Sunday, March 27, 2011

Free Association Post I had been thinking about doing a Proust questionnaire here; however I didn't like any of the ones I found because I had no ready answer for most of the questions, and these exercises are by nature not interesting if you have to consider them for more than a couple of seconds, which I would have to do because my immediate answers are all pretty bad. For example, to the query What is your idea of perfect happiness? what immediately comes into my head is "to be able to wield unassailable power over other people" which of course has nothing to do with perfect happiness per se. I also refuse to reveal my greatest fears, lest somebody should come upon that confession someday and decide to visit them upon me; and questions such as What trait do you most deplore in yourself? are I think covered adequately in the rest of the site. So I have to give a variation on the old State-of-the-World-as-I-see-it-post. I have a fetish for tracking the length and depth of the winter. This one is lingering. It is now March 29. The high temperature is still in the 30s, low 40s at most, still going down to 18 at night. I still have to keep the heat on and there is still a decent amount of snow cover in my sunlight-deprived front yard. Most of the rivers are ice-free, and the lakes left with a rapidly thinning cover with lots of open water. So we are inevitably, albeit gradually (very gradually) moving into spring however. Pessimism seems to consist of two different aspects, one being pessimism with regard to one's personal capacities and prospects, the other pessimism regarding the greater society, be it tribal, national, global, what have you, with which one is most intimately invested, the form that it takes in each instance being the result of the strength, both relative and quantitative, of each of these strains in combination. There is a good deal of both varieties at work in the present cultural environment. While I lean more strongly towards the former--I am sure society will carry on fine according to the needs of its strongest and most substantial individuals regardless of whether I am counted among their number or not--but the latter is certainly dominant in a great many people who generally consider themselves to be both personally substantial and alert to what is happening but perceive that they are doomed by the multitudes of hopeless morons all around them. Here is a well-written blog from England (I have linked to this guy before) that has a thoroughly laid out and exceedingly grim view of what the future holds there. There is a long tradition, certainly going back as far as Gissing and Wells, and Hardy for the rural life, and perhaps back to Crabbe, of depicting life for the common man in England as variously overcrowded, expensive, dreary, joyless, vulgar and generally hopeless of substantial improvement--in any event there is something in the English circumstances that seems to make it more difficult to retreat from the brutal reality of one's position and ensconce oneself in consolations or even fantasies. My own situation, at least as far as job and income potential are concerned, is probably even bleaker than that recounted in the above link, yet I do not yet regard it in quite such discouraged terms. My angst generally focuses itself around my disappointing personal qualities. Mostly through good luck, but with some credit to a consistent, if increasingly stultifying prudence, my expenses are to this point fairly manageable. Also, compared to much of the world, I live in an uncrowded area which, due to its demographic makeup (rapid aging of the population, consistent decline in the number of school age children), seems even less populated than it actually is. When I go to the house in Vermont I can easily wander off into the woods and not come across another person outside for many hours, which probably has a beneficial effect on the nerves. This has its downsides of course. One feels far removed from the mainstream of any cultural and intellectual energy. There are towns like Brattleboro, and Portland, and Portsmouth, and Hanover where Dartmouth is, that are islands of activity and high-achieving people, but even these are almost used as bases from which to launch or refuges in which to recuperate from serious enterprises whose scenes of action are actually quite far off either geographically or cognitively from terrain familiar to the typical inhabitant of this region. Should I mark the occasion of Elizabeth Taylor's dying? I've always been kind of ambivalent towards her, but she was one of the last major living links to an era of American cultural life for which I obviously have an affection (by major I mean as in dominant figure/symbol of the period; Doris Day, Debbie Reynolds, Ernest Borgnine and so on for example are still alive, but I think they are decidedly minor stars [Day may be a mid-major]. From the prewar and wartime periods you still have Shirley Temple [major], Mickey Rooney [I'm leaning major], Lauren Bacall [probably major] and Deanna Durbin [minor, but a personal favorite] still kicking around as well, which indicates that the stars of the 50s are not turning out to be an especially long-lived group), and it is always kind of sad, if one is of a sentimental nature, when anyone like that finally passes on, even though Elizabeth Taylor had been a pretty bad parody of herself going on 40 years now. I wrote some about my feelings for her as an actress in this old post about A Place in the Sun and do not really have anything to add to it at this time. One of my main blogging crushes weighs in on Liz and many other topics of interest on her much-lauded page (See the gushing testimonials in the top right column--'sophisticated...knowledgaeable...brainy...funny...writes like...Noel Coward'--just like what people say about this site. She hosts films forums in New York City under her nom de blog. Now that is blogging!). Here's an article I didn't like by an especially annoying-looking New Yorker writer. I'll let the remark about the army of video-drones pass, because, even though I'm one of them, I can sympathize with the idea that, like many things, film culture was more vibrant when it was generally less accessible, i.e., required more effort and physical commitment, such as living in New York or Paris, devoting a sizable bulk of one's evenings to attending screenings, pounding out essays on a typewriter or dabbling in actual filmmaking itself using cameras that required a more calculated approach to shooting footage, etc. I didn't agree with some of the other premises however, to the point that I actually was rather surprised to read them stated so matter-of-factly. The first was that the work of the masters of Hollywood romantic comedy past "reflects the effects of social tensions and pressures that, I think, most of us are glad to have escaped". These tensions and pressures in this instance mainly seem to refer to sex. Judging from his photograph, our author, Richard Brody, looks like a creature whose key sex years (roughly age 18-25) coincided strongly with the decade of the 1970s, an era in which, as we all know, old restraints were abandoned and America was awash in horny young people as the Baby Boomer generation hit their 20s. The men coming of age in that period, while thinking of themselves as enlightened, or liberal or what have you, had still been deeply marinated in the old chauvinist mores, still had the decided upper hand in educational and occupational attainments almost across the board, still had, even many of the weaker, or somewhat lesser ones, what we would consider to be a bit of a swagger around women, and this confluence of circumstances led to almost everybody who came of age in that time seeming to think of themselves as highly sexual people who accumulated lots of great experiences. They naturally look upon the sexual restraints of the pre-1965 era--which as everyone knows hardly affected everybody, and at least to read the literature of the 1920-60 period seem to been primarily confined to the premarital relations of weak-chested men and "good" girls--as horribly confining. In our time however, it is clear that a more normal sexual order has been re-established under the new conditions of freedom and other developments, in which the weak chests enjoy very little good-quality sex during their youth or any other time of life and the desirable women, of whom the numbers remain as yet plentiful enough have to openly contest, frequently by the accessibility of their bodies, with hordes of other women for the few desirable men, whose own numbers seem in our time to be dwindling as rapidly as the bat and bee population. Needless to say, a great many young people are most unhappy with this state of affairs, and it is not surprising that among some the romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s would hold an appeal; it is not simply the lack of sex that is frustrating to people, but the lack of under the surface but still palpably excitable sexual tension, or of any possibility of it in one's own life, that is such a cause of despair, especially in one's youthful prime. I have written on this topic before however. The other thing I really found shocking in the article was his assertion of that the work of certain contemporary directors holds up well vis-a-vis the classics. I would give him credit for being bold if I felt either uncertain or confused about the works in question but I'm not seeing it. I haven't seen anything of Judd Apatow but (the aptly-titled) Superbad supposedly came out of his stable of writers, and it was as thoroughly stupid and pointless of a movie as I have seen in 20 years. Noah Baumbach tries hard, and I actually liked Kicking and Screaming, at the time anyway, but The Squid and the Whale was joyless and too doggedly faithful to realism--I don't want to see my actual life depicted on screen, I want to see the basic circumstances of my actual life stylishly jazzed up and infused with a little magic (kind of like The Grapes of Wrath did for the Okies). Greenberg just was not interesting and impossible to care about. And Wes Anderson's shtick has been played-out ever since Rushmore, which was an admittedly exuberant, goofy young man's movie the obsessions of which one would expect the maker(s) of to leave fondly behind and move on to other concerns, which my generation apparently is incapable of doing. In short, I don't think they are particularly good. What contemporary movies have I liked lately? Inception was cool, and was interesting to me for its depiction of the mental and physical world that the more advanced members of our society apparently inhabit, which I like to think I have some sense of even if I could not comfortably begin to inhabit it myself. I've also been hyping up the Romanians, whose cinematic strength at the present moment is probably that their sensibility is still in the mode of the interesting films of twenty or thirty years ago. I finally got around to seeing one of their movies, Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, which is set in 1987 at the end of the Communist era. It moves and develops slowly and in a very old-fashioned seeming manner but when you get to the height of the crisis (the whole movie is one ongoing crisis) it really waps you and you also see how smartly the story is set up and held together. It is about a hundred times more effective of an argument in favor of legal abortion--a subject on which I confess I have always been rather queasy--than anything Hollywood has ever managed to serve up. What I take to be the main point of the movie is another thing that Eastern European writers and filmmakers are good at that Hollywood is terrible at, which is depicting the rottenness of society so as to show that every ordinary person in it is a victim of it but is also at the same time poisoned in their soul by it, for which they do not escape personal responsibility. Neither Hollywood nor their right wing moralist enemies are seemingly capable of producing this effect. There always has to be some totally evil force--racists, capitalists, pornographers, socialists, etc--set apart from another group of completely virtuous, innocent victims, as well as some near-flawless hero who struggles tirelessly against them, which is certainly not what I perceive actual life to really be like. Time and space limitations mean I am going to cut the article short here and post without getting to all the topics I had hoped to cover. These could be possible topics for future essays though. Briefly they are: 1) the odd belief that facing death by firing squad or some other atrocity stoically would make up somehow for having led a largely ineffective life; 2) my complete lack of interest in relocating elsewhere in space and carrying on the human race there, which some people feel to be our ultimate destiny, if Earth becomes uninhabitable. I'm not leaving. 3) My desire to see somebody run against Obama in the Democratic primary so I can cast a protest vote against him; 4) In contrast to the relentless drumbeat of doom and or mendacity, possible realistic optimistic scenarios for life in the West and the United States going forward (i.e., for my children, and perhaps even old me. Someone I went to school with died in a drowning accident last week. He was 41 or 42, depending on which account you read. I can't say that he was a great friend of mine--I didn't really know him at all--but he was a big presence, or seemed a big presence, in my life when I was 20 and 21 years old. He was the sort of guy guys like me are always jealous and a little afraid of, because they have the capacity to make us look bad very easily, mainly because they have figured out how to show up for life at every instant, while we have not, and usually never do. Another old schoolmate commented on Facebook that the news was especially shocking to him because he had always thought of this guy as indestructible, which sounds phony but did accurately express the impression a lot of people had, namely that he was stronger than most ordinary people, including themselves, and that it seemed somehow impossible he should die in a freak accident. I probably would not have written anything but the media accounts seemed to keep emphasizing that he was just an ordinary, nondescript guy, which bothered me because whatever one might say about him, he certainly was nothing of the sort, and seemed to have continued being so long after his school days were done. His life was one that seems to have been really worth having, from start to finish, and considering how the world is drowning in people for whom such an assertion would be dubious if not flat-out laughable, the loss only seems to be amplified. Addendum: I tried to go back & add paragraph breaks here, but for some reason it won't let me. I apologize for this mess of a post. Addendum 2: I have gone back and put into bold type the 1st few words of where the paragraph breaks should be.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Best TV Themes #s 15-11.

