Saturday, December 29, 2007

"They don't got no manners"

I love the Baltimore Sun:

"Guess I won't be riding the bus in Baltimore."

--reader comment on story, website feature "Talk about it: City Bus Attack"

"The Dec. 4 attack on Sarah Kreager was the first of four violent incidents this month aboard MTA buses. Two passengers on a No. 64 bus in Brooklyn were attacked by five men Dec. 10. Eight days later, a girl was stabbed in the arm on a No. 51 bus near Mondawmin Mall. And on Dec. 26, a 14-year-old boy was shot and wounded on a bus in West Baltimore."
"According to her account, she sat in the rear of the bus and was threatened by a teenage girl who said her friend wanted the seat. Kreager said she went to sit an another part of the bus with Ennis and said to him, "They don't got no manners," causing one of the girls to take a swing at them"
"The attack on Kreager in the 800 block of W. 33rd St. led to the arrests of nine Robert Poole Middle School students. The six boys and three girls, all 14 or 15 years old, were charged as juveniles with aggravated assault and destruction of property. Kreager, who has been put in a witness protection program, suffered broken facial bones and other injuries after being punched, kicked and dragged off the bus."
'Yesterday, Ronald Brown sat slumped in his sister's West Baltimore house with an electronic monitoring device attached to his ankle. Brown, one of the juveniles charged in the attack, said he is not allowed to step outside. He said a tutor comes to the house three times a week.
The youth said he was not involved in the fight. He said the students had been laughing at Kreager because she had a black eye. He said words were exchanged between Kreager and one of the girls, but he said he did not hear what was said. Kreager's companion used a racial slur, and a brawl erupted, he said."
Felicia Dorsey, Ronald Brown's mother, said she is upset with how the incident has been handled. She said she was never notified that her son was at the juvenile facility until he didn't come home that night, resurrecting memories of her 3-year-old son, who was fatally shot in 1992 in East Baltimore.
Dorsey, 49, said she had to move out of her East Baltimore home to live with her daughter in West Baltimore because she has no phone service and couldn't hook up her son's monitoring device without it.
"This is too much," she said. "These kids are young and under a lot of peer pressure. I believe my child, so yes, I believe it was [Kreager's] fault."
Hell of a lot of peer pressure these days.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Also Overheard in the Parker Household

Ted: (petting Wuvvy's snout) "Wuvvy you have a beautiful muzzle."

Hal: (petting Wuvvy's legs) "And look at her furry stalks."

Overheard in the Parker Household

Hal: "Ted, give me a jelly bean."

Ted: "Never"

Hal: "Ted, where's your Christmas spirit?"

Ted: "In this bag of jelly beans."

Three Things To Do Before I Die

1. Finish Proust.

2. Heroin.

3. I guess I thought there would be a third thing.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Everybody Loves Aphorisms

1. "Intellectual engagement" -- always spoken as if it were a novelty.

2. The road to Damascus goes two ways.

3. Oatmeal is the breakfast of hypocrites. It pretends to be healthy and fibrous, but everyone I know loads that sucker up with brown sugar.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Letter to a Young Orator

It is advisable that you adopt a position of the most uncompromising and stringent severity with respect to whatever field you adopt. Whatever your expertise, dispense it with the greatest authority you can muster. Your familiars will be invigorated by your forcefulness, and your opponents, who will assuredly react by becoming the more extreme, will find their followers dismayed.

Never imagine that your crowd is naked, in their underwear, or otherwise curiously arranged. Your powers of imagination, which you ought strengthen that your rhetorical flourishes may be the more impressive, will assuredly overwhelm you, and your well-reasoned speech on human justice will devolve into a tirade against leggings.

Part your hair on the right.

Develop a slight head tilt, and your left eye should be only the slightest bit more open than your right.

Friday, December 14, 2007

An observation

On my left: Dish soap and "A History of Orgies"
On my right: The Gonzo fist symbol thing.
In front of me: A function definition I wrote, named "cumActionUtility"
Behind me: A chair covered with dissheveled clothes.
In the air: The Hives playing Declare Guerre Nucleaire

Letters to a Young Debater

1. The way to handle your opponent is you take him into the desert, you take him into the desert and you leave him there to die.

2. Jesus, kid, why are you goddamn disputatious?

3. Shut up.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

That is just stupid

What does "baby," mean, anyways?

Computers are tools. A tool is measured by its effectiveness. Provided someone is able to accomplish their tasks without difficulties, and reasonably quickly, what is being "babied"?

Perhaps you are referring to Apple's penchant for what, to somoene whose eyes grew up on MS products, appear to be cutsy or somehow un-serious graphics. This is a reasonable complaint, I do in fact find a lot of things on the Mac unenjoyable to look at. But, for general artistic style, I think Mac does have the upper-hand... certainly people will 'play' with their Macs much more than with their PCs, which, while I think they have a cleaner and more useful interface, are decidedly un-fun to use.

But, again, baby? All that could possibly mean is that they let you do complicated things without exposing the complexity. But that's impossible. You can't hide the complexity of a truly complex task, if you can, then the task isn't complicated. You might, perhaps, complain that a Mac "hides" all the good stuff, and to my eye it does, but I'm sure someone who is very well acquianted with the Mac knows where to find all the appropriate system settings. And the CLI is close enough to bash that I've never had any trouble with it (or is it bash? They did get Leopard certified as a Unix, so it may well be. I dunno).

Macs Baby U

Macs baby you.

Why? They just do.

'nuff said.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Roland, blow your horn!

Recently a number of people have been talking about this article. It's good; you should read it. Every few years an article like it appears. People talk about it. Nothing happens.

One of the things mentioned in the article is how the Bush administration recently shelved virtually the entire statistics-gathering arm of its drug program. Literally and figuratively, the war on drugs has become a policy divorced from results -- whose effects, success, and failure are immaterial to its rationale.

