Category Archives: philosophy

The truth and grace, 1: Reason

Macha Chmakoff, "Le Chemin de Damas"

This is the first of three essays on grace.  The three parts move through three aspects of grace—reason, beneficence, and the unknown—roaming across existentialism, Sartre, the epistles of St. Paul, Flannery O’Connor, Roberto Bolaño, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

A Reason For Everything

There are people who say that everything happens for a reason.  This is true, for every event will always have an explanation. Natural events—say an apple falling from a tree—have mechanical explanations that can be objectively verified.  When people are involved, it’s less clear why things happen the way they do.  The reasons begin to get fuzzy, or they become contested.  These are the debates charted in the far too numerous tomes cluttering our bookshelves and Kindles.  Yet no matter how ham-fistedly human pretense tortures the truth with conspiracy, polemic, or just plain history, the fact is that in human events, too, everything happens for a reason.

But this is not what people mean when say that everything happens for a reason.  These reasons are invoked when unexpected events change life in some irrevocable way, whether for good or ill.  These reasons give purpose to the challenges we face.  Yet this saying says less about the nature of the universe than about the instinctively human drive to narrate order into it.  This takes place at the expense of reason, for it overlooks the simplest explanation that fits the facts:

We don’t know why some things happen, including the big, unexpected things that change lives and the course of history—and we may never know. 

There may be no “reason” to the universe.  It is shot through with events we can only call random, which appear to rob the world of purpose and meaning.  In response people seek different ways to build up the certainties they need.  Some avoid asking questions or wondering why.  Theirs is an existence amid the fog of quick pleasures and slovenly gratification.  Others turn to dogma or hard-and-fast explanations of the grand mysteries of life, preferring to believe that everything happens for reason, even if they have to make up those reasons again and again in order to adjust the truth to the events of the day.

Others still, a much smaller number to be sure, find themselves stuck in the middle, vexed and even anguished at the lack of universal order and meaning, repeatedly disappointed by every attempt to find larger truths they can hold on to forever.

Roquentin

Such was the case with Antoine Roquentin, the main character in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea.  Roquentin was sickened by the sense that his own life and actions were “superfluous” and even repugnant, since he could no longer find any deeper meaning to the world outside his own mind.  Instead of feeling intentional and historical, he was an alien in a world that treated him with indifference.  After fighting these feelings almost to the point of madness, he finally accepted that this was the real nature of life—empty, indifferent, unnecessary—and in this he found his reason to act.

“I am free:  there is absolutely no reason for living, all the ones I have tried have given way and I can’t imagine more of them … My past is dead …”

Roquentin now had the power to define his own life and what it meant, yet still he despairs.

“I am alone in this white, garden-rimmed street.  Alone and free.  But this freedom is rather like death.”

In the face of this bleak, graceless epiphany, Roquentin decides to abandon the historical biography that he was working on when the nausea struck him.  Instead, he will write a novel.  The novel will define him, as “a little of its clarity might fall over my past” and then one day “I shall feel my heart beat faster and say to myself:  ‘That was the day, that was the hour, when it all started’.”

Thus fiction replaces history to give meaning—and reason—to real life.

Notes and Credits

The images in all three essays on grace are the paintings of Macha Chmakoff, a French painter whose works can be found at http://www.chmakoff.com/.  She has granted me reproduction rights for these images and provided high-resolution .jpgs for the postings, for which I am very grateful.  She wrote me, “I am delighted with [John’s] respect for the work of artists, for he does not reproduce the images from my website without my permission.  As an artist this touches me deeply.  On the other hand I do this also as a sign of friendship between our two countries, France and the USA, in spite of our political and economic differences.”  Thank you, Ms. Chmakoff.

The painting that leads this essay is “Le Chemin de Damas,” The Road to Damascus.  It was on the road to Damascus that Saul of Tarsus had the conversion experience that led him to become Paul the Evangelist, the apostle who more than any other spread  Christianity across the Mediterranean world in the decades following the crucifixion.  Prior to his conversion, Saul persecuted Christians.  On the road to Damascus, something changed in an irrevocable way that turned Saul into his opposite.  He had no reason by which to understand this.

Paul Bloom’s essay in The Atlantic (December 2005), “Is God an Accident,” reviews recent science on the human instinct to read and narrate order into the universe:  “Our quickness to over-read purpose into things extends to the perception of intentional design. People have a terrible eye for randomness.”  The notion that there is no purpose to life (that we can recognize) is hard for human beings to swallow, because a sense of plot and story-line is hard-wired into our cognitive structure.

Quotations from Nausea:  Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea, trans. Lloyd Alexander (New Directions: 1964), pp. 156-57.  I devoured Sartre in college and eventually wrote my senior thesis on the evolution of “freedom” in his work, from Nausea through the Critique of Dialectical Reason, his last great work.  Along the way I read most of his plays, all the novels, his memoir (The Words), Simone de Beauvoir’s memoir his last years, Adieu, and another biography I have since misplaced.  At the end of the day, I can fully appreciate the humor of Marty Smith’s Jean-Paul Sartre Cookbook.