I started it, so I guess I'd better finish it.

#15 Monsieur Ed

To what anxieties or other psychological needs was Mr Ed ministering? My theory is that he represented freedom from sexual and family worries, as well as the existential dilemmas posed by the divided soul of modern man, the corporate state, social competition, the threat of nuclear war and the like. Being a horse (of course) he was not burdened with any responsibility for those things, could be irreverent and so on. In a sense, we have all become more like Mr Ed now, and less like adults with the sense of a real stake in and responsibility for directing the affairs of society.

In the famous episode where Mr Ed hangs out at Dodger Stadium with the L.A. nine in '64--they had won the World Series the previous year--the legendary manager Leo (The Lip) Durocher, who was evidently a coach on that team, got a lot of camera time, and he was surprisingly good (on being introduced to Mr Ed he jibed, "I thought it was [rival manager and famous clown] Casey Stengel". He is always portrayed in baseball lore as a little wiseass punk kind of guy who was a good manager but continually got fired because he didn't have any class (his signature quote was "nice guys finish last")--I was going to say he was like Billy Martin to bring the image up to date, but Billy Martin's been dead for 20 years now too. Anyway, when Durocher was delivering his lines, I was thinking, my God, this guy is clearly more intelligent, or at least speaks better, than anybody I can think of who is managing now.

#14 The Sopranos

The show itself was a little too--I don't know, insensitive? cynical? knowing?--for me (Maybe I just identified a little too closely with the pretentious, mush-muscled Nietzsche reading and atonal music-listening guy who was going to testify against Tony on one of his murder raps but later had a change of heart about performing that civic duty). The opening was cool though. I drive on these highways and get lost in one of these neighborhoods all the time in my shufflings between the north and the mid-atlantic, and I do get kind of pumped up when I enter the North Jersey wasteland. I don't think my wife feels the excitement to quite the same extent however.

#13 Petticoat Junction


This was apparently one of my two favorite shows when I was four, though I have no recollection of it. This show was clearly all about the Petticoat Junction girls (the ones bathing in the water tower when the train comes through town), who also functioned as a singing group--interestingly, considering that they appear to live in deepest Appalachia, a feelgood pop group. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, their heretofore forgotten songs live again all over youtube in stereophonic sound, accompanied by footage and pictures of the girls.

