Boutique Tea" website, it's described: "Sophisticated and fragrant, Lover’s Leap Ran Watte Tea is complex, with hints of fruit, honey and eucalyptus. Its light, golden infusion and greenish infusion beautifully conveys the delicate, yet firm liquor." I'd second that description. I favor darker, stronger, maltier tea, but the combination of an earthier tinge akin to green teas into this appealingly complex brew surprised me. I rarely rate five stars for anything, but this is fragrant tea.

After reading a depressing book, "No Man Is Vile," by William McGowan about the civil strife convulsing Sri Lanka in past decades, and after years not getting a sturdy Kandy black tea that I liked once when Trader Joe's carried it a decade ago, I made a note to try to support their devastated tea industry. Dilmah's line of tea comes with a little pamphlet that explains their mission to pack tea and sell it fresh and to control the whole process to ensure flavor, ethics, and quality. Their very informative and well-designed "Dilmah Tea" website tells more of the good works they strive to share, and who can disagree?

Dilmah tea can be hard to find, and I only have bought it when three hundred-eighty miles away from my L.A. home, when visiting near Santa Cruz, California! The site says it's sold in 92 countries now. Perhaps other retailers carry it? If you have seen it around your neighborhood, please let us know. I wrote the vendors but the American distributor's website's MIA, and the Sri Lankan's one's incommunicado. (Posted to 9-10-10)

Friday, January 7, 2011

"From the Land of Ice & Snow: The Songs of Led Zeppelin": Music Review

Zep were the first group all of whose songs I’d heard; I was eight when their debut appeared, and I grew up with their music. When punk appeared, I drifted, but their albums never left my memory. Now, my teenaged sons offer their critique: “They sound like everyone else because they ripped off everyone else.” But, I recall of all people Tom Petty remarking in the unlikely space of liner notes for the Byrds box set years ago how Led Zeppelin were one of the few bands who’d contributed an original sound to rock. 

Originality improves these thirty-three tracks on this double-album, with seventeen bonus digital tracks, from Jealous Butcher Records. As with many tribute projects, this is for charity, a music-education based organization First Octave. And, as with the better tributes, this gathers recognizable names with lesser-known talents from the Pacific Northwest to rethink the melodies, tweak the vocals, and play with the arrangements of some of the most familiar of classic rock staples.

Familiarity proves a challenge, for straight delivery of “Kashmir,” “Rock and Roll,” “Whole Lotta Love,” and of course “Stairway to Heaven” would entice few to listen to this compilation. Many tribute albums fall rather than rise by including straightforward cover versions of songs that need no imitation. The work that has gone into the preparation of this project attests to the will not to repeat this trend, which on many 1990s-era compilations by indie bands redoing their influences tended to bring down the more daring interpretations by too many songs that tried to slavishly repeat the originals, to no purpose. 

Luckily, Pellet Gun makes “Rock and Roll” into a Big Black-Henry Rollins barking-mad, grimly industrial, perkily martial call to arms. This kind of invention occurs on the best contributions. Even a song for me that is weaker in its original form, such as “In the Evening,” improves by Chris Walla’s hooks that stretch it out into meditation. 

The first disc as sequenced highlights eclecticism. Bluesy female vocals start off with “Good Times, Bad Times” by Kind of Like Spitting, followed by The Clampitt Family’s downhome “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” Then, the Portland Cello Project takes on “Dazed and Confused.” After this diversity, the disc settles into versions that do not diverge as drastically, but who find a cozy indie-rock attitude that in its own Northwest, folksy-coffeehouse-grungy-rambling qualities fit this grandiose, epic, sprawling music comfortably.

Disc two wanders into more trip-hop, trance-friendly, club-mix territory. I found this less intriguing, if well-sequenced, but this may reflect my tastes, which tend towards the first disc’s ambiance. Such talents as M. Ward on “Bron-Yr-Aur,” Laura Veirs & Mount Analog on “The Ocean,” The Long Winters on “In the Light,” and Rebecca Gates and the Consortium on “Four Sticks” take some of Zep’s (slightly) less played songs and open up their atmospheric possibilities. 

The press release enclosed claims this effort was six years in the making. While Led Zeppelin’s fans may not easily hear of this, on such a small label, compared to the corporate reissues and the books that continue to be issued along with worthy projects by the band’s surviving members, it deserves coverage. Revamping the music of a band nearly every rock fan has grown up with, and maybe not out of but into, makes for an entertaining way to return to the songs that even decades of repeat play on FM radio may not have ruined. For me, coming back to Zep’s music through these tributes, it reminded me of the power, range, and vistas that Bonham, Jones, Page, and Plant thundered out and tenderly tendered.(Posted in shorter form to Amazon US 12-5-10 & 2-20-11; featured at PopMatters 1-5-11.)

