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March 28, 2010

A Song for Sunday #43

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Music — rmangum @ 9:17 pm
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Today was a wonderful early Spring day, but the weather has been schizophrenic here for the last week, so we’ll see if it will hold. I, of course, have been spending the weekend fighting off illness (Spring means severe allergies for me). So it’s going to be a quick post and off to bed. This morning my brother asked if there was any music I specifically associated with Spring. I couldn’t think of a good response then, but I have a great answer now: I’ll Remember April by Jazz pianist Bud Powell is breezy and lilting and simply perfect for this time of year.

Well that’s about it, music lovers, except for this note: A Song for Sunday is now taking requests. Pick a song, artist, or genre you’d like to hear, and leave a request in the comments section. I certainly can’t guarantee anything, but if I come up with something for you, but if I do you’ll get not only a great song but some choice words from yours truly, Earnest Scribbler (and I am quite full of delightful musical trivia, as my friends can attest).

March 26, 2010

An ill-advised foray into poetry

Filed under: Literature — rmangum @ 10:41 am
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Once upon a time, my brother and I were going to collaborate on a comic-book that would be a gothic/surrealist fantasy, a sort of Alice in Wonderland with adults instead of children. Our characters would awake to find themselves in a frightening and ever-shifting landscape, with only fragmentary memories of their previous lives, and no knowledge of how they came to be in that place. Are they dead or dreaming? They would have to learn how to navigate the new world as well as deal with its demiurge, a character we called “Mr. Trumble” (the name I see as a portmanteau of “tremble” and “trouble”, but this is an afterthought), who offered himself as a guide through the wilderness. Should they trust him?

The comic was to be called “Spiderland”. I did not invent the name, but stole it from the title of an album by the band Slint. The title seemed so evocative to me because of my lifelong fear and fascination of spiders. An early memory I have is of seeing a large spider and stomping on it, only to have seemingly hundreds of little spiders run out from under my foot. I did not know at the time that mother spiders carried their brood upon their back, and thought I might have created a hundred creepy crawly things by killing one. So the spider to me became a symbol of nature’s fecundity and indestructibility, it’s thwarting of human actions as well as the guilt which comes from all violence (much like the albatross in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”).

So when our comic project was shelved I couldn’t resist retaining the name for another creative work, this time a poem I wrote for my creative writing class. The poem “Spiderland” has nothing to do with the plot of our story (though I retain the Alice in Wonderland allusions), and perhaps not much with the spider of my memory. Here I associate it more with human consciousness than nature, but already from the aforementioned spider-stomping it had become an overdetermined symbol. Anyway, here it is:

Spiderland

Away from placid pools
Far from the adulating sun
The slow spider winds her way
Down, down, down.

How deep goes the spider-hole?
All the way down.

Calm as a star
Curious as a crystal

The slow spider slips her thread
(thin white line parting sea of black)
Down, down, down.

There are no effete tulips
or pragmatic pine-trees
upon a benignant plain
in Spiderland.

Only strand linking to strand
Webs spun within webs.

Her subtle, inquiring legs are
Affixed to her logical body,
Anchored by silk chain,
Clinging to the web,
Hung from air.

How deep goes the spider-hole?
All the way down.

There is an imagist influence, but my poem is too abstract for imagism. There is also the influence, I retroactively determine, of Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider”, where a spider is compared to the poet’s soul. Even more strikingly resonant are these lines by the gnostic theologian Valentinus (hat tip to Harold Bloom):

I see in spirit that all are hung
I know in spirit that all are borne
Flesh hanging from soul

Soul clinging to air
Air hanging from upper atmosphere

Crops rushing forth from the deep
A babe rushing forth from the womb.

At a still more abstract level than Valentinus, I find this quote from Beckett relevant to the journey of the spider-soul down the spider-hole:

The only fertile research is excavatory, immersive, a contraction of the spirit, a descent. The artist is active, but negatively, shrinking from the nullity of extracircumferential phenomena, drawn into the core of the eddy.

