Writing Doesn’t Have to be Complicated

ORWELL

I just started reading Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.  I’m not very far into it.  It’s clear that she has a laser-like mind that is an excellent bullshit detector.  However, one thing that actually surprised me is how simple her writing is.  The ideas inherent in her work are complex, but they are delivered clearly and directly.  Occasionally she will use a German or Jewish word without explanation, and you would need to have at least a basic level of history, but aside from that her work is very easy to read.  It might not be as direct as Orwell, few are, but it’s not far behind. So many times really intelligent academics use language that is impenetrable to anyone outside of their field.  Sometimes, as having written a peer reviewed chapter in a book myself, the form dictates such language.  Often however, I think this is due to the individuals either inability to write clearly, just because you are a genius in biology does not make you a great writer, or because whoever has been in their field so long that they forget that most people don’t understand the basics of what they are talking about. But if you again read someone like Orwell, who said to never use a big word where a small one will do, you understand that extremely complex and powerful ideas can be conveyed with the simplest of language.  If you are writing poetry or some kind of fictional prose that has a poetic element to it, then I understand trying to be flowery with language.  However, if the main purpose of your writing is to convey some kind of idea, then there is simply no need to further complicate things with the kind of language that is used.  In the worst case scenario you are extremely limiting the amount of people that can understand the ideas inherit in your work, and in the best case, you are just simply boring the shit out of someone while they try to grasp whatever it is you are saying.

Literature as Propaganda

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/06/why-the-cia-distributed-pocket-size-copies-of-doctor-zhivago-in-the-soviet-union/371369/

The above article is about how governments, The United States and The Soviet Union in this case particularly, viewed literature as a powerful tool for propaganda.  This story focuses on Doctor Zhivago and how the CIA had it distributed within The Soviet Union.  I always have felt that if more people read, and spent less time watching the brain deadening junk that is mainstream television, that this country would be better off.  Not a bold or original though I know, but most likely true.  

There is a really great book by George Orwell called All Art is Propaganda.  In the book Orwell uses literary criticism as a jumping off point to tackle larger ideas concerning politics and society.  It is a fascinating read that I highly recommend.  

As the review on amazon.com says:  All Art Is Propaganda follows Orwell as he demonstrates in piece after piece how intent analysis of a work or body of work gives rise to trenchant aesthetic and philosophical commentary.

Changing the Future and Redeeming the Past

I cannot stop thinking about The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology starring Slavoj Zizek.  It’s such a fascinating intelligent film.  Even if you don’t agree with some of his ideas, this film will make you think.  I will admit that this film is not for everyone.  Although he talks about subjects like philosophy and other topics in an incredibly accessible way, this movie is still pretty intellectual.  He uses films to dive into big ideas surrounding our culture.  However, if you are open minded and hungry for new ideas, you can’t go wrong with this film.

One of the interesting points he makes is how revolutions not only can change the future, but also redeem the past.  Revolutions, even ones that fail, leave a lingering energy around.  I am going to use the example of the Spanish Civil War as documented by George Orwell in his incredible Homage to Catalonia.  In the book Orwell sees a socialist revolution that actually works for a little while, until it is eventually crushed by Franco’s regime.  On one hand you could say that the revolution failed.  On the other, you could say that in living on in Orwell’s book and other places, it still provides inspiration for people.  The ideas from that revolution are still out there floating in the ether.  So any progressive revolution that happens will not only make a different future, but will also redeem that revolution and others like it that still lingers in people’s minds.

I think this can also be used to talk about political songs.  In some ways we can look at the protest songs of the 60’s as having failed.  Although they might have succeeded in helping along certain things like Civil Rights, it is pretty clear that there was no large lasting leftwing movement that came out of the 60’s in any real sense.  Although certain aspects of our society are more tolerant, our country is still pretty centrist as a whole, especially compared to Northern European countries.  In fact economically we have moved to the right.  One only has to look at the politics of Richard Nixon compared to the politics of our current right wing.  However, those songs continue to inspire people to this day.  You could see 60’s anthems as having an influence on Occupy Wall Street.  The Occupy movement may have fizzled, but the next time people try to take on the entrenched economic power I would bet anything that these anthems are somewhere in the mix.

Even if you sing something or write something and it doesn’t have the desired political effect, it is still worth the effort.  You may not see the promise land, but someone that you inspire years down the road may reach it for you.

Solidary/Solitary

Spoiler alert for The Artist at Work by Camus.  

One of my favorite authors is Camus.  I love his short story collection Exile and the Kingdom, among other works.  In the story The Artist at Work we follow the life of an artist as he becomes more and more removed from his family as he tries to create a painting.  The story ends with the artist creating a painting that is only a blank canvas, where it is impossible to tell if the word on the canvas is solidary or solitary.  Should his artistic responsibility be to go into his own inner world and create something or should his responsibility as a human being be to those people around him?

This is a common dilemma among creative people.  Should you put everything into your work or at some point do you just start progressing up your own arse?  Or as they say in Spinal Tap, “There is a fine line between the clever and the stupid.”

George Orwell said that, “any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”  When I am on the road there are times when I feel guilty about not being around to take care of my dog or not being there for a friend’s birthday party or whatever.  There are also times when I would prefer to sit around and write or play music when I should be out at someone’s event.  One wouldn’t even need to be any kind of artist to feel these feelings.  Anyone that might have a job that takes up too much time will probably feel this kind of thing from time to time.

A job, given there is some benefit to others in it, or a piece of art, may make many other people happy.  However, at the same time it may make those closest to you miserable from time to time.  Jackson Pollock was horrible to many people around him, but his work will live on for a long time.  Was it worth those people suffering so that he could create something that many other people would appreciate?  That is an extreme example, as most people can find some balance of the two.  However, because life is finite, I think it is normal to feel that in not having infinite time you are going to let someone down.

So how do you solve this problem?  Is there an answer?  I think not, only a series of questions that humanity will have to ask for as long as we’re around.

The Gift of Inspiration

I’m bereft of ideas today.  That is why I put up the Chuck D quote and the George Carlin transcript.  Since August of last year I have put up over 500 posts.  Maybe there is nothing less interesting than the topic of lack of inspiration.  However, I will try my best.  One of my favorite quotes of all time is George Orwell’s, “A man that gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”  I have used that before and probably will again.  From the outside one may view putting up 500 posts on a blog as a serious work ethic.  Perception is everything though.  I’m sure there are people who have put up more.  And I know the truth: I can only post when I feel inspired.  Without feeling some kind of energized inspiration I simply cannot write anything.  It comes and goes like the wind.  If I do occasionally write something without that inspiration it is muddled and I would kindly call it dogshit.

Wouldn’t the person with the serious work ethic push on without that light bulb going off over their head?  Sometimes it strikes me as laziness when I sit around waiting for that idea to formulate.  Where does inspiration come from?  Is some form of inner chemical stimulus?  Is the long hard grind of gathering information and waiting till your mind can tie the disparate ideas together?  Is it some kind of divine gift that is given to you at the whims of the muse?

The writer of Deadwood, David Milch, talks about how one has to be, “prepared to be inspired.”  He means that you have to do all the homework, but that when you sit down to write you need to let the inspiration take over.  Although we can do all the work in the world, reading books, listening to records, taking long walks, listening to albums, going to an art museum, in some ways, no matter what actually causes it, we are at the mercy of the muse.

I’m not knocking hard work, but to some degree we should be humble for inspiration is a gift.  Two people could do the exact same amount of work and only one of them would end up with the inspiration to create something of value.  Those that think they are great for creating something are either deluded or lying.  They got lucky.  Inspiration touches some people on the shoulder in the same way that a sword touches someone that is being knighted.  Sure they might have done some things to get there, but they were also shaped by outside forces.  They were born with the right mind or face, at the right time or place.

A Fallen World

I am definitely someone that sees the world as “fallen”.  I don’t meant that in the typical Biblical sense.  The story of Adam and Eve and original sin is about as likely to have happened as a Star Wars movie.  But it is beautiful as a story if viewed in the right light.  I had a professor in a religious class at Penn State talk about how we all, or those of us lucky enough not to have had monsters for parents, grow up in a childhood Garden of Eden, a world enchanted.  As we get older innocence is lost and we are forever cast out of the Garden.

What I mean by fallen is that we and the world around us is always imperfect.  We are always going to fail in some way.  There’s not enough time in this world to spend loving those around you that mean something to you.  Time pulls you in all directions so that no matter how hard you try you come up short.

I’ve quoted this before, but George Orwell once wrote the following:  “An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful.  A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life when viewed from the inside is a series of defeats.”

I think the important thing is to get up every day trying to do your best.  You won’t ever get to the promise land, but you can hopefully make a few other souls happy while you attempt.

Holes

I’ve been meaning to tackle this topic for awhile.  If you have even a slightly agile mind, and I would put my mind somewhere dead center between the cretin Sarah Palin and the genius of Albert Einstein, roughly at the top of the bell curve, you are bound to see holes in arguments and strains of thought.  Whenever I read something I wrote I am often struck with the thought of, “Jesus I hope no one thinks of that!”  I have written things that make me cringe when reading over them.  However, I always know that at the time I wrote something I was as close to the truth of a subject as I could get given my momentary feeling.