This essay uses a fictional character, Roquentin, as an exemplar of behavior, attitudes, and ideas that should be meaningful to real people.  I treat Roquentin as if he were real, for he is.  I never quite agreed with the way Dan Qualye was ridiculed for using Murphy Brown as an example for a discussion of values in America.  (There were plenty of other, legitimate reasons to ridicule Mr. Quayle and hope he would never have a chance to sit in the Oval Office.)  In all, the 3 pieces of this essay mix real and fictional characters, because their actions (fictional, real, or historical-but-embellished) are meaningful.

St. Paul, the overarching subject of the 3 essays, is a real figure who comes to us through writing:  his own letters to his congregations across the Greco-Roman world and the writings about him that survive, notably in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.  We know that not all the letters attributed to Paul were written by him.  Those that are still contain later insertions and redactions added by scribes over the centuries.  In the end, the way Sartre finishes Nausea is the key:  Roquentin will gain his freedom by leaving history and biography and writing a novel.  This is just what Sartre did; Roquentin’s redemption was the day, the hour, when it all began for his author as well.  Through the very act of creating, even fiction, we give purpose to our lives and order to the universe.

 

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Filed under existentialism, freedom, hubris, ideas, individuality, Jean-Paul Sartre, literature, order, philosophy, truth, vanity

The truth and narrative, 3: my life with Roberto Bolaño

1987

I met Gondim in Rio de Janeiro in 1987.  He brought me to Morro dos Prazeres, a favela whose name translates into English as “Hill of Pleasures.”  We took the streetcar from downtown up to the neighborhood of Santa Teresa, climbing a couple thousand feet along the way.  It was (and still is) Rio’s last streetcar line, and the trip is a step back in time.  At the end of the line, you arrive in Santa Teresa’s walled streets and tight alleys, a Bohemian retreat high above the Rio’s noise and splatter.  It’s a nice place, and the mountain air is cool.

One turn and a hundred feet down another street, Santa Teresa gives way to small houses climbing up the hillside in seemingly ramshackle fashion, stacked one atop the other to the sky.  Children play on rooftops, their kites hanging in the ocean breeze.  The two neighborhoods cling to each other on the steep hillsides of Rio de Janeiro in an uneasy relationship marked by occasional hostility, outbreaks of violence, and cheap domestic help.  The views are breathtaking across the Guanabara Bay.  Back in 1987, Gondim introduced me to Walter, the “professor,” a fan of Fidel Castro’s and leader of the neighborhood association in Morro dos Prazeres.  I spent time there talking to people, hanging out, following Walter around.

At that time, Gondim lived in Santa Teresa, among artists and musicians and dancers.  It was love and revolution all night long over cachaça, weed, and samba.  At night, and sometimes during the day, I played music anywhere I could, with Rogerio or for the girls on Avenida Atlântica between tricks, the ocean crashing across the road beneath the moon and the Southern Cross.

1992

Five years passed and I wasn’t a very good correspondent.  Neither was Gondim or Rogerio or anyone in Rio.  In 1992, I found Rogerio in Flamengo, the neighborhood down on the beach below Santa Teresa.  He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was on my way to Belém.  Belém!, he screamed—there are only crooks and thieves and whores there! Madness to go there! he told me.  My people, I thought, and then he gave me his sister’s phone number and said I should look up her up when I get there.  Next I went to Gondim’s offices at the magazine, but the editor told me he had moved.  Where to? I asked.  Belém, she said, and she gave me a phone number.

In Belém, it was sweaty nights on the street in Cidade Velha with Gondim and his friends, among them Petit, a Catalan who had married a Belemense girl and become a professor at the university.  We drank beer, ate chicken and rice, and sang songs about everything.  With Marga (see the Tamba-Tajá stories) I took in the arrival of Iemanjá on the beach at Mosqueiro in 1992.  Márcia took me to her neighborhood, Bom Futuro, which like Morro dos Prazeres had a meaning that seemed at odds with its circumstance, “Good Future” in Portuguese.  We had great parties at her house and a photograph of all the women in her family, four generations, hangs in my office next to my desk, not far from a photograph of my own mother.

Bom Futuro was an invasão—they didn’t call them favelas in Belém—in a swampy area amid the mega-invasão of Área Cabanagem (pop 200,000) named after Oscar Neimeyer’s nearby monument to the slave and Afro-Native rebellion that occurred in Belém in the 1830s.  Chiquinho took me to his invasão in Aurá, a suburb about an hour or 90 minutes from central Belém by bus.  I spent years with him and his comrades as they struggled to pave the streets and keep the lights on.  I cherished these friends dearly, as I also loved M-J, who became my accomplice in dreams for a few years.

Then things changed.

The details are unimportant.  What matters is that things changed because I made decisions that I don’t understand today.  The right thing to do now seems so obvious, though it was so obviously the wrong thing to do at the time.  My mistake was not so much in doing right or wrong, but in doing either only half way.  I forgot my passion at some point, and my calling went to rest beneath a rock of responsibility or reason that did not suit me very well.  Maluco Beleza was the song I loved, and it became the life I lived a little by accident and not nearly enough by design.

2008

Years later, when I picked up The Savage Detectives in Brooklyn’s Community Bookstore, I felt like I found something I had lost.

My lives with Greene and Cortázar were there on Bolaño’s pages, in the stories of Arturo Belano, Ulises Lima and their band of poets—the visceral realists—by way of hundreds of small depositions from everyone who had crossed paths with them over four continents and twenty years, chronicling their lovers and affairs, their triumphs and tragedies and madness.  About half way through, the literary and historical sweep of the novel becomes staggering, Cortázar resurrected in the granularity of Bolaño’s storytelling and an entire generation of Latin American literature (including at least two Nobel prizes) left in the dust.  This was my world.

