Tuesday, September 25, 2007


[two bikers on the subway.]

I did something very new to me today. I’ve been lately worried about the state of my computer.

Isn’t it new?

Yes, and nothing’s broken yet, but it’s slower than you’d expect a new computer to be. So when I opened iTunes after deciding to download and watch a show, I closed Firefox.

What else was open?

Nothing. Just iTunes. Isn’t that weird?

Wow. You’re talking about verticality and straification.

Yeah. Applications that aren’t about the internet anymore, they’re about the information you’re looking for.

That’s right. All these programs are coming into being that are going to totally negate search engines, because they pull, alter, and create a fixed scope of ideas much more quickly and efficiently, depending that you’re looking for something within that fixed scope.

So anarchists like search engines and hate iTunes and Google Earth.

That would be a reasonable hunch.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Religious extremism

I posted this as a note on facebook first, but it had such success in creating a debate (admittedly only between three people thus far, but still good stuff) that I thought I would post it here. It is not profound insight, merely the result of deep my frustration approaching anger towards radical Muslims/Islamists who utilize the freedoms of liberal democracies to promote hateful, misogynistic drivel:

It concerns me greatly that these people preach such ridiculous and dangerous drivel in this country, yet would probably be banned from doing so in their own country of origin. Ah, the wonders of free speech. They take advantage of that right, yet if their model society came into being, such a liberty would vanish in an instant.


These people have to be challenged and fought (hopefully with rhetoric and the law first) so that their ideas do not reach any more of the populace and poison any more minds. I am sick of these kinds of calls to destroy secular society/societies and impose a backward, misogynistic ideology. (Note that in the article the speaker did not say he was against the idea of imposing a Sharia-based caliphate in Britain, just claimed he would focus first on areas that would achieve the fastest results - i.e., the Middle East.)

*The photo comes from a piece by Christopher Hitchens in a recent issue of Vanity Fair.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Quantum Leap.

[Halloween party:
John and Devon, middle of party. Devon is dressed as a lounge singer; John is dressed in white navy dress uniform, has a cigar in his mouth, hat under right arm.]

++Discussion is about relationships, it breaks from the abstract with Devon’s line:++

God, imagine if we actually tried picking people up?

I’ve tried. It’s entertaining, then all of a sudden they expect to sleep with you.

I’m going for it. He’s cute like people like. [takes a pull on beer.]

I think he looked over here once or twice. [left hand into jacket pocket]

What are my odds? Objectively.

[John pulls Ziggy out of coat pocket. Devon takes another pull, shoots a smile across the room. John Punching buttons. Slaps unit, punitive glare on face.]

They’re alright.

Oh, boy. [walks out of frame]

[Adam steps into frame, dressed as Han Solo. Next frame is over john & adam’s shoulders from back, they’re slightly out of focus, Devon is across room talking to guy, who’s dressed as Peter Pan.]

You told her the odds? Never tell her the odds.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Last Gasp for Tommy

In my year abroad, my year of following the birds, I did not make a study of living in foreign countries. I know it fails to do justice to the scope and difficulty of other Watson projects, but I did not make a study of renting an apartment in Paris, or buying a car in India, or falling in love with the cafe waitress in Buenos Aires who brought me my coffee each morning as I sat and watched the people passing in the street. No, in my year abroad, my year of following the birds, I made a study of only one thing: movement. I learned an infinite ocean of truths and half-truths and maybe-truths about people and light and bursts of feeling and rain, and anything else you can imagine, but I made a true study of only one thing: movement. At one point, maybe in southern Africa or South America, I sat on a bus and watched the world wash by like a river of living paint, and had a thought: ‘the only permanence in my life is a constant of state of impermanence’. And that thought, it seems, held true for almost the entire year of my project – a study of movement, a study of trains, of boats and buses, of dust clouds enveloping smooth-soled shoes. In my year abroad, my year of following the birds, I never saw the same cafe waitress twice, and in some places, that was fine by me.

In my year abroad, my year of following the birds, it was my study of movement that set me subtly and sometimes deeply apart from other travelers, often in a way that was on the surface totally non-apparent. At guesthouses, backpackers, auberges, hostels, alojadas, and budget hotels I met the bold and adventurous cohort of the world: Australian, German, British, Canadian, Irish, Israeli, Argentine, US-er [more commonly known as American, a term which rightfully angers some people from South America who see its use by people from the United States as a usurping and monopolizing of continent and identity], South African, Singaporean, Pakistani, Columbian, Japanese, Mexican; aged 18 to 60 years; homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, transsexual, sexually ambiguous, sexually devious, sexually repressed, sexually indifferent; over weight and under weight and sometimes just cosmic drifting weight; black, white, brown, red, ochre, pallid, burnt to a crisp, cinnamon-brown, coffee-brown, nut-brown, freckled, pock-marked, pure-skinned, tanned-just-right.

While the eclectic motley crew of travelers, wanderers, vacationers, refugees, road warriors, amblers, ramblers, and drifters are not all bold and curious adventurers, but are in fact sometimes bored, boring, vacuous, terrified, disinterested, ignorant, and obnoxious, they all almost unanimously share one condition: they are entering a world - their travel destination - that is different, vastly or minutely, from their known comfortable world, the place from which they departed. Despite the myriad human and experiential differences that travelers possess, the fact that such people are capable of forming mystifyingly close and firm friendships over a period of hours or days is testament enough to the strength of such a commonality. These travelers have all left their houses and apartments; their boyfriends and girlfriends and spouses; their plants and children and cats; their driveways and walkways and set-ways; their morning commutes and cigarette breaks and overtimes; their white walls and white noise and white picket fences; and they have all traveled to somewhere different.

For many of the travelers I met, however, the life they had left behind was their ‘real’ life and was a constant, intact entity often carried in the back of the mind as a source of comfort and security. Every aspect of traveling for such individuals could be faced with the knowledge that an intact sphere of existence, identity and, for some, normality awaited their return. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, this return was liberatingly available at any time after their departure, completely dependent on the traveler's health and state of enjoyment and general well-being as the adventures progressed. For some such travelers it even appears that the life left behind was simply and perfectly paused, to be resumed at the push of a button or the drop of a hat (or bag in this case), almost without a beat being missed.

Now, I have painted a picture of the world's sphere of traveling and travelers in which I existed, moved, and studied during my year abroad, my year of following the birds. Such an arena only exists in the context of its colorful community of characters, since traveling itself is actually something of a relative, abstract concept that can be defined by an infinite number of activities and experiences, and can occur at any given place or time. I have already mentioned that as a group, travelers represent an immense diversity of cultural and experiential backgrounds, and by individual comparison, each is vastly unique. I also mentioned, however, that despite this uniqueness a commonality essential to the very nature of traveling itself allows firm, fierce bonds of friendship to be instantly formed among even diametrically opposed individuals, as unlikely as it may initially seem. I have taken the time to elaborate in such detail on the traveler's sphere so as to more clearly describe my own passage among its rooms of faces and corridors of voices.

My study of movement set me apart from other travelers not because it made me more unique as an individual than any other wanderer, a claim that would be preposterous and ridiculous at the very least, but because it created conditions in which I could not claim to share some aspects of the fundamental commonality that unites travelers independent of individual identity. For me, traveling was never a 3 day, or 3 week, or even 3 month affair – a reprieve perhaps – capable of being continually juxtaposed with a separate, comfortable, distant, and permanent sphere of existence, an alternate life. My movement was everything I had: traveling my job, traveling my study, traveling my vacation, traveling my normality, traveling my waking, eating and sleeping, traveling my life, traveling everything I knew for a year. If I got tired of bus rides and hostel beds after a month, I could not sigh with a resigned smile and say, "Oh, well, I'll be back in New York in a couple of days!". Within the sphere of constant movement, of continual shifting and changing and flux, of traveling and travelers taking a reprieve from whatever they had left behind, I had to develop a sense of normality. Within a sphere of people fleeing their working life with its usual routines, its day-to-day habits and systems of existence, its stresses and victories, I actually had to create exactly such a working life with all the qualities just mentioned, because I had nothing else and no other choice. And within that sphere of travelers, this difference is what set me apart.

The truth is that several days or weeks can be wrestled with in the mind and subdued with ease, but a year for all intensive purposes can seem, feel, and be an eternity. When I left for a year, with no opportunity to return to the US for the duration of that time, I left with nothing for my mind to fall back on: no apartment, no lover or spouse, no dog or cat or rhododendron bush, no job or finger-wagging boss. I left only my parents and brother - that family living in a strange new house that my father's employer had provided for us. So now you are uncontrollably curious: in a sphere where traveling is not an escape from a 9-to-5, but is in fact the 9-to-5 itself, and one with no apparent escape from its stresses and hazards, how then does one possibly survive? Listen now, and I will tell you.

At first, when the traveling really began, I didn't know if I would survive. The first month when my project was focused on the birds' breeding grounds, I experienced a semi-permanence that would not be repeated for the remainder of the year. Following this easing into things, there was the whirlwind, sleepless bus hopping down the coast of England; and the train to and through France and Spain; and the ferry to Africa, to Morocco, to the coastal city of Tangiers; and then the train to Marrakech and the bus to Agadir; and I had started to take the malaria pills and exhaustion and stress and doubt and horrible dreams and shock were really settling in; and dear god there were 8 months more of this nightmare of back aches and insomnia and sweaty, mind-numbing bus stations and solitude and dirty looks; and I felt my strength leave me.

