Wednesday, October 22, 2014

They Don't Make Renaissances Like They Used To

This is the sort of thing I love, and I'm surprised I haven't quoted it here before.  In Robert Darnton's The Case for Books: Past, Present and Future (Public Affairs Books, 2009), he tells of "Niccolo Perotti, a learned Italian classicist," who in 1471 confided to a friend his concerns about the new language-production technology of printing [xiv-xv]:
My dear Francesco, I have lately kept praising the age in which we live, because of the great, indeed divine gift of the new kind of writing which was recently brought to us from Germany.  In fact, I saw a single man printing in a single month as much as could be written by hand by several persons in a year ... It was for this reason that I was led to hope that wihtin a short time we should have such a large quantity of books that there wouldn't be a single work which could not be printed because of lack of means or scarcity ... Yet -- oh false and all too human thoughts -- I see that things turned out quite differently from what I had hoped.  Because now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or better still be erased from all books.  And even when they write something worthwhile they twist it and corrupt it to the point where it would be much better to do without such books, rather than having a thousand copies spreading falsehoods over the whole world.
Ah, the good old days!  Of course Perotte was right: any new technology that makes it easier to copy and disseminate information will increase the absolute numbers (though not, I think, the proportion) of junk that is published.  The difficulty, though, is deciding what is junk and what is treasure.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Service Advisory

I'm back in Korea after a four-year absence, and I spent the first week just running around, readusting, getting settled in.  (I'll be here till mid-November.)  I'm still trying to find out how to score free wifi, which is supposed to be available all over Seoul, but is hard to combine with a place that has an outlet for my laptop.  Even if I had a smartphone, which is probably what most Seoulites do with wireless, I wouldn't want to try to write a blog post on it.  So I'm back in the Internet cafes, the PC rooms.

I have a bunch of ideas, but for right now I'm just checking in.  I'll try to do some writing later today.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Nearer My Obama to Thee

Sitting in the airport, waiting for my flight, I have nothing better to do than nitpick a reality-based Obama loyalist like Roy Edroso, who writes today:
Not mentioned: The $3 trillion Iraq war which, if Republicans get their way, will soon be going for 4.
You'd think that Obama, the reluctant warrior, had nothing to do with the resumption of that war.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Autumn of My Discontent

The image above comes from a famous, not to say notorious, company that sells an odd variety of products and sponsors sweepstakes with large prizes.  I'm sure you can guess who I'm talking about.  My impression is that their target market is mostly older people, often religiously devout and jingoistic.  So I was baffled by this offering: an American flag doormat.  "Show Your Patriotism All Year Round!" was the tagline.  By making / letting people wipe their feet on Old Glory?  I wonder how this one is selling ...

I apologize for my inactivity; I just haven't felt like writing lately.  The closest I can come to a reason for that is we're in election season.  I have seen less than usual Democratic fussing over the upcoming election, and I wonder why.  Could it be that even Obamabots can't work up much enthusiasm for the Democrats, partly because numerous Democratic candidates are evidently distancing themselves from their President?  Elizabeth Warren actually accused Obama of protecting Wall Street, and that's a remarkable move within the party at a time like this.

I've had some nasty exchanges in comments on various Democratic pages, only a few of them with people I actually know, but that's normal.  I'm past being surprised when party people, as Nietzsche said, necessarily become liars.  A writer I'm Facebook-friends with complained that she'd been dunned with e-mails from Democrats begging for campaign donations; I realized that I haven't been getting them this time around.  So I'm not sure what's up.  I'm not happy with the prospect of the Republicans taking the Senate, but then I'm not happy with the prospect of the Democrats keeping the Senate either.

I've been preparing for a one-month trip overseas -- leaving tomorrow, in fact -- and I realized that I wouldn't be in the US on Election Day, for the first time in my life.  Because of the novelty of the situation it took me a while to decide what to do.  Luckily, there was early voting in my city, so I was able to vote yesterday.  I'll be giving a hard time to any Democrat who accuses me of not voting, not wanting to vote, or of trying to discourage other people from voting; I'm just out of patience with that kind of crap.  I'll have internet access while I'm abroad, and who knows?  Maybe a change of scene will get me writing more again.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

They Don't Make Cultural Appropriation Like They Used To



A musician friend in his mid-30s linked to this clip on Facebook today, and remarked:
Musicians: Just a reminder. Bob Dylan wrote this when he was TWENTY TWO years old. He didn't have auto-tune, there were no electric tuners, or soundcloud demos to listen to, or web forums to get feedback from about his craft. Not saying those things are bad. But the reason this is one of the greatest tunes ever written is simple: he had something to say.

