Monday, December 30, 2013

"Why write? Life is a cage of empty words."

The Diary of Edward the Hamster 1990-1990, by Miriam Elia and Ezra Elia, was waiting for me under the Christmas tree.
Friday, September 26th

He says his name is Wolf, although he is not a wolf.

He is a hamster.

I tried to goad him into debate on the nature of our captivity, on the emptiness of life and our irrational will to live.

He burped, laughed and defecated in the food tray.

He is either mad or profoundly stupid.

I am crushed.

He sleeps again. Perhaps I shall do the same.

It is my only option.

Edward was a hamster who smoked, went on hunger strikes, questioned his existence. Edward loved and Edward lost. These are his scratchings, translated from the original Hamster.

This little hardcover book, illustrated with black and white sketches, full of hamster musings, was a lovely way to spend an hour and round out my year of Kierkegaard.

Read an excerpt.

Article: New York Post.
Quiz: Who said it? Edward the Hamster or some other existentialist philosopher?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Why do you want to write? It must be so upsetting!

"Leontii Sergeyevich" remarked Ivan Vasilievich, "has brought me a play."

"Whose play?" asked the old woman, gazing at me sorrowfully.

"Leontii Sergeyevich has written the play himself."

"What for?" asked Nastasya Ivanovna anxiously.

"What do you mean — what for?... H'm... h'm..."

"Aren't there enough plays already?" asked Nastasya Ivanovna in a tone of kindly reproach. "There are such lovely plays and so many of them! If you were to start playing them you couldn't get through them all in twenty years. Why do you want to write? It must be so upsetting!"

She was so convincing that I could find nothing to reply, but Ivan Vasilievich drummed his fingers and said:

"Leontii Leontievich has written a modern play!"

This disturbed the old lady and she said: "We don't want to attack the government!"

"Why should anyone want to?" I said in her support.

"Don't you like The Fruits of Enlightenment?" asked Nastasya Ivanovna shyly and anxiously. "Such a nice play... and there's a part in it for dear Ludmilla..." She sighted and got up. "Please give my respects to your father."

"Sergei Sergeyevich's father is dead," put in Ivan Vasilievich.

"God rest his soul," said the old lady politely. "I don't suppose he knew you were writing a play, did he?"

Black Snow, by Mikhail Bulgakov, is a very funny novel. Bulgakov never finished it, and it was not published for more than thirty years after his death.

It starts off as a book about the creative process, and veers off into the surreal (weird). There's a failed suicide attempt (funny) and a Mephistophelean editor (funny!), and before long it's a nightmare of financial dealings, with characters, offices, and assets disappearing over night (funny, in a dark way). Most of the novel, however, has the pacing and tenor of a 1930s screwball comedy, befitting the theatrical farce that it is.

For example, the theatre itself is opulent, the foyer hung with portraits in gilded frames, including depictions of Sarah Bernhardt, Molière, Shakespeare, various actors and other theatrical personages, and the Emperor Nero (hilarious!).
"By order of Ivan Vasilievich," said Bombardov, keeping a straight face. "Nero was a singer and an artiste."

The business of the theatre is chaotic and has a logic all its own. Bulgakov captures the mystique with an almost filmic precision:
The three telephones rang incessantly and sometimes the little office was deafened by all three ringing at once. None of this disturbed Philipp in the least. With his right hand he picked up the receiver of the right-hand telephone, clamped it between his shoulder and his cheek, with his left hand he picked up the other receiver and pressed it to his left ear. Freeing his right hand he used it to take one of the notes being handed to him and began talking to three people at once — into the left-hand telephone, the right-hand and then the visitor again. Right-hand telephone, visitor, left, left, right, right. Dropping both receivers back on to their rests at once and thus freeing both hands, he took two of the scraps of paper. Refusing one of them, he picked up the receiver from the yellow telephone, listened for a moment and said: "Ring up tomorrow at three o'clock." He hung up and said to the petitioner: "Nothing doing."

In time I began to understand what they wanted from Philipp Philippovich. They wanted tickets.

Black Snow is based on Bulgakov's own experiences with writing for the Moscow Art Theatre. Bulgakov mercilessly satirizes the theatre milieu and its famous director, Konstantin Stanislavski (he of the eponymous acting method). It is much less political than I might have expected, but it does deal with censorship of a kind — how a playwright's work ceases to be his own.