If there was no project binding me to a path, I think in southern Morocco, in the coastal city of Agadir – in the cockroach-infested dank hotel where I confronted the darkest – I might have given up entirely. Maybe adopted the aforementioned traditional mantle of Vacationer and spent two weeks seeing the sights – camera always in hand, white line of sunscreen always drawn proudly and perfectly like a badge on the nose's pale bridge – before hopping back on the plane with a sigh, ordering a glass of Scotch, and planning Monday's return to the office. Part of me hated the project in Agadir, but in the end it was probably the project itself that saved me, forcing me to stay focused and dedicated and, above all, to keep moving. It was in Morocco that on some below-conscious level for which I had no words at the time, my mind and body were facing a necessary decision: adapt or break down. Just as the environment brutally enforces the laws of natural selection on all its various inhabitants, so did my project in providing a path and forcing me to keep moving leave me no choice but to evolve.

In northern Africa, I began to develop a mindset and certain practices that now appear to be startling related to some aspects of Zen Buddhism, of which I must confess to know very little. I focused at times on the present, the moment, the 'now'; and on the surety of the fact that everything comes to pass, everything is transitory, everything that is as we know it ends in time. This was a battle against the aching yearnings for permanence – for being in a place for longer than a few days or a week – that were already beginning to ebb and flow in my mind's ocean. This was Africa: a struggle, frustration, a rebirth, pain, beginnings, growth, change, reflection, confusion; learning in the ravages of a scorched, torn mind to make a home in the foreign and the different and in a state of transience, of pure and unadulterated impermanence.

In South America, I found with a searing sense of elation and pride during occasional self-reflective moments – moments which had grown rarer and rarer as I moved south through Africa and eventually left that continent behind – that I had made something of a beautiful, refined art – or science, perhaps – of planning for no more than the current day and the next. It had become instinctual to stop thinking and simply react and run with the currents of the world as they suddenly welled up across my path to pull me in an unseen direction. I had stopped questioning and fighting and trying to wrestle the world into fitting a certain conception of it that I might have held. I embraced the embrace of the universe and even began to love the uncertainty and the state of being an electric elastic particle spinning and flying from one moment and experience to the next. I was almost permanently exhausted and sore but I mostly stopped noticing or feeling it. In any case, weakness stopped mattering, since there was no time for it. Some days, seizing a moment did come to mean staying in the hostel and sleeping all day, even if that resulted in permanently foregoing certain 'not-to-be-missed' sites of a country, and perhaps simultaneously choosing self-afflicted isolation from fellow travelers that had all joined together for a day of adventures. I conditioned myself to the dangerous point of finding – almost seeking – normality and comfort in twenty hour bus rides and hard, stained bus-station benches. I had become impervious and I was having fun, and I loved it all, the beautiful, depraved, and gritty. The project suffered in South America but I had found a new strength. I was intoxicated with a new power of becoming the human embodiment of a verb: movement, action, the 'just do'.

By the time I reached northern South America, however, I began to find a sobering and a mastery of my transformation, and a return to the project with fresh mind and eyes. In my new form of being, and of being movement, I could manage and perform the project with infinite more depth and proficiency and make it just another part of the drifting. Like a modern Renaissance man, I could banish fear, and learn to do anything – nothing could stop me or stand in my way. This is how I ended the year: strong in mind, strong in body, and strong in project. I had come full circle.

Despite yearning for something constant and static and unmoving during my year abroad, my year of following the birds, I felt distinctly uncomfortable when I returned to the United States and arrived at my parent's house in Connecticut, letting the bag thud dully to the ground for the last time. I felt out of place there, anxious and restless. Like a train derailed, my constant movement of a year was suddenly and abruptly halted, thrown off course into a purposeless directionless void of fixedness. There were other strangenesses as well, those little things that always stand out in the mind more than anything else. I had left with a conscious philosophy of simplicity in mind, carrying only 1 pack, with only 1 T-shirt and 1 pair of shoes for the year, and when I took a box of my clothes from the basement and pulled on a shirt I'd left behind, I felt like I was wearing someone else's cloths. I realized after a few days in the same bed, the same house, and the same town that I was still brushing my teeth with one of those two-part, collapsible, convenient, disposable travel-toothbrushes. I realized that this specific travel-toothbrush was one I had received for free, along with a bar of soap and a pair of earplugs, from an overnight train through France nine months back. Perhaps I should scratch disposable from the prior list of adjectives and commend the French on the durability of their travel-toothbrushes, even though I'd bet an entire case of them that they are made in a factory somewhere in China or Japan. But that is neither here nor there. Anyway, the soap: a veritable menagerie of compact, miniature bars – single-serving soap, as Tyler Durden might call it – that I horded from every hotel that gave them out, and now find I can’t throw away, even though I know I won’t ever use them. There’s the circular one from the same French train where I received my toothbrush, bearing in the same red letters the name of the line: ‘renfe’; the rectangular pink ones from that quiet guesthouse in northern Argentina where my brother I stayed when he visited for New Years; the one with the blue wrapper – ‘Danubia: Contra Bacterias’ – from the towering decrepit Salinas hotel on the southern coast of Ecuador; the other ones in white paper emblazoned with the words ‘Gold Coast’ and a picture of a beach and a sailboat, given out by a hotel somewhere in the Virgin Islands, maybe St Croix. Soap with hygienic properties now lost, sacrificed to serve a more noble cause as memories trapped in crumbling bar form, the jigsaw pieces littering my bag of toiletries like jumbled road signs marking different stages of a long journey. I guess after all it is in fact exactly those little things – the toothbrushes and shirts and bars of soap, those things that for some reason always stand out in the mind more than anything else – that can speak with the simplest lucidity if given a chance. It’s clear now that after a year of drifting and plunging and transforming, my life as an act of movement and traveling will not fall back so easily into a relaxed state of stasis, of bulging stuffed wardrobes and pack-free shoulders and big fat lasting bars of green Irish Spring soap. Besides, I have a hunch that before it does, I’ll find myself picking up the bag and hitting the road again.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


do you know what I would be afraid of?
dot dot
listing to sides off any teleological track.
it's over and that's not me as nihilist but all as how we are.
gosh, i should text message this.
like so.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

It's Borges!

I know what it is, it's Borges.
Much of me had really done away with the comforts of metaphysicalisms, which are no joke but more than a trouble. Then I found myself lost!
See, like that. It could have been a joke about Ariadne but that would have been phonetical, a pun surely, and rather less dependent on signifieds.
I feel like I'm carrying baggage around--my desire isn't interstitial, it's damn near anthropomorphic.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Ishmael the gorilla, Don Juan the sorcerer, Anne the Australian, Biological determinism, and me

According to Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael, and other historians and anthropologists, 'modern-day' humans and their recent evolutionary ancestors existed for almost 3 million years prior to commencement of the event that has come to be known as the agricultural revolution. Quinn claims that prior to this momentous and still ongoing event, humans lived 'in the hands of the gods', or, in other words, lived at the mercy of the world. A simplified way of stating the same is to say that prior to the agricultural revolution humans lived without trying to control - in the dominating, mastering sense of the word - the world around them and its course, but, for the most part, existed as any other organism on the planet, ie by following the same biological/ecological rules, particularly those concerned with competition between species.

The agriculture revolution has now persisted for several thousand years - since approximately 900 BC, a small fraction of the time humans and their ancestors existed on the planet without its associated concepts or the practice of tilling the earth. The agricultural revolution clearly involved not only technological changes for humans but also moral and ethical, social and cultural, and religious and philosophical shifts as well. A deeply important potentially far reaching aspect of these changes lies in the power of control, or the illusion of the power of control.

For hunter-gatherer groups, those Quinn calls Leavers, prior to the birth of agriculture, 'living at the mercy of the world' often meant having little or no control over food supply and availability. Food, while often plentiful, could almost certainly be encountered each day but one had no ability to predict the type or the amount, nor the ability to store/preserve any excess food that was hunted or gathered. Naturally such a limitation would create a situation in which one was forced to take only what one needed for oneself and one's immediate community, and no more. The crucial aspect of this situation to remember, however, is that because food was often so plentiful, it made no difference that storage or production of an excess was impossible. There was, at least for the 3 million year majority of human history on the planet, simply no drive or incentive for technology such as agriculture, most likely because of the abundance of food available for a top-of-the-food-chain omnivore like a human creature.

Thus the point I am driving at: control of the world around us or the illusion of such control. Being able to produce and store certain types of food in quantities that exceed necessity essentially puts our species' fate and survival directly in the apparent power and mastery of humans, creating a sense that we control our world and our place in it, and, as Quinn says, taking us out of the hands of the gods. In other words, the dawn of agriculture marked the moment when humans no longer lived at the mercy of the world, but began to believe that they could make the world live at the mercy of humans. I don't remember if these words are Quinn's or my own.

