Thursday, December 31, 2009

Through the Gate


The gate into the new year is about to open, and in this charming picture from Michelle's collection, the newborn year already beckons, althought its face still remains hidden...

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fashions in Madness

Humans are innately free but also ignorant, unfinished, hence a kind of madness characterizes human existence. An excellent special on PBS on the life of Louisa May Alcott the other day reminded me of the tendency of kindly, well-meaning people in the nineteenth century to rush into the wilds to start utopian communities. Alcott’s father moved the family to Fruitlands, a vegetarian community in Massachusetts where even potatoes and carrots were No-Nos because they grew in darkness under the earth. The family nearly starved, but the mere fact that they made the move makes my point. What happened to utopian communities? We’ve replaced that madness by improving upon another nineteenth century eruption, the anarchist bomber. The anarchist at least tried to survive. Our madness is presently regressive. The suicide bomber is seeking utopia in the sky with virgins. It isn’t fair to characterize that madness as theirs because to exempt ourselves from the ranks of the foolish and of the violent is to indulge in hypocrisy. Let’s by all means get back to rural utopias. Maybe we’ll learn something useful before the oil runs out.

Monday, December 28, 2009

An Angel, Unless on Assignment

An angel, unless on assignment
And straying off accustomed rounds, will
Stare into our world and there behold
A vast, indeed a dreary darkness
Unfathomable like an unlit
Morgue in which our own small earth is but
A mote of sin we do not see in
Our own eyes. Or so we’re told by that
Old Nordic Master, Emanuel
Swedenborg.

Why does the angel fail to see the
Piercing rays of sun, those vast flames that
As thinned out magnetism disturb our
Televised reality, our shows, our
Fun and games, and havoc play with rays
That bounce off satellites to feed an IPod
Here from one held over there half of a
Continent away? Why can’t the angel be
Like me, see what I see, and hear my
Sounds?

Old Swedenborg did not explain but
Spoke as one who just reports on what
He’s seen or had been told up in that
Lofty mansion by the very principals
Involved, by angels who at times held
Conversation with our sage and said
What they experienced, not what our
Ground-based speculators thought that an
Essence ought to see and hear from yonder
Station.

Aye, here’s the rub. As down below so
It is up above. We know the High
Or Its creation directly by
Experience, be we angels or
Mere ordinary guys and dolls, young,
Old, it doesn’t matter much because
The most refined and sharply honed
Of intellects must still cling to that
Ultimate, the base, that which we know
As our gold.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mega Millions

One of my Christmas gifts was a Mega Millions lottery ticket. Alas, it was purchased just a day late. As I held it in my hand and tried to read the number in the dim light of the Christmas tree, the ticket was only worth $12 million; but the day before it had been purchased, the prize had been $160 million. Timing, timing! At 11 p.m. exactly on Christmas day the Powers announced the winning number. I went to peek on Boxing Day by way of Internet. Alas, not a single one of my six two-digit figures matched any of the winning numerals! But I was pleased to note that no one else had won the big prize either, so if I hurry and spend a dollar, I may still be of that number—when the saints go marching in.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Day After

In Germany the twenty-sixth of December is known as the Second Christmas Day. It is a legal holiday in Germany, Austria, and some other countries in central Europe. Before Luther’s time Germans celebrated Christmas over a period of five days. That reminded me of the ancient Saturnalia. Christianity eventually displaced that Roman festival. It lasted seven days (from the 17th through the 23rd of December). In the Catholic tradition today is St. Stephen’s Day, Stephen considered to have been the first Christian martyr.

Odd how remnants of collective habit persist into the present. Christmas carries traces of the Saturnalia. Britain's Boxing Day comes to mind. Part of Saturnalia was an exchange of roles—Masters became Servants, Servants Masters. Just once a year. Just for fun. Boxing Day carries that forward at a discounted price. The 26th is an official but a moving holiday; Boxing Day is celebrated on Monday the 28th this year because today is Saturday. The idea is to give the “servants” a day off. And the name of the day comes from “boxes,” boxes bearing gifts. The rich gave these to their servants, suppliers, and other employees--shades of Saturnalia. Wikipedia tells me that after Ireland achieved its independence, it dropped Boxing Day. The Irish resumed the celebration of St. Stephen’s Day instead.

No one thinks I am a “folkish” sort of guy. Those kindly inclined call me “professor” (no standing there either); others think my nose is in the air.  But I had to laugh today. Checking these facts I came across the following (still Wikipedia):

The association of Boxing Day with sport in early village celebrations has led to the folk etymology that Boxing Day is traditionally associated with boxing, although the word box can mean a gift or gratuity, especially one given at Christmas, especially in Britain.
Turns out that I'd been captured by folk etymology throughout most of my life in the English-speaking world. Yes, I had callously assumed that boxing events are common on the day after Christmas in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Two or three years ago an impulse sent me off to check the facts. Then at last I discovered the box—the box as in:

This is my box, this is my box, I never travel without my box. In the first drawer I keep my magic stones. One carnelian against all evil and envy. One moonstone to make you sleep. One red coral to heal your wounds. One lapis lazuli against quartern fever. One small jasper to help you find water. One small topaz to soothe your eyes. One red ruby to protect you from lightning. This is my box, this is my box. I never travel without my box. In the second drawer, I keep all my beads. Oh, how I love to play with beads, all kinds of beads. This is my box, this is my box. I never travel without my box. In the third drawer… Oh, little boy! Oh, little boy… In the third drawer I keep … Licorice… Black, sweet licorice. Have some. [Amahl and the Night Visitors, Gian-Carlo Menotti]

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Boldog Karácsony - Frohe Weihnachten

As children growing up in Hungary, the big day for us was the 24th. The suspense began early in the day when we discovered that the doors to the living room had been shut tight. Mother had closed the door because Little Jesus and his angles would come during the day—but they wouldn’t stay if anybody saw them. We saw no Christmas trees anywhere in Hungary until Christmas eve. Indeed the festival had no public footprint until the 25th of December. In those days, in my country anyway, no one had heard of wall-to-wall carpeting. We walked on wooden floors. We called them (and wrote the word as) parkette. Carpets were common in appropriate places, to be sure. Without carpets blocking the narrow space, we could see light reaching us from the next room beneath closed doors. Many times that 24th we would tiptoe to the door, get down on the floor, and try to see something. We never did—but we could see the light change as shadows moved silently, ever so silently, beyond the heavy barrier. It was a long day for children; time wouldn’t pass. The nap still had to be taken and was especially burdensome that day. In the early evening we had a big bath; Mother would dress us in our finest. Then came the final excruciating wait in the children’s room. We were waiting for the last angel to depart. That angel always rang a little bell just before passing through the frosted glass of one of the windows headed back to heaven. And we would then rush out. All lights were out—all except candles and sparklers burning on the tall tree. The fierce sparklers burning out, the silent peaceful light of candles at last made it easier to see. We would then discover our own gifts beneath the tree laid out on a white sheet. Gifts came unwrapped in my day in my family, immediate or extended. Such was the universal custom, I think. Brigitte’s experiences as a child of a German family living in Poland mirror mine.

These first impressions never leave us. Christmas for us was a joyous expectation heralded by a visit from St. Nicholas. Like Little Jesus and his angels, so St. Nicholas also came invisibly. On the night before December 6, we put our shined shoes on the window sill. By morning they were filled with candies and cookies, apples, figs, and dates, lots of bright red paper, and birches for our parents to use if we happened to be bad. This set the holiday going. Then came the season of Advent with four candles mounted on a wreath suspended from the ceiling, one candle lit every week until, on Christmas day, all four were on. Silence. The impression was one of joyous expectation, invisible higher beings who came silently to visit, and gifts from on high.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Never Too Old


You're never too old to take your daughter to see Santa Claus!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Bookish Musing

Not to generalize too much, but others may have the same experience this time of year. I do pop into bookstores, particularly the two big chains (Borders, Barnes & Noble) quite a few times during the year, but those visits usually have a purposive character. At Borders I head for the nearest free computer to see if the book I’m seeking is in the store. At B&N I go straight to the category region (I know that store better); then, if that fails, I apply at the help desk. The visits tend to be in-and-out. Purposive.

My experience at Christmas time is different. I’m not at all sure quite what I want. I wander and at least superficially see the whole. Almost always, in addition, I also shop for music with a slip or two Brigitte hands me. In the slower, surveying mode, I’m always overwhelmed. Every year this or that image presents itself to me from “out of Spiritus Mundi”—as Yeats characterized the source of spontaneous inspiration. This year, despite the fairly careful arrangements of materials practiced by both retailers, nonetheless the image of an overwhelming flood came to mind, a flood that, as its waters finally recede, leaves behind in mixed and close proximity incongruous objects—the discarded fender, dead squirrel, lost doll, plastic bag, the broken beam. That feeling arose especially at B&N this year. The store nearest our house groups books on tables in the aisles by such labels as “new and recent,” “bargain,” “special interest,” and yet other collective categories. In these arrays vastly different kinds of books are mixed; the incongruity therefore is great.