This struck me because a number of years ago, I wrote an op/ed for the Prince (yeah I know) saying some similar stuff. Looking back it, I was amused to see some of my writerly tics in action. Tics, however, is like the understatement of the century. Let's take a look.

A sentence about Nixon's escalation of the drug war:
He wanted a comfortable and reassuring mass of facts stamped with the imprimatur of experts and organized under a hypotaxis of preconceived conclusions advocating the continuation of current policy — proscription, prohibition, punishment and propaganda.
Alliterate much? Four 'p''s in a row was, shall we say, pushing it. "Hypotaxis"? I'm guessing I had read Auerbach like the week before; the word figures prominently in his work. Hypotaxis refers to a grammatical-semantic (grammatico-semantic?) instance of subordination, typically linked by phrases like "in order to" or "although" To use it metaphorically as I did is to suggest that the ostensibly neutral nature of data-gathering was compromised by the ideological persuasion of those who wanted the data for their own preconceived, nefarious use.
It is true that smoking one joint is the carcinogenic equivalent of smoking four cigarettes (due to respiratory technique), but this also means that to duplicate the familiar metric of the pack-a-day smoker a single marijuana smoker would have to smoke five joints — a feat so rare as to be commendable.
..."a feat so rare as to be commendable." How was this published?

In the almost thousand years since Le Chanson de Roland appeared on the planet, countless things have been written and spoken about it. This is the stupidest:
The reigning prohibition of marijuana has nothing to speak for it save the aborted cries of its historical and contemporary failures — as if any abatement or discontinuation would send "the wrong message." Such thinking recalls the behavior of Roland in the 11th century French epic, "La Chanson de Roland." Under attack by vicious hordes of Moors, Roland could not bring himself to blow his famous horn whose sounding would instantly bring help. Impelled by pride and a bizarre code of honor, he delayed use of his instrument until too late, and so perished albeit bravely (albeit foolishly).
A bizarre code of honor, eh? Way to get at the essence of what motivates Roland.

And at last the stirring peroration:
It behooves us — ethically, pragmatically, medically — to legalize or decriminalize marijuana. End this unjust prohibition. Cease this absurd war. Break off this long extenuation of an abject failure. Dissipate this malign ideology. Roland, blow your horn!
I actually still really like the ending EXCEPT the sentence, "Dissipate this malign ideology." It's such a ridiculous thing to say -- I imagine a sorcerer stretching out his hand and incanting Latin as he impressively "dissipates" some dread "ideology" -- that it sort of ruins the whole thing. Dissipate is a weak word in an otherwise strong series of verbs ("end" "cease" "break off"). The Roland tie-in, though, is great -- who would have foreseen such a thing?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Why I didn't like I'm Not There

I almost never advance much of an opinion about a movie because I really don't have valid opinions about movies. But after having this movie floating around in my head, and then reading Anthony Audi's pretty solid review of it in the Nass in the Anti-Issue, I figured out what bothered me about it. Or, things that bothered me about it. The movie isn't really a single entity, nor are my gripes with it.

In short... it's not that it's bad, it's that I don't even know what it was doing. And that might have been a good thing, but it wasn't.

For instance, the tarantula crawling around Blanchett/Dylan. It's not exactly an inside joke that Dylan wrote a book called Tarantula. So what was the point of the reference? Just the visual effect of a tarantual crawling around the trendy white room in which Blanchett/Dylan is breaking down? It was cool, it worked as such... but why?

And, further, the whole Blanchett portion of the movie. She's fantastic, and it's in main good (I think the Ballad of the Thin Man montage was overwrought, but it's enjoyable), but it was weirdly and ineffectively self-referential. You have the Dylan-fanatics running around who have the songs and stories better memorized and more studied that Dylan had them, and Blanchett breaking down with the weird strain of satisfying the demands of an irrational public... ok. You could make a lot of great movies about that. But the weird thing is, isn't that exactly what this movie is? A weird, semi-obsessive, inside-jokey paean to a mythological Dylan? Or is the movie intended to be reflexive, to break down under investigation and questioning, just as it's not really the point to sit there freaking out about what the hell the hand-made blade or the child's balloon are, except precisely what they are?

But see, that's the problem. Dylan is seductive because there IS a depth to it, something brilliant and visionary and visceral in the music, the language. Blanchett's Dylan can't deal with the expectation of more, he doesn't know what the hell more there is to do, anyways. But the movie doesn't achieve that, at all, because, after all it IS a biopic. The tarantula running around on the screen is a cool image which would just be what it is, except that it's obviously also a reference to the book.

Anyways, so almost every little vignette of the movie is awesome, even the weirdness of the Richard Gere sequence, and it's extraordinarily well done (even the self-consciously over-wrought "going electric" at the Newport Folk Festival, replete with axe wielding, crazed Pete Seeger). But, in sum, what justifies the self-conscious references, the built-in absurdities? It's a biopic. It's about Dylan. But there's just not enough there.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Three Attempts at Aphorism

1. Philosophy -- the cure is worse than the disease.

2. Where there is perfume, there is syphilis.

3. Everybody loves sarcasm.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Apropos of Nothing, II

Chapter I of The Life of St. Teresa of Avila is titled,
"How the Lord began to rouse her soul in childhood to a love of virtue, and what a help it is in this respect to have good parents."
As soon as I read that it was like I felt a pang of boredom.

UPDATED: I spoke too soon. Looks like St. Teresa was feeling some "pangs" of her own.
"Beside me, on the left hand, appeared an angel in bodily form, such as I am not in the habit of seeing except very rarely. Though I often have visions of angels, I do not see them. They come to me only after the manner of the first type of vision that I described. But it was our Lord's will that I should see this angel in the following way. He was not tall but short, and very beautiful; and his face was so aflame that he appeared to be one of the highest rank of angels, who seem to be all on fire. They must be of the kind called cherubim, but they do not tell me their names. I know very well that there is a great difference between some angels and others, and between these and others still, but I could not possibly explain it. In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one's soul then content with anything but God. This is not a physical, but a spiritual pain, thought the body has some share in it -- even a considerable share. So gentle is this wooing which takes place between God and the soul that if anyone thinks I am lying, I pray God, in His goodness, to grant him some experience of it."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Bittersweet Bowl of Memory

One of the canonical examples of wish-fulfillment happened when Freud observed his daughter Anna Freud, who later became an eminent psychoanalyst in her own right, cry out while sleeping, "Stwaberries. Anna Fweud. Puddin!"

