some thoughts on Andrew Sullivan’s recent essay in New York Magazine

With reference to the previous post I thought I might highlight certain aspects of the recent Andrew Sullivan essay, especially as I feel it has been somewhat misunderstood in the liberal press.

First, Sullivan’s analysis of the social, economic, and cultural developments which have fostered the rise of Trump is I think finely expressed, and this kind of sympathetic understanding of where Trump’s supporters come from is too often lacking:

“The deeper, long-term reasons for today’s rage are not hard to find, although many of us elites have shamefully found ourselves able to ignore them. The jobs available to the working class no longer contain the kind of craftsmanship or satisfaction or meaning that can take the sting out of their low and stagnant wages. The once-familiar avenues for socialization — the church, the union hall, the VFW — have become less vibrant and social isolation more common. Global economic forces have pummeled blue-collar workers more relentlessly than almost any other segment of society, forcing them to compete against hundreds of millions of equally skilled workers throughout the planet…

“For the white working class, having had their morals roundly mocked, their religion deemed primitive, and their economic prospects decimated, now find their very gender and race, indeed the very way they talk about reality, described as a kind of problem for the nation to overcome…

“Much of the newly energized left has come to see the white working class not as allies but primarily as bigots, misogynists, racists, and homophobes, thereby condemning those often at the near-bottom rung of the economy to the bottom rung of the culture as well… These working-class communities, already alienated, hear — how can they not? — the glib and easy dismissals of “white straight men” as the ultimate source of all our woes. They smell the condescension and the broad generalizations about them — all of which would be repellent if directed at racial minorities — and see themselves, in [Eric] Hoffer’s words, ‘disinherited and injured by an unjust order of things.'”

Most of the negative commentary on the essay however seems to be directed at Sullivan’s use of the word “elite.” It is assumed that such an idea cannot coexist without a parallel denigration of “the masses” and a desire to somehow limit democratic participation in political and cultural life. This view has been no doubt helped along by an unfortunate caption at the very top of the article (“Democracies end when they are too democratic”) and by the introduction to his essay, which discusses a passage in Plato’s Republic on the same theme. Yet I think this is a misreading of what is a long and nuanced piece of writing. Nowhere does Sullivan bemoan the fact that vastly greater numbers of people now have a voice today. In fact he specifically applauds this development (as of course he ought), and in no place calls for any curtailment of democratic speech.

More to the point, his essay doesn’t pretend to have any precise answers to our current dilemma, except to point out that we are not examining the problem with as wide-angle a lens as is required. Far from endorsing Plato’s prediction that the particular variety of both political and cultural democracy we have evolved is unsustainable, he instead holds out the hope that the ingenious and resilient system America’s Founders put together may continue to flourish. However, he warns that something is being missed, something is seriously out of balance. And interestingly, the recent conversation between Jon Stewart and David Axelrod at the University of Chicago, just posted on YouTube (I will say more about this in a later post) complements Sullivan’s words in a perhaps unexpected way. There, Stewart focused largely on the catastrophic failure of our media to do its job in maintaining basic standards of intellectual and moral integrity, while Sullivan’s purview is larger. Yet Sullivan is at his best precisely when he discusses the media, as here:

“The distinction between politics and entertainment became fuzzier; election coverage became even more modeled on sportscasting; your Pornhub jostled right next to your mother’s Facebook page. The web’s algorithms all but removed any editorial judgment, and the effect soon had cable news abandoning even the pretense of asking ‘Is this relevant?’ or ‘Do we really need to cover this live?’ in the rush toward ratings bonanzas. In the end, all these categories were reduced to one thing: traffic, measured far more accurately than any other medium had ever done before.

“And what mainly fuels this is precisely what the Founders feared about democratic culture: feeling, emotion, and narcissism, rather than reason, empiricism, and public-spiritedness. Online debates become personal, emotional, and irresolvable almost as soon as they begin… We have lost authoritative sources for even a common set of facts. And without such common empirical ground, the emotional component of politics becomes inflamed and reason retreats even further. The more emotive the candidate, the more supporters he or she will get.”

When speaking about an “elite,” then, what Sullivan mostly is referencing is nothing more controversial than a recognition, indeed celebration, of the best of our Western values, and a willingness to defend them. But — and this is the point — those values don’t begin and end with simply: let everybody say (or spew) absolutely whatever they like, anywhere, anytime. Free expression is an utterly indispensable part of it all, but it’s not the whole of what needs defending.

It’s also not going to be easy finding a way out. What’s undeniable is that our attention spans have become noticeably shorter and shorter, and that in reaction to any kind of dissatisfaction, we robotically lurch to the opposite extreme, failing (as always) to take any notice of history, falling into the same trap over, and over, and over. With regard to the necessary virtues of patience and balance, our entire culture seems to have regressed to the level of a three-year-old. The urgency of Sullivan’s essay lies in its accurate view of how profoundly reasoned moderation, compromise, and empathy have broken down.

