Reading and Travel

Whenever I travel, especially when there is a lot of actual travel time involved, I try to set the goal of reading a book or two in that time.  I try to not let the time being stuck in vans, airports, or trains go to waste.  On this trip I brought Frankenstein and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams.  As well as being beneficial from any kind of learning standpoint, it helps the time go faster.  A ten hour van ride feels half as long.  It is also good for relaxing.  Forgetting yourself for part of the time helps you be less stressed when you miss that layover, there is a traffic jam, etc.  Trust me, I can definitely use all the help I can get in that department!  I almost had a meltdown today trying to get to the van on time as there was an accident on the highway this morning!

One other thing I find is that if you combine a trip with a couple good books it helps to make the trip itself more meaningful and interesting.  Scenes from a book fuse with the new places you are seeing in your imagination, and the world expands in front of you. 

You’d Think ‘Twas a Crime to be Human

The following lyrics are from a song in Brendan Behan’s play Richard’s Cork Leg:

You’d think ’twas a crime to be human
To sometimes get scared in the park,
When a copper sneaks up there behind you,
And flashes his light in the dark.

To regard savage dogs with suspicion,
In case that the bastards would bite,
To be hauled off to jail on suspicion,
And scared of a scream in the night.

You’d think ’twas a crime to be human,
With sex education in bed,
And postpone your thoughts of hereafter,
‘Till after you are twenty years dead.

To work overtime with young Nancy,
And give her a coffee and roll,
And likewise whatever she’d fancy
By weight or the lump or the whole.

You’d think ’twas come to be human,
And go for a swim in the sea,
And dance with no clothes in the sunshine,
And drink foreign lager for tea.

To regard co-existence with favor,
And nuclear weapons with fear,
To want more return for less labour,
Fatter fish, cheaper chips, better beer.

Let the heroes all die for the people,
If that is what they want to do,
And we’ll struggle on here without them,
I’ve concluded, now, frolics to you.  

Why Are We Not Smarter Now?

I recently read Candide by Voltaire.  I will add my voice to the many over the years that have deemed it a classic.  I think I would even say it is one of my favorite books I have read.  If you were to tell someone to read a book that was written by a French intellectual in the 1700’s, many would imagine something dense and challenging.  However, despite the amazing wealth of ideas in the book, it is direct, accessible, funny, and full of truths that still resonate in the modern day.  I almost felt in certain ways that I was reading a precursor to Carlin or Vonnegut, people that are able to speak truth to power in very direct and clear way, while making you laugh out loud at things you shouldn’t be laughing at.

I was a history major at WVU for several years, before finally graduating with an American Studies degree from Penn State.  One of the things in history that always comes up is trying to justify or condemn someone for what they did based upon the times that they live in.  “Well so and so owned slaves, but you have to understand the times that they lived in.”  I think something like that is only completely true if you know how far thought had progressed in certain societies.  If slavery or some other evil is accepted by almost everyone, then you might not be able to judge someone if the light of truth hadn’t been shown on that particular evil yet.  On the other side, if people knew something was evil, or unethical, than you can judge those people in their own time.

Reading Voltaire makes me think that the argument, you have to understand the times, doesn’t hold water as much as I thought.  Voltaire satirizes almost all of the evils of his time and ours:  Violence over religion, colonialism, exploiting other humans for profit, violence against women, war, and on and on.  The book was written in 1759, before the United States even existed, yet there is a passage where he points out how absurd it is to treat those of another race cruelly, especially in the name of God and country.  He is constantly satirizing different religious sects for fighting with each other over beliefs.

The book basically follows the title character, a well meaning but naive man from Germany who is told by a court philosopher that all is for the best, that all is part of some natural order.  When Candide gets kicked out of the castle he is living in, for being with a woman that he shouldn’t be, his story becomes a downward spiral of the tragic and comic as one bad thing happens after another.  The language is very direct and simple, but the amount of terrible deeds listed almost becomes poetic in its scope.  It certainly is one of those works where things are so terrible it goes through the looking glass, where the awful becomes funny as a result of perceived absurdity.  The book holds a mirror up to the human race, asking the question, almost screaming, “What are you doing?!!!”