In one of those leaps of brilliance at which we can only marvel, the brave scientist deduced that she was dreaming about strawberries and pudding.

When I was growing up, I had similar dreams that my family had finally purchased the "sugar cereals," as my parents called them, which I so desperately craved.

I would lie in bed thinking happy thoughts about the delicious bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch or Fruit Loops I would shortly be enjoying. Only to awake to the grim reality that it was just a dream and that there was nothing but Mueslix in this forsaken house.

Well I can buy all the sugar cereal I want now.

Sigmund died in 1939.

Eat your heart out, Anna Freud.

Three Memories by Hal Parker

[Note that this post was written as a prank by the other Hal, -HP, 2010]

1. North Carolina. Growing up in the rural western reaches of North Carolina exposed me to many of the hardships of the all but lost rural agrarian section of American society. The hard manual labor from sun-up to sun-down, grimly winning from an unyielding Earth only so much food as was absolutely necessary to feed ourselves and our livestock, and growing tobacco on every other possible inch of land. The locusts had emphysema for miles. But there were fun times, too. The locusts had emphysema.

2. Being the youngest of three brothers brought its own hardships, too. Most poignant was the time that my oldest brother told me that I killed Ma by being born and that he'd tried to treat me like a brother for all those years but he couldn't do it anymore, he just couldn't do it, and then he charged me with the rake. The rake's progress was happily arrested by the beatific vision of my mother's ghost. Or, anyways, that's how I remember it. I don't know why I was in the hospital, though. Or why I went away to school later that year.

3. I loved trains. Model trains, real trains, abandoned, rusty trains full of stray cats and pet snakes, the low pedal tone of a distant freight rumbling through the Appalachian foothills, coins flattened by a train's passing. I didn't much like the hobos, though. They would ask me funny questions, and their eyes were always a dull red, like they hadn't slept in days. Or maybe they were zombies. That would explain the time one chased me with a rusty spoon.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Three Memories by Hal Pratt

[Note that this post was written as a prank by the other Hal -- HP, 2010]

1. Evanston, IL. That's where I'm from. It's the place from which I set out and to which I may one day return. Where is Evanston? It's in Illinois, "The Corn State." When most people think of Illinois, they think, "That's the 21st state to enter the Union," but did you know we grow a great deal of corn? Soybeans, too. In my first grade class there was a picture of Abraham Lincoln on the wall. He looked so sad. As a youngling I swore I would get myself a hat like that. Years ago I saw such a hat on sale, but I didn't buy it. I had grown up.

2. The summer of 1999 was a summer of baseball and math problems. We ate corn on the cob and played with autistic children. Other stuff too, probably, but whatever. Of course not everyone ate their corn on the cob. Some people ate it on a plate with a fork, but we looked at those people askance, even the autistic kid. All in all, it was a really hot summer.

3. My favorite movie about corn? Definitely Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest. It's a bittersweet coming-of-age film about being on your own in the big city. It's a film about brotherhood and a film about America, but more than anything it's a movie about the wayward fortunes of the little vegetal bloodcult that could.

Here's a painting I made about my feelings toward the film:

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Three Thoughts

1. Middlesex is a terrible book. It's a lifeless puree of Roth, Rushdie, and Marquez, and this is especially unfortunate since Eugenides' first book, The Virgin Suicides, was singularly brilliant. Middlesex takes up a challenging subject only to dispatch it in the most frivolous way possible. In my opinion, the really monstrous thing about Calliope Stephanides is not the wasteland of her insufficiently-developed genitalia, but the wasteland of her insufficiently-developed inner life.

2. Sweet potatoes are healthier and tastier than regular potatoes. Why, then, do we eat regular potatoes at all? I submit that we should make a total switch in our national diet.

3. The new advertising scheme for Herbal Essence boasts that it's, "so good it will put clean thoughts in your head." But does anyone remember the old advertising campaign with the beautiful woman in the shower washing her hair and making "orgasmic" sounds? That campaign was so good. Why on earth would they change it? It was the kind of thing for which people in the ad industry won awards and exchanged spontaneous back-slaps. The new campaign is, by contrast, reminiscent of some 19th century admonition against masturbation.

Friday, November 23, 2007

A Lichtenberg Smorgasbord

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) was, by all accounts, a pretty neat dude. A buddy of Kant and Goethe, he was an eminent physicist and mathematician, a formidable satirist and critic, and an all-around beau esprit. Kotzbue wrote a pamphlet denouncing him. Nietzsche praised him as one of the few Germans worth reading. He had many affairs. I've been reading his "Trash Notebooks" -- a collection of brilliant, cynical aphorisms in the tradition of La Rochefoucauld. The man is just pure gold. Here are some representative excerpts from the Sudelbuecher:

"I have always found that so-called bad people gain in one's estimation when one gets to know them better, and good people decline."

"There are very many people who read simply to prevent themselves from thinking."

"The noble simplicity in the works of nature only too often originates in the noble shortsightedness of him who observes it."
"Such people do not really defend Christianity, but they let Christianity defend them."

"Woe to the genius in countries where there are no earthquakes."

"Much can be inferred about a man from his mistress: in her one beholds his weaknesses and his dreams."

"Of all the animals on earth, man is closest to the ape."

"People often become scholars for the same reason they become soldiers; simply because they are unfit for any other station."

"What you have to do to learn to write like Shakespeare is very far removed from reading him."

