The Unlikely Path to Literature

Nobody could have predicted that one of my greatest loves in life would be books. Not me and certainly not my parents or teachers. The most common theme that ran through my grade school, middle school and high school report cards was untapped potential, goofing off, and laziness. I got decent grades but my teachers could tell that I wasn’t applying myself, especially my teachers in English or, as we sometimes called it, Language Arts. Indeed, I was a mediocre student at best and harbored a special kind of animosity towards reading and books. To me, books were the clever invention of teachers to prevent little boys from playing outside. Summer reading lists were Hell’s itinerary, a way to burn perfectly good sunlight.

I cannot pinpoint any single event that made me a convert. The scales did not fall off my eyes in an instant. There wasn’t any single book or author. Rather it was the cumulative force of small endevours into literature. First dipping my toes into C.S. Lewis and Ernest Hemingway during lunch breaks as a lifeguard, and finding myself strangely moved in a way I had never before experienced, not even my favorite movies had made me feel this way, as though I was changed in a way that could not be reversed, seeing things in a way that could not be unseen. Then I happened on other good books. Sometimes I read a book because the idea came from somewhere on high that this was a very good and important book to read, canonical and so forth. That worked a few times. I loved (and still love) Charlotte Brontë, Shakespeare, and Richard Wright. But other times it didn’t work very well. I had to force myself to finish books by James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Jack Kerouac. But little by little, before I knew it, I was suddenly developing something resembling a literary taste that had characteristics indicating certain traditions. Traditions I had never heard of with academic names like Minimalism and High-Victorianism. Using these as guideposts I then found other authors who were part of the same clubs as my favorite authors but realized that these guideposts were rough at best, because literature of the highest level is an expression of unique personhood. So, for example, you might say that many of your friends have similar personality types but you probably have noticed they do not all act exactly the same. They might have generalizable characteristics but each is their own person. In the same way, developing a love for a certain type of literature (or of any art) is a process of self-discovery as much as anything else. You are learning about how you personally respond to certain styles. Now, the academic apparatus that produces access to those styles, genres, and groupings is not perfect. If you look for many years you will inevitably find artists who have been unjustly left out of the major canons to varying degrees of obscurity, i.e. “writer’s writers”—who are known only in specialist circles—like Samuel Beckett, Anne Carson, and Joy Williams; and the rabbit hole is about as deep as you are willing to go, to even more intense levels of geekdom and obscurity, i.e. “writer’s writer’s writers” like Robert Walser, Henry Green, and Pedro Páramo.

But, by the time I had gone this far down the rabbit hole, it was becoming apparent that my love of literature, my obsession, was going to be a lonely journey. Reading is already a solitary practice. You sit by yourself and apprehend words that were put to paper long before (sometimes very long before) they go into your brain. Now, in our time of digitization, reading is an ever more unlikely habit and therefore even more lonely. The data for book sales in the 21st century is not good. But even more than this, let me tell you dear reader, and you probably already know this, but I’ll say it anyway: it’s getting weirder and weirder, in the age of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and Instagram, to be the person rummaging through stacks of used hardcovers as though it were a worthwhile thing to do.

I am not lamenting the slow death of books. Artforms come and go. As long as humans are humans (although, seriously, who knows how long before we all become robots?) creativity and art will find mediums of expression. But it is strange to have happened upon literature and to have been so impacted by it in its twilight years. Perhaps that is how a devotee of an artform proves their salt. By staying on the bandwagon regardless.

The weirdest part is how hard this all is to explain. I have tried many times and failed. Nothing anyone says can articulate the peculiar joy of reading. Until you happen to sit down with a book and it bites you in the right way, you cannot be preached or coaxed into it. And nothing can explain the sadness of watching your favorite art die a long and painless death as it sails away into a moonlit night to the country of the forgotten. You would like to somehow swim after the ship and bring her back to shore. But you can’t. She is too big, old, and rickety. And you are but one swimmer.

That’s kind of what it feels like.

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Pictures Worth a Thousand Kavanaughs

Today, September 28, 2018, at 1:30PM, the Senate will vote whether or not to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

This has obviously been a very large and newsy type issue with many think-pieces flying on all sides; some having gone so far as to declare the Kavanaugh hearings and impending nomination a watershed moment in American politics. At the very least current news events of this magnitude tend to take on a form that is larger than life. They are, dare I say, symbolic.

I spent a good deal of time watching the hearings yesterday. More time than I probably should have.

First, Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser, came forward with allegations that when they were teenagers Kavanaugh drunkenly pinned her to a bed and attempted to rape her but was thwarted in his attempt by another boy, Mark Judge, a friend of Kavanaugh’s, who jokingly jumped on the two of them and toppled the group of them onto the floor, giving Ford time to escape the room, which had been locked.

Ford’s testimony was emotional and heartfelt—obviously symbolic for many women in America who have undergone similar experiences.

Then it was Kavanaugh’s turn. Kavanaugh had previously and unequivocally denied Ford’s allegations, plus those of two other women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnik, each with their own stories of Kavanaugh’s behavior, but with less consensus in the media as to their credibility.

Since the hearing there seems to be more discussion of Kavanaugh’s testimony in the media, more disagreement as to its merits, as to what it symbolized, etc. Kavanaugh, a usually very mild-mannered person in his many years of public life, was, as you might expect, visibly shaken and angry—either because he was an innocent man wrongly accused of heinous acts or a guilty man rightly accused of heinous acts, on the grandest and most public stage imaginable.

Today the internet is a broiling cauldron of spicy hot-takes in re the Kavanaugh hearings. If you want to find an opinion out there on the internet that matches your own, surely you know where to find it. Or if you want to do some rage reading that calls out all the bleating zombie sheep on the other side, you know where to find that too.

I am not as interested in what the Kavanaugh hearings represent as I am in how the media talks about big events, and how the average viewer or reader’s access to these events is conditioned by the selective use of information or lack of information, and how the internet reinforces over and over the perpetuations of memes or story-lines which are marketed to us based on our taste for certain brands or flavors of media.

In 2014 Pew Research put out one of my favorite charts of all time. It’s a snapshot of the ideological makeup of some of the world’s largest and most influential media outlets:

pewpic
Pew Research

I decided to do a little experiment after the Kavanaugh hearings. Rather than pour through every article across the ideological spectrum and painstakingly piece together the logic of each position, usually with futile results, as is my usual wont, I decided to simply take the leading headlines and corresponding pictures of Kavanaugh, following the chart above, to see how each spot on the ideological spectrum was telling the story at a visual, gut level.

The results were… interesting.

  1. Breitbart
breitbart
Breitbart

2. The Blaze

theblaze
The Blaze

3. Drudge

drudge
The Drudge Report

4. Fox News

fox news
Fox News

5. The Wall Street Journal

wsj
The Wall Street Journal

6. NBC News

nbc news
NBC News

7. MSNBC

msnbc
MSNBC

8. New York Times

nyt
New York Times

9. Buzzfeed

buzzfeed
Buzzfeed

10. Slate

slate
Slate

11. The New Yorker

newyorker
The New Yorker

Is it just me or does Kavanaugh become more meek the further right you go and more menacing the further left you go?

I don’t know what the overall takeaway from this experiment is. Surely it adds little to the specifics in re the allegations against Kavanaugh, or his impending nomination.

But probably that’s up to you to decide.

Maybe it surprised you. Maybe it didn’t. In either case, it’s interesting to see how editorial decisions are made, how a public personae can be molded to fit a narrative through images so that, wherever we lie on the continuum, we can rest assured, thank goodness, that we have the one true gospel.

 

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Court Jesters, Norm MacDonald, & Imaginary Castles

   

1.

     In just about every time and place in human history, those who are in positions of power regard eccentric behavior with suspicion. Especially eccentric behavior that contravenes or even simply ignores the dictates of the ruling order. Of course not every society is totalitarian. Some are more lenient than others. But every civilization, from the tiniest groupings of tents to the largest empires, have standards by which they define themselves, which holds the group accountable. The question of who sets those standards is profound enough for an entire book and can hardly be addressed in a single blog post. But underneath just about every form of government is the premise that a productive and orderly society necessitates an imbalance of power. Sometimes through conquest and the propagation of a royal bloodline. Sometimes from a person who wins a majority of votes. But in any case once power is won, people tend to want to hold on to it.

Even very powerful and authoritarian rulers have in some cases hired court jesters. It was a common practice in medieval and Renaissance times for a jester to make crude and unflattering remarks towards the royal court and their assemblage. It has even become something of an archetype, the professional fool who acts as the safety valve, releasing tension with jokes.

There is one interesting anecdote from Barbara Tuchman’s book The Distant Mirror, in which the court jester was chosen to be the one to inform Philip VI of his defeat in battle:

No one dared tell the outcome of the battle to Philip VI until his jester was thrust forward and said, “Oh, the cowardly English, the cowardly English!” and on being asked why, replied, “They did not jump overboard like our brave Frenchmen.” The King evidently got the point. The fish drank so much French blood, it was said afterward, that if God had given them the power of speech they would have spoken in French.

And yet there are other examples where jesters were banished from their courts for going over the line. One famous example was the expulsion of one of the most famous jesters, Archibald Armstrong, for making a joke about the archbishop William Laud’s policies in Scotland. After a long and successful career, Charles I unceremoniously banished Armstrong on the spot.

     2.

     You might think we’ve come pretty far since medieval times. But have we?

The most famous example of a banished jester in modern times were the multiple arrests of comic legend Lenny Bruce, who was eventually charged with Obscenity, in 1964, in the United States of America, specifically for saying the word “cocksucker” and commenting that Eleanor Roosevelt had “nice tits.” Writers such as Norman Mailer and James Baldwin testified in Bruce’s defense, but he was convicted and sentenced to spend four months of labor in a workhouse. Bruce died of an overdose shortly before his case was overturned upon appeal.

Talk about an actual free speech issue.

While it is almost unthinkable for a comedian to have criminal charges brought against them today, the context of Lenny Bruce’s historic case is much more familiar to us than that of a court jester. We do not live in a world of kings but of petty oligarchs, lawyers, local politicians, powerful business executives, shareholders, media companies, and, for heaven’s sake, Congresspeople, all who weigh in on our collective culture with varying degrees of influence. Power dynasties may be harder to keep track of since there are so many cooks in the kitchen. But the egos of those in power are still fragile; some can abide court jesters and eccentric behavior more than others.

3.

     When I was a kid the most prominent critics of mainstream comedy were conservative Christians. Many of my own friends and family.

I remember the first time I ever saw South Park, luckily over at a friend’s house, feeling deeply scandalized as a statue of the Virgin Mary pooped blood all over the Pope. I never told my parents, but I thought it was hilarious. It was the first time I realized that it was possible to make light of deeply held convictions, some of my own deeply held convictions, and the world didn’t come to an end. Fire and brimstone did not rain down on me. In fact, it gave me an opportunity to laugh at myself and to see myself from another person’s perspective, someone who might not view me or my convictions in a completely positive light, and you know what, I survived.

Albeit, I was not a person with any power. I was just a kid. But Christianity was much more of a political force at that time, which was the heart of South Park’s critique.

Over the years South Park has put many different versions of hypocrisy within its crosshairs. Although nowadays it spends almost no time satirizing religion or conservatism—not that religious or conservative hypocrisy has disappeared. But instead Trey Parker and Matt Stone have shifted to critiquing what they see as the greater power in our time: performative wokeness, political correctness, a vague set of orthodoxies held in media culture and on ivy-league campuses, sometimes proclaimed in the name of very worthy causes but which are ultimately designed to weaponize and/or manufacture public grievance to boost ratings, or for the sake of personal prestige.

Not everybody has been happy with South Park’s shift in focus. Namely, journalists who consider themselves progressive activists. Which is, well, exactly what you’d expect. Many a think-piece has been written on South Park being “out of touch,” and/or “tone-deaf” to the present moment. Some have gone further, claiming SP has had a direct role in the rise of the alt-right.

It’s difficult to assess the validity of these claims, which are in any case impossible to prove, but the reaction does call to my mind the timelessness of powerful groups of people who cannot take a joke. We’ve come a long way from Lenny Bruce. Nobody talks about locking up comedians anymore. But as progressive values and wokeness have made great cultural headway since the Obama years, the question about how they will handle newfound power is still relatively open. The paradox which has yet to fully germinate is what happens when a cultural and political movement predicated on uplifting those without power gains power itself? Who then is the dog and who is the underdog?

     4.

     While the critiques of South Park have been relatively mild, due in part I think to it’s long-time influence and deftness at redirecting criticism into material for further joke-making, other comedians have been less-than-agile in their navigation of a changing media landscape. Many tenured comedians have had negative opinions on the changing tides; Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, John Cleese, Ricky Gervais, and Stephen Fry have all been vocal opponents of the limitations that a new set of standards has imposed upon their creative processes. But last week the heat was on Norm MacDonald because of comments he made in a Hollywood Reporter interview critiquing what he considered certain overzealous strains of the #MeToo Movement.