Despite feeling uneven, like three or four different novels rolled into one though they might have wandered off in different directions, Black Snow is a highly entertaining insider's view of the workings of the theatre.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

O'er the hills of snow

Christmas Freilachs, by the Angstones.

Pretty much my favourite Christmas medley ever, capturing the chaotic spirit of the season.

I bought this cassette single back in... I dunno, some 20 years ago or so. And in 20 years of Internet, I haven't found an easy way to share it, but finally I found a link.

It never fails to put a smile on my face. Hope you're smiling too.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Telling the story is hard

"I am writing the story," she says. "The story of you, and me, and the Pigoons, and everyone. I am writing about how we put Snowman-the-Jimmy and Adam One into the ground and Oates too, so that Oryx can change them into the form of a tree. And that is a happy thing, isn't it?"

"Yes. It is a happy thing. What is wrong with your eyes, Oh Toby? Are you crying?" says Blackbeard. He touches her eyebrow.

"I'm just a little tired," says Toby. "And my eyes are tired as well. Writing makes them tired."

"I will purr on you," says Blackbeard.

Among the Crakers, the small children do not purr. Blackbeard is growing quickly — they do grow faster, these children — but is he big enough to purr? Apparently so: already his hands are on her forehead, and the mini-motor sound of Craker purring is filling the air. She's never been purred on before: it's very soothing, she has to admit.

"There," says Blackbeard. "Telling the story is hard, and writing the story must be more hard. Oh Toby, when you are too tired to do it, next time I will write the story. I will be your helper."

"Thank you," says toby. "That is kind."

Blackbeard smiles like daybreak.

MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood, is a most satisfying conclusion to the near-future postapocalyptic scenario laid out in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. But I think you do really need to read the first two books to fully understand the dynamics of this one.

This volume gives Zeb's backstory, and through him, the story of Adam One.

MaddAddam is funny, mostly in its depiction of the Crakers, the naïve genetically engineered humans, as they are beginning to undergo evolution, at least of a social and cultural sort as they learn from the surviving "natural" humans and develop a mythology of their own. And it seems that the future of humanity depends on their interbreeding.

The characters are wonderful — genuine and sympathetic if not always likeable. While the first two volumes set the stage of this new world, its creatures, environments, and issues all reasonably extrapolated from science that is being performed today, this volume, in my view, now that the world-building is done, is simply about a group of (somewhat misfit) survivors trying to get along and cope with a (very) tough situation. The first two might be considered cautionary; this book, remarkably, is unabashedly hopeful.

It made me smile like daybreak.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

My ambiguous self

One of the most beautiful books I read this year was Azazeel, by Youssef Ziedan, an Egyptian scholar who specializes in Arabic and Islamic studies. It won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009 and has been condemned by the Coptic Orthodox church.

In a wonderful review, "In Case of Doubt, Choose Doubt," Andreas Pflitsch says that this historical novel is a plea against religiously motivated violence.

Set in the 5th century AD, these are the memoirs of Hypa, a Coptic monk who journeyed from Upper Egypt to Alexandria and then Syria.

It's not a period in history that I know much about, but several aspects of it are fascinating. It covers a culture in transition between pantheism and Christianity. It shows the significance of the life and death of woman mathematician and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria.

And it features Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople, condemned by the Council of Ephesus for his belief that Christ's human and divine natures could not be reconciled. (Lucky for me I read this novel while studying Kierkegaard, who didn't care so much about reconciling them, so I had ample opportunity to consider the absurdity of faith.)

Hypa meanwhile is consumed with the problem of reconciling, or accepting, his own human and divine natures, that is, satisfying both physical and spiritual yearnings. Azazeel, the devil, is the voice inside him, a daimon, who does not lead him to temptation so much as reflect it back to his conscience.
I sat up, filled with a fear the source of which I did not know. I asked myself: should I go to church now, to feel a little peace of mind? The night prayers must have started. Being in a group would relieve the anxiety, since nothing is more conducive to fear than being alone. Or should I go to Martha's cottage nearby and mend what was broken in our relationship, then sleep on the floor under her bed? Does Martha sleep in the bed where we made love two days ago? Or does she lie on the floor like me? I don't know much about her. I've never seen her from the inside. In fact I've never seen anything from the inside. I always skirt around the surface of things and never go deep. In fact I think I'm afraid of looking deep inside myself, yet I know the truth about my ambiguous self. Everything about me is ambiguous — my baptism, my being a monk, my faith, my poems, my medical knowledge, my love for Martha. I am one ambiguity after another, and ambiguity is the opposite of faith, just as Satan is the opposite of God.