#12 Happy Days/Rock Around the Clock Version

For many people my age, this was, probably unfortunately, the first impression of what the cultural moment known as the 50s was like, which impression was then further augmented by such spiritually related works as the films Grease and American Graffiti. Needless to say, I bit, as I used to say in a malapropism, hook, sink and ladder.

#11 Falcon Crest

I always liked the song here--thought it conveyed the drama of being obscenely rich and lording over a ruthless high status enterprise well. When I think of serious wealth I think of panelled walls, enormous greenhouses, vineyards and fruit orchards as far as the horizon, enormous chairs that require a crane to be moved, stables, a Chinese steward--basically everything they had on this show. And my goodness, was Ana Alicia sex on a stick or what? I don't usually bother wasting my affections on celebrities who are not in some way ideal representations of somebody I might once have had a chance of meeting, and 80s California beach babes with perfect bodies--tragic though it is--are not really in that category. But sometimes love will overcome not merely artificial obstacles but perfectly legitimate ones and insinuate itself against the best judgements of its victims.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

We Need a Break After Thomas Browne
Time to rock out, Bourgeois Surrender-style.



Pat Boone of course is the Goldstein of popular music. Producing his image, either in audio or video form, though especially the latter, without fail sets off a two-minutes-of-hate style frenzy, the most vociferous haters usually being, if not exactly self-loathing, generic whiteness-loathing white people, which cursed existence they have themselves presumably and miraculously managed to avoid. The comments on this at the Youtube page are predictably over the top. "Just makes whites look so sad," "shocking lack of rhythm", "embarrassment to the whole Caucasian race", "White people have no rhythm...Why is this?" I get that it is funny and at the time there was the insult that real artists were being relegated to obscurity and denied credit by the likes of this guy and Lawrence Welk and so on, but methinks there are a lot of things that make white people look sadder than this issue many of us have with the more sensual kind of modern rhythms and expression. I'm not any big fan of Pat Boone, but at least he took care of himself and dressed well, and while his delivery was a little stiff he could carry a tune decently compared to most people one hears today. If one has to hang out with uncool white people--and some of us haven't got much choice--I'd much rather take the hopelessly whitebread but well-groomed and willing to dance and generally feign enthusiasm for something 50s crowd than The People of Wal-Mart, which is increasingly what is left to us now.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Thomas Browne--Religio Medici (1642) P a r t I

There is a class of gentleman scholar--and the type I am thinking of is almost exclusively male--usually of a certain age (late-middle to old), of a culturally and politically rightward persuasion, connoisseurs of the finest arts and wines and most civilizing leisure pursuits, a deep understanding of the ways of woman gained in the course of an often raffish youth and life as man of the world (and often replete with multiple divorces), evidently with some kind of independent income, as their official professional affiliation is always either with some kind of educational establishment or as an author of erudite and esoteric works of literature or scholarship which are lucky to achieve sales in the low four figures, yet they seem to live on a considerably higher plane of comfort and material abundance than most people in these lines of work. It is one of the convictionss of this class of gentleman scholar, or at least a significant subclass of it, that English prose attained its highest state during the middle decades of the 17th century. One of the heroes of this set, and not always in a minor role, is the physician, scholar, and contemplative man of letters, Sir Thomas Browne, a man who attained easily to worldly respectability while remaining mentally at a great distance above it, and who has been anointed by many learned critics as one of the most original, and in at least one instance the greatest, English prose writers of all time; in whose career, achievements, and broadly encompassing outlook on and understanding of life the gentlemen scholars doubtless see more than a little of themselves. Virginia Woolf--who was also a avowed fan of our author's--famously made the observation that Middlemarch was one of the few books in English written for grown-up people; to segue from that, Browne seems to be one of the few authors in English who has anything to say to mature men who have experienced life deeply and contemplated and mastered vast areas of it. As I cannot pretend to be such a person myself I cannot definitively convey what this particular communion of intellects must be like, though, like Billy Joel explained in introducing the R & B group Sam & Dave at their induction into the Rock Hall of Fame, while he had never seen them live he could only imagine how awesome it must have been, I can imagine that the commiseration of Thomas Browne and his modern day spiritual descendents must make for pretty heady intellectual activity when it occurs. To be honest the book, while fine and enjoyable after its fashion, did not make the grand impression on me that it has made on so many others. For one thing, I do not think personally that the prose of the mid-17th century marked the height of English style and purity--I would nominate the early decades of the 18th century for that honor, with a stripped-down revival of that language's animating spirit in the 1920-1960 era (in England). For another, judging from my notes, of which I took a great many given that the book is only 119 pages long, I did not really agree much with Browne's worldview in details of either greater or lesser significance, which is doubtless of primary importance in coming into sympathy with an hour. I concede however to remaining impressed with the currency he holds among the very exacting communities of the mind which I referred to earlier.

As noted above, Browne was a rational man, a man of science, and as such he questions much of the anti-rational trappings in which religion, perhaps especially that of the Papist variety, is enshrouded, and he starts out by intoning that, "Holy-water and Crucifix" are "dangerous to the common people", while he pities pilgrimages as "fruitless journeys". I have always suspected that things like church ceremonies and pilgrimages probably rate among the high points of intensity of most common people's experience of life. If the author is hinting that they would be better advised to experience God without the use of these props and ceremonies, but through a purer process intellectection, I am quite certain very few would benefit from the change. But indeed, he very quickly disengages from this assertive posture, and begins to toss around long and complex sentences the general content of which could have come from me. These have such beginning clauses as "I could never divide myself from any man upon the difference of an opinion...", "I have no Genius to disputes in Religion...", and "Every man is not a proper Champion for Truth..." Then a few pages later he asserts the superiority of faith over observed experience, at least with regard to religion, citing among other points the example of those "who lived before His coming, who upon obscure prophesies and mystical Types could raise a belief, and expect apparent impossibilities."

So far this is all material anybody who reads has more or less gone over before. It is true that one could parse and hold a seminar on nearly every sentence in the book, if one had the time, which I take to be one of the primary appeals of the style. But who does have the time? Not merely literally, but in terms of the rhythm and form with which their mind engages the world. I don't think I do anymore.