I try to write as fast as possible, on pure inspiration.  I view the entries of this blog as outward looking diary entries.  I want to write as little about me, and as much as what I see going on in the culture as humanly possible.  I believe if you write about current events and other goings on with as much inspiration as possible, you will occasionally be dead wrong, but you will also occasionally touch on a truth that ponderous thinking will miss.  Sometimes if you think too much you may become a coward and except whatever the consensus is on a given topic.  There are other forms of writing that should examine the long game.  When writing a blog one should ponder as much while they are not writing, but leave conscious thinking at the door once your fingers start typing.  Blogging is a transitory form of writing.  One is not crafting a book or a scholarly article, unless your blog is actually set up as a place for scholarly arguments.

One of my favorite writers is George Orwell.  I once read, and I cannot for the life of me remember the source, that he was such a good writer that even when he was contradicting himself you tended to believe him.  I would not dare to ever think of putting myself in same sentence as George Orwell. (Although it appears I just did it without trying.)  He is the best of the best.  My point is that even the best of writers leave holes and spaces where their words don’t add up if you pay enough attention.

I have ridden a lot in the van with Kevin Russell.  He has the kind of mind that can pick apart and challenge an argument, even if he doesn’t believe in what he is saying.  He is great at playing devil’s advocate.  My own brother, Ben Brown, is also able to point out faults in my way of thinking with much consternation on my end.  It is good to have people around you that don’t simply parrot your thoughts.  When someone challenges what you think it will lead to either one of two outcomes:  It will possibly both sharpen your beliefs and make you hunker down, strengthening your position with more articulate expression.  Or you will realize that your way of thinking was wrong and it will send you back to the drawing board.  Both outcomes are positive.

But to get back to my original topic, even the best of writers are never dead on all the time.  A piece of writing should be viewed as something that starts a conversation, but does not end it.  You must dance and parry with writing.  Writing is a powerful thing that can shape your beliefs and make you see the world in a different way.  However, one should always read with a critical eye, realizing that a writer is always influenced by their unique time and place.  All writers are biased, even ones that claim not to be.  Given a writer’s particular bias, which may be large or small, do their words still ring true?  No one has written the Holy Bible.  In fact that book, which so many people take on complete faith, is littered with holes of reason, contradictions, and flights of fancy.  But that, shall we say, is another story…

Van Halen and George Orwell

I am 34 years old and I remember a silly argument going on in music when I was younger. (There’s always a silly argument going on in music.)  When I was in my early teens, and first started playing, I used to read guitar magazines.  In these magazines there were often arguments about whether the players that were the most valid were those that were in the heavy metal genre and could shred, or those that were in the indie genre and played with more simplicity and heart.  Each side claimed their own heroes.  The metal players claimed that the indie players couldn’t play.  The indie players claimed that the metal players were all about technicality and lacked soul.

It was a silly tribal argument that probably had as much to do with haircuts as it did with music.  I was a fan of both genres, having been just old enough to be into the hair bands, but young enough to get swept away by the rise of the indie bands.  I always, and still to this day, feel like it doesn’t matter how people make music so long as they effectively communicate whatever emotion that they are trying to.

Someone like Eddie Van Halen was like Jackson Pollock with a guitar.  Throwing out a barrage of notes on the canvas and seeing what stuck.  His solos have more passion, aggression, and soul than most punks could ever dream of.  Van Halen records, especially with Roth, are high brow and low brow.  There is avant-garde playing mixed with the baser human elements of sex, anger, and fun.

Meanwhile, in any art form limitation is a powerful thing.  It can often lead to innovation.  When someone can’t do something like someone else, they often stumble onto something that is all their own.  Johnny Ramone couldn’t play anything but bar chords.  This helped lead to the invention of punk rock.  And by the way, anyone that thinks it’s easy to do what he did, try playing down stroke bar chords for an entire set.  You will experience some serious cramping in your hands.

A writer like David Mitchell, in his book Cloud Atlas, uses an innovative structure that features challenging language in several chapters.  He is writing imaginative fiction.  George Orwell was often writing essays where clarity of thought was important.  He never believed in using a complex word where a simple one would do.  It just depends on what you are trying to accomplish.  There are different tools for different forms and emotions.