I laughed out loud on the subway to read Amadeo Salvatierra reminiscing on his hero during the years just after the Mexican Revolution (p. 396),

… I emerged from the swamp of mi general Diego Carvajal’s death or the boiling soup of his memory, an indelible, mysterious soup that’s poised above our fates, it seems to me, like Damocles’ sword or an advertisement for tequila …

And also at the exchange between Belano and Lima and Salvatierra over the one published poem by Cesárea Tinajero, the original visceral realist in the 1920s (p. 421),

Belano or Lima: So why do you say it’s a poem?

Salvatierra:  Well, because Cesárea said so … That’s the only reason why, because I had Cesárea’s word for it.  If that woman had told me that a piece of her shit wrapped in a shopping bag was a poem I would have believed it …

Belano:  How modern.

I felt my heart tug when Joaquín Font spoke about his release from the mental hospital where he’d spent the last several years (p. 400) …

Freedom is like a prime number.

… and when Edith Oster, a heart-broken, ill, displaced Mexican in Barcelona, told of how she went to find a payphone to call her parents in Mexico City (p. 436),

In those days, Arturo and his friends didn’t pay for the international calls they made … They would find some telephone and hook up a few wires and that was it, they had a connection … The rigged telephones were easy to tell by the lines that formed around them, especially at night.  The best and worst of Latin America came together in those lines, the old revolutionaries and the rapists, the former political prisoners and the hawkers of junk jewelry.

She had broken Belano’s heart, too, but the image brought me back to Vargas Llosa’s revolutionaries in Historia de Mayta, who sat around debating the finer points of Marxist theory in their garage, perched atop stacks of their party’s newspaper that had no readers and never saw the light of day, much less of a dim bulb or candle for covert reading in a dormitory, prison, or monastery.

Bolaño himself was at one time or another an old revolutionary, a former political prisoner, and a hawker of junk jewelry. Adding rapists to the mix only put down the rose-colored glasses of our generation’s passions and all those fights between Garcia Marquéz and Vargas Llosa as if to say “enough, already.”  Yet being Bolaño, it would have been more like a visceral scream from the front row during a book reading at a polite salon or book store.

The Savage Detectives is a fractured narrative told in the shards of pottery and broken mirrors laying about the floors of the places where Bolaño slept.  I read Bolaño and I saw what had become my life.

Notes and Credits

The photo of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives was taken by the author on his nightstand.  This is the normal appearance of my end table.  I picked up the leather Brazilian street scenes in Salvador, Bahia, in 1993.

Bolaño’s biography is well-noted and I won’t go over it here, except to say that the last 10 years of his tragic life (cut short by terminal illness) was one of those artistic outpourings that will live in legend.  In a brief period of time, Bolaño the cast-off cast-away reshaped Latin America an became its voice (for now, at least).

The photo of Santa Teresa and Morro dos Prazeres comes from the Wikimedia Commons and a photographer named “chensiyuan.”  The photo of Belém from the Amazon River was taken by the author in 2000, arriving in Belém on a boat trip that began in Manaus about 10 days earlier.  The photograph of Bom Futuro was taken in 1995 on a visit to Márcia’s house. I’ve chosen for now to leave out my photos of Márcia, her family, and the parties we had.

The picture of the Bolaño graffiti was taken from gsz’s photostream on Flickr.  The photo of the author and Gondim was taken on the beach at Mosqueiro in 1995.  Mosqueiro is the old resort area of Belém, still within the city limits but on a remote island, where the elite used to have weekend vilas and houses.

Earlier this year, torrential rains caused flooding in Rio that resulted in a huge landslide in Morro dos Prazeres and other areas.  As a result, the mayor of the city developed a plan to remove the neighborhoods, on the pretext that the danger of flooding is no longer tolerable.  The problem with this logic, however, is that Rio’s favelas have always had this problem in the annual rainy season.  To many, it seems the floods are just an excuse to to solve some of Rio’s other problems with crime and drugs (really a police problem) by blaming the poor and tearing down their neighborhoods.

This is the same issue that drew Janice Perlman to the favelas in the 1960s and me there, later, in the 1980s.  Unfortunately, the problem of drugs and organized crime is all too real.  In 1987, when I was there, the police routinely went into Morro dos Prazeres and rounded up young men for summary executions – this as a warning to others and a means of controlling the population.  Twenty years later, the film Trope de Elite (Elite Squad) chronicled the same story, Morro dos Prazeres still there at the center.

The Memorial da Cabanagem is a landmark in Belém.  It was built by Governor Jader Barbalho after he became one of 9 resistance candidates to win election to governorships against the military regime in 1984.  The pretext is that Barbalho’s victory signaled a rebellion of Cabanagem-like proportions, the people rising up against the elite.  After humble beginnings, Barbalho himself has been governor twice and held seats in both the national congress and the senate, where he was that body’s leader for a short while until he was impeached while rumors and allegations of corruption mounted.  Barbalho is one of the richest men in Pará.  As with Fernando Collor, time conquers all, and Barbalho is back in the national congress representing Pará.  Jeferson Assis’s Flickr photostream has many images of the Cabanagem monument, as does Jeso Carneiro.

