Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Where do we live?

Director Shekhar Kapur discussing his most recent film, Elizabeth: The Golden Age with Elvis Mitchell on KCRW’s The Treatment (10/24/07):

"It is about, where does a body endwhere does everything endand where does the spirit start? When you’re jogging, at one point—I used to do this and test it out—I [would] run, run, run till the body gives up and then suddenly the spirit takes over. So that fascinates me. Where do we live? Do we live in the body or do we live in the spirit? When you make films about men, it’s always about the body and about conquest and the maleness of it—unless you make Buddha or Ghandi or Mandela. But with women, it becomes much more interesting and much more complex because the spirit fights back."


Halloween seems more Eros than Thanatos these days. On Saturday evening, we were drinking tea and talking about Lars and the Real Girl before its charm had a chance to evaporate (the film cleverly uses restraint to ground its unlikely premise--boy meets artificial girl--and grows a sincere tenderness out of simple and familiar social conventions), but my attention kept wandering to the Ohio State students drifting past the window on their way to costume parties.

A surgeon crossed the street with a short skirted nurse on each arm. A woman in a tight black dress wore a gilded hard hat with a light mounted on it, and yelled up to people drinking on a nearby balcony that she was a gold digger. A muscular man with glitter on his chest and shoulders clomped by alone in high heels and a low-cut ball gown. A Spartan soldier in a helmet, boots, and red cape passed by to reveal that the only other thing he’d brought along besides his spear was the pair of black briefs he was wearing. And just this morning, the sun played along as it rose slowly over the city, saturating the entire backdrop with copper and amber, the pale thighs of a French maid glowed like the moon as she stepped over the railroad tracks in fishnet stockings, long black gloves, and the lingering darkness.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Skimming Proust

Valerio MezanottiPierre Bayard, French literature professor at the University of Paris and author of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, responds to questions posed by Deborah Solomon in today's New York Times Magazine.

"I think between reading and nonreading there is an indeterminate space that is quite important, a space where you have books you have skimmed, books you have heard about and books you have forgotten. You don’t have to feel guilty about it."

But what about those of us who read to feel things — to experience pleasure, an end to loneliness? Of course I read in order to feel something. And to feel an end to my loneliness, of course, just as you.

Then why are you so willing to devalue the experience of close reading in favor of skimming? You seem to believe that knowing a little bit about 100 literary classics is preferable to knowing one book intimately. I think a great reader is able to read from the first line to the last line; if you want to do that with some books, it’s necessary to skim other books. If you want to fall in love with someone, it’s necessary to meet many people. You see what I mean?

Have you read all of Proust, on whom you once wrote a scholarly book, “Off the Subject: Proust and Digression”? Proust is very difficult to read. His sentences are long and have very strange constructions, so it is not very possible to read it from the first line to the last line. You are obliged to use another way of reading.

Are you saying you skimmed Proust? Yes, of course I did! I prefer to say that I live with Proust. He’s a companion. Sometimes I go to Proust and I seek advice for my life. I open it and I skim some pages. That is to live with books. It’s important to live with books.

Monday, October 22, 2007


From "The Autumn of the Multitaskers" by Walter Kirn, The Atlantic Monthly, November 2007

It isn’t working, it never has worked, and though we’re still pushing and driving to make it work and puzzled as to why we haven’t stopped yet, which makes us think we may go on forever, the stoppage or slowdown is coming nonetheless, and when it does, we’ll be startled for a moment, and then we’ll acknowledge that, way down deep inside ourselves (a place that we almost forgot even existed), we always knew it couldn’t work.

Istvan Banyai

The scientists know this too, and they think they know why. Through a variety of experiments, many using functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity, they’ve torn the mask off multitasking and revealed its true face, which is blank and pale and drawn.

Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning. We concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on.

For more on Walter Kirn:


"Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup."

--Wendell Berry

A Vision of Students Today

"There is a world of difference between the modern home environment of integrated electric information and the classroom. Today’s television child is attuned to the up-to-the-minute “adult” news -- inflation, rioting, war, taxes, crime, bathing beauties -- and is bewildered when he enters the nineteenth-century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns, subjects, and schedules. It is naturally an environment much like any factory set-up with its inventories and assembly lines.

"The 'child' was an invention of the seventeenth century; he did not exist in, say, Shakespeare’s day. He had, up until that time, been merged in the adult world and there was nothing that could be called childhood in our sense.

"Today’s child is growing up absurd, because he lives in two worlds, and neither of them inclines him to grow up. Growing up -- that is our new work, and it is total. Mere instruction will not suffice."

--Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967)

[Spotted on Jonathan Carroll's blog]

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

An Act that Requires Courage

From Reading like a writer : a guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them by Francine Prose:

When we think about how many terrifying things people are called on to do every day as they fight fires, defend their rights, perform brain surgery, give birth, drive on the freeway, and wash skyscraper windows, it seems frivolous, self-indulgent, and self-important to talk about writing as an act that requires courage. What could be safer than sitting at your desk, lightly tapping a few keys, pushing your chair back, and pausing to see what marvelous tidbit of art your brain has brought forth to amuse you?

And yet most people who have tried to write have experienced not only the need for bravery but a failure of nerve as the real or imagined consequences, faults and limitations, exposures and inadequacies dance before their eyes and across the empty screen or page. The fear of writing badly, of revealing something you would rather keep hidden, of losing the good opinion of the world, of violating your own high standards, or of discovering something about yourself that you would just as soon not know—those are just a few of the phantoms scary enough to make the writer wonder if there might be a job available washing skyscraper windows.