More and more that seems to be the thing I don't find much of anymore.

If you have something to say, the rest is easy.
I'd have thought that one's thirties would be a bit young to be a clueless curmudgeon, but I guess my friend is just precocious.  Or maybe such people are clueless from birth, and are simply recognized as malignant old farts when they actually become old.  But everything my friend said here is wrong.

Start with "the tune."  It's long been known that Dylan stole the tune of "Blowing in the Wind" from the African-American spiritual "No More Auction Block."  I suppose my friend used "the tune" metonymically to mean "the song," but given the tune's source (which he confirmed he knew), it's an unfortunate choice of words.  If it's "one of the greatest tunes ever written," Dylan can't really take credit for it.

What about the lyrics?  My opinion is that they don't say much.  They are, as one writer put it, "impenetrably ambiguous: either the answer is so obvious it is right in your face, or the answer is as intangible as the wind".  I suppose that's one reason why the song has been so popular: it can mean almost anything to almost anybody.  If it were more specific, it would offend someone.  At that, the Chad Mitchell Trio was the first group to record the song, but "their record company delayed release of the album containing it because the song included the word 'death.'"  But bear in mind, Peter Paul and Mary's version spent "five weeks atop the easy listening chart."

Did Dylan really "have something to say" in "Blowing in the Wind"?  I don't believe so, but if he did, it wasn't the kind of message that can be paraphrased in brief.  Maybe what he wanted to express was a feeling, and surely that is what most people who adopted the song got from it, as witness its frequent use in religious services.  I'm not criticizing, mind you: it's very hard to put an explicit message into a song.  Dylan did it as well as anyone and better than most, but it's notable that his most popular song wasn't one of what he later called his "finger-pointing" songs.

I was annoyed by my friend's diatribe for more general reasons, though.  "If you have something to say, the rest is easy."  As a writer myself (including poems and some songs), my experience is that when I have something to say, the rest isn't easy.  Getting from what I want to say, or what I feel, to singable lyrics that work and a melody that will carry those lyrics, is quite difficult.  It's impossible, more often than not.  And I've read lots of poetry and prose, and heard many songs, where the composer obviously had something to say, something he or she thought important, but couldn't produce an interesting song or poem or story or novel out of it.  If I'm charitable, I can recognize that my friend probably didn't mean something like an explicit message when he mentioned having something to say, but like "the tune," it's why his remarks don't work, and fall into the clueless-curmudgeon category.

As for the stuff about the technology that didn't exist when Dylan wrote "Blowing in the Wind," leave aside the fact that recordings and broadcasts are technology that have had a big effect on the way music is produced and performed and transmitted; leave aside the fact that there were various ways of altering voices and sound in recordings in 1962, such as echo chambers, double-tracking, and tape editing.  In his early career Dylan found his way into a trend that rejected the slick inauthenticity of corporate pop music, one that valued unpolished "reality," though of course he signed with a major label and a few years later enraged some of his erstwhile cohorts by going electric and making rock'n'roll.  But the authenticity valued by the folk movement was dubious.  Authentic black bluesmen like Leadbelly wore suits and ties when they performed for black audiences; for "progressive" white audiences they had to wear bib overalls and work shirts.  (So says the blues musician and writer Elijah Wald in Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues.)  Which was more authentic?

Wanting to say something meaningful isn't "having something to say." You don't "have something to say" until you've said it.  That's a core paradox of art-making: you can hone your craft for decades, yet you won't know whether the piece you're working on is good until you've finished it, and maybe not even then.  But contrariwise, there are many people of all ages who sincerely want to give something to the world, yet what they produce is dreadful, forgettable.  Another core paradox of art-making is that one works very hard to produce something that seems spontaneous and effortless, "artless" as it's often called.  What seems natural and authentic is generally the product of dedicated, often exhausting work.  As a musician himself, my friend should know this.