Belliveau & O'Donnell's "In the Footsteps of Marco Polo": Book Review

The first to follow in his 13th c. footsteps, all 25,000 miles, two New York City explorers combine lovely photos with casual prose as they leave Venice, trek overland into China and back again. Avoiding airplanes, falling into the clutches of Afghan warlords, and enduring Canton's hellish train station, they recount their own share of adventurers.

What they find is how accurate "Marco Millions'" travelogue can be when tracing his route in desolate areas still largely the same as seven hundred years ago. I liked the Karakorum setting, with haunting open landscapes you can see in their photography and their simple scenes among the Mongols. How can you resist any narrative that crosses Taklamakan, the sandy wasteland you can get in but not out of by its name, followed by the Desert of Lop? On the Yunnan-Tibet Old Tea Horse Road, similar enchantment comes with the Naxi people, who now as then cap their teeth with their wealth, in gold. The pair realize that due to assimilation and globalization, the pressure of the Han Chinese majority on ethnic minorities (as they witness with the Uighirs and Tibetans) falls upon such peoples. "These are the last days that Polo's descriptions can be witnessed," they lament. (178)

Transience permeates this book, fittingly and poignantly. A Chinese professor in Xi'an paints a pagoda for years "and it's never the same. Every minute of every day the light changes and I see something different...but more has helped me to realize that I am changing more than my subject. When I am gone it will remain." (177)

A Cochin refuses to let them take pictures of the synagogue in India on Jew Road; the spice trade that made his people ancient merchants there has died out, and the congregation withers. Until earlier last century, those "white Jews" took slaves, converting them as "black Jews"; on Shabbat the latter had to sit on the floor of the shul. Denis Belliveau, who tells the story, cringes inside thinking of the irony of Passover seders there, but as many times, if not all, he keeps silent for his host.

Other places, he and Fran O'Donnell, ex-Marine, speak out. They talk back to their churlish Chinese and Persian handlers, and they navigate more than one police state with aplomb. They have trouble getting through Afghanistan as warned, and also in entering Iran. "We used to pray in our homes and socialize in public," one student dares to tell them. "Now we pray in public and socialize at home." (268) Suspected as CIA spies often, the travellers meet their share of difficulty, just as Marco Polo's party.

"In Xanadu, we found no there was no stately pleasure dome, no lush gardens filled with game, no sumptuous concubines. There was only a windswept plain and the remnants of an outer brick wall that once encompassed the Great Khan's summer palace. Destroyed by the Ming so there would be no memory of the Yuan-- we stood there defying them, daring to remember." (166)

In Sumatra they view the same act done by our primitive ancestors. Hunters circle a felled beast, seeking its spirit's forgiveness. This may be the oldest ritual still alive today, in such remote fastnesses as found by the pair of adventurers. In Sri Lanka, at Adam's Peak, they see its shadow cast over forty miles of a verdant plain.

Among the Khotan dunes amidst a sandy sprawl the size of Germany, Denis comes upon "a shattered tree that had drifted these waves for eons." Halting his camel, he runs his hand over the softened grain of the wood. "Maybe a child climbed this tree thousands of years ago when it was alive," he muses. "Maybe a monk meditated under its leaves when it stood in the courtyard of a Buddhist monastery or perhaps a mad Tibetan marauder was put to death and hung from his limbs." Their host, nicknamed "Grumpy" for his resemblance to a certain dwarf, "barked for his boys to start hacking at the bleached trunk, and I reflected on the tree's final demise. Tonight it would heat my bed and cook my food, completing its journey as it helped me on mine." (125)

It's easy to see how such stories endure on such a trail, and how new ones emerge. Overall, this book leaves, as Marco's did, half the tale out, I suppose. This can lead to slight confusion, as the maps as endpapers fail to show the direct routes taken, and there was in the Persian episode as they narrate some alteration of plans, and why this itinerary is not drawn on the maps appears an oversight that needed correcting. Also, I tended to lose track of how long it took them to get from place to place over two years, and I would have liked a detailed chronology on their map to keep up with their pace as it ebbed and flowed.

However, the photos are splendid and the chatty presentation, with easily read type and shaded font for the excerpts-- rather few, so I suppose Marco Polo did tell his fair share of tall tales to fill out his book-- from the original account give modern armchair travelers a thoughtful way to gain instruction from the trail here. As before, tolerance and hospitality, rudeness and danger, violence and threat fill the pages of another Westerners' journey to the Far East and all points in between. (Posted to Amazon US 10-7-09)