Thursday, August 28, 2008

Del Martin, dead at 87

What an amazing life. When she and her life partner Phyllis Lyon met in 1950, homosexuality was classified as a mental disease. In May 2008, they were able to be side by side and get legally married. It's enough to warm the heart of a crusty old polemicist and make him think that there's the possibility of progress in this bad old world after all.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Unphotogenic Art Form

“Of all things written, I love only what a person has written with his blood.”

- Friedrich Nietzsche

Think hard: have you ever seen an interesting movie or documentary about a writer? In the past several weeks, I have seen documentaries that did wonderful jobs of portraying two very different art forms: musical composition and painting. A Labyrinth of Time gives us American composer Elliott Carter, while the truly gonzo, loopy documentary Condo Painting shows us the painter George Condo at work. And this is the key: we see these artists at work.

We see Carter working with musicians, hunched over the piano sorting out a composition problem, conducting an orchestra; and when he wasn’t doing much of anything, the filmmakers showed him wandering the streets of his beloved Manhattan with his compositions as background music. With Condo, the visual “photogenic” aspects of his art form are even more obvious; I have a hard time imagining a boring documentary when your raw materials are paint and turpentine and canvases where new work is constructed as the camera watches.

And there’s the problem with writing. There is nothing visual about it. with Carter and Condo, we get to see them doing their art – and it is exciting. Watching a writer do his art is about as exciting as watching a tree put out new growth rings. Making a film in which the main action would be a writer writing would be a disaster. Films about writers always show the writer living his life, not doing his art. There is basically nothing to show.

The other problem with writing as an art form is that (until recently) there have been very few non-traditional outlets for the writer’s craft. We’ve all heard the story (probably apocryphal) of the woman who kick starts a photography career by hanging some of her work in a local bank lobby. We’ve all heard about the actor who got his start acting off-off-off-Broadway (or even doing street theatre). We even have the unforgettable image of Basquiat bombing the walls and subway trains of New York City with his spraypainted art.

Maybe blogs like this are what we writers get to have other than the all-too-rare experience of publication. Maybe the internet is how our art finally gets to be photogenic. Maybe what we’re doing out here is bombing the digital subways with our art.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Happy Birthday, H.P. Lovecraft

An odd recluse, terrified of cities, people, and "lesser races". His prose style incorporates the worst of the stylistic excesses of Poe at best, the penny dreadfuls at worst. All that being said, Lovecraft had something in his work that most other "weird fiction" writers lack: a consistent vision. Plus, let's be honest: he's fun to read, one of those guilty pleasure we don't like to admit we indulge.

I highly recommend Michel Hoellebecq's book HP Lovecraft: Against The World, Against Life, for an excellent critical/philosophical assessment of Lovecraft's work.

From The Writer's Almanac:

It's the birthday of H.P. Lovecraft born Howard Phillips Lovecraft in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. He wrote science fiction, fantasy, and horror, a genre that during his life was called simply "weird fiction." Lovecraft wrote hundreds of poems and short stories, but they were scattered throughout various pulp magazines and publications. It was only after his death that some of the people he had corresponded with in letters were determined to share his work with the public, so they formed a press called Arkham House specifically as a way to publish Lovecraft's work. They issued The Outsider and Others in 1939, and his books are still widely available— books like The Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stores (1932). Fantasy and horror writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman consider Lovecraft one of their major influences, and Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story, "There Are More Things," in memory of Lovecraft.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why I Am Not An Atheist

Quote of the week 8/15/08

“If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the patterns of their words.”

Isaac Asimov

I no longer call myself an atheist. Oh,don’t get me wrong: I still don’t believe there is a God or gods, but I have decided that the label “a-theist” makes no more sense as a positive self-description that describing oneself as an a-Bunnyist or an a-Santaist or an a-ToothFairyist. It is a negation, is it an “I am not” rather than an “I am”. Defining oneself on the basis of what one is not is quite literally absurd. I am not a scrapbooker, but I do not view “not a scrapbooker" as a self-descriptive label and a basis for solidarity with other “not a scrapbooker"people. One can quickly see how absurd this really is. How sad, how limiting to define oneself in terms of one thing out of the many things one does not believe.

I refuse to make a religion out of my lack of religion. I don’t organize my life or my thinking around my lack of belief. My life and my life’s projects are driven by things that matter. If I have to call myself anything, I could do a lot worse than steal an idea from Kierkegaard and label myself:


Sunday, August 10, 2008

What the Hell is Going On in Italy?

24 July 2008
Soldiers To Patrol Italian Streets To Fight Crime

Italian Mayor Bans Gatherings of Three or More

What is one to make of these ominous developments in Italy? Do they suggest more of the same is on the way in other European countries? Or is it simply an anomaly? I think to understand what is happening now, you need to think about Europe’s history.