Working up to page 23 now in my notes, I cannot say that I am blown away either by the ideas, which seem to me to be pretty standard musings among the intellectuals of this age, or the style, which I suppose has a kind of neatly proportioned intricateness that is interesting, but nothing that I am mesmerized by. From pages 15-23 he has told us that to God, for whom eternity is ever present, the Last Judgement has already occurred and its effects visible, that for God to will is automatically to act, that God gave man Reason for the purpose of contemplating His Creation, and that no Work of God, including, presumably, morbidly obese people, can be ugly; none of which insights as far as I am aware are especially unique to Browne, however. He attributes wholly to God, and not to "the ingenuity and industry of the people" the success of the nation of Holland. He asserts that Wealth and Intellect are seldom united, and that is an unjust ambition to desire the former if happy enough to possess the glories of the latter. He pooh-poohs some examples of doubt which are at the very least not unreasonable ("...there are a set of Heads, that can credit the relations of Mariners, yet question the Testimonies of St Paul..."). The book is a meditation that goes on and on in this vein, pulling in associations and examples from the world of knowledge and experience, which can be a delightful thing to read, if the observations being made are interesting enough. Perhaps it is the clarity and relative unity and simplicity of point of view which the advanced mind of this time could command that is so attractive to our modern men of experience and authority. I am not seeing it yet.

He does acknowledge a few mysteries that he cannot so easily dismiss, such as how the discovery of America revealed the existence of numerous beasts that were not recorded as having been on Noah's Ark, and, assuming the benevolent hand of God to be arranging all entities so as to enable them to attain the highest realization of which they are capable, "How America abounded with Beasts of prey and noxious Animals, yet contained not in it that necessary Creature, a Horse, is very strange." His conception of religion, like most Englishmen I should add, still strikes me as shaky at best. This passage is an excellent illustration of the intellectual stimulation caused by the continuing discoveries taking place in America however.

On page 36 Browne breaks down the Koran. Given that his style with its agile and intricately constructed sentences is the main source of the great esteem in which he is held, I think it is a good time to look at one of these sentences and see what it has to tell us:

"The Alcoran of the Turks (I speak without prejudice) is an ill composed Piece, containing in it vain and ridiculous Errors in Philosophy, impossibilities, fictions, and vanities beyond laughter, maintained by evident and open Sophisms, the Policy of Ignorance, deposition of Universities, and Banishment of Learning, that hath gotten Foot by Arms and violence: this (ed--the Bible) without a blow hath disseminated it self through the whole Earth."

Leaving the truth of the various assertions aside, the effect is of the major points of a larger essay or argument compressed into a fairly compact sentence. It almost has something of the form of a mathematical proof or logic syllogism set with attention to literary style. The main thing about Browne's sentences that grabs me is the balance and even distribution of weight among the various clauses and sections. There is no point in them on which all the weight is made to sit, but the impression is produced by the accumulation of a series of images of a more or less equal heaviness. That is what comes to me for the moment.

This picture is nothing to the point. In searching for an image having something to do with Religio Medici, one naturally ends up getting a lot of pictures of the real Medicis (the Medici of the book's title refers to the author's profession), so I thought I would put one of them up.


"Mens Works have an age like themselves; and though they out-live their Authors, yet have they a stint and period to their duration..." One knew this too, but it is expressed rather more than usually finely here I think.

"Of those three great inventions in Germany, there are two which are not without their incommodities, and 'tis disputable whether they exceed not their use and commodities." This refers to the overabundance of books produced by the invention of the printing press and all that. We will be getting those computer chip implants with the full contents of the internet uploaded into our brains any time now. And no, it will not make us happy and we will spend all our time complaining that we want to return to an Agrarian society. What are we to do? Are we to love knowledge or aren't we? Well, we are supposed to be able to discern what constitutes valuable knowledge and discard the rest; a task at which it seems we are only getting worse as time goes on.

All right, what next? It's Judaism's turn to get trashed. "I am ashamed at the Rabbinical Interpretation of the Jews upon the Old Testament, as much as their defection from the New: and truly it is beyond wonder, how that contemptible and degenerate issue of Jacob, once so devoted to Ethnick Superstition, and so easily seduced to the Idolatry of their Neighbours, should now in such an obstinate and peremptory belief adhere onto their own Doctrine, expect impossibilities, and, in the face and eye of the Church, persist without the least hope of Conversion." The thing is, it would be hilarious, for a minute at least, assuming false idolators did not begin getting struck down immediately, if Jesus and Allah both turned out to be false messiahs and the real son of the Jewish god did show up in person someday. Even Browne admits that "It is the promise of Christ to make us all one Flock; but how and when this Union shall be, is as obscure to me as the last day."

Being rather simple-minded, I did like the argument that if one accepts that God has created all the world, then miracles contradicting or transcending what appear to us to be the fixed laws of nature are no greater miracles, as far as God is concerned, than the creation of nature as we perceive it, but are only more unfathomable to us. These kinds of slight distinctions in definitions and relevant consequences therein feed Browne's syllogistic style of writing well.

Further on with regard to miracles--the type of subject on which Browne's fancy was wont to linger on at great length--he does not think much of the idea that supposed relics, even if they could be proven to be authentic, would be possessed of supernatural qualities in themselves. This is in keeping with his ideas of pilgrimages as pointless excursions. "I cannot conceive why the Cross that Helena found and whereon Christ himself dyed, should have power to restore others onto life." In a rather amusing aside, he computed the gift of the ashes of John the Baptist from the King of Jerusalem to the Genovese in place of payment for supporting him in his war a nice fraud.

"...in brief, conceive light invisible, and that is a Spirit."

I will have to do one more section on this.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Middlebrow Surrender

This front in the struggle for the sort of mind I was to carry through the bulk of life was hopelessly lost a long time ago, but I have not conceded to a formal cessation of operations against the core truths of my natural abilities and inclinations until today.

This essay by Bret Easton Ellis on the significance of Charlie Sheen, though not by any means the decisive blow alerting me that I have been burrowing down the wrong path for the last 25 years, encapsulates the forces I have been up against nicely. This is not to say that I am as yet impressed with the thought process at work here, but the undeniable reality is that Bret Easton Ellis is cool, while I am lame, and as he would say, I don't 'get it', neither at one end nor the other. And it has always been thus.

Among the miscellaneous books that come into one's possession by various means during the period of the late teens and early twenties, I had one of those mid-century compendiums containing various intellectuals' frettings about the phenomena of mass culture and mass man, from the scourges of which however, the writers themselves, practically alone among living people, always seemed miraculously to feel themselves to have escaped. Heavily represented in this volume, and in my opinion easily its star contributor, was Theodor Adorno, the deadly serious emigre German philosopher-musicologist who to my knowledge never conceded a single positive development in civilization in the entirety of his life (I believe he is the guy who said that to write poetry after Auschwitz would be obscene). I was most struck of course by his absolute sense of his own mental superiority, however ultimately useless, to modern mass men, which included all Americans, and unrelenting contempt for the same. My favorite essay was his assessment of Elvis Presley's ascension onto the cultural landscape in 1956; taking a surprisingly eqananimous tone, the Frankfurt and Vienna-trained pianist and composer declared that at least it was impossible to imagine that any culture, even that of America, could sink any lower than this; that the bottom having clearly been reached, while there was no reason to expect regeneration towards an acceptable level of civilization within the lifetimes of our great-great-grandchildren, there was no conceivable further degradation of it that he could anticipate as capable of causing anguish. In this analysis he seems to have been correct. Such intact pre mass-society intellectuals as still remained after the mid-50s increasingly began to write off new cultural developments and the lives and minds of the human beings under the influence of them as insubstantialities devoid of any collective interest or meaning and in which nothing real was at stake whatsoever.

