Thursday, December 30, 2010

On Bullshit Part 2: Don't Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be John Mayer's Lover

Addendum to previous post on Harry Frankfurt's On Bullshit:

John Mayer's song "Daughters" is a perfect example of bullshit, as Frankfurt defines it.  Here is the chorus, which I sometimes hear in the vicinity of the frozen food section:

Fathers, be good to your daughters
Daughters will love like you do
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers
So mothers, be good to your daughters too

I could go on and on about the hard-wearing odor of bullshit on these lines, and I will.  First, allow me to translate the sentences into their component vectors of sideways bullshit.  So: John Mayer--a notorious bachelor with no children--wishes sanctimoniously to remind actual parents of some things they may not have considered: namely that kids need love and that what parents do matters.  Thank you, John Mayer.  I have two children, but I thought all they needed was Amy's frozen Mac and Cheese.  Then, as I was opening the grocery store freezer, I heard your song and I realized: mac and cheese is not all.  Children also need love.  It's not either / or.  And John Mayer was good and wise enough to make sure everyone strafed in the merciless enfilade of his marketing apparatus knows that.

When I first listened carefully to the song, it seemed weird to me that this guy was singing about daughters becoming "lovers"--and that that was somehow the utilitarian principle on which he based his exhortation, love your daughters.  I knew nothing at that time about John Mayer, but the "lovers" reference seemed to imply that Mayer did not have children of his own, because most parents don't really like to think of their kids' future love lives at all, let alone orient their parenting around their kids' future preparedness to be good "lovers."  So I googled John Mayer (he does not have kids that he knows of) and I also found the lyrics to the first verse of the song, "Daughters":

I know a girl
She puts the color inside of my world
But she's just like a maze
Where all of the walls are continually changed
And I've done all I can
To stand on her steps with my heart in my hands
Now I'm starting to see
Maybe it's got nothing to do with me

Fathers, be good to your daughters...

Now I get it.  He's singing, in so many words, I care, I am not a womanizer but a gallant knight: chivalrous (I sing 'On behalf of every man / Looking out for every girl'), pure ('it's got nothing to do with me'), idealistic and yet resigned to the fallenness of the natural world ('I've done all I can').  So fathers be good to your daughters, because if you're not good to them, they will probably grow up to be John Mayer's lover and annoy the shit out of him because of all the baggage you saddled them with, and he will gallantly do all he can but he just can't undo the damage done by your crap parenting.  But he doesn't stop there.  Whereas fathers can ruin their daughters as future companions for John Mayer, mothers can ruin their daughters as future mothers of future possible companions for John Mayer.  This guy John Mayer is a visionary.  You see, if these badly mothered girls go on to mother their own children and these children turn out to be female, and if John Mayer is still alive and able to swallow Viagra by the time they reach maturity, these girls will only be another generation of lovers who provide less than optimal results for John Mayer.  So mothers be good to your daughters, too.  Parents: stop thinking of yourself all the time and start thinking of John Mayer and the inconveniences your daughters' baggage may represent for his love life.

This is a rare species of bullshit.  Standard bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt teaches, is when someone says things not because they're true but because the statements achieve a certain goal.  The standard bullshit element in this song is John Mayer's attempt to persuade even more women to have sex with John Mayer without John Mayer having to feel guilt.  However, when it comes to bullshit, John Mayer goes the extra mile--just as John Mayer does in his efforts to prepare multiple generations of women to love him properly.  It's just not everyday that a bullshitter provides such obvious evidence of his ulterior motives and his lack of authority to say what he's saying.

I wonder whether John Mayer ever heard "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys."  It's a better song and forecasts perhaps some well-deserved alone-time for John the Paladin:

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys
Don't let 'em pick guitars or drive them old trucks
Let 'em be doctors and lawyers and such
Mamas don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys
'Cause they'll never stay home and they're always alone
Even with someone they love

Thursday, December 23, 2010

On Trial for a Kiss

The TrialThe Trial by Franz Kafka

On September 22, 1912, Franz Kafka stayed up all night writing a highly autobiographical, somewhat fantastical, short story called “The Judgment.”  Twelve years later he was dead.  He had published little, but what he’d written in that decade—including “In the Penal Colony,” “The Metamorphosis,” and The Trial—was a thunderbolt staked in the heart of literature unlike any since Boccaccio’s Decameron.

From Boccaccio (and Dante and Petrarch) emanates that realist, psychological humanism which passed through Chaucer into its apogee in the plays of Shakespeare, and resounded across the next centuries in the work of the great modernists, like James Joyce.  Kafka belongs to this tradition, clearly, but he also inaugurates a new way forward.

John Updike wrote that Kafka “felt abashed before the fact of his own existence….  So singular, he spoke for millions in their new unease; a century after his birth he seems the last holy writer, and the supreme fabulist of modern man’s cosmic predicament.”  William Hubben said that Kafka “expressed the terror of life in such unforgettable images that comparisons with classical writers suggest themselves.”  And George Steiner notes that kafkaesque is now a coinage in a hundred languages.  “The letter K is his,” Steiner said, “as S is not Shakespeare’s or D Dante’s (it is in analogy with Dante and Shakespeare that W.H. Auden placed Franz Kafka as the shaping mirror of our new dark ages).”