For decades now—but with increasing force—the commercialization of publishing has become ever more evident. The concept of “book” as it exists inside me—unrevised from its formation in the 1940s—has enormously expanded. I resist updating my concept and therefore book stores have become strange spaces. It amazes me what people will read and, if not read, exactly, what they will expend their money on. But visible amidst the random mixture of everything imaginable left by the great storm of money are patterns; these are also produced by commercial calculation.

These patterns—which I first noted two decades ago but which probably began much earlier—is that every year now, unfailingly, all authors with high name recognition will have, must have, another new opus ready for sale. And these books, competing with new stars in publishing (Sarah Palin, for example), are on conspicuous display as you enter the stores.

A distant relative of mine, A.L. Gabriel, a priest, wrote Student Life in Ave Maria College, Mediaeval Paris (1955). In that quite fascinating and indeed entertaining history (let us not be deceived by titles) I first encountered mention of books so equipped that they could be chained to walls as they sat on lecterns. We’ve come a long ways, baby…

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Scale's the Thing

The strange thing to your left is the photo of something like a map; it is called the Rand McNally Histomap of World History, by John B. Sparks. It purports to show the relative importance of nations and empires 1950 B.C. to 2000 A.D. This object hung on the back of the door, the door into my office—when I still had an office outside the home—and on the rare occasions when I closed that door, the large pink blob in the center of this histomap reminded me of the Glory That Was Rome. — Did so, indeed, until, on one occasion, I looked at the graphic seriously and discovered that the image did not have a horizontal scale.

I dug out the rolled up copy again this morning. I had been reading Dante’s Convivio (The Banquet, a philosophical work) in which our poet urges us (Chapter 4, Book 4) to accept the concept of an imperial ruler because Rome’s preeminence had led to God’s own approval of the Latin people as the exemplars of mankind.

That claim then reminded me of my retired map; I found it on a shelf. But over all these years I had forgotten about the missing scale at the bottom of this curious object. Indeed, if you accept John Sparks’ imaginative scaling, Rome does seem, during this vast expanse of time, to be by far the largest single domain ever to grace the globe. Then, sitting down at the machine again to consult the oracle about the scale once more—thinking that in the intervening time I had become so much more skilled at Googling that I would be successful now—I discovered that the missing scale is missing still. What had changed, in the meantime, is that lots of people had discovered this lack and had made their displeasure known. Too bad.

I had fairly recently looked at population data reaching back into antiquity and discovered in that process that Sparks could not have used headcounts to size his empires and realms. Not enough menaningful data. He may have used geographical extent—but surely, with Rand McNally as his publisher, someone there should have reminded him to note the fact. Yes, at its greatest extent Rome’s footprint pretty much covered Europe and bits of Africa and Asia, but how much territory did China then occupy—and India? Their populations, by guess and by golly, must have been quite large even then.

Well, too bad. We carry mental maps and censuses inside our heads—and in Dante’s world the memory of Rome, and the more recent memory of Charlemagne’s empire, still loomed very large. And, to be sure, Dante (1265-1321) might have known of Marco Polo (1254-1324) but may not have read Polo’s Il Milione; he was busy writing his own opus and may have written his Convivio (finished circa 1307) before he had heard of Kublai Khan.

The second photo shows the histomap from closer up, focus on Rome—as it usually is here in the West as we look back in time. Great realm! But without a scale, how can we know for sure that Octavian ascended the throne of empire with a nod from on High? If Dante had studied China, however, he might well have added the useful concept of The Mandate of Heaven to his arguments in Chapter 4, Book 4.

---------------------
If you can stomach the price, Amazon will sell you this item even today: Histomap of World History.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Science and Poetry Meet

Today was my annual eye exam and I was off to our splendid Henry Ford Eye Care clinic where my doctor, Dr. George, approved of all that he saw. (As an aside: I’m probably one of the very few people who have two doctors with the last name of George. The other one is my urologist. Something of an achievement for someone called Arsen.) The clinic is splendid because it serves fresh coffee and cookies, is pleasantly furnished with comfortable couches and armchairs overlooked by huge prints in frames holding good art. And, crowning glory for people like Brigitte and me, there is a large shelf full of books. These are contributed by patients. We’ve made our donations there. You can pick up a book and read it—and take it with you, for that matter. A large container will hold your donation if you care to make it.

Well, today, I found there a thick volume entitled The Norton Introduction to Literature. I picked it out from among a rich array of popular paperback novels. It looked decidedly uncomfortable. Third Edition, 1981, obviously a textbook, but its contents wonderfully rich. The routine at these eye exams is that the young lady takes me through the eye examination charts and then drips a chemical into the eyes to cause my pupils to dilate. Then twenty minutes are allowed for this process to take place. So… So, while I sat in my comfortable armchair sipping coffee and munching cookies, the art work grandly observing me from the nicely papered walls, I was studying Yeats’ poetry as my pupils grew ever larger, sailing to Byzantium, you might say, science and poetry magically conjoined.

Season of Distraction

Christmas is, above all, a season of distraction, and this no less for people who’re retired and, with a vengeance, for those still in the mainstream of life. The festival certainly fits an agricultural society much better—especially one in the northern latitudes with a genuine winter. Life slowed down in those days although the chores, say of feeding livestock, still remained. In urban civilizations we live in a time shorn of all seasons—except shopping seasons: With great collective avarice, Society cheerlessly grants us one or two extra days of paid personal time off, but in its alternate manifestation, as the hysterical Economy, it uses Christmas to whip up a fierce storm of activity.

Back in those days (work-work-work) this time used to offer me mountain-sized opportunities for overcoming—reflexive tension and frustration. Some years I rose to the occasion—and those times are illuminated. Success required a harsh act of will simply to accept—and a decision to make the most of it. Mostly I failed, meaning that when “silent night” finally arrived, I could barely force my frozen features to unthaw into obligatory smiles.

More and more people, it seems to me, are joining what amounts to a silent resistance to the mad charade—certainly in my circles of acquaintance. It takes collective family effort, coordination, planning, and agreement: limit the festival. I remember when we first began (about thirty years ago) with interesting experiments—like deliberately celebrating Christmas a week late, holding down the giving, emphasizing togetherness or religious observances, and staying clear of malls. One of our nice innovations was to use large, colored sacks. We embroidered these each year with messages—and used the sacks to hold unwrapped presents. Much more fun to embroider with others while laughing together than to wrap all alone…

Large parts of the population seem to be participating in this quiet revolution. Or so it seems. For some significant number of years already, the retail sector comes up short. I feel for the sector. But having had any number of down-sized Christmases since we began, I notice that they grow on you; opting out becomes habitual. And the more people get with this sensible program, the easier it is.

All this illustrates how very long it takes for vast collectives to change behavior. A tanking economy certain helps, but the price, it seems to me, is high. What is intellectually thinkable and physically possible—namely to shift to an economic system in which far fewer jobs depend on retail consumption and more and more on public services—is not always achievable without the helping hand of trouble and chaos.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In Search of Anna Magna

It is my pleasure to announce that the second volume in the series, Symphony in Ghulf Major, has now been published and is available. It is In Search for Anna Magna. This book continues the Ghulf saga and presents a view of human endeavors (and tribulations) in the generations that follow the first emergence of Ghulfdom into view, the subject of Ghulf Genes the novel.

First availability. This book may be purchased directly from Lulu, our distributor and printer, here. The cost is $31.51 plus shipping. The book is also available from Amazon at the same price—and more rapidly. Amazon stocks copies. Alas, we make much less money on copies bought from Amazon than from Lulu—but be assured: what pleases me personally is readership. I use words like “our” and “we” not to suggest my own royal self but because this project is that of our family enterprise, Editorial Code and Data, Inc.

Now some comments on these first two volumes. Most readers of Ghulf Genes consider that book a little difficult at first because of its breathtaking compass and deliberate beginning: the background, the history of the Ghulf clan, of societal changes in the future, and the development of spaceflight are first outlined in multiple briefer takes featuring minor characters. In our internal discussions of this book, someone once likened Ghulf Genes to a space rocket. After the countdown ends, it just sits there for a while, fire gushing from its rear, but then, slowly, it begins to lift into the vertical. And then, very rapidly indeed, look out! It really takes off. And the combined experience is awesome.

In Search of Anna Magna is much more accessible. The book begins with a great trauma that marks the lives of the principal characters—and of humanity as a whole. The conflict emerges at once. The reach of the novel, however, is at least as extensive as that of Ghulf Genes. Before we’re done, we’ve seen human settlements on a number of planets, and phenomena that were maddeningly incomprehensible at the beginning (i.e., in Ghulf Genes) are beginning to sort. But the readers of Anna Magna see everything through the eyes of Ghulfs—as this clan, vastly extended by now, takes the lead, again, in the exploration of the outer limits.