This mindset, perhaps unfortunately, though I remain wholly unconvinced of that as yet, was the dominant intellectual atmosphere that hovered over most of my formal, and subsequently, as I seem to lack the flexibility to adjust to alternative environments, informal education. Adorno of course was a product of the last, and in some senses the most perfectly realized, hurrah of European classical education. It was not simply the nature and extent of knowledge and the organization of mind that he and his like had but the circumstance that nearly everyone and every experience with which he came into contact in his formative years seemed to be restricted to this same high plane. In the same way that if one lives in a social universe where everyone is a doctor or some kind of Phd one tends to be able to attain to the same level in almost a matter of fact manner, if everyone one associates with has a thorough knowledge of Greek and other European languages, has had serious musical training, knows wide swathes of the literature of his own country and the major works of the other prominent national literatures practically by heart, and converses in a philosophical dialectic style as second nature, he will have no sense of these being unusual pursuits and habits, and such as over time, if cultivated with true thoroughness, seem to develop in one such a sensibility as can admit no pleasures, no seductions, no rationalizations, no diversions in study or thought beneath a standard that seems, and almost surely is, impossibly high to anybody who has come of age immersed in an European society probably since 1940 or so and in America even before that. This onslaught of mass low culture has affected nearly everyone now alive. Jacques Barzun, who is 103, may be the only remaining exception. Obviously there are still brilliant men, and dogged men, and the occasional lonely upholder of high standards scowling down at the sordidness of what passes for intellectual life in modern times; even the minds of these people, however, are of a very different quality from those I am talking about. Their brilliance usually does not somehow encompass the entire man and inform every aspect of their interactions with others; it is as a uniform they take on and off and which strangely fails to exert the same commanding, assured and assuring influence of the old school. It actually has long been my belief that once people were able to identify highbrow culture as a species of art or thought apart from the main channel of life the ability to possess it quickly died, probably because the ever-present dread of mediocrity became too great a distraction. People like Virginia Woolf and Adorno, who were able to possess themselves of the characteristics of high thought and sensibility before they became conscious of differentiating themselves from classes of intellect that were repulsive to them, were able to carry on relatively effectively, but they were not successful in passing their particular sensibilities to proteges of their own, as their mentors had done with them. And it is next to impossible to attain this thorough a level of cultivation from a state of consciousness of not having it. Then there are so many pratfalls the unsuspecting middlebrow inevitably falls into, myself not least among them--confusing the development of personality, which is ideally merely the expression of character, with the development of character itself; getting caught up in the collection of facts and information, and rarely any truly important facts and information, as opposed to cultivating a deep understanding of processes and relations and what constitutes substantiality in the same; the semi-paradox that one must form one's own taste and conclusions about books, music, etc, and not be slavish to authority, but yet must somehow come to more or less the same conclusions, or the same kind of conclusions, only in one's individual way, about the same. Perhaps 90% of the people who navigate this education with apparent success are merely posing--I know some are, and suspect others--but I have become convinced that there really is an elect who have attained such a degree of mastery of this system that the working of their minds must be at times a source of great pleasure to them to contemplate, as it is a wonder for others to contemplate them. This is what I have encountered in the course of my education and decided for whatever reason that this is the mind I want, though it is impossible I should ever attain it, and no one has yet been able to persuade me against it.





This above is an image of how people who follow this route, or any route with which they never attain a sense of fusion between the spirit and the pursuit, end up in middle age.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

This Month's Movies--The Deer Hunter (1978) & And Then There Were None (1945)

The Deer Hunter was a big deal when it first came out, sweeping the Academy Awards and earning reverent praise as one of the masterworks of its era. I was 8 at the time and remember it well; though I also remember Barry Manilow's Even Now album coming out the same year and seeming to be about equivalent in cultural importance. One thing that was strongly emphasized about the Deer Hunter was that it was absolutely not for children, so naturally I didn't see it at the time. Then, due to a variety of circumstances, some of which I may examine later in this piece, the movie, while it seems to have remained more or less well-regarded, also seemed to become somewhat forgotten by the general consciousness as regards such things--I never hear it referenced or quoted from in the way other movies from that time period are, for example--so I went on never having seen it, or ever thinking about seeing it, until its turn recently came up in my latest classic-movie-list-generating system.

My expectations were guarded but I was not wholly incurious to see it. Given the overwhelming impact it had made on its initial release, I thought it must have some power that did not resonate or fit in with the contemporary zeitgeist but would be able to arouse recognition in anyone who retained some connection to the world out of which the movie arose. I also knew that it was largely set in a steel mill town in Western Pennsylvania, with which kinds of places I have a decent familiarity, and which I have always in fact thought are underutilized as settings for films and other stories, even to the extent of planning a (never-written) story or short novel in such a locale myself. It has lots of big stars (Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken) who have been ubiquitous my entire life to the point that I am rather tired of all of them; however as they were all still young here and, with the exception of DeNiro, not quite established in the public mind as Themselves yet, their presences, while they did not excite me, did not put me off as most productions overstuffed with modern celebrities tend to.


Predictably, I found the parts of the movie set in Pennsylvania of more interest than those set in Vietnam. Many scenes were actually filmed in Ohio and the hunting scenes, rather incongruously, in Washington state, but there are still plenty that were shot in Pennsylvania, and certainly that look like Pennsylvania, the rocky, hilly terrain with its brown grass and brown trees, the smallness and darkness of an overcast or rainy day in a valley town hemmed in by the mountains all around and the low, cloud packed sky above, the soft-lit dreariness of aging stores and other interiors. These details of place give the movie such sense of reality and coherence as it has. The dialogue and characterization, while some effort was made which at various moments seemed promising, ended up not forming into a memorable whole. The parts in Vietnam obviously take the arc of the characters' development in varying directions, but the result, which is a problem I have found in many Vietnam movies, neither gives a clear sense of any especially illuminating reality about the war in any of its aspects, nor follows or builds upon the earlier scenes in the movie in a way that offers any much probing insight into what exactly is happening to various of the characters and why. That war is a terrible madness that not infrequently drives people who experience it far off the course of ordinary cognitive/psychological relation to life, and that the Vietnam war was perhaps even more extreme in these regards than other conflicts, are fairly well established viewpoints in this culture. Whatever statement one aims to make however, in order to produce a gripping work of art, one's subjects have to retain/emanate some sense of humanity that is deeper and nobler than the horror of whatever actual circumstances are being depicted. I don't feel that that was successfully achieved in this movie.

