Tuesday, December 31, 2002
There will be ten of us here for New Year's Eve: four humans & six canines. We're going to roast a chicken, drink some wine & listen to music through the rainstorm that is supposed to turn to snow. I made a nice loaf of bread & Carole brought some good cheese back from Canada yesterday. We'll indulge ourselves & take comfort in the pleasures of food & friendship. As much as I'd like to believe otherwise, it looks from here as if the American Empire will be thrashing around destructively beginning fairly early in the new year. We'll do our best to forget about it until tomorrow, or perhaps the next day.
My first fisking. I'm so proud, even if the author is only one of the smaller planets orbiting the great sun Instapundit. (How do I know what star he orbits, you ask? To notify me that he had responded to my recent entry about the War Party, he copied me an email containg the following note: "Glenn ... I've learned to generally only send you my links if it's a current hot-button issue for you, but I think this is pretty good and sums up a lot of my thinking on the major war issues" & linking to his lengthy reply to my comments. Maybe there's a chance for me. Maybe I'll be fisked by the great man himself. We live in hope.)
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:26 AM.
Sunday, December 29, 2002
A reader writes, in response to my statement that US foreign policy ought to be driven by a concern for human rights: "Yes, foreign policy should be driven by a concern for human rights--which is precisely why we should bomb the hell out of Iraq." To which I responded: "Bombing Iraq will not [assure] our security, nor will it secure peace in the Middle East, nor will it do much for human rights that a more moderate policy of containment & diplomacy might have a chance of accomplishing. I can support military action when it might do some good, but I honestly don't believe that 'bombing hell out of Iraq' will accomplish what you think it will." My correspondent replies this evening with: "Containment? That's a joke, right? We've had a decade of "containment" and Saddam is as big a threat today as he was 10 years ago. And he's thumbed his nose at us, violated sanctions, starved his own people, gassed his own people, committed countless atrocities and horrors--oh, but we're just supposed to look the other way. 'Envision Peace.' Blah! In an era when the bad guys can destroy 10s of thousands of lives in one malicious act, the notion of containment is entirely outmoded. In the modern world, reaction is too late and containment is a fool's errand."
No, it is not a joke. Here's how I respond to this emissary from the War Party who has taken the time to leave his notions in my comments box: 1) don't you think Saddam knows that the first germ or poison molecule he releases will spell his own & his country's end? Do you think he is suicidal? Saddam poses no immediate threat to the US. 2) What position did you take regarding US intervention in Kosovo? Rwanda? etc.? If you supported intervention on human rights grounds, at least you are consistent in playing the humanitarian card with Iraq. Personally, I don't put much credence in War Party claims of concern for the welfare of the Iraqi people. No track record on this point. 3) Bloodlust is an appalling human characteristic. I find the current American War Party to be a morally infantile & emotionally adolescent conglomeration. Not a pretty sight. 4) As I have said repeatedly, I am not a pacifist & if called upon I would defend the US Constitution with my life. But war should always be the last resort. If you want to develop an aversion to bombing, spend some time in a country under attack, but even if, like me, you haven't had that experience, try spending some time in a country that has felt the effects of American bombs. I have had that experience, living in recent years in Vietnam & becoming friends with Vietnamese--northern & southern--who know first-hand what being bombed is like. 5) Please respond: If containment is a good enough policy for North Korea, known to possess nuclear devices & multi-stage missiles, how come it can't work against Iraq, which has neither? 6)This conversation we're having is of course happening in thousands of comment sections across the Internet, not to mention bars & living rooms; but, you know, I'm getting pretty tired of the thin veneer of moral superiority the War Party has recently dressed itself in, so unless you've got something of moral substance to contribute, I will reluctantly have to count you among the callow pissants who support without understanding the disastrous course we are, as a nation, currently set upon.
Envision peace? Your sarcasm falls flat. You can't use the phrase to write-off as naive everyone who is opposed to this war, this "fool's errand," to borrow your own phrase. Some of us have studied our history & our philosophy & we will not be blown off so lightly. So, unless you've got more than rhetoric based on political fantasies, please just shut the fuck up. And as harsh as this may seem, I don't mean it personally--how could I, since I don't know you?--but as a general call for quiet reflection & seriousness. President Bush has called for "moral clarity," but his actions belie a vision that reduces moral questions to black & white, either / or. That is, when such a vision & its attendant rhetoric is politically expedient. Allow me, in my small voice, to call instead for moral seriousness--an attitude that recognizes the contradictory, complex, paradoxical nature of reality (including political reality) & attempts to deal with it as such. Reading your on-line writings, I see that you admire the poets of my youth, Eliot, Crane, perhaps even Stevens, that quintessential conservative. (I have been for the last ten years the poetry editor of The Wallace Stevens Journal, so I retain some interest in High Modernism.) I recommend to you the meditative silence of Eliot's Quartets, of Stevens' late poems, or, reaching farther back, the skeptical & elliptical stanzas of Emily Dickinson, or Walt Whitman's prose poems from the Civil War, which he saw first-hand.
Friday, December 27, 2002
Metablog: I've been thinking about what this thing is for. And while I am grateful as all get out for my favorite political bloggers (see the list at right) & while I may want to comment on current events, this weblog is not about keeping up, but more about pulling back. In the coming year I intend to let reading & writing become more fragmented & notational. This is my notebook--readers are welcome, but should expect to see the back of the tapestry for the most part. This will allow the blog to assume the proper relationship to my other work, poetry & essays.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 9:02 AM.
Books on the desk: The Pentagon Papers (abridged edition, edited by George C. Herring); Secrets, Daniel Ellsberg; Gershom Gorenberg, The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount; Bruce J. Franklin, Vietnam & Other American Fantasies; Jonathan Holden, The Fate of American Poetry; H.L. Hix, As Easy as Lying: Essays on Poetry; Rachel Loden, Hotel Imperium.