Azazeel is by turns adventurous, sensuous, thrilling, and mysterious; it is laden with historical detail and religious intrigue. It shows great insight and sensitivity to matters of spirituality and faith (or lack thereof, as I have none), and lends itself to slow and contemplative reading.

The Bookbag
The Guardian
Winston's Dad

There is also a sampling of international response to the novel on the book's website.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

I would not have gone crazy about Beethoven so unexpectedly

I went crazy for Beethoven quite unexpectedly.

Witold Gombrowicz on Beethoven:

Quartets! Sixteen quartets! It is one thing to dip occasionally into one of them, in passing, and another to step into the building, to immerse oneself, to wander from hall to hall, wander in the galleries, take in the vaults, examine the architecture, uncover the inscriptions and frescoes ... with a finger to one's lips. Form! Form! It is not him I look for, the building is not full of him, but his form, which I get to know in the course of this gradual self-composition of adventures, changes, acquisitions — similar to creatures human and nonhuman from ancient fairy tales. […]

Certainly, if not for that elegant sound of four stringed instruments, if not for that polyphonic quartet refinement, thanks to which all music that passes between these four instruments undergoes an inordinately subtle transformation, I would not have gone crazy about Beethoven so unexpectedly.

I went crazy for Beethoven quite unexpectedly. Overrated sellout, I used think; as a teenager, I snubbed the establishment. But then I listened, I was made to listen. And it's the aural sculpture of the quartets that sent me reeling into the unknown depths of my own self. To this day I cannot get enough of the quartets.

It was about the same time I discovered Gombrowicz's Diary.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The MOOC experience

I've completed my first massive open online course (MOOC). It was weird at the start, but it didn't take long to get my bearings.

Here's how it worked.

I enrolled in Soren Kierkegaard: Subjectivity, Irony, and the Crisis of Modernity. So did 23,000 other people.

Every week new course material was released: 3 or 4 videos, each on average about 20 minutes long; a list of required reading (PDFs were supplied); a discussion question; a quiz.

So over the last 2 months, I have watched several hours of professional documentary-quality video, and read a couple hundred pages of Kierkegaard, with some Plato and Hegel thrown in.

The quality of the video lectures really surprised me; this was not merely a recording of some fuddy-duddy lecturing in front of a classroom. This professor was a great speaker; he was filmed in various locations around Copenhagen. There were also several interviews with other Kierkegaard scholars. Each video ended with a quiz question, which was not graded but was meant simply to reinforce your understanding of the video material.

The weekly quiz consisted of 10 multiple-choice questions. These did count toward the final grade. They weren't hard, but they weren't easy. I learned early to take my time and refer to my notes, which meant taking better notes during the lectures. Before you submit each quiz, you must check the box indicating that you will abide by the honor code, which states something to the effect of your work being your own (but there's nothing to preclude me from using my notes).

In the first days, the discussion forum exploded with 23,000 people sharing their enthusiasm and trying to get to know each other. That was a bit overwhelming. But I eventually learned to identify which discussions I wanted to follow and know that I couldn't stay on top of them all in any meaningful way even if I devoted all my waking hours to the task. I learned to tune out the white noise.

The course information indicated that the material would require 3-5 hours a week. I'd say it's a bit more. And that estimate doesn't include the potential timesink of the forums.

Some people complained about the deadline for the final essay. I was amazed, and disappointed, that the deadline was adjusted to accommodate the whiners. The schedule had been made clear at the outset of the course, and I expected everyone to stick to it; in fact, pushing back the deadlines by a week very nearly jeopardized my ability to complete the final stage (peer review) because I had organized my life around the original dates. It worked out though, but this shouldn't happen. An extra week for the final essay should've been built in from the start — working on an essay while keeping up with the regular weekly assignments is tough.

It's difficult to grade the humanities in the best of circumstances, and a MOOC is not the best of circumstances. The grade breakdown for this course was 70% from quiz scores (best 7 of 8) and 30% from an averaging of your peers' assessments of your essay. My feeling is that the quizzes were too easy to be given that weight. Essay marks, however, are hard to control — less quantifiable, more open to dispute.