The Vietnam War of course would only have been over for three years when this came out. Though I would have been 5 years old when it ended, I have no memory of it as a current event. It has always existed for me as belonging to the past, even when that past was scarcely a few years gone, which is as nothing to an adult. A not insignificant portion of the political and social atmosphere of my whole life have been, supposedly, influenced by this war, especially the animosities and societal fault lines exacerbated by it, yet I have never had much of a feel for what it, and all the disputes surrounding it, really signified, I mean one knows in broad terms about the divisions it caused and how it undermined trust in the government and that the geography and psychology of southeast Asia seem to have proved especially nightmarish for Americans to cope with, but somehow whatever agenda or position the author or historian or filmmaker of the accounts of it are trying to push I find I have a difficult time trusting in to any reasonable extent.




Hardly anyone in the mainstream critical community gives any indication that they think the film's stature has declined over the years, though most of their approving reviews do not have any very distinct air of freshness about them, as if they saw the movie decades ago and haven't gotten around for whatever reason to seeing it again since, though they probably meant to. I can sense the movie already having something of this effect with myself. Among the various reasons why it was so lauded on its first appearance was also that Robert DeNiro was either at or very near the height of his reputation as an actor at the time, which was colossal. He was regarded in a similar light in the late 70s as Brando was in the 50s. No one in Hollywood under 40, possibly under 50, is regarded in anything approaching the same esteem today. He was seen as something more than just a highly accomplished professional, or even an exceptional talent, but as a kind of dangerous force that was threatening or exhilirating depending on which side of the cultural divide one stood on. In contrast to Brando, however, who as he got older worked sporadically, became ever stranger and more ornery, ballooned to an immense weight and generally remained a figure of some fascination at least to me, DeNiro at some point around the late 1980s lost this edge, this aura of being different, by several insurmountable degrees, from everyone else. Whether this has had any effect of making his other earlier, more celebrated roles less interesting, I do not know--I remain a fan of his performances in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull at least, and I think they will hold up. In some of the other films, though, including this one, it does seem now like he is playing the Robert DeNiro persona as much as a unique character in a unique story. There may not have been anywhere else to go with the role as it was written--in any case the dimensions of the character in this movie are not what they are in these other parts.



The collapse of the career of the director Cimino after its brief peak with this film is also well documented, to the point that he is now depicted, and even comes across as, something of a clown. He is still not that old today, and there are numerous relatively recent interviews of him available on the internet--he is apparently still regarded as a genius in France, for example--and he is really obnoxious. I realize that successful artists are frequently jerks of one kind or another, but this guy dismisses basically everybody who isn't 100% devoted to his peculiar vision of himself and his work as an idiot. When other accomplished people castigate someone as an idiot, I may not like the sting of recognition I feel thereby, but I sense there is probably some truth in it as far as the accomplished person's viewpoint goes. I do not have the same confidence in the assertions of Michael Cimino, to be brief about it.



In keeping with my apparent inability to warm up to anyone from the early baby boomer generation, I have never been much of a fan of Meryl Streep, though she is supposed to be the equivalent of a living national treasure, as well as relatively gracious and humble despite her tremendous accomplishments. In spite of all this, I still can't bring myself to like her. The unconquerable smugness that seems to be the trademark of everybody born from about 1944-54 who ever accomplished anything, as well as a great many people who haven't, though not as blatant as in some of her more obtuse peers, still reveals itself in her work in a sort of coldness that subordinates genuine spirit, humor, and the like for very fine and technically impeccable approximations of those qualities. I sometimes admire grudgingly, but I am never moved; and I admit it is my weakness that where movies and other performing arts are concerned I like to be moved. Anyway, my object in introducing the subject was to acknowledge that Meryl Streep was quite, quite pretty in this movie, much more than I had ever noticed before. So what? It is nothing to the point whether I think Meryl Streep was pretty or not, many people are after all pretty when they are in their twenties, and few are Meryl Streep, but I guess I don't find Meryl Streep particularly interesting separated from her prettiness, which is not the case with everyone. As it is, even the baby boomers were not wholly uninteresting when they were young, though to me mainly as the period of their youth gives insights into the kind of society and world they both left behind and have led us into since.






1945 I don't think is generally considered one of Hollywood's greatest years, but it is perhaps its most singular one in terms of mood and style. In a year that may have well been the bloodiest in human history, the films, no doubt as a reaction to this horror, tended to be almost excruciatingly slow, gentle, escapist and slightly dreamlike. I am thinking of things like The Clock, The Bells of St Mary's, and A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. And Then There Were None, though an adaptation of an Agatha Christie book which centers around the mysterious deaths of ten people invited to an estate on an otherwise uninhabited island, has nonetheless temperamentally much in common with these other pictures. While it is darker than they are, it is still quiet, understated and has an atmosphere of weariness about it that, also like the other movies, does not especially seem an asset on an initial viewing, but which I often find myself recalling long afterwards more than images from snazzier prodoctions. The characters are guests in a spacious mansion that is the sole edifice on an isolated island to which the boat to the mainland comes by twice a week. There is little food, some drink, no host, two dubious servants, numerous of the (originally eight) guests are antisocial, and of course once the plot gets going people begin dropping dead one by one at more or less regular intervals. It is one of those movies that is rather ridiculously unreal but makes an expert use of various familiar trappings of reality, or at least British literary conventions--the country house, tea-time, references to the train to London even though there is not any chance of anyone trapped in the house catching it, the characters as representatives of various professions (there are a judge, a doctor, a General, a soldier-adventurer, a secretary, a police inspector, a butler, and a professional guest). The plot of course is silly and while it has something of the appeal of a logic puzzle and as a kind of basic brain scan of the society that produced it, it does not withstand much probing scrutiny into its depiction of the human condition.



They did give me one of my 40s babes in the person of June Duprez, who never looked so good as she did here. She was English and did not have a major career--this is probably her best-known movie, and I had never heard of it, or her, prior to its popping up on the List. I am glad she got the part--she is worthy of being remembered a little. I love the clothes she wears in this too. Nothing fancy, but the simple, sensible and smart look that predominated at the time.



Is there a town or a college somewhere where women still look like this? I think there actually are some, I'm just not able to get into them.



This was directed by the legendary French auteur Rene Clair, who seems to have decamped to Hollywood for the duration of the war. I don't think I have seen any of his other movies yet. He receives most of the credit from the critics for the success of this movie, the forbidding, gloomy atmosphere and visual style I mentioned earlier, and no doubt he deserved a good deal of it. I do maintain however that this sort of mood was very much the spirit of the time and was influencing everyone. I'm not sure it is ultimately a great movie, though I certainly liked it, and loved loved loved the mood and atmosphere, for reasons of my own personal taste however, which do not seem to be much in accord with anyone else's.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

You Knew This Was Coming

The consolation is that I think this will be the last set of pictures of this type for a while. For now however we are going to once more journey to a time and among scenes in their way more distant and dead to us than certain locales of the high middle ages. Yes, it is my visit to Concord, Mass in the summer of 1997.