The mocking of Trump supporters advances nothing and in fact further solidifies their loyalty. If someone feels that their basic human intelligence and/or decency are being disrespected, they are not apt to move towards the source of such denigration. What’s clear is that the grievances highlighted in the first quotation above from the essay are all too real. It’s the conclusions drawn from them which need to be far more effectively challenged. (It must also be said that Trump supporters, in the midst of their valid fears and anxieties, are all the same being very easily suckered. The Trumps of the world never end up benefiting those they claim to care about. They end up causing catastrophe.)

Of course, as a central part of countering the message emanating from Trump, we must find a way of appealing to the larger empathy, to the hearts, of those who view him as a savior. As Sullivan rightly points out: “the most powerful engine for such a movement — the thing that gets it off the ground, shapes and solidifies and entrenches it — is always the evocation of hatred. It is, as Hoffer put it, ‘the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying elements.'” It can also be the most challenging negative emotion to expose and dispel.

I don’t feel I am explaining away lurking points of uncomfortableness in Sullivan’s essay. I see it as a well-calibrated defence of the values of Burkean, “small-c,” conservatism in an age where, ironically, those values are arguably being more protected by the so-called “left” than the “right,” as the latter continues its headlong and catastrophic plunge into extremism, nihilistic obstructionism, and now racist, fascistic demagoguery. Put another way, the US was founded as a “democratic republic,” and these two components, necessarily in tension, complement each other and restrain each other’s potential excesses. Nowadays relatively few people, I suspect, could even differentiate them, so thoroughly have the claims of “democracy” alone triumphed.

In the end, Sullivan’s point about “elites” is really quite a simple one: a viable political culture needs some basic intellectual standards, and some basic standards of decency. Someone needs to uphold these. If that’s “elitism,” then it’s of a gentle, flexible, non-coercive kind, not dissimilar perhaps to what we mean by the word “integrity.” We need to recover it — and desperately — in our media, and we need to maintain it in our universities. It goes with saying also that our political leaders need to be manifesting a far greater capacity for receptivity, empathy, balance, and compromise, if the deep cultural rifts which currently paralyze political discourse are to be made workable.

Apparently Sullivan spent a number of months recovering from fifteen years of a round-the-clock, 365-day-a-year immersion in the madness that is the political media today. How anyone could write so much on so many tangled, hyperbolic, and often viciously argued subjects, day after day after day, monitoring all the attacks on one’s own writing as well, and maintain basic sanity is a little beyond me. In a recent podcast he said he actually had to learn to read again, that is to read books for their own sake and not simply with an eye to what could be useful in the posts of the day. He also revealed that he’d recently done a 10-day silent meditation retreat and was incorporating that practice more fully into his daily routine.  I don’t agree with all of Sullivan’s piece (for example, I think his characterization of Bernie Sanders is quite misguided), but I welcome his voice in this discussion and am glad he’s back writing about these matters.

how we got here (according to Andrew Sullivan)

I’d like to recommend a finely written and urgently argued analysis of the current election cycle that appeared in New York Magazine yesterday. It is here: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/04/america-tyranny-donald-trump.html While I don’t ultimately agree with Sullivan’s dissection of the Democratic race — or only in part (it is in any event a small and secondary component of the article) — his comprehensive examination of the causes and conditions of Trump’s rise is I think superb.

yes, the ultimate Cocteau Twins mix

The Cocteau Twins were so sublime that my “best of” compilation represents over one quarter of everything they recorded! I spent a lot of time trying to make this flow immaculately from beginning to end, and listening to it in sheerest bliss some weeks ago driving through the mountains as late afternoon faded into twilight into evening has convinced me I could do no better.

Just the playlist for now, but hopefully soon I can put together a YouTube playlist of the whole thing (they are all there) and embed it here. For now, this post is mainly addressed to those who are already familiar with this unspeakably exquisite music.

One of these days I would like to write a proper appreciation of this band (Liz Fraser, Robin Guthrie, and Simon Raymonde). There will never be another like them. There are even times when I find myself thinking that the greatest privation of death will be being unable to hear these songs again…

CD 1

  1. Pandora (Treasure)
  2. Cico Buff (Blue Bell Knoll)
  3. I Wear Your Ring (Heaven or Las Vegas)
  4. Throughout the Dark Months of April and May (Victorialand)
  5. The High Monkey-Monk (unreleased, bonus track on The Box Set)
  6. Cherry-Coloured Funk (Heaven or Las Vegas)
  7. Athol-Brose (Blue Bell Knoll)
  8. Know Who You Are at Every Age (Four-Calendar Café)
  9. She Will Destroy You (The Moon and the Melodies [with Harold Budd])
  10. Hitherto (Sunburst and Snowblind EP)
  11. Otterley (Treasure)
  12. Great Spangled Fritillary (Echoes in a Shallow Bay EP)
  13. Primitive Heart (Tishbite single)
  14. Aikea-Guinea (Aikea-Guinea EP)
  15. How to Bring a Blush to the Snow (Victorialand)
  16. Theft, and Wandering Around Lost (Four-Calendar Café)
  17. Smile (Violaine single)
  18. Donimo (Treasure)
  19. Squeeze-Wax (Four-Calendar Café)

