Politics and Society

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


   This is the simple logic of the upcoming presidential election. No matter who takes the prize and thereafter occupies the chief seat of imperial power in America for the next four years – be it the dogged, pseudo-republican wannabe or the incumbent, imperial democrat – the politicians will have won, and the people will have lost. We will have lost simply because they will have won –and they ain’t us.

  When all the hoopla is over, whether it is Obama returning to promise more hope and change or Romney coming on to promise a return to “exceptionalism” for our beleagured nation, we will all be in the same stink-pile of political and financial shit with nothing new to show for the two year, two billion dollar campaign spectacle.

 Consider for just a moment their ‘competing’ healthcare plans: in essence, there is not a sliver’s worth of difference between them. They both completely undo the status quo, expecting 700 billion+ dollars of money now spent in Medicare to be redeployed (the Obamacare plan), on the one hand, or re-allocated (the Romney/Ryan plan), on the other. This is a distinction without a difference.
   For all the hysterical jousting, there is barely a difference, except when it comes to the social – not the financial – aspects of these plans. With one we get (eventually, but inevitably) government funded abortion-on-demand, like it or not, and with the other we get vouchers, and the elderly had better be good at investing because the cost of healthcare will continue to rise at a rate faster than the official inflation rate, which determines the value of the voucher. What a choice!

   There is a reason why the two men running for office as representatives of the two major parties each have instituted a mandatory healthcare plan. Healthcare reform is what the political class sees as a sop to the middle-class pigeons who vote them into office. Give the masses something else to worry about. The party gets the power, we get the illusion of reform. The rest is just smoke and mirrors. Obama might as well be sparring in front of a mirror, or Romney too, for that matter. No vote is going to change the end result. You get one, you get the other. They work for the parties, and when they win, the parties win; but the parties don’t work for America. They exist for themselves.

  They, Obama and Romney, are each members of the same class, the political class, which is both above and beyond the rest of us and out of our control. Regardless of the “I-feel-your-pain” rhetoric, they only deign to stoop to our level when there is blame to be diffused. It is exactly parallel to the situation in the stock market during the ‘Gordon Gecko’ days. When people began protesting loudly about Wall Street greed in the 1980’s, the financial class cried, “Not fair. We are all Wall Street.”(This because the pensions of average Americans were largely invested in stocks, and more and more recklessly so in risky stocks at that. Remember ‘Black Tuesday’?) Did this really convince anyone that we are Wall Street?
  They wanted to deflect responsibility and expected us all to bear the blame, communally, for their own extraordinary greed. Today, the political class, along with their financial cohort, want us all to assume a common blame for the present mess. “Not a time for recrimination,” they say. “Plenty of blame to go around in this systemic failure:” as though we – with our own jobs to do - had the power and responsibility to foresee, control, or forestall this man-made, financial-political class-made disaster. Was it any different after 9/11?
  Do we see a pattern of argument emerging? a pattern which shifts the blame from the actual culprits to the people at large? But we are not to blame, and they and their bankers, backers, and lobbyists are!

  They are not us! Their children will not be subject to the same insufferable restrictions on future safety and prosperity as our own; nor to the debt and the crisis of society that they and their class are creating for us all today. When the piper calls for payment, they and their families will be in a better, not a worse, position. Largely, they will be immune to the violence which will accompany widespread poverty and draconian cuts to services at the state and municipal levels. When half the police force is available to deal with twice and thrice the number of criminals and predators, we will notice a new emphasis on the term “gated communities.” When half the teachers are available to teach twice the student body class size, we will understand why they want school choice. So their kids won’t be caught up in the chaos.

  The American Republic has been co-opted by parties that exist now only to defend themselves and the wealth and power of their backers. These backers are not the American people or our nation as a whole. They are dupes, scoundrels, and lobbyists who will take what they can, when they can, for as long as they can. We need to put a stop to it, NOW!

  It is too late in the game for a third party candidate this season, but it is not to late to reject the candidates that have been served up by the powers that be.