"The metaphor is much more subtle than its inventor, and so are many things. Everything has its depths. He who has eyes sees all in everything."
This one particularly applies to precepts in my experience (Overhead in PHI 302, Girl: "I think Aristotle was kind of a snob"):
"A book is like a mirror: if an ape looks into it, an apostle is unlikely to look out."
Took me awhile to get this one:
"What leaning on your right elbow means after you have been leaning on your left for an hour."
"Why are young widows in mourning so beautiful? (Look into it)."
I don't get it:
"She stood there beside him like an Etrurian lachrymatory, a Dresden milk-jug beside a Lauenstein beer-mug."

Monday, November 19, 2007

For Willem

"The ass seems to me like the horse translated into Dutch."
-Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Halla Back

When you describe someone as "nice," aren't you basically saying, "I have nothing interesting to say about this person."

It seems to me that niceness is a quality which emerges only in the absence of other qualities.

Nice is boring. Cows are nice. But you can't get drunk with cows, you know?

Anyway, many of the best people I know are assholes.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Ecrasez Le Prince!

OK, there's no way I can even begin to respond in any kind of systematic fashion to what you wrote, so instead I will contribute a few things, some serious and some light, which in aggregate and combination may shed some light on the pas de deux and experiment in narcissism that is HAL VS. HAL.

1. First, I would like to quote in full the Lichtenberg epigram to which you allude.
"Everyone should study at least enough philosophy and literature to make his sexual experience more delectable."
-Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Notebooks
Fantastic, obviously. But this is no idle quotation. I think it raises the question of what is the proper value and function of knowledge in the context of a well-lived life. Admittedly, Lichtenberg seems to have a louche idea of what constitutes a well-lived life. Nevertheless, his impulse to seek an ultimate context for the pursuit and use of otherwise hermetic and lofty disciplines strikes me as correct. (Also, his louche idea of what constitues a well-lived life strikes me as correct).

2. You take offense with the perceived mendacity of Anscombites who deploy the rhetoric of feminism or medicine in order to bolster items from a preordained religious agenda. So do I. In fact, I believe I kind of started this whole thing with an email about that article to the nass masthead, reproduced below:
"Yet another stunningly disingenuous column from an Anscombite. This one claims that Princeton misstates the risks of sex because it fails to inform students that women are in fact commitment-zombies who are constitutionally unable to have casual sex. According to Dr. Miriam Grossman, it's science, ladies -- "oxycotin" specifically.

What irritates me about these articles is the dishonesty and disingenuousness which underwrite them. They have no true interest in science, and they have no true interest in feminism. Rather, since a morality derived from a religious world-view has become the love that dare not speak its name, they scavenge through the leavings of other fields, desperate to find anything which will prop up the crumbling edifice of conventional religion. How pathetic."
Now this was an email written in the intensity of private communication, so I don't know if I would put it in exactly these terms on this blog, but I think I still agree with what I wrote. These Anscombites try to come across as helpful and secular-rational, but all we see is dishonest and cowardly.

3. Is religion at root an individual or social phenomenon? You seem to side with individual, but I think the contemporary individuality of religion is to some extent a defense mechanism against the soulless materialism of modern public life. Also, we should examine to what extent our conception of the individuality of religion is due to the advent of Protestantism, as opposed to something intrinsic to religion itself. There are of course pre-Protestant examples which are emblematic of the individuality of religion -- e.g., Saul of Tarsus.

But, let's not shortchange the communal, social aspect of religion. One of the most greatest sociologists of all time, Emile Durkheim, thought that religion was exclusively a social phenomenon. Think of how central "church-going" is as opposed to scripture-reading to a religious population.

Here are two counter-arguments to the charge of Anscombe mendacity:
4. All our beliefs are overdetermined and underjustified. We somehow assemble bodies of beliefs which put forth the semblance of coherence, and we live under the spell of this coherence. Nobody does anything for purely religious reasons, and everything contains an admixture of everything else. Therefore, we should demand a motley justification of our ways adequate to the motley disposition of our beliefs.

5. Christians believe that God designed the universe. If this is true, won't the other disciplines (non-theological ones) be ultimately engaged in elucidating this design? We should expect biology, history, etc. to confirm theology because all of these things are ultimately the study of God and God's own in different ways. Leibniz, in his book, Confessio Philosophi compares philosophy to the activity of polishing a mirror the better to reflect the truth of revealed religion.

Lastly, consider the Scholastic credo, "intellego ut credam" - -"I understand in order to believe." This kind of dovetails with (4.) -- we believe what we believe not for simple reasons we can lay out, but rather based on the turbulent inertia of existence. Some intellectual arguments lead us to religious conclusions. Knowledge, science, medicine -- these are only expedients for living -- or if your name is Georg Christoph Lichtenberg -- expedients for fucking.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Chapter LC: Wherein our protagonists recall their titular argument

It's a bad sign for my stability that, having encountered the word 'titular' with more-than-average frequency over this weekend, I still feel compelled to misread it as referring to boobs. Namely, me.

Anyways, so, dialogue!

In yon days, there was an entertaining bit of polemicism regarding everyone's favorite application of latex since we started coping with stress with sex as opposed to gum chewing:

There are so many things to make fun of here that I pondered creating photocopies and having impromptu breakfast seminars to put together a small journal which would be called:

"The psychosomatic risks of sex on college campuses: A study of how 20-somethings are pathologically incapable of making healthy decision, and are otherwise stable and boring to write journals about"

This would actually just be an amalgam of funny stories, prurient drawings, and various re-write of messer Nava's column in different contexts (for instance, a re-imagining of it as a Senate oration by Cato.

"With a serious and concentrated effort, the campus can raise even greater awareness about the psychosomatic risks of casual sex, and destroy Carthage."

In the interests of avoiding any confusion with an un-self-interested me, I would also like to add that there are HUGE psychosomatic risks of casual abstinence. Or, as we discussed on the Nass-list, one should only read just enough philosophy to enjoy sex, and not so much that one becomes incapable of it. No one warned 15-year-old Hal!