 

CD 2

  1. Millimillenary (The Pink Opaque [compilation, otherwise unreleased])
  2. Crushed (Lonely Is an Eyesore [4AD label compilation, otherwise unreleased])
  3. Iceblink Luck (Heaven or Las Vegas)
  4. Feet-like Fins (Victorialand)
  5. Alice (Violaine single)
  6. Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires (Heaven or Las Vegas)
  7. Evangeline (Four-Calendar Café)
  8. Heaven or Las Vegas (Heaven or Las Vegas)
  9. Serpentskirt (Milk & Kisses)
  10. Rilkean Heart (Twinlights EP)
  11. Carolyn’s Fingers (Blue Bell Knoll)
  12. Bluebeard (Four-Calendar Café)
  13. Those Eyes, That Mouth (Love’s Easy Tears EP)
  14. Pur (Four-Calendar Café)
  15. Pink Orange Red (Tiny Dynamine EP)
  16. Seekers Who Are Lovers (Milk & Kisses)
  17. Golden-Vein (Twinlights EP)
  18. Calfskin Smack (Milk & Kisses)
  19. Touch Upon Touch (Volume 17 and Splashed with Many a Speck compilations)

bowing to maestro Bowie (part 2)

“If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to/It’s nothing to me…”

I was interested to discover a couple of years ago that David Bowie had briefly studied with Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan lama whose writings have probably made the single greatest impact on me of any buddhist teacher. Bowie had made the trek up to Samye Ling in Scotland in the late ’60s, before Rinpoche had migrated to the United States. And just today a brief article was posted quoting Bowie on his time there: “I was within a month of having my head shaved, taking my vows, and becoming a monk,” he said. It was 1967, he was 20 years old and already a recording musician — this would have been either just before or just after the release of his first LP, David Bowie.

He was conflicted about whether or not to stay at the centre and asked Trungpa about this, who told him to carry on being a musician. So now we have another thing to thank that man for…

The last two songs on Blackstar are the most direct leave-takings. They’re really hard to listen to today. Dollar Days with its wailing sax from Donny McCaslin and final repeated alternations, “I’m trying to, I’m dying to, I’m trying to, I’m dying to…” is wrenching. Both phrases had appeared in a different context earlier: “I’m dying to/Push their backs against the grain/And fool them all again and again/I’m trying to.” And: “Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you/I’m trying to/I’m dying to.”

And finally the last one on the album, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” where he kind of sums it all up:

“Seeing more and feeling less, saying no but meaning yes: this is all I ever meant, that’s the message that I sent”

He was one of the most endlessly innovative artists of our time, and one of the most complete artists, because his mind was attuned to music, art, design, film, and dance in almost equal measure. He influenced nearly everybody across two generations to one degree or another — and he’s not done yet.

What more to say? Blessings, Mr. B. Please come back as something equally amazing.

 

bowing to maestro Bowie…

… for making his entire life (and now, we realize, death too) into a work of art.

Blackstar — what a gift to leave as the last one. To know it would be the last and to go out as innovative and protean and inspired as ever. That breathtaking title track: one of the most astounding things he ever did. I have watched the video of it multiple times today, along with listening to the rest of the album (released three days ago on his 69th birthday). Filled with moments of brilliance and unforgettable images: the astronaut concealing a skull laden with jewels; the juxtapositions of glowing cosmos, stylized Middle Eastern towns, shadowy loft, gyrating figures; a skeleton flying towards an eclipse… The refrain with its fragment of medieval chant, the driving breakbeat, and that sax…

“in the centre of it all, in the centre of it all…”

And then (as if you thought that was it!): a big hush. What on earth is next? It’s an image almost indescribably perfect: the camera panning Bowie holding a leather-bound book reminiscent both of a Bible and a Communist catechism (but note his left arm against hip…), its cover bearing only the eponymous black star; the previously gyrating figures (one white, one black, one female) staring with him in the direction the book/star is pointing; the sun comes out. The lighting and tableau remind me of that opening slow-motion shot in Blue Velvet somehow in its sense of wonder, innocence and the technicolor quality of the blue painted sky alternating with ground level shots of vegetation.

And then … we are back in the loft, and Bowie is clasping his hands, as if in prayer. He sings, and his falsetto is as gorgeous as ever, the voice childlike at first: “Something happened on the day he died…” Followed by — what genius — gazing back on his whole life, he makes a kind of declaration, but more about what he’s never been rather than what he “is.” The backing singers provide this (as far as it goes and in wonderfully murky harmony): “I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar.” But he thumbs his nose at the line “you’re a flash in the pan,” and his dancing — 68 at the time, and very ill — is still elegant. You want to bow.

