Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why we stand in line at nightclubs

— So, the human brain is designed to establish relationships only within small groups, and seeks constantly to reproduce the feeling of being "just amongst us." All attempts at socialization are intended to recreate within us a series of previously successful patterns of empathy, because . . . Aha! Because the only real human instinct is to flee into the forest depths. If this weren't the case, why would the State expend so much effort teaching us to love that which is social, and why such frantic insistence on the amorous-gregarious nature of the glorious Fatherland? Social training is an operating system composed of customs designed to minimize the pain one feels at finding oneself completely surrounded. Social aristocracies are brought into existence as a form of technology that enables the elite to tolerate the proximity of others, as another way to address the need for human contact felt by the I while simultaneously protecting it from the unwashed hordes via membership cards and club protocols. The presence of the bouncer ensures that the favored group will stay small. The charm exuded by the elite is the Ersatz of an evolutionary defect related to our genetic inability to be alone, which is to say, to rid ourselves of our fear of the forest — and to do so with sufficient speed.

The later is got, the more intense grew the couple's desire not to be turned away at the door.
— from Savage Theories, by Pola Oloixarac.

I haven't yet decided how I feel about this book. I'm only just past halfway.

At first it was quirky and clever, and I liked it.

Then it was all about sex, and it became tiresome. I questioned whether I was being a prude. (I'm not a prude.)

There are bursts that are funny and insightful, but then it gets pretentiously academic, and I feel stupid (I'm not stupid), and I wonder if the pretentiousness is tongue-in-cheek.

"Philosophy is Satan's playground."

It's not yet clear to me what Savage Theories is about. The theorizing seemed to be about sex, and the laws of attraction, and young people claiming and wielding their sexual awareness while also dissociating from it.

Then I think, it is about sex as a political act. Revolutionary. Subversive. "There couldn't be anything in this world more beautiful than working for justice and fucking in the name of the Fatherland." And then it is about power; of course it's about power. Predatory behaviour. Everyone's a predator.

Then there is the Theory of Egoic Transmissions. (I don't know.)

Also, I need a crash course in Argentine history. Montoneros and Trotskyites. The Dirty War.

So. I will educate myself on some of the issues in Savage Theories, but I'm not sure it will make me like it any better. Right now it feels a little too opaque for me to be able to connect with it.

One hundred pages to go before bedtime, and tomorrow will be bookclub, where I hope all will be explained.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The spiral of us

I don't know how I came to have this book. I've had it for some time, and I know I didn't buy it or steal it. Friends deny giving it to me. Having established that it evidently dropped from nowhere onto my stack, I took it for a sign.

My reading in January had been not exactly depressing, and not heavy, yet it weighed. It felt decidedly male. No, I don't quite know what I mean by this. Coupland, Gaiman, Pynchon, and more, all writing boys' stories. I wanted something... not gentler exactly... More measured?
The lost and found/found and lost is like a section of our DNA. In the spiral of us is the story we can't tell — the story we tell in single lines, separated from one another not by neat spaces but by torn-out years.

Emerson said that the rarest thing on the planet is a truly individual action — but I'd set the bar at a story told. It's why the nineteenth century writers favoured such long and satisfyingly plotted novels. Some of them — like George Eliot — really believed there was something to tell and that we could tell it. Dickens knew very well that we could not, but he told it anyway, glittering and bravura. It's one way of defying chaos — the kind of Chaos, with a capital C, that can't be avoided; the exuberant, unfolding, unpredictable universe, expanding when it should be contracting, made largely of something that is not something but nothing — dark energy, anti-matter. A thing unconfined. What to say when the certainties fail?

Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.
I think I found... that something in The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson, though it didn't entirely work for me.

It's too compressed a book to satisfactorily be all the things it thought about being. It's a sci-fi parable that blends philosophy, anthropology and humour, but it's suddenly a travelogue from the 1700s, deciphering the warring cultures of Easter Island, and then an urban thriller, on the run through society's fringes. Futuristic yet ancient. Space pirates. A resistance movement. A cautionary environmentalist tale. And a love story. Stories within stories. In about 200 pages.

I don't mind that the connections are somewhat opaque, and I generally love Winterson's rhythm, her way with words (sparse but pregnant). But here the change in tone from one narrative to the next, as well as from character to character, felt like a self-indulgent exercise. It's all too deliberate, built for show. Winterson's poetry did not flow naturally out of it; or the characters did not fit comfortably under the umbrella of her poetry. This book demands a lot of the reader, and I'm not sure it's rewarded.

But as one character reminds us: "Stories are always true. It's the facts that mislead."

