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…

The Expansive Writing of Bob Dylan

Lately I have been trying to discern what in particular gives Dylan’s writing a unique power. Entire books have been written on the topic, entire semesters have been taught.  I am not going to solve the conundrum here. 

However, as someone that has spent more time than is healthy studying song lyrics, there is something I notice time and time again.  Dylan has not only been prolific for most of his career, but his words also often gain power through sheer volume.  I am a huge fan of Morrissey.  Although he has written expansive songs like The Queen is Dead, he often writes couplets that are powerful statements in and of themselves.  Leonard Cohen, someone by whose own admission is not prolific, yet is closer to Dylan in style, spends a lot of time finely crafting certain lines. 

If you take many Dylan couplets, although with his huge catalog he has written brilliant couplets as well, they are not always powerful in and of themselves.  But by the time you get to the 7th couplet in 4th verse of a Dylan song (hypothetically), Dylan songs are often astounding for the sheer amount of language he packs in them, they begin to take on a cumulative poetic power. 

Where some writers get their power from cutting back until what lies before them is a finally crafted sculpture, Dylan almost seems to stand out of the way and let his subconscious pour forth.  Line after line, image after image, floats past until the amount of imagery leaves the listener overwhelmed and breathless. 

Sure, that is not all he is doing.  There is a difference in power between Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone and Springsteen’s similar wordy Blinded by the Light.  (I love Dylan and Springsteen, but I would be lying if I said the latter contained the poetic force of the former.)  Dylan performs alchemy.   He does get that missing piece of the puzzle that many others cannot find no matter how talented they are. 

This is not to say that Dylan cannot write shorter more traditional songs.   He can of course.  Again this is also not to say that Dylan cannot write great one liners and couplets, as he has done that as well.  There are also many other elements at play to make a song powerful.  However, I think,  if you are interested in what Dylan does, this is a good facet of his writing to examine. 

In My Secret Life, Leonard Cohen, and Songwriting

In My Secret Life by Leonard Cohen.

In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life

I saw you this mornin’
You were movin’ so fast
Cant seem to loosen my grip
On the past

And I miss you so much
Theres no one in sight
And were still makin’ love

In my secret life
In my secret life

I smile when Im angry
I cheat and I lie
I do what I have to do
To get by

But I know what is wrong
And I know what is right
And Id die for the truth

In my secret life
In my secret life

Hold on, hold on, my brother
My sister, hold on tight
I finally got my orders
Ill be marching through the mornin’
Marchin’ through the night
Movin ‘cross the borders of my secret life

Looked through the paper
Makes you want to cry
Nobody cares if the people
Live or die
And the dealer wants you thinkin’
That its either black or white
Thank God its not that simple
In my secret life

I bite my lip
I buy what Im told
From the latest hit
To the wisdom of old

But Im always alone
And my heart is like ice
And its crowded and cold

In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life
In my secret life

This song has always meant a great deal to me.  The lyrics as usual, for Leonard Cohen, are masterful.  If you take a line or a couplet out of the song, there are a couple good ones, but they are fairly simple.  However, the way he builds imagery throughout the track means that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.  Also those last verse lines leave the song with a sense that the narrator hasn’t resolved any his conflicts, other than to possibly live with his contradictions:

But I’m always alone
And my heart is like ice
And it’s crowded and cold

In my secret life

One will notice that a lot of great songwriters leave one with a sense of mystery, they leave things unresolved.  This allows a song to keep going, even once you are done listening.  It starts the imaginative process, but doesn’t fill in every blank, making the song yours as much as theirs.  It becomes something you can take out into your life with you.  Now there is a difference between performing that trick, and just being vague to the point of meaningless.  The best writers know how to give you enough to pull you in, but leave enough space for the imagination of the listener so that a song will register on a personal level.

Ta-Nehisi Coates On Andrew Sullivan and Error

Andrew Sullivan and the Importance of Self Criticism

I was checking out Ta-Nehisi Coates blog tonight, I came across the above piece on Andrew Sullivan.  (Coates and Sullivan both used to blog for The Atlantic.  Coates still blogs for them.)  The piece is not only interesting for its views on Sullivan, but because it is also about how error is an essential part of intellectual pursuit.  This is a good read, especially for those of you interested in writing.

Andrew Sullivan On Blogging

The Years of Writing Dangerously

Andrew Sullivan, soon to be retired blogger and creator of The Dish, posted some of his earliest words about blogging itself.  I think he is someone that understands the best of what blogging can be.  I think that it is a valid form of writing, but it is a new form of writing.  It operates with a different set of rules than other forms of writing.  It is more about capturing the honesty of the moment, and through a cataloging of moments, capturing the larger arc of the world around us.  Here are some words on blogging from Sullivan’s piece:

[T]he speed with which an idea in your head reaches thousands of other people’s eyes has another deflating effect, this time in reverse: It ensures that you will occasionally blurt out things that are offensive, dumb, brilliant, or in tune with the way people actually think and speak in private. That means bloggers put themselves out there in far more ballsy fashion than many officially sanctioned pundits do, and they make fools of themselves more often, too. The only way to correct your mistakes or foolishness is in public, on the blog, in front of your readers. You are far more naked than when clothed in the protective garments of a media entity.

But, somehow, you’re liberated as well as nude: blogging as a media form of streaking. I notice this when I write my blog, as opposed to when I write for the old media. I take less time, worry less about polish, and care less about the consequences on my blog. That makes for more honest writing. It may not be “serious” in the way, say, a 12-page review of 14th-century Bulgarian poetry in the New Republic is serious. But it’s serious inasmuch as it conveys real ideas and feelings in as unvarnished and honest a form as possible. I think journalism could do with more of that kind of seriousness. It’s democratic in the best sense of the word. It helps expose the wizard behind the media curtain.

Ruined By Tweet and The Din of the Senseless

How One Stupid Tweet Ruined Justine Saccos Life

It ain’t a privilege to be on TV
and it ain’t a duty either. – Neil Young in Grandpa’s Interview

Whenever I think too deeply about what is going on in our culture I get the urge to slither into the shadows and never return.  I often think about that Neil Young quote above.  Earlier this week I was watching the absolutely brilliant movie Birdman.  There is a scene in the movie where the character that Michael Keaton plays is accidentally caught running through downtown New York in his underwear.  A video of it gets online and becomes popular.  His daughter tells him that, “Believe it or not, this is power”, in a scene that is both funny and sadly condemning of our times.  I am aware that modern fame is as much a dumb joke as anything.

Earlier today, thanks to my friend JR, I read the above New York Times article, a fascinating read, about how one person’s tweet, they made an off-color joke, lead to them being fired.  The author, I think rightly, comes to the conclusion that everyone, from the person that put the tweet up, to those that are condemning her, are part of a modern trend where everyone is performing for audiences that they can’t see.  A sample:

But perhaps she had now come to understand that her shaming wasn’t really about her at all. Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so. Their motivation was much the same as Sacco’s own — a bid for the attention of strangers — as she milled about Heathrow, hoping to amuse people she couldn’t see.

Yet here I am in a band, writing a blog.  I can’t help but feel conflicted at times.  Sometimes I feel like I’m wasting my fucking time.  However, I know how much writing, art, and music have meant to me.  I know that I might not be sane if not for it.  Part of the reason I started this blog was to try and create a platform where I could hopefully lead some people to things that I am passionate about, that I believe have value, in the din of senselessness that so often is our culture.  Books, albums, movies, and various forms of expression have been my armor in this world.  I must keep going, because this stuff is in my blood.  However, if I’m helping or hurting, only you can be the judge.

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.