Category Archives: Essays

Exercitus

I’ve been doing the New York Times’ Scientific Seven Minute Workout for a few months now, and I’m noticing more results than I ever did just by running for an hour every two or three days, but with a few caveats—I work out for at least an hour, not for seven minutes; I record the time I spend doing these exercises, adding fifteen seconds to each whenever I do them; I eat whatever the hell I want (like a singularity, I can consume an entire pizza in less than a second); I walk or bike everywhere I go, and only get inside cars on weekends. I started this workout with a lot more dedication than usual because of its simplicity: I don’t have to waste my time or money going to a gym, I don’t have to embarrass myself in front of everyone sweating like a pig, flushed like a pig, outside, and all I need is a floor and a chair.

It’s a pain in the ass, it’s agony, but I love it. I’ve never sweated so much in my life, actually. The sweat drips from my hair like streams from mountain rocks, mountain lichen; by the time I’m done it looks like someone has spilled water all over the floor. I’ve noticed, also, that while the temperature here is almost always over ninety degrees Fahrenheit, or thirty degrees Celsius (or so…), and while I’m drenched with sweat minutes after stepping outside, my shirt blossoming with darkness, my hair plastered to my forehead, the heat just doesn’t really both me that much. I’ve accepted the sweat, and life goes on.

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Who Is The Best Stylist?

Shakespeare writes as if the English language itself is writing: His tears run down his beard like winter’s drops from eaves of reeds. Tolstoy writes with the voice of the earth. I was first really hooked by the beginning of Sevastopol Stories, actually. Borges, in Spanish or English, is like bathing in a sunset.

Bruma de oro, el Occidente alumbra
la ventana. El asiduo manuscrito
aguarda, ya cargado de infinito.
Alguien construye a Dios en la penumbra.

And when Flaubert describes the color of Emma Bovary’s eyes, I don’t just see them, I am them. Madame Bovary c’est moi! Borges said that Joyce had written lines that were not unworthy of Shakespeare—

He watched her pour into the measure and thence into the jug rich white milk, not hers. Old shrunken paps. She poured again a measureful and a tilly. Old and secret she had entered from a morning world, maybe a messenger. She praised the goodness of the milk, pouring it out. Crouching by a patient cow at daybreak in the lush field, a witch on her toadstool, her wrinkled fingers quick at the squirting dugs. They lowed about her whom they knew, dewsilky cattle. Silk of the kine and poor old woman, names given her in old times. A wandering crone, lowly form of an immortal serving her conqueror and her gay betrayer, their common cuckquean, a messenger from the secret morning. To serve or to upbraid, whether he could not tell: but scorned to beg her favour.

Nabokov, too, can enchant even the staunchest philistines with the opening lines of Lolita, while Melville was quoted by Captain Picard!

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

Joseph Conrad cannot not be mentioned—

In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

While you should also have a look at Homer in the original Greek, and read it aloud, because his poetry is actually music, and rhymes not just at the ends of lines, but within the lines themselves:

tis t’ ar sphōe theōn eridi xuneēke makhesthai;
Lētous kai Dios huios

(http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0133 (display the text in Latin transliteration, every word is clickable!, I can read Greek but I don’t understand it)).

While Ovid is more playful and classical than Charles Boer’s amazing Imagist translation—

: old woods, never cut, cave in middle,
low rock-sided arch, lots of sedge
& willow, spring streaming forth: hideout
of the Snake of Mars! gold-scaled & fire-eyed,
body bloats poison: three tongues buzz
through three tooth-rows

a bad day, Cadmians, to set foot there!

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The Ecstasy of Reading (Flaubert)

Pieter_Bruegel_(Temptation_of_St_Antony)

If you have ever felt, upon reading some comment or review that complains about too much description in a given book, or too many difficult words, a feeling of disgust—if you have ever suppressed an urge to roll your eyes when someone you know wonders about the point of fiction, or dismisses entire genres out of hand—then you must stop reading this blog post right now and go devour The Temptation of St. Anthony.

