Most of us will chase something at one point or another. It may be a short chase, after something well-defined and easily obtained. Or a long chase, made as much by the struggle as by the goal itself. Or a youthful chase full of bright-eyed, dreamy exuberance. Or the quest of later years, when what lies ahead is increasingly defined by what went before.
For some, the chase is a noble cause that will leave the world a better place, regardless of whether or not the goal is achieved. Others will take the low road of vengeance, recrimination, or pride, plunging into the depths like Captain Ahab on the bloodied back of Moby-Dick.
“Moby-Dick, p. 548” by Matt Kish
To those caught up in the chase it’s not always so clear which side they are on. For those convinced of their righteousness, the nobility of the cause is beyond question, hardship merely a price worth paying, while to others the same quest is utter nonsense. In the end we only remember the quests that hit stride at the right time, when the right people are paying attention. Those chasing Holy Grails and windmills tend to go down anonymously. It doesn’t mean their quests were futile or unimportant, even when they were imaginary or sad. As Dona Walda put it after we finished her oral history in 1993, “We’re not important, but in our own lives we’re important.”
My father once told me that when you see a shooting star, it means a great man has died. It’s an archaic saying that calls to mind stargazers and great dreamers, who loom in my imagination like ancient Greek statues but are just as easily my own grandfathers, my mother, a neighbor who befriended us when we needed it. So many little things come together to make a life under the stars and with the stars, each one’s path to “follow a star,” as the saying goes.
Seen a shooting star tonight And I thought of me If I was still the same If I ever became what you wanted me to be Did I miss the mark or overstep the line That only you could see? Seen a shooting star tonight And I thought of me
Bob Dylan wrote that verse as he stared down fifty, as I am doing. It makes me wonder, too. What are these shooting stars, really? My father believed in “great men,” whose lives we look up to like we look to the stars. Centuries of belief in the ancient world tie our lives to the movements of the stars. The great tragedies are “star-crossed” while Abraham lifted the history of a nation by counting those same stars against the backdrop of nothingness and everything all at once. I believe in the chaotic beauty of a universe held together as much by accident as intention. We all chase our stars, our white-whales and our Holy Grails, eventually going the way of the stars themselves, flaming out against infinity.
Notes and Credits
Photograph of Supernova Remnant N 63A Menagerie from NASA, taken by the Hubble Telescope. You can find the whole Hubble collection at the Hubblesite, which catalogs all the photographs along with explanations of the phenomena being documented.
Photo of a white (albino) humpback whale found at Cryptomundo. The whale is called “Migaloo,” and more photos can be found here by Dan Burns of Blue Planet Marine and Southern Cross University, New South Wales, Australia.
Dona Walda was the matriarch of a family I met in Aurá, a suburb of Belém, Brasil, in 1992-93. I came to know Dona Walda and her family as I took oral histories of their experiences in Aurá, which was founded by land invasion in 1990 during the gubernatorial elections of that year, when candidate Jader Barbalho went around the state promising to legalize invasion neighborhoods if he won the election. I visited with my friends from Aurá from 1992 through 2004, learning much from their neighborhood’s history and writing a few pieces about he neighborhood association for scholarly journals. Dona Walda’s statement after her interview with me is one of the most touching things that I’ve heard across my entire career of interviewing people about their lives. A wise statement, I will never forget it.
They surround us very much like the air we breathe. Sometimes they are visible, in bookstores, in grocery stores, or on bill boards. Sometimes they are invisible: you see the leather seats, but not the word luxury. Words are many things, even as they represent many other things. Words change lives. They make you stop, push, pull, sit, wait, and be quiet. Words can kill as easily as they create.
As children, we learn magical words – abracadabras and shazams and opensesames. As adults, we learn that all words can be magical in one way or another, whether manifest, latent, silent, or spoken. Some of us fall under words’ spell. We become writers.
In this world of words, there are no strays. For all the words in the world, we can make a few observations:
Somebody wrote the words. Somebody will be paid for them. Somebody will claim to be their author.
These statements hold true for all the words we can see in the world. The exception is for private words: the letters, personal journals, notes or emails that people write to specific somebodies or to no one at all. Under closer scrutiny, however, this exception falls away, for private words tend to become public when the opportunity cost of maintaining their privacy exceeds the actual cost of making them public. Or put differently, when the public value of private words exceeds their private value, it’s only a matter of time before they become public. Paid or unpaid, words have value, and those who claim authorship will hold that value dear, whether money is on the table or not.