The forward to the book makes the case that above all, Voltaire was against superstition.  It was superstition, belief in things that have no basis in nature, that is man’s biggest folly.  He understood the cruelty that humans could do to one another through created orders like religion and nation states.

Although Voltaire doesn’t have any answers, he does have a direction by the end of the book that at least points towards ways in which humans could lead lives worth living.  Although this is a book largely of darkness, even if hilariously conveyed, this is not a book completely without light.

Although the world has progressed in certain ways since the time of Voltaire, many of these problems are still with us.  I couldn’t help but ask myself several questions:  How did he have such a clear view of the world before modern science and so much other knowledge existed?  If he had such a clear view of the world of the world, why were so many others in his time so lost in the dark?  If he had such a clear view of the world in 1759, why is it that so many of these problems still persist?  How is it that someone writing in the 1700’s could see the world, when so many people, SO MANY PEOPLE, of right now are so lost in the woods?  Why do so many idiocies associated with religion and superstition still exist, if he knew so much then and we have gained so much knowledge since his time?

Who knows such things…

Brendan Behan In Music

Heading out for Lubbock on tour with Shinyribs.   Brought a book of Brendan Behan plays.  The Quare Fellow is one of my favorites.  It examines prison life.  The play is fictional, but Behan spent time in confinement during his lifetime.  Behan’s autobiography Borstal Boy is also an excellent read.  There are many great songs that mention Behan.  Thin Lizzy’s Black Rose, Black 47’s The One and Only Brendan Behan,  Morrissey’s Mountjoy, and Streams of Whiskey by The Pogues are just a few.  One of my favorite songs is The Auld Triangle, which is featured in the play The Quare Fellow, though actually written by Behan’s brother.  If you have heard of him before in a song or somewhere else, but haven’t read any of his actual writings, I highly recommend them.  He was a great soul that I’m glad was out there. 

Thoughts On Better Call Saul and Big Ideas in Entertainment

I found myself rewatching Breaking Bad this morning, starting at the beginning.  It’s amazing how entertaining this show is given that this will be the third time I’ve seen this season.  Also, as almost everyone knows, for a show this entertaining it sure was able to deal in some really heavy themes.  I think that is what makes it so great, that it works on different levels, from base entertainment to American tragedy.

I finished Better Call Saul the other day.  Seeing the whole season now has made me want to watch Season 2.  There were several times in the first season that I wasn’t so sure about the show.  The acting has always been excellent.  I’m used to modern TV shows taking a little time to develop and find their voice.  After the amazing ride of Breaking Bad I determined that I was going to give Vince Gilligan the benefit of the doubt, even when the show was slow.  Several seasons of Mad Men have taken a little time to develop, only to pick up steam in the second half and be unbelievable.  Modern TV, when its at its best, can have almost the detail of great literature.  Mad Men definitely falls into that realm.  I think what Better Call Saul ended up doing throughout the season was great, but it really took me the full season to become invested on an emotional level, where Breaking Bad had an opening episode that hooked you from the start.

I think that any kind of art form has to work on an emotional level first.  If it can expand your mind, deliver big ideas, on top of that, all the better.  I want to get something more than just being entertained out of something if possible.  However, I think if a writer, musician, painter, can pull you in on some way that is emotional, especially if they have a big idea, it is going to have a far greater chance at affecting how people think.  George Orwell is brilliant not only for his ideas, but for his clarity and readability too.  Even if he is talking about something highly intellectual, I am always struck at how the way he writes pulls you along with him.  It’s almost as if you are arriving at the conclusion with him.

That doesn’t mean that every moment of a book or TV show or whatever has to be easy.  I like to be challenged.  I like to hear that weird soundscape in the middle of an album of pop songs, for a show like Mad Men to take its time developing characters so the emotional payoff is bigger by the end, to see a play that has an act that sets the stage for later. Only fools need everything spoonfed to them.