Don’t let the book’s religious veneer fool you. This is a story that Gustave Flaubert (an ardent and lifelong atheist, skeptic, and misanthrope) conceived as a child, worked on his entire life, and finally published as an old man, a book that is itself about the struggle to read books and to write them—a book that brings to life all of the distractions that tempt us from the divine act of consuming the written word, and turns them into the most beautiful and eloquent monsters, embodiments of what Steven Pressfield calls “resistance“, which Flaubert himself conquered and destroyed by holing himself up in the country for almost his entire life to write pages, cross them out, rewrite them, and then read them aloud by shouting them at the top of his lungs while pacing his study (his bearskin rug) endlessly back and forth. Though he wrote for his entire life, his oeuvre is relatively small, and The Temptation is a slim volume, clocking in at under two hundred pages, with few paragraphs exceeding three sentences.

It is a grotesque fantasy. It is gorgeous science fiction. At one point the devil grabs St. Anthony, one of the founders of Christian monasticism, and lifts him up above the solar system, and then the galaxy itself, in an attempt to convince him that his religion is false, and that his obsession with words is pointless. (The attempt fails). There is a bizarre cinematic acid trip quality to the text as well, as monsters transform themselves into beautiful women, as the shadowed arms of a cross grow horns, and then, as the darkness deepens—

…suddenly in the air above there appear and disappear successively—first, a stretch of water; then the figure of a prostitute; the corner of a temple; a soldier; a chariot with two white horses, prancing.

These images appear suddenly, as in flashes—outlined against the background of the night, like scarlet paintings executed upon ebony.

This is a novel written as an impossible play, but it’s really a film script, a proto-Borgesian distillation of all of western science, art, and philosophy, into a single very intense shot glass. Flaubert said he read something like a hundred and fifty books in preparation for writing this one; what’s more likely is that this man simply read and then reread everything worth reading, and that, when combined with his remarkable imagination, perhaps the most powerful (certainly the most chimerical) of any writer, the book leaped from his brain fully-armored in its front and back covers.

In a way it’s unfortunate that Flaubert is mostly remembered for Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education, two books he wrote with the purpose of reigning in and controlling his imagination. In St. Anthony (and also in Salammbo) that imagination is completely unbounded, though not out of control; the book has a definite structure, and moves toward the best ending imaginable, a cyclical finale which is almost the same as in Bouvard and Pecuchet as well as Joyce’s unreadable Finnegans Wake. Just as the devil is defeated, just as the greatest speech in defense of art for its own sake is delivered—

O joy! O bliss! I have beheld the birth of life. I have seen the beginning of motion! My pulses throb even to the point of bursting. I long to fly, to swim, to bark, to bellow, to howl. Would that I had wings, a carapace, a shell,—that I could breathe out smoke, wield a trunk,—make my body writhe,—divide myself everywhere,—be in everything,—emanate with all the odours,—develop myself like the plants,—flow like water,—vibrate like sound,—shine like light,—assume all forms—penetrate each atom—descend to the very bottom of matter,—be matter itself!

—Anthony resumes his devotions, and, one may imagine, opens his book just as at the beginning of the story, all while Temptation gathers its strength and prepares to assault him again.

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Superficiality (The Photo With The Résumé)

I remember a passage in Plato’s Symposium, which I don’t have with me and which I don’t really have the patience to find, and it was a typically Platonic, gnostic sort of passage regarding levels of intelligence and wisdom: the lover of souls and minds is superior to the lover of bodies, probably because the soul is immortal, godlike, and perfect, while the body is made of temporary stuff, a Protean Ship of Theseus, constantly changing, impossible to define, and soon reduced to dirt “stopping up a bunghole.” One of my more sensuous friends complained about Plato’s disdain of the physical world and his seemingly Buddha-like adoration of the mystical and the unseen, but at least in the case of Socrates we can tell rather easily why it’s important to focus more on the mind than the body:

…once I caught [Socrates] when he was open like Silenus’ statues, and I had a glimpse of the figures he keeps hidden within: they were so godlike — so bright and beautiful, so utterly amazing — that I no longer had a choice: I just had to do whatever he told me.