While I didn't love The Stone Gods as a novel, it provides an endless source of food for thought and conversation. Among its topics for consideration: We have destroyed our planet, depleted its resources, and therefore must colonize a new one (first priority: build a mall). A future with predictably customized advertising and customer service. Genetic manipulation. No one ages anymore. No one gets pregnant anymore (that's what test tubes are for). What is natural? The kernel of our consciousness and "humanity." Machine learning and the inevitability of a singularity. Robo sapiens. Cultural bias, but also species bias. The eery feeling that our future may be a past that we've already experienced — this may not be the first planet we have inhabited and destroyed. The paradox that technology makes us stupid. "Love is an experiment." Is that enough?
Everything is imprinted for ever with what it once was.

Is that true?
Ursula K Le Guin in the Guardian.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The problem with doublethink

I came across an article this morning, posted to Facebook by a Trump supporter, that troubles me for reasons quite beyond the partisan rhetoric. To me it exhibits a warped way of thinking, but most troublesome is that I'm unable to pinpoint why.

Written by John Nolte, a former Breibart editor, BE AFRAID: The Left's Resistance Movement Is EXACTLY as Orwell Depicted It (click at your own risk) proclaims "how truly Orwellian it is for the Left to pretend they are on the side of 1984's angels."

There has been renewed interest of late in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

What is increasingly troubling to me is how the same "evidence" can be held by both sides to argue opposite things. I acknowledge that I live in a bubble of my own devising; my personal bias is to dismiss the other side as dimwitted. But I'm certain that from their own bubble they share the same view of me.

So, how to objectively identify the the parts of and the problems with the arguments?

Quite serendipitously, this past weekend I was sorting through the last 3 boxes — milk crates, actually — of random stuff I need to contend with after having moved a year ago, among which I found a beige exercise book filled with notes made by my eighth-grade self (who even was I back then?) on CoRT III. This unit of CoRT Thinking covers debate and conflict and employs various strategies to examine both sides (EBS) by assessing the structure and value of the arguments.

My eighth-grade self was aware of 1984. The actual year was just around the corner, and soon, my very own big brother would take me to see the film adaptation.

My critical-thinking skills aren't what they used to be, so let me channel my eighth-grade self.

Nolte writes, "Orwell's seminal work is a cautionary tale aimed directly at the king of all Leftists, Josef Stalin."

Problem 1. Equating Stalinism with today's leftists. True that Orwell took aim at Stalin, but he is not the king of all Leftists.

I don't know a single left-leaning individual (and being a reasonably average university-educated, gainfully employed Canadian, I know a few) who condones Stalin. People who vote left of centre are not Orwell's target. Orwell stated that this and other works were "written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism." Stalin was a totalitarian; I am, more or less, a democratic socialist. Very few left-leaning people would even self-identify as communists.

Problem 2. Interpreting the aims of the left as including:
  • "the horrors of an all-powerful central government (that knows what's best for us)" — Might that not describe a president who signs executive orders for the good of us all, because he knows things we don't, and he understands the law better than the lawyers do?
  • "speech and thought policing" — Like discrediting all media as fake news.
  • "endless wars" — Who wants that?
  • "the elimination of the family and gender differences" — Nobody wants to eliminate family! As for the elimination of gender differences, if there's one thing the USSR deserves credit for it's for having produced so many women doctors, engineers, scientists.
Nolte's article then summarizes (his view of) the state of today:
We conservatives are not without our flaws, but we most certainly are not the ones running around portraying a centralized federal government as the solution to every problem, policing language, brutalizing thought-apostates, seeking the destruction of religious faith, spewing anti-science nonsense about gender-fluidity, or doing everything possible to eliminate the nuclear family — including the replacement of the father with a government check. We are also not the ones ginning up endless race and gender wars based on viralized lies and hoaxed hate crimes
Problem 3. I don't even know where to start in picking apart that paragraph. It doesn't remotely resemble the world I live in or reflect the aims of people I know. Who wants the destruction of religious faith? (Perhaps those who fear Islam?) Who is spewing anti-science nonsense? (Maybe the climate change deniers?) I might concede the need to draw attention to race and gender wars, but based on the fact that gross inequalities exist. I'm guessing that John Nolte is neither black nor a woman.

Problem 4. Calling the media Big Brother is a false equivalence. Is that just misunderstanding the source material? Big Brother is the surveillance state. It's the NSA. It's CCTV cameras. It's big data without regulation. The media does not see all.
"Here we were in the middle of Reagan's golden-era. It is Morning in America and I'm supposed to worry about words being placed off limits, guys in dresses peeing next to my daughter, and the Christian Gospels being portrayed on 24/7 cable news as bigotry?"
Problem 5. Reagan's era was not all golden. I was just a teenager, but I recall it as a time of Cold War terror, living under the constant threat of nuclear war. Or meltdown. Doesn't he remember The Day After? Or Ultravox? Or Chernobyl?