Finally, "More and more that seems to be the thing I don't find much of anymore."  At the most literal level, he wouldn't have found much of it in 1962 either.   Dylan attracted attention because of his presence and air of authority -- even "authenticity," though he was a middle-class Jewish kid from northern Minnesota pretending to be a goyish Okie of the Depression era.  Most of the songs of his contemporaries are forgotten, and deservedly so, not because their writers had nothing to say but because they didn't say it in an interesting or memorable way. "Blowing in the Wind" itself stands alone in his catalog for its popularity.  Against this, I still find plenty of contemporary songs and music that are memorable, and say something to me.  They are probably a minority of the vast flood of material that's released, but that was always true.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

On "Confrontation"

I just read Noam Chomsky's latest book, Masters of Mankind: Essays and Lectures, 1969-2013 (Haymarket Books, 2014), a bemusingly short collection of pieces that span over forty years.  It might be a good introduction to his political writings for someone who's new to them, and of course there are always plenty of such people.  It's also a reminder of how little has changed in US politics these past several decades.

For example, I very much liked what Chomsky had to say about "confrontation" in the 1969 essay, "Knowledge and Power: Intellectuals and the Welfare-Warfare State."  (Once again I'm quoting from an e-book with no page numbers, so I can't cite this passage any more closely than that.)
It has always been taken for granted by radical thinkers, and quite rightly so, that effective political action that threatens entrenched social interests will lead to "confrontation" and repression.  It is, correspondingly, a sign of intellectual bankruptcy for the left to seek to construct "confrontations"; it is a clear indication that the efforts to organize significant social action have failed.  Impatience, horror at evident atrocities, may impel one to seek an immediate confrontation with authority.  This can be extremely valuable in one of two ways: by posing a threat to the interests of those who are implementing specific policies; or by bringing to the consciousness of others a reality that is much too easy to forget.  But the search for confrontations can also be a kind of self-indulgence that may abort a movement for social change and condemn it to irrelevance and disaster.  A confrontation that grows out of effective policies may be unavoidable, but one who takes his own rhetoric seriously will seek to delay a confrontation until he can hope to emerge successful, either in the the narrower senses noted above or to the far more important sense of bringing about, through this success, some substantive change in institutions.  Particularly objectionable is the idea of designing confrontations so as to manipulate the unwitting participants into accepting a point of view that does not grow out of meaningful experience, out of real understanding.  This is not only a testimony to political irrelevance, but also, precisely because it is manipulative and coercive, a proper tactic only for a movement that aims to maintain an elitist and authoritarian organization.
This remains a relevant point, I think, as shown by certain self-styled anarchists who tried to divert actions of the Occupy Movement into vandalism that would provoke police violence -- even more police violence than there already was.  I'm not opposed in principle to the use of violence in demonstrations, but I do think that Chomsky's remarks on confrontation are just as relevant to violent action.  The US left traditionally has been and still is male-dominated and often macho, which probably has something to do with its past and present failures.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sermon Style

Things have been hectic lately, and they don't promise to be any less so.  I hope to have some more time to write this week while I'm traveling.

Right now I'm rereading May Sarton's Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year (Norton, 1993).  Sarton's later journals have a certain amount of intrinsic interest insofar as they describe her struggle with bad health and her reflections on aging.  She had a relatively easy time of it nevertheless, with a large and faithful support network, who enabled her to live at home and by herself (more or less, if you overlook the many people passing through with food and entertainment, assisting with cleaning and gardening and transcribing the journals (after her stroke she began dictating them): most never-married old people don't have that.  And even so, the later journals often read like thank-you notes to her friends and helpers and caretakers and other people she interacted with, as if she unconsciously feared that failing to name every benefactor and helper would result in a loss of their support.  But maybe I'm just imagining that.