And then there is Anna's Song—but before I get to that, I have to finish proofing its often magical pages...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Nations and Persons

Nations aren’t persons—which is rather obvious. This popped into my mind today for a number of reasons. To cite one, I was reminded of one of Castaneda’s stories in which Castaneda’s hero/guru, Don Juan, suggests that collectives should be viewed as natural phenomena—like storms, hurricanes, and floods rather than as agencies. Nations aren’t persons—but our reflexive behavior is to treat any and all structures formed by human beings as if they were. I can understand why we think so. People head up all collectives with one person in charge. Therefore we think that the collective ought to behave as a person does. But a moment’s reflection will remind us that collectives—and never mind nations—behave much more like unconscious animals or vegetative structures than as conscious individuals. The reason is that no person is able to feel the collective or make it move in response to his or her will. The intention of the leader is rapidly diluted as it moves outward to be implemented. The returning feedback is muted and deformed as it reaches the decision-maker.

Another source of today’s thought was pondering the rise of China into much greater prominence. This brought to mind Pat Buchanan’s long standing advocacy that the United States should abandon its imperial tendencies, concentrate on its limited role in the world, and just do things right for a change. And yet another source was looking at long-term trends in U.S. manufacturing (see recent entries on LaMarotte). I noted that the U.S. performance is not as shoddy as I had assumed it was; the hype doesn’t quite reflect the situation on the ground. And it occurred to me, in Buchanan style, that we’re all right, Jack—provided that we just pay attention to our knitting.

In both of the cases above, the underlying notion is that such phenomena as the U.S. international policy or the collective I label as Manufacturing are subject to intelligent and rational direction. They are subject to a certain influence, to be sure, but not to active steering. The U.S. international policy is, whether we like it or not, anchored in facts on the ground so vast and extensive as to be well beyond the control or even effective influence of a national government formed of an executive and a nearly deadlocked legislature. Executive and legislature are themselves collectives and only mildly subject to direction by figures such as Obama, Pelosi, and Reid.

The mistaken notion that great aggregates are human—and subject to the same laws of morality and reason that rest upon each of us individually—is the source of much frustration. We can be sure of disappointment. We’re expecting the weather cock to crow. It won’t. As usually ancient wisdom suggests what not to do. But notice that, even in the Psalms, the collectives are viewed as individuals: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.” Psalms 146:3.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Inconstancy of Fortune

The Wayne Country Treasurer once more issued a paid supplement to the Detroit Free Press advertising listings of forfeited properties subject to foreclosure. The supplement runs to 127 pages. I sampled some pages, counted the listings, and the extended that count to the entire publication. Thus I conclude that the county wishes to seize something like 26,400 properties because their owners, listed with every posting, have failed to pay taxes.

Everything leaves its paper trail in modern culture. Those of us who, sometimes—perhaps because visitors want to see the devastation they’ve heard about in the news—engage on hour-long drives into the abandoned wastes of the City of Detroit thus could, if we wished, thanks to the labors of our county treasurer, actually identify the people who once inhabited homes through the broken roofs of which now strong trees are growing. In summer the structures are sometimes quite hidden by the obscuring foliage.

This reminded me of an essay in my The Portable Renaissance Reader, written by Poggio Bracciolini in 1430 and titled “The Ruins of Rome.” Goes around comes around. Bracciolini, in company of his friend, Antonio Lusco, ride out and mount the Capitoline hill. From there, dismounting, they survey a scene of Rome in ruins and meditate about the inconstancy of fortune. Curiously the chapter of my Portable Reader in which this essay is reproduced is titled “Learning of the Best Sort.” I find that apt today. Because in some ways it is instructive to contemplate the movements of the great water-wheel of time. It descends into the depth empty but rises again at right repeating rotations carrying the living waters to disgorge them into channels. At times we see the water, at times the emptiness. And to see both is to learn something meaningful.

The mood of reading Dante is still present for me. And reading the Divine Comedy strongly reminded me that the extreme compressions that produce words like “The Renaissance” hide the reality beneath temporary glows of light or gathering darkness that different eras manage to produce. Dante’s times, seen from the ground, as he saw them, were not that different from ours. And he wrote at a time  roughly 130 years or so before Bracciolini sorrowed over Rome. I wonder what Rome looked like in Dante’s days. Not much better, I don’t suppose. The balance of good and evil in every time is much the same.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Daughter of Zion



To mark the day, I present here “Thine Be the Glory, Risen Conquering Son” in the French version written by Edmond Budry. The music and English lyrics, by Thomas Morell, form part of Georg Friedrich Handel’s oratorio Judas Maccabaeus. Brigitte and I know this choral as “Tochter Zion Freue Dich” (Rejoice Daughter of Zion) and dedicate it here to our most distant family branch—a daughter and her daughter…

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Worthwhile Movie

We saw a very fine French movie the other day—impressive enough to recommend. Its English title is The Secret of the Grain, the French is La Graine et le Mulet. It was made in 2007. It is set in a southern French port city. Its subject, outwardly, anyway, is couscous. The best couscous I ever ate I ate at a French officers club in Baumholder, Germany, my hosts the commanders of a French unit made up almost exclusively of Arabic soldiers drawn from North Africa. That’s an aside but meaningful: the family and society featured in this film are of mixed French-Arabic extraction. Brigitte and I were floored. The theme of the movie—its discovery I leave to you—catches up with you some time after seeing it. And then it carries a strange impact difficult to put into words.

Flowering December


One of our jade plants, a Crassula ovata, broke into flower in December. It produced a tiny, small delight—and the more so as the sky outside that day chose to frown down on us darkly in disapproval of this unseasonal exuberance. We got the first of these plants ages and ages ago, but they proliferate beneath Brigitte's green thumbs. We now own a small forest of them, the original having turned into a tree of sorts. I need a pushcart to transport it about the yard in summer and in or out of doors as the seasons change.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Fiction of the Home Team

The sale of All-Star centerfielder Curtis Granderson by the Tigers to the Yankees—a matter of collective woe to that part of our clan living in Detroit—produces memories. The first of these, for me, is of watching FSV Tirschenreuth play soccer. Never heard of this famous team? It played (and plays) against the likes of SC04 Marktredwitz, SV Waldsassen, and SV Schönhaid. FSV is the German acronym for Football Sports Club, and the members of this team in my day were all sons of the small community of Tirschenreuth in Bavaria, thus our own. The club was our home team. We also had both male and female handball teams we followed with great enthusiasm. Watching the games cost nothing. We just hiked out to the distant railway station and from there, another quarter mile, to the field. No benches, either. And our passions for these teams ran high. Other reflections rise: passionately rooting for Argentina in the World Cup Soccer finals of 1986 because Roberto, our foreign exchange son that year, came from there—and the joy of victory! For a brief time, in those days, Argentina was our team. Other emotional highs come to mind, most potently the 1987 World Series in which we saw the Minnesota Twins triumph first over the Tigers—who later became our team—and then over the St. Louis Cardinals. Heroic names still echo from that time: Gary Gaetti on third, Kent (“Buy Yourself a Vowel”) Hrbeck on first, Kirby Puckett the mighty slugger in center field, and that awesome closer Juan Berenger: how we exulted when he finally came on… But in these later cases, the players came from all over the world; virtually none was a native son; and, for that matter, we ourselves were strangers from a strange land temporarily parking in some city that, at the beckoning of job opportunities, we were as likely to leave as the players we loved to watch were likely to depart to bolster some other team. Odd, isn’t it. Much as exchange students became real children to us, so players from South America, and from nearer but still distant places, became our local heroes, and teams with no real local linkage except ownership became home teams. We live in worlds much less rooted in the physical than we realize.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Shock and Awe in 1940s Style

