Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Contempt for Democracy

At American Leftist, Richard Estes quotes a passage from this Tariq Ali article about the ongoing disaster in Afghanistan:
The lesson here, as in Iraq, is a basic one. It is much better for regime-change to come from below even if this means a long wait as in South Africa, Indonesia or Chile. Occupations disrupt the possibilities of organic change and create a much bigger mess than existed before. Afghanistan is but one example.
Then Richard says: "Is there anything that alarms the US more than organic change within a country or region?" I would say that the answer is "no". He goes on:
Organic change can be roughly translated as indigenous change, even as we admit that there is no pure form of it. Such change presents the prospect of people governing themselves according to social and economic systems independent of ones imposed by the US, and, potentially, even resistant to the US, as we now observe in Venezuela. Few people respond enthusiastically to being subjected to the ruthlessness of neoliberal primitive accumulation, the remorseless exploitation of their labor and resources, for the benefit of transnationals and the far away elites that control them.

Is it possible that the urgency for the invasion of Iraq was the fear that the Iraqis themselves would soon depose Saddam and the Baathists without US assistance? Was it necessary to invade Iraq to depose Saddam and destroy the country's infrastructure so that Iraqis could not chart their own course? Is there an even greater fear that the Iranians may likewise liberate themselves from the stifling constraints of the Islamic Revolution
This is one of the things that so many people refuse to recognize about the United States. Far from promoting democracy around the world, the US is the primary enemy of democracy in the world. It's often enough pointed out that this or that dictatorship is "paradoxically" closely allied with the United States, but it's only paradoxical if you attend to all of the cant about democracy. By now, the contempt American elites have for democracy should be clear. This is, of course, a point commonly made by Noam Chomsky, as in this recent interview where he says:
There was a free election in Palestine, but it came out the wrong way. So instantly, the United States and Israel with Europe tagging along, moved to punish the Palestinian people, and punish them harshly, because they voted the wrong way in a free election. That's accepted here in the West as perfectly normal. That illustrates the deep hatred and contempt for democracy among western elites, so deep-seated they can't even perceive it when it's in front of their eyes. You punish people severely if they vote the wrong way in a free election.
The last thing the United States wants is for countries to go their own way. Because if they go their own way, there's a chance the US won't get its way. This was what the Vietnam War was all about. This is what our policies in Latin America have been about for well over a century. A country that acts independently, that doesn't open its doors for American-led neo-liberal looting--this cannot be tolerated. This is why Cuba must continue to be punished. Claims that we are "spreading democracy" are appeals to our better natures, and they succeed all too often.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Movie Notes

I watched Miami Vice on Friday night. I admit that when this movie came out, I had no interest in seeing it. I tend to avoid movies based on tv shows, and I have some mysterious aversion to Jamie Foxx. It was reviews like this one by Keith Uhlich at The House Next Door, its presence on certain critics' year-end top ten list, and then this fascinating discussion between Uhlich and Matt Zoller Seitz (also at The House Next Door) that persuaded me that I wanted to see it. The Uhlich/Seitz discussion is about the so-called "death of film". At one point they're talking about how filmmakers who don't work in the classical narrative style get ignored by the canon-makers and marginalized. In this context, Seitz says:
And we're implicitly excluding filmmakers who do radical things within the context of formats that are quite well-established. Circling back to where we were a minute ago, I think that to have been made within the commercial exhibition system, Miami Vice and INLAND EMPIRE are, hands down, the two most radical works of popular culture to have appeared on American screens in 2006. Nothing else comes close.
I admit that I'm not well-versed in the visual-language of movies, and it often doesn't occur to me to think about why a certain visual appears instead of another. But damn, when a critic I respect says something like this, I'm going to want to see that movie. They talk about Vice some more in the discussion, but the whole thing is worth reading, if you're interested in film.

In the event, I enjoyed the movie. There were some striking visuals, to be sure, though what they necessarily meant I'm not sure I could say. As for the plot, I'd kept hearing that it was impossible to follow, but this complaint is strange, since the plot seemed pretty basic to me. (For another interesting--positive--take on the movie, see Brandon Soderberg's at No Trivia.) (By the way, the film's music included two or three Audioslave songs and somehow they didn't suck and may even have been good. I'm not sure what to do with this unexpected information. On the bad side, there was also a truly terrible cover of "In the Air Tonight".)

And last night, we watched The Departed, which was a second viewing for me. I liked it again, perhaps even more than I did the first time; still think Leonardo DiCaprio was better than I'd ever seen him before; still enjoyed Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg immensely; and still think Jack Nicholson's performance was all too often annoyingly cartoonish.

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People Need the Magical Side

Last week in The Washington Post, there was an interesting article about an Army chaplain named Don Larsen who'd applied to become the first Wiccan chaplain in the U.S. Military. He'd been doing his duty as a Pentecostal chaplain, but "inwardly . . . was torn between Christianity's exclusive claims about salvation and a 'universalist streak' in his thinking". Later in the article, Larsen is quoted thus:
"You can't intellectually talk about witchcraft. You gotta show up," he says. "What Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and a lot of us universalists think is, people need the magical side, the mythological side, of religion.

"We don't need more Calvinist rationalizing. We need mystery. We need horizons. We need journeys."
This is not a new suggestion, obviously, but I am increasingly convinced of the basic truth of the idea. In a recent post, I tentatively embarked on a discussion of these kinds of issues. I claimed that liberal atheists' excessive focus on religion qua religion obscures the reality of what are really political problems (while tending to miss how religious belief and practice actually operate in people's lives). Of course, it is the very exclusivity of, for example, Christianity's claims of salvation that rankles.

And the invocation of "mystery" does not sit well. There is a tendency to associate the word with obscurantism and to think that people simply want to be told what to do and how to behave and would rather not know the facts. I used to maintain that any suggestion of spirituality was anathema; I didn't want to have anything to do with it. But I no longer think it's as simple as that.

A few years ago I read Karen Armstrong's A History of God and noticed with interest that, as she told it, throughout history when the more mystical aspects of religion have come to the fore, groups of people have been more tolerant of each other. It seemed to me that problems have arisen when religious groups have attempted to define and explain their belief in rationalist terms. We tend to, I think, pass over those periods of tolerance and instead define religious activity in black and white terms as defined by the most intolerant, fundamentalist, rationalist believers. (Further, I think that the idea of "intellectual" activity has been overly associated with rationality in this way--note Larsen's comment that "you can't intellectually talk about witchcraft".)

It may seem as if I'm denigrating rational (or scientific) inquiry in this line of thought, but I assure you I am not. Elsewhere, it will be seen that I often criticize political figures for making policy decisions irrationally, and followers for ignoring available evidence and facts irrationally. I see no contradiction, but I know that I will need to flesh out the difference.

Ok, I'm still in the very early stages of my thinking about this, and there is much to read and to write. More to come.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Turns out Rubber Soul and Revolver are pretty good after all...

Speaking of the Beatles, last year I finally heard Rubber Soul and Revolver for the first time. I know that sounds unlikely, but it's true. I went through a period in high school when I was listening to the Beatles constantly, from a tape I'd made from my step-brother's LP of their #1 hits. As a result, I am incredibly familiar with their early super-hits, like "She Loves You" and "Love Me Do" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand". Later, I became obsessed with Sgt. Pepper and The White Album and Abbey Road (I even had these on vinyl!). These are the records that form the core of their "classic rock" body of songs, along with "Hey Jude" and "Let it Be" and so forth. So I shifted to agreeing with the conventional line that had the later, "more mature", music as being better than the earlier "pop" hits. But Rubber Soul and Revolver are in the middle, don't have too many songs that got played on classic rock radio, don't have the super-massive hits, and do have a couple of songs that I professed to hate (such as "Michelle", which I'm still not sure about).

By the time I'd heard the two both referenced many times as the best Beatles albums (when it wasn't still Sgt. Pepper), I wasn't listening to them much at all anymore. In fact, I'd taken the Beatles for granted for ages. They're always there, aren't they? It was Woebot's appreciation of "1o Unfamiliar Beatles Tracks" from last year that inspired me to listen to my own Beatles records (cds in my case). I dragged out my Beatles for Sale and A Hard Day's Night cds, and we listened to them a lot during the rest of the year. It's really hard to deny this music.

I find, now, that I listen to the Beatles more closely. The thing about them always being there is that we (or, well, I) tend to not really notice what's going on. And the Beatles were so good at making pop music, made it seem so effortless, and have been so absorbed into the pop landscape (plus the deliriously wonderful vocals are so upfront in the mix) that it's been easy to miss the sheer inventiveness in so much of their music. I like Woebot's line at the end of that post from last year, where he says: "I think if we’re ever going to stop the rot that’s eating away at music, we need to go back and have another look at The Beatles."