And what Beckett says of the artist is strangely applied in this excerpt from an interview with Harold Bloom, speaking about another literary demiurge, Yahweh, which then brings us back to Whitman:

In a perfectly, I think, Kabbalistic way that Yahweh may have come into existence by this act of Zimzum, this act of contraction or withdrawal, which means that he diminished himself in order to get started. Which I find fascinatingly parallel to Walt Whitman, in which I again follow Scholem: who used to say in conversations with me, that in a secular world somehow Whitman by some miracle without knowing anything about Kabbalah had in effect reinvented his own Kabbalah, and I think that is true. Whitman throughout Song of Myself and elsewhere is always saying that he is expanding, that he is getting to contain more and more multitudes, that his sense of self is steadily increasing. But in fact he too is always contracting and withdrawing. He is endlessly elusive and evasive, and the worlds that he creates and ruins also seem to come from some process of self-withdrawal.

But don’t take these a posteriori quotations too seriously. I’m just wondering on what I wrote more than a year ago and “musing, venturing, throwing- seeking the spheres, to connect them”.

March 21, 2010

A Song for Sunday #42- Alex Chilton Tribute

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Music — rmangum @ 11:14 am
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On Alex Chilton’s Wikipedia page, it lists the musical genres he worked in throughout his career: “Rock n’ Roll, Power Pop, Proto-Punk, Hard Rock, Blue Eyed Soul, Indie Rock.” This should give you an idea of the breadth of his contribution to rock over the years. Masses of people have heard his music without knowing his name. His first band, the Box Tops, had a huge hit in 1967 with “The Letter.” Aw, come on, you’ve heard it. It’s the one that begins, “Give me a ticket for an aeroplane.” At the time Chilton was only 16. In the 1990’s, Chilton had his second biggest hit: the theme song for That 70’s Show was a song written by Chilton, from his band Big Star’s first album in 1972. Here’s another song from Big Star,  from their second album, Radio City, and one of my favorites: September Gurls. Any pop song with which includes the line “I wish your butch and you would touch” gets my approval.

Big Star really didn’t have a niche in the musical world of the 70’s, which was divided between flashy arena rock or glam rock on the one hand and sensitive acoustic crooners like James Taylor on the other (and later punk vs. disco), but like the Velvet Underground they would become increasingly influential with the ascension of indie rock from the eighties underground to the present. After Big Star’s demise Chilton got involved with the punk scene, charting an unusual career path which moved from mainstream pop to edgier underground fare. His real glories in this area are as a producer, where he worked with two of my garage-punk fave raves The Cramps and The Gories. Here’s Human Fly, from The Cramps 1979 debut EP, Gravest Hits, and Ghost Rider, from The Gories’ 1990 album I Know You Fine, But How You Doin’.

Chilton also had an eclectic solo career that incorporated Jazz elements (his father was a Jazz musician). As with most seminal indie groups, there was a Big Star reunion. Chilton probably had many of creative years ahead of him before he died a heart attack on Wednesday. To this I can think of little to say except cliches like “The music lives on,” and blah blah blah. But you know cliches become cliches because they happen to be true in the first place.

March 15, 2010

Libertarian Literary Kicks

Filed under: Literature — rmangum @ 2:53 pm
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To be conscious of the social context of art seems automatically to entail a leftist orientation. But a theory is possible that is both avant-garde and capitalist.
-Camille Paglia

I forget who said that though libertarians defend the right to bear arms, the average libertarian is far more likely to pick up a book than a gun. At the core of the libertarian world there is an intense book culture, which is one of its glories. In short, we are nerds. But when we think about the literature of liberty, who do we have in mind? Depending on your particular bent, you might think of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard; or Robert Nozick and Milton Friedman; or maybe Benjamin Tucker, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and Lysander Spooner; perhaps someone more outré like Max Stirner, or a newcomer like Kevin Carson. But what about Shakespeare? Dostoevsky? Cervantes? Percy Shelly? Joseph Conrad? Probably not. Those named in the former group, for all their differences, are political and economic thinkers who took up the issue of human freedom as their primary concern. The latter are all entertainers. Brilliant ones, sublime ones perhaps, but what can they as artists contribute to the conversation about liberty?

Marxism long ago took a cultural turn, and hence there is a voluminous supply of books on art and culture from a Marxist perspective, but from a libertarian one its just slim pickings. True, many libertarians are converted first through novels, by Ayn Rand or Robert Heinlen, but its time to get out of the sci-fi ghetto and take up the Canon. (Not that I’m putting down sci-fi as such. I’m a big fan myself, though not really of those particular authors.) Pioneering work here has been done by Professor Paul Cantor, and I am greatly excited to learn from the recent Austrian Scholars Conference that he has co-edited a book with Isabel Paterson biographer Stephen Cox, Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture, which is available online. Some of Cantor’s essays have been around in different forms for a while, but its nice to have them all collected in one place, along with some intriguing new works by other writers on Whitman, Willa Cather, Cervantes, and especially Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. And Cantor’s ideas on the arts and the market have been presented in a great lecture series from some years back at the Mises Institute.