Problem 6. I can no longer tell which side Nolte is on. I thought he was worried about guys in dresses peeing next to his daughter. So, he's not? Or is it just that it's thirty years too early for that worry? Is this a time-travel problem?
Now take a good long look around and what you'll see is the deeply-disturbing spectacle of the American Left using their own Resistance movement in the exact same way Big Brother did — to out dissenters, to crush the souls of dissenters, to make violence against dissent, to make an example of those who think in ways unapproved by the Party, to silence, humiliate and punish Thought Criminals.
Problem 7. My head now hurts from trying to unravel this. The Left is Big Brother, the Party, and the Resistance. But the Resistance are the Thought Criminals. So the Left is everyone.

This is the point at which I throw my hands up in the air. It's illogical. Does not compute.

Without engaging in politics, without name calling or condescension, is it possible to define the flaws in this article and argue against it?

This is doublethink: "We have a president capable of standing in the rain and saying it was a sunny day."

Wednesday, February 08, 2017


A feature film based on Tom McCarthy's mindfuckingly awesome novel. A couple showings this week at Phi Centre. I think I need to see this.
All great enterprises are about logistics. Not genius or inspiration or flights of imagination, skill or cunning, but logistics.
― from Remainder, by Tom McCarthy.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

A salad of despair

Yet at least he had believed in the cars, maybe to excess: how could he not, seeing people poorer than him come in, Negro, Mexican, cracker, a parade seven days a week, bring with them the most godawful of trade-ins: motorized, metal extensions of themselves, of their families and what their whole lives must be like, out there so naked for anybody, a stranger like himself, to look at, frame cockeyed, rusty underneath, fender repainted in a shade just off enough to depress the value, if not Mucho himself, inside smelling hopelessly of children, of supermarket booze, two, sometimes three generations of cigarette smokers, or only of dust — and when the cars were swept out you had to look at the actual residue of these lives, and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused (when so little he supposed came by that out of fear most of it had to be taken and kept) and what had simply (perhaps tragically) been lost: clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10c, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the market, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that already were period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield with so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a grey dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes — it made him sick to look, but he had to look. If it had been an outright junkyard, probably he could have stuck things out, made a career: the violence that had caused each wreck being infrequent enough, far enough away from him, to be miraculous, as each death, up till the moment of our own, is miraculous. But the endless rituals of trade-in, week after week, never got as far as violence or blood, and so were too plausible for the impressionable Mucho to take for long. Even if enough exposure to the unvarying grey sickness had somehow managed to immunize him, he could still never accept the way each owner, each shadow, filed in only to exchange a dented, malfunctioning version of himself for another, just as futureless, automotive projection of somebody else's life. As if it were the most natural thing. To Mucho it was horrible. Endless, convoluted incest.
— from The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon.

The life of a used car salesman sounds terrible.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Time didn't leak away as it should

A sudden mist, a mumble of thunder over the sea, the wind scurrying along the beach with its crop of old bones and litter, was sometimes all it took to make you feel as though something was about to happen. Though quite what, I didn't know.

I often thought there was too much time there. That the place was sick with it. Haunted by it. Time didn't leak away as it should. There was nowhere for it to go and no modernity to hurry it along. It collected as the black water did on the marshes and remained and stagnated in the same way.
The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley, was a real treat.

The Loney is creepy, in layered way. There's the suspicious religious community that's making a pilgrimage to this corner of England — something seems off about their dynamic, maybe they're too religious, and they definitely appear to be harbouring some secrets from the new priest. There's something the boy's not telling us about the old priest either.

Then there's the creepiness of Catholicism itself: the somber rites of Holy Week, every action steeped in prayer and tragedy. (Having grown up Catholic, this element holds a great deal of interest for me in trying to gauge what is a normal level of religiosity.)

The setting is utterly windswept and gothic, a bleak house by the sea. And the tower across the way, where hanged the witch who lived there. Secret rooms. An underground shrine. Pagan charms and strange goings on in the woods at night.
The Church of the Sacred Heart was an ancient place — dark and squat and glistening amphibiously in the rain.
The locals are mostly unwelcoming, thoroughly unpleasant.
Like most drunks, Billy bypassed the small talk and slapped his bleeding, broken heart into my palm like a lump of raw beef.
Creepy also is the disconnect between now and then. The Loney is a coming-of-age story in a way — of two teenage brothers growing up in the 1970s. Back then, Hanny was mute, and everyone prayed for a miracle. The story is told by the other brother. Something happened that drastically changed how they are today.