Updike, Hubben, and Steiner are right about Kafka’s importance, but unenlightening about the reason for it.  Furthermore, they seem to think of modernity as a time of darkness, and wish to anoint Kafka as its bard—a common, and a mistaken, view.  John Gardner is perhaps more helpful.  In Kafka’s work, Gardner writes, “particular details of psychological reality are directly translated into physical reality….  [T]he reality imitated is, not in one or two details but in many, that of our dreams….  The presentation tends to be that of conventional realistic fiction; only the subject matter has changed.”

This sounds like “magical realism,” and in fact Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is perhaps more closely associated with that movement than anybody else, was directly inspired by Kafka.  In a 1981 interview for The Paris Review, Peter H. Stone asked Marquez, “How did you start writing?”  Marquez answered, “...One night a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka: I went back to the pension where I was staying and began to read ‘The Metamorphosis.’  The first line almost knocked me off the bed. I was so surprised. The first line reads, ‘As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect....’ When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.”

Expressionism existed before; artists have always depicted the contents of their imaginations, often in a realist style.  Look at the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch or at the ancient Greek plays.  But what separates Kafka and much of the magical realism he inspired from previous examples of expressionism is that he wrote with psychological insight and intent.  “Despite his power of fantasy,” Harold Bloom says, “Kafka is as empirical as Freud or Beckett.”  And Kafka was influenced by Freud.  In a diary entry from September 23, 1912, Kafka noted that throughout the writing of his famous story, “The Judgment,” in which he first worked out his general psychological-expressionist method, he had “thoughts of Freud, of course.”

The Kafkaesque expressionist is a psychologically-educated spelunker in the caves of his own mind; by contrast, Aeschylus’s expressionism, while loaded with psychological meaning to an almost shocking degree, feels less psychologically self-aware, less attuned to the mechanisms of psychic change, more intuitive.  “The dilemma of Orestes,” A.D. Nuttall writes, “is essentially public: one god says ‘Do this,’ another god says, ‘Do that.’  There is no question of attributing hesitation or procrastination to Orestes as a feature of his character (indeed, he can hardly be said to have character).”  That could be called na├»ve expressionism, whereas Kafka represents a psychologically sophisticated expressionism—the sort, for example, that some critics have observed in the work of filmmaker David Lynch.  Chris Rodley commented on Lynch’s film Blue Velvet: “The movie does seem to display or illustrate, almost perfectly, certain Freudian concerns and theories—and in an extreme, undiluted way.”  He then asked Lynch, “Was that intentional?”  Lynch said, “[F]ilm has a great way of giving shape to the subconscious.  It’s just a great language for that.”  Not so great, however, as fiction—at least since Kafka got to it.

Kafka adds to the biblical-Shakespearean tradition of inquiry into character a research into the dream-life, into the imagination as a psychodynamic force, into the manner in which emotions distort perceptions of reality.  Existentialists like to point out that despite the pervasive sense of guilt and accusation in The Trial, K. never knows what he’s accused of.  Updike was right in this much: it’s K.’s whole life that’s on trial—in the courtroom of his own over-zealous conscience.  And we could say that were there one specific cause, repression obscures such painful memories and ideas.  But all that being said, there are certainly hints as to what he’s accused of (or has accused himself of).  At the end of chapter six, K. kisses Leni, his lawyer’s mistress.  “Joseph!” his uncle cries, “how could you do it! … the poor sick lawyer … In all probability you have helped to bring about his complete collapse and so hastened the death of the man on whose good offices you are dependent.  And you leave me, your uncle, to wait here in the rain for hours and worry myself sick, just feel, I’m wet through and through!”

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The One Book to Have with You on a Desert Isle

The Riverside ShakespeareThe Riverside Shakespeare by William Shakespeare

If stranded on a desert isle, is there really any question which one book you should have with you?  All I can say is that if it were me, I would want that book to be Survival Guide for the Mariner.  However, Shakespeare's complete works, collected all into one volume is about as magnificent as any single art object could be.

Harry Levin writes of the age in which Shakespeare lived: "[T]he most salient characteristic of Jacobean culture was its devotion to the pursuit of knowledge, which involved the most searching introspection and the most fanciful speculation, along with the ambitious program for science that Bacon outlined...."  And E.M.W. Tillyard, similarly, writes: "The Elizabethans were interested in the nature of man with a fierceness rarely paralleled in other ages; and that fierceness delighted in exposing all the contrarieties in man’s composition."  If you believe these scholars then, Shakespeare was by no means unique in his study of the machinations of the human heart.  Tillyard again: "[N]ot to know yourself was to resemble the beasts, if not in coarseness at least in deficiency of education.  To know yourself was not egoism but the gateway to all virtue…."  Everybody in those days wanted to understand their own passions, the better to harness them to reason.  What is impossible to ignore is that Shakespeare observed them and creatively depicted them better than anyone in his own time, and better, possibly, than anyone before or since.