Bolaño’s rigged payphones reminds me of stories my friends told about the payphones in Washington Heights in the 1980s.  The Latin American drug traffickers (or so my friends said) would rig them to make free international calls, and everyone in the neighborhood used them.

When all is said and done, I wish peace to my friend Gondim and pray that I will see him again.

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The truth and narrative, 1: my life with Graham Greene

This is the first of three posts on writers whose work has influenced the course of my own life.  The writers are Graham Greene, Julio Cortázar and Roberto Bolaño.  In these writers I have seen myself in futures, presents, and pasts.

Travels with My Aunt

It started when I saw glimpses of the film, Travels with My Aunt, late at night on television.  I was doing homework or something.  What I noted then, and what I remember now, is the face of a very young Cindy Williams on a train with Alec McGowen as Henry Pulling.

I was in college already, but still living at home with my parents.  I had these vague ideas of wanting to explore the world, do something exciting, see places no one in my family ever had seen.  Later, I noticed the book on a shelf in the house and read it.  What I remember best from the book is Pulling’s trip by boat up the Rio Paraguay, from Buenos Aires to Asunción.  I knew then what I wanted to do with my life.

My mother, it turned out, was quite fond of Graham Greene.  She was fluent in Spanish for reasons she never told me, though I cannot recall whether she declined to say or I simply failed to ask.  As a college student in Pennsylvania, she had gone to Mexico City one summer to study abroad, a trip that led her to New Orleans and Loyola University, where she met my father in 1960.  At Loyola, she paid her bills in college by teaching Spanish at Mercy Academy, a Catholic girls’ prep school next to the campus.  She told me Travels with My Aunt was a frivolous book and that the really good Green was in The Power and the Glory, his novel of a “whiskey priest” trying to escape persecution during the Mexican Revolution and its aftermath.  I read the book and though I agreed with my mother, I never stopped thinking about Asunción.

Mexico City

In the summer of 1984 it was my turn, and I went off to Mexico City in the very same program my mother had gone on 25 years earlier.  My Dutch friend was on the Mexico trip the year before, and he gave me the names of two girls, R and E, and told me to look them up.  He’d had a crush on E, who worked in the big bus station and lived in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Mexico City, where 2-room cinder block houses crept up the hillsides surrounding the city.  E was indeed the prettier of the two, but I fell in love with R.

She was older than I was by about seven years, which at the time seemed like a lot.  She took me to Coyoacan, where we sat on park benches until three in the morning kissing and talking under the stars, which we could not see but knew were there above the constant soup of Mexico City smog.  We talked about Frida Kahlo and listened to jazz.  We drank tequila over art and philosophy and revolution with her friends.  During the days, in between classes in US-Mexican Diplomatic History and Spanish, I took Graham Greene novels from the library and devoured them.  The End of the Affair, The Comedians, The Human Factor, and others.  I marveled at the stories he told, so strong and bold and confident.  I read Greene and knew what I wanted to do with my life.

Rio de Janeiro and Asunción

I imagined I was reading biographies of the lives I wanted to lead, perhaps without the Russian Roulette but nonetheless in that Greenean world of strained romance and moral decay.  By the time I was 23 I was on my way to Asunción, albeit over land by bus from Rio de Janeiro, where I had just spent 6 weeks interviewing people in favelas during the day.  Favelas were the infamous slums that clung to the mountainsides of Rio and lined the bottoms of its swamps.  In the favelas, marginal people lived on the extremes of the most spectacular scenery on earth.  By night I played music with my friend Rogerio do Maranhão, who had standing gigs at Maria Maria in Bota Fogo and a pasta house in Copacabana.  We sang for food, beer and women.

... portrait of the author as a young musician

In Asunción, I stayed with the family Weiss, who were hosting Brother Alexis Gonzales, a theatre director from Loyola, mom’s and my old alma mater.  One night, after hanging out with the actors past curfew—these were Stroessner’s last days—I came home to find everyone on the street in their night clothes.  Minutes earlier, some Colorados drove by and shot up the house. They didn’t like Alexis’s production of Princípios, a play about censorship in Latin America. We pulled bullets from the walls and kept them as souvenirs.

Along the way, Greene stayed with me.  He wrote at a disciplined clip of five hundred words per day and produced almost a novel a year for forty years. His stories played on the compromised decisions of flawed men in decadent contexts.  With le Carré, Greene was the ultimate Cold War novelist, the two of them forming bookends around the era’s great struggles and grand themes, le Carré in Europe and its near environs, Greene everywhere else, across Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  They were our literary secret agents, searching for (and finding) the same themes every where they looked, morphing effortlessly into the same man with a different name everywhere they went.

Greene wrote about people and places that were not his native contexts, though when he did touch his own world, as in The End of the Affair, the results were breathtaking.  I was drawn most to his wanderlust and his ability to create compelling stories in so many different places.  Still I wondered—why did Greene make such sense to me?  Was it because I, too, was an outsider, a privileged white thrill-seeker in worlds brown and black and poor and altogether far away from the places I knew?

Yet critical post-colonial narrative was not something I could sustain for very long.  I was too good-humored and guileless.  This was a chicken and egg story that after a while could be anything and nothing at all.  Like all narratives it was mostly about justification and never really got to the heart of the matter.  Disciplined writing in an inevitably tainted world of compromised good and stilted vengeance was, on the other hand, a narrative I could understand.