As a libertarian and an English student, I’m always interested on hearing libertarian perspectives on art and culture, but also I have some additional concerns to add. My literary taste was formed before my politics, and I’ve always enjoyed literature that is apolitical, such as Wallace Stevens’ poetry, the stories of Jorge-Luis Borges, and the plays of Oscar Wilde. But I know Cantor’s work well enough to know that he isn’t creating anything like a libertarian version of culture-studies, which politicizes everything. He respects the autonomy of art. And yet I do happen to agree with the cultural-Marxist rallying cry that “art is not created in a vacuum”. When I inspect the politics of the authors already mentioned, I find they have sympathies with my own. Stevens by many accounts was an Old-Right Taft Republican who opposed the income tax, and Borges often called himself a “Spencerian anarchist” in a Latin American milieu whose politics were mostly divided between Nazis and Communists. As for Wilde, while he espouses some misguided social-democratic views in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” he was an admirer of Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and once said “The form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all.” So what does this mean? That we cannot escape ideology, that there is no autonomous aesthetics? George Orwell took up this issue in an essay on Swift, appropriately titled “Politics vs. Literature”:

For a great deal of his waking life, even the most cultivated person has no aesthetic feelings whatever, and the power to have aesthetic feelings is very easily destroyed. When you are frightened, or hungry, or are suffering from toothache or sea-sickness, King Lear is no better from your point of view than Peter Pan. You may know in an intellectual sense that it is better, but that is simply a fact which you remember: you will not feel the merit of King Lear until you are normal again. And aesthetic judgement can be upset just as disastrously—more disastrously, because the cause is less readily recognized—by political or moral disagreement. If a book angers, wounds or alarms you, then you will not enjoy it, whatever its merits may be. If it seems to you a really pernicious book, likely to influence other people in some undesirable way, then you will probably construct an aesthetic theory to show that it has no merits. Current literary criticism consists quite largely of this kind of dodging to and fro between two sets of standards. And yet the opposite process can also happen: enjoyment can overwhelm disapproval, even though one clearly recognizes that one is enjoying something inimical.

It is often argued, at least by people who admit the importance of subject-matter, that a book cannot be “good” if it expresses a palpably false view of life. We are told that in our own age, for instance, any book that has genuine literary merit will also be more or less “progressive” in tendency. This ignores the fact that throughout history a similar struggle between progress and reaction has been raging, and that the best books of any one age have always been written from several different viewpoints, some of them palpably more false than others. In so far as a writer is a propagandist, the most one can ask of him is that he shall genuinely believe in what he is saying, and that it shall not be something blazingly silly. To-day, for example, one can imagine a good book being written by a Catholic, a Communist, a Fascist, pacifist, an anarchist, perhaps by an old-style Liberal or an ordinary Conservative: one cannot imagine a good book being written by a spiritualist, a Buchmanite or a member of the Ku-Klux-Klan. The views that a writer holds must be compatible with sanity, in the medical sense, and with the power of continuous thought: beyond that what we ask of him is talent, which is probably another name for conviction.

So a book need not be libertarian to be good, which is a relief since few of the great authors of history have been, but Cantor’s work show that there is more libertarianism in great literature than has previously been imagined. Also, when Orwell writes about the “false view of life” I can’t help but be reminded of Ayn Rand’s “sense of life” critical approach. A more expansive perspective that remains libertarian is possible.

Another concern for me is my own affiliation with a specifically Left-libertarian perspective. (One question which occurs to me as a left-libertarian that the basically Mises/Hayek approach of Cantor & Co. does not undertake is why, if the seeming panoply of economic approaches to culture are all on “The Left”, they are all a variant of Marxism rather than some other form of anti-market stance, such as anarcho-socialism or Keynesianism.) I take the Paglia quote above as a truism, but I now view the word “capitalism” is dubious, more likely to describe the corporate fascism we are used to rather than a genuine free market, and do not self-apply it. I do consider my orientation to be leftist, though not the politically correct quasi-Marxist one that predominates academe. My own work, proceeding from here will be founded on the notion that not only is a theory possible that is both avant-garde and left-libertarian, but that a left-libertarian theory can only be avant-garde.

