Anti-Climacus


"Thou shalt not extinguish thine anger, but shall master it, that thy conscience may not be blunted by adjustment to wrong causes."
-The Dutch Ten Commandments to Foil the Nazis

19.8.14

On Bob Dylan's Singing Voice



I've been putting together a playlist that draws from The Anthology of American Folk Music, and it reminded me of a point I've never committed to writing before: Bob Dylan is the Miller Lite* of American folk singing.

The important thing to know about the Anthology is that the songs are all great, the arrangements frequently interesting, the instrumentation sometimes excellent, and the singing almost uniformly terrible. But it's not terrible in only one way, but in every possible way: pitchy, off-key, shrill, incomprehensible, arhythmic, unable to sustain a note for long enough, and all other imaginable failings. Even early Bob Dylan, before he has entire control of his voice, is vastly superior: musical, on-key, and capable of sustaining a wide variety of affectations. Most people who hear him aren't comparing him to the (inferior) things he replaced, but the (superior) talents brought in from other musical traditions.


*Beer snobs and purists tend to forget that the reason Miller, Anheuser-Busch et al dominated the American market for so long is that they replaced regional brews that were far worse, or at the very least inconsistent. A Miller Lite is no one's best beer, but it will also be always, and only, itself. The same also for McDonald's replacing local diners at rest stops along highways: it will never be your best meal, but you will also never get food poisoning (as people who travelled back then can tell you was always a risk).


5.8.14

"First of all, it’s not my job to make people feel better about liking something that is really, really popular"

Agree wholeheartedly:


There may be another kind of friendly fascism at work here too, but let me at least try to say some nice things first. I realize that there’s no way to mollify the devotees of the Marvel movie universe, who not only demand total box-office domination (which they’re definitely going to get, at least this weekend) but also total toadying subservience to the tide of Irresistible Marvel Fun. First of all, it’s not my job to make people feel better about liking something that is really, really popular. There are a whole lot of places you can get that, and honestly that desire for universal affirmation is kind of bizarre.

I found that bit of the review to be accurate, and the worldview it describes a bit confusing. Through many years of reading, watching movies, listening to music, etc, I'm not sure that I've ever had the coercive expectation that people like the things I like. I can remember being an R.E.M. and Rolling Stones fan in high school and carrying around the expectation that I'd be the only one and that was fine. In some ways better, of course, for all the usual reasons of snobbery, which has its own pleasures.

This is not to say I don't have opinions--any reader of this blog will know better than that--nor that I don't have an internal hierarchy of aesthetic pleasures. I just can't imagine having my day ruined because someone disagrees, because most people will probably disagree. And that's fine. Roberto Bolaño's 2666 seems to me a masterpiece, and I am happy to put together an argument to that effect. But I can just as easily imagine thinking it good but not particularly liking it, or envision those technical and substantive choices in constructing the book that I find compelling not being the sort of thing to which someone else might respond, and I can even conceptualize rejecting 900-page books on principle. I like the book for objective reasons and for subjective reasons about the point in my life when I read it. That combination won't be replicated for anyone else, so even someone who thinks well of the book will do so for different reasons.

If there's a cause for this sort of attitude (see also what happens when I mention to certain people never having seen The Wire or Breaking Bad), it's the idea of a aesthetic object as a cultural signal. It's hard to get worked up about someone's feelings on any one particular book when your universe is "books, obviously, though some and not others"--any particular one is fungible, and not liking one book may be balanced by liking another--or many others.

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One of the things I like best about the show Brooklyn 99 is its continual low-level insistence that the reason crime was so bad in New York in the 70s and 80s was at least in part due to the willful incompetence of the NYPD. The two 70s holdovers are represented as the least qualified and able, the detective who became famous is unconcerned with the quality of police work that gets done, and the people who would have been marginalized in that environment end up being invaluable parts of getting the job done.

As it turns out, the show's not wrong about how bad it used to be.

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30.7.14

Hipster confessions first: I've been watching the World Cup since 1998, where I learned the first sacred principles of the sport: always root against Brazil, Italy and Germany, in that order. As with the others things I do in my life, I like to learn about the mechanics of the sport as I go along, in order to better understand the game. This time around I learned two things: the importance of the first touch, and the difference between high-crossing and attacking the box as offensive styles. Both of the ideas are simple. The first touch a striker gets matters a great deal, because he has the maximum offensive advantage at that point, having a plan for what he wants to do and keeping his opponents from knowing. Touches beyond the first give defensive players a chance to get into better position, close off potential angles, and figure out the striker's plan of attack. High-crossing offenses rely on confusion amongst central defenders to make scoring opportunities; box-attacking offenses crowd players into the center and allow offensive help to come on the wings.

What fascinates me about this is the same thing that fascinates me about the technical problems of writing or reading: they represent human attempts to solve human problems, where an author's strategies for tricking himself for writing are different tokens of the same type as high-pressing a tiki-taka offense. Any one particular author's solutions are unlikely to work for me, since my problems and difficulties have different emphases, but the approach to solving a problem is likely to be quite useful, even as a solution for an entirely different type of problem. I've written before about how "The Part About the Crimes" in 2666 was a great model for my dissertation, since they faced on some level of abstraction the same difficulty: how to write small variations on the same sort of thing over and over again while keeping the reader interested.

I find the incuriosity of people in the face of the boggling variety of human expressions to be baffling, but that's another post for another time.

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Interesting that the Dissolve roundtable on The 40-Year Old Virgin stumbles over the sexual politics of that movie. The contradiction is simple: most of them like the movie, or liked it when they first saw it, and now need an explanation of how that could coexist with its problematic treatment of women and male homosexuality. Thus the two unsatisfactory options presented, that the film was acceptable in 2005 but not in 2014, or that the jokes are acceptable because they are not mean-spirited. Not present is the obvious third option, that good-spirited people who knew better shouldn't have been making those jokes in 2005, and that the distinction between "laughing with" and "laughing at" the characters is a thin one; the long and sordid cultural afterlife of the movie's gay jokes should be indication enough that a large portion of the audience for this broadly popular movie did not grasp the difference.

There's now a portion of the internet devoted to unearthing peoples' past statements and opinions and attempting to retroactively punish people who once believed things inconsistent with the standards of 2014. This is as misguided as the attempt to play off 2005 jokes as products of a different time that cannot possibly be held to our (new!) standards. The correct thing to say, it seems to me, is this: cultural products, opinions, political stances, etc, are a product of their times, which is to say of a complex web of interactions which we cannot recreate entirely, not least because some significant portion of that web happens within an individual person's head. Since we are bound to be charitable in our interactions with one another, we should assume the presence of sufficient explanatory reasons for the behavior we deserve. But we can also, by the same standards, point out that sweeping generalizations or attempting humor off the identities of marginalized people is always going to be bad form at best. Judd Apatow and Seth Rogan may be alright guys, but "you know how I know you're gay?" was wrong as a violation of decorum, not political correctness, as tasteless in 2005 as it remains now.

(I realize this is both a cranky old man and a buzzkill reaction. I am not an Apatow fan, so it costs me nothing to point out that one of the many not-particularly-funny jokes in his movies is also deeply problematic. But compare this to a similar joke structure in 1998's The Big Lebowski:

The Dude: Walter, the Chinaman who peed on my rug, I can't go give him a bill, so what the f*** are you talking about?
Walter Sobchak: What the f*** are you talking about? The Chinaman is not the issue here, Dude. I'm talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you do not … also, Dude, "Chinaman" is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please.

...in which The Dude is wrong, Walter clearly right, and the joke is in Walter's correcting him and the precise verbal formulation in which the correction is given.)

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24.7.14

Adventures in Cultural Consumption, Metaphysics Edition

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Propulsive and difficult to put down. Not, perhaps, the most finely written of novels, but enjoyable. As the distance from reading it grows further, I am more dissatisfied with the way in which the novel resolves itself by side-stepping its central question about the relationship between the old gods and the new.

A metaphysical quibble: as I understand it, the book is agnostic on the god-iness of the gods. It is sufficient to say that gods gain their power from worship, especially in the performance of certain sacred rites; this is how Easter can be strong even though no one knows who she is or the relationship of their celebrations to her worship. The underlying idea is that America is a hard place for gods to exist, because they are too easily forgotten and left behind, the new technological gods as easily as the old cultic gods.

All of which is fine, except that Gaiman ignores the elephant in the room: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. If all that matters in performance of the rites, then the gods associated with each of these should be quite strong, even dominant, certainly much more than Wednesday or Loki or anyone else. But to admit this would undermine the central tenet of the book, that America is hostile to the gods. Nor can one argue that the Norse gods, et al, are real and the Christian God, et al, are not, since it seems to be the case that worship is constitutive of the reality of the thing worshipped. So it seems like the book has to fail on its own terms.

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23.7.14

Adventures in Cultural Consumption, Marías for Nobel edition

Javier Marías, A Heart So White

If ours is an age dedicated to realism, and realism as verisimilitude, the verisimilitude we seek is in the collection of a million tiny data points. It was there in embryonic form in David Foster Wallace, who conceived of daily life as an unending stream of information constantly bombarding the individual person, too much to handle. It has blossomed into everyone's favorite complaint about the internet containing too much new content to possibly read. It is there in the fetishism of violence and destruction in comic book movies--one must be real even in the unreal--and in the lavish praise for TV shows that can manage impossible fidelity to nearly-past historical recreations. Its apotheosis as of the moment is Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, the 6000-page listicle of things its author has thought, thinly disguised as a novel-memoir.

Marías, thank goodness, swings as far as possible in the opposite direction. The essence of reality cannot possibly be the welter of information, most of which is instantly discarded by our brains and the rest of which gets minimally processed. (A favorite example from philosophy of mind: what's going on with the bottom of your feet right now? Your brain is constantly receiving nerve signals from them and almost always ignoring them unless conscious attention is placed (or forced). So also everything else in life.) Reality is not information-rich but narrative poor. In the average day, nothing of much consequence happens, even in those parts of life when exciting things are supposed to be happening all the time. As a friend of mine one remarked: "I was prepared for how challenging college would be. I wasn't prepared for how boring it is." Those things that happen are few, and the challenge we face on a daily basis is making some narrative out of those events, from which we can anticipate the future or make decisions about how we will act. Marías is the novelist of that reality.

All Souls is the archetype here: a novel chronicling an affair over the course of an academic year, which intersperses its brief moments of action with long reflections about what, if anything, that action is supposed to mean. In A Heart So White, the narrator is recently married, and is reflecting, in a variety of circumstances, on what that change is supposed to mean, and how to best integrate it into his life. There are, as typical in Marías, unexpected things and narrative twists, but he mostly takes up his idea and examines it from all sides.

On the twists: he is the master of never wasting material. All references are intentional. Any threads that appear to have been left unresolved will be brought up again at the proper time. This is most remarkable in the 1000+ page Your Face Tomorrow, but never not impressive.

He may be the only novelist I've read who has not written a bad book--a judgment I feel safe making with two novels left to go.

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The Problem with "Everything's Amazing, Nobody's Happy"

I was thinking about the internet-famous bit of Louis C.K.'s, usually known as "Everything's Amazing, Nobody's Happy," while I was in the airport the other day. The clinching example of the bit is a story he tells about being on a flight that announced they had wireless internet access, and the internet subsequently crashing beyond immediate repair. His seat-mate, who is unhappy with this turn of events, is the avatar for people who just can't be happy about the amazing world we live in:



Except that C.K. has missed the relevance of the story, and he's wrong. Unless the airline had somehow not realized they could make money from selling internet access, his seat-mate probably paid for the ability to use the internet. His complaint was not born out of an unjustified sense of entitlement to a technology he'd not been aware of, but out of the common enough experience (especially when plane travel is involved) of having paid for something that turns out to be not exactly what was promised.


8.7.14

On adding and removing books from one's own collection thereof

One of the more basic family traits I inherited is to be an inveterate pile-maker of books. When working on a project, I take the books I will need to directly reference and make them into a pile, then a second pile of books that might be useful. I make a pile when attempting to pick out a new novel to read, and keep the pile around in case I change my mind. They multiply, get rearranged and re-sorted. I refer to this as an "organic" organizational style. I'm not Jean Piaget-level, but it gives the general idea:


Consequently, it can be difficult to judge when the books I own have exceeded the shelf space that I have. Thus approximately every year, things get re-sorted.

The good news from this year was that, after removing one banker's box of books I was unlikely to read, I seem to have fewer books now than I did last year. That I managed this seems impossible as I did not remove very many books and seem to have new ones coming in all the time, but so it seems to be.

Leaving aside non-fiction, which is curated under different rules, I finally disgorged a large portion of fiction. Historically I have been reluctant to do this under the general principle that I can hardly predict what I will want to read at some point in the future, and following my rule of taking a flier on any under $1 used book on Amazon that I have some other reason to be potentially interested in. Thus went a few novels I have been unsuccessfully attempting to get myself to read since college--Saul Bellow probably never going to happen--some false starts in grad school--other people might like Coetzee a lot, but not me--and people for whom my affection waned--Ian McEwan, whose Saturday I liked when I first read, but which I came to view as less humanistic and more cynically formulaic (full of belief in one's own fearless truth-telling and hopelessly sentimental: the worst of all possible combinations).

None of this was surprising, exactly. I last attempted Herzog in college, and regularly passed it over in favor of anything else, and so on down the line. What interested me was why I insisted on carrying around books through many moves even after I knew I was never going to read them. The obvious explanations can be discounted: I am not a hoarder by nature (see adding approximately one shelf's worth of books in a year), I try to only speculate on books I might read in the near future, the percentage of books I've completed on any given shelf is never less than 50% and sometimes as high as 80%. I am also quite comfortable with the fact that there are given genres, authors, etc to whom I do not respond, and for which it is not worth making the effort involved in attempting to read.