And in response to some conservative critics of contemporary poetry, in particular the ways in which they tend to classify & balkanize contemporary poetry, [note: that's vague, I know, but I'll fill in the details as I go*], I'm beginning to think about the relationships between poetry & justice. Fifteen years ago, I gave a talk called "The Poetry of Perception," delineating a kind of poetry that was concerned primarily with perception & judgement--those ideas have begun to percolate again & I want to work out my ideas more fully. This may not seem related, but I think it is: poetry is like sexuality: it is silly & logically indefensible to delineate kinds of sexuality (straight, gay, bi, multiple, etc.)--there is simply the range of instantiations of sexual desire; at the same time there is good sex & bad sex & I would define good & bad here as just & unjust (or fair & unfair, or free or coercive). Whatever configuration human sexuality takes in the world, it is most accurately described as a continuum, not as a set of types; nevertheless, we are able to make legitimate judgements about specific sexual acts based on a straightforward criterion of justice. So it is with poetry: There is just poetry, which arranges itself along a continuum--maybe more than one. One type or kind or school of poetry is not inherently better than others, but within the realm of poetry, it is possible to make judgements about good & bad based on the criterion of justice.
Sunday, December 22, 2002
A bloated syllogism: I'm about halfway through Daniel Ellsberg's Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. At this point in my reading I just want to note the following, mostly as reminders to myself, signposts, or maybe an outline for a lecture or essay: 1) There are more differences than similarities between the American War in Vietnam & the war in Iraq now being proposed by the Bush administration, but the few very real similarities between the two conflicts are highly salient; 2) decision makers at the highest levels of the American government were fully aware from 1946 onward that anything approaching a conventional French & later American victory in Indochina was politically & militarily impossible: the decision to pursue war--across several administrations, from Kennedy to Nixon--was driven by ideological & domestic political exigencies, not military intelligence; 3) those Vietnamese we imagined we were helping detested us as much as those we were trying to defeat--the hatred sprang from different sources, but was equally intense on both sides; 4) Ellsberg demonstrates with detailed historical evidence & personal testimony the danger to American democracy of allowing the accumulation of secret information in the defense & foreign policy bureaucracies of the US government; 5) the current (increasing) openness & liberalization of Vietnamese society & its economy are the result of cultural & humanitarian connections between Vietnam & the West, especially Europe, combined with the legitimate desire of the Vietnamese to govern themselves--Western military & economic intervention in Vietnam after World War II stifled Vietnam's movement toward independence, freedom & prosperity: it is no accident that American are more warmly welcomed these day in Hanoi than in Saigon Conclusions: In the long run, American foreign policy ought to be driven, as Jimmy Carter believed, by concern for human rights: this is not only the right thing to do morally, but will go be far more effective in providing Americans with security than a series of wars designed to extend American power over the globe. Note: I'm not a pacifist: there are legitimate uses of military power. A war in Iraq just isn't one of them.
Saturday, December 21, 2002
This goes for poets too. Maybe especially. "Happily, once I had established myself as a photographer and was showing my work in galleries, I could redefine myself as 'an artist' and thus be excused from most social obligations. It didn't hurt that my mother paints in her spare time and accepts the idea that artists need to be anti-social in order to create. But, even in the larger society, which has almost no interest in the arts, the myth of artistic eccentricity encourages many people to make exceptions for an 'artistic' friend or colleague that they would refuse for anyone else." [Jonathon Delacour: the heart of things]
I'm the only poet at my university. People seem to think this bestows some sort of exemption from ordinary social obligations. I don't usually take advantage of it, but over the years it has given me a certain amount of immunity. I don't mind getting together with my colleaqgues, actually, but I hate & am embarrassed by granfaloons. Every semester the local Fulbright chapter has a dinner: everyone who has held a Fulbright is invited. I never go. No one bugs me about it, maybe because I'm a poet.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:25 PM.
Flagiography [from the Bellona Times]: "A flag is not a symbol but a sign. // As sign, the American flag is clear and useful: at post office, embassy, courthouse, and military base, it signals an institution of the federal government of the USA, an entity on which I'm dependent and for whose sign I'm grateful. // Pressed into service as symbol, it stands for so many things that it can hardly be said to "stand" at all. Flails, rather. Citizens steal from the federal government, lie to the federal government, violate federal laws, plot to undermine the federal Bill of Rights, and then with no apparent discomfort wrap themselves in a flag that symbolizes American Free Enterprise, or the American Spirit, or Christian America, or White America. // Symbolically, a flag becomes a bullfighter's cape: a distractor in aid of a kill. + + + I hate symbols. That's probably why I read poetry."
Friday, December 20, 2002
Howard Owens has an appreciation of Hart Crane that is interesting, even if perplexing, given Owens' rejection of much contemporary poetry. I'm working on a "Defense of (My) Poetry." I've long had an ambivalent response to Crane--the grammatical knots he ties into his lines can be intriguing, but I'm not sure--sometimes--they mean as much as they purport to.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:58 PM.
I've also been meaning to say how wonderful Mike Finley's recent appreciation of his wife is. In fact, I've been meaning to write something similar about my own sweet wife, but I just keep coming back to Steve Goodman's, "Once you've been in love with a good, good woman / It sure is hard to go back to girls."
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:56 PM.
I've been meaning to say how moved I was by this story. Jeff Cooper had to give up his dog because his son is allergic to him. One of our dogs, Angel, came to us because his previous family had a son who developed allergies to him. Dogs seem to live in the present, pretty much, & I don't think Angel pines for his old family, though they shaped his personality & spirit, which he retains. His memory of them is not so much a memory as a part of his identity.