Europe is a place that turned back the Muslim invaders in the 700's (Tours/Poitiers France) and the 1600s (Vienna Austria). The current "invasion" by poor people from Muslim countries is viewed by many Europeans through this lens of history. It's not something we here in the US can really grasp; we keep saying "yeah well we have our own problem with an 'invasion' from Mexico!" But it's really not the same thing at all. The US's wave of "invaders" have no history of aggressive behavior against the US (in fact, if you look at the Texican squatters of the 1830s and the unprovoked war against Mexico in the 1840s, quite the opposite is true). When Europe sees a new wave of "barbarians at the gates", they are seeing three things that we cannot grasp:

  1. historically, Islam did try to over-run Europe and convert it. We might say "Jeez Louise, that was centuries ago!" Which simply reveals our ignorance of the thinking of countries that actually have a history, one spanning millenia. To Europe (and, it should be noted, to the Muslim world) things like the battle of Tours and the siege of Vienna happened yesterday.
  1. our Mexican "invaders" do not have a recent history of detonating themselves in close proximity to the native population of their host country. When Europeans see Muslim immigrants, they think Madrid, they think Coventry Station. They look at Iraq and Afghanistan and they think "these people are trying to import that into our country." Every single Muslim immigrant gets painted with this same brush.
  2. Europe always has before its eyes the image of poor, brave, reasonable Theo van Gogh, run down on the street in Amsterdam in 2004 and slaughtered like an animal in an abattoir by a Muslim religious fanatic. They do not forget that the influential Imam of the as-Sunnah Mosque in The Hague gave a sermon several weeks before the murder calling for Van Gogh’s death. They do not forget that, as news of Van Gogh’s murder spread through the Muslim world, many Muslims turned out on the streets to cheer. They think of Van Gogh and wonder, “When will it be my turn?”

I'm not writing any of this to excuse the recent convulsions of xenophobia in Europe, but simply to give Americans -- who tend to view things through a very America-centric lens -- some idea of how things look from over there. If you think post-9/11 Americans are scared of hordes of Muslim "barbarians at the gates", you haven’t seen anything -- the Europeans are terrified at the barbarians at their gates.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

A Casual Stroll Through The Lunatic Asylum (quote of the week with Commentary)

"A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Like Nietzsche, I view people who say “I believe in God” the same as I would view people who say “I believe in Santa Claus” or “I believe in the tooth fairy” or “I believe in a six-foot invisible rabbit named Harvey.” That being said, I stand firmly in solidarity with the principle that every adult human being has the right to believe in any god or gods, no matter how ridiculous or puerile. But let’s be clear: your right to believe in your God does not impose on me an obligation to take your belief seriously. Your right to believe in your God does not deprive me of the right to laugh and point at your antic and to call your belief a silly thing. And should you be too outrĂ© in your demonstrations of belief – to the point where you go from being an annoyance to being a danger – I have not only the right but the moral obligation to push back against your insanity by any means necessary.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Childhood's End Someday? (Quote of the Week w/Commentary)

“It’s time to be patriotic about something other than war.”

- John Edwards

Alone among the developed nations of the West, the US still glorifies war and the “warrior.” This serves as an object lesson to the rest of the world about what happens when a nation obtains the means to wage war at will anywhere around the globe without also maturing into the wisdom to abhor the idea of war. I have come to believe that the love and glorification of war is something that a nation outgrows, and the US has a very long way to go before it is mature enough to turn its back on war. Indeed, I doubt that there can ever again be conditions dire enough to pull the US kicking and screaming out of its warlike childhood.

We can look to the nations of Western Europe as our benchmark for a sane, realistic attitude towards war. The thing we need to understand about Europe is that it did not achieve its maturity just by being in existence a lot longer than the US. Nor was it the result of philosophical reflection and rational critique. No, Europe turned its back on war because Europe bled. The countries of Europe bled and bled, and when they thought they’d finally managed to “end all wars,” they bled worse than all the other times combined. Europe has bled on a scale that the US cannot begin to imagine. The numbers that follow are in no way intended to trivialize US deaths in its wars – I’m of a mind that every single death in war is a moral outrage and an affront to reason – but simply to highlight the vast difference in the scale of death between Europe (which has moved beyond war) and the US (which has not).

The total US casualty count in its 10-year war in Vietnam was 57,000, less than the British casualty count on the first day of the battle of the Somme in July 1916. US casualties in its 5 years in Iraq are small compared the 18,000 French war dead in their “Iraq equivalent” in Algeria. Even in the European theatre in World War II, the US suffered less combat deaths (291,000) than some surprising countries such as Romania (500,000), Hungary (300,000) and even Italy (330,000), a country widely seen as having waved the white flag at every opportunity. Even the French – still seen by most in the US as having played no meaningful combat role in the war – came close to the US numbers, with 250,000 combat deaths. And mind you, these numbers do not even take into account the massive civilian casualties in Europe’s wars. The civilian population of the US, by contrast, has been essentially unscathed by its wars .. which perhaps explains a lot about the US’s continuing infatuation with war and “warriors”.

Again, I feel the need to emphasize that these numbers are not intended to trivialize the horrors experienced by US military personnel (and their families) in the country’s various wars, but simply to suggest that the scale of the bloodletting necessary to cure a people of their addiction to war is not something that the US has ever approached. Europe had to be bled white before it could arrive at childhood’s end and step beyond their strutting bluster and testosterone-saturated militarism. The US has never come close to that scale of wartime suffering, nor (absent some unexpected, game-changing apocalypse) is the US ever likely to bleed on that scale. On a human level – which is where, ultimately, all our moral decisions must be made – it is a wonderful thing that the American people will never have to suffer so. But if the US will never go through that awful fire and emerge on the other side cured of the disease of war, is there any other way that the US can arrive at its own childhood’s end someday?