Harry Levin's General Introduction to the 1974 Riverside Shakespeare is a lucid, unpretentious skeleton key to the meanings and methods of the uncanny William Shakespeare--an essential piece of reading and a good place to start.  I don't like the double columns on the vast pages of the Riverside.  It takes forever to get through just one page, which I find demoralizing.  But this is the cost of having it all in one volume I guess.


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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Polished Bones and Hobnailed Boots

The EmigrantsThe Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

The style of narration in The Emigrants is akin to a pathologist murmuring into his dictaphone at the end of a long day of autopsies. It confronts ugliness, despair, and destruction with a mask of neutral reserve and tireless scientific dedication to detail. It's unique and beautiful, breathes real life, and artfully expresses a melancholy feeling of obligation to history:

"And so they are ever returning to us, the dead," Sebald writes of the discovery of the body of mountain-climber Johannes Naegli 72 years after his disappearance. "At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots." (p. 23)

For much of the first half or three-quarters of the book, I considered it marred by an orthodox devotion to elusiveness, ambiguity, misery, uncertainty and a Baudrillardian insistence on the link between commerce and destruction: "Deauville ... the once legendary resort, like everywhere else that one visits now, regardless of the country or continent, was hopelessly run down and ruined by traffic, shops and boutiques, and the insatiable urge for destruction." (p. 116)

I advise you to pause midway through and marvel at Sebald's necromantic power to conjure melancholy. Then read five poems by Walt Whitman and the following quote from astronaut Alan Bean and call me in the morning.

Bean, who went to the moon with Apollo 12, said this about his homecoming from the desolation of the moon:

"I've not complained about traffic. I'm glad there are people around. One of the things that I did when I got home, I went down to shopping centers and I'd just go around there, get an ice cream cone or something and just watch the people go by and think, 'Boy, we're lucky to be here.' Why do people complain about the earth? We are living in the Garden of Eden."

And then, having shored yourself up, you must push on through to the end of this book, where Sebald proves himself so much more human and courageous a writer than those who satisfy themselves with a specious finality of melancholy and bleakness alone, those who regard ignorance and obscurity as an inevitability of epistemology rather than a byproduct of psychology--repression--as Sophocles and Freud would have it. The narrator confesses a feeling of guilt about omitting to ask his friend Max Ferber about his parents, who were killed by Nazis when he was a boy, and on p. 183 Ferber says, echoing Wittgenstein's famous last sentence of the Tractatus, "of those things we could not speak of we simply said nothing." The narrator and Ferber are united in repression and silence, the German in repression of crime, the Jew in repression of suffering: "When I asked if he remembered saying goodbye to his parents at the airport, Ferber replied, ... he could not see his parents. He no longer knew what the last thing his mother or father had said to him was, or he to them, or whether he and his parents had embraced or not." (p. 187)

At last we are squarely back in the realm of Freud and Sophocles: "Naturally, I took steps," Ferber says, "consciously or unconsciously, to keep at bay thoughts of my parents' sufferings and of my own misfortune, and no doubt I succeeded sometimes in maintaining a certain equability by my self-imposed seclusion; but the fact is that that tragedy in my youth struck such deep roots within me that it later shot up again, put forth evil flowers, and spread the poisonous canopy over me which has kept me so much in the shade and dark in recent years." (p. 191)

This dehiscence of memory and guilt late in the novel serves to explain and also redeem the forsakenness that preceded.  And the motivic butterfly which has haunted the narrative throughout like a recurrent dream or uncatchable memory turns out to be a messenger of liberation after all, albeit a messenger with a somewhat unstable, fluttery flight path.

A difficult but magnificent book.


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Friday, December 3, 2010

On Bullshit

On BullshitOn Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt

“Why is there so much bullshit?” asks Princeton philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurt.  He doesn't ask plaintively, but rather in the formal manner of a rigorous philosophical inquiry.  He defines bullshit, more or less, not as lying, but as talking about something without knowing about it and without caring whether you know.  You could be right, you could be wrong, but you don't know it.  All you know is your agenda.  That's propaganda in a nutshell.  A reckless disregard for truth, and subordination of truth to an agenda that is more important than the truth.  Commentary on cable news channels is complete bullshit.  The commentators don't care about facts, they care about ratings, or perhaps about some political goal, like taxes or terrorism or defeating their ideological enemies at the polls, and they're content to say anything to get the desired end-result.  It's a serpentine Machiavellianism in regard to fact.

On the other hand, as Frankfurt is well aware, the academy is full of bullshit (according to him Yale, where he used to teach, is the bullshit capital of the world--probably because of Paul de Man), precisely because over the last half-century the academy has succumbed to an entrenched skepticism of truth and reality as "constructions."

"Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about," Frankfurt says.  Because so many academics have profound doubts about the existence of truth and fact (yes, it makes no sense...), they are obligated to bullshit or to shut up, and unfortunately they have chosen the former.

The word bullshit, when applied to a fitting object, is pleasurable to say and to read.  It is a highly specific word--it names a species of dishonesty that differs from lying, as Frankfurt clearly shows--and therefore it's highly descriptive, honest, truthful, useful.  In short it's the opposite of what it names with fitting scorn.  It is honorable.  It is the shibboleth of all those who care about what is true and what is ...

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