The following extract is taken from a strange and wondrous essay titled Air War and Literature (Luftkrieg und Literatur) by W.G. Sebald, published in 2003 by Carl Hanser Verlag. Its thematic is that the air war in Europe was an unspeakable horror such that a collective forgetting has wiped it from memory—and that the literary community has utterly failed to record it. Well not quite. As I learned this morning, the essay is available in English as part of On the Natural History of Destruction, by Sebald, but the following extract is my own translation from the German. The book I own was a gift to me of son-in-law and Michelle’s husband, Thierry Paret.
In midsummer of 1943, during a heat spell of long duration, the Royal Air Force, supported by the 8th American Air Fleet, flew a series of attacks on Hamburg. The object of the mission, called “Operation Gomorrah,” was the most complete possible destruction and burn-out of the city. During the attack during the night of July 28, which began at 1 o’clock in the morning, ten thousand tons of explosive and fire-bombs were unloaded over the densely populated residential area east of the Elbe, a region that included the districts of Hammerbrook, Hamm-North and South, Eilbek, Barmbek and Wandsbek. Following an already proven method, four-thousand-pound explosive bombs were deployed by means of which all windows and doors were broken and ripped from their frames; then lighter igniters fell and set the roofs ablaze even as fire-bombs, with a weight up to 15 kilos, broke through into the lower storeys. Within a few minutes gigantic fires burned everywhere over the roughly twenty square kilometer attack terrain; the fires joined their edges so rapidly that a quarter-hour after the descent of the first bombs the entire airspace, as far as one could see, became a single ocean of fire. And after another five minutes, around 1:20, a firestorm of such intensity arose that no human, until that time, could have imagined it possible. The fire, exploding now two thousand meters into the sky, devoured oxygen with such violence that the air currents reached hurricane strength and roared like mighty organs on which all registered had been pulled. It burned like that for three hours. At its peak the storm lifted up gables and roofs and whirled beams and plaster walls through the air, twisted trees out of the ground and drove people before it like living torches. Behind crumbling facades flames shot house-high into the air, rolled like a flood wave with a speed of more than 150 kilometers an hour through the streets, whirled like fireballs in odd rhythms over open squares. In some canals the water burned. Glass panes melted in streetcar wagons; sugar stores cooked in the cellars of bakeries. Those fleeing from their underground shelters sank in grotesque twisting forms into the liquefied asphalt that formed thick blisters. Nobody really knows how many lost their lives that night or how many went mad before death overcame them.

The horrors of modern war, mirrored on the other side by the 57 nights of German bombing of London, called The Blitz, by the twin nuclear descents of atomic bombs over Nagasaki and Hiroshima, echoed by words like Dresden, and marked more modestly on childish memories—mine were those of a child who lived through such things but managed to escape unharmed, Brigitte’s those of a young girl who had to help clear rubble—should be, if at all possible, kept vividly in mind as we contemplate yet more mayhem, endlessly, and the decades keep rolling on.

W.G. Sebald, I think, has a very legitimate point to make. It is that our memory is rather selective. We remember the Holocaust and keep its memory alive, forgetting that it was a part of a much greater display of collective inhumanity in that weirdest of all times that Brigitte and I have lived through. We remember what flatters and not that which instructs. And, indeed, reading such posts as this one does not exactly make one’s day.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Houston We Have Lift Off

She’s the cutest honey gal who’s ever worn a spacegal’s suit
That darling Anne, that sweet of mine in silver, gold, and mighty cute.

Houston we have lift off—
In Nashville Tennessee
My Anne of Seven Gables
Is singing at Opree!

Just watch those rosy lips of hers soft-parted in mute song
Just watch that cute gloved hand of hers wave to the Nashville throng.

Yes Houston we have lift off—
In Nashville Tennessee
Anne soon of Seven Cables
Will now be on TV!

I love to watch her moon-bounce dance high on that cratered stage up there
Her tiny boot-prints leave a trail and in her helmet, golden hair.

Oh Houston we have lift off—
I hear the countdown’s sound
Anne soon of Seven Labels
Will now be Branson bound!

Tuesday or Wednesday of last week the news in the evening were thick and murky enough so that, in some weariness I went to Channel 400 or thereabouts on our Comcast cable service to find one of those music channels rather than endure the beat of punditry. There I chanced across country music channels—not one but several—and having chosen one I spent a while listening to the music. In the midst of that the amusing thought occurred to me that it might be fun to write country-western songs. I had all the equipment for producing the lyrics already—and as for the music, Brigitte and I have been talking a bit in past weeks of buying one of those electronic pianos anyway… So then Brigitte joined me to watch a movie, and the thought then sank a little but not entirely out sight.

Today, as we set out for one of our rounds—Post Office, etc.—and we were on the way, the thought came into my mind that we had lift off at last. And then, almost instantly, came the two lines of the refrain of the piece above: Houston we have lift off—in Nashville Tennessee. At once I knew that I had something. I began writing the thing while waiting in a long line at the Post Office on the back of a postal form (PS Form 1093, if you must know) that had some white space. I herewith declare myself as having entered the arena. And if composers, producers, and other Grand Ole Opry types wish to contact me, my e-mail is available by way of My Complete Profile…

Pseudo-Events

An article in the Business pages of the New York Times yesterday (“In Animated Videos, News and Guesswork Mix”) exercised Brigitte enough so that she dispatched a stinging letter to the editors. It may or may not appear in print but may appear online. The article speaks of “Maybe Journalism.” It deals with computer-generated news reports, so-called, in which what might have happened is shown in video format. An example is the recent way-way-over-wrought uproar over Tiger Woods. Brigitte’s message to the Times was: Maybe Journalism also appears in the mainstream media—endless speculative stories about what people plan, intend, seek, project, surmise, etc.—with little actual news content beyond the opinions of politicians and celebrities and the posturings of institutions.

This article came soon after another one on the decline of the Media in which the author mentioned the birth of purely ad-driven journalism. I did a post on that for LaMarotte a few days ago (here). The matter was therefore on our mind.

Talking about it reminded me of the definitive book on the subject. It is Daniel J. Boorstin’s The Image, subtitled A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. The book appeared in 1961. The cover shown here is that of the Vintage Books edition of 1992 that I happen to own. The intriguing premise of the book is that Journalism, barely born, rapidly discovered an awful truth: real news are rare but dailies must be filled with something. Adapting to this situation, journalism quickly discovered the solution as well. When nothing happens, why not fill the news hole with reports on things that sound like news: pseudo-events.

In support of Brigitte’s letter, I dug through a brown bag of old papers and extracted phrases from headlines as follows: “A Candidate Plans,” “U.S. Judge Opposes,” “Report Examines,” “Obama Team Defends,” “New Plan Rattles,” “Talks Continue,” “Europe Stews,” “President Vows,” and “Marcos Seeks.”

For good measure, to show headline snippets from one paper only (this morning’s Times), here are more: “Experts Sure,” “Officials Stress,” “Candidates Claim Victory,” “Rules Raise Questions,” “Justices to Decide,” “Push Intensifies,” “White House Urged,” “Criticism Rises,” “Fears Recalled,” “Deal Puts in Doubt,” “Programmers Try to Serve,” “Shows Stir Publicity,” “Univision to Make,” “Japan May Limit,” “Letdown is Predictable,” “Executives May Proceed,” and “NFL May End.”

To be certain that we’re reading unquestionable news, the Obituary Page is highly recommended. It reports genuine events. I’ve yet to encounter there news of the fact that So-and-So may, plans, seeks, or expects to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Innocence

Words are magical—if only we look at them. The thought behind this entry comes from pondering the scurry of squirrels in our yard as they prepare for winter. We have a great Y-shaped tree in our backyard on the left strut of which Y, this year, the clan has built itself two nests. We didn’t consciously see these nests until the leaves reluctantly went south during the last few weeks. But now we see them. And the squirrels, as every year, are in a seemingly frantic hurry to store-store-store up there the treasures they find on the ground, scurrying to great heights. To complete this picture I must say that they don’t always work. This time of year some impulse also causes several or maybe all of them to clamber about in the branches of a set of smaller trees, entirely bare of any kind of nutrition, while performing astounding feats of acrobatics, apparently strictly for fun—often chasing one another in the process.

Squirrels came into our sharper view here in the suburbs of Detroit for the first time because the area is densely populated with people and with trees, and the trees are full of squirrels. Here, for the first time, we saw black as well as grey ones. Brigitte and I come from lands across the Atlantic where squirrels are seemingly smaller and almost reddish brown. American squirrels draw European attention. Our granddaughter Stella demonstrated this on walks in the Grosse Pointes here during her recent visit—absolutely fascinated with the creatures and avidly making photographs of little beasts in actions that, for us, no longer invoke much interest; they’ve become mere background.

It’s been going on like this forever here, the same patterns repeating, repeating. And, yesterday, when my eyes followed squirrels in their play and labor, the world “social Darwinism,” mentioned in that day’s blog here still on my mind, a meditation on innocence began spontaneously, as follows, more or less: Nature is innocent—humanity cannot be. For a while there I was muddled as I pondered this, thinking that innocence is rooted in knowledge, thus rising from the Latin for gnoscere. In meaning not and gnoscere meaning to know. Unknowing. Not so, it turns out. Innocence is rooted in the word nocere, meaning harm: not harming. But, of course—and never mind the etymologies—it comes to the same thing. Nature does not know. Therefore, no matter what it does, Nature can do no harm. Man always knows, also does, and therefore always knows when it does—harm. Our superiority carries a high price.