“I see right so white, so open-heart it’s pain/I want eagles in my daydreams, diamonds in my eyes/(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)”

And the trio of scarecrows, lined up as the Crucifixion: what startling composition and colors in that frame, and the subtle slow-motion swiveling hips of them, fantastic…

“at the centre of it all, your eyes, your eyes…”

Evidently part of what the song (and video) are about, according to someone who spoke to Bowie, is the Islamic State. In the latter part of the video we see a group of women reacting instantly to the jeweled skull, which has reappeared: whenever it is held in front of them they gyrate, hop, or raise their fists (I found myself remembering that ceremonial scene in Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut also). And the opening music returns, but this time without the breakbeats. It has followed on from the middle section so seamlessly that you hardly notice. But the song is about much more than that, and I could keep going on about it, but I’d rather just let it speak for itself.

And Lazarus… Few words. It’s too raw. No one has ever put out anything like this before: Bowie sings from, as it were, his very deathbed, and he sings about what it feels like to die.

And then he stands, and even makes a dance move or two, and gets inspired, and writes, and finally fades into the wardrobe. Is it a Narnian wardrobe? Where is he going? None of us can say, and that is what he gives us as our final image of him.

Apparently Bowie was often too ill to attend rehearsals for his musical Lazarus (his other final project), but according to the director, Ivo van Hove: “Bowie was still writing on his deathbed, you could say. I saw a man fighting. He fought like a lion and kept working like a lion through it all. I had incredible respect for that.”

(More in the next post.)

our culture of shaming

Goodness but I do need to start posting regularly again. I had every intention of doing so earlier in the year but life, as can happen, took over. There are a great many things to write about but let’s simply begin here, with a video I came across earlier in the evening on the culture of shaming (via Twitter). Quite powerful I think, and I’ll let it speak for itself, at least for now:

“This Dark Matter” — London Electricity

“The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams…. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. And dreams come true. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe….

“So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. You can feel it. It is called life. This is who you are.  Second question: Who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules?…. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. Our innate nature is to create the conditions that are conducive to life. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep, innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past.

“Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would create new religions overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead, the stars come out every night and we watch television.

“This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe…. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.”

— Paul Hawken, “The Earth Is Hiring,” speech to the graduating class of the University of Portland, 2009, from The World Is Waiting for You, edited by Tara Grove and Isabel Ostrer. 

a contemplation for the day

“Only a single person was created in the beginning to teach that if any individual causes a single person to perish, Scripture considers it as though an entire world has been destroyed, and if anyone saves a single person, Scripture considers it as though a whole world had been saved.” — Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5

lashon ha-ra (gossip): a Hasidic parable

“Lashon ha-ra” literally means “bad tongue,” ie gossip. Buddhism views it quite seriously as an infringement of harmful speech, but I especially love this Hasidic story used to illustrate it in Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy. Here’s the first part of the entry:

The biblical commandment forbidding gossip is probably the most widely disobeyed of the 613 laws of the Torah. Leviticus 19:16 teaches: “Do not go about as a talebearer among your people.” This basic principle forbids saying anything negative about another person, even if it is true, unless the person to whom one is speaking or writing has a legitimate need for this information (for example, in submitting a reference for a job applicant).

In the Talmud, the rabbis greatly elaborated on this biblical verse, arguing that destroying another’s name is akin to murder (Arakhin 15b), and like murder, the deed is irrevocable. The impossibility of undoing the damage done by harmful gossip is underscored in a Hasidic tale about a man who went through his community slandering the rabbi. One day, feeling remorseful, he begged the rabbi for forgiveness, and indicated that he was willing to undergo any penance to make amends. The rabbi told him to take several feather pillows, cut them open, and scatter the feathers to the winds. The man did so, and returned to notify the rabbi that he had fulfilled his request. He was then told, “Now go and gather all the feathers.”

The man protested. “But that’s impossible.”

“Of course it is. And though you may sincerely regret the evil you have done and truly desire to correct it, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it will be to recover the feathers.”

Shostakovich smiles!

shostakovich and britten

Nearly the only photo in which I’ve seen the great Shostakovich appear cheerful.

Oh to have been a fly on the wall listening to what he and Ben Britten had to say to one another…

I’m currently learning one of the fugues from DS’s stupendous “24 Preludes and Fugues,” Opus 87 (the one in C-sharp minor). And remembering the performance I attended of Alexander Melnikov playing the second half of those at Middlebury College. (I can’t recommend highly enough his recording of the complete set, by the way.)

meeting with the (l)lama

Screen shot 2014-11-22 at 9.59.17 PM

Just discovered this photo lurking in one of those “untitled folders” waiting to be properly filed. Having recently re-watched Season One of the still sui generis phenomenon of weird televisual genius that is “Twin Peaks,” it seemed appropriate to post. Those who have seen the series will remember the moment — one of so very many unforgettable ones — as vividly as yesterday. Alas, it would seem that Dale Cooper ultimately failed to comprehend the teaching he received here from his (l)lama — whatever that was, precisely…

Twenty-three years after the 29th, and final, episode aired, David Lynch and his collaborator Mark Frost announced a new, limited series of nine episodes, all written by Lynch and Frost and all directed by Lynch. These will be airing on Showtime sometime next year. Lynch’s imagination has only gotten more gloriously rich and strange in the interim. I can’t wait to see what he does with this. (Though as I am tv-less, I must hope that it is available before too long online.)