She also discusses art, politics, and culture, and as often as not I disagree with her.  One of her correspondents
had the kindness to copy out, from a book by Piero Ferrucci called Inevitable Grace, something which goes right to the state of myself, my health and my life, in a marvelous way.  The beginning of the quotation from Ferrucci is "Empathy, however, is no solitary event.  On the contrary, it is that which permits artists to feel and express the most concealed needs, pains and dreams  of a whole society.  The aim of the poet, says Pablo Neruda, is to embody hope for the people, to be one leaf in the great tree of humanity."  Then Ferrucci quotes from Neruda: "'My reward is the momentous occasion when, from the depths of a coal mine, a man came up out of the tunnel into the full sunlight and the fiery nitrate field as if rising out of hell, his face disfigured by his work, his eyes inflamed by the dust and, stretching his rough hands out to me, a hand whose callouses and lines traced the map of the pampas.  He said to me, his eyes shining, "I have known you for a long time, my brother!" That is the laurel crown of my poetry, that opening in the bleak pampas from which a worker emerges, who has been told often by the wind in the night and the stars of Chile: you are not alone, there is a poet whose thoughts are with you in your suffering.'"  And back to Ferrucci: "Empathy then is an expansion of consciousness.  Through the faculty we are able to become one with trees and ants and elephants, birds, rivers and seas, children and old people, men and women, suffering and joyful people, rainbows and galaxies.  Thus we become able to breathe and live in other things or to find them within ourselves, as in a living microcosm in the most unlikely face, in the strangest of situations, in the remotest places, we discover ourselves and once we reach this point there need never again be the feeling that we are strangers in a strange land."  It is a good Sunday sermon, isn't it?  [24-25]
It's a sermon, all right, but I don't think it's a good one.  I suspect the trouble may lie partly in the translation, as I presume Ferrucci writes in Italian.  (He's a philosopher and psychotherapist who's evidently lived all his life in Italy.)  So it might be that "Empathy, however, is no solitary event" should be something like "no isolated event", in the sense of being a process rather than a one-time event.  Whatever.  Of course empathy is a relation between two or more people, so it could hardly be solitary.

I don't believe that writers are necessarily particularly empathetic as writers -- many of us are ferociously egoistic, which is necessary to find the time to be solitary and construct our faery castles of words.  (Sarton herself doesn't seem very empathetic.)  Nor do I believe that the response of their readers has much to do with empathy, from either end.  When a reader feels directly addressed by a work, is that because the author empathized with him or her?  Or did the writer dig into him or herself, and find feelings and traits that he or she turns out to have in common with others?  I vote for the latter.  I'm no Neruda, but my experience is that when I've written most personally and idiosyncratically, that's when other people tell me they felt addressed by my work.  For that reason I don't suppose that when I feel that something could have been written about me, the author must have been thinking about me.  That experience has improved my own capacity for empathy, I think, when it took the next step and realized that feelings that I thought were unique to me, that isolated me, were really feelings I share with much or most of humanity.

Did that miner really know Neruda?  I doubt it.  Is that conviction that a stranger (maybe a long-dead stranger, or one in another country writing in another language) knows you, really about empathy?  Sarton and other writers have had reason to complain about readers who showed up at their doorstep without advance notice, demanding personal attention and mothering, because they felt that the work was about and for them, commanding them to make an appearance.  (A recurring theme in Sarton's journals is her guilt at not being able to answer all the letters she receives from fans.)  Sometimes these fans were indignant when the writer had a schedule of his or her own, needs of his or her own, and couldn't give them what they thought they were entitled to.  Is that knowing?  Is it empathy?  I don't believe so.  It looks like self-absorption to me, and like a child's insistence that his mother give him all her attention.  That's understandable in children, not in adults.  Sarton also complained that many of her readers misunderstand her journals as celebrations of her own strength, self-sufficiency, and tranquility, even though she worked hard to describe her anger, depression, loneliness, and anguish when the Muse failed her.

Can I, as a writer or as a reader, really empathize with rainbows and galaxies?  Not, it seems to me, without doing violence to the word empathy.  A rainbow can't empathize with us; it has no mind.  We have enough to be getting on with just empathizing with other human beings.

Sarton said in her journals and in her interviews that she thought her work had value because it had affected the lives of her readers, and I'll go along with that.  I read her myself, after all, for insights into aging, the single life, and other topics that matter to me personally; not for her prose style or her formal brilliance.  That's true for other writers I'm fond of too.  But I look for other things in art as well.  One of Marge Piercy's characters says in Woman on the Edge of Time that no single work can tell all truth -- that's for the whole culture to try to do.  Some writers I read for the beauty of their sentences, for example, though I'm also glad when those beautiful sentences move me and seem to speak about my life.  As a writer I hope to convey something to my readers, but I don't know what it will be; sometimes they find something in what I've written that I didn't intend, or didn't know I was putting into it.