 Let’s defect en masse and see what that brings. Vote Independent! Find a candidate who does not represent the will of the parties – “anyone but them” – and vote for that candidate. So, he or she will not win. So, what?  It is not a wasted vote, but a half-hearted vote for either of these clowns (“the lesser of two evils”) IS a wasted opportunity. Let the winners – these two political parties -- witness the mass defection (= disaffection) of the majority of Americans from these corrupted buffoons. Let them take office with the slimmest plurality and the most tenuous mandate to power. Let them know, that they cannot have our sanction for the cheap promise of being less pathetic than the other asshole. The result cannot be worse than the current situation, and it has the merit of sending a strong message, that the days of corruption-with-impunity for the political elites are almost over.

  After you vote independent, go home and turn off the radio and the TV talk shows. Watch “Dancing With the Stars,” if you will, but not Sean Hannity or Chris Matthews. Stop playing their game, and get on with the business of living. We are in this crisis alone, and all the talk in the world won’t make the parties more responsive. Only direct action will. Talk to each other, without the notes from Hannity and his ilk. Perhaps we can generate a candidacy or a movement which will overwhelm the influence of money and entrenched interests. The result cannot be worse than what we currently face.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Autumn Haiku

Autumn (Haiku)

Haloing the boughs
False dawn mocks the Old Masters
Hallowing red leaves

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Snow – Part two, by Orhan Pamuk

   Behind all the noise about Orhan Pamuk and his 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, there is the disturbing and intrusive squabble among the ideologues and jurists in Turkey about Pamuk’s alleged crime (during a broadcast interview) of defaming the Turkish state and its military authority – in relation to the alleged massacre of 1 million Armenians and 30, 000 Kurds – and his insult to ‘turkishness.’ The timing of the awarding of the prize reeks of international pressure by  EU intellectuals and high-handed political meddling by the Nobel Prize committee. (This was seconded by an international coterie of writers who take their oath of cultural relativism as seriously as Stalin took his oath to improve the life of the soviet citizens under his care.) What’s worse, in my book, is that the evidence against him – as provided by Snow – more than establishes his actual guilt! It damns him as an unrepentant “h8er” of all things Turkish. Pamuk does not respect his native land or its people; indeed, a good case can be made that he finds them almost wholly ludicrous, childlike – not as to their innocence – but as to their emotional and intellectual development – and profoundly ill-equipped to handle the exigencies of life and politics on their own ground, let alone on the world stage. Ironic, since, to these fictive, strange pamukian turks, all of life, politics and religion seems to be one big theatrical performance, played out for the benefit of anyone who will watch or listen!
   Snow is an exaggeratedly sentimental tale of unlikely political and romantic intrigue, detailing – after a PoMo fashion – the three-days-like-a-lifetime visit of an exiled poet to a northern border town in his native Turkey. To call it a romance, or a political thriller would be to overstate the case each way. One would have to become involved or invested in the characters at some level for this description to bear the weight. Rather, I think. it is farce, played out in a straight-faced, though intentionally sloppy, narrative mode (hence the description: PoMo). Its narrator is Pamuk, himself, or so he gives us to believe, though how seriously this is to be taken is itself the real challenge of the book. And the protagonist is   