“with no result”

I’m a long-time fan of this site, which features extraordinary translation fails from (primarily) Chinese and Japanese into English. Machines really have no chance at doing this task successfully, given the uniquely multi-layered semantic processing involved with hanzi/kanji. What’s quite marvelous is the sheer degree of surreal poeticism and, often, twisted syntactic lunacy which results.

Yesterday while finally tackling some long-overdue laptop tidying I came across a misplaced folder containing a number of these, and here be two (menus are a prime source).

Oh, and a good and happy new year to all!

cattle-river-with-no-result

dried-ball-bursts-into-rage

“gooey prickles and prickly goo”: Alan Watts on our two models of reality and the nature of consciousness

The books of Alan Watts – to whom several websites have been dedicated (here, here, and here) – were an early inspiration to me. It was nice to rediscover him recently through some of the large number of audio recordings of his talks that can be found at the linked websites and on YouTube.

Earlier in life an Anglican priest, he evolved into a teacher of a highly original mix of Zen, Hindu, and Taoist thought. And unlike so many freestyle teachers out there, he had no interest in becoming a guru and didn’t enrich himself at the expense of those who came to hear him. He was an especially powerful communicator and catalyst of a bigger way of seeing.

In a three-part talk called “The Nature of Consciousness,” of which Part 1 is embedded below, he describes our predicament as caught between two untenable models of reality, which he calls the “ceramic” model and the “fully automatic” model. The “ceramic” model posits that the universe and world and all living beings were and are literally made by a Potter/Artificer who somehow stands utterly apart and outside of His/Her/Its creation. The “fully automatic” model arose out of Science throwing out the “lawmaker” (as superfluous to the process of making and testing predictions), but keeping the “law.”

This has been the dominant paradigm of our culture for several decades, its foundational assumption being materialism:

1) only what we can perceive with our human physical senses and measure with our technologies really exists;

2) beings and things are autonomous, separable from one another and their world;

3) there is no such thing as mind or consciousness;

4) we are machines, directed by chemistry;

5) various combinations of genes produce not only everything physical about us but our unimaginably complex emotional and behavioral lives too;

6) they do this via neurochemistry.

The common use of the concept “scientism” is more recent than the 1960s, when this talk was given, but Watts well and characteristically insightfully describes this View – again, the default View of our culture – at the deeper psychological level. I’ve transcribed portions of the talk.

[31:01]

…because what we really believe is the fully automatic model. And that is our basic, plausible common sense: “You are a fluke, you are a separate event, and you run from the maternity ward to the crematorium and that’s it baby. That’s it.”

[34:10]

…the people who coined the fully automatic theory of the universe were playing a very funny game. What they wanted to say was this: “All you people who believe in religion are old ladies and wishful thinkers. You’ve got a big Daddy up there and you want comfort and things, but life is rough. Life is tough, and success goes to the most hard-headed people.” That was a very convenient theory when the European-American world was colonizing the natives everywhere else. They said: “We’re the end product of evolution, and we’re tough, see? I’m a big strong guy because I face facts, and life is just a bunch of junk, and I’m going to impose my will on it and turn it into something else, you see. And I’m real hard.” See that’s a way of flattering yourself.

And so, it has become academically plausible and fashionable that this is the way the world works. In academic circles, no other theory of the world than the fully automatic model is respectable. Because if you’re an academic person you’ve got to be an intellectually tough person. You’ve got to be prickly.

There are basically two kinds of philosophy. One’s called Prickles, the other’s called Goo. And prickly people are precise, rigorous, logical. They like everything chopped up and clear. Goo people like it vague. For example, in physics, prickly people believe that the ultimate constituents of matter are particles. Goo people believe it’s waves. And in philosophy, prickly people are logical positivists and goo people are idealists. And they’re always arguing with each other, but what they don’t realize is that neither one can take his position without the other person. Because you wouldn’t know you advocated prickles unless there was somebody else advocating goo. You wouldn’t know what a prickle was unless you knew what goo was. Because life is not either prickles or goo, it’s gooey prickles and prickly goo.

[37:00]

But however, you see, this whole idea that the universe is just nothing at all but unintelligent force playing around and not even enjoying it is a put-down theory of the world. People who had an advantage to make, a game to play by putting it down, and making out that because they put the world down they were a superior kind of people. So that just won’t do. We’ve had it. Because if you seriously go along with this idea of the world you’re what is technically called alienated. You feel hostile to the world. You feel that the world is a trap. It is a mechanism, it’s electronic and neurological mechanisms into which you somehow got caught.