March 14, 2010

A Song for Sunday #41

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Music — rmangum @ 12:51 pm

Greetings. I was studying for midterms last week and did not get to my post, so I’m presenting a double-stuffed, albeit brief, SFS today. I think this will be the last of the Bach series.

Fans of 60’s Girl Groups might know about The Toys, a trio from New York, who had a big hit in 1965 with A Lover’s Concerto, written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell with a melody adapted from the Minuet in G Major.

I have to confess that this entry is a bit of a cheat, since it is now believed that the work in question, though found in Bach’s notebooks, was not composed by him. But it is included on my CD of his “Greatest Hits,” so that’s justification enough for me.

Here’s some more quotes on Bach before we leave him:

Creativity is more than just being different. Anybody can play weird; that’s easy. What’s hard is to be as simple as Bach. Making the simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.

-Charles Mingus

Bach opens a vista to the universe. After experiencing him, people feel there is a meaning to life after all.

-Helmut Walcha

Bach’s music is the only argument proving the creation of the Universe can not be regarded a complete failure.

-E.M. Cioran

March 1, 2010

These are the ways the world ends

Filed under: Literature,Utopia,War — rmangum @ 9:58 pm
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The latest episode of Battleship Pretension is on Post-apocalyptic film. The related ideas of apocalypse, eschatology, utopia and dystopia, have a special interest for me, and they have come up in the past week without my seeking them. First, I have been reading William Langland’s medieval visionary poem Piers Plowman, which is apocalyptic, but more in the classical sense. Second, my Dad calls to tell me of  his concern about my state of emergency preparedness because of a near-death-experience book he has recently become aware of which contains prophecies of, among other things, a terrorist attack on Salt Lake City and an invasion of the Rocky Mountains (a la Red Dawn) by Russia and China. Now this BP episode. Okay, so I’ll buy some bottled water and some extra round for my .38.

Now, the boys are a little fuzzy on the definition of “apocalypse“, its specific theology within Christianity, as well as its parameters as a film genre (it’s a book genre, too, counting J.G. Ballard, Stephen King, and recently Cormac McCarthy as notable practitioners, and this might or might not complicate the issue). However, they wisely stick to specifically post-apocalyptic film rather than apocalyptic films, the latter being mostly disaster films such as those made by Roland Emmerich (rightly disdained by Battleship Pretension). Case in point, I’d classify Night of the Living Dead as apocalyptic, and Dawn of the Dead as post-apocalyptic. They mostly avoid the novice mistake of lumping these in with dystopian films, which are a different bag altogether. Post-apocalyptic fiction concerns what happens after society falls apart. Dystopian fiction concerns societies which “work”, more or less, but are oppressive and/or perverse. The confusion comes because both typically concern societies in the future, and a dystopia may well come about because of an apocalyptic event (such as a world war). I could go on and on. I would like to quibble, however, about the inclusion of Planet of the Apes which, despite its twist ending which reveals the world to be post-apocalyptic from Chuck Heston’s perspective, seems to me more dystopian than anything. The portrayal of ape society is meant to comment on human society, as much as the non-human worlds visited by Gulliver do in Gulliver’s Travels.

Apocalypse strikes me as a uniquely Western theme, perhaps because of the legacy of Christianity, the most successful of the many apocalyptic sects of the ancient near east. St. John of Patmos is the first great apocalyptic poet, but it seems to me that the apocalyptic imagination only gets stronger the further we get into modernity. It is particularly strong, for reasons I can only speculate about, in Britain and America. The whole Dawn of the Dead/I am Legend/28 Days Later/The Road strain of horror and sci-fi in particular comes from British Romanticism. Check out Lord Byron’s poem “Darkness” if you don’t believe me. In America and Australia the genre is concerned with a particular vision of the wasteland, and is tied to the genre of the Western.

My other complaint is that they simply didn’t mention enough movies. Those interested in more books and movies of this type should visit Empty World. They do include dytopian ficiton, but you can argue the point that a dystopia counts an eschatological, or end-of-history narrative, but you’d have to do so on a case-by-case basis. For instance, Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron” is dystopian though not apocalyptic (the world changes through acts of congress, not divine judgment), or eschatological, (since the title character shows the cracks in the system which might lead to its downfall), while his novel Cat’s Cradle ends apocalyptically, but is not a dystopia.

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