However, while this would have been fun (but it was probably more fun to just suppose doing it and then write the above, since it involved no work), the thing that really vexes me about that column, or similar columns about euthanasia, abortion, the death penalty, and just about anything else that involves coitus or killing as a matter of public policy (except, apparently, wars and economic sanctions, because moral indignation is only ok when it involves things with personalities, and not populations), is the obnoxious, characteristically post-Vatican II religious conservative tendency to phrase arguments whose motivation is ideological in terms of the very disciplines which said conservatives hold in suspicion.

That is, for instance, that Prince column is upset at the university for distributing condoms to students because sometimes students use them in ways that they really, really regret afterwards. Now, I'm personally as excited about chlamydia outbreaks and unintended pregnancies as the next Manichaean desirious of the end of the human race, but, um... seriously. The only possible objection anyone could have for free prophylactics is religious.

Whence my irritation. If you object to the University's distribution of condoms because you feel that any behavior which encourages sin is intrinsically sinful, that's actually a completely valid position. There's nothing a priori wrong with theocracy; in fact, if you think about it, if one could create a valid theocracy, it would be an ideal government (since, an ideal theocracy would, definitionally, order the world as your favorite omnipotent deity deems best, and, being omnipotent, if'n yfod deems it best, it, uh, is best). However, happily, this ideal is purely theoretical, since yfod is not my favorite omnipotent deity (mine likes pecan pies much more than yours does), so in the meantime we get to continue to make shit up and hope we're vaguely approximating the desires of an unknown mysterious power.

So what bothers me about what I'm terming closeted theocrats, (yes, I'm suggesting that they all have self-loathing homosexual fantasies, and continue to elect representatives with self-loathing homosexual tendencies, purely because this amuses me) is that, instead of making perfectly good arguments that limpidly demonstrate the significant metaphysical distance between themselves and everyone else, they try to pretend that for the same reason that, um, sane people have determined that you should do things so that you don't cause the number of babies or parasites increase at undesired rates, you actually SHOULDN'T do these things. I imagine there are two reasons:

1 - Demonstrating inherent flaws in your opponents argument that end up proving your own point is like every debater’s wet dream.

2 - They're a few too few degrees of academic separation away from Niehaus, who's all into this natural law, you can use logic alone to demonstrate the superiority of religious positions.

Now, I'm going to use point 1 in my objection to point 2. In doing so, I will be horrendously lazy and sloppy. This is where you come in, Hal, and try to make me more cogent. We might need to give Stefan temporary posting privileges, too.

I hate hate hate people who try to make religious points without starting out from religion. I think it's patently dishonest to say "Now, I think I should act this way because Hell is scary as fuck (no one should act according to this, but yeah), but you should just be swayed by the cleverness of my arguments. Also, my really snazzy outfit." It's also not useful. As far as I'm concerned, the power of any religious argument stems from one of two sources:

1 - Religious experiences (which are, a priori, incommunicable, so, um... you actually are just supposed to pray for other people to have them. See how that works?)

2 - Extensions of religious experiences to prefer a religious world (that is, and I'm badly stealing from my memory of Schleiermacher, religious experiences are intensely personal, but give birth to a desire for intersubjective experiences, or, are the vehicle for such experiences, insofar as they are possible on Earth, and as such, a community of people who have/are having such experiences would try to shape the outward fashion of their world to facilitate such experiences in those who have not had them).

So, basically, if you're going to say that people shouldn't use condoms for casual sex because they shouldn't be having casual sex because it reduces the partner to an object of desire and pleasure, and reduces the self to an unrational animal which must be satiated, robbing both of the more full and valuable life-experience which would be otherwise had, um, just say that. (This is my argument for why no one should listen to music I dislike. It's sadly uncompelling, however, since said music seems to be a pretty big barrier towards getting wasted and dancing and subsequently hooking up with someone. Fuck you. I'm going to listen to Anthony Braxton now, out of spite).

If people naturally came to behave as religion would have them behave by the use of reason in the absence of a religious experience, what would religion be? Why would we even bother with it at all? There OUGHT to be arguments and contention between the religious and the non-religious, signs of contradiction, and so on. This is the self-defeating part of the closeted theocrat’s position, and the one that angers me as a religious person… I like my religion. I find it extremely useful and valuable. I don’t share it nearly as much as I should, though. Do you know why? Because these guys are stigmatizing it, by first pretending that it’s unnecessary to draw conclusions from it, and avoiding doing so because they expect these conclusions will then be rejected out of hand. That is, the CT’s avoidance of explicitly religious arguments concedes that, yes, it is not valid to use your religion as a basis for behavior in the public sphere. Plus, they have really stupid positions. Vexing in the extreme.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Three Memories

1. When I was five years old, for reasons quite inexplicable I poured a glass of milk over my younger brother Rob's head. Rob started to cry until I told him, "you're the milk man, Rob." For reasons that are again quite inexplicable, Rob stopped crying and instead began to dance in the pool of milk spreading across the kitchen floor, proclaiming in song his newfound title. Our babysitter quit the next day. I consider this Rob's finest moment.

2. One night sitting at the dinner-table, my parents began to question my brother and me as to our doings that day at elementary school. To their mystified consternation, I refused every attempt at inquiry and declined to say anything about my day. At last I explained, "I just don't see how it's any of your business."

3. Ted is bragging about gullible he is. Rob and I both claim to be more gullible than Ted. Ted volunteers that when people tell him that "gullible is written on the ceiling," he waits until they leave and then checks just to make sure. We are impressed.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Rock Lyrics

I was listening to !!!'s Myth Takes, specifically, the track 'Sweet Life,' and I noticed that the chorus, which is fantastic, has the following lyrics:

A! A! B! B! C-C! D-D! C-C-D-D! C-D! A! A! B! B! C-C! D-D! C-C-D-D! D-D! A! A! B! B! C-C! D-D! C-C-D-D! C-C! A! A! B! B! C-C-C-D-! C-C-C-D! C-C!

Now, my first instinct was to memorize this sequence since it's kind of interesting and cool. Then I thought "What the hell? Why is this so cool?" And I decided that it, like most lyrics in rock, by which I suppose I here mean music in which the frontman is lionized and cool, are cool inversely to their intrinsic value as words. Now there are patently good lyrics- due to predilections of the moment, I immediately think of either the Kinks or Smiths (I actually think I might try to make this predilection permanent. I can think of worse things that first thinking of the Kinks and Smiths), but, then, Morrissey or Ray Davies are, by any standard, atypical. "What she asked of me at the end of the day, Caligula would have blushed." Yeah.

But, in general, you have someone shouting "Shout!" or letters from the alphabet or "BABY" or just making breathy noises evocative of lung disease and/or sex. Which is what you would expect because, part of the mystique (aside from tight, tight pants, which I still don't get. Autoerotic asphyxiation? I dunno), is the elevation of the banality. This isn't at all an elitist thing, either, if you're going for a reaction from a crowd, you have to aim at crowds, and if the reaction you're aiming at is dancing and enthusiasm and irrationality, banality is precisely what you'd want to achieve. Or, even, if you do have interesting lyrics, the singing's going to obscure them in the interests of the above considerations.

It reminds me of when, in 7th grade, our jazz band director was trying to convince us all to play fewer notes, which is, I think, a pretty universal 7th grade jazz band experience. You're just old enough to have started listening to jazz (and yet, ostensibly, you've been playing it for two or three years. And people wonder why school bands sound as they do...), and you notice "Wow, these guys play really fast!" because you don't know enough to pay attention except for when that's happening, and you think that's what you're supposed to do, so your teacher has to remind you that a) you sound terrible, and b) the cool parts are actually not the fast parts. Or, as my instructor said, people go nuts not when someone's flying through scales, but when they land on a high note and sit there. Of course, that's not interesting or intelligent, but everyone goes "Oh." It's universal. It's engageable.

Anyways, so I want to see a rock band that isn't They Might Be Giants do children's albums because really, the writing style of Eric Carle and Eric Hill (If I told you that was the pre-eminent Brill Building songwriting team of 1958, wouldn't you believe me? You're too credulous. And you don't know enough about Brill Building pop) is begging for a funk/electronica adaptation.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Late Night Walks

Princeton is a strange place, because it's very pretty, although, at the same time, deeply flawed. No good central location, no indelible image, except maybe Blair Arch, but that's auxiliary, or Nassau Hall, which is on the edge of campus. Anyways, it was designed piecemeal and redesigned haphazardly, one of those every-three-years-we-have-a-new-five-year-plan-I-use-too-many-hyphens things.

But if you wander around it at night, very late, it all works wonderfully. Maybe it's because of the lighting, which is far too light-polluting, but, I mean, it's NJ, does it matter? or the eerie quiet (tho less eerie than the sunrise quiet bussle, which is just energizing), the, in main, absence of squirrels and abundance of delicious and cute and fluffy bunnies, the relative enlargement of buildings in darkness, the absence of idiot skateboarders... I dunno. Maybe they surrepstiotiously play special infrasound frequencies during the night time so you feel differently to encourage work-abetting insomnia. But anyways, wandering around at 4 am is way more fun than it should be.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Tooth Brushing

My new toothbrush has small rubber parts that massage my gums, and make me feel vaguely insouciant. This has had the unexpected effect of making me purposefully eat foods that make my teeth dirty that I might have the excuse to brush them. The candy/dentristry conspiracy theories of my youth have returned with greater force. This is the most poignant example of Nietzche's eternal return in my life.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Text Messaging

Even when it's not about sex, it's still about sex.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Question and an Epiphany

1. Is there anything so annoying as a distant whistler? Seriously, I wish someone would snipe the merry son of a bitch.

2. I have never received a massage in my life, nor do I foresee ever receiving one. Frankly, the impulse itself to get one baffles me. Tension is the symptom of life. Stress, struggle, Sturm und Drang, the clash of forces and battle of opposites -- Love Drive versus Death Drive -- that's what it's all about, in my opinion.

World Music

How wonderful that vast swathes of human music-making have been gathered under the anemic category of "world music."

Actually it's worse than that. "World music" is a miscellaneous category, a repository of the otherwise unclassifiable. It's as if world music isn't even music because it falls outside the eternal categories of rap, alt-rock, and country-western.

American culture has achieved a Ptolemaic position of power: the world orbits us. I believe this is what the Marxists call "hegemony." Dance, world, dance!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Apropos of Nothing

Recently I encountered these lines from a poem by Elizabeth Bishop:

'Love's the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite, "The boy stood on
the burning deck." Love's the son
stood stammering elocution
while the poor ship in flames went down.'

Lizzie B really nails something here, I think. So often in the tumult of various situations (not just "love" -- with which I have zero acquaintance) we fall back on staid preconceptions of what we're supposed to do or think or feel, and in so doing we sometimes neglect the reality at hand. Bishop's image of the boy standing on the burning deck trying to recite, "The boy stood on the burning deck" is just perfect.

Heidegger articulates a perhaps similar concept called das Man or the "they" -- which roughly (really roughly) describes the tendency of human beings to accede to default modes of existence without examining these modes or truly appropriating these modes for themselves. However, whereas the boy's trouble in the poem seems to have its origin in his over-intellectualizing the situation, the "they" is associated with unreflective absorption which has not yet heeded the call of anxiety.

Let's hear about your music idea.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Hal also conveys alcoholism

Well, apparently there was a German howitzer called "Big Bertha" which demolished Belgian forts in Liege, Namur, and Mauberge, which was named for the manufacturer's wife. I think the reputation grows from there, along with general associations of big, manly Central European housewives with rolling pins and penchants for brandywine. Also, if you wikipedia "Big Bertha," along with the guns, you get a story about a bass drum built for UofC which was contaminated during the Manhattan Project, then decontaminated, and is now apparently at UTexas, and there's some asinine frat-boy story. This may be a microcosm of Wikipedia as a whole.

Also, I think the "B" gives the name it's heft... Betty is hardly any skinnier. But, like, Martha, that's not a fat name... and I can't think of any "er" names right now.

Anyways, I thought I mentioned to you what I indulgently call nominal determinacy, the tendency for people to grow into the name they are given. This is of course totally absurd, but that hardly seems to be a criticism anymore, anyways. But yes, naming your child is like the second act of parenting, its essential to get it right. Of course, the notion that one can get it right is probably why I will be one of those awful parents who simultaneously squash their children while inspiring irrational devotion, but still, at least, you have to pick a name cognizant of three facts:

1 - They will be mocked sometime between the ages of 7 and 12 with this name. This inspires regularity, so that you know your child's tortures are of the bland, generic kind, which, like undercooked gruel, can only serve to strengthen the child's resolve.
2 - This is the name you have to be able to deliver with vindicative fury and righteous anger upon your child's transgressions. This prevents the use of French names... try scolding Remy or Guy. Conversely, how do you even pronounce Archibald but with a sneer? One can escape this, of course, by the use of properly pretentious middle names. Even a name as flaccid as James can be declaimed successfully if properly buoyed. James Winston Marlborough, your insulting lack of table etiquette almost makes me as ill as your sickly sister, Minnie.
3 - This name will appear on their office door, so proper selection of initials is key. If I may humbly submit as an example, HTP. All three are of equal width in most typefaces. The symmetry of the T, as well as its air of elevation, makes it a strong candidate for a middle initial. Compare with, say, IFB. There is a strange sense of the medical about these initials, and the weight of the F and the B almost completely overshadow the I.

It's a daunting task. Happily we've no reason for innovation.

On the fatness front... I was thinking- doesn't being fat affect a lot more people's lives a lot more negatively than drugs? What if we legalized marijuana, made the use of all sorts of food additives illegal, and declared a War on Fat? Ban Bertha as a name. Replace Little Debbie with Little Doobie. This is totally a good idea.

Also, yesterday I have a great musical brainstorm, which is actually a terrible idea, but once I have some freetime in early September, I'm going to spend it on this. I'll explain tomorrow.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Is Your Baby's Name Too Fat?

Yeah I guess I was being melodramatic regarding the things you mention. It really doesn't discomfit me a whit to look at Greek or Roman art sans classical worldview or Pound sans fascism.

I think you're essentially correct to distinguish religious dogma from religious experience. This would allow a secular-humanist appreciation of religiously-bound art and literature without committing to the dogmatic trammels of their creators/co-religionists. You seem to further characterize the type or religious experience necessary as a "cognizance of the infinite" or "shared sense of being human" -- both of which phrases I like and think are fascinating. Basically I like your solution although I still have serious reservations.

However, rather than share these (boring) reservations, I've decided to change the subject entirely in order to talk about something else of equal weight I've been pondering recently.

Whenever I hear the name "Bertha," I can't help but think of a fat person. Why is this? Is it the sound of the word (e.g., the rounded "er" sound)? Or is it the way our culture presents people named "Bertha" in movies and television? A combination of the two?

If I named my daughter Bertha, would she be prone to sweller up like a pumpkin? Are names determinative of the entities they name, or are they content-less labels affixed at random?

More importantly, should we be giving our children "thin" names? The thinnest name I can think of is, "Splivka," but that's probably not a real name because I just made it up. What are some real thin names? Meredith? Victoria? Maximilian? What are some fat names? Fanny? Molson? Pieface?

William sounds thin, but Billy sounds fat. A paradox?

I wonder what connotative baggage "Hal" carries -- I mean, besides the murderous-computer baggage.

Friday, August 3, 2007


Sorry! I rather forgot about this. I'm afraid I've just not had the mental stamina to summon up a strong response to your question... so it will stick to vague statements and generalities and precept-ish nonsense. Albeit all true.

My first question upon rereading your post is that it's odd that you fixate so much on the possibility of intellectual dishonesty in enjoying a work of art made for religious reasons. Does it vex you to look at Greek or Roman art without their worldviews? I don't know how much exposure you have to European takes on "Eastern" religion, but what does it mean to read a German who has sort of adopted a cloak of Buddhism? How do you read any of the grotesquely authoritarian authors in European history?

Now, I grant that there's a difference between caring that Pound is a facist and caring that a Mass is, um, a mass... but is it so much of a difference? I suspect that this is where the discomfiture arises... religion (among other things, but religion most pointedly) seems to object to being considered abstractly. One can imagine "Suppose I thought..." just about anything, but what about the idea that such supposition is, of itself, wrong? (It's dubious that this is what religion demands, but it's not outside of religion, either. That is, most religion admits of sinners, but it won't admit that you didn't sin).

Only, I don't think that's right at all. Because the religious experience precedes dogma. And this, I suppose, is why I find your fixation curious, why I don't see why you're over-concerned about your Moabite's dishonesty. I think it's pretty clear that what you object to in a Dawkins is the sense one has that no one will, on their deathbed, read The Selfish Gene, but God only knows how many people have read Boethius, that it somehow fails to resonant with the vagaries of sentience- fear of death, loneliness, time, love, hate, and so on. Incidentally, having only read bits of Dawkins, I don't know that he isn't actively trying to do that. "Oh, loneliness is evolution telling you to reproduce! Hate is you killing babies so there's more food for your genes!" My genes are vomiting.