(I lazily stole this quote from wikipedia)

Socrates, the notoriously ugly man, is the shining source of ancient Greek philosophy, God-The-Father in the hypostases of Himself, Plato the Holy Spirit and transmitter of His Words, and the mutable Son, crucified on the rood of exile, the most human of them all, Aristotle. But to judge Socrates based on his looks, you would feel nothing but repulsion; this sickening Matroyoshka doll is full of infinite beauty.

I live in South Korea, a country where it is standard business practice to demand a photograph along with your resume every time you apply for a job, and where, at the moment, it seems my wife is the only Korean woman in her twenties who has not surgically lengthened her nose and enlarged her eyes to look as much as possible like the impossible Platonic ideal of Korean beauty (who herself looks as if one of her parents is a grey, and whose avatars, in the incarnate form of various celebrities, are plastered to every wall, window, and screen, in the country). This isn’t to say that plastic surgery or superficiality is unknown to America, my home, but in Maine and Massachusetts, where I spent most of my American life, I can’t remember ever seeing someone walking around with Joan Rivers’ botoxified face or Pamela Anderson’s cubical breasts. It always seemed like more of a West Coast thing, since in California people are prancing outside in the sunshine all the time where the whole world can see them, while four years ago in rainy Maine I was holed up for two months straight before I got on the plane for Korea. I was only able to see the sun when this plane rose up above the clouds…

No company I’ve ever heard of in America asks for pictures along with résumés. That’s not to say people don’t discriminate based on appearance, but a person’s achievements are, at least ostensibly, considered more important; in Korea, too, a (K)Ivy League degree is what gets you your coveted Samsung-wage-slave-corporate-cubicle-cog-in-the-machine-I’m-so-happy-I-don’t-have-to-think-for-myself-anymore lifetime gig: not your fake nose. Still, superficiality really seems to reign supreme in this place: products are primarily sold by simply pairing them with the faces of celebrities: my son cannot go outside without being complimented (catcalled) by middle school girls and old ladies, probably the greatest victims of this anti-woman culture, people who sometimes make a point of telling my wife that my son is only beautiful because all mixed-race children are beautiful; it has nothing to do with our genes—as if our genes belong to us, rather than we to them.

I am also not immune in any way to being infected by this superficiality.

I was talking with a Chinese friend two days ago: he was bothered by the claim, made by some Koreans, that their country possesses a five thousand year-old civilization. The wikipedia page for the History of Korea was once Orwelled by one of these Korean patriots, who made a point of stating that Korean civilization was one of the oldest on Earth, but thankfully after much wrangling and wrestling this absurd line was finally removed. There were videos on youtube declaring that Koreans invented the airplane, and the very best, a Korean-made satire of these ridiculous claims, has found the true origins of pizza.

These different Asian countries, China, Korea, Japan, and others, are all proud and fiery and nationalistic, and yet it bothers them that numerous incredible technologies were first invented in America. Korea’s portfolio, at least according to the English wikipedia, is comparatively slim. And so historians and nationalists stretch their histories back as far as possible, since, superficially, that looks impressive—though if you were to ask King Gwanggaeto about his nationality: “Hey! Are you from Korea?”, he would say: “What’s Korea?”, since the idea of the nation-state is only about two centuries old, and before that people were loyal to leaders or faiths rather than flags and passports—and this historical superficiality is linked to the physical superficiality that forces women to spend millions of won, to risk their lives, in fact, to alter their faces: the dangerous and destructive and simplistic and un-Socratic belief that if a person looks beautiful, that person’s thoughts must also be beautiful.