Notes and Credits

I was inspired to go up the hills by my advisor at Tulane and by a book called The Myth of Marginality by Janice Perlman.  Perlman went to the favelas and lived there and worked with the residents even as the military government at the time was razing their neighborhoods and resettling the residents in modern slums further from the center of town.  I called Perlman from S’s dorm room at Louisiana State University one Sunday morning as the fog of a hangover left me, to ask Perlman about doing this kind of work.  “Go, do it,” she said, without specifying anything more specific about how to do it or whom to ask for help.  I didn’t speak to her again until 2006, almost 20 years later, and in 2007 I was able to contract her to evaluate the program I ran at the New York Academy of Medicine.  In 2010, she published a sequel to Myth of Marginality called Favela, in which she revisits the favelas and favelados she wrote about n the early 1970s.  She was able to find the children and grandchildren of her original subjects and the new book is a compelling story of coming full circle, as all narratives eventually do.

Cover photograph of Travels with My Aunt from the Wikipedia article about the novel, found here and used under fair use principles.   The photograph of Greene’s gravesite is also from Wikimedia and is used under the Creative Commons license.

Photograph of the author from his personal collection, no doubt to be sold one day for millions (in Monopoly money?) on E-Bay.  I cannot recall the name of the restaurant in Copacabana where we used to play, but here’s another of my friend Rogerio, from the same time.

Rogerio do Maranhão

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E/F – The glass of art

A friend of mine told me about a playwriting workshop he attended some years ago.  The instructor was David Mamet, and after the lecture someone asked Mamet what made him a great playwright.

“I write plays, and you don’t,” was the reply.  David Mamet, it seems, talks like one of his characters.

Write what you know

You can’t be a great artist of any kind—playwright, sculptor, painter, novelist, etc.—if you produce nothing at all.  That’s what separates Mamet from those who would like to be writers.  It does not, however, separate Mamet from all the other writers who in fact write, whatever anyone thinks of it.

Apart from writing well or competently, writers themselves have little control over many other factors that separate great writing from just plain writing.  For the fact is that great writing will never be recognized as such if it doesn’t have a context in which it flourishes and speaks to enough people to make an impact on the world.  Great writing itself isn’t a pure quality, forever-set and canonical.  What we think of as great writing is shaped as much by the times to which it corresponds as by any inherent qualities of the writing itself.  Write what you know, as they say; if you’re in the zeitgeist, the rest will take care of itself.

Paint what you are

Jackson Pollock dared to follow his muse, wherever it led, regardless of what it meant, and he let his technical abilities take him to places other painters couldn’t dream of.  In that particular moment—post-World War II United States—his paintings made people see art and, one might argue, the world, differently.  His was a singular genius, exercised and exorcised against a cultural backdrop that needed his art to understand itself.

No. 31, 1950

The Pollock room at the Museum of Modern Art, on the fourth floor, is a slide show of singular dedication and focus that seems to culminate in the famed Number 31, which spans an entire wall. From painting to painting, Pollock moves from semi-representational work to increasingly abstract renderings that burrow each time more deeply into his consciousness itself.

Amid the soft footfalls and hushed voices in the room, Allen Ginsberg howls and yells and scratches at the seams of that world, trying to break out.  There is my own father huddled in a French Quarter coffee shop with his Aunt Carol, herself a painter, telling her about his poems or talking about art, trying to find some safe, comfortable place to let an idea fly from the heart.  Every splatter and spray of paint on that vast canvas is a voice from a world suffocating in Sylvia Plath’s bell jar, tapping on the glass I am, I am, I am

a woman in an abusive marriage, serving cocktails to some chain-smoking Mad Men caricature

a girl or maybe a wife pregnant with a child she cannot bear to bring into this world

a young man in Mound Bayou, Mississippi who just wants to vote

a painter who can’t figure out how make the dawn seem like the dawn because it means something else

Elvis Presley

Rosa Parks

Jack Lemmon asking Shirley MacLaine to see The Music Man in Billy Wilder’s Apartment of family values

John Lennon saying “we’re more popular than Jesus

Watson and Crick walking into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, on February 28, 1953, saying that they had found “the secret of life

Idiot Wind

The voices blew through the tragedy of Pollock’s own life and the terror of his private demons, inseparable from the age he lived in because he made it so in his work.  As Pollock himself put it, “Every good painter paints what he is.”

Sylvia Plath, writing atop a stone wall in England

Does context make the art?  It’s a chicken-and-egg question that cannot be answered.  It’s impossible for most audiences to enjoy Shakespeare without an interpretation, and an interpretation like Scotland PA is nothing short of wonderful and luminescent of both Shakespeare and modern American culture, as much for the Shakespeare and the Paul Rogers and Beethoven dominated soundtrack as for the send-up of drive-through fast food.

One without the other is a hollow experience—art or context.  Pollock helped us understand the times in which he lived, and the resounding verdict on the worth of his work is that with every passing year he continues to reflect and refract his times even more intensely.  It’s all there on the canvas:  the straight-laced, short-haired, hourglass-figured, white, clean, modern, scientific world of tomorrow epitomized in Robert Moses’s 1964 New York World’s Fair.  It’s all there, splattered, fractal, chaotic.

Art becomes art because it helps people to understand their world.  It remains art because it continues to do so, over and over again.  What makes art great is something that millions of people determine every day, in all their infinitely innumerable actions and words.  What makes great art great is not so much its inherent greatness as the fact that it survives at all.

Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves, we’re idiots, babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.”

Notes and credits

Photograph of the glass margarita chalice with paint brushes, pens, pencils, etc. against the backdrop of a living room wall by the author.

Photograph of Jackson Pollock, No. 31, at MoMA, taken by the author, July 25, 2010.  Find Pollock all over the web.  This is a great photograph inspired by Pollock.

Sylvia Plath on a stone wall, from Mortimer Rare Book Room by way of the Amherst Bulletin.

Scotland PA is a wonderful film.  See reviews here and here, and whatever they say I recommend it highly.

Bonus track:  The Apartment

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Filed under art, evolution, existentialism, ideas, philosophy, poetry, truth, vanity, writing

The truth and the recursive (in search of search terms)

There was a time when searching any string of words with “Lascaux” in it would bring up my post, “The truth and change, 3a:  From Life on Mars to Linden,” as one of the top three hits in the images section—because of the photograph I used of the caves in Lascaux, France.  I got the photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Then there was “bee tree,” or “bee bee tree,” which for a long time brought up my photograph of a tree in Prospect Park, Brooklyn (11215), where I observed a bee swarm with my son in 2008.  I took the photograph, along with the photograph of the bee warm itself.  This photo was in the post, “The truth and Twitter, part 3:  The Swarm.”

And then these images completely disappeared from the Google Images searches.

Which made me begin to wonder:  How do search terms work?  A friend told me to embed vivid descriptions in my photographs, because Google really likes this.  And then I thought about all those search terms that I see every day on my data.  Some are downright weird—“life goes on symbology” or “rocket party dei black eyed beans”—and some sound really cool—“gilgamesh Foucault” and “shot of major truth and rocket science.”

I’m no whiz in SEO (search engine optimization), but I thought it would be fun to post all the  search terms I have seen, down to a certain level (all these are multiple viewings) that people have used to find truth and rocket science, whether they intended to or not.  What happens when people search these terms?  Do they come to this posting, or some other? Does this (not entirely) random assortment of words bring about some kind of Internet query magic?  Would be fun to see …

Update, 15 minutes after I posted this originally

Within 15 minutes of posting this, these search strings came up.  I just had to add them.  It’s obvious why.

medieval witch killings paintings

envy the epic of gilgamesh

eclectic

bee tree

wolverine michigan desk

maghan lusk

sleeping dogs

pond @wordpress

blacklight poster

zebras

brigadier pudding

hubris fingerprint

faroeste gary cooper

mirrors “lady from shanghai ”

blacklight poster

bee bee tree (almost every day for a while)

lady from shanghai mirror scene

“not many people make me laugh”

tett creativity complex

john locke public domain pictures humane

iran twitter

rocket party dei black eyed beans

bacon francis house

Walgreen

lotte zweig

“kareem fahim”

zebras

twitter iran

reichstagsbrand

sleeping dog

bee tree

sleeping dogs

Walgreens

zak smith

tattoo and tattoos

“life goes on” tattoo

tattoo design principles

Credit:  The photograph is of tattoo work by Grisha Maslov, copyright 2010, obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

Gilgamesh

heroism in Gilgamesh

gilgamesh Foucault

Foucault Gilgamesh

Note: I am not sure where this came from, since Foucault is not mentioned in the post with Gilgamesh.

amoebas and dysentery

gas exchange in amoebas

amoeba pictures

poem on dysentery

amoebic dysentery brazil

live amoeba vs. fixed amoeba

Amoeba

Brazil

brazil land of the future by Zweig trans

lolalita brasil1

brasilia architecture falling apart

brasilia

faroeste caboclo

brazil colony

forest manaus

social science

standard deviation diagram

one standard deviation bell curve

stats bell curve normal curve

standard deviation bell curve

bell curve

iq bell curve

bell curve standard deviation

iq bell curve diagram

standard deviation diagram

bell curve diagram

unicorns and medieval stuff

medieval maiden painting

unicorn pictures

unicorn truths

unicorn Bristol

unicorns

unicorn

unicorn medieval

unicorn museum castles in new york

the unicorn leaps out of the stream

the start of the hunt

unicorn in captivity

the unicorn is found

the start of the hunt

the truth about unicorns

the hunt of the unicorn

Sylvia Plath and Leonard Shelby

Memento, the film, a timeline

plath writing

leonard shelby

Credit: The chart of the timeline of Memento (Christopher Nolan) is by Dr Steve Aprahamian, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.

truth and rocket science

truth and rocket science (lotsa times)

rocketscience.com

rocket science in our lives

shot of major truth and rocket science

truth and rocket science

the truth about diamonds

the truth and sleeping dogs

Lascaux

The House of Tomorrow, 35,000 BCE

Lascaux

lascaux cave pictures

lascaux paintings

lascaux cave paintings

lascaux cave

lascaux painting

lascaux images

cave art Lascaux

lascaux caves france

cave paintings Lascaux

lascaux pictures

cave of Lascaux

lascaux caves

caves of Lascaux



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Filed under hubris, ideas, life, New York, philosophy, truth, vanity

Without truth you are the looser

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is a picture of words worth?

Spelling mistake or assertion about the relationship of truth to intestinal fortitude?  Martin Luther would surely disagree, for in his case getting to the truth was intimately dependent upon getting loose, and the entire fate of the Medieval Church hung in the balance.  Luther’s was one divine and hellacious struggle.