Anyway, back to these records. In his comment about "I'm Looking Through You", Woebot says: "Probably the most well known of all of these selections by merit of the fact that literally everyone in the world has heard "Rubber Soul"." Of course, this made me laugh. Not only had I never heard the album or the song, but for years I'd only ever heard Steve Earle's cover of it on Train a Comin' (in the liner notes Earles says of the song: "This is the stuff I cut my teeth on - Middle Class White Boy Roots Music." Compare with David Thomas' increasingly ridiculous-seeming assertion (quoted by me here) that not only do the Beatles not play "rock music", but they "will be a footnote in 50 years and forgotten totally in 100". Sure.) Then when Pitchfork did their 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s thing last year, "Tomorrow Never Knows" was the second-highest placing Beatles song--and I couldn't even say I knew what it sounded like!

So, yeah, I bought the albums, happily found them both used. And of course I was already somewhat familiar with a lot of the music on them, though not all of it. But listening to the albums as albums, straight through, this was new for me. As the subject line suggests, it turns out they're pretty good after all.

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"Classic" Rock

It so happened that the next three songs to play after those listed in yesterday's iPod rundown were "Why don't we do it in the road?" by the Beatles, "Wild Horses" by the Rolling Stones, and "Wicked Annabella" by the Kinks. I thought, banally, "hey, a classic rock mix". But then I realized that it's no classic rock mix at all, if "classic rock" is basically a radio format. While certainly the Beatles and the Stones, and to a lesser extent the Kinks, are classic rock radio staples, this sequence illustrates one of the many things wrong with it as a format (and with commercial radio in general, by extension). That is, these radio stations always claimed to play "deep cuts", but in reality always played the same songs over and over. The only time you'd every hear "Why don't we do it in the road?" (which, admittedly, is not one of the Beatles hundred or so best songs) would be if a station was playing all of side two of The White Album (if we're being casually pedantic, do we italicize aliases of titles?? better play it safe. . . ). "Wild Horses" was pretty common, of course, but a song like "Wicked Annabella" would never get played. But pulling back even further, yeah, the Kinks were basically reduced to "Lola" and "Celluloid Heroes" and their arena rock hits from the late seventies, like "Come Dancing" or "Do It Again". "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night" and others were generally relegated to "oldies" stations, if I recall. (Classic rock was more likely to play Van Halen's version of the former.) But albums like The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society (which includes "Wicked Annabella") and Muswell Hillbillies were never played. In fact, even for the Beatles and Stones, in general their earlier music was played on oldies stations, while the later, more rockist ("mature") music (and only certain songs) was "classic rock".

I'm sort of rambling here, but the thing is, I have always wanted to like the radio. But even within a given radio format's narrow range, the narrowness is astounding. It doesn't bother me that there is something like a "classic rock" format--where music from a particular era or genre is played. But if they didn't have time for anything but "Tumbling Dice" from Exile on Main Street, or for central classic rock artist Neil Young's "Ambulance Blues", I guess it's no surprise they didn't play Fairport Convention or Richard & Linda Thompson or Captain Beefheart or the Velvet Underground or the Stooges. All of these artists seem like obvious choices for any decent "classic rock" playlist. And yet you'd rarely, if ever, hear them. Perhaps because I listened almost exclusively to classic rock when I first got into music in high school, one of my impulses since then has been to fill in the gaps, to build a massive playlist of what I think classic rock should have been. All of the above artists, plus Blue Cheer, Silver Apples, Skip Spence, Funkadelic, Robert Wyatt, Roy Harper, Love, Syd Barrett (and Barrett-era Floyd, never played on the radio); German bands like Can and Amon Düül II (Faust strikes me as a little trickier, though even they had some actual songs that would have sounded great alongside this stuff); stuff like Pentangle and the Incredible String Band . . . all that music that gets suddenly "re-discovered" by a new wave of indie kids.

Ah, utopian dreams. Stay tuned as I continue to bang the drum for important issues like this.

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Science Fiction

I haven't read much science fiction or fantasy. During the years when I might otherwise have been reading a lot of science fiction, I was instead reading superhero comics. In fact, I can fairly easily list all such books (relatively loosely defined) I have read:

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien - Perhaps you've heard of it? I've read this twice, once when I was 12-13, and then again when I was 24. I enjoyed it both times. Given how often my father and especially my brother have re-read it, and with the recent movies, I've leafed through it a few times to see whether I might want to give it another go, but the prose just doesn't do it for me anymore.

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke - I've also read this twice, once for a ninth grade book report, again in my early 20s. I thought it was damn good.

Dune by Frank Herbert - I read this around the same time I re-read The Lord of the Rings, and I remember loving it. My dad keeps getting on me to read the other books in the series, but I don't see it happening.

Several novels by Kurt Vonnegut, including Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle, Slapstick, and Timequake, which seem to be the most "science fictiony". I don't have Vonnegut in the highly rigorous "science fiction" column in my mind, but I know that he is talked about a lot as such, so I include him here. The first two of these novels are my favorite of his overall. Timequake had an interesting premise that he did nothing with.

Something Wicked This Way Comes & Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury - These were ok, not terribly exciting.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov - I borrowed the original Foundation trilogy--along with the Bradbury, as well as the Card and Finney novels mentioned below--from my dad in an effort to read some of the classics of the genre, but I was unable to get past the first one; I found it virtually unreadable.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein - probably the worst novel I have ever read.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman - this book is hilarious, and I wish I knew what happened to my copy; I keep meaning to read some Pratchett proper and, in fact, just gave a couple of his books to my brother for Christmas, to some acclaim, so I think I'll need to snag them from him.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman - I loved Gaiman's Sandman comics, so I was at least interested in his novels. This one, I just learned from Wikipedia, is apparently adapted from a BBC series he wrote. Anyway, the book was ok.

Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers & Red Dwarf: Better Than Life by Grant Naylor - Ha! These are very entertaining and very silly, though I didn't realize until later that the novels came after the even sillier BBC series, which I didn't see until recently anyway (I liked the books better). "Grant Naylor" is, of course, the name under which Rob Grant and Doug Naylor collaborated.

Icehenge, Antarctica, & Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson - I was quite impressed by Robinson's novels (I thought his evocation of the cold in Antarctica, for example, was very effective), even though they did occasionally get bogged down in the science, and I fully expected to read more of his stuff, but, alas, have not as yet. Icehenge was the first science fiction I'd read that had a kind of literary uncertainty, if that makes any sense (and it might if I troubled myself to elaborate).

Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, & Children of the Mind by Orson Scott Card - The first Ender series. Ender's Game is enjoyable, if problematic. Speaker for the Dead was excellent. Midway through Xenocide he kind of lost me, and Children of the Mind didn't leave much of an impact on me at all.

Time and Again & From Time to Time by Jack Finney - I admit that I'm something of a sucker for time travel stories (though I've not actually read many), including shit like Back to the Future. Time and Again is an interesting twist on the idea: characters think themselves into the past (so long as they are in a certain location, if I recall correctly). Pretty good. The sequel is inevitably not quite as good, but still it held my interest.

Light by M. John Harrison - I first heard about Light via The Complete Review; I was duly impressed and have turned others onto it, who've also enjoyed it. I look forward to reading more of his fiction--for example, this Matthew Cheney post has interested me in The Course of the Heart.

Stranger Things Happen & Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link - various bloggers have been gushing about Link and her short stories for the last few years, so I was intrigued. I read Magic for Beginners first, and I understood why. Readers seem to think that her earlier collection was even better, but I disagree. I was not nearly as enchanted by the stories in Stranger Things Happen.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler - see my review here

Little, Big by John Crowley - A great book. My first Crowley. I look forward with great interest and anticipation to reading his Ægypt tetralogy, once the fourth is finally published (scheduled for later this year) and the first three come back into print.

Ok, I think that's about it. No Philip K. Dick (interested, in theory, but wary of what is, by most accounts, often dreadful prose). No Samuel Delaney (who I definitely do plan to read). No Ursula Le Guin. No Handmaid's Tale (though I have read other Margaret Atwood novels). Not included: novels by Pynchon, Delillo, or Powers, etc, that might appear to have some elements of what could be called science fiction; so-called "magical realists" like Garcia Marquez or Rushdie; fabulists like Borges or Calvino. And so on.

All of this is to clear away the decks and get to the point, which is that very recently I did read a great science fiction/fantasy series: Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun tetralogy, and its sequel, The Urth of the New Sun. I plan to write a little bit about it soon.