I just got done reading Voltaire’s Candide.  It was written in the 1700’s.  There is a reason, beyond the big ideas contained within, that it has lasted several hundred years.  It is highly entertaining as well as being highly intelligent.

One thing I realized is that one will never ever read every book that is ever written.  One will never hear every piece of music ever created.  One will never see every show that or movie that has ever been made.  Therefore you must choose what you expose yourself.  It’s fine to watch or listen to things that are escapist at times.  The brain needs downtime if it is going to function on a higher level at other times.  But one should seek things out that help to understand the world around you.  If you are looking to understand something in a very specific technical way, then that is a different matter.  However, if you are looking for some kind of broader understanding of the world, there is no reason that one can’t enjoy oneself while doing so.  If you are interested in something, or some idea, or just looking for new ideas, the chances are there is someone that has communicated what you are looking for in a way that is enjoyable too.  A great journalist, dramatist, or songwriter, can do more than one thing at a time.

George Carlin On the Sanctity of Life

I’m reading Voltaire’s Candide right now, which is blowing my mind.  I will comment why at some point.  Anyway, it made me think of this piece by George Carlin.  I miss that fucker more and more every year.

Here is the transcript for those of you at work that can’t watch the above video. (Hey, I’ve been there!):

But you know, the longer you listen to this abortion debate, the more you hear this phrase “sanctity of life”. You’ve heard that. Sanctity of life. You believe in it? Personally, I think it’s a bunch of shit. Well, I mean, life is sacred? Who said so? God? Hey, if you read history, you realize that God is one of the leading causes of death. Has been for thousands of years. Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians all taking turns killing each other ‘cuz God told them it was a good idea. The sword of God, the blood of the land, vengeance is mine. Millions of dead motherfuckers. Millions of dead motherfuckers all because they gave the wrong answer to the God question. “You believe in God?” “No.” *Pdoom*. Dead. “You believe in God?” “Yes.” “You believe in my God? “No.” *Poom*. Dead. “My God has a bigger dick than your God!” Thousands of years. Thousands of years, and all the best wars, too. The bloodiest, most brutal wars fought, all based on religious hatred. Which is fine with me. Hey, any time a bunch of holy people want to kill each other I’m a happy guy.

But don’t be giving me all this shit about the sanctity of life. I mean, even if there were such a thing, I don’t think it’s something you can blame on God. No, you know where the sanctity of life came from? We made it up. You know why? ‘Cuz we’re alive. Self-interest. Living people have a strong interest in promoting the idea that somehow life is sacred. You don’t see Abbott and Costello running around, talking about this shit, do you? We’re not hearing a whole lot from Mussolini on the subject. What’s the latest from JFK? Not a goddamn thing. ‘Cuz JFK, Mussolini and Abbott and Costello are fucking dead. They’re fucking dead. And dead people give less than a shit about the sanctity of life. Only living people care about it so the whole thing grows out of a completely biased point of view. It’s a self serving, man-made bullshit story.

It’s one of these things we tell ourselves so we’ll feel noble. Life is sacred. Makes you feel noble. Well let me ask you this: if everything that ever lived is dead, and everything alive is gonna die, where does the sacred part come in? I’m having trouble with that. ‘Cuz, I mean, even with all this stuff we preach about the sanctity of life, we don’t practice it. We don’t practice it. Look at what we’d kill: Mosquitoes and flies. ‘Cuz they’re pests. Lions and tigers. ‘Cuz it’s fun! Chickens and pigs. ‘Cuz we’re hungry. Pheasants and quails. ‘Cuz it’s fun. And we’re hungry. And people. We kill people… ‘Cuz they’re pests. And it’s fun!