Norm was promoting his new Netflix show Norm MacDonald Has a Show, a casual wide-ranging grab bag of what Norm usually does on his podcast and his comedy specials. If you aren’t familiar with Norm’s work here is an awesome video crash course in the bizarre world of Norm MacDonald:

Very quickly after the Hollywood Reporter interview in which Norm questioned whether or not the entertainment industry is being fair to Louis CK and Roseanne Barr, Jimmy Fallon canceled MacDonald’s appearance on The Tonight Show, saying that executive producers were in tears over his comments. Not wanting to hurt the show, MacDonald agreed and apologized in a tweet and on Howard Stern, and then had to apologize AGAIN on The View for his first apology on Stern when he said, “You’d have to have Down syndrome to not feel sorry for harassment victims.” On The View a contrite and sad-looking MacDonald called his own words unforgivable and meandered awkwardly through questions about whether or not Barr or CK should ever come back from exile, to which one host commented, “Are you worried to speak now because of the backlash that you’ve received this week? Now are you thinking twice before anything comes out of your mouth?” And in a weird and telling moment the host smiled at her own remark, and the audience applauded. By the end of the segment, after apologizing again and again, MacDonald looked down sheepishly and said, “Well, I hope I didn’t offend any of you guys today.”

     5.

     I’m not a betting man, but I’d wager almost nobody in the general public was offended by any of Norm’s comments. Maybe I’m wrong. But other celebrities and publications have had far edgier and more wide-ranging hot takes on the #MeToo Movement, with hardly as much controversy. Examples here, here, here, and here. One recent Vox survey showed that 95% of women have at least some level of concern about men being falsely accused of sexual assault. And a recent Pew poll shows similar results.

But the Norm MacDonald story was never meant to reflect the concerns of a wider culture, it was concocted from beginning to end by the media itself. Reporters asked him the questions and reporters wrote the op-eds criticizing his answers. And, at no point along that continuum, did any one of them canvas the country for opinion survey data, or polls such as Vox and Pew, to compare MacDonald’s take with those of the general population, or even the general population of women, to find out whether or not his opinion deviated from the, ahem, norm. The “backlash” is never from the general population. It’s almost always from the journalists themselves or a very vocal minority on Twitter, from whence the journalists are happy to draw ire and drama to fuel clicks.

Although, in the end, nobody forced Norm MacDonald to apologize for his comments. He may have been advised by his manager, or he might have felt pressure from various camps, or he may have felt he said something out of line and apologized of his own accord. But he wasn’t forced, his show wasn’t cancelled, he will hopefully continue working in largely the same manner as before, writing offbeat jokes, shooting from the hip, and hopefully not thinking twice before speaking.

6.

     Who holds the power in a democracy is not always a straightforward question. We live in an age of mini-kings and mini-queens; there are many castles with many functions. Some castles fight. Some are allies—

Now in a technocratic democracy no less, where media and social media warp every message through several lenses of emphasis, over-emphasis, under-emphasis, shareholder interests, etc, by the time the message gets to us, the mere peasantry, who knows what this once pristine piece of truth is now? It looks like a mutilated shard of pixels. Twisted and stretched beyond recognition to fit a pre-determined script. And these refracted shards are lobbed between castles like cannon balls while we are left to argue over the wreckage.

Whatever your opinion of #MeToo or any other socio-cultural phenomenon, comedians give us the opportunity, in our embattled time, to see our sacred cows from another person’s perspective. It doesn’t take a big person to shit on someone else’s sacred cow. Pretty much all of human history is the story of people shitting on other people’s cows. But it does take a big person to double-take their own cow and realize that it’s not the center of the universe. You may have a super valid cow. But if you never poke your cow you’ll never get to hear whether or not it makes funny noises.

There is only one test for a comedian—laughter. A comedian cannot fake audience laughter. They say laughter is medicine. That may be true. But laughter is also a window into yourself. Have you ever laughed at something you know you shouldn’t have laughed at? Maybe it was your own sacred cow. Did you ever stop to think which one was the real you—the you that laughed or the you that wanted to suppress the laughter?

Only a comedian, either amateur or professional, can give you the opportunity to see your divided self in this way. Because your laughter is undeniable. You can’t hide behind what you find funny. It speaks for itself. And yes, sometimes that’s scary. What you find funny may even surprise you.

7.

     You don’t have to like comedians or seek out other perspectives. But if you’re confused about what you think or feel, it might do some good to seek them out and do some reflecting or have a laugh. I’m rarely disappointed at an opportunity to do so. The worst that can happen is that a comedian isn’t funny or another perspective doesn’t reward investigation. It happens. You move on.

We would do better to direct our negative attention towards those who would rob us of this opportunity, rather than those who would grant it to us.

 

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From Quora: “What is going on in the world?”

What a question. Should I try? I’ll try. But I am just a person so don’t hold me to any of this.