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Historically Contingent Features

Mark Kaplan points to this Valve discussion of Terry Eagleton's recent review of a book about stereotyping in the London Review of Books (subscribers only, which I am not, so I haven't read it). Eagleton apparently offers a strange defense of stereotyping (strange, I guess, because it's coming from him and is so common, and easily punctured). I like Mark's comment:
. . .what makes it a stereotype is [. . .] that it essentialises what are historically contingent features. The English stereotype of the lawless Irish (under colonial rule) overlooked that it was this foreign and imposed law that was being resisted or disavowed, not ‘Law itself’. (Indeed, ‘Irish’ itself might be seen as proto-stereotypical, since a diverse population, having in common the fact being of under colonial rule, is then turned into a positive entity, ‘The Irish’.) Likewise, with stereotypes of ‘lazy’ colonised peoples etc - they don’t want to work for you etc. Stereotyping is de-historicising, edits out context/ relations of power and so on.
This is always an important point, but especially so now, as we continue to find ourselves doing battle with people pushing for war by appealing to and relying on some essentialized picture of how a whole people are, or how all adherents to a given religion necessarily believe and will act.

More locally, I note that it is similarly unhelpful when people think they have some special ability to identify more refined stereotypes--their resultant models are no more accurate in predicting what people will do, or how or why they will do it.

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No Military Purpose

From a useful interview with Noam Chomsky, conducted by Michael Shank and appearing in yesterday's CounterPunch:

Shank: How is the political deadlock in Lebanon impacting the U.S. government's decision to potentially go to war with Iran? Is there a relationship at all?

Chomsky:There's a relationship. I presume part of the reason for the U.S.-Israel invasion of Lebanon in July-and it is US-Israeli, the Lebanese are correct in calling it that-part of the reason I suppose was that Hezbollah is considered a deterrent to a potential U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran. It had a deterrent capacity, i.e. rockets. And the goal I presume was to wipe out the deterrent so as to free up the United States and Israel for an eventual attack on Iran. That's at least part of the reason. The official reason given for the invasion can't be taken seriously for a moment. That's the capture of two Israeli soldiers and the killing of a couple others. For decades Israel has been capturing, and kidnapping Lebanese and Palestinian refugees on the high seas, from Cyprus to Lebanon, killing them in Lebanon, bringing them to Israel, holding them as hostages. It's been going on for decades, has anybody called for an invasion of Israel?

Of course Israel doesn't want any competition in the region. But there's no principled basis for the massive attack on Lebanon, which was horrendous. In fact, one of the last acts of the U.S.-Israeli invasion, right after the ceasefire was announced before it was implemented, was to saturate much of the south with cluster bombs. There's no military purpose for that, the war was over, the ceasefire was coming.

UN de-mining groups that are working there say that the scale is unprecedented. It's much worse than any other place they've worked: Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, anywhere. There are supposed to be about one million bomblets left there. A large percentage of them don't explode until you pick them up, a child picks them up, or a farmer hits it with a hoe or something. So what it does basically is make the south uninhabitable until the mining teams, for which the United States and Israel don't contribute, clean it up. This is arable land. It means that farmers can't go back; it means that it may undermine a potential Hezbollah deterrent. They apparently have pretty much withdrawn from the south, according to the UN.

You can't mention Hezbollah in the U.S. media without putting in the context of "Iranian-supported Hezbollah." That's its name. Its name is Iranian-supported Hezbollah. It gets Iranian support. But you can mention Israel without saying US-supported Israel. So this is more tacit propaganda. The idea that Hezbollah is acting as an agent of Iran is very dubious. It's not accepted by specialists on Iran or specialists on Hezbollah. But it's the party line. Or sometimes you can put in Syria, i.e. "Syrian-supported Hezbollah," but since Syria is of less interest now you have to emphasize Iranian support.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

iPod rundown - 02/22/07

1. Ghost - "God Took a Picture of His Illness on This Ground": I have two cds from the Japanese band Ghost. This is a gorgeous song from the excellent Hypnotic Underworld. Thirteen minutes of abstractness, with a lonely bass plucked throughout, a lovely, plaintive reed of some kind (recorder?) cutting through the din, occasional crashing of cymbals, somewhat tribal-sounding percussion off in the distance…

2. Kool & the Gang - "Jungle Jazz": And a nice transition into this enjoyable funk, from Kool & the Gang, before they went supernova with songs like the cheesy wedding staple "Celebration". I have this on the Funky Stuff various artists collection. I like the flute solo in the last minute.

3. Smog - "Russian Winter" - Bill Callahan/Smog is one of my favorite musicians. "Russian Winter" is from his first album, 1990's Sewn to the Sky, which I haven't spent much time with as compared to his other music. It's much noisier than later Smog albums, with less emphasis on Callahan's distinctive songwriting, more on tape manipulations and guitar experiments. This particular track is an instrumental: guitar accompanied by a fluttery machine chug; yet not as abrasive as much of the rest of the cd.

4. Tommy Boy Megamix "Tommy Boy Megamix": Eh. I didn't hear much rap for several years, then I started to listen to more of it in the last two, realized I'd missed a lot of interesting music, decided I wanted to go back and check out a lot of it and do the historical survey thing. I'd read an interesting review of the label sampler, The Tommy Boy Story Vol. 1. Then I saw it used, listened to a couple of tracks, and bought it. I'm sort of wishing now that I hadn't. It's not terrible, but it wasn't quite what I'd had in mind. It has a couple of nice rap songs from the label's early days, but it's largely filled with dated, quaint dj mixes like this, not entirely without charm or interest, but not what I was hoping for.

5. Three 6 Mafia - "Got it 4 Sale": I enjoy Three 6 Mafia, even if most of their songs sound alike to me. This is from Most Known Unknown.

6. Bedhead - "To the Ground": Bedhead was already defunct by the time I'd ever heard of them. All three Bedhead albums are equally good; this song comes from their first one, WhatFunLifeWas. They seemed to take the Velvet Underground's third album as their basic template, which is fine by me. (What I said here about American Analog Set applies to Bedhead, too, except that Bedhead was much better, and I think they also potentially could have pointed me out of that particular dilemma, had it happened.)

7. Muhal Richard Abrams - "Duet for One World" - I'd never heard any Abrams before I downloaded this track from Destination: OUT! Pretty good! (This is the permalink, but the mp3s have been taken down.)

8. Modest Mouse - "A Different City": Modest Mouse is a great rock band. I've been able to catch them live on three occasions. The first was a few months before The Moon & Antarctica (from which comes this song) came out, at The Black Cat in DC. It was a solid show, not overwhelming; by the end my legs were killing me (I was already too old for this kind of thing), and possibly a bit cranky as a result, so perhaps more critical than I otherwise might have been. The second time was at an old fire hall in Dundalk, MD, and they were phenomenal. One song ("Tundra/Desert", I think) was so transcendently awesome that I'd swear that I nearly levitated. Third was at DAR Constitution Hall in DC, which I can tell you is a terrible place to see a rock show. I saw the Pixies there, too, and both shows should have been incredible--it was clear that both bands were on--but it was hard to get involved; they seemed so far away.

9. Nick Drake - "Harvest Breed": Short (1:40) track from Pink Moon, which I guess is pretty much all short tracks, isn't it? Anyway, it went by pretty quickly, and I don't have much to say about it or Nick Drake (who I like well enough, though not quite as much as I thought I did when I first got into him, by coincidence just around the same time "Pink Moon" was in that VW ad).

10. Pet Shop Boys - "West End Girls": This really is a great pop song. I'm always sort of astonished by how good it is. I don't like anything else by the Pet Shop Boys (who keep showing up on these rundowns, I can't help but notice) nearly as much.

11. Aretha Franklin - "The House That Jack Built": For years the only Aretha Franklin songs I knew were "Respect", "Think" (largely thanks to The Blues Brothers; is that wrong? I suspect that it is); and "(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman". A few years ago I finally did the right thing and bought The Very Best. Of course, it's pretty much all great (though I could do without her cover of "Eleanor Rigby").

12. Volcano the Bear - "Dawn and My Hips are Fuel": Wow. How can I describe Volcano the Bear? Improv rock, maybe? Except it doesn't really rock. If you like Henry Cow you might like them? Gastr del Sol? This track is from the wonderful album, The Idea of Wood. It's music like this that makes it worth scouring the bins and magazines for new music.

13. John Duncan - "Helix": This comes from another Wire-sampler, Atlantic Waves 2006 in this case. Three minutes of a barely changing wall of noise. Not sure I care, but I'll give it another shot.

14. Silver Jews - "Room Games & Diamond Rain": I always put off buying another Silver Jews album. The music is always fairly mellow, deceptively simple country-ish rock. And then there are poet David Berman's laconic vocals and interesting lyrics. This comes from Bright Flight.

15. Joanna Newsom - "Cosmia": I'm still absorbing Ys, but I do enjoy it so far. If occasionally Van Dyke Parks's strings threaten to overwhelm the songs, I still find much local pleasure in Newsom's harp playing and wordplay.

If you guessed from this list that I have a lot of music released by the Drag City label, you guessed right.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Juana Molina, etc.

I've bought three cds thus far this year: Christine Fellows' Paper Anniversary (quite good; thank you, John Darnielle); the new Deerhoof album, Friend Opportunity (I'm enjoying it, but so far not as much as Reveille, Apple O', or Milkman); and Juana Molina's Son (I believe I have Simon Reynolds to thank for alerting me to this). My previous encounters with Molina had been via two Wire-sampler cds that included one song each of hers. If I'd heard Son last year when it came out, it would easily have been one of my ten or fifteen favorite albums of the year. I've been able to listen to it a handful of times, and it's marvelous. To hear what she's all about, check out the latest excellent episode of Woebot.TV, which is devoted to Molina and her music, with a phone interview and live footage. If you're interested at all in new music, I encourage you to take a look. It'll save me from fumbling around trying to describe the music. (As far as I can tell, Woebot doesn't archive the shows, which is too bad, because I think I've missed at least one. I've subscribed now, so I won't miss any more.)

Elsewhere, in an interesting post at the new version of his Clap Clap blog, Mike Barthel discusses Devenda Banhart and Lindsay Lohan, and Lohan's interview of Banhart from last year and the kind of cultural transactions it might represent. (As a side note, can we please just retire the ridiculous "freak-folk" label?) A post from earlier this month on the deaths of James Brown and Gerald Ford, and what the ensuing funeral spectacles can tell us about American culture, was even more interesting.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Recent Political Reads

Edie at Annotated Life on the media. A sample:
While ostensibly wringing their hands at the sordid celebrity lifestyle, the article’s authors simultaneously capitalize upon it to sell the magazine on the lowest level possible, and completely omit the fact that the giant media empires—not Paris and Britney—are themselves most responsible for the quality of news coverage, Newsweek included. Instead, the authors insult and attack parents and their daughters for following popular fashion.
Lenin at Lenin's Tomb on Mike Davis' new book on the history of the "car bomb".

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon with a feminist response to Children of Men (my review here).

Joe at American Leftist on the "wishful thinking" of left-leaning bloggers, who keep expecting Democratic politicians to be more leftwing than they really are (this post is where I found the link to Marcotte's review of Children of Men).

Gabriel Kolko at Asia Times Online on how Israel "cannot survive allied with the United States" and so it is time to make peace, and concessions, with its neighbors.

Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report, on Barack Obama, who, like Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice before him, as president would merely put a "black face on imperial aggression" (article first seen at CounterPunch).

Arthur Silber at Once Upon a Time. . . on the ongoing propaganda effort to prep us for an attack on Iran, in "Iran: All Propaganda, All the Time".

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Chekhov

I've had my edition of The Portable Chekhov since I was a senior in college (1991). Along with Gogol's Dead Souls, it was among the assigned reading for a course covering Russian history up to 1915. I remember reading some of the stories at the time (and possibly even some of the Gogol; I wasn't the world's most diligent student), but not anywhere near all of them. In the intervening years, I've pulled the book out on occasion to read a story or two, but for the most part it's sat on my shelves, mocking me.

Then last year, a post by Bud Parr at Chekhov's Mistress about the story "The Kiss" prompted me to look at it again. I was pleased to see that my edition had that story; I read it, and I liked it. I decided to return to the beginning of the book and read it straight through, but I had a hard time of it. Some stories I liked, but a lot of them seemed, well, lesser than I was expecting. Again and again, I put the book aside in favor of something else. Also last year, at a fire sale for a local crap bookstore going out of business, I bought the NYRB edition of Peasants and Other Stories, a collection of late Chekhov stories originally selected and introduced by Edmund Wilson in 1956. There is very little overlap between the two books (only two stories).

Last week, I was struggling through a couple of the shorter pieces in the Portable collection, wondering again what all the fuss was about this Chekhov guy. Some of these stories were mildly amusing, others annoying. In the middle of one such story, I tossed the book aside and picked up the other one to read Wilson's introduction. In it, he explains that all too often editions of Chekhov's work have not been chronological in nature: "You get humorous sketches from his earliest phase, when he was writing for the comic papers, side by side with his most serious stories; and the various periods of this serious work are themselves all jumbled together. . . " This, he writes, "has always been a serious obstacle" for those trying to understand Chekhov via English translations. Here he offers the longer stories from Chekhov's late period, but omits "the more anecdotal ones with which they are interspersed" (in a footnote he offers the full list of works from this period and says parenthetically that "If anyone should set out to read these consecutively in Constance Garnett's edition, he would be put to considerable inconvenience").

I felt I knew what Wilson was talking about. Though The Portable Chekhov is presented in chronological order, it nevertheless packs in so many different kinds of his work that I found it hard to read from piece to piece. Some of the comic stories are so broad and, well, obvious, that it makes sense that they appeared in newspapers. They're often rather tedious, a fact only barely mitigated by their brevity.

All of which is a long preamble to my saying that I think I finally understand what's so special about Chekhov. After reading Wilson's introduction, I decided to try the stories in Peasants. I'm glad I did. So far I've read the first three stories in the collection--"A Woman's Kingdom", "Three Years", and "The Murder"--and they're excellent. In general, these stories are much longer than the earlier ones (at 106 pages, "Three Years" is really a short novel). I've often read that Chekhov is credited with "inventing the modern short story", and certainly the form of these stories still seems to be the basic template followed by so many writers today--slice of life stories, with no resolution or judgment. Each story presents the social life of a particular milieu, the narrator subtly moving from character to character, describing in precise detail the thoughts and impressions of each, and even minor characters are given their due, with stories and personalities sketched in, with a natural-seeming ease, making us feel as if we do indeed know them.

In "Three Years", my favorite of the three, the central characters are Laptev and his wife Yulia, who married him out of some strange sense of obligation, but not for love or money. Both characters are confused about their lives--why have they made the decisions they've made?--and they feel trapped. Laptev is rich, but has nothing but contempt for his wealth and resentment for the abuse he suffered as a child, though by the end, his father's and brother's health failing, he is moving closer to taking on the role of head of the company they own. Toward the end of the story, Laptev again considers his life and surroundings, and finds them both essentially unchanged since childhood; he wonders that he should be unable to alter it:
Laptev went into the garden and sat down on a seat near the fence, which divided them from the neighbor's yard, where there was a garden, too. The bird cherry was in bloom. Laptev remembered that the tree had been gnarled and just as big when he was a child, and had not changed at all since then. Every corner of the garden and of the yard recalled the faraway past. And in his childhood, too, just as now, the whole yard bathed in moonlight could be seen through the sparse trees, the shadows had been mysterious and forbidding, a black dog had lain in the middle of the yard, and the clerks' windows had stood wide open. And all these were cheerless memories.

[...]

Laptev was convinced that the millions and the business which was so distasteful to him were ruining his life and would make him a complete slave. He imagined how, little by little, he would grow accustomed to his position; would, little by little, enter into the part of the head of a great firm; would begin to grow dull and old, die in the end, as the average man usually does die, in a decrepit, soured old age, making everyone about him miserable and depressed. But what hindered him from giving up those millions and that business and leaving that yard and garden which had been hateful to him from his childhood?
He imagines leaving, changing his life:
His heart ached sweetly with the foretaste of freedom; he laughed joyously and pictured how exquisite, poetical, and even holy, life might be. . . .

But he still stood and did not go away, and kept asking himself: "What keeps me here?" And he felt angry with himself and with the black dog, which still lay stretched on the stone yard, instead of running off to the open country, to the woods, where it would have been free and happy. It was clear that that dog and he were prevented from leaving the yard by the same thing; the habit of bondage, or servitude. . . .
I think these passages are beautiful, finely controlled; and this story is one of the finer shorter pieces of fiction I've read. I can't wait to get to the rest of the stories in this collection.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

iPod rundowns - 02/15/07 & 02/16/07

In an effort to write more about what I'm reading and listening to, I'm going to make the iPod shuffle rundown a semi-regular feature. I was going to do this yesterday but, other than noting the songs as they came up yesterday morning, didn't have time to. So today you get a bonus: I'm going to give you the first 15 songs I heard both yesterday and today. I'm sure you're all very excited.

Yesterday's first 15:
I have more than 10,000 songs on my iPod. With such a number, I always find it interesting where the shuffle appears to fixate on any given day. One day last week, eight of the first 50 songs I heard were by Sonic Youth. Yesterday, it started out heavy on the country.

1. Merle Haggard - "California Blues (Blue Yodel #4)": I have the great Down Every Road 4-cd box, though I find it hard to listen to any given disc straight through. Love it when one of the songs comes up on shuffle though. . .