All that matters in art is if it’s effective and interesting.  If I had to choose between Van Halen or the Ramones, or David Mitchell or George Orwell, I couldn’t.  All have brought value and meaning and entertainment to my life.  I’m glad I have them all.  The world is a much richer place, because these individuals chose to be themselves.

The Road to Socialism

The word socialism doesn’t really mean anything anymore.  It’s kind of like the term rock n roll.  It’s been used by so many people in so many different ways that it could and does mean a whole host of things.  Because of this it lacks any specific meaning.  Most of the time socialism in this country is used by the right wing to conjure up images of the boogey man.  The number one definition in Webster’s Dictionary about socialism is: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.  This doesn’t help us very much I’m afraid.   It only touches upon the many ways in which socialism has been used throughout the years.

If you want to know where I stand, I am a fan of the kind of democratic socialism that they have in many European countries.  I think the free market is the best and most dynamic creator of wealth and innovation.  However, I think the free market is not good at tackling certain things like health care, the environment, and the common good when it comes to things like infrastructure and public spaces.  We already do have sort of a hybrid system in this country.  Things like Social Security and Medicaid are socialist programs, but I think that we need to go further to the left, while still leaving room for the free market to play a large part.

One of the best arguments for socialism, and critiques of those who don’t understand how to sell it to people, is the second half of George Orwell’s book The Road to Wigan Pier.  Although Orwell has been claimed by many on the right wing because of his warnings of Big Brother, Orwell actually argued for socialism.  However he was highly critical of the left, not because he disagreed with what they were trying to achieve, but the way in which they were trying to achieve it.

I find one of his arguments particularly interesting.  He claims that many of the left do themselves no favors in attacking people’s tribal and religious affiliations.  He claims that when people are poor and down and out they cling to these things that create their identity, because it’s all that they have.  If you want to move the white blue collar worker, who in this country often votes Republican, towards a fairer more socialist form of government, you should not make attacks of their culture part of your argument.  I’m not claiming that he is right, though I do see some validity to his argument.  I just think it is an interesting place to start a debate.

The first half of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier deals with the plight of the working poor in England.  He is mostly dealing with the miners, but he does touch upon others as well.  If you are interested in social justice, moving towards a fairer economic system, and the history of workers and politics in general, I highly recommend this book.

I don’t think that through my writing here that I have defined socialism in any definitive terms.  At this point it’s a word that has been dragged through the mud and has evaporated into the ether.  But I do believe in economic social justice.  We need to take care of the less fortunate in our society and give them a place at the table.  I’ll get behind any term that accomplishes that.

Time Travel in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is almost like a science fiction novel.  Two different peoples, from two different time periods, are fighting each other.  I don’t say this to judge the tribal Afghan people or to call them primitive.  The writer Torsten Krol, in the book The Dolphin People, has the following line:  “Erich, they differ from us only in the limitations imposed upon them by stone, as opposed to iron and steel.”   If I had been born in the Afghan tribal region I would be living exactly like them.

Still I can’t help but feel it’s like some book where a bunch of World War II soldiers stumbled upon a time machine and somehow ended up in the middle of a Revolutionary War battle.  You get the idea.  Is this gap in civilizations something that can be bridged during our lifetime?

Science fiction, when done right, can help us see the present in ways that sometimes nonfiction cannot.  How many times during our current NSA scandal have your heard Orwell’s 1984 mentioned?     Kurt Vonnegut was always using science fiction to shed light on the ills of our society.

One of my favorite pieces of science fiction is Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil.  Like Orwell’s 1984 it is a dystopian future.  In the movie there is a scene in which a bunch of rich people are dining out.  A bomb goes off in the restaurant.  People are killed.  The rich people pay no mind to what is going on behind them.  A screen is brought out to cover up the portion of the restaurant that just exploded and the rich people go on eating like nothing ever happened.  It reminds me of recent footage I saw of Israel where people at a wedding party paid no mind to Palestinian rockets overhead.  It also reminds me of how after 911 we were told to go shopping while our military invaded two different countries without taking the time to understand their cultures.

Not all cultures are created equal.  If you have read this blog you can tell that I see all kinds of problems with our current American state of being, but I wouldn’t trade it for a country in which women are often treated as property.  I’m just saying before we go to war, and if we go to war and want to win, we need to understand the reasons that others have for becoming our enemy.

In a media that often regurgitates talking points and is consumed by the trivial, sometimes we need something else to help us see the light.  Science fiction is one of those things.  Why do we often fail to see the truth in this society?  I don’t know exactly.  However, I’m reminded again of Gilliam’s Brazil and a sign that the fictional inhabitants of his world are seen carrying through the streets:  “Consumers for Christ”.