I've collaborated on a couple of books about dogs & have lived with one or another dog(s) for going on twenty years, but they still continue to amaze me with their capacity for joy & affection. I don't know if I'd be able to go to sleep without the sound of a dog's breathing in the room.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:31 PM.
Seymour M. Hersh interviewin The New Yorker: "We're beginning what could be a hundred-years war if we don't change our policy. I don't think a lot of people, particularly in Washington, particularly in places in the White House, fully understand the dangers of going to a full-scale war. The fact of the matter is that there's no reason for a fundamentalist Muslim to have anything but contempt for Osama bin Laden, because he stands for nothing that has to do with their religion. And we just don't give those fundamentalists a chance to breathe. Our policies push them into his camp too much. I'm not saying anything new—I think Jimmy Carter was trying to say the same thing last week when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Unless we deal with the real issues, the underlying issues around the world that lead to the kind of madness that we saw on September 11th; unless we can deal with some of those underlying problems—the lack of any trickle-down economy in the Gulf world, the complete corruption of the leadership of most of the oil sheikhdoms that we tolerate; until we try to apply pressure to make life better there, we'll have problems in the Middle East. We also have problems with Israel and Palestine that we're not dealing with." [via Noosphere Blues]
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:33 AM.
Thursday, December 19, 2002
This is not my America, though it clearly is George W. Bush's America. I suppose this means that I "hate America," but the only way to protect ourselves against terror is to become the sort of nation that does not inspire hatred through its actions & policies. Those who see an extension of American power abroad as a defense against terrorism are, at best, delusional & at worst, themselves terrorists.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 3:52 PM.
I've been reading Daniel Ellsberg's recent memoir, Secrets, before bed the last several nights & it is giving me apocalyptic dreams.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 10:08 AM.
I was the first caller on The Connection yesterday. I think I was totally incoherent, but Carole says I sounded pretty good. The Quiet American is such a good book, it represents such an important point of view, I wanted to call in even though I didn't have anything clearly formulated to say.
And I did see a couple of scenes of the new film version being shot in Hanoi & I did read the novel for the first time in Saigon. In any case, this is a good time for Americans to reconsider the kind of neo-imperialism that Greene's novel lays bare. The image above is the Saigon Post Office, near where the climactic scene of the story takes place.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:40 AM.
Abstraction no. 1: How bland it all is, this winter light. This smoke drifting over the river. Even the startling winter sun is insufficient to our desire. Who am I trying to kid? There’s no one sitting here but me & all the windows sealed against the cold. I’d like to believe there is some magic arithmetic behind all of this, but I doubt there is. Or if there is, it is predicated on guesswork—the gods who live inside the bodies of atoms just messing around with a scientific calculator & a handful of salts. And the gods who live inside the bodies of syllables are weaker & sillier.
Abstraction no. 2: Would it make any difference if I could paint the light, get it onto something two-dimensional so I could understand it? When I woke before dawn the moon had set but Venus burned like a coal in the southwestern sky & left a streak of light across the frozen river. Nothing will slow down. Nothing will precipitate out, leaving a clear vial of light above a patch of milky powder. Blinded. The early sunlight flashing off the ice. Bruised. Some oak leaves fly over the surface of the snow in a gust of wind then settle against the bank thrown up by the plow.
Tuesday, December 17, 2002
If laziness were a form of religious practice, the last two days of my life would be profoundly holy.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 12:50 PM.
This woman looks to be a major player in the Democratic primaries. I am actually intrigued by he notion of working to have each state with a significant African-American voting block nominate a favorite son candidate, then negotiate at the convention. I think that entrenched power will never let it happen, but it is an original political idea in an age when such things are very rare.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:36 AM.
Monday, December 16, 2002
As if Trent Lott was not enough of an xmas present for Democrats, we get the extra bonus gift of the emerging administration tax policy. Hey, I know, let's tax the poor & middle class. That's a winner! All I can say is that these guys are spending way too much time at the country club. Anyway, liberals need to start pounding this one relentlessly.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:28 AM.
Vietnamese poet & revolutionary To Huu died in Hanoi on Monday, aged 82. My friend Pham Tien Duat is quoted at the end of this obituary, which takes the standard view of To Huu, a view that leaves out or glosses over the poetry To wrote before becoming a Communist--a poetry far too personal to be politically acceptable after the revolution, though I think it is again available in Vietnam.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:06 PM.
From Joe Conason's Journal at Salon: "After being roundly blasted for excusing Lott, Tom Daschle has tried to sound tougher, and of course failed. Joseph Lieberman and Ted Kennedy made stronger statements but flinched from demanding that Lott step down. Hillary Clinton flinched too, and her statement was pretty lame. Far too few of the Senate Democrats have made themselves heard at all. It's pitiful to watch these Democrats articulate a weaker stance than Bill Bennett and Bill Kristol. They had better take a few minutes to review Lott's full record, available here and elsewhere, and then ask themselves how they will explain this sorry abdication to the decent Americans who have always supported them."
Friday, December 13, 2002
Just listened to Trent Lott's news conference, where he was yucking it up with the homefolks. This cracker redneck asshole just doesn't get it, does he? The word that kept popping into my mind was unseemly. He talked about everything but racism, hitting all the Reptilian talking points & sounding like any ole boy on the stump. Pat Buchanan, by the way, says of this controversy that Trent Lott is being "lynched." You know, Pat, I didn't see Trent dangling from a tree. But you're right--something certainly stinks in Washington & it is the leader of the Republican Party in the Senate.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 3:01 PM.
Been grading papers & creative writing portfolios. Almost done. Back soon.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:42 AM.