Images of the Garden loomed up, of course, that Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—and thoughts of the paradox of humanity’s fall—or was it humanity’s rising? For you must already know good and evil before you’re able to disobey. The disobedience is present in potential before the teeth sink down into the apple. And the corollary, of course, is that a way of life aping the purely natural, thus obeying the hidden hand of the market or the roar of the vox populi, is not good policy. But, having arrived at that thought, the innocent pleasure of watching the squirrels faded away and I went indoors to make a cup of coffee.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

We're Oddly Privileged Observers


The chart I present today is a somewhat more rationalized version of data from the Bureau of the Census that I had already posted here a while back. It shows the best scholarly estimates available on the subject of human global population for the period 1 to 1950 A.D. What I have done is simply extrapolated data points to fill in the gaps in the estimates, thus enabling me to show population on a continuous scale at 50-year intervals for the current chronological era. The raw numbers are available here. To this I might add that the original tabulation also provides estimates from 10,000 B.C. down to 200 B.C. The estimates for the human population for the time—and it’s nothing more than a guess-and-a-golly—suggest that in that entire period the human headcount was always below 230,000 million. When I arrived in America—the 1950 census was still being processed then—our population here was just a hair under 151 million. If I’d charted the entire range of the scholarly guesstimates, it would show a straight line running just above zero for all recorded history—and a huge, unbelievable spike appearing the day before yesterday.

In this chart I’ve plotted, along with the lower and upper estimates of scholars, the running average of the low estimate (green bars) and, overlaying them for most of the temporal trip, the difference between that average and the actual low estimate. What this tells me is that the real divergence from the perennials of history had its beginning in or around 1700, thus before the Age of Oil actually began. The early rising of the curve no doubt owed a great deal to advancements in agriculture discovered and applied in medieval times as documented by Lynn White in his fascinating Medieval Technology and Social Change. Coal mining began in the late 1740s; the steam engine appeared in 1770. And it was “hold on to your seats” after that.

We’re oddly privileged observers. We’re also, if you think about it, challenged to make the most of this odd and wondrous opportunity. The Age of Oil has already begun its descent from Mount Petroleum, and in another wink or two of historical time, the found wealth—which we, in fact, did very little to obtain beyond extraction—will have been consumed. We have a tiny window of time in which, somehow, we must, if we can, learn something from all this—and make the kinds of arrangements whereby we save and protect the physical gains we have been able to realize—not least electric light and the vast deposits of knowledge leisure has made possible to study under lamps—and to apply that knowledge to social well being.

The oddity of all this is how little one person can actually do. Thus this subject, already once touched upon in this blog, deserves this repetition—in new words and with a chart that features a blue sky.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Two Takes on History

For those who share my interest in the deeper past—and attempts at grasping its enormous complexity and maddening structure—I recommend two fascinating and original essays by Paul Rodriguez on The Ruricolist, titled Xerxes and Civilizations.

James Joyce, writing in Ulysses, wrote the sentence, “History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The words are usually attributed to Joyce directly with the “Stephen said” omitted—yet one more indication how rapidly context is usually lost even in our own time. Joyce died in 1941 when I was not yet five. The quote stayed with me because history has fascinated me throughout my life; Paul’s second essay sums up some of the imponderables that any attempt at making sense of the big picture, so called, bedevils the would-be sage.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Wrought Riches

On her visit over the Thanksgiving holiday, Michelle brought us an exquisite album of wrought iron images she had taken in France over a number of visits here and there—titled Iron, Lace, Leaves and Light. Then, on the day of her departure, she left a CD with additional photos—some 402 of them! The picture shown here, one of those in the album, I chose for display because the talented photographer is herself dimly visible behind the iron.

In this and other pictures on this blog, the technical distinction between cast and wrought is not reflected in the blog entry titles. The screen in this photo shows cast iron, more common in that land of grills than wrought. The significant cost difference between the two explains that. But the effect is pleasing. With such riches in iron—and, incidentally, of the architecture of France revealed in fragments—my ability, occasionally, to lighten up the discourse has been greatly enhanced. Thank you, Michelle!

DIY Culture

I’ve finally finished reading all of Dante’s Divine Comedy—a very strange work indeed. Having read it and, alongside, several commentaries from various times and slants, I am powerfully reminded once again that “culture,” that elusive whatever-I-mean-by-that, is certainly a do-it-yourself enterprise. Having read this vast poetic work, I’m now at least personally acquainted with it. And the commentaries now give me quite another feel. I agree with bits and pieces, here and there. Nothing beats travelling a land yourself.

I’m not about to burden the reader with my take on Dante’s work; I knuckled down to read the work precisely to avoid such hear-say. The Comedy is a cultural phenomenon not a recitation of physical observations where the facts alone communicate something—although I must here note that it is sometimes equally valuable to read people like Newton in the original (or in translation from Latin for ignorami like me). There is nothing quite like the actual voice. Personal encounters often produce surprising outcomes. My views of Conan the Cimmerian abruptly changed when I read Robert E. Howard’s actual stories as they appeared in Weird Tales long ago. Commentaries swirl like clouds around the works of culture. Time and again I’ve discovered that thinkers whom scholarly consensus dismisses have genuine merits—or that lauded greats are muddled, empty, vain, or simply sick. One of my memories, on reading (or is it perhaps better to say trying to read) Plato’s Timaeus was the irritated reaction: God, I wish this man had had some sense for structure! Artistically splendid works sometimes convey loathsome themes. I think of these as beautiful sculptures made of fecal matter; but you might not realize that until you draw near.

In a way it’s maddening that we must do all the work to get some kind of reliable sense of what is out there. Art is long, life is short. The only half-way adequate work-around to this that I’ve discovered is immersion in a culture deeply enough so that you get to know its foibles and prejudices intimately enough to see them sharply. Then, if the culture is rich in values, I can use its dictates as the initial filter to look at the world of cultural creations. In this endeavor relying on multiple cultures is much recommended because, through one lens only, some things will remain more or less invisible. In our time, fortunately, access to multiple cultures is possible.

Alas. To get to a state where the features of the cultural landscape become more or less visible, something must be neglected as your back curls leaning over books. Here the half-broken ceiling of the hall-way closet of my house comes sharply to mind—and my fingers itch to put Home Depot on a to-do-slip. Alas and alack. Sometimes cultural do-it-yourself really must give way to honest to God DIY with sheetrock and plaster and moving all of the coats and hats and shoes and scarves and umbrellas and what-not out of that closet to get at the ceiling, your head hurting as it bumps against the cobwebby but now exposed dark rafters overhead.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Private and Public

A striking contrast between the private and the public becomes sharply visible at certain times. Vacations are one category of such occasions—family visits and reunions another. The media recede; they’re temporarily pushed aside. And then—so long at least as the economic foundations are firm enough—the unchanging aspects of life come to the fore so that, remembering the distant past, it echoes the personal present—and, turned about, the present echoes the past. In this country Thanksgiving is perhaps the best reminder of the perennial human pattern. Above all it is a family holiday. It chief symbol is a common meal. Its rootings are in festivals of harvest as far back as we can see—thus in humanity’s organic dependence on the earth’s bounty. Yes. The increasingly hysterical anxieties of our seemingly failing commercial society intrude ever more into this time. My last trip out to buy the last few ingredients at Kroger carried me past vast Christmas trees; wreath and garlands everywhere; and the Salvation army’s huddled figures already rang their bells next to the red pots. The late night check of e-mail last night brought strident reminders that today is Black Friday—which is supposed to arouse my anxieties lest I miss out on some unspeakable bargains today. Christmas, alas, has long been destroyed.

What strikes me about all this is the permanent character of the personal and private and the brittle artificiality of a public projection of—words fail me—of something, of some desired state of mind or nerves, the projection of lures, prods, reminders, and supposed desires in pursuit of which we shall serve some common good, namely the expenditure of money so that those economic foundations, already mentioned above, will remain firm enough to sustain this St. Vitus dance of public insanity.

Twenty, thirty, forty years ago we saw the technological expansion, begun in the early decades of the nineteenth century, as making the world smaller. And smaller it is. Now our children Skype across vast oceans and kid and tease each other as if they were cheek to cheek. But the strange phenomenon of a crazed, brittle, public realm, grinning down at the personal life with a phony smile and deadly eyes—using symbols once infused with feeling and with awe as reminders of crazed commercial need—suggests something else to me now. It suggests that the world has grown tight, as if the sky were disappearing. The limitless dome of sunny blue above us has come to be thickly covered by a dark and incessantly moving wirrwarr of mechanical nastiness. It is thickening, descending—like a curtain, like a pall. It constricts our private and real life. We’re forced now to live our lives with more and more conscious and active effort to disregard a whole dimension of reality, once helpful and encouraging. We must fend it off, ignore it, cope with it as best we can lest it press out the last bit of air from our rapidly heaving chests. This can’t and won’t go on much longer.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

One of Our Cradles: St. Luke's Hospital, Kansas City, Mo.