This idea, that of perceiving to have the ability to control the world and our own lives, was most likely instrumental in the early days of the agriculture revolution, and as this time seems also to hold the birth of much of the culture of the first world today, it is not surprising that the concept of control over our selves and the world is now entrenched so deeply into almost all aspects of that culture. Self-help guides entitled 'Control Your Own Destiny' have never sold so well as today, but I'm willing to bet most of the consumers of such guides don't think of the agricultural revolution as they stand in the line next to the check-out counter. The idea that the ability to control our lives - and the microcosm of the world in which we revolve - might be an illusion may seem preposterous, but such incredulity may only be a testament to the depth of saturation that that idea has reached in our system of beliefs.

Three different things have come to convince me that the concept of controlling ones' self and the world is indeed almost entirely an illusion: Australians, my own experiences, and biological determinism. While my own accounts are by no means conclusive evidence of the notion that humans should perhaps live like other species at the mercy of the world, these personal testimonies provide a convenient stage on which to discuss the recent findings in neurological research that lend strength to the proponents of biological determinism.

I spent one year immediately after graduating from college traveling outside of and often far from home, following a bird on its migration route through Canada, Europe, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. An inexperienced traveler at the outset, I attempted to plan in advance and control all aspects of my journey in my first few months on the road - transportation, lodging, where I'd eat, what I'd do, every hour of every day used to maximum efficiency - and the stress of it nearly left me with a broken body, mind, and spirit. I discovered, to use Quinn's words once more, that living outside of the hands of the gods - continually fighting to shape the world to meet my preconceived expectations and destiny as I moved from place to place - was not only unnatural but destructive and painful. It took an unexpectedly serious conservation on a long train ride through the Moroccan desert with an Australian girl who had been alone on the road for months to reveal the error of my traveling ways, namely that I trusted too little, feared too much, and tried to control all steps of the way.

In all the countries I've visited, I've encountered more Australian travelers than wanderers from any other place, and incredibly, each of them, without exception, has possessed a profound depth of character with regards to one particular trait: their open outlook of joy at the wonder of the world - dark and light - is unflaggingly strong. They greet the world each day, waiting eagerly for the blinds to be yanked open and her colors and secrets revealed, with no thoughts of the future and its pitfalls; they seem to go almost childlike to the unknown, with an awe-inspiring, near-inconcievable, boundless faith that everything really will be all right - no matter where they are (potentially dangerous) or what they are doing (potentially foolish).

Perhaps more amazing to me, as I've found ever since the train ride in Morocco, when I really began to let my own constructs fall, is the degree to which the Australians have been justified: even when attempts at total control are almost entirely abandoned in exchange for traveling at the mercy of the world, everything usually does turn out all right. Of course, any one who manages to free themselves from our culture's demand that we master our daily lives and all the possibilities those lives might face tomorrow won't be surprised at all that the zen-like unflappable characteristic of the Australians is hardly ever flouted by reality. It only seems so unreal and inconcievable to those who have taken the lesson of control to heart as much as it seems I did.

My path recently merged with an older Australian woman, also traveling alone, who had taken a month off from her elementary school teacher position, left her two teenage daughters behind, and set out on a three month jaunt across North America, from Alaska to Nova Scotia, then down to Florida and beyond. For several days, our routes along the south coast of Nova Scotia were perfectly and unintentionally in synch and when we found ourselves in the same hostel again in the town of Yarmouth, we laughed aloud, again, and then went out for a drink at the local brew-pub. On the walk to the bar, she talked breathlessly about her adventures and travels, and I saw immediately that she possessed the same approach to the world as her all her fellow countrymen and -women. She paused then, and said something that struck me. When I travel, she said, I live in the embrace of the universe. I didn't have to ask her what she meant, as I'd seen it countless times before. That moment, however, was the first instant when I had heard an Australian verbalizing so clearly what they all seem to hold in common.

In anticipation of an argument that may arise here, I must make an additional point. Living at the mercy of the world does not mean to live in a state of unimaginative, uncritical apathy. The individual relinquishing control over the creation of the path followed must still be an active participant in the moment or the immediate future as it is presented to that individual by the universe. The individual must always work to know its self and be prepared to be open wide to the world as the world continually opens up to the individual.

The reason that it can feel so natural and invigorating to relinquish attempts to control all aspects of our surroundings and our relation to those surroundings might be because natural is exactly what such renunciation is. A highly controversial theory called biological determinism has persisted in the fields of neuroscience and psychology for some time. The idea behind biological determinism is that higher systems of morality and law do not actually exist, and that seemingly complex ethical choices made by individuals are no more than simple, predictable, chemical processes (or biological faults in processes) in certain parts of the brain. According to a radio program I recently heard on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, recent findings in neurological studies seem to be offer more and more support to the theory of biological determinism.

In one such study, it appears that researchers have isolated that portion of the brain which is associated with morality and ethical decisions. This study involved several groups of participants. One group was made up of individuals who had at some point in their lives had received injuries to a specific fraction of their frontal lobe, that portion of the brain directly behind the eyes. The frontal lobes of another group - the control group - were intact and uninhibited. The groups were presented with several situations that involved difficult moral choices and then asked to respond. In one situation, the participant is told that an oncoming train is going to hit and kill 5 people on the track unless the participant chooses to throw a switch, diverting the train to a new track, where it will only hit and kill 1 person. The second situation is outwardly similar: an oncoming train once again is on a collision course with 5 people trapped on the track. This time, however, the participant can only save the 5 people by actively pushing 1 person in front of the train, causing the conductor to slow down and stop before the 5 are reached.

In the latter of the two situations, the hesitation and/or inability by the control group to conclude that they would indeed feel compelled to actively push a person in front of the train represented a moral dilemma completely un-faced by the group who had received prior injuries to a section of their frontal lobes. In this and other tests, the group with slightly damaged brains showed a complete absence of any kind of complex system of morals whatsoever.

It seems clear why such findings would meet with heavy resistance. We as human beings have spent the last several thousand years - again since the birth of agriculture - convincing ourselves that as beings in total control of our fate and future and that of the world, we have a choice in everything we do, we have the final say in creating ethical creeds, in raising them to their seats atop marble pedestals, and in ensuring that every man, woman, and child follows them, under even penalty of death. To even begin to consider that we are essentially the same creatures that existed for almost 3 million years before the agriculture revolution began - biological entities with no rigid, sanctified, holy writ of morals ruling our minds, guiding our actions, and setting us apart from the other beings on the planet, but simply with the ability to imagine and believe in such an illusion - would be an unthinkable admission, one that our culture does not allow.

At some point in Ishmael, it becomes clear that the book is about how humans are meant to live, and all the deepest implications and facets of this seemingly simple clause. The clause refers of course not just to the mechanical process of survival every human undergoes on a daily basis to ensure the presence of food, water, and shelter, but also to the more profound concept of by what rules or systems should humans be guided in their development and behavior and thinking and relation to the rest of the world. Carlos Castaneda, early in his story, "The Teachings of don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge", quotes the diablero don Juan as urging the young anthropologist Carlos to see that his teachings of knowledge and an alternative life style to that offered by first world culture are about discovering how humans are meant to live. In many ways, Castaneda's depictions of don Juan's world begin to create a possible diametrical opposite to Quinn's Mother Culture of the Takers, an opposite that starts to reflect Quinn's conception of the story of the Leavers.

It appears that answers to the question of how humans are meant to live seek to take shape not only in these two stories and other tales, but also in the continually developing world of science and the study of the human brain, psyche, and system of behavior. Schrodinger predicted at one point that "all science is liable to do violence to common sense". If one sees common sense as those aspects of our belief system that have persisted for long enough to be ingrained in almost all individuals adhering to that culture, then his portentous statement, in light of this discussion, gains more solid form. If findings in the scientific communities do systematically break down the notion that human beings are higher entities worlds apart from the rest of the organisms on the planet, perhaps then, to end with the words of Daniel Quinn, humans can begin to enact a completely different story, and the next chapter in evolution will unfold.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

How I Learned to Love the Greeks, Or, Why I was Wrong about 300

This is a little late in coming, but considering the amount of traffic this blog has had recently, I don’t think any of us can be too choosy.

Like I promised, I saw ‘300’. In fact, I saw it on opening day, at 3:00 P.M. in downtown D.C.. And for the most part, I was delighted by just about everything I had expected: lots of blood, some overtures to dark comedy (though not nearly enough), dreamy sets and nightmarish foes. Even a little nudity in the part of Queen Gorgo, played by Lena Headey-Lebeaux (I’m hereby instating the It’s-OK-To-Discuss-Nudity-In-Your-First-Entry-In-A-While rule, and if you disagree, then please dear god let me hear it or post your argument!).

Despite that which I boyishly anticipated, I was also slightly worried about the film’s easy East vs. West theme, one that could be quickly corrupted as a modern take on the War on Terrorism—I think I was too hasty in worrying about this: the blogosphere erupted with discussions about this very topic before the movie premiered (“Leonidas as George W?”), thereby inoculating most from (and maybe enticing some to) the awful connections between the Current Administration and the Noble Spartans, the Despotic Persians and the Fundamentalist Terrorist, and perhaps even the Corrupt Oligarchs with the Democratic Congress.

(In fact, this film already has been re-presented in some forms of political discourse, just not in the ways that I was expecting. A recent political cartoon featured in Time Magazine shows a grotesque—well, more grotesque—Vice President Cheney dressed in the Spartan’s crimson, arrow shafts protruding from his body, as one of the last men defending the White House. On the other side of the aisle [or maybe winner’s circle], Al Gore invoked the film when he visited Capitol Hill, imploring all US Senators and Representatives to stand together as ‘the 535’.)

