Thursday, November 28, 2019

Youth and young manhood: the Dostoevsky connection

“We read to know we are not alone.”*

We read for all sorts of other reasons, of course, but when I was in my 20s this was a sentiment I largely ascribed to.
One of these books is not like the others...
For a number of years Douglas Coupland’s Generation X: Tales From An Accelerated Culture fit the bill rather neatly. The conversation among the characters was recognizably akin to the conversations I was having with my contemporaries. Certainly the concerns were identical. I’ve lost track of how many times I read that book, or gave it away to friends. My friends seemed to dig it too.

It’s been a bunch of years since I last read it, and I think the copy I currently own was purchased in a used book store. I gave it a glance before writing this. It’s fair to say my relationship to the book has changed. There is a self-conscious performance aspect to the writing that gets in the way of my entering the story anymore.


I also read Dostoevsky in my 20s (full disclosure: only Crime & Punishment and The Karamazov Brothers). The narratives seemed taffied into existence from a primordial present. I loved the interminable nights, running from house to house, encountering a lit lamp on a table, feverish conversations in a parlour or back alley, passions that could hardly be contained or expressed through words alone. I could recognize those nights from my youth. I knew my parents were familiar with those nights, as were my grandparents and generations more. I knew I was not alone.


This past weekend I retrieved my old copy of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. I worried I might experience the sort of disappointment I felt with Generation X. Weirdly enough, although Stephenson’s writing is arguably “cooler” than Coupland’s (how deep is a reader’s emotional attachment to the protagonist hero likely to get when the guy is named “Hiro Protagonist”?) I felt more at home re-reading Snow Crash than I did re-reading GenX.

And I think it’s because Stephenson’s old book shares an unexpected kinship with Dostoevsky.

More anon — hopefully soon.
An uncanny resemblance?
*Man, this is one of those “So-and-so sez” quotes. In this case it’s usually attributed to C.S. Lewis, but nobody bothers to indicate just where he wrote or said these words. That’s because “C.S. Lewis” says them in Shadowlands, the fictional play and film loosely based on Lewis’s marriage to Joy Davidman. And in the film the sentiment doesn’t even originate with Lewis — a young man he encounters says, “My father says, (etc)” and Lewis repeats the line later in the movie. When I first saw the movie in '93 I was pretty sure I’d heard the line before, so I went to the Metro Reference Library and spent a lunch hour trying to track it down. Bartlett’s and Co. failed me, so until someone corrects me attribution goes to playwright William Nicholson.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Promissory notice

“When I was nineteen I shared an apartment in Manhattan with jazz singer Annie Ross, and it led to my doing something I now wish I hadn’t”Artist in Residence by Lawrence Levy is the best thing I’ve read this week.
Count Basie and Annie Ross, twistin' the night away in '62
As for me, the words were simply not cooperating. I’m hoping to do a shallow dive through some of the books that spoke to me in my 20s, so please — don’t touch that dial!

Friday, November 15, 2019

Option paralysis vs. three knobs that work

“Option paralysis” is a term I first heard in the guitar world. It’s usually applied to digital amplifiers with enormous “under the hood” menus — menus that don’t just include the usual knobs you’ll find on most amps, but also EQ parameters, noise-gates, pedal models by the dozens if not hundreds, and a whole lot more besides.
"Kay, um ... 'power on'?"
My brother adroitly navigates these fields and gets sounds exceedingly pleasing. But boy oh boy — not me. When I start monkeying around in these fields I get tones that don’t appeal to anyone.

And I can recognize what’s happening. It’s similar to when I started making soup, in my 20s — I threw in WAY TOO MUCH STUFF. The trouble was, when the broth started tasting “off,” which it did from the git-go, I kept adding things until it gelled into a sludge of indigestible goo.

A friend finally invited me to his kitchen and gently straightened me out. “Pour a pot of water. Then start with three ingredients, and work your way up to five,” he said. “Salt and pepper don’t count, but other herbs and spices do.”

I have two amps — a small digital plug-and-play practice amp (with an “under the hood” menu I do not touch) and a 50 watt performance amp with three dials. Should I finally be made bold to perform with others I may add a pedal or two to the latter.
Decisions, decisions...
Currently Amazon, Apple, Disney and HBO are keen for my attention. Most days I’d rather sit with my wife and watch The British Baking Show, some basketball (her preference) or hockey (mine), maybe a little baseball. When we resort to separate screens I warm up a video game. Hey, I will admit Amazon’s The Man In The High Castle piques my curiosity. But it can’t possibly compete with The Outer Worlds.