The interesting thing about the above referenced somebodies is that they are not always the same somebody. Any stroll past the bestseller shelves in a bookstore (or surfed across the pages of Amazon.com) reveals a fundamental division of labor between writing and authorship, and the authors are always paid more than the writers. Additionally, agents, editors, marketers, and publishers also share in the take from any well-written (or at least well-selling) set of words. Just how the writers fit into this is an open question, because our society’s fetish for authorship is indeed a pretty solid hedge marking the boundary between our enacted reality and the real labor that makes it possible.
The Truth and the Ghost Writer
The truth and the ghost writer, January 19, 2012
To tease out these issues was the purpose of “The truth and the ghost writer,” a book reading that took place on January 19, 2012 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The event was part of the Brooklyn Reading Works program that takes place every third Thursday of the month from September through May at the Old Stone House, a restored Dutch farmhouse that was part of the Battle of New York in 1776 and later the original clubhouse for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. Every year, for three years running now, I’ve been asked by the Brooklyn Reading Works creator, Louise Crawford, to come up with the program for one the events. For this year’sprogram, I gave myself the challenge finding ghost writers for a book reading.
The four writers on the panel were Keith Elliot Greenberg, Sarah Deming, Alisa Bowman, and James Braly. They are all writers who have managed to pay their bills with words. They each brought experiences both of ghostwriting and solo authorship. They each had rich stories about the care and feeding of clients who as often as not were testy and uncooperative. They each operated with something of a code of honor and professionalism of conduct, meaning that they don’t reveal their authors, and they work hard to make sure their authors speak honestly and understand the consequences of their words. This doesn’t mean they don’t embellish, but there seems to be some slippage in the ghosting process that you don’t have, say, in the writing of memoirs (viz. James Frey). Veracity and verisimilitude are but two ends of the ghostwriting candle, with a lot of wax in between.
Keith Elliot Greenberg
Keith Elliot Greenberg
Keith was the Indiana Jones of the group, a swashbuckler who went deep inside the lives of pro wrestlers in order to coauthor their autobiographies. His work fed a long and stormy relationship with Ric Flair, known as the greatest pro wrestler of all time, who blamed Keith’s book for the demise of his marriage. It was a classic case of the author not understanding the consequences of his words when printed — specifically the humiliation his wife would suffer with the public revelation of Flair’s amorous adventures. Flair said that he’d told his wife about these affairs long ago, but he didn’t realize that she figured these stories would go no further. Keith can report Flair’s name – also Classy Fred Blassie and Superstar Billy Graham – because he alone of the panelists scored deals that put his authorship on the book cover. He also coauthored a column for Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Overall, Keith has written over 30 books and in addition to the professional wrestlers, he has nurtured an eclectic stable of authors including homicide detectives, women’s self defense instructors, and children’s rights advocates.
Sarah was the ying and yang of the evening’s presentations. Her experience involved the marriage of opposites in a way that felt natural and not at all at odds. Her authored work includes a children’s novel, Iris, Messenger (Harcourt 2007), and (in process) a memoir of her relationship with her mother, a bipolar woman whose kidneys were destroyed by Lithium. Sarah donated a kidney to her mother and is now writing the memoir with her, each alternating the voices of the chapters. Her ghosting was in porn, specifically erotic novels based on the lives of real nude models. The standup moment in her presentation was her comparison of the ways in which porn and children’s literature are the same, taken from an essay she wrote about writing.
“People have commented on the apparent contradiction of writing both children’s fiction and porn. They think I’m being cute when I say they have a lot in common, but I’m not. Both are underrated genres that aim to please, not to impress. Roald Dahl wrote that children’s literature is unique in that it does more than merely entertain, it teaches children the habit of reading and increases their vocabulary. It has, in other words, a utilitarian, developmental role. So does porn. My message is pretty much the same to both children and adult readers: live in your imagination, accept all kinds of people, and let go of shame.”
Alisa was the consummate professional. Soft-spoken and serious, she blended personal reflection and self-deprecating humor as she told her story. After starting out as a staff writer at magazines, she was offered the job of writing a book for another writer who had too many other time commitments. In addition to her skill as a writer, it turned out she was good at channeling the voice of another person, and more ghosting offers came her way. She quit her day job when she realized could make a lot more money as a ghost, and in her first year she doubled her income. After seeing her titles — but of course not her name — on the New York Times bestsellers lists, there came a time when she wanted to make a go getting her own name on that list as author and writer. To do so, she began to write a sex advice column, entering her own world of swashbuckling ying and yang until the day came when she realized she was becoming someone she didn’t want to be. The ghost, as it were, became her own ghost and she didn’t like it. Other flirtations with writerly fame have followed, but mainly she’s returned to ghosting as a master of a craft that requires satisfaction with the act of writing itself. To date, she has ghosted over 30 titles, 7 of which have wound up on the New York Times bestsellers list.