But so far there’s really been nothing new. The film lasted the better part of a month atop the #1 spot (only to be knocked off by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles last weekend), made some cash, introduced Gerard Butler to the world and dug up Faramir from Lord of the Rings (who should be in good movies, but instead opted to play the awful Monk/Q hybrid in ‘Van Helsing’).

Maybe I should have actually waited to have seen the movie, but that’s not a lot of fun. Or maybe I should have just waited for The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart to tell my opinion to me: yes, Iran got upset about this film (and probably deservingly so). But even if ‘300’ is a not-so-veiled allegory to the War on Terror, there are plenty of absolutely blatant uses of the war in everyday media. Need I invoke ‘24’? I shouldn’t been so worried about the more subtle forms of vilification/brainwashing: I should have been more worried about the parade of Baddies that simply march right pass allegory on their way to blowing something up whilst ululating.

So that allegory, while it does probably exist, isn’t something we’re not used to. But—and as Alexander W. said in response to my original post—war films are always simply about conflict. And if it’s not about the war on terror, than it has to be something.

Enter the strange interpretations of ‘300’ that have tried to torture the film (and haven’t those poor, waxed actors been tortured enough?) into some allegory of something it clearly isn’t: Wesley Morris’ review (The Boston Globe, 3/9/2007) eventually spiraled into an analysis of the film as allegory about homosexuality—his evidence: Persian emperor Xerxes wears makeup and has a private nightclub-like tent wherein certain women…erm…cavort.

This film is not about that. Were it, the Spartan Heterosexuals would be quickly undone by a fifth column back at home: the Spartan Priests are depicted as depraved and degenerate in their lusts for a young oracle, and even Queen Gorgo (again, played by Lena Headey-Lebeaux) has to, quite literally, sleep with the enemy at one point. Moreover, three hundred waxed, buffed (Jon Stewart referred to their 1800 abdominals), preening men does not make for the strongest of heterosexual stand-ins.

Assigning allegorical value to ancient wars is nothing new: J.R.R. Tolkein’s “The Lord of the Rings” eventually became an allegory for whatever conflict its readers/viewers imagined it (at once the films were about nuclear proliferation, the return of traditional) Catholic values and the struggle of the Green movement). ‘300’ hardly stacks up against LOTR, but the public’s need to unveil the film’s allegory interests me. Why do they bother?

Are we trying to verify our oftentimes nerdy interest in battle movies? Or is it because modern warfare demands a more nuanced understanding, causing us to anachronistically complicate ancient (and fictional) depictions? Can’t these films just be about ancient peoples hacking and stabbing the bejesus out of each other? Can’t we all just get along with slaughter? Because I really think that that’s how the Spartans would have wanted it.

Saturday, March 24, 2007


Addictions to exercize can start with simple obsessions of technique, or preoccupations with the day's happenings, or cetera.

My father raced my family (&me) down Mt. Killington in '94, when it was a snowless summer, and he was on foot and we in chairlift chairs.

Once he began swearing (Dad got awfully embarrassed the time his 7-year-old son hissed "horseshit!" in a crowded store upon stubbing his toe on a set of shelves) -- once he started swearing we knew he was okay, though he did have to limp down 600 vertical feet or so with his busted left knee.

I'm a solid runner, (though I look faster than I am) and when I and my meticulously-placed-feet come up on some overpronated dilettante, passing as quickly as possible is the only way to remain comfortable in this therapeutic routine. Doing that with our knees would mean therapy we can't afford, me and my uninsured knees.

Today I cooked a loaf of banana bread and in tandem a loaf of orange bread. I programmed in Visual Basic until my eyes got dry. My bank account is going to give me digestive problems. And some dude who looks like a marathoner fucking housed on me halfway into my route, right at the big hilltop, before the Botanical Gardens.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Big big clicker.

It's not like I'm really committed and I still can't stop what I'm doing!

I need a way out, a toning down at the least and god to just sit and drink a chocolate milk or something with the Simpsons muted is all it would take, if I could pull it off to do that forever.

"Hey, John."

"Oh, hi, Nate. I didn't see you there. This infinitely filled glass of Hershey's chocolate syrp in milk is really hard to peer around. And the silent cartoon in the sky washes out a lot of the other colors."

"Nice setup. So what are you up to?"

I will also have thought-controlled lightning bolts.

My couch is bigger than the horizon and I've been thinking of turning off my phone so you can't call me back.

A mother told me in high school that after you give birth you forget how much it hurt you, probably so you'll get pregnant again. --And that you remember it all in a moment when you're pushing out subsequent children.

That pain is a secret, is depth, only relates to itself and to you. To be fair, she didn't say that last bit, but I've got stuff I'm trying to keep out of mind.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Mostly terror.

Read these two articles with each other. Their suppositions comingle in a very unsettling way. One. Two.

This is a story that must be followed. Absolutely brilliant.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Chat with a Caracas Taxi Driver: The Venezuela of Hugo Chávez that You Won't Read about in the New York Times

His name is Giovanni* and soon after we leave the airport we find ourselves imbedded in a barely-moving mass of cars, mopeds, and trucks, a traffic jam he had resignedly prophesied before our progress was so heavily forestalled along the main road between the Venezuelan coast and the urban-sprawl of Caracas. Giovanni owns two cars and is the boss and only employee of a transport service he began years ago. He is part of a small, slowly growing middle class in a country where according to him 80% of the people live in stark poverty, governed by a very wealthy elitist minority. Such a scenario is far from uncommon in South America, a continent where for many corruption is the norm and simply a way of life, a seemingly monolithic obstacle contributing in large part to the persistence of the gap between the very rich and the very poor (and the associated near-absence of a middle class).

The burgeoning Venezuelan middle class, Giovanni suggests, is confused, afraid, and somewhat unsure of their identity, capitalizing in part on the wealth of the now-nationalized petroleum industry, but feeling the effects of Chávez 's ever more openly socialist and dictatorial regime. Moving against privatization of all forms, Chávez has according to Giovanni begun reclaiming some peoples' land and homes, and Giovanni says he and other entrepreneurs like him are worried the government will soon come to claim their cars and houses as well. Chávez - apparently paranoid of being killed by the US government and a CIA coup to the point of refusing to live in the presidential palace like each of his predecessors, or even to tell the public where his residence actually is - hasn't yet begun any major acts of violence to maintain his power. Giovanni is sure, however, that it won't be long until people who speak and act against the regime start disappearing. Peaceful demonstrators and casually outspoken citizens have begun to suffer jail time in some instances, and the media is starting to fall completely under government control. Already there are times, Giovanni explains, when all radio and TV stations broadcast only the voice of Chávez for hours on end. In these broadcasts, the president speaks nationalistically about public works projects and community development tasks that Giovanni claims aren't actually being conducted but are instead one aspect of a broader project of propaganda used to create an illusion - nationally and internationally - of the Chávez regime as one concerned with and actively engaged in improving the welfare of the Venezuelan people.

Giovanni points to the garbage-strewn barrios with their ramshackle houses spewing over the hills surrounding Caracas and explains that the people struggling to survive here have no quality water or sewage system, and that gang violence over drugs, for example, results in countless deaths on a weekly basis; the money that Chávez claims is being directed to stem this suffering is in fact only being used to line the pockets of his friends and purchase Mercedes and BMWs for his political allies. Giovanni laughs somewhat bitterly and recalls a point when he talked on the phone with his sister, who has lived in France now for sometime. His sister spoke highly of Chávez , claiming that people in France were impressed with how much he was accomplishing in Venezuela. She initially refused to even believe her indignant brother when he protested that the apparent self-proclaimed successes of the Venezuelan president were no more than a well-crafted and well-presented mirage.

Now, Giovanni continues, with complete control of the military and the congress, Chávez can start being more bold and public in his moves to establish his vision of socialist Venezuela. Giovanni believes that Chávez will mirror the future Venezuela after the Cuba of Castro's golden days; apparently Chávez has already regaled Cuba with free petroleum (a gallon only costs 10 cents here) on several occasions in an effort to develop and maintain good relations with the Castro regime. Most recently in Chávez 's alarming and ever-more extreme leftist but internationally obscured decisions has been in relation to the food sector: Giovanni says exasperatedly that with no sense of the economy or the logistical effects of his actions, Chávez has begun taking over the meat and dairy industry. Within the last year, certain distributors and sellers of chicken and eggs, for example, have been shut down by the regime so the products can be sold in other venues, sometimes even abroad, leaving the Venezuelans at times with a complete a lack of food or with produce so expensive that it is completely unaffordable. Just yesterday, Giovanni grumbles, his wife went to buy chicken but found that all the local grocers had been unable to secure any poultry or eggs from the distributors, whose operations had had all their produce recently seized by Chávez.

