Over at Salon is an article that starts out with Scientology and Going Clear, the book and documentary about it, but then deals in the much broader realm of belief. It deals with everything from the Rwandan genocide to the Mob and how people, once caught up in a group, use belief to justify the things that they have done. At a certain point belief in something is more painful than coming to terms with the reality of a situation. An interesting read.
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…
If you need your spirits lifted, the music of Boozoo Chavis is one remedy. This is zydeco music at its best. Zydeco music is regional music that originally came out of Louisiana. The song Dog Hill has always been one of my favorites that Boozoo recorded. I first heard of Boozoo from Kevin Russell, who grew up on the Texas/Louisiana border. I’ve always been interested in groove oriented music that is still really melodic. For whatever reason, it just seems to speak to me. A lot of South African music is like this, music that has a groove with a deep pocket, but is structured around major chords melodically. Anyway, if you like what you hear above, the history of Zydeco is worth reading about, as it gives you another look into the endlessly fascinating complexity of our culture here in the United States.
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.
When your work schedule is no longer Monday through Friday 9 to 5, you find yourself not giving a shit about staying in on a Friday night. (I’m a musician) I work tomorrow night, so tonight in the house is fine with me, communicating with my animals. I also spend my work days/nights in places that other people play, so when I do have time off I find myself not being that drawn to bars or clubs anyway. If I want to see people drink so much that they are in touch with the spirit world, all I have to do is wait till I play a show. Whatever I am, I am not a classic extrovert. I don’t need to be interacting in a crowd to feel energized and happy. That’s not saying that given the right circumstances I can’t enjoy that, it’s just not what I need to keep going. However, I do love the art and culture of a city. When a city is walkable I love walking around at night, seeing what’s going on, even if I’m just observing, as long as it isn’t so crowded that it resembles the movie Blade Runner.
Not only is my playtime not dictated by the usual workweek schedule, but I try, when possible, to avoid rush hour all together. Now in Austin, driving somewhere at noon on a Tuesday feels like rush hour in many other places, so I can’t avoid traffic all together by any means. Morning rush hour here is not that bad, but from 3:30 to 7, M-F, stay off the roads if at all possible. I don’t understand how people that have to drive in that kind of thing aren’t screaming like banshees for some kind of sensible public transportation. (I did work 9 to 5, or close to it, for many years.) City dwellers that fetishize their cars are a breed I don’t quite understand. It’s not freedom. Having to drive everywhere in a city, especially at normal hours, is like volunteering to be locked in a slow moving box for several hours a day. Even if the music is great and your seat is comfortable, at some point you are going to pray for The Road Warrior to become a reality.
In this country we have the money and the technology to do whatever we want, if we really wanted to. Why don’t more people work from home? Why is our transportation so shitty? Austin is a pretty forward thinking city compared to some. We couldn’t even get the populace to approve one train line. This is when the population of our city, and the world in general, is exploding. I have a friend that when he used to get baked, and we would talk about traffic, while his eyes were slits, would say about traffic that, “It’s so fucking inefficient!” If he, in his state of mind, could tell that, what are most people thinking when sober?
I’m still cursing Apple for doing away with the iPod Classic, which for a music lover that travels constantly remains the best device for taking your music library with you. (I’m not completely against streaming, but until it pays musicians a fair rate, I refuse. I also don’t want to have to rely on something that needs an internet connection. You think the world is high tech until you travel a lot. Then you are aware of just how many places don’t have service. I was in the Florida panhandle on tour and my girlfriend was working in Orlando. I couldn’t even get basic phone or text service most of the time, let alone internet.) I have never owned an iPhone. I do really love my Apple computer though. These aren’t pronouncements of shame or pride, just facts. However, anyone interested in the latest Apple device will be well served by the above article. It is an extremely in depth review, with plenty of demonstrative pics and graphics, by someone who wore the new watch for a week. I personally can’t imagine wearing one anytime soon, but to each their own.
As I was writing the last piece, which had to do in part with how we let nostalgia ruin new music, my girlfriend just happened to be reading the above article over at NPR’s website. It is worth a read. The article is about how we shouldn’t let familiarity harden into cynicism when confronting new music. (The same should go for any art.) The article also makes the point that each generation discovers something for the first time, even if those that are older feel too much familiarity with what is out there.
One of the things that bugs me is all of these people that are comparing and contrasting songs to each other on the internet. Artists have been stealing from each other since the dawn of time, and definitely from the beginning of pop music. It is just the instantaneous ability to pull up anything from any time period that is new. The Rolling Stones, who I love, started out ripping off the old black blues musicians, and so on. There is a difference between stealing something and referencing something. Often songs reference other songs or lines from movies or whatever as a way to pay tribute to things that were important to the writer. This can actually give a song depth. No ideas are completely new. It is the combination of old ideas in a new way that moves a form along.
Sampling can be different because you are actually using the exact thing that one is referencing. However, even this can obviously be done creatively enough that the older piece of material can not be ascertained immediately. Even when something is immediately recognizable, if it is combined with new elements it is new. (I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be paying the older artist, as they should. However, that is a different argument.)
The only time I have a problem with stealing in music is when it is done by a new band that adds nothing new to the equation. You see this all of the time right now with these retro-soul bands. In years past it was different kinds of music. They might not be stealing anything directly. However, they often create music that sounds exactly like it could have been created in a past era, without adding any kind of original personality to the mix. Often this music sounds like a faded copy, kind of like the original, but without the excitement of self-discovery. There are so many new bands that are just museum pieces.
What would you rather hear: A song that steals something from the past directly, but contextualizes it in a way that makes it new, or someone doing something that is technically new, but really just a faded artifact of the past?
Add on: If you take a Jackson Pollack painting and make it part of a collage in an interesting way, you have might have something new on your hands. If you paint something that is exactly the same as a Jackson Pollack painting, but just slightly alter the colors and swirl patterns, you are just ripping him off. The first would technically be stealing, but the second example is more egregious in my mind.