Too quick on the draw: I used the Blog This feature of Blogger this morning to post the following, which is a quotation from Salmon over at Squish. I wanted to comment on it & believed I was just copying it to a file, not publishing it. I also managed to put up a half-finished post about language, which I've now taken down. Chalk all this up to paper-grading fatigue coupled with the expenditure of happy energy watching Trent Lott melt before our very eyes.
"i've been reading My Life by lyn hejinian. actually, i think i've been "reading through it," to borrow a phrase from john cage. i spent a good portion of yesterday cataloging some of the repeated phrases and their contextual elements, even though the text itself suggests that to ascribe a larger thematic meaning to such phrases is an arbitrary though not insignificant gesture: "Because of their recurrence, what had originally seemed merely details of atmosphere became, in time, thematic." duly warned, i proceed anyway, and start mucking around, transcribing these elements into a spreadsheet, and then shuffling the output so i can follow them through the book more easily..
and it occurs to me that if language writers, or those who wish their texts to be read as language writing- are serious in their claims that "reading is a form of coproduction"- then they should make their texts available in .rtf format so that active readers who understand that a "word processor" is a tool for reading just as much for writing would be able to get on with it.
and maybe that's what digital poetry should really be on about. jackson maclow offered some of his print texts almost as though they were scores, with a number of suggestions as to how one might go about performing them. john cayley's Book Unbound encourages a similar kind of activity from the reader. but in most digital work, as cayley joked at NMP, the computer (or the programmer) gets to have all the fun."
Actually, I think this observation captures both the power of the lang-po approach & its weakness.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:27 AM.
Wednesday, December 11, 2002
This is on Daypop so it's all over the web already, but still worth a look if you haven't seen it.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:29 AM.
Monday, December 09, 2002
Rawls and Us: "Isaiah Berlin often observed that beneath most great philosophical systems lie some pretty ideas. Nowhere is this truer than of Rawls. I'll leave the summary to Alan Ryan, who memorialized Rawls in the London Independent. Rawls, Ryan wrote, 'had two deep insights. The first was that utilitarianism was fundamentally flawed; utilitarianism, that is, trying to maximise the welfare of a whole society, failed to recognise what Rawls called 'the separateness of persons.'... The second deep insight is thus that we need an account of justice as fairness. What is the crucial question that we must be able to answer if we are to say that social arrangements meet the test of fairness?... Rawls's stroke of genius was to invent the idea of a 'veil of ignorance,' shrouding the folk who make this social contract so that they do not know who they will be, what abilities they will possess, what faith they will adopt, and so on. If they do not know whether they will be winners or losers, smart or dumb, Christians, Jews, Muslims or atheists, they will sign up only for arrangements that protect them whatever happens'." [Eric Alterman in The Nation]
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:29 PM.
Okay all you poets & dreamers (like me), get yourself over to Kevin Drum's Cal Pundit & take his basic course in KEYNESIAN ECONOMICS. It won't take very long & you will understand the world you live in more clearly when you're finished. There will be a quiz tomorrow.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 3:12 PM.
-19F last night. I'm baking bread today. If fundamentalism is psychologically slothful, it would explain the willingness of my parents to accept simple certainties, no matter how absurd, instead of expending the energy to maintain what Keats called "negative capability." Fundamentalism cannot afford to "let the mind be a thoroughfare for thought."
" . . several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously--I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason--Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge. This pursued through Volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration." [Keats in a letter to his brothers, December 21, 27 (?), 1817]
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:31 AM.
Sunday, December 08, 2002
Travelogue / Joni Mitchell: Most reviews of this recording will emphasize that Ms. Mitchell has rearranged some of her most famous songs for string accompaniment. And most reviews will mention the quality of Ms. Mitchell's voice, roughened by thirty years of cigarette smoking. The first thing to emphasize is that the arrangements are not for strings, but for a full orchestra. (And what's wrong with strings? Charlie Parker at the height of his powers toured with a string section.) And the use of horns, along with Mitchell's trademark use of woodwinds (which goes back as far as Ladies of the Canyon), is particularly suitable to the mood of this record. But it is the voice on Travelogue that staggers me: It's true that the range is somewhat diminished, though her voice remains a fine instrument for carrying the burdens of her songs. Among the most remarkable things about this remarkable record is how Mitchell has slowed the tempo on almost every tune; combined with her deeper--& to my ear more expressive--voice, this presents the songs in a completely new way. Listen to "The Last Time I Saw Richard" & "Woodstock" with this in mind. The original version of "Richard" was a superior brush off of someone who had sold out; the new version understands that none of us escape Richard's fate. There is a mournful, elegiac quality in Mitchell's voice that I have never heard before--and I've been listening to her records for thirty years. Compare, too, the original version of "Cherokee Louise" with the one on Travelogue. The first emphasized childhood nostalgia & anger at injustice. (There is actually a lot of anger in Mitchell's work.) The new version of "Cherokee Louise" is a dirge, a requiem, a profound & heartfelt eulogy for a lost soul. With the full knowledge that we are all lost souls.