James was the panel’s reluctant one, whose skill and natural storytelling ability keeps the work coming even while he’s not entirely sure this is his true calling. He told a tale of how a neighbor’s ghost hijacked him from the unwanted drudgery of ghosting a speech for a corporate client. It had happened that while James was writing, this neighbor jumped ten stories to his death in the courtyard. Some time later, James found himself scrambling into bed with his young sons, chased by the neighbor’s ghost and hoping that real ghosts wouldn’t attack children. As one ghost taunted the other, James closed his eyes and hoped that his boys would not follow their father’s footsteps, even as he continued down this path of channeling the spirits of others for a wage. Unlike the others on the panel, James’s ghosting work doesn’t much involve books. He writes speeches, presentations, and other communications for corporate clients, including the world’s 144th richest man. He hems and haws about it, but he keeps doing it even while he leads another life as a performer in his own (really) self-authored, autobiographical one-man-show that has been seen around the world to rave reviews. The show has been optioned for film.
At the end of the presentation, James told how he has finally come to terms with this profession that he wouldn’t wish on his children. In that story, he told of interviewing a series of architects and designers for the renovation of his Upper West Side coop, the same apartment where the aforementioned tragic ghosting incident occurred. The designers each came to him with grand plans for his apartment that reflected their own distinctive styles, but this was precisely what James had hoped to avoid. He wanted, he said, a solid renovation that would be tasteful and reflect the character of his apartment and his life. The best designer for his home would be the one who simply vanished into the work itself, leaving nothing but the renovation. It was at that point that James realized he was ghost writer and that it was okay.
Notes and Credits
James Braly’s website can be found here, with all you need to know about his show, “Life in a Marital Institution (20 years of monagamy in one terrifying hour). Alisa Bowman’s website is here, in which she helps you understand her story and what she can do for you. Sarah Deming’s blog is called “The Spiral Staircase,” and she has another website about her work here. Keith Elliot Greenberg can be found on Huffington Post and elsewhere on the Web, including this Youtube video about his book on John Lennon.
The photograph of the stop sign comes from a site called “Funny Free Pics,” which can be found here. I was looking for a stop sign and chose this one because of the street sign, “Washtenaw Ave.,” which is the main drag of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I did my doctoral studies. Also, I like the graffiti, which is ironic-cute-pointless in a way that reminded me of the 1980s in Ann Arbor, though I admit that I think this sign might just come from Washtenaw Ave. in Chicago. I can’t quite tell, but it’s a word that ambiguously reminds me of my past on a sign telling me to do something (which I will do, to be certain) defaced with words that make me roll my eyes.
Photographs of the Brooklyn Reading Works event and the four writers are posted courtesy of David Kumin, a friend of Keith’s who sent me his pictures of the event.
Many thanks go to Louise Crawford, who organizes the Brooklyn Reading Works and is the founder of the Brooklyn Blogfest. Her blog, “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn,” was a touchstone of community information for the Park Slope for many years and continues to provide postings of Hugh Crawford’s photographs and other news. Her community presence is an inspiration to me.
The venue for these readings and many other events in Park Slope is the Old Stone House, which features a regular calendar of community events. The OSH is maintained by a non-profit organization that reflects the best of community-building in our world.
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.
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.
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
Watson and Crick walking into the Eagle Pub in Cambridge, England, on February 28, 1953, saying that they had found “the secret of life”
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.
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
wolverine michigan desk
faroeste gary cooper
mirrors “lady from shanghai ”
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
rocket party dei black eyed beans
bacon francis house
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.
heroism in 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
poem on dysentery
amoebic dysentery brazil
live amoeba vs. fixed amoeba
brazil land of the future by Zweig trans
brasilia architecture falling apart
standard deviation diagram
one standard deviation bell curve
stats bell curve normal curve
standard deviation 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 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
Credit: The chart of the timeline of Memento (Christopher Nolan) is by Dr Steve Aprahamian, and can be found on Wikimedia Commons.
There are two kinds of people: those who follow and those who don’t. Of followers, there are two kinds: those who stay put, and those who go somewhere. Of followers who go somewhere, there are two kinds: those who are led and those who are pushed, the latter including those who fall in holes whether pushed or not (go ask Alice). Of followers who stay put, there are two kinds: those who stay in a place, and those who stay in a particular frame of mind.