1. Morning Glories on the Main Road Into Town, Near the Entrance. This is the main approach to this venerable town, which remarkably, given the serenity and evocation of a less crowded and busy time that is evident in the photograph, is just 16 miles from downtown Boston.


2. Thoreau Birthplace Marker. Of the big 4 Concord writers, Thoreau was the only one who was actually born in town (For information lovers: Emerson was born in Boston, Hawthorne in Salem [Mass], and L. M. Alcott in Germantown [now part of Philadelphia], PA). I do not mean to introduce more vanity into this site than it already has, but man do I look good to myself in this picture. This was when I was exactly 27 and a half years old, which Bill James and other sports historians have shown pretty convincingly is the age when a substantial plurality, and maybe even a majority, of male athletes have their peak seasons, after which most continue to maintain a reasonably high level of performance for an additional 3-5 years and then start to fall off a cliff around age 32-33. It really is rather an oddity about life that this physical prime--and in most cases mental prime, as well--which takes at least 20, and in my case about 26, years to grow into, is so brief, and the decline so long--one can be old and irrelevant, but still existing, now for 40 or 50 years. Clearly in the state of nature the kind of society we have now, with such a large percentage of old, declining, or otherwise useless people, would be unsustainable--the proportion of adults at the height of their physical and mental and sexual powers and general usefulness would have to be much higher, and as that window is so brief, surely it is intended for us to live more intensely and tumultously, realize our potential at an age when it matters, pass on our seed in vigorous rather than antiseptic conditions, and pass quickly, a well-earned early death brought on by the exhaustion of a properly lived life, when our powers begin to wane in what is now but the beginning of an interminable middle age.




3. Memorial at Walden Pond State Park, Sense of the Woods There. This is supposed to be the vicinity of where the cabin was. Archaeologists have apparently found a lot of mangled nails and other evidence of carpentering incompetence of the part of Thoreau in their excavations on the site.



4. View of Walden Pond. I don't look quite as much like a regular person with potential here as in the other picture, but I still have a BMI that is not officially overweight at least.


There are obviously more spectacular lakes than Walden in New England but it is a pleasant afternoon outing and I found its atmosphere, with the literary and historical associations and all, to be to my liking. I am not such a fool as to imagine by going to some place that has been written about in a famous book that I am going to have any profound experience of my own or accrue any benefit from it whatsoever. I like to feel some association with smart people and higher levels of civilization even if I have no hope of ever comprehending anything which they really signify. It seems to be one of the few things in which I am able to find any happiness.



5. Another View of the Pond. All these pictures of course were taken with an old film camera. I have no knack for the photographer's art, or any art really. It would have been odd that I set myself up in my mind as some kind of artist, but there were in truth no other alternatives any more plausible that were in any way desirable. Many sober adults seem to want young people to be sensible and come to the realization that they haven't got the talent, personality, etc to do anything that might earn them either respect or income, and just resign themselves to a life of mediocrity and deference to their betters, the source and real nature and extent of whose superiority to them is usually truly a mystery until one is well into his thirties.



6. The Thoreau Family Plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The four writers are conveniently buried all together.




7. Headstone of the Author. The notes and quills and other offerings by the stone were the work of other fans, though whoever these people were, we kept missing them, assuming they were making their ways around to all the sites that we were.



8. What Is This? Fine Dining? Compared to the kinds of places I go to now at least. The water glasses and cloth napkins alone are things that I had almost forgotten existed. This picture aside though, I have no memory of what this place was, what I had, why I thought it was a good idea to wear that shirt, etc.



9. After this visit I did not return to Concord for nearly 13 years! Which is really pitiful, since it's only about an hour, maybe an hour and fifteen minutes, from where I live, and it's a neat old-fashioned place with lots of things to look at and see, and I do like it there. So I went down again last May, shortly after making myself a reminder to do so I believe in these very pages. It was exciting to be back. On this occasion we eschewed the literary sites and did a little walking along the Minuteman trail or whatever it is called. Below, as any fan of 18th-century English novels will recognize, is the sign of a tavern, which while well preserved and offering numerous educational presentations and other opportunites, did not alas actually serve up any ale or other spirits. Still, if it were not for that cone and police tape intruding upon the scene, one would hardly know it was not indeed 1775 with this vision set before him.



10. Here Is a Short Movie. My non-focused, uncoordinated style of parenting is on modest display here, where as you can see the effect is that of a kind of organic, undirected immersion in experience, sort of set the children down in the historic field and see what they do. This is at the end, or near an end, of the walking trail, near the Concord visitors center. When the camera pans the field I think you can see the reconstruction of the Old North Bridge and the monument commemorating "The Shot Heard Round the World" in the background.



video

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Musical Interlude (i.e., a Cheap Post)

I stumbled upon this while doing my researches for the TV theme song openings. It made me laugh. The early 1960s were a good time to be a clever young man. This movie always reminds me of all kinds of cool things--ideas, jokes, aesthetic statements, music and the like--that I have always suspected I maybe didn't just miss, but missed less widely than most attractive casts of mind, incorporating into my own persona.

There is of course no time that it is bad to be a clever young man, the legitimate ones as a rule rarely suffer from neglect, or fail to draw followers and admirers in any age. I suppose my intention was to say that the early 1960s seemed to especially foster this kind of young male cleverness that people find so attractive more than most eras. The Elizabethan period of the 1580s and early 90s and of course the Romantic era are even more obvious examples of ages where young men flourished and set a distinct cultural tone for their time.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Walden (1854)