Mitchell began as a hippie soprano with a sweet voice & transformed herself into a folk-rocker & poet of personal revelation. I've come to think that she managed the "confessional mode" of poetry better than Anne Sexton & Sylvia Plath, neither of whom cared so passionately about the art of self-revelation as does Mitchell. It's not the revelation so much as it is the art that makes these songs powerful & true, that gives them a bid at becoming classics. After the folk apotheosis of Miles of Isles, Mitchell turned increasingly to jazz modes, working with Charles Mingus before his death. In an interview on CBC I saw a couple of years ago, she allowed herself the exaggeration, "I've always been a jazz singer." Well, we--especially artists--revise ourselves to conform to our desires, so let it pass. Joni Mitchell, with this record, has become a jazz singer. Her voice is her soul. Case in point: "The Circle Game." Mitchell's biggest pop hit, you'll still hear it in supermarkets softly wafting customers toward a happy nostalgia appropriate for the consumption of goods. Perhaps it's appropriate--the song fits comfortably within the carpe diem tradition. Seize the day. "The Circle Game" is the last song on Travelogue & on my first listen I have to admit I wasn't looking forward to it. The song has become a pop cliche, after all. Mitchell the jazz singer, though, surprises the listener with a version of the song worthy of Dinah Washington, a new title for the American Songbook. In addition to the titles I've already mentioned, I'd point to "Amelia," "For the Roses," "Refuge of the Roads," & "Hejira" as perfectly transformed. This slowed-down version of "Refuge" gives the listener a much longer perspective--the mature adult looking back on the youthful traveler. "Me here least of all," yes, exactly.
A couple of quibbles: I've never liked Mitchell's rewrite of Yeats' famous poem, "The Second Coming." The orchestra doesn't improve "Slouching Towards Bethlehem." The Yeats poem is simply too perfectly austere for song. It is a poem meant to be spoken. Mitchell's adaptation of St. Paul & The Book of Job hold up pretty well, though I still prefer her own lyrics. The male voices on the Job track ("The Sire of Sorrow") provides an ironic comment on Mitchell's previous use of female backups. But Mitchell doesn't need to go outside her own imagination for material. And where is "Come in from the Cold," surely one of Mitchell's best lyrics? I'd love to have it here as a companion to "Refuge of the Roads." Ah, well, I'm grateful for this artist who has refused to be pinned down. As I write this, I am listening to the recently released Bob Dylan Live 1975, a record of live performances by the Rolling Thunder Revue, which included in its later stages the young Joni Mitchell. Dylan is a shape-shifter & so is Mitchell--his only rival in the folk-confessional mode.
Stephen Pinker has always seemed to me the sort of scientist who managed to ride one modest insight to stardom. It's good to see a real intellectual point out the shortcomings of his worldview. [via Electrolite quoting Louis Menand in The New Yorker, November 25, 2002] Speaking of real intellectuals & scientists, my former student, the author of Nordic Graceland, combines the virtues of both modes.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:11 PM.
The flock of wild turkeys has been back each day since I first noticed them a couple of days ago. They seem to be living in the little patch of woods that runs along the river. We feel honored to have them nearby. In honor of the turkeys my blogbrother Gordon Coale sent this. Thanks Gordon.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 8:19 AM.
And enduser speaks out: This machine was made to run Windows XP, so why did they sell it to me with ME? A year ago when I bought the laptop (Dell Latitude) it was so much better than what I'd been using that I overlooked certain little glitches--frequent crashes being the most common--but as time went on I got increasingly fed up. Finally, last week I took the machine to one of our university computer guys & had him upgrade the OS to Windows XP. The machine now runs as advertised. Hasn't crashed once & responds instantly to input. So, ME was obviously a bad product, but how much did Microsoft make by selling crappy technology? Anyhow, my wife is currently looking for a laptop & she's decided she's going to buy a Powerbook. It's a tiny blow against the empire, but it feels good & is the right thing to do if you believe, as I do, in open (though regulated) markets: the most ethical choice is to purchase the best product. (I'm always amused when my mechanic refers to our Toyota 4x4 as a "riceburner"--it's heading for the 200,000 mile mark while most Chevys & Fords he works on are junk long before that milestone.)
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 8:14 AM.
Saturday, December 07, 2002
At the end of their walk, coming down our road this afternoon with Angel, Carole saw a bald eagle. She said it came in low & circled a couple of times at tree-top level before flying back out over the woods.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:34 PM.
I've been simply gobsmacked by Trent Lott's remarks implying that the country would be better off if the Dixicrats had won the presidential election of 1948. Ignatz catches the depth of my outrage: "So Senator Lott's office was given a chance yesterday to explain what he might have meant by his comments yesterday . . . other than vicious racism of the virulent 1948 variety--and that office was unable or unwilling to give any substantive explanation. If the Senator has any capacity for shame, he should resign. See Atrios for some historical explanation. And by the way, Prof. Reynolds (Instapundit) is way too generous in suggesting that Senator Lott has apparently forgotten what Thurmond stood for in 1948; no one who pays attention to politics in the Deep South and is over 30 years old could possibly not know. Just call Senator Lott's comment what it is: the most unchanging, severe, extreme, overt, intentional racism." Josh Marshall has also spoken the truth about power.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:17 PM.
Another good man gone. Generosity & a sense of humor can take one a long way in this scurvy world. Not to mention a charming hoax.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 11:17 AM.
"Two responses to the discussion on belief systems. // In general, I doubt if these "irrational" belief systems require any inordinate effort to maintain--it's not as if there were some pure force of rationality deep within doing battle with those more sinister elements. A belief system, a worldview (which I prefer), is a public entity, and in order for it be fluid and vital, diversity is needed. Difference. Fundamentalist worldviews require little energy to maintain because they eliminate difference in two ways. First, by promoting a kind of isolationism--believers associating with believers. Second, by consigning all difference to categories like "the infidel", "heresy", etc. // Second, the "irrational" aspects of these worldviews are, frankly, the really neat parts. The problem with fundamentalism is its own rationalistic tendencies. The kind of systematic theology that (like all systems) absolutely excludes difference. Alterity." [Dan Erlich]
I see the point you're making. It strikes me now that my original speculations on this subject grew from my personal experience of fundamentalism within the larger context of a non-fundamentalist society. When I was growing up, my parents belonged to what might be called an embattled fundamentalism. True believers in the midst of a godless society. That's how they viewed themselves. My father worked in a technical field & my mother had considerable literary talent, but for reasons I never fully understood they submerged their own considerable intelligence in a doctrine that hated originality & imagination. That's what I was thinking of when I speculated that it must take tremendous expenditures of energy to maintain certain beliefs. Of course, if there is no conflict with a surrounding (secular) society, this dynamic goes away. In the new millennium, it is hard to see how American fundamentalism can continue to feel embattled--it has gained such ascendency in politics & the media you would expect it to begin to bask in its hegemony. Instead, American fundamentalists have carried their embattled attitude into power.