By the time Alberto Fujimori got loose and began to deal with his struggles, he was a wanted man.  President of Peru from 1992 to 2000, he defeated the Shining Path revolutionaries by resorting to atrocities that rivaled those of this enemies.  The dirty war in Peru took over 70,000 lives on both sides, and mass graves of military executions are still being found.  Peru’s Equipo Peruano de Antropología Forense (Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team) has made a striking documentary of the largest grave site, If I Don’t Come Back, Look for Me in Putis.  After losing the 2000 presidential race, Fujimori fled to Japan after corruption schemes involving over a billion dollars came to light.  He returned to South America in 2005 to run for president again the following year, but instead he was arrested, tried, convicted, and thrown in jail.  With or without the truth, Fujimori was finally  the loser.

How many words is a Wordsworth worth?

Notes and Credits

All photographs were taken by the author, except as otherwise noted.

“Trust your struggle” appears on the approach ramp to the Ft. Hamilton Parkway Subway Station in Kensington, Brooklyn (zip code = 11218).

“Without truth you are the looser” was taken in Lisbon, Portugal in 2000.  The ironies of this photograph go well beyond its mispelling.  But that’s all I’m saying here.

“Fujimori Presidente” was also taken in 2000, on a trip I took to Peru with students from the college where I taught at the time.  This political graffiti was seen on a fairly desolate road in the altiplano, the high plains of the Andes Mountains.  We were on a bus on our way over the continental divide, which we crossed at around 16,000 feet, and then down, down, down to the Manu River Forest Preserve.  The Manu River is a tributary of the Amazon River which at this point has just come rushing down from the Andes and is settling into the massive river it will become with each new tributary on its 2,000+ mile journey to the Atlantic Ocean at Belém.

William Wordsworthis an image from the Wikimedia Commons of what is apparently an 1873 reproduction of an 1839 watercolor of the poet by Margaret Gillies (1803-1887).

The Importance of Place: Fort Hamilton Subway Station

The Ft. Hamilton station is beneath an expressway interchange, where the Prospect Expressway empties out on to (or begins at, depending on your vantage) Ocean Parkway, beneath the Ft. Hamilton Parkway overpass.  Ocean Parkway is a major thoroughfare running south to Coney Island from Prospect Park.  It’s a folkloric parkway lined with trees and sidewalks where people are walking every day of the week, at all hours it seems.  Kareem Fahim posted this wonderful story on Ocean Parkway in the Times on October 10, 2008.

Here’s a video, working hard to be experimental, on the Parkway …

And this one, with a bowling theme, which is big here.  In summer camp they take the kids at least once a week, from age 5 on up.

The Prospect Expressway links Ocean Parkway to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the BQE as we call it.  This interchange is a concrete manifestation (literally) of Robert Moses’s dreams for New York.  Moses served in various posts involved in urban planning and development, and from the 1930s to the 1970s he managed to thoroughly remake the city and Long Island’s highway system, housing agencies, and parks, which we have taken up before in Truth and Rocket Science, in The truth and change, 2: Technoredemption Goes Pro and The truth and set theory: more on Mr. McNamara.  The Fort Hamilton interchange is one small of Robert Moses’s living legacy.

The photograph above is found on the Wikimedia Commons.  To the right is the beginning of Ocean Parkway, where the Prospect Expressway empties out.  The person walking away in the photo has just passed “Trust your Struggle,” to the left, on the side of another retaining wall, as is obvious from the way that he (or she?) is contemplating the solipsism of passengerless cars rushing by on the expressway.  I do not know who put this particular graffiti there, but I smile a little every morning as I walk by it.

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Filed under art, ideas, life, media, philosophy, struggle

E/F – The glass (or cup, as it were) of coffee

Thomas Pynchon once imagined a conversation between Mason and Dixon (of the “line” fame, not the knitters, or the pollsters) that is as true in the twenty-first century as it must have been in the eighteenth.  Mason asked Dixon,

How is it … that of each Pot of Coffee, only the first Cup is ever worth drinking,— and that, by the time I get to it, someone else has already drunk it?”  To which Dixon answered that it’s because of “Coffee’s Sacramental nature, the Sacrament being Penance … whereby the remainder of the Pot, often dozens of cups deep, represents the Price for enjoying that first perfect Cup.”

Coffee is the original smart drug, but like all things good, it comes with a price. The key is to be mindful of how much you drink, for the beneficial effects advance only to a certain level, after which having more coffee produces something like a living nightmare of half-truths, unfinished thoughts, and incomplete sentences.