The Outer Worlds — kinda works against my “you only need three knobs” rule, I realize. But I wonder what the “three knobs rule” looks like in this age of media option paralysis? On Netflix, which we finally subscribed to for the family, it boils down to Brooklyn Nine Nine, Star Trek TOS and Jeopardy (because we want Alex to make a full recovery).

BNN is, really, the only “new” content in the bunch. The elder urchin introduced us. Lite, affirmational, funny — to my delight it is, as she claimed, the Get Smart for the current millennium.
Three knobs at work.
I meander. Be well. And if you’ve got three knobs working well for you, lemme know woncha?

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Coach is cornered

Well . . . he painted himself there, more like. If only someone — a concerned fan, maybe — had said something sooner. Related: broadcasters — right across the spectrum — who bet on hockey are hemorrhaging money.

Friday, November 08, 2019


Let's start with the fun!
  • The Church of Roger Ebert presents The Best Films of the '10s. I'll admit at the outset that I am ambivalent about most of the entries (at least, the ones I've seen for myself). The inclusion of Mad Max: Fury Road probably best embodies my dis-ease. I was initially blown away by it, but on subsequent re-viewings have become a bit more circumspect in my opinion.
  • Choices I would fervently second include Inside Llewyn Davis, Under The Skin and The Wolf of Wall Street, this last if only because of its profound influence on Millennial lads (to Scorsese's apparent chagrin).
  • Grievously overlooked: Denis Villeneuve's Sicario, a wildly uneven and super-preachy B-movie that slipped in some deeply visceral thrills, thanks in no small part to the late Jóhann Jóhannsson's disturbing soundtrack. I think up-and-coming film-makers will be borrowing from this movie in the same way kids aped Saving Private Ryan, back in the day.
  • That's right. Sicario. One of The Best. I am willingly going on record with this sentiment. Know why? Because Phil, that's why.
  • Alright, more seriously: Constanze Stelzenmüller recalls November 9, 1989 and the subsequent decades. A long read, which left me deeply moved.
And finally, Joel informs me that 'How do you do, fellow kids' has become the 'How do you do, fellow kids' of memes. Back in 2017! Silly kids! Don't they know:

“Meme Wars, nothing but Meeeeeeeme Wars...”

My friend works around the corner from a BMV outlet. I’m green with envy, I love those stores. Anyway he’s become tight with the guy who manages this particular outlet. He commented to the manager on the apparent overabundance of Chomsky titles on the shelves. The manager said, “Yeah, I’ve stopped taking them in trade.”

“Nobody reads Chomsky anymore?”

“It’s more like Chomsky’s been integrated on a cellular level — at least where his theories on politics and the media are concerned.”

Critical Theory Osmosis, in other words.

I think that’s about right. Kids have a complete distrust of any media in which they are not active participants. But critical osmosis, like religious/philosophical osmosis, is a very instinctual working-with-primary-colours business. So where Chomsky tirelessly collated data to support his sustained critique of western geopolitical power plays, the kids reach for the memes.

A blanket over-generalization. Shame on me, Prajer.
Funny because it’s “true”?
I am dissatisfied with last week’s post and disappointed with myself for posting it.

It is wishy-washy and vague in its endorsements, and gestures breezily in the direction of closure, where in fact none exists. My best defence of it is the only one, which I gave to my wife — I posted it to keep track of how and why I am thinking the way I currently do.

Personally, the most distressing change under the aegis of 45 is the deterioration of public discourse — his game brings down everyone else’s. Just one example — Ron Rosenbaum.

The influence Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler has had on me is incalculable. Here are two ways to frame it: 1) when I finished the book my hermeneutics of suspicion, which after 500 years of watching Anabaptist family getting burned at the stake and worse is pretty freakin’ deep, got just a little deeper; 2) Rosenbaum helped me appreciate anew just how tenuous a proposition it is for the little guy to take a principled stand in the roiling, bloody tides of history.

He wrote a terrific book, in other words. He layered historical record with anecdote and personal observation to deeply persuasive effect. Vanity Fair, LARB, NYT, Lapham’s Quarterly, etc — the prestige press loved to print him, and for good reason.

Cut to a quick Google search, and it looks like he hasn’t had anything published by these people in the last two years. I’ve got the bad feeling he’s too busy on Twitter. ALL CAPS, spelling missteaks . . . O Captain! My Captain! Your game, sir — your game.

Alright, back to last week’s post.

This link and this link (followed by this interview) were ultimately dissatisfying for the same reasons my post was (see above).

This link, on the other hand, achieved penetration and has me cogitating, hopefully in helpful directions.

It’s what I’d like all my posts to achieve. Can’t be done, of course. The best I can manage — or try to manage — is to keep track of my own thoughts and feelings, while keeping my head in the game.
Along with posting the occasional Wittgenstein meme.