Ka - His actual given name is Kerim Alakusoglu, and he is a poet who has been granted political asylum in Germany for the past 12 years when the story of his return to Turkey, and Kars, begins. He returns to Turkey, ostensibly, to attend his mother’s funeral, though we hardly here any mention of this, aside from hearing second-hand of the claim he apparently made to a friend  - the author of this memoir, Orhan Pamuk, – about his mother being always on his mind throughout the period of his stay in the snowbound  border city. While in Istanbul, he is assigned to write an article (or articles) for the western leaning press about the tumultuous political election campaigns in Kars, a poor, Anatolian border town in northern Turkey, and about a rash of suicides by young women who have shown resistance to the state sponsored ban on the wearing of head-scarves. But it becomes clear early enough that this pretext is just that: a narrative device to explain Ka’s presence in the socio-politico-religious context Pamuk wants to address.
   His mission is complicated – we should say undermined or completely subverted – by his own, improbably instantaneous and passionate love interest in an old flame, Ipek, who is recently divorced from her editor husband and thus again ‘available’ to the 42 year old celebrity-writer. Yes, Ka is treated by the local citizens and officials as a celebrity; as ‘one of our own who has made a splash in the West,’ and he is equally distrusted as ‘one of ours who has been hopelessly corrupted by the hegemonic influence of atheistic individualism endemic in the evil West. Tough row to hoe, no doubt! This ambivalence will actually become a thematic staple of the book.
  As a character in fiction, Ka is a remarkable one. He is depicted by his avowed friend and admirer - the novelist Pamuk, himself, or an alter ego of some postmodern sort - as the archetypical ingénue. He is naïve, impulsive, hysterical in his passions, apparently newborn every moment to his own intellectual and emotional life, and embarrassingly aimless and opportunistic by turns in his pursuit of his purpose –winning the love of Ipek the magnificent beauty of Kars. By the time we reach midpoint in the novel, the pretext of writing articles about either the elections or the head-scarf (suicide) girls, is entirely abandoned, not decisively but off handedly. Apparently, he simply forgets that that is what he is there to do! But in this, he is not remarkable; for all of the characters are equally malleable, though they rarely seem to acknowledge this as a limit on their avowed absolutisms.

   Kars is the name of a small mercantile city, derived from Karsu, meaning ‘frozen river’ referring to the river that runs through its center. “Kar” means ‘snow’ in Turkish. Ka is the name of the protagonist, that is used only once by the author, and never by the character or the people around him, either in life or in death. He meets his mysterious death by gunfire in the Kaiserstrasse immigrant district in Frankfurt, Germany under a big neon store sign of the letter –wait for it – K. (Any Kafka fans want to take a run at this incredible shrinking word strategy?) There is doubtless some symbolic function involved in this verbal winnowing, but I am too long out of high school to say what it is. It seems like a joke that younger ones might tell to great effect among themselves, but which we old dogs just don’t “get.” I’ll learn to live without the magic.
   Oh, and guess what Ka wanted to call his newly completed work of poems based on his revelatory experiences in Kars! That’s right; ‘Snow.’

   Only one of the major drawbacks to Snow, is the unrelentingly ad hoc structure of the novel. On the narrative level the story unfolds in the most unlikely ways with each new scene presenting one more opportunity for characters to take up absurdly absolutist positions on the great East meets West dialogue, and pursue them to unlikely and even ridiculous conclusions. They are absurd positions precisely because they are adopted always in reaction to a perceived expectation or challenge from without –never as a coherent response to experience as such. All ideas, then, are intrinsically reactionary.
    On the level of character development and scenic elaboration, the descriptions are equally ad hoc (and almost always post hoc, as well) and contrived to rationalize what has already happened. (In one exceedingly egregious oversight he mentions “these stables” only to then explain a whole paragraph later that the buildings he is referring to had once been, but are no longer, ottoman stables!) In this world, people wear their allegiances like coats (Ka’s charcoal grey coat – read: neutral in color and symbolism; it is a recurrent motif – which suit present purposes (read ulterior motives) and are as readily discarded after their usefulness has been exploited. This too is thematic; apparently for Pamuk, character and conviction are mere modalities of rationalization. No one actually believes in anything at all, least of all what they say or do, though they do make great efforts to meet the expectations of some group or other whose similarly whimsical opinion matters at the time. When Ipek is making the most dramatic move of her life as we know it, she is concerned about the barely extant clerk will think of her going upstairs! Note however, that this ever-ready moral concern does not extend to matters of adultery or treason!