[39:05]

So you see, all I’m trying to say is that the basic common sense about the nature of the world that is influencing most people in the United States today, the fully automatic model, is simply a myth. If you want to say that the idea of God the Father with his white beard on the golden throne is a myth, in the bad sense of the word “myth,” so is this other one. It’s just as phony and has just as little to support it as being the true state of affairs.

Why? Let’s get this clear. If there is any such thing at all as intelligence, and love, and beauty, well, you’ve found it in other people. In other words it exists in us as human beings. And as I said, if it is there, in us, it is symptomatic of the scheme of things.

We are as symptomatic of the scheme of things as the apples are symptomatic of the apple tree or the rose of the rose bush. The Earth is not a big rock infested with living organisms any more than your skeleton is bones infested with cells. The Earth is geological, yes, but this geological entity grows people, and our existence on the Earth is a symptom of the solar system, and its balances, as much as the solar system in turn is a symptom of our galaxy, and our galaxy in its turn is a symptom of the whole company of galaxies. Goodness only knows what that’s in.

But you see, when as a scientist you describe the behavior of a living organism, you try to say what a person does. It’s the only way in which you can describe what a person is: describe what they do. Then you find out that in making this description you cannot confine yourself to what happens inside the skin. In other words you can’t talk about a person walking unless you start describing the floor, because when I walk I don’t just dangle my legs in empty space. I move in relationship to a room. And so in order to describe what I’m doing when I’m walking I have to describe the room. I have to describe the territory. So in describing my talking at the moment, I can’t describe this just as a thing in itself, because I’m talking to you.

And so what I’m doing at the moment is not completely described unless your being here is described also. So if that is necessary, if in other words in order to describe my behavior I have to describe your behavior and the behavior of the environment, it means that we’ve really got one system of behavior. That what I am involves what you are. I don’t know who I am unless I know who you are. And you don’t know who you are unless you know who I am.

There was a wise Rabbi once said “If I am I because you are you, and you are you because I am I, then I am not I and you are not you.” In other words we are not separate. We define each other; we’re all backs and fronts to each other. You know, you can’t for example have two sticks. You lean two sticks against each other and they stand up, because they support each other. Take one away and the other falls. They interdepend. And so in exactly that way we and our environment and all of us and each other are interdependent systems. We know who we are in terms of other people; we all lock together. And this is, again and again, the serious scientific description of how things happen, and any good scientist knows, therefore, that what you call the external world is as much you as your own body. Your skin doesn’t separate you from the world. It’s a bridge through which the external world flows into you, and you flow into it.

Just for example as a whirlpool in water, you could say because you have a skin you have a definite shape, you have a definite form. Right? Here is a flow of water, and suddenly it does a whirlpool, and then it goes on. The whirlpool is a definite form, but no water stays put in it. The whirlpool is something the stream is doing, and exactly the same way, the whole universe is doing each one of us, and I see you today and I recognize you tomorrow, just as I would recognize a whirlpool in a stream. I’d say “Oh yes, I’ve seen that whirlpool before, it’s just near so-and-so’s house on the edge of the river, and it’s always there.” So in the same way when I meet you tomorrow, I recognize you. You’re the same whirlpool you were yesterday. But you’re moving. The whole world is moving through you: all the cosmic rays, all the food you’re eating, the stream of steaks and milk and eggs and everything is just flowing right through you. When you’re wiggling the same way, the world is wiggling, the stream is wiggling you.

But the problem is, you see, we haven’t been taught to feel that way. The myths underlying our culture and underlying our common sense have not taught us to feel identical with the universe, but only parts of it, only in it, only confronting it: aliens. And we are, I think, quite urgently in need of coming to feel that we are the eternal universe, each one of us. Otherwise we’re going to go out of our heads. We’re going to commit suicide, collectively, courtesy of H-bombs. And all right, supposing we do, well that will be that, and there will be life-making experiments on other galaxies. Maybe they’ll find a better game.

[Edit (1/22/15): embedded video removed as it is no longer online, alas. Hopefully it can be reuploaded at some future point. I will check periodically.]

Michael Stipe on Lou Reed

Also part of the tribute to Lou Reed in Rolling Stone are twenty or so contributions from various people in music and the arts. The one from Michael Stipe is interesting, pointing out something I wasn’t really aware of:

[Lou Reed] was the first queer icon of the 21st century, 30 years before it even began.