As we near the address of my lodging in Caracas, Giovanni says that to understand how Chávez achieved his position of power, and why nobody will currently do anything concrete to prevent the despot from pursuing his agenda, I must understand the history of the president's predecessors. During the reign of the Venezuelan dictators Gómez [Juan Vincente Gómez**, 1908-14, 1922-29, 1931-35] and Jiménez [Marcos Pérez Jiménez, 1952-1958], Giovanni says, major, highly visible developments were achieved in the Caracas area and elsewhere. He takes one hand off the wheel to motion to the overpass arching above his taxi and the modern highway under the tires and explains that these are the same roads that were constructed under the direction of the regimes of those previous dictators. Their actions and devotion, in small part at least, to Venezuela and its people (in addition to the fatness of their own pockets) left the Venezuelans in a position of knowing a feeling of hope for their country and partial faith in its rulers, making it easy now for Chávez to convince the people that his views are in their best interest. Even if Chávez starts taking a more violent and militant stance to maintain his position of power and affluence, the precedent set by those previous despots might suggest to those yearning for a feeling of peace and prosperity here that Chávez will still bring to the country more money and perceived progress than it possess now, a big enough dangling carrot to keep the mule of the Venezuelan people struggling along even under back-breaking conditions.

Giovanni pulls up to the apartment building of the friends I'll be staying with in Caracas, hopping out to unload my pack with a sense of relaxed professional confidence; I can tell he likes being a chauffeur and being his own boss, but more than that he likes that he got to where he is on nothing but hard work, his own hands, and long hours. Without another word, he jumps back in his cab and drives off, as if our intense conservation over the course of the hour and a half start-and-go ride from the airport to the city was as ordinary as the run-of-the-mill "how about the weather" chit-chat. Maybe the Venezuelans are getting that kind of talk out of their system while they still can, before they start worrying about the fists pounding on their doors late at night, or the unmarked government vehicles screeching to a halt along the curbs outside their houses when they step out to leave for work in the early hours of the morning.

In the subsequent days after my conversation with Giovanni, with a certain curiosity about the accuracy of his words swirling around my mind, I began working for my project in the international American school in Venezuela where my friends have been teachers for several years. When those friends told me they had decided this would be their last year teaching in Venezuela because they were worried about the Chávez regime, I began to realize that Giovanni's complaints were not restricted to one person and bore more accuracy than my scientifically-trained, persistently-doubting mind had allowed. I've now had a chance to speak earnestly with other teachers at the same international school, and one after another each has told me they had come to the same decision as my friends: this will be their last year teaching in Venezuela. Sitting here now in the sun in the courtyard of the school, adding the final touches to this essay, this institution feels like a bastion of sanity and intellect that Chávez's paranoid socialist agenda will never be able to touch. But the teacher's are afraid and growing more unsure of their safety all the time. When they leave and go back to the US, where many of them come from, or to other international schools in South America, what will become of this school and its students? Some of the students here are part of the vast majority of the people in this country: Venezuelan by birth with no where else to go, with insufficient means to leave and no where to run when these pristine white walls finally come tumbling down.

*His name isn't actually Giovanni. I decided to use a different name because I don't think he'd want me to use his real name.

**According to Wikipedia, Gómez was granted by the Venezuelan Congress the title of El Benemérito (the Meritorious One) for his large-scale public works program and his role in Venezuela's development. Certainly the discovery of petroleum in Venezuela in 1918 provided Gómez with an enormous amount of monetary resources for the pursuit of development projects and, of course, for the benefit of his own fortune. Despite his contributions to the Venezuelan infrastructure, Gómez did use brutal tactics to maintain his position of power, "ruthlessly crushing his opponents through his secret police in a way that earned him the reputation of a tyrant".

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Jorge Luis Borges, Struggling to Write in ‘Bedeviled Times’: Must an Artist Be the People’s Voice?

[this one is a little long; I recommend, with apologies in advance to the trees and to the Lorax, who speaks for the trees, printing it out and enjoying it over a cup of coffee...]

In a Slate article on Jorge Luis Borges, entitled, "Can a Great Writer Be Blind to The World around Him?" (February 7, 2007), Clive James questions the lack in Borges' writing of open, direct, unambiguous criticism of the Argentine junta. James opens with a quote that Borges made in 1979, late in this writer's career and life, when, according to James, "the Argentine junta was doing its obscene worst". Using (or misusing) the quote to establish Borges as an author who thought that "what was happening to his country was of secondary importance, because his first loyalty was to the world", James forges his stance: Borges was disloyal, almost non-Argentine; detached from the human situation and the concepts of "truth, justice, and mercy"; hiding and taking "refuge in an invented world; writing only as a means of escaping reality. I seek to elucidate not only certain basic historical facts that James omitted in order to strengthen his points but also the apparent political ambivalence of Jorge Luis Borges with a deeper, more thorough examination of his writing and philosophy.

Before constructing a comparative analysis of Borges' writing, I pose a few basic points (and counter-points) on Clive James' commentary. Jorge Luis Borges did live from 1899 to 1986, and most of the major violence characterizing Argentina's Guerra Sucia [Dirty War] did begin in 1976 when Jorge Rafael Videla took control of the country after the ousting of Isabel Martínez de Peron. During the period, however, of 1976 to 1983, when the Argentine junta was conducting its genocide, and, according to James, when Borges was walking the streets of Buenos Aires in a state of oblivion to the suffering all around him, this author was for the most part not even in the country. Borges' mother, his personal secretary, scribe and literally his eyes since he went completely blind in the mid 1950s, died in 1975. After her death, which must have been a serious blow to his writing capabilities, Borges began traveling all over the world, up to the time of his own death in Geneva, Switzerland. If he was even in Argentina for the 1979 writing and publishing of his homage to Victoria Ocampo, he probably wasn't even there long enough to 'hear the screams of the torture center near his house'.

James’ depiction of and attitude towards Borges' career - his citation of Borges’ works published only after 1962 and his use of only the later Argentine violence as a backdrop - creates a misleading and false image of this author. James states that "Borges openly loathed Perón, but fell silent on everything that happened after Perón was ousted - fell silent politically, but artistically came into full flower, an international hit even as his nation entered the tunnel of its long agony". This overly dramatic, hyperbolic statement contains a claim that is delusion bordering on blatant lie. Juan Perón died in 1974 and Isabel Martínez Perón was ousted in 1976, approximately 30 years after Borges actually "came into full flower", and 10 years before the death of, at that later time, that old man. Borges' most famous and acclaimed work - considered by him and others the pinnacle of his career - was Ficciones (1944), for which he received the Gran Premio de Honor de la Sociedad Argentina de Escritores [High Honor Award of the Society of Argentinean Writers]. Labyrinths (1962) is actually a compilation of works written mostly in the mid 1950s earlier, and the first 13 pieces in this compilation represent Ficciones (1944) in its near-entirety. Ten years after Ficciones was first published, Borges was almost completely blind in both eyes, and "because of his near-blindness, Borges ceased to write stories after 1953...and since then has concentrated on even shorter forms which can be dictated more easily" (1). In the prologue of A Personal Anthology (1961), published in the year in which he and Samuel Beckett jointly received the Formentor Prize and in which his international fame really began, Borges writes "My preferences have dictated this book. I should like to be judged by it, justified or reproved because of it, and not by certain exercises in excessive and apocryphal local colour which keep cropping up in anthologies and which I can not recall without a blush" (2). This statement is not one made by a writer who is still 15 years shy of blooming and 'coming into full flower', and though such a statement does not prevent Borges from accomplishing subsequent great works, it does seem to suggest that after consistently publishing his writing for almost 40 years, he had by 1961 begun to reach a certain level of comfort and satisfaction with his literary career. While it doesn't necessarily excuse him from or explain the apparent political ambivalence 15 years later that James wishes to focus on, it is crucial to understand that Borges’ literary mind was much more vibrant decades before Perón was ousted, and not during the latter ten years of this Argentine writer's life, as James falsely suggests.

With those historical corrections in mind, I move to the issue of artistic political silence. James states that "his [Borges'] name and growing international renown were lent to the regime without reserve, either because he approved or - the best that can be said for him - because he was clueless". James is wrong on both counts and neglects to pose the most obvious alternative, namely that Borges simply chose, as I believe any artist is entitled to do, not to write directly and openly about the political situation of his country in the latter years of his career and life. One could potentially claim by 1983, when the juntas led by Videla had disappeared 9000 people at minimum, 30000 at maximum, and when Borges was 3 years from his own death, that the absence of political commentary on the part of this author was the result of old age, fatigue, blindness, and a comfortable feeling of accomplishment with the literary achievements of the previous 60 years. Indeed even by 1940 his "failing eyesight and other crippling afflictions made him more and more a semi-invalid, more and more an incredible mind in an ailing an almost useless body, much like his character Ireneo Funes" (3). One might also contribute Borges' apparent political ambivalence during the most violent epoch of Peronísmo to the fact that he was rarely in the country after 1975 and was most likely out of touch with the events of his country, whether or not he read the newspapers. In my mind, however, the best explanation of Borges' political silence comes as should be expected from his own writing and through a thorough examination of his personal philosophy, an examination which James fails to undertake.

James leads into his discussion of Borges' "apparently detached political position" with the mention of disgruntled Argentines who expected Borges to take a more active anti-Peronísta role. In the introduction to Labyrinths (1962), James Irby discusses this dissatisfaction as well, but also begins to pose a counter-argument: "In Argentina, save for the admiration of a relatively small group, he [Borges] has often been criticized as non-Argentine, as an abstruse dweller in an ivory tower, though his whole work and personality could have emerged only from that peculiar cross-roads of the River Plate region, and his non-political opposition to Perón earned him persecutions during the years of the dictatorship" (4). It was apparently even "speculated that Borges was considered unfit to receive the award [the Nobel Prize in Literature] because of his tacit support of, or unwillingness to condemn, the military dictatorships that were being established in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and elsewhere,....[despite the fact that] he was granted the Jerusalem Prize in 1971, awarded to writers who deal with themes of human freedom and society" (5).