For these and other reasons, people have blamed coffee for the Enlightenment and related revolutions in rocket science and politics.  They all got started in coffee houses, perfect sites for the blending of conversation and caffeine, the ultimate result of which being a heightened desire for self-expression without, however, a commensurate acuity thereof.  Or as Pynchon put it when describing the scene as Mason and Dixon slipped into a coffee house in Philadelphia in the late 1700’s—

With its own fuliginous Weather, at once public and private, created of smoke billowing from Pipes, Hearthes, and Stoves, the Room would provide an extraordinary sight, were any able to see, in this Combination, peculiar and precise, of unceasing Talk and low Visibility, that makes Riot’s indoor Sister, Conspiracy, not only possible, but resultful as well.  One may be inches from a neighbor, yet both blurr’d past recognizing,— thus may Advice grow reckless and Prophecy extreme, given the astonishing volume of words moving about in here, not only aloud but upon Paper as well …

Coffee sounds a lot like alcohol.  Coffee houses and barrooms once upon a time shared the combination of low lights and incessant smoking that leads two or more people to make very bad decisions based on what little they can see or understand of each other, half-remembered bliss and release lifting like a fog with the clarity of morning.  The poor judgment brought on by low-lit coffee conversations that once resulted in revolutionary dreams, however, now leads mainly to snark and graduate theses.  Compared to alcohol, it’s more difficult to appreciate the terrible results of coffee, because they are so often taken for success.

The Tea Lounge, Park Slope, Brooklyn: a revolution is being plotted right here, right now.

People often combine alcohol and coffee, as if the effects of one can cancel out the other.  This is a mistake.  When you drink coffee while already drunk, you don’t become sober.  Instead, you achieve a much more keen awareness of how incoherent you are.  It’s called coffee-boarding and is outlawed by several international accords signed by everyone but the United States.

The relationship of coffee and alcohol to the truth is easily demonstrated by the degree to which various world religions have grappled with either or both.  Islam banned alcohol, and Muslims became coffee addicts, as did fundamentalist Christians though their coffee is not nearly as good.  AA meetings would be intolerable without coffee.  The Mormons banned both coffee and alcohol, which is why they wound up in Utah, though somehow Coca-Cola escaped the ban despite its (post-cocaine) base in coffee’s essential force, caffeine.  The Buddhists call for people to avoid intoxication by alcohol or stimulants, but they don’t make it inflexible.  This sounds like a pretty good idea, except that it’s impossible, which is the point.

The Tea Lounge, Park Slope

repurposing an old garage, the Park Slope way

The photos for this post were taken in the Tea Lounge, a venerable institution in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, the neighborhood that everyone (else) in New York loves to hate, according to the local newspaper.

The original shop was located in the South Slope on 7th Avenue but had to close a while back due to increasing rents, leaving the larger Union Street shop (pictured here) as the flagship in the heart of the neighborhood.  (Another Tea Lounge has opened in Cobble Hill, a couple nabes over on the other side of the Gowanus Canal.)

Every morning, it begins to fill up with freelancers of every type imaginable – writers, designers, editors, bloggers, people looking for jobs – who stay there all day sipping coffee and making the American economy what it is (hey, they’re telecommuting).  One morning a week (which one has rotated over time) the place fills up with mommies and nannies and toddlers when Lloyd comes to sing for the kids.  Those of us who’re working (including the staff) double down, shut our ears, and keep on working.  The place features in Amy Sohn’s satirical send-up of (and not-entirely-ironic homage to) Park Slope mommyhood, Prospect Park West, as the “Teat Lounge,” so-called for the ubiquitous nursing of infants that goes on there to the soundtracks of Neil Young, Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, and the occasional contemporary indie-groove (think Jem).

A review by Elizabeth of the Anti Tourist describes the Tea Lounge like this:

Studious laptop users sat beside romancing couples and chatty friends and I have to say, between licking the whipped frosting off of my OREO cupcake and sipping a glass of Riesling, I was immediately at ease–especially when my friend bought me a second glass. So yes. Conclusively, I like Tea Lounge. Is it a perfect place to work? Eh. Maybe not. Is it a good place for a date or a drink with a friend? Definitely.

Notes and Credits

All photographs by the author.

Thomas Pynchon on coffee in Mason and Dixon (New York:  Henry Holt, 1997) page 467 for the first quotation and 305 for the second. It’s an historical novel that follows the eighteenth century British astronomers Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon throughout their lives, from their early collaborations in England and South Africa through their pioneering work to survey the border between the Pennsylvania and Maryland colonies from 1763 to 1768.  As novels go, it’s a wonderfully comic buddy film with a touching ending that reaches deep into the emotions surrounding friendship and fatherhood.

Stephen Johnson in The Invention of Air:  A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America (New York:  Riverhead Books, 2008) provides rollicking imagery of the confluence of coffee, truth, alcohol, rocket science, tobacco, and the Enlightenment.  The thesis is simple:  replacing beer with coffee as a way to avoid bad water propelled the Enlightenment foward with clear thinking at long last.  Of the London Coffee House, the meeting place of Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestly, and other men of science and revolution, Johnson wrote (p. 17)—

The London Coffee House lay in St. Paul’s churchyard, a crowded urban space steps from the cathedral, bustling with divinity students, booksellers, and instrument makers.  The proximity to the divine hadn’t stopped the coffeehouse from becoming a gathering place for some of London’s most celebrated heretics, who may well have been drawn to the location for the sheer thrill exploring the limits of religious orthodoxy within shouting distance of England’s most formidable shrine.  On alternating Thursdays, a gang of freethinkers – eventually dubbed “The Club of Honest Whigs” by one of its founding members, Benjamin Franklin – met at the coffeehouse, embarking each fortnight on a long, rambling session that has no exact equivalent in modern scientific culture.

It no doubt would be interesting for Mr. Johnson to survey the clientele at the Tea Lounge and find out what revolutions are brewing for the near future here.

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Filed under fiction, freedom, ideas, individuality, life, Park Slope, philosophy, politics, revolution, struggle, truth