This isn’t just tied to Samsung’s relentless pirating of Apple’s ideas, or China’s notorious intellectual theft of America’s military technology: it goes back to human evolution, as well: why human beings triumphed over their competitors in the primitive primordial savannah. Cheetahs are faster, lions are stronger, elephants are bigger, ants are more numerous: but humans are the smartest beasts of all, and their brains are what pushed them ahead of their competitors in the distant past, and their brains were still revolutionizing philosophical thought in the Athenian Golden Age, and their brains are still changing the world now, and so long as a country like Korea believes that physical appearance is important enough to warrant a photo stapled to every résumé, so long will it be destined to follow and copy those who recognize the Platonic importance of the mind over the shifting untrustworthy mirage of the body.

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Faith In Archy

Thought-sparking piece about anarchy in The New Yorker today: the anarchists involved didn’t convince me, or the author, however, that anarchism is any different from Savonarolism: take everything and burn it just because a few things don’t work. But it did get me to consider anarchy for an instant. I thought of the case of certain religious types, probably predominantly American, who believe that faith in god (and a corresponding fear of hell) is the only thing that keeps everyone from murdering each other, and there would seem to be a parallel among archists like myself: the government is the only thing that keeps murderers from breaking down my door.

But here’s the difference. I’m an agnostic. I think god could exist, but I’m not sure. There’s no scientific evidence, no photograph of a burning bush or a giant monkey flying around with a mountaintop or even Alan Moore’s “rather amazing” snake god. At the same time there was little to no evidence to support evolution two or three centuries back: absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence (Dawkins himself has admitted as much), though at the same time proving the nonexistence of the supernatural could also be logically impossible.

Regardless, I believe these things, and you don’t see me running around killing everybody. I have trouble killing the flies that have infested my bathroom (and despite the annoyance I’ve largely left them alone). When you take away religious faith, people generally do not turn into berserkers: but when you take away government, when you take away the police and the fire department and the ambulances and the huge numbers of soldiers that stand between us and North Korea—I’m writing this from South Korea—what can you possibly expect beyond horror and bloodshed? This is the truism: government is corrupt because people are corrupt, and taking away government will not turn people into angels, just as taking away religion will not turn them into devils.

So instead of throwing out the bathwater with the baby, we should stay committed to cleaning them both in the same tub: mount cameras to all elected officials, and make the feeds accessible to anyone with a dialup connection; raise taxes to a hundred percent on incomes exceeding $250,000 a year, and use the money to provide everyone with enough food, space, and time, to live happily; outlaw private education as well as private medicine; plant trees, build spaceships, cover the rooftops with solar panels, manufacture self-driving cars, destroy the world’s arsenal of nuclear weapons: shit, man, aren’t these crazy ideas radical and utopian enough?

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When You Say Simple, You Probably Mean Plain

Allegorical tales that involve animal characters have notable appeal for adults as well. Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” for example, is a masterpiece of political commentary that is arresting in its simplicity.

From the comments section of A Child’s Wild Kingdom. As soon as I read it I thought—simple? Orwell is simple? I don’t know, doesn’t Orwell seem, actually, to be kind of brilliantly complex? And doesn’t he just mask that complexicity in an attractively plain style?

And then from the chorus of dead people I’ve tucked into my brain, Nabokov—the master of concealing difficult and complex thoughts within a difficult and complex style—lashed out from his excellent Lectures on Russian Literature:

…But remember that ‘simplicity’ is buncombe. No major writer is simple. The Saturday Evening Post is simple. Journalese is simple. Upton Lewis is simple. Mom is simple. Digests are simple. Damnation is simple. But Tolstoys and Melvilles are not simple.”

Nor, indeed!, is any artist worth experiencing.