And you might have noticed something else. The sanctity of life doesn’t seem to apply to cancer cells, does it? You rarely see a bumper sticker that says “Save the tumors.”. Or “I brake for advanced melanoma.”. No, viruses, mold, mildew, maggots, fungus, weeds, E. Coli bacteria, the crabs. Nothing sacred about those things. So at best the sanctity of life is kind of a selective thing. We get to choose which forms of life we feel are sacred, and we get to kill the rest. Pretty neat deal, huh? You know how we got it? We made the whole fucking thing up! 

Nick Hornby, Eraserhead, and Light in the Darkness

The plain state of being human is dramatic enough for anyone; you don’t need to be a heroin addict or a performance poet to experience extremity. You just have to love someone.

That’s the real con of shock-art: it makes out that it’s democratic, but it’s actually only of those who can afford it.  And some of us, as we get older, simply find that we don’t have that much courage to spare any more.  Good luck to you if you have, because it means that you have managed to avoid more or less everything that life has to throw at you, but don’t try to make me feel morally or intellectually inferior.  

– Nick Hornby

Nick Hornby is a writer I respect.  I have read several of his books, seen several movies that are either based on his books or that he has contributed to.  I’ve also found some great music through him.  The first time I heard Rod Stewart’s Mama You’ve Been On My Mind, one of my favorite recordings, or Teenage Fanclub’s Ain’t That Enough, another song I love, it was because they were featured in his Songbook.  Any intelligent music fan should read that, even if they don’t agree with parts of it, because it is intelligent writing about music.

However, Hornby has been on my mind lately as I think about art as a whole.  The second quote is from a chapter in Songbook where he is criticizing Suicide’s song Frankie Teardrop.  I’ve never heard that song.  However, he compares it to the movie Eraserhead, which I love.  Basically he is saying as he grows older there is no place for dark disturbing pieces like the song.  He has also had other quotes, like the other above quote from How to Be Good, another book I really liked, where he seems to be making the case that the everyday is more dramatic than the kind of art that is more extreme, that features more extreme existences.

Although I think one can make the case that the everyday is dramatic, noble, something worth writing about, that it can even be subversive given the right context, I don’t believe this negates darker works or makes them any less valid.  In fact, the more I think about it, the more I disagree with Hornby on especially something like his second quote above.

Now before I go any further, this doesn’t mean that things that are normal, full of joy, and happy aren’t worthy subjects of art. I think that they are.  But I also think that anything can be a valid subject for art, given that whoever is creating it is talented and looking for truth.  The dark and extreme have created many of our masterpieces. Look at the history of literature old and new: Macbeth, Candide, The Stranger, The Road, Slaughterhouse-Five, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Last Exit to Brooklyn, Divine Comedy, Heart of Darkness, and on and on.

Whether or not you agree that all of that all of the above are worthy, I can’t imagine anyone of intelligence wanting a world that was without those.  Why would someone not want the same in music, in film, in art?  Such works give us a way to interpret the world as some of it unfortunately is.  They can critique the world and ask that it be better.  They can also provide a light in the darkness, as there can be a happiness in feeling that some other soul sees something the way that you see it.  Certain kinds of darkness can actually be comedy. They can help us to laugh at the things that we are afraid of.

As I look out at the modern political world, even if in my personal life there is a great deal of joy and happiness, even if I see good in the world, even if I see that long term there are reasons for hope, I can’t help but feel a good deal of modern life feels closer to Eraserhead than a feel good rom-com.  As multinational companies destroy the planet, as the prison industrial complex keeps many minorities and poor people disproportionally in jail, as people starve while others live like they are in the guilded age, especially because now we can see with ease what is going on all around us, I can’t help but feel the world to be an absurd surreal place at times.

Modern culture is so often full of meaninglessness, often in the guise of things that are supposed to make us happy, but rarely do.  Most people want to be happy, but many are not.  Many want light, but spend too much time in the cave.  In order to reach that light first one must find their way through the darkness, learn what is holding them back.  You can close your eyes if you want, but that isn’t going to change anything.

Trailer from Eraserhead: