Friday, July 29, 2011

Tuna Holocaust

Swimmy (Knopf Children's Paperbacks)Swimmy by Leo Lionni

The good news is: great illustrations, some memorably poetic lines, nice short text.  A lobster is a "water-moving machine," an eel is so long that its tail is hard to remember, other strange fish move as if pulled along on a thread.  Those ideas are beautiful and, combined with the painted tableaux, suggest the silent and strange world of coral reef and dream.

The bad news is: it starts with a giant tuna that "one bad day" eats everyone Swimmy knows (in other words, his entire school), abandoning him to roam the undersea wastes like the young Roman Polanski wandering the fields of Poland after his escape from the Krakow ghetto.  This led to a half-hour discussion this evening with my four-year-old about sharks, whether they eat people, whether it's safe to go in the water, whether human bones are strong enough not to get bitten in half by a shark, and other sick and demented shit like that that sends me scrambling for my whiskey bottle.

The other good news: Swimmy finds a new school and proposes new strategies for prevention of tuna-Holocaust: never again.

The other bad news: his strategy recapitulates terrifying aspects of group psychology.  He compels all the other little fish to identify with the aggressor and sacrifice their individual identity to the state in the form of a giant tuna-shaped bait ball.  The lesson seems to be that if you're prey, you need only conform thoroughly to a large group whose en masse identity is that of predator--the paranoid, propagandistic, archly ideological, violent modus operandi preferred by your average fascist.

Am I over-thinking this?

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Gee Willikers

Henry Huggins / Henry HugginsHenry Huggins / Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Henry Huggins" is a name irreversibly associated with my own childhood, like that of an old elementary school friend (or enemy) one thinks about now and then.  I read all Beverly Cleary's books and received about 30 years ago a signed copy of Henry Huggins at the Ohio Young Authors' Conference.  I held on to it, and I actually grew up to be a writer!  I remember Beverly Cleary telling the audience about how sometimes boys and girls say they're going to write about Henry Huggins and Ribsy and Beezus and Ramona just like she did, and Ms. Cleary told all of us what she told them: oh no you're not.  And that was my first lesson on the perils of copyright infringement.

Rereading Henry Huggins with my almost seven year old, I was surprised to discover that I'd apparently grown up in the 1950s.  This staple of my childhood reading life is filled with exclamations like "Gee willikers!" and "Swell!" and a not-so-nice kid named Scooter and a neighbor that pays you in pennies for catching night crawlers for his fishing trips and every chapter seems to involve either a pickle jar or a mayonnaise jar.  I remembered the book as belonging to my own world, which was thirty years downstream of the book's 1950 publication, but reading it again, it really is certifiably written in 1950.  And it doesn't take place in Cleveland, either!  It takes place in Portland, Oregon.  They even refer to Mount Hood.

But none of that mattered when I was 10.  What mattered was that Beezus Quimby is a masterpiece of a character, that Beverly Clearly can tell a story with a combined profluence, realism, and humor like no other children's author.  It is episodic and yet of a piece.  The last chapter is the inevitable and yet surprising sequel of the first.  I also found that last chapter, where one boy keeps the dog Ribsy and another loses him forever, so gut wrenching and actually melancholy, I had to just read it in a cheerful voice to my son and pretend there was nothing upsetting in it, like when we see anti-smoking commercials on TV that show open-heart surgery: nothing unusual there, just a man with his chest cracked open like the hood of a car, implying the terrifying fact of mortality and total annihilation ... nothing to see here ... business as usual.

I'm getting depressed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Fly in the Bottle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The cessation of hostilities in World War I seems to have had a salutary effect on the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who began his philosophy career literally under fire as a soldier in the Great War.  And that goes to show that in addition to blowing people’s limbs off, artillery fire also interferes with their ability to formulate coherent philosophies.  I wouldn’t call Philosophical Investigations crystal clear (the Nazi bombardment of England interrupted Wittgenstein’s work yet again in late career, one notes), but it’s much clearer than the preceding Tractatus.  For one thing, it’s written in plain English, having been apparently inoculated against Bertrand Russell and his infectiously supererogatory and unreadable style of writing about logic.  (Even commenting on Russell’s logic writings appears to render me too incomprehensible.)

What’s more, Wittgenstein’s second book has great charm.  Ludwig Wittgenstein is a very underrated comedian.  Many of his thought experiments are exquisitely, comically absurd, almost like Monty Python sketches.  (He considers, for example, whether a dog could be a hypocrite.  The answer is no, but it’s hilarious to think about.)  And something of Wittgenstein’s long-suffering and, in a way, good-natured character shines through the book’s disorder.  Fragments and aphorisms constitute the whole of Investigations; Wittgenstein seems to shun sustained argument as if that would only lead him back into the wilderness of paradox from which he was so desperate in the first place to escape.  He’s unflagging in his battle with philosophical confusion, which he regards as a pathology of thought almost akin to those of speech, like stuttering.  And yet the battlefields of thought and of two World Wars have had their triumphs too in wearing down the noble philosopher.  He couldn’t shepherd this important work into publication at all, and had to rely on friends to do it after his death.  The book wears signs of neglect, both that of the brutal world with which the philosopher mentally wrestled, and Wittgenstein’s despairing neglect of himself: in addition to being disordered and unfinished, there’s hardly any scholarly apparatus in it apart from a completely neurotic preface by the author.  It descends to us from the Upper Saddle River (where Prentice Hall ekes out a living publishing works that nobody outside academia cares to read) on Kinko’s-white, Kinko’s weight pages.  The cover of my third edition says exactly nothing besides the title, edition number, author, publisher, and translator (G.E.M. Anscombe), and its paint chips easily, leaving dings and scratches of white on a field of color that is either black or dark blue—a perceptual confusion which invokes the fallacious epistemic problems that Wittgenstein sought to cure.  Inside, little mice seem to have eaten away at its vowels and consonants, with many nicks on the letters where the ink never stuck.  The translation, it must be said, reads fluidly.  (Anscombe, for one, cared a great deal about this book, even if she didn’t know how to spell the word ‘show’.)  But some corrosive force seems to oppose Wittgenstein’s insistence on the unity of letter and sound, the unambiguous influence of letters on our mind, even when describing ambiguous conditions of black or blue.
[309.] What is your aim in philosophy?—To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle. p. 103

In this endeavor, W helps us solve many philosophical dilemmas (by showing them to be faux-dilemmas produced by bad grammar), but it’s also a rather affecting image.  It encodes the desperate confusion and frustration of the human being, and W’s wish to free himself and others from this prison of tormented consciousness.  One feels Epicurus’s benevolent gaze here.

Of many philosophical questions that are self-evidently uninteresting and nonsensical to the layman, W assures us: they are also uninteresting and nonsensical to the philosopher (or, he says, they ought to be).  Sometimes the result is that W seems like a man struggling nobly to escape the quicksand of previous wrong thinking, only to get back to solid ground on which the reader already stands.  W himself articulates this position: “678…. Yes,—now you have only repeated with emphasis something which no one has contradicted anyway.” (p. 170)  Reading Philosophical Investigations sometimes is like reading about that protégé of Oral Roberts who came belatedly to disavow the notion of eternal damnation for the unbaptized—it’s a disproof of something that for me was never true to begin with.  W disavows all manner of dualist, skeptical philosophies, which are just religion by another name.

W is most helpful with more subtle and insidious forms of nonsense.  “464. My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense.” (p. 133)  Solipsism is nonsense to Wittgenstein, a result of misapplying words like “consciousness,” which were learned from other people in the first place and never intended to refer to a unique experience.  By definition, a word refers to shared experience.  Anything named in a communally shared language can refer only to objects of communal relevance.  The problem of induction is for W nonsense too.  And his arguments against these forms of skepticism are as powerful as they come, though developed in his curiously aphoristic, reticent way.  In debunking certain confusions in the use of language, he also points out that thought begins with pictures, not words.  Spoken language arises “as if we were translating from a more primitive mode of thought” ([597.] p. 156), a pictorial mode perhaps.  “[O]ne can point to a thing by looking or listening,” W writes on p. 169, again citing levels of thinking deeper than mere words.  Today, cognitive neuroscientists search for the physiological correlates of such states by devising experiments that direct the subject’s attention and intentions.

Before Wittgenstein’s honesty, nonsense retreats, shorn of romance.  We call it nonsense.  We look at the stars, real and far away.  We love reality instead of nonsense.  The fly is out of the bottle.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Simon Van Booy

 His debut novel, which came out today, is wonderful.  I don't even hold it against him that he's younger than me.  I reviewed it for The East Hampton Star.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lost in the Labyrinth

LabyrinthsLabyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Borges is the most elegant, clever, and original of truly nihilist writers.  He is so ambitious and yet so constipated with anxiety about writing in the wake of Kafka and Joyce, to say nothing of Cervantes and Shakespeare, that he can hardly bring himself to say a single intelligible word.  While he partakes of the life-is-a-dream philosophy that's so modish now, this philosophy is to me ultimately sterile and a cowardly retreat from reality.  His stories while sometimes funny and in places beautiful are mostly unpleasant if not impossible to read.  I think he's destined to be a museum piece, like a Restoration comedy by William Wycherly, something you'll encounter in a literature class ages hence as the finest example of crooked times long ago or an unusually fine example of a certain perversely intellectual form of self-destruction.

But he is a brilliant and influential writer, no doubt about it, and it's worth at least sampling some of his offerings.  The collection Labyrinths includes essays as well as maddening short stories, and some of the essays are quite lucid.  His essay "The Argentine Writer and Tradition" is for me the final word on how a writer ought to relate to his or her own national and ethnic heritage.  It's exactly right.

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