2. Palace - "Give Me Children": Arise Therefore may be my favorite Will Oldham record, if it's not I See a Darkness.

3. Signal - "Index Area": 14 minutes of electronic music from the lone Mort aux Vaches comp I have. It would probably make for better reading if I could remember a thing about it right now. I'm sure it must have been repetitious.

4. Annie - "Chewing Gum": Appropriately titled sugary pop song; I like "Heartbeat" better.

5. Randy Newman - "Have You Seen My Baby?": I don't have nearly enough Randy Newman. This is a great one from 1970's 12 Songs. I also have the Flamin' Groovies version, which is pretty cool, too.

6. Waylon Jennings & Willie Nelson - "Good Hearted Woman"
7. Dolly Parton - "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind":

Two albums that I got to know very well when I was like 13 or 14 were Waylon Jennings' and Dolly Parton's Greatest Hits. My Dad liked country. He had these on tape, and we listened to them constantly when we were with him (as well as, um, the Eagles). I've always liked Waylon Jennings' voice, and his duets with Willie Nelson were great. This one addresses the old problem of the "good hearted woman lovin' a good-timin' man". Of course, all of his songs seemed to be about being, or having been, an outlaw or roughneck or cowboy or some such trouble. Seems pretty silly these days, but, notwithstanding that period of time in which I pretended that I was too cool to admit I liked country music, I've always loved those songs. I liked when we listened to Dolly Parton, too, but it took me longer to come back to an appreciation of her. "Islands in the Stream" is hard to forgive. Aimée is the big Dolly fan in the house; I think the last song played at our wedding reception was, by her request, "9 to 5".

8. Beck - "The New Pollution": Don't really care about Beck anymore, but I still like Odelay.

9. Syd Barrett - "Long Gone": I mentioned liking post-Barrett Pink Floyd better, but I do like the earlier Barrett-led stuff. This is, of course, from the solo album, The Madcap Laughs, which I've had for a while, but haven't spent much time with. People swear by it.

10. The J. Geils Band - "Freeze Frame": Ha! I have this on here because I was making a mix-cd of 80s pop hits; it may be sort of terrible, but fuck it, I've always liked this song. Somehow, I can still remember the first time I ever heard it (I was eleven).

11. Herbert - "Harmonize": A lovely song from one of my favorite albums from last year.

12. Ghostface Killah - "Run": Yes! Evidence that I do indeed listen to rap! This song features Jadakiss, and is from The Pretty Toney Album.

13. Midnight Oil - "Forgotten Years": I don't care much for Midnight Oil. I have the 20,000 Watts R.S.L. greatest hits collection, which is actually more than I need. But it so happens that this is one of my favorite songs of theirs.

14. The Rapture - "Alabama Sunshine": I was looking the other direction when all the indie kids realized it was ok to dance again and went batshit crazy for the Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers" and Echoes. That said, it's a decent album. This song is from the second DFA compilation, and I like it just fine.

15. The Velvet Underground - "Sunday Morning": The first song on The Velvet Underground & Nico. Given all the noise and dissonance on this record, it's occasionally a surprise to notice the quieter moments of sheer beauty.


Today's first 15:
Contra Dial "M" for Musicology, I have a fair amount of music on my iPod that I can't quite say I like, at least not yet. My first instinct was to load it up with albums that had lain dormant in my collection. Plus, there are all of the cds that come with various issues of The Wire. I loaded them all, and have been grading the tracks and removing the ones that I can't stand. And then there are exploratory downloads. Etc.

1. Dizzee Rascal - "Vexed": I have both Dizzee cds and the first Run the Road comp, but I guess grime is dead, innit? That's ok; if so, it left some cool music behind. This is from Dizzee's Boy In Da Corner. At times Dizzee's distinctive (and attractive) flow is a distraction from the music, which seems to be made up of shards of electronic keyboards (whatever that means--I'd no doubt do better writing these while listening to the songs).

2. Voxtrot - "Mothers, Sisters, Daughters & Wives": Downloaded this song from some blog at the end of last year, I think. Not sure about it. Generic indie rock.

3. Scarface - "In Between Us": Scarface's The Fix is a monster of a rap album, one of my favorites ever, I think. Like much of the album, this song has a bluesy menace to it. I will not dig myself a hole with an attempt to define it any further. Nas guests.

4. David Thomas & the Pedestrians - "Semaphore": A delightfully odd song from the second David Thomas "solo" album, Variations on a Theme (featuring, among others, Richard Thompson, Lindsay Cooper, and Chris Cutler).

5. Billy Bragg - "Upfield": Blah. I love Bragg's collaborations with Wilco, the Mermaid Avenue albums of previously unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics, but I'd never listened to Bragg's solo stuff. Last year I borrowed his 2-cd Must I Paint You a Picture compilation from a friend. I didn't listen to it straight through, instead just dumping the whole lot onto the iPod, letting them come up randomly. I haven't been impressed. I'm usually annoyed when his songs come up. This one is no different.

6. The Constantines - "Goodbye Baby & Amen": This band got tagged with the odd "Fugazi meets Springsteen" label. Ignore that. They're just a damn solid rock band. This song is one of the quieter ones from the excellent Shine a Light.

7. Maria Castro - "Postglacial Rebound": Some of my favorite Wire-sampler cds are in the Exploratory Music from Portugal series. This particular track was on the 2004 sampler. All electronic blips and static, and somehow soothing.

8. BR5-49 - "Even if it's Wrong": Entertaining trad country; here and there sounding a little like Waylon Jennings, then a little like Hank Williams.

9. Bob Dylan - "Seven Curses": If you're a Dylan fan at all, the 3-cd first Bootleg Series release is absolutely essential. This is one of my favorite songs from the set; it tells the same basic story as Zep's "Gallows Pole". In this version, a woman comes to town to pay off the hanging judge in order to save her father; neither gold nor silver will do, and he demands her as payment; she pays the price, but he hangs her father anyway. Curses ensue.

10. US Maple - "Babe": Guttural, indecipherable vocals; two guitarists who sound like they've walked into different songs; the drummer laying down an off-kilter groove. . . U.S. Maple has a wonderful lurching quality that I find tremendously appealing. Their deconstruction of rock is different than, say, Deerhoof's. Deerhoof seem to play the basic hooks in their songs from every possible angle until they're done. U.S. Maple plays rock music like it's falling apart and they can't be bothered to make it right. If any of this sounds interesting, I recommend experiencing them live. "Babe" is from what I think is their best album, Acre Thrills.

11. Ghostface Killah - "Big Girl": From last year's excellent Fishscale. I don't know that I have anything intelligent to say about Ghostface, or rap in general. I don't listen to enough of it to know what I'm talking about. I'm not good at differentiating voices (Ghostface's is one of the few I think I could recognize right off). But I like plenty of it. And I like Ghostface. Most of what I've heard of his is musically based on old soul samples, and he seems to just barrel ahead, rapping at full-speed, in his own world, at times seeming oblivious to the music behind him.

12. Mission of Burma - "Man In Decline": Huge, punishing, awesome. Forever an argument in favor of rock-band reunions, in the face of the many more arguments against. Obliterati rocks.

13. Spontaneous Music Ensemble - "Karyobin, Pt. 1": I bought Karyobin at a Derek Bailey show (w/American Milo Fine) at Stoke Newington in 2003. Recordings of free improv seem counter-intuitive in some respects. I often have a hard time with them, because I can't help but to reflexively want them to resolve into jazz or some other kind of structure. I do much better when I allow the music to just happen. This stuff often sounds to me like it's music falling down a hill.

14. Low + the Dirty Three - "Cody": A lovely instrumental track from Low's collaboration with the Dirty Three, as part of the In the Fishtank series. The record also has a gorgeous cover of Neil Young's "Down By the River".

15. Fleetwood Mac - "Monday Morning": I love this song. My mom had very few albums that I had much interest in, but Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, the first Fleetwood Mac albums with Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, were two that I gave her credit for. Commercially huge, of course, and also critically praised at the time, they still seem sort of out of step with the whole punk-taking-over narrative. I'd rather listen to Rumours than Never Mind the Bollocks.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Music Bits

I'm a little giddy with excitement to learn, by way of Carl "Zoilus" Wilson, that Pere Ubu's four long-unavailable "Fontana Years" albums are finally coming back into print. This is great, not least because I know that David Thomas has been trying for years to get the rights to these records. They were already out of print by the time I started getting into Pere Ubu. I was finally able to track down beat up used cds of three of them--The Tenement Year, Worlds In Collision, and Story of My Life, but I've never heard Cloudland, which is often said to be the best of the bunch. There will be bonus tracks, so I will replace my three. But the main reason for replacing The Tenement Year is that, apparently, "[t]he original 1988 Fontana release does not seem to have been mastered". Well, it's been mastered now. I always thought that cd sounded terrible.