There are a few assumptions in your question. Namely 1) there is a world, and 2) there is such a thing as happening which is going on in it. Pretty safe assumptions I think. Maybe it’s all a dream, maybe we are in the Matrix and can’t trust the reality we experience with our senses, etc. But let’s pretend we can meaningfully discuss what we experience without falling into radical skepticism, which can be addressed with another question some other time.

Okay, that’s out of the way.

Now, the world.

According to the most recent World Bank numbers, in 2016 the world human population was 7.442 billion. That is a lot to wrap the mind around. For sense of scale, one popular image is if you laid 1 billion golf balls next to each other, it would reach all the way around the earth. Metaphorically, if each person was one golf ball, you could make 7.442 laps around the earth with golf balls.

(You’ll notice my answer assumes that human life is important, and quantifying it, in an albeit simple way, helps us to understand something about its nature.)

Now, imagine your own life and its complexity. Think of all the brief and fleeting moments of insight you’ve experienced, and of your profoundest moments of joy, and your deepest times of sadness. The drama of life. Imagine and feel what it’s like to be in your own head. What beauty! What tragedy, surely, you’ve experienced. You have had dreams both realized and lost. Think of all those lost dreams and how much they mean. It is almost impossible to think about.

Now that you are trying the impossible anyway, extrapolate, for imagination’s sake, your inner world and how much that means to you almost 8 billion times over. Every person you see and don’t see. Think of it: you will never interact with 99.9999% of people who exist. That means the amount of people we have time to observe while we’re alive, both in physical life and through TV screens, radios, internet etc.—any scientist will tell you—is not a meaningful enough sample size to demonstrate anything about its nature. Not even close. That means, even with the help of technology, you have not interacted with or hardly observed even every type of person, let alone every unique perspective. No single individual, by the time they are born and then die, even scratches the surface.

You’re attempting two impossible things, why not three? Imagine all the people you will never meet, from Bangladesh to Lincoln, Nebraska, and not only them and their impossible-to-conceive-of inner lives but also their histories. Each one’s existence is so improbable it can hardly be stated in words. All their ancestors avoiding death by starvation or disease or war or bad teeth before they had the chance to procreate. And not everyone procreated. But once procreation takes place, the job is far from over. Until recently it’s estimated that a sizable percentage of human babies died in infancy. Babies are born incredibly vulnerable to the world around them. They need constant care and attention. It takes a good many personal and physical resources to raise them into self-sufficient adults. It’s hard enough in the 21st century. Imagine raising a baby in a cave surrounded by predators or in a poorly insulated thatched hut.

But even this doesn’t take into account the improbability of life before it occurs. Of the human females that are lucky enough to be born, each starts off with 2 million eggs. The vast majority of these eggs (about 90%) die off by the time a woman reaches the age of 30. And of course very few are ever fertilized.

But let’s pretend our hypothetical person has won the genetic and probabilistic lottery, and is not only born, but is raised to some level of maturity. This is nothing short of an actual physical miracle.

This hypothetical person was born on one of the few planets which is just the right distance from a star providing enough heat and light for life to take place. The odds of this happening are smaller than anything aforementioned. Scientists have no idea how big the universe is, or its shape. Some hypothesize that it goes on forever. So even at the first and largest stage of predictability, we are working with nearly infinite improbability of life ever taking place.

But just suppose that it does. Miracle! Yay, a person is born:

A human is a weird sort of thing. It is clear a human is in part biological. We are made up of cells, each of which must function properly (or we die). We sort of know what cells are made of (atoms), but even our idea of that is fuzzy. It’s been demonstrated with relative clarity that atoms have even smaller parts (subatomic particles), but science has not been able to help us much further beyond this level of divisibility. Whereby the smallest known level of life is the cell, the greatest level seems to be the ‘society,’— a large group of biological organisms, namely humans, interacting and living next to one another, and doing things.

As we discussed, a human also is effected by other humans around them in their own society. Not everything we do is a completely random arbitrary thing. This probably has something to do with the human brain, which can observe the world around itself and take on characteristics external to itself. This is basically a mysterious process.

So a human is biological and social, but there are surely other factors which have yet to be explored and taken into account. Take for instance the real complexity of the human brain, which is the most physically complex structure in the known universe:

From what we’ve been able to gather, the human brain is also the only known structure in the universe that has made an attempt to understand itself. What this means, we can hardly guess. But any answer we receive would have to come from the brain. You see the problem.

Did I mention there are an estimated 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) bugs in the world?

Cheers,

Dan