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Nothing Stops A God

It looks like the people who wrote this movie are fully aware of the trouble with Superman: nothing can stop a god, since a god is, obviously, immortal, perfect, and, yeah, unstoppable. That’s the Platonic view which probably got Socrates in trouble with the Athenians—who executed him on a cross of hemlock!—dying for a love of knowledge rather than our sins!—but to go even further, and to look at God from the perspective of Islam, and Ali Farka Toure, God Is Unique; there is nothing like God, nothing can be compared to It; It cannot have arms, legs, thoughts, feelings, or any recognizable features. This philosophical view naturally eliminates any possibility of drama, since if God Is Unique, and everywhere and everywhen and nowhere and nowhen, then It’s also doing everything and nothing, and there’s no plot, no tension, no payoff. Buddhists take things even further. God The Creator doesn’t even exist in Buddhism. And, like Mohammed, the Buddha is just a dude, though he’s a really special dude, so we have to say Peace Be Upon Him whenever we say his name (for Mohammed) and we have to build giant temples and golden statues and bow to them and make sacrifices to them (for Sakyamuni). Even though he isn’t a god. He’s just a dude. A really, really, really, special, dude…

In the case of Superman and in the case of all these traditions as well as many others, it’s more or less impossible to write a story about god unless god has flaws—in other words, unless god isn’t god. In Job, God is dimwitted, making a bet with Satan, which everyone knows is a bad idea; in Superman, there’s kryptonite, a contrived substance, a sort of MacGuffin which makes the hero more human and therefore more interesting: the most memorable scenes of the very first Superman film involve Clark Kent getting blown off by Lois Lane: Christopher Reeve is so amusing and so charming an entire film could have been made about his life working as a reporter, without even the slightest hint of a red cape, because, really, Superman is best when he’s just Man. You’ve got to Christopher Nolanize him. Throw him under the ice, turn him into a hitchhiker, and make him grow a beard!

In the ancient Greek stories of the gods, their flaw is usually lust or jealousy; Plato thought this ridiculous, since how can a perfect being be jealous of anyone?; but it does leave the door open for plenty of drama. Zeus falls for some woman, turns into a bull to seduce her (since obviously what woman wouldn’t be seduced by a bull?), bones the shit out of her, and then gets found out by his wife, who turns her hair into live snakes (I’m mixing stories to illustrate a point). In Ovid, at least, divine justice is so arbitrary it’s almost random, and the gods are never the victims, so, as in Seinfeld, they never learn from their mistakes, which keeps the hilarity rolling. And in Homer everyone knows Athena totally has a thing for Odysseus. Which makes no sense.

But in the poetry of Horace, a more-or-less contemporary of Ovid, the gods are good, the gods really are flawless, nothing stops them, they fuck shit up left and right, and the delight comes from watching them do it, almost like a video game. The ancient Roman equivalent of modern Hollywood blockbuster special effects is poetry: the power words have to conjure feelings and images.

…The nations know
How with descending thunder He
The impious Titans hurl’d below,
Who rules dull earth and stormy seas,
And towns of men, and realms of pain,
And gods, and mortal companies,
Alone, impartial in his reign.
Yet Jove had fear’d the giant rush,
Their upraised arms, their port of pride,
And the twin brethren bent to push
Huge Pelion up Olympus’ side.
But Typhon, Mimas, what could these,
Or what Porphyrion’s stalwart scorn,
Rhoetus, or he whose spears were trees,
Enceladus, from earth uptorn,
As on they rush’d in mad career
‘Gainst Pallas’ shield? Here met the foe
Fierce Vulcan, queenly Juno here…
Strength, mindless, falls by its own weight;
Strength, mix’d with mind, is made more strong
By the just gods, who surely hate
The strength whose thoughts are set on wrong.
Let hundred-handed Gyas bear
His witness, and Orion known
Tempter of Dian, chaste and fair,
By Dian’s maiden dart o’erthrown.
Hurl’d on the monstrous shapes she bred,
Earth groans, and mourns her children thrust
To Orcus; Aetna’s weight of lead
Keeps down the fire that breaks its crust;
Still sits the bird on Tityos’ breast,
The warder of unlawful love;
Still suffers lewd Pirithous, prest
By massive chains no hand may move.