In my two posts on hauntology, and probably elsewhere, I mentioned that I know next to nothing about dub. I've wanted to redress this, but the discography is so vast and confused, and I have very little money available anymore for just randomly trying records out. So this lacuna in my musical education has remained unfilled. Then the other day, I clicked over to Border Music from the fine folks at Destination: OUT! Both blogs had posts on The Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet, which featured John Zorn and Wayne Horvitz (and which I'd long had on my list of jazz albums to try to find, but never seen anywhere). Once at Border Music, I noticed that they'd posted some Lee 'Scratch' Perry albums, along with a lot of other cool music. I downloaded them, and as I write this, I am listening to some dub. I'm digging it. (Incidentally, I notice today that Border Music has been pulled down by WordPress for violating its terms of service. It doesn't say which term, though I suppose it could be for copyright issues. I hope it isn't permanent. For the record, I buy music and I believe in supporting artists. The little free music I've downloaded has been exploratory. I want to know what I like! Update: Good news! As Lucky from Border Music commented here today, the blog is back up. Apparently it was indeed about copyright, but he explained to them that he largely posts only out-of-print records, so.)

At his excellent blog I Hear a New World, the Sad Billionaire has a wonderful post up about the Wu-Tang Clan. Here's an excerpt:
The record [Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)] opens up with a kung-fu movie sample-- a hyper-caucasian voiceover artist reading Shaw Brothers boilerplate doggerel-- that sounds like it was recorded with a handheld cassette player held up to a television: “Shaolin shadowboxing and a wu-tang sword style.” Soon it will become clear to me that martial arts cinema mythology, cosa nostra trivia, comic book superheroes, Staten Island drug trade lore, five percent nation holy writ are all elements of an occult and inscrutable language in which the Wu-Tang Clan encode their messages to the world. Like Lee “Scratch” Perry and Sun Ra, the Wu-Tang Clan speak in a language meant to confuse and mislead outsiders like me; nonetheless, it seems all the more pleasurable the more it leaves me scratching my head and feeling like an idiot. The young Dominican-American novelist Junot Diaz once said that the reason he leaves so much untranslated Spanish in his fiction is to give Anglo readers the sensation of what it’s like to be an outsider to a dominant culture. Unlike the bourgeois MCs of recent years, the Wu-Tang Clan do not speak the lingua franca of luxury goods and imported automobiles… there is no opportunity for the false solidarity of product loyalty… but rather an invitation to estrangement, the first step towards critical consciousness…
And, in the new edition of The High Hat, Nate Patrin has a nice appreciation of 1970s-era Pink Floyd, which he links to his love of the soul, funk, and disco of Isaac Hayes, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, P-Funk, and Chic. In my recent post listing my favorite rock albums from 1967, one album conspicuous by its absence was Floyd's The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which I only really like about half of. I know it's somehow not cool these days, but I much prefer the 70s Roger Waters-led Pink Floyd over the Syd Barrett stuff. I listened to Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Wall constantly when I was in high school, and I even love the last album with Waters, The Final Cut (though the best known track, "Not Now John", is completely awful in every way).

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Effacing Politics

One thing I've been meaning to write about has been the debate surrounding the publication of Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion. Rather, I've been thinking about some issues that have been brought to the fore with the publication of the book and the subsequent debate. People have been talking about this book for a few months now, so I'm a little late in jumping in, but the topic is of particular interest to me.

I am atheistic. I choose that phrasing over "I am an atheist", because it's an aspect of me; it doesn't define who or what I am. In fact, for most of the time, it's not terribly important to me. Except as defined as an absence, not believing in a god has had little bearing on my life. It never really has. It could be said that this absence is crucial, and thus has had bearing. Fair enough. I mean to say only that I have generally not defined myself by my atheism. As a child, I remember attending church and enjoying Sunday School. It was fun to learn things, and there was candy involved. But I never felt any religious faith, or subscribed to any religious belief, two different things in my view. We stopped attending church altogether when I was still quite young, and when my mother found a new church she liked, I did go with her fairly often, but it didn't mean anything to me. Somehow, my general sense of things was that religion was rare, and historical. Naively, I saw it like racism and sexism: each generation would be less racist, less sexist, less religious than the last. Obviously I wasn't paying that much attention. And in this formulation, of course, "religious" is clearly a pejorative. By the time I got to college I was more vocally atheist and was confronted for the first time, really, with friends who believed in God and who didn't believe in evolution.

Returning to Richard Dawkins. I have not read The God Delusion. I don't intend to. (If I had all the time in the world, I'd love to read the book and be able to discuss it in specific detail, but I don't.) So, I won't be discussing the book as such, though I may refer to what some have said about the book, but only because the ensuing arguments are of interest to me. I'd read some anti-religion articles by Dawkins in recent years (like this one, immediately post-9/11), so when I heard that this book was to be published, my reaction was to roll my eyes. In my opinion he has the problem wrong and is not likely to convince anyone.

I have read other Dawkins books. I've said before that he used to be something of an intellectual hero to me. The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and Climbing Mount Improbable are all excellent popular science books: cogent explanations of how the theory of evolution explains things. I agree with Dawkins that "the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design", as the subtitle to The Blind Watchmaker has it. I take this further to imply that there is no Creator. I took this still further and rather urgently claimed that acceptance of the theory is incompatible with belief in God (and here I was necessarily thinking of the God of the Jewish/Christian/Islamic traditions). For, if there is no design, then what does the Creator do?

The problem here, I think, is that those of us who are atheistic tend to hew to an excessively rationalistic framework of thinking. If you're not thinking rationally, then you're by definition thinking irrationally, and being irrational is intellectually suspect. So the argument goes. (I know I'm going to have to spend some time unpacking what exactly I'm taking issue with here; unfortunately, it won't be in this post.)

We accept the fundamentalists' view of their religions as being the most accurate, because we want to nail down what religions are, and their versions are black and white, we can understand them, even if we understand them only to disagree, even violently so. For me to say, then, that an acceptance of the truth of the theory of evolution by definition conflicts with a consistent belief in God, is not only arrogant, but reduces the vast history of theological debate (about which I am anyway almost completely ignorant) to narrow issues of fundamentals, mere questions of right and wrong. Is it logical or isn't it? It also ignores the fact that people are quite capable of holding apparently contradictory thoughts in their minds, and believing them both, without their heads exploding. And, I think, it conceives of people as choosing their religious beliefs among all possible beliefs, and simply choosing irrationally. If only they could be shown how irrational their chosen beliefs are!

My ultimate purpose here is to say that politics and economics are more important than religion. The apparent increase in religious belief in recent decades is a function of politics and economics. And I think that liberal atheists are too often unwilling to recognize this. We get so worked up over the idiocies of religion, but it seems to me we have little notion of what kind of role religion actually plays in people's lives. In his post-9/11 article linked to above, Dawkins writes that "[r]eligion is . . ., of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East". It is on exactly this point that he's wrong. Attacking religion is attacking a symptom.

I've just gotten started on this theme, but I'm going to stop here today (I'm trying to get used to the obvious blog-idea that I don't need to have every post contain all my thoughts on a topic). My hope is to talk about it more in future posts and to link to various online debates about it. Let me leave off with a quote from the blog post at Voyou Desoeuvre that prompted me to start addressing this topic today. In it, Voyou recounts waking up to the audio of Dawkins' The Root of All Evil? show. Voyou thinks of Marx's The German Ideology and writes:
I heard Dawkins’s report from Jerusalem, which got me thinking about what’s wrong, and kind of pernicious, about his approach.

It’s not just the inaccuracy, although it’s irritating to hear a conflict between secular nationalisms described as if it were a religious conflict. The problem is that by so describing the conflict, Dawkins effaces the political issues: the dispossession of the Palestinians, the colonialist history of Zionism, and the mobilization of fundamentalism as a response to neo-liberalism in Israel and corruption in Palestine. Any consideration of power drops out of the equation for Dawkins, for whom the question is simply one of incorrect beliefs. The same occurs with militant atheism’s positioning of itself as an alternative to Bush simply because of an intellectual disagreement with Bush’s fundamentalist Christian “base.” The criticism of religion substitutes elucidations for political struggle, and thereby serves as an apologia for the political and social conditions that underly religious belief (the whole first section of the German Ideology, which I only looked up due to half-remembering that bit about “phrases,” is really extraordinarily sharp as a criticism of contemporary liberal atheism).

He makes a number of excellent points here, all of which I agree with (except the German Ideology part, but only because I haven't read it yet), and all of which I plan to discuss further.

Ok. That's it for now.