Of those who do not follow, there are three kinds: poets, prophets, and migrants. Of poets, it is said that they show us who we are. Of prophets, it is said that they show us who we should be. Of migrants, it is said they show us where to go next.
Poets, prophets, and migrants are called. They do not choose who they are, and mistakes can be made when callings are crossed, whether by the one who is called or by those doing the calling. When poets are mistaken for prophets, everyone is deceived. Cults are formed and lives are wasted.
There’s a whole lot of people in trouble tonight from the disease of conceit
Whole lot of people seeing double tonight from the disease of conceit
Give you delusions of grandeur and an evil eye
Give you the idea that you’re too good to die
Then they bury you from your head to your feet
From the disease of conceit.
Bob Dylan, “Disease of Conceit”
Prophets are rarely mistaken for poets, but when they are, they are generally neither and the poetry is awful. Though it is nearly impossible for a poet to be a prophet, either might be a migrant, whether on land, in dreams, or of the mind.
Leadership is an attribute given by those who follow to someone else, who may or not be the kind of person who follows. The truth is—leadership has nothing to do with being a follower or not. In the end, perhaps there really are only two kinds of people: those who do well when type-cast, and those who only begin to thrive when cast against type.
Notes and Credits
The photos were all taken by the author in the neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, in 2008, 2009, and 2010. The first is a photo of an art project my son did in the first grade (2009), drawing the human form. The second is the tunnel at the northwestern entrance of Prospect Park. The third is a garden scultpure in front of a house on 2nd Street, near the corner with Prospect Park West.
Bob Dylan was called to be a poet, but the people who loved him wanted him to be a prophet. It cost him, and some of those loved him, twenty years. After years of reflection, Dylan wrote that by the mid-1980s “[e]verything was smashed. My own songs had become strangers to me. I didn’t have the skill to touch their raw nerves, couldn’t penetrate the surfaces. It wasn’t my moment of history any more. I couldn’t wait to retire and fold the tent”—Chronicles, Vol. One (Simon and Schuster, 2004), p. 148.
Dylan wrote “Disease of Conceit,” in 1987 as he began to explore a new musical identity more aligned with his own sense of self and his mission as an artist. The song would be the eighth track on Oh Mercy, the album that set him on the path to redeeming his career with a whole new audience by the mid-1990s. In the fall of 1989, I saw him perform at Hill Auditorium on the University of Michigan Campus in Ann Arbor. It was the third show of his I had seen at that point in my life and by far the best. Toward the end of the show – as either the closing song or the last encore – he brought down the house with “Disease of Conceit.” The poetry was breathtaking.
As for those who fall down holes …
Alice on the toad-stool, Central Park, New York, December 20, 2009
There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every affair under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
April 21, 2010
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
October 31, 2009
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
December 21, 2009
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.
April 29, 2010
Notes and Credits
The photos of the tree at the beginning of this post were taken by the author from my dining room window on Caton Avenue in Brooklyn, 11218. The tree is in the Bowling Green of the Prospect Park Parade Grounds.
The photos of the trees forming an arch over the sidewalk were taken by the author at the Prospect Park Parade Grounds, Caton Avenue sidewalk, 11218.
The truth is that money is often a divisive influence in our lives. We keep our bank balances secret because we worry that being candid about our finances will expose us to judgment or ridicule—or worse, to accusations of greed or immorality. And this worry is not unfounded.
Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell, Money Changes Everything (New York: Doubleday, 2007), p. xi
Brooklyn Reading Works:
The Truth and Money
On April 15, 2010, the Brooklyn Reading Works will present its monthly writers’ program on “tax day.” This happy accident, observed last summer in a casual conversation over coffee with Louise Crawford, resulted in the idea for a panel called “The Truth and Money,” a reading and Q & A with three authors whose work has taken on money in some significant way.
Our three panelists are:
Elissa Schappell, a Park Slope writer, the editor of “Hot Type” (the books column) forVanity Fair, and Editor-at-large of the literary magazine Tin House.With Jenny Offill, Schappell edited Money Changes Everything, in which twenty-two writers reflect on the troublesome and joyful things that go along with acquiring, having, spending, and lacking money.
Jennifer Michael Hecht, a best-selling writer and poet whose work crosses fields of history, philosophy, and religious studies. In The Happiness Myth, she looks at what’s not making us happy today, why we thought it would, and what these things really do for us instead. Money—like so many things, it turns out—solves one problem only to beget others, to the extent that we spend a great deal of money today trying to replace the things that, in Hecht’s formulation, “money stole from us.”
Jason Kersten, a Park Slope writer who lives 200 feet from our venue and whose award-winning journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, and Maxim. In The Art of Making Money, Kersten traces the riveting, rollicking, roller coaster journey of a young man from Chicago who escaped poverty, for a while at least, after being apprenticed into counterfeiting by an Old World Master.
Please join us for the event at 8:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 15, 2010, at the Old Stone House in Washington Park, which is located on 5th Avenue in Park Slope, between 3rd and 4th Streets, behind the playground.
The subtitle on the cover of Elissa Schappell’s book says everything you need to know about the stories within: Twenty-two writers tackle the last taboo with tales of sudden windfalls, staggering debts, and other surprising turns of fortune. “The last taboo” is how Schappell and her co-editor, Jenny Offill, characterize our behavior when it comes to money, because nobody really wants to talk about it.
People are secretive and embarrassed—for having too little, or too much, or something to hide about the reasons either way. In a country where everyone seems to have a story of how they, or their parents or grandparents, used to be poor, any personal narrative but “hard work” is out of the question. Even hardened criminals revel in detailing the blood, sweat, and tears that go into their “work.” No one, it seems, can sit back and say with no embellishment or apology, “I got lucky, that’s all.” Money is the measure of what we deserve, and in our society what we deserve is in some sense who we are.
In The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht seeks to disentangle why things that are supposed to make us happy frequently don’t. To the notion that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” she shows that it does, to an extent. For most of human history (and pre-history), people have lived in conditions of terrible, frightening, life-threatening scarcity that money in no small part has eradicated for all but a very small fraction of Americans. (In line with Schappell’s notion of money-taboo, I now feel the urge to apologize and state something statistical about hardship and inequality in America, but I won’t. We deserve ourselves and all of our money issues.) Hecht writes,
“We need to remember that most people through history have been racked by work that was bloody-knuckled drudgery, the periodic desperate hunger of their children, and for all but the wealthiest, the additional threat of violent animals. Nowadays a lot of what we use money for is a symbolic acting-out of these triumphs.”
Once out of poverty, in other words, what we do with money—or more precisely the things we feel when using money—have a lot to do with ancient urges and inner conflicts that endure in our minds, bodies, and culture across time and without, so it seems, our self-conscious awareness of them. Money does buy happiness, up to the point we’re out of poverty, and then the real problems begin.
Like the craving for fat and things that are sweet, the urges we satisfy with money are deeply embedded in our being, fundamental to the way we evolved in the most far-away places and times. It’s all fine and easy to understand or forgive, but we all know what happens when you eat too many doughnuts.
Doughnuts to Dollars
Yet money is not like a doughnut. This we all know—money isn’t some thing, it’s just some non-thing you use to get doughnuts or whatever else you think you need. The economists’ word for this quality is fungible. Adam Smith introduced money in his great book on wealth by reviewing the things that societies have used for exchange measures over time, including cattle, sheep, salt, shells, leather hides, dried codfish, tobacco, sugar, and even “nails” in a village in Scotland that Smith knew of. All this was terribly inconvenient, and Smith noted that the use of precious metal as a stand-in for things of value constituted a considerable advance—
“If, on the contrary, instead of sheep or oxen, he had metals to give in exchange for it, he could easily proportion the quantity of the metal to the precise quantity of the commodity which he had immediate occasion for.”
Money in this sense becomes nothing but a means of measurement, and it would be perfect indeed if money’s effects on the world ended there, but we all know that they don’t.
Money—as Elissa Schappell and Jenny Offill, Cyndi Lauper and conventional wisdom tell us—changes everything. Money’s magical qualities go well beyond simple notions like greed. Money’s powers are existential, transformative, and really weird. Money makes us into things we are not. Karl Marx was pretty blunt about this—
“Money’s properties are my properties and essential powers … what I am and am capable of is by no means determined by my individuality. I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness—its deterrent power—is nullified by money. I, in my character as an individual, am lame, but money furnishes me with twenty-four feet. Therefore I am not lame. I am bad, dishonest, unscrupulous, stupid; but money is honored, and therefore so is its possessor. Money is the supreme good, therefore its possessor is good. Money, besides, saves me the trouble of being dishonest: I am therefore presumed honest. I am stupid, but money is the real mind of all things and how then should its possessor be stupid?”