The picture is tiny but of great value to us. St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City, Mo, has been transformed, since this photograph was taken, into a gigantic and awe-inspiring structure, but forty-six years ago this day, on the morning of Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination, long before the sun rose, driving our little grey VW bug, I was headed to this building with Brigitte and, many hours later, our youngest child, Michelle, was born in this much humbler structure to her exhausted mother. Happy birthday, dear daughter. It is a joy to have you here with us today—and strange indeed to think that you are here vacationing briefly from your labors at Les Bluets, that most famous of all maternity hospitals of the great city of Paris—where the facilitation of such events, always absolutely unique although they are, is your calling and your daily work...

The second picture shows Les Bluets. It is a very modern facility but, be assured, has its own honored and ancient history by now. Les Bluets was founded in 1901. Yes. Thinking of that time and this one, and contemplating our present rough history, on its still lurching slouch toward Bethlehem, it strikes me that there are, thanks to the convergence of many tiny lights of human spirit, many things for which we may be grateful in this season of thanksgiving.

The Swans Referred To...


Herewith a picture of the trumpeter swans I mentioned yesterday. A distinguishing feature is the black bill. The much more common mute swans, who, John Magee assures me, are not mute (and I can testify to the truth of that too) have a yellow bill. Trumpeters are also much larger. Photo credit: Patio Boat.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Early Festivities

The chalked message at the side of our house, beneath the arched portico—ideal for the little cars of the 1920s but narrow for those of today—appeared there for the first time a long time ago now to mark one of the visits of grandchildren. Less legibly other names appear to announce that they too slept at this address; those are the names of Malcolm and Henry, the doughty authors of Pontoon Pirates. This fall of 2009, Stella managed to be present all by herself, but in company of her mother. They arrived a week ago on a quick flying trip, out of season, as it were (neither summer nor yet Christmas), but delighting us by illuminating our Thanksgiving holidays.

Michelle’s ability to break away for a brief spell triggered a somewhat fractured but still emotionally uplifting family reunion here—very rare these days with the Ghulf clan spread all over the continents. Susie, my sister, and my brother Baldy, with Peggy his wife, managed to come here too before departing to host get-togethers of their own. We missed the rest of the French clan, busy finishing school (the children) and starring in a French production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (Papa): no way to break that contract. We also sorely missed seeing Barbara, our oldest, or her brood; she was prevented from coming by having just begun a very promising new job. Alas the real Ghulf clan, unlike its imaginary counterpart, is not sustained by millions and millions of whatever currency you like derived from zerofric. Skype to the rescue—even if the cameras, now on one side, now on the other, did not always function as they should.

This event will end with the usual yawning abruptness of departures after Thanksgiving dinner at Monique’s and John’s house this year on the shores of Lake Wolverine—where trumpeter swans presently have, as it were, made a stunning appearance in great numbers to signal that even species depleted to nearly unsustainable numbers can bounce back with a little assist from caring elements of humanity. And after that the impersonal sway of airlines and oceans will once more come to spread the distance between us and the usual quiet of the banal everyday shall once more settle with, presumably, the falling snow.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Reminder

Power failures are intended, I believe, to remind us that the most important technological innovation of the modern age is the discovery of electricity. That reminder came again abruptly yesterday evening at 5:30 p.m. Light enough remained to let us find the flashlights and, using those, to find the matches to light the candles. The message for me, personally, was that while technology may be neutral, its absence can be felt as something positively annoying. Light is that ultimate symbol of value. Let there be light!

I’ve spent a substantial part of my life studying technology from various points of vantage. This began for me as a personal point of curiosity while I was still in the Army and later became a professional activity. I remember once in the service filling an empty hour looking up the respective populations per square mile of India and the United States and then calculating the U.S. population as it would be if it had India’s population density. That is a technological preoccupation? Absolutely. By the time I first chanced across Blake’s “Energy is eternal delight,” I lit up, as it were, already adequate to understand that feeling.

You cannot spend your time doing things of that sort without becoming painfully aware of the fact that our civilization is largely defined by the discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels beginning early in the nineteenth century. In my personal parlance we have been and are still traveling on a bubble of oil, suspended in air, as it were, but this bubble, like the soapy kind, is of a brief duration. What follows after we’ve exhausted oil, gas, and eventually all coal? What I am hoping is that we shall still have the most important gift that we discovered: light.

That may happen if we eventually master fusion technology. The interesting aspect of that potential development is that it promises to give us light and modern communications and, possibly, energy enough for emergency transportation—and not much more than that. The reasons for that are that the yield of energy obtained, per unit of new energy needed to get it, will be modest. I’ve summarized the issues on LaMarotte here. Still, if we could get there, it would be a great boon—although, at present, mastery still eludes us. But if this brief blip in history, the Age of Oil, now stumbling towards its chaotic end, leaves us with electric power, that will have justified its vast excesses and violence for endless generations to come.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Technology is Neutral

An eccentric way to illustrate the truth of this assertion is to point out that science is not what makes “science fiction” interesting. It’s always the story, stupid, and it matters not what the wrapper is, be it sword and sorcery, politics, a medieval setting, a cowboy tale, or the siege of Troy and its great Wooden Horse. The story is always about people.

Years ago, in one of my then endless pursuits of technological change, I chanced across a most revealing academic work, Lynn White’s Medieval Technology and Social Change. It is an absolutely fascinating work. It deals with the stirrup, horsepower, crop rotation, protein generation—and how these innovations influenced the physical environment and therefore society.

Reading that book I realized another important truth about technology. Unlike social structures, which cycle—ever recurring, ever decaying, but not really advancing in any meaningful sense—technology is cumulative and progressive. Once invented and proved useful, it will persist. The Incas had not invented the arch. But we now see that form of architecture (notice the etymological link in that word) everywhere in the world. And it won’t go away. Forms of social organization, a kind of technology for controlling people, tend to cycle. Physical technologies—in contrast with human organizational forms—benefit from the persistently uniform behavior of matter. Democracy controls that much more volatile element, free human entities; therefore it recurs in endless forms when conditions favor it and then deforms, decays, becomes unrecognizable, eventually unworkable, and gives way to other recurring forms of rule that then fit the times better again.

I stress the neutrality of technology but, having written this much (writing reveals what is deeper in the mind) I realize now that all I’m saying is that matter is neutral. Technology, after all, is just a tooling for managing matter. What maintains technological knowledge is the unchanging relationship we have with matter, and exactly the same relationship regardless of the ideological structures that guide our thought. Therefore it is in no one’s interest to neglect those things that happen to be universally useful.

I got into this subject today thinking of modern modes of communication: mail, telephone, e-mail, Internet (in general), blogs, and social networks. The underlying technology (of late) is the manipulation of electromagnetic currents and states, their transmission, storage, and manipulation using computers. And the underlying human motives that have lifted this technology into the useful category are two-fold: one is that communications connect the separated; the other is that people seek and value attention. The two are closely linked, of course. All of these manifestations have negative and positive aspects. Mail also means junk mail, telephone also means the automated nuisance call, e-mail also means spam, blogs can and often do communicate hate, and social networks, while they connect, can also distract.

It’s one of our modern fetishes to assign values to neutral mechanisms that, in themselves, carry no values at all. Or, perhaps, to make the point more explicit, these mechanisms are tools—and tools are one half of a whole. The tool user is the other half. Technology also has an inherent value. It is the knowledge of the toolmaker that it embodies, a superior knowledge of how the material world behaves. I hate technology only when it stops working properly. The indifferent, thoughtless, or exploitive uses of technology—why, that’s the story, the fiction part of “science fiction.” And there we must look at ancient concepts like original sin and not speak ill of that steady, never-changing innocent, other we call Matter, and its handmaiden, Technology.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Matapedia

Back in Minnesota days, Brigitte was driving home from someplace when, over the radio, she heard “Matapedia,” the title song of the album named after it. Kate and Anna McGarrigle wrote and sang it. Either one or the other of us bought it. Since that time we’ve purchased many a copy of it as gifts to friends. For quite some while now I’ve wanted to put a YouTube video on this blog, and I can’t think of a better one to put on Ghulf Genes than this song. No image moves, but who needs pictures when you have this melody and words. Thus I launch my first such offer with much gratitude to these two gifted artists. The lyrics to the song are available here.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Taste and the Abstraction

In a post the other day (“Difficult to Express”) I remarked as follows:

In fact, I must confess, I don’t ... much like that word: abstraction. It suggests some kind of paltry residue of the physical, the last considered real, all else a derivate.