   Snow has been criticized as boring again and again. I think the reason it is seen as boring is because the characters and plot are intrinsically unpredictable and inherently non-dramatic. One never knows what is going to come next, so every scene is a cautionary tale about thwarted expectations. The many characters and scenes lack a central motive force, a determinative character or potential: instead they are all equally variable and presumptuously willy-nilly. One can only plod along and wonder what new improbability awaits. And they abound in the novel; each with less reason than the one before, though always after the fact, some plausible (and plausibly deniable) excuse is given. This strategy grates on the nerves. It is thematic, expressing as it does Pamuk’s central conviction, that human attempts at ordering our lives by conviction or reason are doomed to disillusionment, but it is not dramatic –nor, I think, is it true or helpful to story telling. If all efforts are in vain, why write the novel? Why indulge the pretense? Like so many other PoMo devices, like the ridiculous and irrational mismanagement of time (and the improper and impossible deployment of time indices) and the trendy subversion of readers’ expectations with irrelevant details and impromptu shifts in perspective, the style eventually becomes pedantic and dull. But this all begs a question: If all efforts at order are vain, whence the novel? The fact refutes itself! So stop the nonsense already. Try showing your book and your characters some of the same respect you expect from Turkey’s courts for your own hallowed rights to be an idiot in public. Try treating your readers to a little consideration. We need more than another third world whiner who wants to be a first world intellectual.
   Ultimately, it up to readers to say “No” to writers like Pamuk and to the Nobel Prize committee. Instead of supporting him, we should be telling him: “Go! Get a job that doesn’t include being stupid and maybe we’ll talk.”

   It is telling that when the book ends on its last sad note – ‘As the train pulled out and the people receded from view into the blur of the falling snow, I began to cry’ – we are completely at a loss as to what Pamuk is crying about. He came to Kars, like his poetic-twin to research a book on his friend’s life and work. He got his answers. Is this cause for tears? Why? or why not? Or was it that he, like his idiot friend before him, fell instantaneously and madly in love with the local fox, Ipek? In the end, who cares? If the writer doesn’t care enough to tell us, why should we care to know –or to believe? Like so much else in the text, this sentimental denouement seems an ad hoc add on. It is another PoMo subversion of expectations and an instance of inexplicable irrelevance. It seems like one more literary convention tossed into the mix without any sense or concern for its proper place, preparation, utility or purpose.

   To say that the text represents life as Pamuk understands it is equivalent to saying that literature is a performance art, not essentially literary at all – i.e. not embodied in any possible experience of the imagination which is sparked by the skillful use of words -, but rather artificially (and pretentiously) concocted of pages and pretenses and conventions, thrown together after the fact to disguise our putatively naked libidos. If this is what PoMo means, I think I’ll pass.

P.S.:   In a shameless act of self-promotion and self-defense, Pamuk puts into the mouth of one of the novel’s more endearing characters the wish that we not believe what the writer says about him, or about any of the characters, for no one can know another at such a distance. Ha! The disclaimer is built right into the summary: Don’t think you can dismiss this junk as junk, since it (meaning 'Literature') is by nature too feeble to carry the assigned weight and I know it, so let’s give me prizes for trying.
   Sorry Orhan: You should have trued harder.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Arrgh: A partial review

   I am now in about the middle of Orhan Pamuk's Snow (2001, Eng. trsl. 2004)) and like many others I find it a slog. It is not exactly boring, for the Anatolian cultural tour and the socio-political dynamics are themselves interesting enough, in the abstract (as they must be since the writer only addresses them so), as is the historical-moral fable being played out like a passion play. But that's it. It is like watching an old fashioned theatrical production - the kind towns put on for visiting tourists to provide a sense of the local culture's background and history; NOT its current state of affairs.
   The themes and issues are timely enough and important in themselves, but Pamuk's treatment of them seems ham-handed at best. The characters are more like cartoon figures than people, the scenes are like overly dramatized stage sets and the storyline is just implausible, because the characters aren't realized as people. Instead, they are stalking horses for the tumult of ideas and political and religious impulses that they wear like fashionable winter coats.
   Some critics (see amazon's reviews) say the broad and ever increasing dis-satisfaction with Pamuk, of which my view is a part, is a result of a Western prejudice. I doubt it. Others say that the translation may be at fault; but after six years and lots of evidence, it seems the translation (whatever its flaws) is at least as good as anything Pamuk has to offer in the original Turkish. Many native speakers/reviewers have come forward to testify that it doesn't get any better in the mother tongue. Truth might just be the old dodger is a better journalist and social observer than fiction writer. For example:

             "Then Ka and the hook-nosed agent got back into the army truck and set
             off down the road. A pack of timid dogs walked alongside them, but the
             only other signs of life were the election banners and the anti-suicide
             posters. As they continued along their way, Ka's eyes were drawn to the
             restless children and anxious fathers twitching their closed curtains to catch
             a glimpse of the passing truck." (Pg 191)

   Riddle me this, Batman. If there were no signs of life, were do the children and anxious fathers fit in? BTW, since when do election banners and posters constitute signs of life? (Are we to understand that the truck, which they entered from a building, was in a wasteland without habitations, streets or other signs of human presence? If not, then again, what's with the no signs of life angle?) And why would any writer intent on describing a lifeless scene follow this in the next sentence with the acknowledgment of the presence of the children, etc.? Was he even thinking about the scene when he wrote this? Frankly, I think not!
   Pamuk is likely a nice guy. So is Al Gore. But they both received Nobel prizes for shoddy polemical  work done in areas of expertise in which they have no claim, no right and no real interest.

If I didn't know better, I would guess that this kind of writing is what Pfeiffer gave up writing Doonesbury comic strips to pursue.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

“The Transcendence of the Ego,” by Jean Paul Sartre

The Ontological Foundation of Petulance
A Meditation

   Written in 1936, some 5-6 years before he took time out from his day job at the French Resistance field office and began to work on his famous treatise, Being and Nothingness (1943), Sartre wrote the remarkable essay, “The Transcendence of the Ego.” It is a seminal work of existential Metaphysics, a refutation of Solipsism, and a document of liberation, all at the same time. The last description fulfills his own stated intention of separating Sartre from the putative doctrinal error of his teacher, Edmund Husserl, who had, in his own philosophical investigations, recently taken a regressive step backwards from “pure” phenomenological description to, in Sartre’s view, merely speculative Metaphysics. He committed this unpardonable sin when he went beyond the bounds of pure Phenomenology – his own creation - and posited a transcendent, concrete Ego as the actual, albeit passive, subjective unity of experience.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Review of “Die Erlkønigin,”-- a poem by Patrick Gillespie

   Up In Vermont, there is a talented poet and amateur, but thorough, literary scholar named Patrick Gillespie, who calls himself Vermont Poet (He is also a blogger – his blog is listed among my favorites). This moniker would be a might presumptuous for most anyone, especially for those who could not say that they have produced at least some fine poems, or at least one great poem of out-standing quality, beauty and charm. This essay is based on the conviction (as I hope to show) that Patrick has earned his self-proclaimed title.

   About a month ago, apropos of nothing, and browsing web-sites I some-times visit, I came upon this post at [poemshape], which is an audio re-cording of Patrick reading his own poem, “Die Erlkønigin,” for public appreciation. [This poem], he said with conviction, was one of the best he has ever written. I listened to the recording and enjoyed it. I read the poem and loved it, and then read the Goethe poem on which it is based - a handy, dual-language link was kindly supplied – and researched the Danish legend (folklore) upon which Goethe had drawn in creating the original, and was fascinated. All the while, the poem was in my head, and in my imagination, and (parts of it, at least) almost on my tongue –and I agreed! It is, certainly, one of the best that he has ever written (Naturally enough but sadly still, I do not feel the same about all the others), as it is also, I believe, one of the best anyone in America has written in many years!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Master, (2004), by Colm Toibin: A Review

    Colm Toibin, the contemporary Irish author of four previous novels and various other writings, has produced a very interesting and enjoyable study of personality, character and Art in The Master. A portrait of the artist – the great American novelist, Henry James - as a middle-aged man, a biographical essay on sensibility and emotional and aesthetic distance, an historical fiction of life informing Art (and vise-versa); it is all of these and more. The 'more' is a wonderful story. For all my doubts going in, I have to say, this seems an unqualified success, and an excellent novel.   My initial hesitation concerned what I take to be a growing trend among novelists to stuff their novels full of actual (i.e. historical) personages as a sign that they are dealing with the real world in their Art. Personally, and generally, I find it aesthetically unconvincing, though the portraits of J. Edgar and Lenny Bruce, for instance, were technical highlights of descriptive fiction in DeLillo’s Underworld. The presence of actual people in fiction is far too often a red flag signaling rather an insecurity, if not an outright capitulation, of imagination.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Birthday Gift