Friday, December 06, 2002
Smart readers have been dropping notes in my Comments box: "I've been eagerly reading your posts about beliefs. I've just finished reading Menand's The Metaphyisical Club, with its discussion of James's and Peirce's theories about beliefs being a kind of bet on the future that becomes an adaptive habit. I see from your links that you probably know a lot more about James and Peirce than I do, but I can't help but wonder: Maybe the questions we should be asking about the "willful failure of discernment" or "accept[ing] explanations for their lives that run so contrary to evidence" should be about adaptability. // Is there some way that the seeming rise of irrational beliefs could be some kind of adaptive strategy? That it confers some benefit on the believer to believe in biblical creation or to historicize myths, a benefit that is somehow reinforced to become a habit? // It's easy to see how these beliefs might be reinforced to the extent that, well, they make life a lot easier and eliminate a lot of uncertainty. At the same time, however, these beliefs take a lot of time and energy to maintain--if the failure to discern is willful, it also requires effort. And to me, at any rate, the amount of effort required to believe things contrary to evidence offsets any peace of mind it provides. // Maybe, to extend the Darwinian implications of Pragmatic theories of belief, these beliefs are like enormous antlers or elaborate tail feathers--they become reinforced as beliefs not because they are better adapted as predictors, but because they confer a certain status on the believer, and it is that status that reinforces the belief. And whatever that status is, it must be sufficiently valuable to make it worth the effort of willful denial of evidence. // Not that I want to take Darwin too far, mind you, but it does seem to me that the answer to this puzzle must lie in understanding the benefits that these beliefs provide." [Hard Pressed]
"I also agree with the first comment in general. This is a topic I've devoted considerable space to in my own blog, where there is also a longer version of this reply. First, we should be careful to discern the two very different modes of belief JD mentions:I've been thinking about myth & religious belief in politics, particularly the double nature of myth, which can open a resonant space of mystery & numinosity around our everyday lives but which can also be literalized & acted upon as if it were history.I think James, Peirce, and their contemporaries, were more interested in the former. I think you can classify mystical belief as an individual adaptive strategy for organizing information. Anthropology demonstrates the primacy of this cognitive mode (systematic logic, for instance, is a modern invention). I would only claim superficial understanding here, and could use to read some James myself. // I have more concrete ideas about the latter: to understand literal belief in myth, you have to look at a higher level of organization: the institution. I am referring to any authoritative body, religious or governmental, even academic. These appear as a strategy for organizing a large population density, a modern innovation. Macro-social dynamics must be constrained by and consistent with human nature, but are putting old structures to novel uses (a common process in evolution). // In my experience, every instance of dogmatic belief is associated with an institution which benefits from the zealot’s membership. Those institutions which best sell and enforce their belief system come to dominate public sentiment. Aggressive and exclusionary belief systems that usually accompany imperialism tend to propagate for obvious reasons. The value of the belief for the individual cannot be assessed without referring to their role in society. Thus, I think the commenter is right to say (very generally) that status is the believer’s reward for their devotion. While it is often maladaptive to one's relationship with reality, it is adaptive to the state and their role within.Just a brief response for now. I agree that there must be some adaptive benefit to these "irrational" belief systems I've been thinking about & you're also right, I think, to see that at the same time they take a tremendous amount of energy to maintain.For me (a physicist), this immediately conjured the image of a system below critical temperature: it takes more energy to maintain a domain wall (differing opinion) than to keep all the spins aligned, so to speak. The ground state may be degenerate, but homogenous." [efp]
"I've been struggling with similar issues(I have a longer post/essay of my own brewing, but it's still too disorganized for prime-time). // Especially so with the way emotional appeals seem to lead more often than not to the reification of abstract, extremist worldviews(as demonstrated in current US politics and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as countless other times and places in history), contrasted with the apparent need for emotional appeals of some sort for a set of ideals to gain any semblance of mainstream cultural currency. // I'm hoping that there is a middle way, wherein mostly rational, inclusive, subtle ideas can carry the same emotional weight, and write as compelling a narrative, as the extremist, exclusive positions currently do. I suppose the civil rights movement is a good proof-of-concept for such a thing. Sadly I'm just not seeing the kind of leaders on the side of sanity who are able to do that just now. There's no imagination on the left right now. Nobody has set forth a plausible or confidence-inspiring narrative for an opposition to the current state of affairs. Here's hoping one begins to appear on the scene, and soon." [J. Dunn]
Thursday, December 05, 2002
"Too large to be confused with any other bird." This afternoon I walked upstairs to get something from the little room I use an a study & coming up to the landing I noticed something moving out in the backyard. It was a huge cock turkey. When I looked more closely I saw that he was leading a group of eight hens around the yard at the edge of the woods where we have a birdfeeder. Slow & stately, they hung around for an hour, coming in & out of the woods & pecking at the seeds the chickadees & jays had dropped in the snow. Amazing birds. They have left a wonderful calligraphy of tracks in the snow that I can read from the upstairs windows.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:19 PM.