Marx may have fallen short as an economist, but then again so do most official economists. In terms of money’s most basic ontological properties, however, it’s worth noting that he got money right.
In the story of master counterfeiter Art Williams, Jason Kersten tells one such story of how money changes people, their values, and the truths that bind them together. Art’s counterfeit was of an extraordinarily high quality, and its effect on people was fascinating to behold. Art called it The Glow—“They would get this look on their face … a look of wonder, almost like they were on drugs. It was like they were imagining the possibilities of what it could do for them, and they wanted more.”
Like the anonymous subjects of history in Hecht’s writing (note: that’s us), Art wanted something that money, or the lack of it, had apparently stolen from his life. Art’s “pursuit had very little to do with money, and the roots of his downfall lay in something impossible to replicate or put a value on. As he would say himself, ‘I never got caught because of money. I got caught because of love.’”
So where does money get us? It’s easy to tell stories of money and doom, but we all know that without enough of it we’d be unable to do anything we need to do, let alone the supposedly unnecessary things that seem to make up for the drudgery of a life built upon doing the things we need to do. Is the grubbiness of money as it comes off in the Pink Floyd song all there is to it? Or is there more?
Join us on April 15, after affirming the give-away of twenty-eight percent (for most of us) of your annual harvest.
Many thanks to Louise Crawford for inviting me to curate the Tax Day BRW panel, through the Truth and Rocket Science blog. A sincere debt of gratitude, not to mention late fees, is owed to the Brooklyn Public Library, for enabling my research and inquiry into this topic. The BPL’s copies are indeed those photographed on my dining room table to lead the blog post.
Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell, Money Changes Everything (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
Jennifer Michael Hecht, The Happiness Myth (New York: Harper One, 2007), p. 129.
Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, in Robert L. Heilbroner, ed., The Essential Adam Smith (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986), p. 173.
Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, in Robert C. Tucker, editor, The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), p. 103.
Jason Kersten, The Art of Making Money (New York: Gotham Books, 2009), p. 152 (first quotation) and p. 4 (second quotation).
Photo Karl Marx’s grave, Highgate Cemetary, London, taken by the author in January, 1994, while on layover on the way to South Africa and its historical elections later that year.
Your body isn’t your own,
exposed for all it really is:
permeable, full of holes,
part of the world.
A floating thing tossed and spit
on tumbling water not always clear,
you become home to others,
little animals here
at play in the world.
You could be a tree, or grass, under
tiny feet that make no sound of their own,
their steps heard in quickened heartbeats
and restless groans
that shake the world.
You’re full of holes that leave
you open, a window lost of glass,
panes rattling, short of breath,
waiting, waiting, hoping to pass
this sense of a world
stumbling moments from death,
moments from life.
The name of the poem is Sickness. I wrote it in Belém in February of 1993, as I was coping with the onset of amoebic dysentery. It was rather a rough time, and this, the worst and latest in a cascade of different ailments since my arrival in Brazil the previous November. I was adjusting to my new home, I told myself, but I began to re-conceive my relationship to the world. Except for a bout of the flu at age 9 and a one-day bug at age 13, I’d never been seriously ill in my life. When I met the amoebas, my body-as-fortress gave way to a new understanding of myself as a being in the world, no different really than a bug, participating in the world along with all the other creatures of existence, open to all those creatures, part of the landscape. In the world – the amoebas helped me understand Heidegger and Sartre.
We’re all part of the landscape here, guests of each other, parts of each other. Somewhere in the human genome, shot through my body and yours, there is DNA that we inherited from a common of ancestor with amoebas. According to Richard Dawkins in his lovely The Ancestor’s Tale, our most recent common ancestor (MRCA in biospeak) would have existed between about 1.3 and 2 billion years ago. This being, some kind of single-celled thing, would have eventually given rise to amoeba and other protozoans, in one evolutionary path, and the things that became plants and animals on another path.
Most recent common ancestor, collapsed tree
All creation is locked in struggle for the limited energy of this world. This struggle produces rainforests when so many beings stretch to outdo others in an effort to trap the sun. The struggle produces abundance as well as scarcity, cooperation as often as annhiliation, and a long-standing collaboration between us humans and the hoards of friendly bacteria (and even some amoeba) that live inside our bodies and help us be “human,” as it were.
Notes and Credits
A really interesting article about amoebas can be found here, by Wim van Egmond, and it includes really great photos of amoebas in action. The photo of an amoeba at the beginning of this posting is taken from the site, Helpful Health Tips, which discusses the causes and treatments for amoebic dysentery. More detail on the different kinds of amoebas can be found in this piece on Innvista. Getting past dysentery meant mountains of Flagyl and a lot of examinations and tests, not only in Brazil but also after I got back to the US in 1993 and in 1994. I never was the same again, but then again, were we ever?