As early as the late 1960s, Lou proclaimed with beautifully confusing candidness a much more 21st-century understanding of a fluid, moving sexuality. He saw beyond – and lived outside – a society locked into a simplistic straight/gay binary division. Through his public persona, his art and music, he boldly refused labels, very publicly mixing things up and providing a “Whoa, that’s possible?” avenue of sexual exploration and identity examination, all with whip-smart nonchalance. He was indefinable, he was other, he was outside of society. He spearheaded a new cool, and he did not care if you “got it” or not. Lots of people did get it…

Coyne and Sheldrake again…

…this time in the pages of the New Republic, in an unfortunate ad hominem attack by the former upon the latter. Here is a sample of Coyne’s invective (note, “woo” is Coyne’s word for non-materialist ideas or perspectives): “went off the rails,” “misbehaving woomeisters,” “thinks himself an unrecognized genius, persecuted like Galileo,” “woo-spouting,” “paranoid,” “rant [what he’s referring to is far more restrained than Coyne’s own intemperance],” “paints himself as a martyr again,” “The Woomeister,” “paranoid rants.”

The occasion for all of this is Sheldrake’s post linked above, which discusses a genuinely problematic phenomenon over at Wikipedia involving that immensely seductive word “objectivity.” The trouble is that scientific materialism itself is a philosophical position that cannot be demonstrated “scientifically,” so to simply assert it as simple Truth and “objectivity” is an exercise in dogmatic intolerance.

As Sheldrake rightly points out, there really is an organization which calls itself “Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia (GSoW),” they really are (in Sheldrake’s words) “well trained” and “highly motivated.” They do “have an ideological agenda, and operate in teams, contrary to Wikipedia rules.” Susan Gerbic of said group really does have a training video up, and she indeed “glories in the power that she and her warriors wield.”

Topics which span cultural fault lines are naturally going to result in highly contentious Wikipedia Talk pages, as partisans fight to gain as much control as possible over the presentation of the article in question. We are not talking about an Encyclopedia Britannica article, where one person is asked to write something and a very limited number of editors join in the rest of the way. The “Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia” have a declared mission to steer a great many articles – and more as each week goes by – their way, along with sophisticated techniques for doing so. The problem is that they are unaware of any potential blindspots in their thinking. Specifically, I refer to that cultural paradigm of scientific materialism being simply “objective” “Truth.”

There certainly are areas of Sheldrake’s thought which I don’t follow, including “morphic resonance,” one of his central ideas. But there is no doubt that his thinking and work overall are at the very least worthy of engagement and at their best represent important critiques of certain tendencies within Science today.

What is always striking to me in Jerry Coyne’s writing is the ever-present shadow of “religion.” The word appears all the time, even when there is no reason for it to. In this current piece it announces itself twice significantly. Consider the following paragraph:

Many of you might know of Sheldrake. He enjoys a certain popularity in the US and UK among those who think that there must be “something more out there”—with “more” meaning psychic phenomena. I don’t really understand a penchant for things that aren’t supported by evidence, but that’s probably a failure of empathy on my part—as well as a product of my scientific training to doubt. I am sure, though, that some of the same psychological tendencies that promote sympathy for woo also promote sympathy for religion.

This is revealing, I think. First, “something more out there” – more, that is to say, than what is contained in a purely materialist philosophy – becomes effectively reduced to the phrase “psychic phenomena.” What’s wrong with that? Doesn’t Sheldrake believe certain “psychic phenomena” exist? Yes, he does, but nonetheless I would say Coyne’s sentence is misleading. “Psychic phenomena” is a vague phrase encompassing everything from easily mockable fringe beliefs to non-materialist ways of seeing grounded firmly in “evidence-based” practice. Then there is the link between “sympathy for woo” and “sympathy for religion.” What “religion” is he talking about? The word encompasses an extraordinarily vast and varied field of views, ideas, practices. It claims some of the most degraded as well as some of the most realized beings in our human experience.

And then later in his piece he complains about a BBC interview with Sheldrake concerning the Wikipedia war over his own (Sheldrake’s) page, on the grounds that the opposing side wasn’t represented (though he reports the BBC’s intention to do just that sometime this week). At which point there follows this parenthetical remark: “[Note: the BBC interviewer, Dan Damon, describes himself and his wife as ‘keen churchgoers’].” The implication is as clear as can be: a “keen churchgoer” is de facto suspect as an inquirer into this matter of Wikipedia integrity, in a way “The Guerilla Skeptics on Wikipedia,” well, aren’t – at all. They’re simply “objective” defenders of The Truth, of course.

(For anyone who wishes to compare Coyne’s characterization of Sheldrake with the latter himself, I embedded in a previous post his “infamous” TEDx talk here. You may disagree with Sheldrake there to one degree or another but I really don’t think it can be said that Coyne’s constant references to him in this article as “paranoid” and a ranter, as someone who likes to proclaim himself a “persecuted” “genius” and “martyr,” as someone “off the rails,” are demonstrable. This can be said also of several interviews I have heard with Sheldrake.)

Laurie Anderson’s tribute to Lou Reed

It’s as beautiful and inspiring as can be, and it’s here, in Rolling Stone:

But when the doctor said, “That’s it. We have no more options,” the only part of that Lou heard was “options” – he didn’t give up until the last half-hour of his life, when he suddenly accepted it – all at once and completely. We were at home – I’d gotten him out of the hospital a few days before – and even though he was extremely weak, he insisted on going out into the bright morning light.