To those Argentines grumbling at the absence of active and engaged political commentary on the part of Borges, this literary behemoth might have said that such malcontents fail to understand that "history, true history, is far more modest [than traditionally accepted 'historical' days and dates] and that its essential dates may well be, for a long time, secret as well" (6), an idea that Borges explores in the essay The Modesty of History. Earlier in the same essay, Borges writes (perhaps somewhat cynically and bitterly) that "one of the tasks of modern governments (most notably in Italy, Germany, and Russia) has been to fabricate or counterfeit them ['historical' days and dates], with the help of previously accumulated propaganda and of persistent publicity" (7). Further in the The Modesty of History, Borges states that "such 'historic dates' [referring for example to a famous battle that occurred on Sept 20, 1792] bear less relation to history than to journalism" (8). Newspapers and historians alike it seems to Borges do no more than record certain mundane superficially critical days and dates, and fail to actually chart the progress of man's humanness - the evolution of the human situation - over the centuries. For Borges, writing openly and distinctly about the Argentine junta would have been to submit to the unimaginative role of simple reporting, of journalism, an unacceptable shift for Borges that Irby detects to some degree as well: "Apparently, many of his [Borges'] countrymen cannot pardon in him what is precisely his greatest virtue - his almost superhuman effort to transmute his circumstances into an art as universal as the finest of Europe - and expect their writers to be uncomplicated reporters of the national scene" (9).

Borges' approach to the concept of history begins to provide insight on how he might have viewed the actions of Videla's junta. His outlook suggests that even if he did read the newspapers, as he claimed he didn't, he wouldn't have ever felt obliged to react - literarily or otherwise - to any articles contained therein, independent of whether they were written in times of peace or in times of violence. The truth is that Borges' political ambivalence is not an emotional neutrality or frigidity with respect to such times of violence, cruelty, and destruction, or even with respect to times of peace, harmony, and productivity, but in truth is more a lack of concern with all aspects of the traditional concept of time. In A New Refutation of Time, Borges follows the idealist logic of Berkeley and Hume to present an associated postulate on time: “Outside each perception (real or conjectural) matter does not exist; outside each mental state spirit does not exist; neither then must time exist outside each present moment” (10). Borges then goes on to mention a section of the treatise Sanhedrin of the Mishnah which states 'whoever kills one man destroys the world', and then writes, "That is the way I understand it, too. Clangorous general catastrophes - conflagrations, wars, epidemics - are a single grief, multiplied in numerous mirrors illusorily" (11). Borges supports his view on human suffering with a quote from Bernard Shaw: "'What can you suffer is the maximum that can be suffered on earth....Do not let yourself be overcome by the horrible sum of human sufferings; such a sum does not exist'" (12). Would even the genocide of thousands of Argentineans over the course of 6 years at the end of Borges' life overcome this philosophical point of view? I think not. Would such physical dates of mass murder in Argentina, the period 1976 to 1983, stand out in man's long repetitive history of torture, self-destruction, and war that has played out from one corner of the earth to the other, among all peoples, all civilizations, races, and nationalities, at one time or another? I think not. Borges may indeed have heard the screams issuing from the torture center that was apparently within walking distance of his house, but the precedent for one human being torturing another had unfortunately been set long ago. To Borges the 'true' historical moment would be have been the date on which one human first tortured another; or to plunge even deeper, the date on which one human first tortured another without suffering sickening feelings of guilt, horror, and remorse; or deeper still, the date on which one man tortured another and only at the death of the tortured realized that it was in fact his own brother. This is the core of the human situation and this core is what interests Borges most.

Failing to see what drives Borges writings, James makes the mistake of analyzing Borges' quote on the 'Patriot of Heaven' literally. Borges, who traveled all over the world and lived for a number of years in Spain, Switzerland and other places in addition to Argentina, truly was a citizen of the whole world. As André Maurois says in the preface to Labyrinths (1962), "Argentine by birth and temperament, but nurtured on universal literature, Borges has no spiritual homeland. He creates, outside time and space, imaginary and symbolic worlds" (13). James sees as Maurois would also have seen that Borges' "first loyalty was to the world", but James fails to comprehend the symbolism that Maurois touches on, namely that 'the world' to Borges is merely a representation for all its human inhabitants and the play of humanness through all time (or through the infinity of moments constituting the human experience). James sees a literal allegiance to the world as synonymous with and necessitating a physical, actual abandonment of one's own country and one's "loyalties to truth, justice, and mercy", but this point of view is gravely short-sighted. Borges was concerned in his writing with the human situation, with Man, not just the Argentinean man or woman, and if his writing is not a directly obvious discussion of his own country, of the political situation in Argentina, then it is at times, at the least, an indirect one, a commentary that can be applied to the human situation in Argentina as anywhere else. In an almost unforeseen and unplanned response to James, Irby wrote, "Borges' stories may seem more formalist games, mathematical experiments devoid of any sense of human responsibility and unrelated even to the author's own life, but quite the opposite is true. His idealistic insistence on knowledge and insight, which means finding order and becoming a part of it, has a definite moral significance,...and all his fictional situations, all his characters, are at bottom autobiographical, essential projections of his experiences as writer, reader and human being" (14).

This idea, that Borges' imaginary worlds and shrouded mysterious fables were actually deeply pertinent, not only to the Argentine people during the junta but also are so to people at all times, was also touched on by Anthony Kerrigan, one of the translators for A Personal Anthology (1961). He states in the foreword to that book, "Jorge Luis Borges is most poignantly and hauntingly interested in what men have believed in their doubt: Siddartha, Josaphat, the Face of Christ; Duns Scotus, Averroes, Berkeley, Hume; Judaism, its offshoot Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Idealism. His equivocation regarding heresies and dogmas renews them all, though he may be the unique evocative source of his own nostalgic non-belief in Belief or prescient belief in non-belief" (15). For the Argentine citizen, the era of Peronísmo, beginning when Juan Perón first came to power in 1946, was certainly a time of tremendous doubt, and thus in light of Kerrigan's quote, it is really no surprise that Borges thrived as a writer in this environment as much as he did. Irby expands these ideas, rather verbosely, beginning with a question similar to that originally posed by James:

"It could be asked what such concerns of a total man of letters [Borges] have to do with our plight as ordinary, bedeviled men of our bedeviled time. Here it seems inevitable to draw a comparison with Cervantes, so apparently unlike Borges, but whose name is not invoked in vain in his stories, essays and parables. Borges’s fictions, like the enormous fiction of Don Quixote, grow out of the deep confrontation of literature and life which is not only the central problem of all literature but also that of all human experience: the problem of illusion and reality. We are all at once writers, readers and protagonists of some eternal story; we fabricate our illusions, seek to decipher the symbols around us and see our efforts overtopped and cut short by a supreme Author: but in our defeat, as in the Mournful Knight’s, there can come the glimpse of a higher understanding that prevails, at our expense. Borges’s ‘dehumanized’ exercises in ars combinatoria are no less human than that (16)".

It seems in the unimaginative, institutional mind of James there can be only two polar and immutable sides: a black or a white; a loyalty to the world, or a loyalty to one's country and the standards of truth, justice, and mercy; that "Borges either hadn't noticed it [the junta's genocide] or...he knew something about it and thought it could be excused". As a related side note, Borges was raised by "parents of the intellectual middle class [who were] descended from military and political figures prominent in the struggles for Argentine national independence and unity that occupied most of the nineteenth century" (17). Brought up then undoubtedly with a mind politically aware, Borges was actually fired from his position at the Miguel Cané branch of the Buenos Aires Municipal Library in 1946 when Perón first came to power and was subsequently 'promoted' to the position of poultry inspector for the Buenos Aires municipal market, a position from which he immediately resigned, presenting the Argentine Society of Letters with the following statement at the time: "Dictatorships foster oppression, dictatorships foster servitude, dictatorships foster cruelty; more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy" (18). Late in his career, Borges didn't write openly or directly about the killings occurring in Argentina but that doesn't mean he was "blind to the world around him", or that "he should have tried harder to use his ears", as James suggests.