To buy a book, for a book person, is to speculate about the sort of person you would like to be, are going to be. Sometimes this process is lazy and unfocused, but there are also times when the project of being a reader takes on quite definitive purposes and zeal. Sometimes one tries on different personalities, attempts recommendations given by others, or (a common failing of the young and conservative) attempts to cultivate tastes one believes one should have. Time passes and many of these goals are unfulfilled, as with the making of reading lists. There is yet nothing definitively tragic here.

To give up those books is to admit of a kind of failure, perhaps the worst: failing at a task you decided you didn't want to finish in the first place. It's a renunciation of one set of possibilities. It is an admission of a certain kind of mortality: vita brevis longa ars. Robert Nozick, somewhere I cannot locate at the moment, talks about aging as the closing off of life's possibilities, and that each closed possibility comes to have a cumulative effect greater than its original importance. Maybe it'll be different in ten years and I'll make a go of Bellow, or McEwan, or Coetzee, but I am also forced to concede that it may never happen.

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30.6.14

Adventures in Cultural Consumption

The Last Wave: A movie that picks one theme, one type of imagery, a few motifs, and employs them systematically through to the end. In other words, a masterpiece.

If there's a single problem with film today, it's the inability to follow through on only one idea throughout a movie. Better to gesture towards a half-dozen things, all undeveloped, in order to better reach the audience. (Also NB: one idea can be sustained well for no more than two hours.)


When I started reading seriously at the age of 16 (give or take), I had read few books that qualified as serious literature and had an unfocused desire to have read them all. Thus I made a lot of plans: read all of my library's list of classic literature (a pretty good list, it must be said), read all of Shakespeare, read all of Charles Dickens, read the Great Books, read the Harvard Classics, read all of Balzac, read all of Dostoevsky. There were many lists and many goals because I was composing them abstractly, attempting to bind the actions of a person who did not yet exist, and on the erroneous assumption than my as-yet-undeveloped taste would remain the same. As it turns out, I do not respond well to Shakespeare or drama in general; my problems with Dickens are well-covered here; lists and collections tend to be put together by a group of people, and so represent the collected reading experience of many rather than any realistic program of reading for one person.

The goals that have persisted in spite of this tend to be more limited in scope. No one's juvenilia is any good: the dream of reading all of an author's work died hard at Auden's and Dostoevsky's: the latter's early novels and stories are fine but no better than other novels of the period. One might as well go read a minor, but mature, George Eliot, since the young man whose novels I would be plodding through was not yet Dostoevsky in the relevant sense. The lesson would have applied to Bolaño, but the juvenile and the unfinished is sometimes better than his early prose work--The Third Reich is superior to The Skating Rink by any measure, and the desire to snap things up when published made it harder to also listen to critical judgments of each work. Left to me is moving through the mature work of authors I like in a systematic way: Cesar Aira, Javier Marias, Emile Zola, George Eliot, Mario Vargas Llosa, Dostoevsky, others certainly forgotten at the moment. A novel or two by each every year, a handful of new books that seem interesting, a handful of older novels that have come to me by recommendation. Round out with a re-reading or two of an old favorite, a re-visitation of an author previously dismissed, and that's a year.

In that planning, and eventually setting up a working equilibrium, I never quite anticipated that I might reach any of those goals. I have one major Dostoevsky novel left (The Adolescent), only two more by Marias, though with the hope that he keeps writing, one last Fitzgerald (The Last Tycoon) and so it goes further down the list. I'd like to keep up with Flaubert, but I suspect there are only two or three novels of his left that are worth the effort, and the same applies to many others. This was brought home for me after finishing Zola's Belly of Paris, which is now the eighth of the Rougon-Macquart that I've read. If I maintain my non-stressful pace of two or three a year, I will be done in four years. He has other novels and there are other writers, but there will simply be nothing else there. It will have been read. The pattern repeats down the line, and my graduate education crossed off a significant portion of my list. I wanted to have read the major developments in western thought on these topics, and I have: I can pursue this down to increasingly minor figures, or find something else to do with my time.

I'm beginning to grasp something of the second lives that I've seen in many of the serious adult readers I've known, a shift that seems to happen in middle age, a plausible response to the "what now?" that comes from matching as many youthful reading goals as might have been established. I suspect my own long and fruitful excursion into Latin American literature is a first sign of this, as a way of varying and responding to the limitations of the 19th-century realist novel that I first found so captivating.

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