Friday, November 01, 2019

“As we deal with this distressing reality we need to remember who we are and where we come from.”

Keeping track of who is wringing hands over what is becoming an increasingly fraught and splintered concern. Moreover, my impression of The Youngs is they view any “Hey, wait a minute(s)” as gauche posturing, at best. But hey — I’m 55, and I’ve been too clever by half for most of those years.  am wringing my hands, and here is who I am keying into for some perspective on this fact.

Let’s start with the whopper: Eric Weinstein yacks with Brett Easton Ellis, here.

Alright, now the caveats: this is where I have always been re: BEE. As for Weinstein I knew little about him going into the conversation, but reflexively consider anyone tight with Peter Thiel as guilty by association (we all have our prejudices).

Right out of the gate I found them both insufferable — I can be polite to cats like this, but cultivating any sort of friendship would take some doing. And yet I invited them along on a two-hour drive, and never kicked them out of the car. Short version: they circle around some of my own ambivalence with the current cultural roil, without landing satisfactorily on how best to discern a path that might lead through it. Money quote goes to Weinstein: “I am anti- anti-anti-Trump.” Well, there we are, then!

This is the larger provocation: Jon Baskin yacking with Justin E.H. Smith, over here. Although I should back up a bit — larger than that is the piece that led up to it, JEHS’s It’s All Over. But this early quote from Off the Wave is what launched me into them both:
In 1968, student activists had occupied the facilities of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. Theodor Adorno was corresponding about this with his colleague Herbert Marcuse, who was in sunkissed Californian exile, and Marcuse was saying, Come on! Let the kids express their political will, it’s good to have this sort of turnover. And Adorno was like, What are you talking about? I spent my life building this Institute up, it means everything to me, and these kids don’t value it, they think I’m just some old man. And how can you, my old friend, tell me that that’s something I should just bow to, as if all of our work meant nothing. 
It’s so poignant, and what I found shocking when this correspondence between Adorno and Marcuse was circulating recently — it was before I left Facebook so it must have been three years ago now — was that all of my academic colleagues who were roughly my age were at least publicly saying “yeah, Marcuse!” To a person, the Facebook crowd at least pretended to gather under the banner of Marcuse and to disdain Adorno’s stance and in general his whole old-man vibe. 
One doesn’t want to share in that old-man vibe and die of a heart attack after a student protester shows us her breasts, or whatever the contemporary equivalent would be, but one also doesn’t want to abandon years of work and a whole critical-theoretical framework just because it’s fallen out of fashion. So, how to navigate between those two hazards?
I initially read the exchange and thought Smith was misrepresenting Adorno as some variety of conservative. I am only glancingly familiar with Adorno, buuuut (checks the Wiki one last time) let me make one thing perfectly clear — Nixon hated Adorno. Or he would have if the prof was anywhere on Nixon’s radar (no member of the Silent Majority, he).

After reading It's All Over I am committed to re-reading Off the Wave. Smith is unquestionably better versed in Adorno than I will ever be, so “conservative” cannot possibly be what Smith is invoking. Still, was Adorno truly gored by one horn of the dilemma while his buddy Marcuse jauntily leaned against the other? It seems to me that Adorno was desperately searching for the elusive Third Way, much the same way Smith seems anxious to find his own in these perilous times.
In either case, kudos for introducing me to this GIF.
The answer, as my late mentor/SF-superfan/friend to my father was keen to say, lies in further study. The letters between Adorno and Marcuse evoke a remarkable moment of drama from the past well worth digging into, and I am grateful to Smith and Baskin for the introduction.

More than that, if you have not yet read It’s All Over please do so — it’s not too late (or is it?).

The blog-heading is the conclusion to T Bone Burnett’s anecdote from this post. His particular mode of remembrance takes the form of dour Episcopalian renunciation set to a sonic invocation of his beloved Skyliner Ballroom of yore. His truest self-expression might be The Invisible Light, but I think his very best is Gregg Allman’s penultimate studio album Low Country Blues.

“Remember who we are and where we come from” — an injunction that once again gets me queueing the voices of René Girard and Ivan Illich. During the 90s, the mandarins of Academia robustly dismissed both as pig-headed conservators of the patriarchy. Girard seems not to have lost much sleep over the matter, while Illich retreated in wounded silence. Both insisted they had been grievously misread. If Peter Thiel is any indication, that particular tradition continues apace.

Forward in all directions, then.

*Thiel is an interesting guy to contemplate. His reverence for Girard and Tolkien seems acidly ironic — both, I believe, would be appalled by some of the directions he took while ostensibly under the influence of their theories and narratives. Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein, on the other hand, not so much.