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…

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:

The Master and Margarita Overview

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The Master and Margarita Overview

In one of my earlier blogs today I briefly mentioned Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.  It is one of my favorite books.  I thought about writing a review of it, but truth be told it is a complicated book and I read it several years ago.  I searched the internet and found a pretty comprehensive overview of it.  What is really great about the above overview is that at the bottom it provides links to even more information about the book.  There are some spoilers in this overview, but a book this original, where so much of the magic comes from the world that the author creates, I don’t believe spoilers apply in the way they do to most books.

The book is a complex and fascinating read.  It is partially set in Moscow in the 30’s when many people were “disappearing”.  It is part fantasy, part political satire, full of dark humor, and at times creates scenes of chilling horror.  Any book that features Satan and a talking cat as two of the main characters is not going to be your typical novel.  If you love the power of language, poetry, and how words can impart strong images on the imagination, than this is a book that you will love.  And although the two authors are very different, I think anyone that likes the dark humor and haunted language of someone like Flannery O’Connor will also love this book.  There is really no way that I can do this book justice.  It is one of those reads that simply must be experienced in full.  A truly unique and captivating read, and an absolute masterpiece of literature.

A Little Bit of Magic

I have just put up over 900 posts since I started this blog in August of last year.  Slowly, but surely, the amount of people coming here has grown.  I can’t thank all of you enough for spending time here.

The first thought I have when I write something is, “Why would anyone care?”  I can only hope that there is enough people out there that have somewhat similar interests to me.  I’m throwing baseballs blindly over a wall and hoping that there are people on the other side to catch them.  I have only kept writing in public because of those of you that keep coming back.

Last night I played music in front of what looked like a couple thousand people at a festival in Conroe, Texas.  However, I have played plenty of nights where there were maybe five or ten people in the audience.  No matter what I try to always play my best.  When we read we read alone.  How many times have you gone to a movie and been one of the only people in the theater?  There is still that chance that that book or movie or album or live performance might connect with someone.  I can think of all the times that something connected with me in an important way when there was no one else to experience it.  Everyone matters.  If you do something and it even reaches even one person it has value.  That person’s life has as much value as your own or anyone else’s.  A connection with even one other soul has a little bit of magic in it.  As long as someone keeps coming back I will keep writing.

Thanks again to all of you that keep coming here.  If you would be kind enough to tell other’s of my writing I would be eternally grateful.

In the future when all’s well…

Jeff

The Difference Between Writing and Speaking

I enjoy Peter Travers movie reviews in Rolling Stone Magazine.  However, whenever I see him in person I find him highly annoying.  I think Andrew Sullivan is one of the best bloggers there is, that his writing is really thoughtful most of the time, but again in person he can sometimes be grating.  There are times when I write some high minded posts, but I’m sure if you hung out with me there are times you would think to yourself that I was one ignorant motherfucker.  (And that’s not saying that I don’t occasionally write something that will make you think that as well!)

One of the things that I like about writing is that it slows down the thought process.  I think most people are generally more thoughtful in the written word.  It is a form of expression that allows at times for the best of ourselves to come out.  Often when you are responding to things in the moment there are all kinds of different things at play:  There is your body chemistry, which is always a challenge.  There is the mind racing about how you are being perceived by the people around you.  There is the natural flow of a conversation that often doesn’t allow for deep reflection.  Those are just a few of the challenges we face in person to person communication.

Writing, especially longer forms of writing, allow one to slow down and go deep.  Someone that may be a neurotic bastard in real life, might be truly thoughtful in writing.  They are two different forms of expression and they access different parts of our being.  Humans are complicated.  The thing that is great about writing or any form of artistic expression is this:  Once the neurotic bastard is dead, once the short turbulent complicated lifespan of a human being is over, a good piece of work may live on for a long time, inspiring and doing good, eclipsing all those moments when one wasn’t at their best.  That’s not to say that people shouldn’t try to be their best, only that time has a funny way of erasing, or at least sanding down, those human characteristics that we call faults.

New Haruki Murakami Book

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For those readers out there, another one of the world’s current great authors, Haruki Murakami, also has a new book out.  It’s called Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.  My favorite three books of his are probably Kafka On the Shore, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.  I think that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is probably his masterpiece, but Kafka On the Shore is probably the best place to start as it is more accessible.

For anyone that has seen a David Lynch movie, Murakami has the same sense of the uncanny that Lynch has.  He has the ability to make the everyday seem strange and haunting.

I spent time in Japan last year and I have been interested in their culture for a long time.  After going there I read a little bit about their culture.  Because they have stricter rules than us concerning personal interaction they are more comfortable with ambiguity.  There is a certain amount of ambiguity and abstraction even built into their language.  Often what is meant is inferred by body language and facial expression, instead of being overtly expressed.  I’ve commented before that this plays a role in their art.  If you watch any movies that are wildly popular in Japan, they will seem much more surreal than our popular entertainment.  Anyone that has seen movies like Spirited Away can attest to that.  Murakami’s work, although it can be extremely realistic at times, also has many moments of this surrealism as well.

I love art that has a certain dream logic to it, as I often see the world as being dreamlike.  If this is something you find yourself drawn to then I highly recommend that you check out Murakami’s work.

More Thoughts on The Bone Clocks

I can’t stop thinking about David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks since I read it.  I can’t stress enough that if you really like to read, if getting lost in a book is one of your favorite pastimes, then this is a book you should check out.  This book is intelligent.  It deals with the big themes of our time.  It deals in both realism and fantasy with equal skill.  However, more than anything it is just a simply wonderful read.  This is a book written for people that love books.  This was one of those rare times when I felt like my mind and soul were expanded by reading, and at the same time every moment of reading this book was a pleasurable experience.  David Mitchell is that rare writer and magician that feeds the heart and mind in equal measures.