This latter idea, the question of what Borges should or should not have done in reaction to the political situation in his country, leads this discussion into new territory. It seems fairly clear from his writing why Borges chose to abstain from political commentary, namely because of the philosophical belief that the pain of his countrymen was not a new phenomenon, for Argentineans or humans in general (a silence and ambivalence NOT to be confused with quiet approval of Peronísmo or Videla's actions). The question of what Borges should have done is clearly a relative matter. James seems to think Borges' decision to abstain from political commentary an inexcusable course of action and feels justified in subsequently painting this artist as a blind, deaf, clueless, doddering potential advocate of the Guerra Sucia genocide. Like James, however, I too am stirred by the excerpt from "Homage to Victoria Ocampo", perhaps because I too, continually traveling from place to place - homeless in a certain sense of the word - feel like a "displaced person", to use James’ words (though his adjective seems to bear more negative connotations than those used by Borges to describe something seemingly so noble as a 'citizen of the whole word', an advocate for the entire human experience). Unlike James, though, I feel that an artist, no matter how widely read or acclaimed, can dedicate themselves to whatever subject matter they feel moved by, be it political or otherwise. I also feel that the greater the distance that this chosen subject diverges from the expectations, imagined or real, of an apparent audience base, then the greater the awareness of self and confidence of independence possessed by the artist in question. Countless artists are motivated and inspired by monumental (according to the traditional sense of 'history', not Borges' notion of that word) social, cultural, and political events in their country, but I am mystified as to the time and place when such action or pro-action or reaction, as it may be, became a requirement for the successful work and accomplishment of anyone considered an artist by the masses (if they exist at all). I am venturing close to a point in this discussion where I must define the word artist, and I want to avoid such territory, save for the following thought. I would say that being an artist is about expression of ideas, images, thoughts, and beliefs that have no where to go and need an outlet, but that in a sense already violates an aspect of Borges' philosophy and leads me into contradiction. So I'll let Borges speak for himself on the matter:

"Croce held that art is expression; to this exigency, or to a deformation of this exigency, we owe the worst literature of our time. True enough, Paul Valery was able to write with felicity:

Comme le fruit se fond en puissance,
Comme en delice il change son absence
Dans une bouche ou sa forme se meurt

and Tennyson could write:
...................................and saw,
Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,
Or thought he saw, the speck that bore the King,
Down that long water opening on the deep
Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
From less to less and vanish into light.

verses which reproduce a mental process with precision; but such victories are rare and no one (I believe) will judge them the most lasting or necessary words in literature. Sometimes, I too, sought expression. I know now that my gods grant me no more than allusion or mention" (19).

It seems to me that an exigency only appears to be an intrinsic aspect of expression when there is for the 'artist' a perceived audience with perceived expectations, and that such perceptions and the associated yoke of feeling obliged to meet such expectations is the point at which the expression itself becomes warped and the exigency proven to be deformed. I believe when Borges speaks of the 'worse literature of our time' he is speaking of such expression so bent to meet the will of the 'masses' (a term Borges doesn't even believe in) that it is no longer the voice or expression of the artist. Thus would Borges have most likely wished to avoid the title Artist at all, and avoid the dubbing of his work as Expression. Thus would he come to feel in this wisdom, most likely only gained after so many years of writing, that he achieved no more than 'allusion or mention'.

I will say no more on what art should or shouldn't be, or what Borges should or should not have done, but will let his words stand on their own. Any opinion I pose on questions such as those will be contested as easily and quickly as I contested the opinions of Clive James. I sincerely desire to end this ramble with the words of Borges himself, and I feel that the following quotes can do more to reveal the rashness and ignorance of James' criticism, and to defend Borges' own philosophy and apparent political ambivalence, than anything I said in the previous paragraphs:

"I do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, nor for that adulated platonic entity known as 'The Masses'. Both abstractions, so dear to the demagogue, I disbelieve in. I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time" (20). — Introduction to The Book of Sand (1975)

And lastly: "[Un autor] debe tratar de ser un amanuense del Espíritu o de la Musa (ambas palabras son sinónimas), no de sus opiniones, que son lo mas superficial que hay en el. Así lo entendió Rudyard Kipling, el más ilustre de los escritores comprometidos. A un escritor - nos dijo - le esta dado inventar una fabula, pero no la moralidad de esa fabula. Ojala las paginas que he elegido prosigan su intrincado destino en la conciencia del lector. Mis temas habituales están en ellas: la perplejidad metafísica, los muertos que perduran en mi, la germanística, el lenguaje, la patria, la paradójica suerte de los poetas" (21). - Prólogo de Nueva antologiía personal (1980)}

{Translated by me: "[An author] should attempt to be a scribe of the Spirit or the Muse (the two words are essentially one and the same), not of his own opinions, which are the most superficial aspects of his nature. Rudyard Kipling, the most distinguished of the committed writers, understood this endeavor. The writer - he tells us - is given the power to invent a story, but not to invent the moral of the story. I can only hope that the intricate unforeseeable path of the pages I've chosen persists and develops in the minds of the readers. These pages contain my usual themes: metaphysical perplexity, the dead that live on through me, Germanistics, language, the mother-country, and the paradoxical luck of the poets (21)". - Prologue to A New Personal Anthology (1980)}

1. Borges, Jorge Luis, Labyrinths, New Directions Publishing Corporation, USA, 1962, pg 22
2. Borges, Jorge Luis, A Personal Anthology, Editorial Sur, S.A., Buenos Aires, 1961, pg xi
3. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 17
4. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 23
5. Wikipedia contributors, "Jorge Luis Borges", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, DOLR: Feb 20, 2007, PL: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jorge_Luis_Borges&oldid=109490746
6. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 151
7. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 151
8. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 151
9. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 23
10. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 46
11. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 41
12. Borges, Pers Anth, pg 41
13. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 9
14. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 20
15. Borges, Pers Anth, pg ix
16. Borges, Labyrinths, pg 21
17. Wikipedia, Borges
18. Wikipedia, Borges
19. Borges, Pers Anth, pp xi-xii
20. Borges, Jorge Luis, The Book of Sand, Emecé Editores, S.A., 1975, pg 2
21. Borges, Jorges Luis, Nueva Antologia Personal, Editorial Bruguera, S.A. , Barcelona, 1980, pp 8

Sunday, February 18, 2007


Tell me if this sounds odd to you, that my friends and I often joke about being autists. "Mulligan, the evidence you've got Asperger's is mounting day by day," is not an uncharacteristic example. Often this sends me--don't know about the others--into a careful reconstruction for reevaluative purposes of the events leading up to the gybe in order to figure out when I went too far (out).
For a bunch of smart kids, we exhibit an uncommon--no, unexpected--frequency in our faulure to get just what's going on in a given social setting. In an earlier, Romantic world, such outsidership would be marked as a sign of giftedness--but we've been told we were gifted since grade school--as a sign of uniqueness--but everyone we went to school with was unique and all the unique kids quite often failed to get it, only the uninteresting ones never at a loss for words--as a sign of an unexpressable knowledge--but again, the point here is that we're not getting something.
This is the tricky bit, because we're not punished like an Eckbert or Werther but smiled at with mild worry and wonderment for not being so common--with an expectation, though, of our ability to get it--they think either that we refuse to or are not ready yet. But either way, it's an issue of maturity, wherein our inabilities are used to fend off societalization.
Becauase when we do get it, when the game is explained to us, there's the sort of dawning of realization that made older metaphysicians believe in a priori truths, the, "yes, I feel I knew that all along," feeling.
And the point is that we are postmodern angels, we genius incapables, who are children to our parents whose failures, we in our latent abilities and material unsubstantiations, seeem to make choices, who simulate asceticism in our apart-ness and casually validate truth in our joy at understanding, who are the survivors because when the shock goes down the chain of everyone jostling won't we be distracted, just a little aside, and this unelectrocuted by accident? We who are the glimmering dead who will have to become those who died when they then do not care for us anymore.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Work Keeps Me Busy


The great American writer Herman Melville says somewhere in The White Whale that a man ought to be "a patriot to heaven," and I believe it is a good thing, this ambition to be cosmopolitan, this idea to be citizens not of a small parcel of the world that changes according to the currents of politics, according to the wars, to what occurs, but to feel that the whole world is our country.

—Jorge Luis Borges, "Homage to Victoria Ocampo," in Borges en Sur

A reverse of the standard order today, if only because I quite like the sound of that quotation. Reminiscent of Kant and Hegel I suppose and a nice reminder that postmodernism must not always be so terribly dense and obfuscatory. Romance persists.

Even if it is a self-exculpatory romance used to shirk moral duty in a world of human atrocity. Or so Slate argues. I do need to get through more of “Labyrinths” one of these days, and I’ll be curious to see whether Borges’ political ambivalence doesn’t make his map of the world easier to distinguish from the world itself.

A follow-up to bad politics with yet another piece on Amis, though this one contextualizes his most recent work better within his own bibliography. Particularly interesting to see the author suggesting that Amis is going down the road of Hitchens, especially since the two are such virulent enemies (and I thought there split was over Hitchens’ conservatism). Regardless, ignoring Amis’s new book, I must insist that all seek out “London Fields”. Such a vision of the contemporary city I have not seen elsewhere.

I must admit I’ve yet to finish this next essay – time at work is limited these days – but despite not reading “Homage to Catalonia”, I’m always interested in Orwell’s relationship to those who co-opt him. Smectymnuus, you’d enjoy I suspect.

Slate posted this gorgeous slideshow of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photographs adjacent to a brief biography. I’ve always been partial to Bresson, no doubt from fond memories of looking through his works whenever trips to the attic would yield an exploration of my Dad’s photography books.


One of the more interesting pieces I read over the weekend was from NYT’s Week in Review on Biden’s terrible blunder last week in calling Obama the first “articulate”, mainstream black politician. Yikes. This essay moves beyond the political firestorm and does a nice job of explaining the racism inherent in “articulate” and the terrible inequality in expectations it demonstrates.

From the subtle persistence of racism to the unflinching brazenness of homophobia and intolerance: a blurb from Slate that summarizes shamed former preacher Ted Haggard’s road to “recovery” (from being gay). There are also some other interesting blurbs in this piece related vaguely to science, health, etc…

Also, two profiles of note: one from NY Magazine on RFK Jr, the always impressive environmentalist attorney who bleeds privilege in an entirely forgiveable way; and the other of Milton Friedman by Princeton economist and NYT columnist Paul Krugman, which is very critical of Friedman but also interestingly fond. My unfamiliarity with most things related to economics (or money really) is hampering my speed on this one, but Friedman is always an interesting case study in the evolutionary history of contemporary American capitalism.

And finally, well not really, two articles regarding culture in foreign countries (not very patriotic, I know): the first is quite old, but I recently re-read it for my job and it is terribly depressing – a New Yorker piece on India’s growing water crisis. And continuing with theme of catastrophe in the developing world: an article on Cambodia’s destruction by tourists. Angkor Wat is being overrun, but don’t worry, there are still responsible ways to see it.

Last for real: rooting out anti-Semites. Take this quiz to see whether you dislike the Jews, tolerate them, or are perhaps part of the flock.


To get this out of the way: Dinesh D’Souza is absolutely f%cking insane. I know I’ve posted reviews of his new books previously, but this one speaks more to the content, and he is absolutely mad.

The primary political news of late has of course been the Senate resolution against Bush’s troop surge, or rather its failure to even see debate. Article One, and Article Two on why the debate didn’t happen, and then a Newsweek interview with our favorite Maine celebrity and political maverick Sen. Collins (R). Written prior to the resolution’s failure, it is nonetheless interesting to see the schisms and fields of power within the GOP camp these days.

Also, all of these articles have little quotes from or references to Joe Lieberman, who I continue to nominate as the most obnoxious fucking person on earth. Even Dinesh D’Souza didn’t get the “u”. This lengthier piece from the New Yorker only confirms my sentiments.

And to make you hate Lieberman and the pro-surge camp even more, here is a well-done breakdown of Bush’s new defense budget by Slate. Once again, billions for a failed missile defense system and absolutely redundant and superfluous military technology. Also, make sure to notice the total price tag of the Iraq ware. Now that is terrifying. No wonder populism is taking root. (The Nation, however, argues that rhetoric is going to need substance soon, and I think I agree. Speaking is only courageous for a little while when you live in a democracy. Speak out in an authoritarian regime, perhaps more leeway).

Speaking of the Iraq war, Hitchens, (oh, Hitchens) wrote a piece for Slate I can almost get on board with, which argues that, although this is tacit, perhaps an exit strategy isn’t so morally reprehensible, as Iraq would’ve very likely collapsed anyway. Anyhow, I think it articulates his position on the war better than how I recounted it several days ago and affirms Mr. H of Durham’s opinion on the matter.

Lastly, a brief synopsis of the ’08 campaign trail. Another article, this one more nuanced and thorough, on women and humor relative to a Clinton attempt at a joke. I think it makes a nice point about how women in power are not allowed to have “normal” personalities.

Over the weekend, Edwards announced his new health care plan and was grilled on Meet the Press about his position on Iraq. A decent job in general pivoting away from the subject, but I think he could stand to be a bit more firm in his regrets. He doesn’t quite have the rhetoric down yet. Not sloppy entirely, just not entirely cohesive. Hire me Edwards, hire me.

Also, another piece in the Obama as Jesus series, this time with a journalist portraying Obama as an esteemed and impressive physicist.

And finally, a brief bit from the Economist on why so many people are running in 2008. To influence policy sure, but it sounds like ego is still the driving force behind it all. And now we’ve approached the intersection of (my)self with (the) world.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

'300' and the Sum of its Parts

(I used to do semi-serious work, reading difficult articles on critical theory [I have Barthes and Baudrillard collecting dust on my bookshelf right now]. Now it seems all I do is write about television. Or movies.

I tell myself that I’m interested in the stories that society wants to tell itself, and I am. But it also absolves me of a lot of the heavy lifting. Especially when I wind up talking about a movie that I haven’t seen yet. On with the rabid speculation!)

I am giddy for ‘300’. I have the trailer on my iPod. I’ve downloaded the song featured in that trailer (Nine Inch Nail’s “Just Like You Imagined”) and have also put that on my iPod. I’m planning on getting tickets to see it, but not just on your run of the mill movie screen. I want IMAX. I want the carnage to swallow me. I want my ears to bleed.

Watching the previews, there’s absolutely no downside to this movie. The filmmakers seem to have crammed in every shot with of the stylized hyperviolent as possible. It looks like the beautiful, glossy, slow-motioned, musically-synched, jaw-(and body) dropping, twisted son of Quinton Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. Which is why I’m going to hurl my money at it.

In fact, ‘300’ will attempt to solidify a new branch of the hyperviolent films, those created on the page by comic book artist Frank Miller. Miller’s comics served as the inspiration for the surprise hit ‘Sin City’: the actors in that film (Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba-Lebeaux, Elijah Wood, etc.) acted against a green-screen throughout the film, enabling the filmmakers to perfect a seedy, sickly and beautiful world behind them, the world that Miller had inked long ago (there’s a sequel in production).

And ‘300’ uses the same green-screen technique (this could lead to an interesting trend: artistic adaptations have always integrated previous works of art, but films that successfully adapt any work of literature have to interact with that literature, transforming it for the medium of film [while we’re on comics, think the well-adapted ‘X-Men’ against the terribly or not-really-adapted-at-all ‘Batman and Robin’]. With Miller, the films succeed, or at least the films’ gimmick has worked, because they preserve so much of the original work).

Because I’m excited, because I enjoyed ‘Sin City’, I bought Miller’s comic book, the print version of ‘300’ that will serve as the principal, if not sole, inspiration for the coming movie.

Unlike the uber-noir ‘Sin City’, Miller’s ‘300’ has an added and nerdy historical layer (yet another reason for my excitement): The coming movie is based on the comic; the comic, however, is based on Herodotus.

Written some time in the 440’s BC, Herodotus’ Histories chronicles the Greek city-states’ war with Persia. Considered the first work of western history, Herodotus has earned the nickname ‘the father of history’, an interesting nickname, and in some ways an interestingly accurate one: if, as the name implies, Herodotus fathered history, then it also puts Herodotus outside of his progeny, separates Herodotus from the current and ‘accepted’ practices of that art. As Herodotus’ work can not be verified, can even rarely be checked against any opposing sources (indeed, in many instances, he is the source), and as his work sometimes smacks of the supernatural (god’s routinely broadcast instructions into the heads of kings, etc..) separating Herodotus from history seems pretty fair.

Regardless, among the various myths/legends/folkloric tales/actual events that Herodotus relates is the battle of Thermopylae, in which three hundred Spartans fought against a horde of invading Persians. The Spartans channeled the invading army into a narrow canyon to negate the advantage the Persians had in terms of numbers. In perhaps the very first underdog story The Spartans, supposedly the very best of the best at fighting in ancient Greece, fought long and hard and gloriously against the Persians but were eventually slaughtered to a man; still, their sacrifice bought the rest of Greece some time and eventually Greece repealed the invasion

(For those of you with a copy of The Histories lying around, check around in book seven).

Throughout his Histories, Herodotus returns to the theme of Greek reason and democracy versus Persian despotism. It wasn’t just a war of conquest, it was a clash of ideologies.
If this sounds familiar, look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. On the fifth anniversary of September Eleventh, President Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office refering to the war on terror by saying “This struggle has been called a clash of civilizations. In truth, it is a struggle for civilization. We are fighting to maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations. And we're fighting for the possibility that good and decent people across the Middle East can raise up societies based on freedom and tolerance and personal dignity.”

Miller’s comic book, again, the main inspiration for the upcoming movie, emphasizes this ideological clash again and again. The Spartans are fighting for reason, for equality before law, and they’re fighting against a ruthless tyrant.

Miller of course tends to ignore the fact that the Spartans were such good soldiers because they trained all day instead of say, well, farming. And they had the time to train all day instead of farm because they had an enormous slave population that did their dirty work and farming for them. But that’s besides the point.

I really think that the studios releasing ‘300’ are doing because its going to earn them some cold hard cash in an off-movie month. I think they’re doing it because comics in general and Miller in particular have set a precedent of being high-earners (plus the fact that ‘300’ is being filmed with relative unknowns in the lead roles…). I really do think that.

But I’m curious as to what its influence will be, if any. I’m curious how eager the audience will be, and for what reasons. I’m curious why they’ll see it: will it be because they’re obsessed fanboys trying to legitimize the comic books of their youth like me, or is it because the film will serve as some kind of safety valve, some release where we get to see Us Versus Them, where we get to see westerners die for a reason, for the rest of us in a war that we’re absolutely going to win. For the Homeland, even. For our way of Life. A lot of that is being promised from our politicians, but considering the recent election, it doesn’t seem as if most Americans have been delivering.

‘300’ isn’t America fighting the terrorists by any means, but it is the west fighting the east. It is our cultural ancestors versus darker-skinned people from Northern Africa and the middle-east. And, like the current war on terror, that war of invasion was dubbed as an ideological clash.
I have transgressed many a crime in Liberty City, San Andreas and Vice City, so I really hate writing this next sentence: but I’m a little worried. I’m a little worried about watching westerners engage in the wholesale slaughter of easterners in a cinematic way. I think a part of it will have to resonate with the war that we’re fighting, with our xenophobia, with our starring contest with fear. I really am. But it’s not going to stop me from seeing it.