Is it a perfect setup? No. But can you teach the humanities via MOOCs? Absolutely.

According to this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education and the survey they conducted, the median for MOOC registrations is about 33,000 students (so my Kierkegaard course is a bit on the low side).
  • The rate of completion in MOOCs is believed to be around 10 percent.
  • For students who so much as submit the first assignment, the completion rate leaps to 45 percent.
  • And it goes up again if students pay for the course.

So I'm proud to have finished.

And I've already registered for more.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

A net made of money

The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter, is one of the funniest novels I've read in some time, but also, as you might intuit from the fabulous title, one with great depth. (What a great title!)

Matt, out of work reporter and about to lose his house, goes out one night to the convenience store to pick up some milk (like, nine dollars a gallon!) for the kids, for their cereal for breakfast, and ends up giving a lift to a couple guys and smoking dope with them, and before the high wears off he's decided that dealing drugs is a sound option, a sensible path out of his fiscal troubles.

Informed of Matt's recent life decision, a friend tells him, "I'll say this about your new life, Matt. You're the only person I know who has anything to talk about right now other than budget deficits and layoffs and the death of newspapers."

Which is ironic, because Matt is all about the money, hyper aware of the cost of milk at the convenience store, and his course of action is a direct result of layoffs and the death of newspapers. It's all he rambles on about in his head. Selling drugs seems like a way out. At three hundred an ounce and a fifty percent profit if he's selling to his peers (nostalgia types, who wouldn't know where else to go), he need just roll his savings over three, four times to forestall the foreclosure on his house.

This may be the great Great Recession novel.
We're broke, Lisa and me — something important cracked in us. And I have no idea how to fix it, any more than I know how to keep from losing our house, or for that matter, how to build a tree fort. All I know is that I have a check in my pocket for less than ten thousand dollars, a check that represents the last threads of the money we always assumed would serve as our safety net, and that might be the stupidest thing we did — not starting a poetry-business website or buying shit on eBay or taking the six-month stay of financial execution, not emailing old boyfriends or getting high at a convenience store — no, the truly stupid mistake was believing that when we fell, a net made of money could catch us.

Matt has so many lapses in judgement, but he believes so strongly that he's actually thinking clearly and logically that I nearly believe it too. Because, this is the big financial mess we're all in, you buy a nice house and a big TV, lease a car and you want to send your kids to a nice school; it feels like anyone could make a mistake or two (or ten), like Matt, and how do you get yourself out of it?
I don't bring up her insistence on remodeling and her online shopping binge and she doesn't stare across the dinner table and say, with all due respect, Matt: financial fucking poetry? And on and on we go, not talking — all the way to the incriminating cheating and weed-dealing mess we're in now.

We're not husband and wife right now; we are unindicted coconspirators.

(Cuz there's that time when Matt gave up his day job to commit himself to a website that gave stock tips in free verse.)

We recently met with the rep for our daughter's education savings plan, and she told us what great shape we're in, which took me by surprise, because we don't plan well, we don't even consider our options much because from where we sit there aren't that many options anyway and they're mostly the same, we just muddle along and I think we're lucky. It's not that we're stupid with money and lucky about it, we just don't give it much thought at all, and I think we could be proactively smarter about it. But it turns out we're doing better than I thought, and maybe we have made some smart choices, like not buying a bigger house than we could afford. Maybe I just take fiscal conservatism and being sensible with money for granted. Which, if you think about it, is pretty lucky.

Matt gets in trouble, but he gets through it. Not exactly a happy ending, but a financially sensible one, which, I guess, is a happier ending than a lot of Americans get.

LA Times
The New Dork Review of Books
New York Times

Thursday, December 05, 2013

All best, Margaret Atwood

What a remarkable lady!

Last night I saw Margaret Atwood at the Rialto. One can't always be sure what one is going to get when an author makes an appearance; expectations aren't always properly set*, and so much depends on the author's personality, the venue, the crowd's energy. Chances were good this would be good. But Atwood was brilliant. I think she must always be brilliant. (I have seen her before, and she's always been brilliant.)