When I was looking around the web for amoeba-related sites, photos, and such, I came across this company, Rogue Amoeba Software, LLC, and it’s blog. It has nothing to do with this post specifically, except that it’s a very cool name for a company, and especially suggestive for a software firm. Our computers and their software are, like our bodies, permeable, full of holes,
part of the world. We’ve made information systems in our image, both on purpose and by accident, just as it was presumed by some we ourselves were made.
The third post in this series, The truth and change, is split in two, 3a and 3b. They provide different outcomes for the multi-part essay on change and the future that I began a month ago. It wasn’t how I planned the posts, nor are these the only two ways things can work out. They are, instead, the unintended surprises at the end of a long chain of lateral thinking that has also suggested a set of follow-up postings down the line. It’s always nice to pile up things to do.
From Life on Mars to Linden
Avatars are nothing new to the human species, from the caves of Lascaux to the virtual worlds of Second Life and other large web-based games. These (brave?) new worlds carry out the same primeval urge that led people to create paintings of their daily lives 35,000 years ago. What began in the caves has become a massive wall written on by millions of people, together, sharing a world that they have imagined out of the very world in which they live.
The House of Tomorrow, 35,000 BCE
One of the interesting things about the virtual world is that it does create a “place” that didn’t exist before, uncovering new spaces in life that are hidden beneath the physical dimensions we take for granted. In the world of Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs, or MMOs) such as Second Life, people leave their organic beings and create virtual selves, societies, and places in cyberspace. These worlds are a social version of the extra-dimensional physics of string theory, “brane worlds,” and high energy model building that physicist Lisa Randall has written and spoken about. In MMOs, we are building new worlds in very small spaces inside the world of everyday experience.
The key thing about these virtual dimensions is their connectivity to real life, which engenders much greater imaginative potential than the escape to the “silver screen” that left the sad girl in David Bowie’s song wondering if there was “Life on Mars.” Ours is now a world of both cultural production and absolute reflexivity, in which the virtual world is like a magnifying mirror we hold to our organic lives.
In a fascinating example of this reflexivity, organic journalist Marcia Stepanek reports on Second Life journalistDraxtor Despres, who himself reports on the goings-on of the organic world for the people of Second Life. Their dialogue is like an 8-track tape, or a Möbius Strip in which one side is organic, the other side virtual, both surfaces effortlessly sliding into each other when they are attached in just the right way.
Already, the virtual economy is derived from, reflects, and ultimately contributes to the organic economy. In July of 2009, Second Life creator Philip Linden spoke to BOSL (Best of Second Life) Blog about how Linden Labs is creating various supports for crossover services involving both businesses and educators, who will use the SL platform to provide services in real life. Within SL, “Linden Dollars” are the basis of a vast economy of virtual goods that can be converted, ultimately, into organic dollars.
The virtual world embraces an entire crossover economy. Hermione Watanabe is a “virtual wealth coach” whose blog provides advice and information on the SL economy and how to grow income there and in the organic world. Perhaps the most compelling confirmation of the virtual world’s “real” existence is that the Federal Government is thinking about how to tax virtual economic activity.
The crossover continues in the amateur machinima that is becoming an art form of its own, sprawling across YouTube, Vimeo, and other video networking sites. Aenea Nori’s SL video for Kafka Dinzeo’s remix of Lily Allen’s “Littlest Things” brilliantly takes us through the wormholes that connect virtual dimensions to the organic and back again.
LauraMW12345 created an organic-virtual mix in which “Second Life Meets Real Life,” in which the green screen existed in SL and the “real world” had to be inserted as fictional background for the avatars. The video is set over the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner,” which was one of the early, pioneering events in remix history, on the borders of different dimensions of musical creation and imagination.
This sliding between organic and virtual lives has inevitably encompassed the most ubiquitous and equalizing of human emotions: sex (and its correlate emotions). Love is in the virtual air, as people in Second Life and other MMOs mix, mingle, fall for each other, become married (virtually, but quite really), pledge love, cheat, cry, break up, and try again. For a while, people started to create real-world-like porn magazines on-line (in Second Life, Slustler was a phenomenon in 2005-07), but these have been displaced by other virtual services and games that better fit the medium, such as Red Light Center (which creates a very real organic economy for itself as well) and SL meeting places and adult parties.