See also:

This interview with Dawkins at Salon.

Terry Eagleton's much talked about review of Dawkins' book in the London Review of Books.

Marilynne Robinson's very interesting review in Harper's.

These two heated threads at The Valve (which address the Eagleton review, among other things), as well as this later thread, which is perhaps more heated, and which specifically references this review at The Times Literary Supplement.

And a fascinating exchange at this earlier Voyou Desoeuvre post (this thread also addresses the Eagleton review, and A.C. Grayling).

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Random Lists

The other day I mentioned that last year I'd finally heard Love's Forever Changes and agreed with everyone that it's great. I said that it was now yet another 1967 album that I liked better than Sgt. Pepper. This is only worth saying because rock critics have routinely opted for the latter as "the best rock album of all time" or something silly like that. Anyway, just because, here are my top (rock) albums from 1967:

1. The Velvet Underground & Nico
2. Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding
3. Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, Safe as Milk
4. Love, Forever Changes
5. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced?
6. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Also, oddly, over at Dusted, Tom McCarthy, author of the fantastic novel, Remainder (released in the U.S. tomorrow, so says Amazon and reviewed here by yours truly), has a top ten list of sorts, featuring, among others, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, Beckett, and Finnegans Wake. Checkitout.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Path of Least Resistance

In my last post, I quoted Dan Green on John Updike, who "is increasingly reviled these days for his purported stylistic preciosity . . ." That may be true, but I know one writer who reviled him 30 years ago. In his 1976 review of Updike's A Month of Sundays (which appears in the essay collection, Something Said), Gilbert Sorrentino wrote this:
Mr. Updike is of that school that holds that characters are the sum of their parts; i.e., add layer upon layer of description touching upon modes of dress, manners, speech, habitations, possessions, mores, etc., and presto! we know who the character is and how he will act in a given circumstance; we know, that is, his reality. Conversely, if we know what he says and thinks, we know what he will wear, his tastes, and so on. The author partakes, in other words, of the tried and true novelistic signals in ordering his characters' activities and lives. An odd sophistry of causality inheres in such constructions. Jane, Marshfield's wife, is prim, proper, intelligent, educated, athletic. It routinely follows that she is sexually unsatisfying to Marshfield; she is civilized when she is confronted by his lover, and so on. His lover is slightly shabby, a trifle vulgar, rather embarrassingly emotional, and divorced. She, of course, lives in a raw, new housing development; she is crass when she meets Jane, etc. The reader almost expects Mr. Updike to make her chew gum and subscribe to the Reader's Digest. Marshfield's assistant is young, soupy-minded, liberal, "against the war." His attitude toward, for instance, young people with drug problems? You guessed it. And on and on. The signals flash, the attitudes stiffen, the characters "walk off the pages." This is the kind of characterization one expects from Neil Simon, an effortless sliding into the path of least resistance. It has little to do with the making of serious fiction.

Yet all these things that I touch upon are reckoned by Mr. Updike's admirers--and they are many--as strengths, not weaknesses, as wonders of truth, style, audacity, vision, even as indicators of greatness. But each page of this book throws up a wall behind which it is well-night impossible to discover the manifold realities of the world that the author chooses to deal with. We are given this world as seen by Mr. Updike, as interpreted by him. We are given wit and talent and we are given invention. But we are not given literature.

Oddly (and sadly) enough, this kind of fiction is often thought to be poetic, though it has nothing to do with poetry unless one conceives of the poem as a bauble. On the other hand, Hugh Kenner has termed this sort of writing "a surface scummed by iridescent prose." That strikes me as both just and exact.

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Creating Writing

The other day, Dan Green wrote a post in response to Patrick at Litblog.com's misunderstanding of what Richard Powers was up to in his latest novel, The Echo Maker. Patrick basically accuses Powers of condescension toward his characters, an "inability to sympathetically portray characters whose mindsets are very different from his own". He then gives some examples that he claims are evidence of smug authorial intrusion, when frankly, as Dan observes, it should be clear that the opinions expressed are not those of an "omniscient narrator" but of the characters themselves. It would seem that the fact that the novel is told in the third person is confusing.

I bring this up because the rest of Dan's post is interesting. He talks about what he thinks might be common misconceptions about such third-person narratives. First, that the narrators are always "omniscient". Or, second, that the consciousness of characters depicted in such narratives are all, to some degree, "project[ions] of the consciousness of the writer". He's probably right that Patrick is assuming the latter with Powers. Dan then writes:
In either case, the aesthetic rationale for the development of modernist-era "psychological realism"--to extend realism to the reality of consciousness, to explore the way perception of reality shapes our understanding of it--essentially drops out. The merging of narration with consciousness has become invisible, now just the default approach of any narrative not related in the first-person, just the currently established strategy allowing the author/narrator to "say something." In my opinion, Richard Powers in The Echo Maker is attempting to retain something of the experimentation of modernist psychological realism--or at least its goal--but as I indicated in my post on the novel, its lackluster execution in this book is for me another signal that the technique has become increasingly shopworn.

Among other things, the reflexive use of the central consciousness narrator has made it more difficult to cultivate and identify style in the writing of fiction. Powers is still a sufficiently distinctive stylist that he is able to overcome to some extent the limitations of the strategy, but even in The Echo Maker the signature Powers style with its alliterations and startling figures and achieved rhythms is more restrained than usual. And in most ordinary literary fiction the strategy has become simply mind-numbing.
In the past, Powers' critics (and here I use the term in its "fault-finding" sense) have complained that his characters were not fleshed out, that his dialogue was unbelievable, that his prose was wooden. The latter complaint always struck me as way off-base, but the first two, and ones like it, just confused me. I mean, it never occurred to me to level these sorts of complaints, because it seemed clear to me that they were irrelevant. I felt similar confusion when friends told me that they didn't like, for example, Don Delillo's White Noise, because they didn't care about the characters--what happened to them, what they did, whatever. My initial reaction to such complaints was bewilderment. Was I supposed to care what happened to the characters in the novels I read? I thought there was so much else going on in Delillo, and in Powers, that the believability of their characters, and my need to care about them, seemed quite beside the point.

It wasn't until I started trying to find information about books online, and later reading blogs, that I realized that what I was objecting to, but having a difficult time articulating, was not only old-fashioned in some sense, but perhaps the dominant literary attitude, that in favor of "psychological realism", or the notion that the most important aspect of literature is "character". My tendency has always been to trust the writer and to take what he or she gives me. This does not mean that I simply like everything, but that if a novel doesn't have a certain feature--realistic characters, say--that I shouldn't assume that it's supposed to have it. The writing is the first thing.

James Wood, of course, is a major proponent of "character" in fiction. The first review of his I ever read was of John Updike's Licks of Love, which appeared in April 2001, in the London Review of Books (though I originally read it at the now-defunct FEED online magazine). After taking a couple of easy jabs at Updike's famous "abundance" of published words (the man is prolific, isn't he?), Wood then gets into the recurrence of certain themes and language in Updike's fiction over the years; the oral sex, adultery, wife-swapping, general misogyny. Wood writes:
In Updike's defence it is often maintained that these are the thoughts of his characters, not necessarily of their creator. But obsessions of this kind have recurred and overlapped thickly enough in his work to constitute, now, the equivalent of an artist's palette: this is how Updike chooses to paint the world.
Then:
The sentences have an essayistic saunter; the language lifts itself up on pretty hydraulics, and hovers slightly above its subjects, generally a little too accomplished and a little too abstract. In 'The Women Who Got Away', for instance, the narrator tells us of his old lover, and how 'her voice and its quick inspirations of caustic perception painted the world, which seemed to me rimmed with a vague terror, in bright fearless colours.' But is this perfect sentence, with its delicate deferral so characteristic of Updike ('painted the world . . . which seemed . . . in bright fearless colours'), the expression of a man who really felt the world to be rimmed with a vague terror? Or does the terror not seem a little too vague, as if the narrator were paraphrasing a novel for a New Yorker review? In the same story, when we are told, 'yet we did divorce, in painful piecemeal, as did Maureen and Rodney,' we attend to that fine phrase 'in painful piecemeal', but are distanced by it from its piecemeal pain: if it was so painful, why does it disport itself in such dainty clothes?

One of the dangers for the stylist such as Updike - and one of the ways in which prose is unlike poetry - is that prose always forces the question: who is thinking in these particular words, and why? Point of view, a boring topic to most readers, is the densest riddle for the novelist, since words are either directly ascribed to characters (first-person narration) or indirectly ascribed to them (third-person narration). By contrast, the poet's words are generally assumed to flow from the poet, who wishes, as it were, to draw attention to himself. But the novelist may not, and should not, always want to. There is no doubt that the pleasantly alliterative phrase 'in painful piecemeal' is rather fine; but is fineness what is needed here, or does it slide a filter between the reader and the supposedly pained narrator?