This was translated by John Conington, whose brilliant works infest the internet. I’m sure I lost every last one of my readers by posting that lengthy excerpt, but for me it doesn’t get much better than that: titans piling mountains on top of one another, knocked aside by a gleaming shield, and thrown down deep inside the groaning Earth, weighed under the molten lead of Aetna. This is CGI that will never look outdated: these are gods who entertain without a hint of kryptonite.

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posted under r/agnosticism

There are people who take fright. But I am of the opinion, Lachmann, that one should know no fear in this world . . . Love, it is said, is strong as death. But you may confidently reverse the saying: Death is as gentle as love, Lachmann. I tell you that death has been maligned. That is the worst imposture in the world. –Death is the mildest form of life: the masterpiece of the Eternal Love…[His eye falls upon the death-mask of Beethoven. He takes it down and, contemplating it, continues:] Where shall we land? Whither are we driven? Why do we cry our cries of joy into the immense incertitude — we mites abandoned in the infinite? As though we knew whither we are tending! Thus you cried too! And did you know — even you? There is nothing in it of mortal feasts! Nor is it the heaven of the parsons! It is not this and it is not that. What…[he stretches out his hands to heaven]…what will it be in the end?

Gerhart Hauptmann, Michael Kramer, quoted in James Joyce.

I haven’t been this excited about reading a book in years. One of the best things about it is the quotations, particularly those from Finnegans Wake, which seems a far more readable text when its lines are taken out of context:

If one has the stomach to add the breakages, upheavals, distortions, inversions of all this chambermade music one stands, given a grain of goodwill, a fair chance of actually seeing the whirling dervish, Tumult, son of Thunder, self exiled in upon his ego…

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The Life Of A Text In Its Footnotes

Cusack was of middle height but had extremely broad shoulders. He usually wore a broad-rimmed soft hat and instead of trousers wore knee breeches. Carrying a heavy blackthorn, he would come into a pub and shout at the waiter, ‘I’m Citizen Cusack from the Parish of Carron in the Barony of Burren in the County of Clare, you Protestant dog!’

This comes from a footnote in the great paean to literature I’m reading now, a text which functions like a magical barcode; as my eyes scan it, my mind fills with a whirl of crashing ideas…

I’m partial to ‘characters’ walking around and shouting their lengthy names at random people. Several of the best moments in The Hobbit occur when Thorin shouts, comma-less, “I am Thorin son of Thrain son of Thror King under the Mountain!” I should do the same wherever I go. “I am Ian son of Frank son of David Writer of Great Books!”

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One Youth’s Literary Greatness

There is nothing so deceptive and for all that so alluring as a good surface. The sea, when beheld in the warm sunlight of a summer’s day; the sky, blue in the faint and amber glimmer of an Autumn sun, are pleasing to the eye: but, how different the scene, when the wild anger of the elements has waked again the discord of Confusion, how different the ocean, choking with froth & foam, to the calm, placid sea, that glanced and rippled merrily in the sun.

This was written by a teenage James Joyce. His great biographer, Richard Ellman, writes:

The example may give heart to adolescents who are searching their own works for evidence of literary immortality, and not finding much.

I didn’t quote the essay in its entirety because my eyes were glazing over before I finished it, but regardless, if a 14 year-old could write like that today, few people, I think, would hesitate to proclaim her a genius. But Ellman seems to be implying that such writing was commonplace for children living in the English-speaking world at the turn of the 20th century; I’ve always wondered how different my early life would have been if I’d spent it with books instead of televisions and computers. I do know for sure that 14 year-old James Joyce had more talent in his pinky fingernail than the grownup author of these words has in his entire corporeal frame…

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