Eventually, however, we come back to the connection between the virtual and organic worlds. They cannot function without each other. “If This is Second Life Why Is My Heart Breaking In Real Life?” is a machinima video created by Kirk Lancaster and Sandra Holyoke that explores the crossover of desire and heartache. The relationships we create in other dimensions reverberate in the organic world and behind them all lie one, beating, very organic heart.
The future, it seems, is not out there in the world, some place distant in either time or space. It’s in our minds, already, right now, and available for our scrutiny. This isn’t the future I imagined as a youth, or even when I began writing these postings. In this future, much of the world is simply brought to life from our own minds with the help of technologies that enable millions of minds to communicate in tandem, synced together to build a world that is every bit as real as the organic world even as it vanishes before us to live in our minds.
This brings me back to the Shetland Islands of the late 1940s, where Erving Goffman gathered observations and data for his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. It was published in 1959 and became a classic of American sociology; it’s still widely read and has never been thought out-of-date.
Immersing himself in the world of the Shetland Islanders, Goffmann looked at their everyday interactions through the lens of drama – people were actors in their own plays, as well as each other’s audiences. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare famously said, and Goffmann set out to prove it. People work hard to create settings and situations in which they can enact a specific, intentional script. They have certain behaviors for their audience, as well as an array of backstage behaviors.
Goffman’s point of view was revolutionary at the time and cemented the foundation of a whole school of social thought. We construct our own worlds in the same way that we construct plays and dramas. The representational activity that started in places like Lascaux and ends up in MMOs is pretty much the same. The attractiveness of gaming and MMOs is clear: it’s what we already do in regular life, only in the MMO we get a greater degree of control over what we hide backstage.
This begs a question. Is the change we experience with this technology really anything more than a change in the venue (now virtual, created) for the same old desires we’ve always had? A vanity of vanities in which there’s nothing new under the sun except for the bottles that are filled with old wine? Does the virtual world of love and sex and desire change any of the fundamental emotions or relationships that constitute what it means to be human? When and where does the virtual world go beyond reflections and extrapolations of the organic?
When is the virtual world for-itself?
Notes and Credits
The opening photo is from the Flikr site of rikomatic. The photo shows a house for sale in Second Life, where participants engage in an extensive economy that has several dimensions – purely virtual, combined virtual and organic, and mainly oriented toward organic profit. In Second Life, people create their own houses by using virtual money (Linden dollars) to purchase land and materials in the virtual world.
Much thanks to Marcia Stepanek for introducing me to the world of machinima in her writing on Cause Global and Pop!Tech.
Aenea Nori’s machinima for the “Littlest Things (remix)” carries us through many layers of time and space. I would have embedded the video in the blog for people to see, except that WordPress (the free version, anyway) isn’t communicating with Vimeo. You should go to her site, however, and check out her video work. There is no recent activity on the Vimeo site or on her blog (the last activity is September 2008), but perhaps she’ll be back.
Lily Allen uses a lot of mixing, overdubbing, and sampling to build her songs, which are themselves an aural hypertext calling forth a multitude of associations and images. “Littlest Things” recalls Cat Stevens’ “Wild World,” morphing time across 35 years of cultural production. Listening to Allen’s work is stimulating – and now Aenea Nori and Kafka Dinzeo transport the music and associated images into another world altogether, sliding along a “brane” between the virtual and organic worlds.
Regina Lynn has written in Wired about the growth of the virtual sex world found in MMOs all over the web, some of which are lucrative businesses. WebMD posted a balanced article on the advantages of cybersex and “teledildonics,” which include a safe place to try out new ideas (both in terms of disease and in terms of emotional control), as well as the problems – it can become addictive and affect real-life relationships. The article quotes Regina Lynn, who brings the issue down to earth: “Does your partner know, and does your partner consent? Lying is cheating.” Over at True/Slant, Todd Essig writes about the cutting edge developments in the world of cyber sex – now, cyber-touch with lasers across world’s distances.
Taunt is a blog devoted to SL economics and SL sex life. SL and other MMOs feature escort services and erotic parties to cater to every taste, including many that are all but impossible to enact in organic life. “Second life guys can have it all, as long as they’re willing to pay,” according to Elle Kirshner, a Second Life designer and voiceover artist for Kirk Lancaster’s SL video, “Second Life Man.”
Overall, sex is actually the cutting edge of machinima and virtual reality. Why? Because it’s what we want so much in real life that our urges push the limits of technology so that we can pursue desire in every possible corner of existence, from dreams to waking life to virtual reality.