Wednesday, December 04, 2002
Historical memory: In the run-up to the American War in Vietnam, there was considerable debate within LBJ's government about the best strategy to pursue. There was almost no debate about whether or not to escalate the war, despite the fact that Johnson had run for election on the grounds that Goldwater would dangerously escalate the American involvement in Vietnam. The JCS wanted an all-out war from the start, including the option to use nuclear weapons, while the civilians in DOD favored a slow build-up. While it is always dangerous to argue from historical parallels, it is nevertheless instructive to recall that debate today, in the context of the current run-up to war with Iraq. I am a student of the Vietnam War(s) & while there are a number of texts we might consult (particularly Jeffrey Record's The Wrong War) nothing I have read traces the internal politics of the Johnson administration's war planning with anything approaching the detail & nuance of Daniel Ellsberg's memoir, Secrets. Even while denouncing Goldwater's suggestion that field commanders be given authority to use tactical nuclear weapons, Johnson had already given his military a (more limited) authority to use such weapons under particular circumstances, such as an inability to communicate with Washington. Several members of Johnson's Joint Chiefs of Staff, especially Curtis LeMay, secretly supported Goldwater's position. Throughout this process, many civilian analysts in the Defense Department, including, according to Ellsberg, Robert McNamara, not only opposed the use of nuclear force, but also took seriously LBJ's declaration, "We seek no wider war." The picture Ellsberg pains is of an administration that at its highest levels was bent on pursuing a policy of escalation even while many (though by no means all) of its own policy intellectuals were deeply skeptical of such a policy.
The mendacity & duplicity that resulted from this situation effectively shut the Congress & the American people out of the debate. Guys like Ellsberg (he says) saw the Congress as an obstacle to be circumvented rather than as a representative of the American people. In fact, the one thing that all the participants in the debate agreed on was that democratic institutions were not all that well-suited to their agendas, whatever they were. And so everybody who knew anything simply lied to the people's representatives & to the press. Secrecy was seen as a virtue closely allied with loyalty. Reading Ellsberg's account, it becomes clear that all of the significant debate about the war took place within the executive branch of the government, the legislative branch having been effectively frozen out of the process. What's more, information about the war was manipulated in order to achieve political ends. When the Viet Cong attacked American interests at Pleiku & Qui Nhon in February of 1964, plans had already been developed for systematic bombing of North Vietnam. That is, the US government was looking for a pretext to attack, despite the fact that LBJ had not authorized any action except tit-for-tat raids in response to specific incidents. Ellsberg reports that after the Qui Nhon raid, he spent the night in the Joint Chiefs War Room in the Pentagon, where he was given an open line to Saigon so that he could gather atrocity stories for McNamara to take to Johnson the next morning.
I do not mean to minimize the loss of lives, American & Vietnamese, that occurred in Vietnam at this time; the point I'm trying to make here is political. Instead of a debate about the merits of escalating American commitment in Southeast Asia, there was a defense establishment that, despite its own lack of unanimity, configured itself to expand the war even while the world was being told that was not the case [The Pentagon Papers, Vol 3 pp 193, 559]. Ellsberg says he acted out of loyalty & that only later did he come to see that this loyalty was misplaced. He thought, he says, that McNamara & the president were committed to a limited war, a war of containment that would avoid large-scale bombing campaigns.
Now, from what we poor citizens can tell, there is also a debate going on in the highest reaches of our government. And the news this week seems to indicate that the administration is looking for an excuse to start a war in Iraq. The roles appear to be reversed this time, with the military showing considerably more reluctance to go to full-scale war than the civilians in DOD. One can debate the merits of the war & it is dangerous to draw historical analogies; the similarity here is mendacity. Then & now, the American government, especially the executive branch, demonstrated a profound lack of faith in the democratic institutions that are the foundation of American liberties. We have been down this road before.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 5:09 PM.
Tuesday, December 03, 2002
Little Citizen, Little Survivor
A brown rat has taken up residence with me.
A little brown rat with pinkish ears and lovely
almond-shaped eyes. He and his wife live
in the woodpile by my back door, and they are
so equal I cannot tell which is which when they
poke their noses out of the crevices among
the sticks of firewood and then venture further
in search of sunflower seeds spilled from the feeder.
I can't tell you, my friend, how glad I am to see them.
I haven't seen a fox for years, or a mink, or
a fisher cat, or an eagle, or a porcupine, I haven't
seen any of my old company of the woods
and the fields, we who used to live in such
close affection and admiration. Well, I remember
when the coons would tap on my window, when
the ravens would speak to me from the edge of their
little precipice. Where are they now? Everyone knows.
Gone. Scattered in this terrible dispersal. But at least
the brown rat that most people so revile and fear
and castigate has brought his wife to live with me
again. Welcome, little citizen, little survivor.
Lend me your presence, and I will lend you mine.
[Hayden Carruth, Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey 100.
published by Copper Canyon Press]
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:45 PM.
Second night below zero. Good fire in the stove. Not much interested in controversy, but I have gotten myself into one. About poetry. I keep finding myself between the stodgy conservatives & the barbarians of the avant garde. I am the Bill Clinton of American Poetry. I think I'll be able to elaborate a bit tomorrow. In the meantime, you can follow the link from Blogcritics to Howard Owens' weblog. I found the remarks in his comments section particularly enlightening. In any case, I'll post a couple of examples of contemporary poetry tomorrow for Mr. Owens' delectation & consideration. We'll also get to see, I suppose, what the pimply boys who hang around Howard's 7-11 have to say about the literary arts.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 7:26 PM.
My Lord, I loved strawberry jam
And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body.
Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,
Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.
So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit
Have visited such a man? Many others
Were justly called, and trustworthy.