I’d like to expand on that now. The more time passes the more conscious I become of the limitations of concepts. They work fine for personal understanding. In using words, I know what I mean; but we have a tendency to use words we understand to communicate with others—and other people understand those words in quite other ways. For this reason I’ve long felt that genuine inner discoveries of how the world is fashioned and how it moves and has its being can only be communicated effectively using stories and poetry. But those forms of communication, of course, will leave some people dissatisfied. They want their concepts more sharply defined, made mathematical, as it were, stripped of flesh, guts, and circulatory systems, seeing only the supporting structure of bone. But the maddening aspect of reality is that it is captured by the very fusion of its parts. Bones aren’t prior to flesh and blood; but tissue cannot be placed above bone in any hierarchical sense either. It’s the totality that counts. I must assume that bodies came about by a circular or iterative process in which, no doubt, a single fuzzy, undifferentiated intention came to manifest, by degrees, as a structure that has many complexly integrated parts.

In the same post I make the point that for me essences, or forms, are best viewed as intentions, and by that I mean that intentions have a formative impetus. But when I compare this understanding of form to the eternal forms associated with Plato, I see something quite different. Plato’s forms appear to be static—whereas intentions are always dynamic. Eternal forms don’t seem to have life, but intentions are life. In the usual ways of teaching young students the basics of Greek thought, form and matter, the examples for form tend to be static: it’s the image of Venus rendered in stone or bronze, the static idea of a residence, fully formed and rendered as architect’s drawings. But behind that Venus or that residence was, first, a living form in a living mind, and not present in full detail at all but, as I say above, in a fuzzy state, at least as much feeling as image. The concept of “form” has a great deal more energy and life hidden within it than that word routinely suggests. Now I suspect that Plato’s own conception was undoubtedly much more like what I’ve just laid out than as it has come to be passed on to later generations, but the exigencies of communication have eroded its most essential characteristics into a caricature.

Yesterday, after writing a brief and very foreshortened piece on existentialism—and discussing it with Brigitte—and later pondering our talk while on my walk, it suddenly dawned on me that what Heidegger called care (Sorge) and what Sartre called engagement, that very same whatever is what I routinely mean by consciousness. That happens to be my pet expression for something that, in its native form, is an experience, a complex something, a feeling as much as an understanding or, perhaps, an understanding of a feeling—what the Sufi’s call a taste. You have to taste it to know it, the Sufis say. But a taste, alas, is very difficult to convey to someone who hasn’t already tasted the same thing.

In my own personal lexicon, consciousness contains a meaning quite missing for many other people. In my personal understanding, it gets a certain emphasis. It has the character of being awake, really awake, more dynamically of coming awake, of realization, of a sudden grasp. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn—if I could summon the spirit of a long-dead gnostic—that what one calls care, another engagement, and a third consciousness a Gnostic might have called a gnosis, a knowing. In this contexts I might mention that Hans Jonas, in his superb The Gnostic Religion, concludes that Gnosticism in its own time was what, in ours, we experience as existentialism.

Now I would submit here that the storyteller, novelist, and poet—all using a much more comprehensive language than merely that of concepts—is much more able to communicate the taste, the reality, and the flavor of experience than the person who tries to balance the entire insight on the single leg of abstractions.

A Pleasing Gate


Wrought Iron Gate Photographed in Hagenau, France—courtesy of Pontoon Pirates.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Eye and the Beholder

Many years ago now, engaged in a study of packaging on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, I got involved with bottles-and-cans. That phrase became shorthand, later, for a significant uproar across the environmental community dealing with beverage containers, their discard as litter, and efforts to force industry to reclaim and to recycle them. In studying this matter I visited Coca Cola in order to understand better how this aspect of packaging worked. In that process I came to marvel. The more I learned about the subject, the more it expanded. An empty, bent, carelessly discarded small container along the roadside—barely seen as we drive by it—morphed into a vast commercial, engineering, and manufacturing colossus which was the central concern, indeed the living, of thousands of people across the United States. I came to think of these containers as the uniformed armies of the two great competing empires of Sugar-Water, and, indeed, later on, having visited the one in Atlanta I also traveled to upstate New York, and there I was appropriately awed by the glorious glass palace that housed Pepsi, the other.

Who says that life in business is a dull affair? You drive away from such a setting in the green-gold countryside at the wheel of your red Avis on a brilliant fall day, having admired very fine art on display in a vast building-circumambulating lobby, and you think yourself magically transported into another medieval time of duchies and princedoms, the dukes and princes of whom are powerful figures who visit—or are visited by—senators and presidential aides, and in your thoughts, as the palace falls behind you and the black ribbon of the road bisects breathtaking woods, you wonder what a strange thing it might be to expend your efforts serving Sugar Water, travelling over oceans in shiny airplanes on its behalf…and realizing that this strange notion may never ever occur to Sugar Water’s actual minions who, bless them, just think of what they do as the same-old-same-old-same-old job.

I was reminded of the strange, lens-like character of attention in the context of yesterday’s post about living in multiple mental worlds. Our ability to pay attention to many quite different realities would seem to have a scattering, a centrifugal force. Here is time spent on complex technical problems (at work), the right wine for the chosen meat (shopping), the matter-form duality underlying Aristotle’s concept of substance and the peculiar habitation of unformed matter and immaterial form (reading), and then (Saturday night) immersed in experience of the music and the husky words of the creator of Thunder Road. Oh my. Yes, indeed. And the loom to weave all this into a fabric?

As the world infinitely expands, proliferates, and complexifies the more we stare at it, as at every blink that gets us closer it only unfurls yet another even greater fractal layer of yet another depth of intricacy—or as this same complexity curls up into a simple object, then shrinks into a token, then turns into a concept, and then may actually disappear as we withdraw our attention—all this while that which is behind the attention remains the only fixed and immutable point. And that point—we can’t actually get at it at all—is ourselves. It does the weaving. How we do it, how well we do it, that is the crux of the matter.

* * *

Thunder Road bring memories? A puzzlement? To hear the song, click here. To read the lyrics, here. The combined effect of words and music will not be revealed, I don’t think, by close study, however intense, of either one or the other, no matter how well conducted.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Difficult to Express

Over the last several years I’ve found myself noting more and more frequently, in this and that connection, that our lives, however powerfully they’re anchored in the material dimension—and they certainly are—take place in mental spaces. The feeling is difficult to express. Someone hearing might say, “But of course. We’re conscious creatures. We live in a stream of consciousness. It’s a mixture of sense impressions, phantasms, and of memories.” The statement is true enough, but it doesn’t measure up to my odd intuition.

Pondering that intution now, I am beginning to see it better. Various relational structures adhere to every kind of activity. Back in my working days, I would work on a novel in the early hours and then travel to my office. And in that space a different set of relationships came into focus. The novel was one structure, the business another. And, being engaged with one, then with the other, I was living each in sequence because of identification. The concerns that used to exercise me in my days at North Star, in Minneapolis, for instance, have absolutely no influence on me now. I can reread one of my novels and re-enter its world again. Once more it becomes real. In the first case the various “issues” that exercised me just happened to concern real people and events; in the other case they happened to be imaginary, but, since the novel in question was realistic, it felt just as real as the flow of events at work. But even if the novel had been quite wildly surrealistic, it would still have operated as a frame for experience provided that it had had the necessary consistency and coherence.

Each world we inhabit temporarily has its facts, logic, dynamism, feeling tones, actions, and consequences. The substance may be predominantly physical—which was indeed the case when I spent several weeks  redecorating the whole house, once, long ago in Kansas. The substance may be commercially toned, as it tends to be in a business. Human relations and memory may predominate during an extended family reunion. The substance may also be on a highly abstract plane—albeit never entirely divorced from physical reference—in a career, say, focused professionally on philosophy or higher math.

The striking similarity between imagined realities (the novel) and the actual (business) comes into focus when I reflect that in most business relationships the physical contact with people is often quite minimal or takes place only from time to time or at some remove (telephone, e-mail). Most of the time most of the people we deal with are mental presences, not bodies visible to my eyes. This is true above all in our era of effective mass communications. For many people the endless meetings—and these are face to face—are a distraction. Most tellingly, in most businesses, those engaged in them almost never see the actual customer unless in a generic sense—when they themselves go shopping. Back when you hawked your goods at your stall in the market—another story that.

The feeling that I find difficult to express today is, I think, a strengthened realization of the huge role the immaterial plays in our experience of living. I don’t want to call it abstract because, in most of our activities, the mental flow has feeling tone and is accompanied by imaginal traces: it is mental but alive. In fact, I must confess, I don’t and never did much like that word: abstraction. It suggests some kind of paltry residual of the physical, the last considered real, all else a derivate. In my own mental culture, I conceive of essences as intentions, thus as having more energy and a closer proximity to the Real than the actual physical manifestation.