It is believed, in at least one tastefully-furnished corner of the world that shall remain unnamed, that this is one of my favorite books of all time. This conclusion was reached based upon a feeble attempt I once made to put in a good word for it at a meal where its naivete, inconsistencies and general infantilism were being heartily trashed by the host and another guest. My 'argument', as it was, was not that the book contained the wisdom of the world--least of all in any kind of practical sense--but that it was the work of a highly interesting and surprisingly refined mind, not to mention an American and a New Englander, one of ourselves, practically, among whom the particular type is rare. For example, I have never been much of an admirer of Thoreau's great friend Emerson, who is usually depicted as the adult in the relationship--his writings have always struck me as easily picked apart, second rate forays into philosophy, as if he were forever trying to think very hard, and never succeeding in doing so in a satisfactory manner. What he writes does not give one much that he did not have before, or can not find better somewhere else. Thoreau is much more singular, and even if many of his ideas are foolish, which I am not convinced that they are, he gives you a thought process and world view that I haven't quite found in any other author. The effect that computers are having on our ability to read real books is a popular topic not just with me but with many people who perceive that the intellectual cosmos in which they grew up, which seemed to be constituted of fairly solid stuff even if most people failed to appreciate it properly--that which consisted of books, libraries, universities and journals written for small but select audiences, all strictly vetted and overseen by legitimate authorities--is rapidly disintegrating. While I do still read books, it is true I don't read them in the same way as I did before computers. Most of this I still believe is due to time constraints, but that has traditionally been one of the penalties of choosing, or being condemned to lead, a bourgeois life, and have to consume (or in the case of blogging, "produce") snippets of knowledge or cultivation in 20 minute, 7-10 page (reading), 1-2 paragraphs (writing) blocks once or twice a day. If you want to be a real intellectual you have to organize your life so that tedious tasks and other various appointments and necessities do not distract you from serious pursuits more than 30% of the day or so, and I have totally failed in achieving this. When my children are older, will I be able to go back to the calmer, more attentive style of reading, where one becomes immersed in the sensibility and rigor of a serious book for several hours at a stretch such that it serves as a real fortification of the nourishment of the brain as against the steady rush of sugar and other empty calories that is mental life online? I think possibly so; for one thing I will be practically an old man myself by then, and will likely have totally abandoned all hope of figuring out and playing some kind of active role in contemporary life; for another I have done it in the past, it still feels more natural to me than reading in short snippets, and I will probably be even more nostalgic for those former times, of youth and possibility and all that, than I am now. While I still do go on the internet a lot in my day to day life, I don't have any of those portable devices for accessing it which allow you to check all your accounts, favorite pages, etc, obsessively when I am not sitting at a desk, and if I go away for the weekend or even a 10 day vacation I manage easily enough without. In short I am not quite as far gone as other people seem to be. On the other hand the temptation that the blog offers of instant publication and feedback, though I almost never receive any of the latter, have definitely impaired my ability to focus on more literary projects that simply require more time and concentration than I ever feel I have, and that is something that especially as I get older I will have to come to terms with if I ever want to accomplish anything remotely literary ever again.

The point I mean to introduce by all this is that when I first read Walden, which I believe was around 1995, I read it in this old-style and properly superior manner. I was sort of living the dream of the 90s, though I did still work. However I kept odd hours, never had to be anywhere, had lots of time to kill, knew few people with whom I could socialize, and the internet and its various temptations were still unknown to me, so I could read books largely undisturbed for sizable stretches of time. Certainly the books that I read at that time I recall the general outlines and textures of much better than those I have read in 15 minute snatches before nodding off in recent years, but much of that is the effect of youth, the comparative freshness of every significant experience and encounter, and such. Yes, I have learned a great many things since turning 30, but they are of a different nature from the things I learned prior to that age. The holes one fills in may not be substantially any smaller than those filled in previously, but as age increases the annoyance at continually finding more and more begins to outweigh the pleasures one felt in youth of furnishing and plenishing one's relatively unadorned mind. In later years the sensation is more like having to repair structural damage one had been ignorant of up to that point; it is costly, and invariably promises further unpleasant revelations of the same kind.



What of the book itself? As stated earlier, I once at least had some affection for it, and while the impression on my second, more recent and more harried reading was not as deeply felt as on the earlier occasion, I did not feel that any kind of blinders had been taken off due to greater maturity or knowledge of the world either. Thoreau still struck me as a good writer and an interesting thinker--more so certainly than the majority of the people denouncing him at dinner parties and on the internet. He has the gift of the genuinely unique and distinctive point of view, and the ability to express it coherently. Whether or not he is 'right' or 'accurate' in his depictions and diagnoses of the world--and I obviously do not myself adhere to hardly any of the tenets he puts forth in more than a haphazard and passively considered manner, as if wondering whether such things as he says are true and hoping they are not (nor, in a certain sense, does he himself)--I doubt the book could hold the interest it does if he were absolutely wrong. No, we cannot literally all go and live in the woods and contemplate our existences and give over all thoughts of money, not all at the same time at any rate--but this is not really the source of the book's interest either. It is in the way he sees aspects of nature, relates to and thinks about people and institutions and technology, which thoughts and visions are richer and more imaginative than what we usually find and thus seem to contain aspects of truth.


So much time has lapsed that I am just going to put down some of my notes on the book in pensee form, with additional commentary if anything suggests itself.


...the undesirability of company, or at least the preference of solitude.


Large crowds and fancy dinners distract a man from his proper business.


One ought to remember that eating is a bad excuse for a visit and not treat it as (a legitimate one).


Most of Thoreau's metaphors have a seasonal, ecological, biological nature about them.


Passage from Homer to emphasize concerns of a true man, and what esteem is to such a man (The passage reads "Why are you in tears, Patroclus, like a young girl?/Or have you alone heard some news from Phthia?/They say that Monoetius lives yet, son of Actor/And Peleus lives, son of Aecus, among the Myrmidons/Either of whom having died, we should greatly grieve.") I am no longer sure what I meant by this interpretion (In the book, Thoreau was reading the passage to a natural, unsophisticated woodchopper, who replied "That's good").


Begs the question (sorry) 'What is a man?' and also "How is one fully natural but spiritually dead?' This is further on in Thoreau's analysis of the mental life of the woodchopper.


The mental activities of advanced man are so foreign and perhaps unnecessary for the workman, which hints at the meanings of brute life.


No spiritual or intellectual development needed to be a math genius?


The second time the woodchopper says "it is good" like God in Genesis.


A man's work necessarily takes him away from other things.


The moral of the Plato story (in Thoreau's view) is that it has taken a lot to reduce man, who is by nature a noble creature, to a plucked chicken. (Plato's definition of a man--a biped without feathers).


Can one be tricked into taking the spiritual view?


He (the woodchopper) was only original and only possessed genius because he was so uncommonly uncorrupted.


Note closeness in spelling and meaning of "founded" and "funded".


To the sentence "there were some curious specimens among my visitors" I remarked 'as opposed to himself?'


Regarding another simple-minded man he encountered, who admitted himself deficient in intellect. "The Lord had made him so, yet he supposed the Lord cared as much for him as for another." Ought he not have?


Simplicity connected with truth here, with naturalness earlier.

Though talking to an honest idiot may be better in some circumstances, it is not by any means the most desirable way. (?)

The townspeople fear death, evidently, in proportion to the totality of their estrangement from life. The people are ashamed of their suspected emptiness, but such sacrifices are necessary to sustain society. Is society necessary? Does it have a noble purpose at all or has that purpose merely been subverted? Do men so desire society that they prefer to conform to a bad one rather than seeking a solitary existence?

His well-known account of the battle of the ants had some funny, though not exactly pertinent, lines. "It was evident their battle-cry was 'Conquer or die." "I have no doubt that it was a principle they fought for, as much as our ancestors, and not to avoid a three-penny tax on their tea; and the results of this battle will be as important and memorable to those whom it concerns as those of the battle of Bunker Hill, at least."