I don't recall how I came to learn of this book, but I'm glad I did. A perfect read for a damp blustery day.

The Guardian: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley review — horror days by the sea:
This is a novel of the unsaid, the implied, the barely grasped or understood, crammed with dark holes and blurry spaces that your imagination feels compelled to fill.
The Telegraph: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, review: 'haunted and haunting':
The Loney is certainly a book about bloody rituals and ancient survivals, but it pays considerably more attention to the mechanisms of Christian faith, and to the strange arcana of esoteric Catholicism, than it does to the half-glimpsed paganism of this timeless corner of England.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Another world's intrusion into this one

Bulgarian edition, 1990
This book is funny and messed with my mind in a most wonderful way. I have no idea what to make of it, and I loved it. The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon. This is my first Pynchon.

It preys on a paranoid sense of conspiracy, both in the protagonist, Oedipa Maas, and the reader.

How strange it is to be reading the words "REPORT ALL OBSCENE MAIL TO YOUR POTSMASTER" while standing in the metro waiting for the doors to close, and at the last moment a young man who bears a striking resemblance to Putin should jump in, squeezing in behind my shoulder. He's wearing a standard-issue Canada Post jacket. I read about the Scope bar, and upon arriving at work I'm asked to proofread an ad for a conference called SCOPE. There's bourbon everywhere. Several(!) articles I read during the week reference Stockhausen, and Bakunin.

Oedipa Maas has been named executor of the estate of an old boyfriend. As she reviews his assets, she stumbles onto a massive conspiracy regarding the American postal system extending prior to the Civil War (an alternate history of which is also presented). She finds secret signs everywhere, but she herself is not comfortable with all the coincidence, and considers that it may all be in her head.

We are treated to a Jacobean revenge play, its variant editions, and an investigation into its origins that takes Oedipa to a used bookstore, a publisher, and a university professor. There's a scheme to recover bones for the purpose of making cigarette filters. The Yoyodyne corporation. A perpetual motion machine.
"You know what a miracle is. Not what Bakunin said. But another world's intrusion into this one. Most of the time we coexist peacefully, but when we do touch there's cataclysm. Like the church we hate, anarchists also believe in another world. Where revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul's talent for consensus allows the masses to work together without effort, automatic as the body itself. And yet, señá, if any of it should ever really happen that perfectly, I would also have to cry miracle. An anarchist miracle. Like your friend. He is too exactly and without flaw the thing we fight. In Mexico the privilegiado is always, to a finite percentage, redeemed — one of the people. Unmiraculous. But your friend, unless he's joking, is as terrifying to me as a Virgin appearing to an Indian."
There's a whole wiki devoted to this novel, and I read alongside it for a while. It was the note regarding Oedipa's shrink, Dr Hilarius, that caused me to trust in my own reading. The annotation gives a summary of Pope Saint Hilarius. But I truly don't see a need to look beyond the obvious: as a name, Hilarius is plain hilarious, only slightly more latinate and therefore doctory.

At some point I had to consciously decide not even to try to make sense of it all, let it wash over me, enjoy the ride. "Like all their inabilities to communicate, this too had a virtuous motive."

It reminds me of the best of Auster and the best of Murakami, but more self-assured, smarter. Wackier, yet in a seeming contradiction giving the impression of being more grounded in the real world. It feels loaded with possibility, and with possible interpretation.

Polish edition, 1990
There are a couple odd references to cancer. "The rest of the bones were used in the R&D phase of the filter programme, back around the early fifties, way before cancer." Did cancer not exist in the early fifties? Is it a symbol for communism? Some other sickness afflicting America? (Norman Mailer said, "Cancer is the growth of madness denied.") At another point, Oedipa lumps cancer together with things she doesn't want to think about. Is she turning a blind eye to some social responsibility? Or is she in denial about a personal, physical cancer? Is that what Maas is? Maybe it's merely her marriage that is the cancerous mass.
"There's a certain harassed style," she said, "you get to recognize. I thought only kids caused it. I guess not."
One reading of the book posits that it's one long acid trip. Dr Hilarius had wanted her to take part in a study, but she didn't trust him, and didn't take any of the pills her prescribed her (but perhaps this is a wish manifest through LSD, not reflecting reality).

The titular crying is that of an auctioneer. When lot 49, the dead man's collection of forged stamps, is put on the block, Oedipa hopes it will draw out a representative of Trystero, proving its existence once and for all. But the book ends as the auctioneer is clearing his throat. So the reader will never know. I feel Oedipa crying at this moment too, the way only a painting can make her cry.

Have you read The Crying of Lot 49? Do you have a theory?

Review in The New York Times (1966).
Review in The Quarterly Conversation.
Gallery of cover art.