Who would have trusted me? For they see
How I empty glasses, throw myself on food,
And glance greedily at the waitress’s neck.
Flawed and aware of it. Desiring greatness,
Able to recognize greatness wherever it is,
And yet not quite, only in part, clairvoyant,
I knew what was left for smaller men like me:
A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud,
A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.
[Czeslaw Milosz, The Collected Poems 451
published by Copper Canyon Press]
Sunday, December 01, 2002
At 9:45 it's already below 0. Sky is glittering & clear, coldest night of the year so far. I'm making notes for a review of Joni Mitchell's Travelogue & more about politics, religion & myth. (There are some smart observations in the Comments that I'm going to work into this.) Reading Daniel Ellsberg's Secrets in this light--a dispiriting but informative exercise. But I have a class to teach tomorrow morning at 9:30, so I'm going to feed the woodstove & crawl under the blankets.
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 6:54 PM.
Just came back from seeing Solaris. I'm actually not much of a movie-goer (don't like the sitting-in-a dark-room-with-crowds experience), but I wanted to see this movie because of its literary & cultural prehistory. (There was also an earlier film.) It is a visually beautiful film that alludes--especially in the way it is edited--to Kubrick's 2001 & as my wife noted, "The camera loves George Clooney." Clooney (who plays psychiatrist Chris Kelvin) is best, I think, in his earth-bound scenes, where he portrays a sophisticated professional; in outer space, where the foundations of his character's reality are challenged & then destroyed, he's a bit less effective. Not distractingly inadequate, just somewhat limited in range. Natascha McElhone is the film's center of gravity: against the technoarchitecture of the space station, her physical beauty becomes something very close to a spiritual presence. Her character Rheya (Kelvin's wife back on earth) has become an angel--a being neither human nor quite divine. In what we might call "real life" the alluring but unstable Rheya has committed suicide after an argument with Kelvin, who is driven, when he is miraculously given the chance, to try to correct his mistake, to make another choice. One of the station's crew members, Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), is already dead--a suicide--by the time Kelvin arrives on the station in response to his call for help. Gibarian makes a return appearance as a visitor, though, at a moment when Kelvin is most uncertain of the basis of his own reality. Of his own suicide Gibarian remarks, "It seemed like a good idea at the time," but his more important message is, "There are no answers, only choices." Which would seem to endorse Kelvin's ultimate decision to merge with Solaris. But like many oracles, this one can be seen as endorsing a refusal to be seduced as well. That is Dr. Gordon's choice. In any case, the dead seem to insist that the living take their existential dilemmas seriously. There is one character, Snow (Jeremy Davies), who seems initially like comic relief, but who turns out to present the ultimate existential dilemma.
As with much of the best science fiction, Solaris works best as myth: the characters are abstractions that allow us to project our fears & fantasies onto them in order to control our reality & understand our deepest motives. Which is why I found the end of the film disappointing: the philosophical choice Kelvin makes lacks seriousness. While Dr. Gordon (played by Viola Davis), having found a defense against the "visitors," opts to return to earth, Kelvin chooses the fulfillment of fantasy. Gordon, the movie's only mature adult, accepts a tragic view of life while Kelvin is welcomed by a child into his eternal erotic fantasy, or heaven. What would happen if as a species we had chosen to remain in the Garden of Eden? Dr. Gordon has the most important line of the film: If she were ugly you wouldn't want her around. Davis's character provides a sense that director Soderbergh understands his hero's final failure of courage, which is nevertheless dressed up to look like courage. Gordon tells Kelvin, when he refuses to let her destroy his visitor, "I want the humans to win" & Kelvin's surrender to the seductions of fantasy represent defeat. Moral: Angels are dangerous to the structure of reality. [another S. Lem link] (Updated & expanded 12.2.02)
Posted by Joseph Duemer at 4:36 PM.
Steven Den Beste sent the following email regarding my post on the Rittenhouse / LGF dust up: "For whatever it's worth, you've completely misinterpreted what I wrote (as have many others). I have a feeling that you took your idea of what I'd written from someone else's commentary on my post instead of actually reading it yourself, but that's your privilege. // I posted some clarifications to this comment thread on Hesiod's site, here:
Hesiod's article [and] the comment thread // I'm afraid that the comment thread is rather long and I didn't get into it until late; so do a search for this: "I'll probably fail" (heh-heh). // Just to summarize: I am not claiming that removing a link is censorship. I believe that anyone has a perfect right to decide who they wish to link to and a perfect right to remove any link they have any time they want. // You characterized my position as being that "delisting is censorship". I said no such thing and I don't believe anything remotely like that. But I went into that in much greater depth in Hesiod's comment thread. In particular, I said the following: 'Rittenhouse Review is completely justified in every way in not linking to any site of which it disapproves. I fully and totally support this and do not in the slightest criticize it.' I don't know how to make that any more clear."
It's true, SDB did not characterize RR's de-listing of LGF as "censorship"; he called it "coercion." I stand corrected. (It's not coercion, though, to choose the people you're willing to associate with?) But he does say, "It is, in a sense, fortunate that RR's gesture is empty and meaningless (just as most of the gestures from the left these days I see seem to be) because if it were actually effective it would be a serious threat to freedom of expression." Leaving aside the dismissive rhetorical sweep of SDB's parentheses for the moment, let's focus on the phrase "serious threat to freedom of expression." I think it is these words that many of us took to be a charge of censorship & in fact in common usage "threat to freedom of expression" means pretty much the same thing as censorship. It seems to me that SDB wants to have it both ways: by splitting hairs over definitions, he gets to accuse a writer with whom he disagrees of threatening free expression, but he gets to proclaim that a) he's against censorship & that b) "the left" isn't really interested in the honest exchange of ideas.