A special case of this “life in the immaterial” is our relationship to the Media. Driven by the need to be efficient—in drawing and holding audiences for profit—they tend to create oddly deformed arrangements of reality in which short phrases are used to reference often very complex and dynamically changing relationships. To the extent that the Media optimize their content to maximize their viewership, to that extent they fail to carry out their self-proclaimed mission. And as this ratio shifts to favor the bottom line, to that extent, certainly, the medium is the message.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

One More Fall Image


The Stone Sun

The image is a sandstone sculpture. Brigitte and I saw and immediately fell in love with it at a Renaissance Festival in the Minneapolis Hinterland. It has been hanging in one or another of our gardens ever since. Over the years wind and water have weathered away some of the sand and produced the highlights that you see. In the midst of flux, for us, this object is a small anchor of permanence.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Time of Shatter

Healthy societies are complexly integrated whereas decadent societies are engaged in a process of slow-motion shatter. If I stare at the word complexity long enough, I realize that in a complex system every part and aspect of the whole is equally important although the parts are always hierarchically related. In a monoculture everything is the same. My Mother used to say, by way of dismissing certain kinds of views, “Everything is wood.” When asked what she meant, she would say: “Those people are just like termites. For them everything is wood.” Or everything is money. I picture a book in its normal use. Every word in it is meaningful—in placement and in sequence. So are the letters in the words. The covers have their purpose, the pages are numbered, and the use of the book is governed by its internal arrangements. But if that same book has been discarded, perhaps because it has been damaged, and is now relegated to serve as kindling next to the fireplace, it matters not what page you tear out to light the fire. Complexity has been reduced to monoculture. The words have lost all of their relevance.

Disintegration manifests by the separation of parts once meaningfully linked. So in a decadent society mutually supportive orders became alienated one from the other. What used to be relationships turn into uses. People are commodified. They become markets, human resources, labor, management, constituencies, blocks, interests, lobbies. Creative work becomes content. These are not merely verbal distinctions. They come with feeling tones attached. They are attitudes. They signal distance and indifference. “We’re having some labor problems. But we’re getting on top of them.” My favorite symbols for this include the recorded telephone call (“Your call is very important to us”) and the old Russian communist adage: “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”

This situation is pregnant with meanings—as is its opposite, community. For instance: as society loosens, freedom increases but relationships weaken. As one Russian émigré writer, living in New York, once complained: “At least back home the NKVD read what I wrote.” The urge to escape the oppressive integration of the small town or the village—in order to enjoy the freedom of city life—becomes the oppressive anonymity of urban life where you don’t even know your neighbors. When community shatters a complex network of relationships yields a single means of relating to everything—through money. Only money carries universal value. Thus is born celebrity and the yearning for visibility—that fifteen minutes of fame on television. And this is what feeds American Idol, brings it contestants and the vicarious participation of the vast alienated masses.

But life in a complex community has its down-side too. It requires attention, time, and effort expended on the community itself—very often “just because,” as in noblesse oblige—thus without any compensation in return. The obligation to work for the common good is not pragmatically rewarded—or, if it is done for reward, it is not that kind of effort. Nothing forces you to do it. It can be and often is felt as a burden. Its support is ethics, thus a moral sense. And this moral sense is reinforced by a hierarchical conception of reality, thus it has a religious connotation or underpinning.

Now, it seems, societies decay by a curious process. Community spirit and complex relationships produce order; order produces wealth; and wealth, as it spreads, weakens the sense that effort on behalf of the community is necessary. It is easier to avoid its burdens. This tendency to turn aside is felt as liberating. The notion is then expanded philosophically into a cult of freedom and individualism. This, in turn, damages the hierarchical arrangement on which the whole society rests. How wide this alienation spreads depends on the extent of the wealth produced. In pre-industrial times, only elites became wealthy enough to lose their bearings—hence also dynasties fell. The so-called ignorant masses kept clinging to whatever spirits or gods they worshipped. In our times, the devastation reaches much deeper into the population because the wealth produced has been so great.

The process of decay is also marked by a movement from the personal to the abstract—because love (one of the three theological virtues) is withdrawn. The farmers market where contact is vividly real becomes capitalism. Trade—at core a vital, complex, two-way river—becomes soulless globalization. It is a negative phenomenon because its single glassy eye is focused solely on gain. It produces a monoculture of technique. Everything must align with it or perish. Good-by to the shop, farewell the local merchant. In agriculture we literally have it—monoculture. Industrial means of raising chickens, pigs, and cattle are, frankly, obscene. What is the justification for this? The only denominator common to everything in a shattering culture: money. When a hierarchy of values is absent, complexity begins to disappear. When complexity begins to show cracks, only time is required for the whole to fall apart. In the midst of this process it is almost impossible to believe that the society is doomed. But such is the case.

The human community revives from these long and painful periods of desertification only because minorities fiercely cling to the more complex value systems which are the full expression of humanity. Small communities, often isolated, certainly separated, continue to exist. As things fall apart, these seeds begin to link. Out of them are formed new cultures which, for a time anyway, realize the values we celebrate over the centuries. To this I might add that the Decline of the West (as Spengler called it) can be and is resisted by those other societies in which the ethical current still flows strong.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Loom

Upon this age, that never speaks its mind,
This furtive age, this age endowed with power
To wake the moon with footsteps, fit an oar
Into the rowlocks of the wind, and find
What swims before his prow, what swirls behind —
Upon this gifted age, in its dark hour,
Rains from the sky a meteoric shower
Of facts . . . they lie unquestioned, uncombined.
Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
Is daily spun; but there exists no loom
To weave it into fabric; undefiled
Proceeds pure Science, and has her say; but still
Upon this world from the collective womb
Is spewed all day the red triumphant child.
       Millay, Edna St. Vincent, Hunter, What Quarry? Harper & Bros., New York, 1939.

This poem, written at around the time of my birth and published when I was three, has illuminated reality for me in various and different ways ever since I stumbled across it at the Overland Park library in Kansas (one of those splendid libraries I always praise). The event took place sometime in the 1970s. There are these moments. You don’t forget them. I still see the scene, the shelves to my left. I was looking inward, into the stacks. The yellow book (how come we remember such things?) was open in my hand. I was reading this poem. The words produced electrical shudders in my body. The odd power of this poem lies in its ability to say different things at different times; like a magical mirror it reflects back that which appears before its face. At that time my inner state reflected back the surface meaning—namely the absence of a loom. With time I came to realize consciously what it was that had made me shiver then—namely that this poem itself, proclaiming its absence, is actually the very loom that produces a fabric of meaning. For starters…

Monday, November 2, 2009

Tomato Manikin

















This is the last tomato we managed to grow this season. He does not seem very happy, regretting coming late enough to miss just about the whole of summer. “He talks to me,” Brigitte says, and indeed, he seems to. The markings are entirely natural, although the festive gown and the supporting toothpick are donations from humanity. Brigitte also likes to speak of this little fellow as her Tomato Pumpkin or Tompkin...

To make this introduction a little more formal, this small gentleman’s full name is Mr. Tompkin Lycopersicon esculentum, meaning edible wolf’s peach. The name in the Vulgate, as it were, is Yellow Cherry Tomato. This variety is quite small, about the size shown when full grown, and to the taste very sweet.

The River

I’m dumbfounded. After all these years, I still don’t get how Broadway works or what to make of our culture. [Neil Simon, quoted in the New York Times on November 2, 2009]
This statement, of course, has its specific context. A revival of Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, one of his most popular plays, opened on Broadway a week ago and abruptly closed again yesterday. Now I don’t happen to be a great fan of Broadway (despite minoring in Drama in college); nor am I much attracted to popular shows like Barefoot in the Park, Brighton Beach, Biloxi Blues, or Broadway Bound—to cite just those Neil Simon works that start with B. But I was a fan of Sid Caesar’s in the 1950s, and Neil Simon wrote many of the episodes and jokes that I enjoyed; I certainly appreciate Simon’s wit and sense of humor. Simon, who is now 82, left a very big mark on popular entertainment but evidently learned little about culture. Failure is a better teacher; hence he is now at last embarked on the narrow road to wisdom.

Interesting how, in his reaction to the reverberating thud of the last curtain on this revival of Brighton Beach, Simon seems to think that “Broadway” and “culture” are static structures, a kind of rock-solid reality that, once understood, always understood. Not. The play deals with a Depression era family coping with hard times, no doubt the reason why it was revived on Broadway. Its producers evidently thought that it would resonate with the public; but they too were benighted.

The Mississippi as it flows at its origin out of Lake Itasca—where it is a tiny little streamlet and you can jump across it, as I did, grinning from ear-to-ear (“I just jumped over the Mississippi”)—is not the river that empties its masses of mud-laden waters out into the Gulf of Mexico south of New Orleans. I saw that too. My first view of American “land” came when, aboard the USS General Muir, we saw the ocean turning yellow hours before we actually saw the scrubby islands that mark the river’s estuary.

Neil Simon evidently managed to remain unaware, as the years rolled on, carrying him toward 82, that he was in motion all the while, and looking down, the bright, shimmering, young stream had become a vast, huge, sluggish, muddy mass on which big, grey ships and barges now carried ignorant, young, brash, but hopeful immigrants upstream to fashion a new world.