So, can you read Tolstoy without selling everything you own? Of course! It's entirely possible to have an honest and authentic interaction with art without subscribing to its creator's dogma, what's necessary is the shared sense of being human, which, I'm of late given to suspect, is cognizance of the infinite (or, rather, lack thereof. Knowing that there is a limitless potential subjective experience which is of value solely by virtue of its existence which is beyond what anyone does accomplish, and yet, in principle, not beyond what one could accomplish). I occasionally am given to fright that someday by some scientific tyranny we may be forced to admit to a perfect knowledge of how our minds work, and then I suppose life is as trite as The Matrix, but that won't happen, actually. Thank God.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Be There Moabites?

Dear IV,

In my opinion, religion is a lot like prostitution – a basically reprehensible practice in the absence of which our culture would be inestimably poorer.

This observation occurs to me in the context of the recent spate of what you might call “atheist lit” – three popular books by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom are extremely famous in their individual fields (philosophy, evolutionary biology, and the political commentariat respectively). These books excoriate the social reach and mysterious persistence of religion. They present arguments for religion’s irrationality as well as naturalistic explanations for its existence. I haven’t read any of them, but I'm pretty sure I grasp their essentials from reading reviews, both favorable and unfavorable.

On the one hand, I approbate the publication – and popularity – of these anti-religious books, particularly as they might be seen as symbolic of a growing anti-religious temper in society. I am an atheist by individual intellectual sympathy, and I’m “against” religion inasmuch as it’s tantamount to what Kant called Unmündigkeit – “immaturity,” “tutelage,” “self-delusion,” or “childishness” – not to mention the multitude of empirically deleterious phenomena associated worldwide with the sovereignty of religion: terrorism, polygamy, genocide, ignorance, authoritarianism, and the unchecked spread of the AIDS epidemic, to name a few.

However, on the other hand, I recoil when faced with the appalling “unculturedness” of these books (excepting Hitchens’ – to be returned to, shortly). The theses advanced by Dennett and Dawkins by way of explaining religion are so stupid as to be rejected out of hand by a child of five. These theses are wholly inadequate to the phenomena they purport to ground. To say that the explanatory regimes (HADD: religion qua pathetic fallacy, memetics: religion qua evolving assemblage of self-propagating “memes” analogous to genes) offered by Dennett and Dawkins do not even begin to explain somebody like, for instance, St. Augustine or Kierkegaard is an incredible understatement. This affronts me because while I can certainly live without God and Christ, I can’t do so without Augustine and Tolstoy. The Israelites are annoying, sure, but God save us from the Philistines.

What I’m saying is that Dante’s Hell seems like a more interesting place than Dennett’s heaven. Nor is this mere cultural elitism on my part; this is a serious recognition and concern that Dawkins and Dennett may be guilty of the same Unmündigkeit – the same narrow-minded childishness, the same refusal to confront “the world” in its full complexity, a world of which the thought of Augustine and Kierkegaard are necessarily a part – often attributed to religion.

So that’s the quandary I find myself in – constitutionally averse to committing to any sort of religion, while also refusing to give up the cultural and philosophical heritage of religion and “the religious” [i.e., the religious thematic]. Enter Hitchens. Now nobody could mistake Hitchens for a tasteless schnook; it seems like every time you turn around the guy has a new article in the NYTBR on Proust or Flaubert or whoever. What Hitchens advocates is that we should look to great art and literature for the spiritual guidance traditionally provided by – or identified with – religion. In other words, Tolstoy without Christ. However, I think this is begging the question – can we have Tolstoy without Christ? In contrast to the Israelites (straightforwardly religious) and Philistines (straightforwardly and culturally-devastatingly secular), let’s call the advocates of such a position Moabites. Is Moabitism viable? I have reason to be dubious.

For instance, many people talk about reading the Bible “as literature.” However, it seems to me that to do this is implicitly to diminish the Bible and destroy the secret heart of significance responsible for its “literary interest” in the first place. Indeed, I think even reading literature “as literature” is to wrong it somehow. What kind of person reads Kierkegaard for fun? I don’t think I want to know that kind of person. To read a book such as James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men without engaging it on the most fundamental level seems intrinsically perverse and criminal and certainly constitutes a cheating-out-of what Agee intended his book to be. So with respect to the Bible, I would question whether reading it as mere literature – as opposed to a document touching on matters of the utmost profundity and urgency – counts as really “reading” it at all. Likewise, you can’t "read Tolstoy" without taking Tolstoy seriously; you can’t take Tolstoy seriously without taking religion seriously. Such is the essence of what I’m getting at.

To take an example from the plastic arts, a friend in Florence once described Mary’s face in a certain Pieta as having a “porcelain” look. To describe a Pieta this way is to miss the point; to construe the exquisite passivity on Mary’s face in a merely visual or pictorial way as opposed to an adumbration of certain kind of spiritual intentionality is to miss the point of such a painting. The subtraction of the devotional content – the “religious” meaning – destroys the painting and transforms it into mere likeness to be evaluated according to “how it looks.” Art (well, large swathes of Renaissance art) becomes porcelainized and denatured in the absence of its contextual meaning – a meaning which is more often than not necessarily religious. (Walter Benjamin called something similar to this the “withering of the aura.”)

Moabites hold that we can have great art, great culture, and great literature without religion. (For the sake of argument, please ignore straightforwardly secular art and literature (e.g., Robert Rauschenberg, Joyce Carol Oates) – obviously they can be “great” as well, but what I’m specifically concerned about here is the secular redemption of art with religious content). I have tried to problematize the Moabite worldview, even while admitting my own (incorrigibly) atheist proclivities. So what do you think? Are the Moabites living in sin, so to speak? Is their lifestyle intellectually coherent/honest? Are they the eternal dinner-guests at the banquet of religion? Furthermore, are art and literature forever bound to the religious traditions which engendered and nourished them? Or do they possess an emancipatory capacity or universal appeal which transcends or exists independently of these traditions? Perhaps even it’s the other way around. Perhaps it’s those narrow-minded (unmündig) Israelites who are incapable of encountering “greatness” in art or literature without schematizing and moralizing it as part of some orthodoxy.

Anyway, if there’s one thing I hope we can agree on, it’s this: death to the Philistines.