It's times like these that I realize that the great poet (Donne) knew what he was talking about when he said, "No Man is an Island". For even as  I am alone in Providence, yet I am not alone in Providence; for I have family and friends, who think well enough of me to take the time to reach out. I thank you all!  I am humbled by the gesture.
   I took the day off - even an unemployed person can do that - and amused myself with books (Willam Gass, "In Search of Form" and Toibin's "The Master"), philosophical arguments (on-line, mainly) and with poetry (which I still love best). After receiving phone calls and paying some bills, I went out to the bookstore to spend a gift sent from grpagrhr (my Dad). Turns out, they had a sale ( I had no idea) which was extended only because of a calendar mistake - and I took advantage: now "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" (Pessl, 2006), "Snow" (Pamuk, 2004) and "Varieties of Interpretation"  (Mazzeo, 1978) will be on my reading - critiquing - list, thanks to the real master. I feel blessed.
   I have enjoyed my day, in my own way, and I THANK YOU ALL. I love you, too! And I want to give you something which you might not have seen coming: A poem, one that I wrote, years ago, but which remains the  best part of myself:
                                                 First Snow and a Child
While feathery wisps of whiteness swirl
And whisper like a fear,
A child leans on his heels to see
The blur infest the air,
Like icy ashes on his brow
And dust upon his hair,
The white buds bead to droplets, cold,
That shut a wondrous stare.

May it give you some of the joy it gives me!
   Why today? why any day? I guess I am trying to climb out of my shell and share with the people I call family and friends just what it is that makes me me. A birthday just seems like an especially appropriate time to do that.
   Again, thank you all for thinking of me, and thank you for your love and support. I hope and believe that you know that it does not go unnoticed or unappreciated.
   Who's better'n you? Ain't nobody!
Thanks again,
Kevin (28 years old and still counting --or learning to count, or sumt'n.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

Stephen Millhauser’s “Miracle Polish” (2011)

                                              from the New Yorker Magazine, November 14, 2011

   Stephen Millhauser is an American writer with at least ten novels, three short-story collections and a Pulitzer prize (1997) already under his belt. At 68, he would seem to be a writer of the old guard, but his fiction is probably more popular (even trending, if not trendy) now than at any time in his career. This New Yorker story helps to explain why!

  Stephen Millhauser’s  “Miracle Polish” is the story of an unnamed man’s experience of the bizarre, even the wonderful, when he grudgingly purchases a bottle of glass cleaner, specifically for mirrors, from a (mysterious?) door-to-door salesman. After dismissively squirreling the bottle away in a drawer, he comes to use it eventually only to discover it produces a marvelous effect.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Pale Fire (1962), by Vladimir Nabokov A Review

"Et in Arcadia ego"
   In two renaissance memento mori paintings by Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), the above Latin phrase appears on the side of an ancient tomb, intrusively and inscrutably situated in an idyllic meadow among the sheep and herders of Arkadia. It says in translation, ‘here also am I’, and the “I”, of course, refers to death. This same phrase appears in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire --only there it may refer rather more pointedly to madness.
   Pale Fire is a thrillingly suspenseful book, beautifully written, and obviously loaded with the subtle allusions, more obvious references and literary devices cherished by academic readers. It is often cited as Nabokov’s greatest achievement, his modern masterpiece, an American “Prelude” – as in Wordsworth! - and even the proof positive that the novel, as an Art form, is not dead (see Mary McCarthy’s review here.). It is also called the first (and by some the supreme example of) modern American meta-fiction.* Mostly, though, it is an extraordinary example of aesthetic structural design. The way all of its narrative and thematic elements come together is truly amazing, and if nothing else works for you, this aspect alone surely should.