As meditators, we had prepared for this – how to move the energy up from the belly and into the heart and out through the head. I have never seen an expression as full of wonder as Lou’s as he died. His hands were doing the water-flowing 21-form of tai chi. His eyes were wide open. I was holding in my arms the person I loved the most in the world, and talking to him as he died. His heart stopped. He wasn’t afraid. I had gotten to walk with him to the end of the world. Life – so beautiful, painful and dazzling – does not get better than that. And death? I believe that the purpose of death is the release of love.

At the moment, I have only the greatest happiness and I am so proud of the way he lived and died, of his incredible power and grace.

I’m sure he will come to me in my dreams and will seem to be alive again. And I am suddenly standing here by myself stunned and grateful. How strange, exciting and miraculous that we can change each other so much, love each other so much through our words and music and our real lives.

20131105-loureed-x600-1383682618photo credit: Guido Harari/Contrasto/Redux

the Razumovsky quartets

They have been almost the only thing I’ve felt like listening to over the past week or two. My favorite recording is that of the Takács Quartet, who play them (as all the Beethoven quartets) with exquisite balance and such depth of concentration. Just now I have had on the second of the three, which I hear as being almost in two movements, since the Allegro and Molto Adagio are each such monumental conceptions. The third and galloping fourth movements by contrast – which typically take a little less time to play combined than either of the first two alone – feel somewhat like a prolonged coda, an unwinding from the extraordinary intensity of those first 25 minutes or so.

That Allegro has one of the most mysterious openings of any of the quartets, with its dramatic opening chords followed by startling silence, and then the initial motif with its somehow always surprising repetition a half-step up (the Neapolitan degree, which is all over this piece). It is a movement which is full of surprises, in fact, and one which won’t release its grip on you until the final unexpected whisper of that same motif some dozen minutes later. It’s always hard to imagine what could follow, until … the chorale-like opening of the next breathes in a new world, vast as the starry night sky said to have given Beethoven the conception. Which can be found below, in a live performance by the Alban Berg Quartet (there is no YouTube link for the Takács recording, but information about their complete and, as it happens, multiple-award-winning set of Beethoven quartets dating from 2002-2005 can be found here).

The three Rasumovsky quartets date from those miraculous years of 1804-6, the core of Beethoven’s “middle” period, following on from the stupendous “Eroica,” and roughly contemporaneous with Symphonies 4-6, the Waldstein and Appassionata sonatas, the Violin Concerto, and Fidelio. Poorly understood in their day, Beethoven here was writing for the generations to come.

a passage from “Another Country,” by James Baldwin

This is the end of Chapter 1. Rufus Scott, a young black jazz musician, is meandering through Manhattan – from Times Square down to the Village, then by subway up to 125th Street. Revisiting scenes from his life, meeting with some of his friends for the last time. He has given up. Despair has finally beaten him.

…Suddenly he knew that he was never going home anymore.

The train began to move, half-empty now; and with each stop it became lighter; soon the white people who were left looked at him oddly. He felt their stares but he felt far away from them. You took the best. So why not take the rest? He got off at the station named for the bridge built to honor the father of his country.

And walked up the steps, into the streets, which were empty. Tall apartment buildings, lightless, loomed against the dark sky and seemed to be watching him, seemed to be pressing down on him. The bridge was nearly over his head, intolerably high; but he did not yet see the water. He felt it, he smelled it. He thought how he had never before understood how an animal could smell water. But it was over there, past the highway, where he could see the speeding cars.

Then he stood on the bridge, looking over, looking down. Now the lights of the cars on the highway seemed to be writing an endless message, writing with awful speed in a fine, unreadable script. There were muted lights on the Jersey shore and here and there a neon flame advertising something somebody had for sale. He began to walk slowly to the center of the bridge, observing that, from this height, the city which had been so dark as he walked through it seemed to be on fire.

He stood at the center of the bridge and it was freezing cold. He raised his eyes to heaven. He thought, You bastard, you motherfucking bastard. Ain’t I your baby, too? He began to cry. Something in Rufus which could not break shook him like a rag doll and splashed salt water all over his face and filled his throat and his nostrils with anguish. He knew the pain would never stop. He could never go down into the city again. He dropped his head as though someone had struck him and looked down at the water. It was cold and the water would be cold.

He was black and the water was black.

He lifted himself by his hands on the rail, lifted himself as high as he could, and leaned far out. The wind tore at him, at his head and shoulders, while something in him screamed, Why? Why? He thought of Eric. His straining arms threatened to break. I can’t make it this way. He thought of Ida. He whispered, I’m sorry, Leona, and then the wind took him, he felt himself going over, head down, the wind, the stars, the lights, the water, all rolled together, all right. He felt a shoe fly off behind him, there was nothing around him, only the wind, all right, you motherfucking Godalmighty bastard, I’m coming to you.