I admit that when I read this review I was mightily impressed, and at the same time felt inadequate. I hadn't studied literature, I just read it, as best I could, and I saw this as a closer reading than I feared myself capable of. These kinds of questions just didn't occur to me. Subsequent Wood criticism I've read has fallen into two camps, those that are interesting but seem to miss the point (such as his critiques of the so-called "hysterical realist" writers, such as David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon or Don Dellilo, found in The Broken Estate), and those that are good and appropriate to the material at hand (in reviews of the new Edith Grossman translation of Don Quixote, and of Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello). When he's reviewing a book in which character does seem of paramount importance, I've found him compelling. Looking back on the Licks of Love review, it seemed to me that his method made sense. And, I read his review of Updike's latest novel, Terrorist (in which Updike imagines a Muslim schoolboy in New Jersey who is "tempted to become a suicide bomber"), approvingly. Wood says Updike "proves himself relatively inept at the essential task of free indirect style, of trying to find an authorial voice for his Muslim schoolboy". I wasn't terribly interested in the book anyway, and given my general views of both Wood and Updike, I guessed that Wood's assessment was essentially accurate.

But, to return to Dan Green's post. Dan has written a lot about this critical predilection for psychological realism; he has also written a number of posts taking issue with James Wood's criticism (see here, here, here). I read these posts, and the ensuing comment threads (some of which Wood himself has contributed to), with great interest. But I have often wished that Dan elaborated a little more--not on just the question of whether "psychological realism", or character, ought to be the primary purpose of fiction (which idea I think he criticizes quite effectively), but also on what might be going on in some of those narratives that are criticized as failing on specifically those grounds. In light of this, I find it quite helpful that he closes this recent post with the following about Updike:

Most of [Updike's] novels are conventionally related in the third-person, but his language typically exceeds that which his characters are capable of summoning, as in this passage from Villages (2004):

After Owen had left it behind, his original village seemed an innocent, precious place, but it did not strike him as that while he lived there. It was the world, with a fathomless past and boundaries that were over the horizon. There were snakes in the grass and in piles of rocks warmed by the sun. Sex and religion had distinct, ancient odors, familes perched like shaky nests on tangled twigs of previous history; and death could pounce in the middle of the night. . . .

Regular readers of Updike's work would no doubt find this recognizably Updikean. It draws on Owen's mental storehouse of memories and images, but does not dwell in his immediate awareness. It creates writing out of that storehouse. It moves in and out of Owen's awareness, weaving a style out of the character's thought processes plus a something else the writer brings in addition to plumbing those processes.

I perked up when I read this. That a novelist's language might "typically exceed that which his characters are capable of summoning" is certainly something Wood and readers like him appear to have a problem with. And I think it's also something that might lead readers to accuse a writer of intruding on his "story". But I see no reason why it should be wrong for a narrator to "draw on [a character's] mental storehouse of memories and images", but yet not be attempting to convey that character's moment-to-moment consciousness.

Updike "creates writing" out of his character's "mental storehouse". It seems to me that these other writers are not necessarily interested in the traditional creation and exploration of character at all, but are trying to "create writing" out of other things they have imagined (though with David Foster Wallace this at times takes the form of a rather extreme exploration of a character's consciousness; the character people don't seem to like that either). And I agree with Dan that Powers has gotten away from what was most interesting about his fiction: he created writing--rich, vibrant writing--out of his imaginative use of science and ideas and multiple narrative schemes. His novels certainly had characters, but they weren't really investigations of these characters. I loved The Time of Our Singing, but I have to admit that the writing in it was often less interesting, less chewy (to borrow an adjective from William H. Gass), than it had been in previous novels. And with that novel and the new one it appears that he has, unfortunately, taken his critics to heart, and tried to invest his characters with a psychological realism that his novels didn't depend on before. Powers is certainly entitled to do what he wants as a writer, and there is still much to enjoy in The Echo Maker (which, of course, won the National Book Award, so what do I know?), but I hope that his muse takes him elsewhere in future novels.

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Banville on Amis

In December, I used the occasion of Daniel Soar's extremely negative review of Martin Amis' new novel, House of Meetings, to write a little about how and why I've drifted away from Amis in recent years. On balance, Soar's review appears to be the exception to the rule. The new issue of The New York Review of Books features another positive review, this one from John Banville (just to be gratuitous, here again is his famous pan of Ian McEwan's Saturday, which I've linked to more than once). I still don't expect to read the novel any time soon, but Banville is one of my favorite writers, and his review is very interesting and has definitely increased the likelihood that I'll read it at all (link by way of Jenny Davidson). Banville's conclusion:
House of Meetings is a rich mixture, all the richer for being so determinedly compressed. In fewer than 250 taut but wonderfully allusive, powerful pages Amis has painted an impressively broad canvas, and achieved a telling depth of perspective. The first-person voice here possesses an authority that is new in Amis's work. It is as if in all of his books he has been preparing for this one. In his depiction of a nation stumbling, terrified and terrifying, through rivers of its own, self-spilt blood, he delivers a judgment upon a time—our time— the spectacle of which, if it had been but glimpsed by the great figures of the Enlightenment on whose reasonings and hopes the modern world is founded, would have struck them silent with horror. Stalin and Stalin's Russia have provided Martin Amis with a subject worthy of his vision of a world which, as Joseph de Maistre has it, is "nothing but an immense altar on which every living thing must be immolated without end, without restraint, without respite, until the consummation of the world, until the extinction of evil, until the death of death," and in which, in the cruelest of Wildean ironies, the victims of tyranny survive to become tyrants in their turn, destroying even those whom they love most dearly. It is a bleak vision, assuredly, yet as always in the case of a true work of art, our encounter with Amis's dystopia is ultimately invigorating.

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Readings on Iran

As it increasingly appears that the United States is gearing up for an attack of some kind against Iran, it's important to remember that, as with the attack and ongoing occupation of Iraq, such an attack would be wholly unjustified, whether in law, morality, or logic.

Why would we attack Iran? We are of course fed an ever-shifting array of pre-emptive justifications: Iran is developing nuclear weapons; Iran is a threat to Israel; Iran is aiding the Iraqi insurgency; Iran is led by a religious fanatic. Etc. In an excellent post at American Leftist, Richard Estes puts it thus:
There is a thread that ties all of [these] themes together, and that is the necessity to conceal the fact that a US attack upon Iran will be unprovoked and unjustified. A frightening corollary is the recognition that Iran may therefore legitimately target any country, any institution and any people around the world that facilitate this attack. Concealment of these extremely unpleasant insights requires something more, however, the burial of the history of the US, and the West generally, in regard to Iran for the last 100 years. [italics in the original post]
He then proceeds to sketch out the details of that history. Go read the whole thing. (I think that too many Americans, generally not the least bit acquainted with this history, are all too ready to accept some of the scaremongering propaganda, in large part because of the hostage crisis in the wake of the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s.)

In a post about the escalation of the air war in Iraq, Lenin concludes:
The escalation in the Iraq war comes as further aggression is threatened, this time against Iran. When it comes, I am certain it will be a brief, but destructive air war. The ironies are too numerous to enumerate. One is that it is an axis of aggressive states that accuse Iran of aggressive designs. Another is that it is an axis of nuclear states that cries foul about Iran's alleged plans for nuclear weapons. A third is that states which have explicitly pursued a sectarian strategy and in broad daylight, for those not too blind to see, sent death squads roaming across iraq, are now accusing Iran of the same. And when they threaten Iran, they will cite some UN resolution as if they held these things to be holy texts. UN resolution 2625, which prohibits even the threat of aggression, will not be so highly spoken of. Finally, various throw-away stories about the human cost of the regime in Iran will be purveyed and then dropped like sizzling carrion when the bombs have done their business. They may even, while strafing the cities with tonnes of explosives, have the nerve to lob a few food parcels out of the airplanes. Didn't someone say the age of irony was over?
Too often, I think, we talk about other countries as abstractions, and most of the scenes we see from the Middle East are of desert and destruction. So it's important to remember that Iran is a real place with real people living their lives. Lives that might not seem all that dissimilar to our own. Please click here to view a video of some images of Iran that may be surprising* (published by Lucas Gray; link via Another Day in the Empire).

*I say "surprising". I labored over this word. Why should it be surprising? I have to admit that my own mental picture of Iran has been heavily colored by the idea that it's in the "war-torn Middle East"--images from both Iraq Wars, back through recent years to Beirut in the Eighties and sketchy memories from the hostage crisis itself. As a result, upon viewing this video, I was struck by the greenery and the modern buildings and the cars. I should know better.

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