*I made the trek last week to see Chris Hadfield, but was disappointed to find it was a signing only — no reading, no musical number, no magic tricks I mean science experiments, just some dumb astronaut signing your book, I mean oh my gawd I shook an astronaut's hand and his handshake is so firm and he signed my book! But you see my point, I hope.

She started off singing, a hymn from The Year of the Flood. She is by no means an extraordinary singer, but she sings just fine, loud and proud. She actually sang! And cracked that some people really do tell her to keep her day job.

And she read, from MaddAddam, the recently released third book in the speculative trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake. I only started reading the book a few days ago, and in a happy coincidence, she read the section that I had just arrived at (she read pages 106 to 109).

And then she talked. With the very personable Sheila Heti (whose work I have not read, but I intend to someday). That's them in the picture above. (Really.) They chatted (well, mostly Peggy chatted, while Sheila prompted) about the power of storytelling, and what parts of the brain light up when engaging in narrative, indicating that it's a basic thing in humans, along with language, music, rhythm, not like algebra or reading for that matter.

Also edible body products (when the apocalypse comes, go to the spa), cats (everyone knows that one of the most useful things to do for a migraine is to put a purring cat on your head; science has yet to figure out how to keep it there), the future (and extrapolating toward it), Menippean satire (but the world is moving so fast, satire has to push farther to keep up), the Amazon drones (if she'd included that technology back in the day of Oryx and Crake, it would've been considered beyond belief), Archie comics, Northrop Frye, origin stories and the tendency to mythologize (which comic books and science fiction are particularly great at). And other stuff.

Oh, right, and a bit about the book: how God's Gardeners mix scripture, nature, and science with imperfect results; the nature of the Crakers (in their society there would never be a book by Sheila Heti called Women in Clothes); why Jimmy is reluctant to share his story — he cannot envisage a reader — contrasted with Toby, who can, which is hopeful.

She entertained questions from the audience: She advised against hallucinogens as a writing aid, affirmed that social media is good for literacy (citing Smarter Than You Think), commented on Rob Ford (Toronto is paying for its great sin of puffed-uppedness), and scoffed at the idea of writing exercises (you mean like summer camp? let's pretend to be a triangle).

Also she said some smart things about the control (or lack thereof) the author has over the reader. You never know who your readers are going to be. A reader doesn't want to see Austen pulling the puppet strings; the reader would much rather sit and listen to Mr. Darcy. As for authors connecting with their audiences, well, isn't that what the book is for?

And she signed my book! (Which I must hurry up and finish reading this week.)

Check out Margaret Atwood's website; it will lead you to new and interesting places. Also, know that there's a MaddAddam app, the game Intestinal Parasites (which I'm downloading this very minute).

Monday, December 02, 2013

Briefly it will seem as if you're free


Think of bars that cease to exist
the closer you get to them. Before you feel
their coldness, then their obstinacy, briefly it will seem
as if you're free. Think of a keyhole, of the eye
of a peephole that sees everything, or even more.
And think of your own eyelid, of your own soul
lurking just behind the pupil.

— Tadeusz Dąbrowski

Tadeusz Dąbrowski's Black Square, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, is published in a bilingual edition (Polish-English) by Zephyr Press. My copy's inscribed to me by the poet (thanks to my sister, who, at my encouragement, attended a reading of his a couple months ago).

I had a tough time choosing a poem to cite here, so I give you this one because I can do so in its entirety. (Although, I must admit, when I first read this poem, I pictured some drunk someone, maybe me, stumbling along to the next bar, and thinking how tragic that the destination would be always removed and then must be reconsidered, infinitely. In Polish, however, the meaning of "bars," in the iron jailing sense, is quite clear.)

I find these poems beautiful, the sound of them, in English or Polish, and certain phrases transport me, particularly the love poems ("I carried you unintentionally in my arms from a go-/go club straight into my bed and thoroughly/ rubbed you into the bedclothes [...]" — emphasis mine, because, oh).

And I also find myself in smiling agreement ("This is the first line. This line means nothing./ And this is the second line, in which you are no longer you,/ i.e., you're not the person from the first line,/ and now you're not even who you were/ in the second and third, and fourth and on top of that/ the fifth. This poem is life, [...]") but then disagreeing quite passionately, which happens when the poem turns to God (and this one does).

I have loved some poetry, and I have hated some other poetry. Most poetry leaves me indifferent. But this may be my first love-hate relationship with a poet.