All of which brings up yet another reason to read. Literature is an endless source of courage and confirmation. The reader and beginning writer can count on being heartened by all the brave and original works that have been written without the slightest regard for how strange or risky they were, or for what the writer’s mother might have thought when she read them.

The Temptation of Adam

by Josh Ritter

If this was the Cold War we could keep each other warm
I said on the first occasion that I met Marie
We were crawling through the hatch that was the missile silo door
And I don't think that she really thought that much of me

I never had to learn to love her like I learned to love the Bomb
She just came along and started to ignore me
As we waited for the Big One
I started singing her my songs
And I think she started feeling something for me

We passed the time with crosswords that she thought to bring inside
What five letters spell "apocalypse" she asked me
I won her over saying "W.W.I.I.I."
We smiled and we both knew that she'd misjudged me

Oh Marie it was so easy to fall in love with you
It felt almost like a home of sorts or something
And you would keep the warhead missile silo good as new
And I watched you with my thumb above the button

Then one night you found me in my army issue cot
And you told me of your flash of inspiration
You said fusion was the broken heart that's lonely's only thought
And all night long you drove me wild with your equations

Oh Marie do you remember all the time we used to take
We'd make our love and then ransack the rations
I think about you leaving now and the avalanche cascades
And my eyes get washed away in chain reactions

Oh Marie if you would stay then we could stick pins in the map
Of all the places where you thought that love would be found
But I would only need one pin to show where my love's at
In a top secret location three hundred feet under the ground

We could hold each other close and stay up every night
Looking up into the dark like it's the night sky
And pretend this giant missile is an old oak tree instead
And carve our name in hearts into the warhead

Oh Marie there's something tells me things just won't work out above
That our love would live a half-life on the surface
So at night while you are sleeping
I hold you closer just because
As our time grows short I get a little nervous

So I think about the Big One, W.W.I.I.I.
Would we ever really care the world had ended
You could hold me here forever like you're holding me tonight
I think about that great big red button and I'm tempted

Friday, October 12, 2007

It Exists in Order to Be Discovered

Dr. George Ellis, Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town and the author of On the Moral Nature of the Universe: Cosmology, Theology, and Ethics in conversation with Krista Tippett on Speaking of Faith (5/10/07):

Mathematicians discover the nature of mathematics despite what they want. What I mean by that is something like the following. It was a great shock to mathematicians when they discovered that the square root of two is irrational. That's not something that they wanted. The number pi is irrational. That's also not something mathematicians wanted. What I'm pointing out here is that mathematics exists and is discovered. It's not invented by humans. It's something which is discovered. Therefore, in some sense, it exists in order to be discovered.

The view on ethics I take as an ethical realist is it's the same, the nature is sitting there in some sense waiting to be discovered. And the deep nature of what we call kenotic ethics.

[Kenosis is] a Greek word meaning letting go or giving up, and it's used in the Bible in Philippians. It's central to my understanding of Christianity, and there's a spectrum which goes through in practical terms from forgiveness, which is a crucial part in which you are giving up the need for revenge. And it goes through to self-sacrifice on behalf of others, which is what Gandhi was about, Martin Luther King was about. And to me, that's the really, really deep transformative principle, which was also in the life of Christ, of course, when he sacrificed himself on behalf of others.

I think it's important to say that to me, kenosis is a generic principle which is much wider than just ethics. For instance, it's actually central — this emptying oneself — it's actually central to education and learning, because if you go into learning any subject with a preconceived notion, you can't learn. You have to empty your mind of your preconceived notion that you can see something new.

In ethics, though the key point about kenosis is the willingness to give up, which makes way for contact with the human part of the other person. And it's a kind of moral jujitsu in that they're expecting you to react in the way that they want you to react. They are your enemy and they want you to be their enemy. And if you refuse to be their enemy, then they don't know how to handle it.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I Don't Have the Faintest Idea

“I’m very much of the school of sitting down with the blank page or the blank screen and going through an agonizing process of admitting that I don’t have the faintest idea of what I could write a novel about. It never begins with a concept or with a story. It tends to begin with a point of view and then I have to discover whose point of view is delivering these visual impressions. With this book, the second chapter of the published version was originally the first chapter and all I had of it were a series of really moody visual impressions of Lower Manhattan at Lafayette and Canal in winter. And I didn’t know who was the camera. And so I had to—in some way that I don’t really consciously understand—I had to interrogate that material and out of it I got my Russian-speaking, Cuban-Chinese kid, Tito. Then I had to discover his backstory.”

William Gibson, discussing his book Spook County on KCRW’s Bookworm

Whole Crowds of People within One Person

“I think so many people—I’m not talking about athletes in particular, anybody—has to know how to get off the floor. I don’t care how successful you are, how famous you are, how impenetrable you may seem to be from self-doubt or unemployment or popularity ratings…I mean who knows what it’s really like to be Jay Leno or what it’s like to be a person on television who leads nightly news…you know, the private life of [Katie Couric] and her own ups and downs, we don’t know much about that. But if you really got to know her—or anybody we’re talking about—they have many sides—many sides. They show you the perfect, public posturing. But in their off hours, when they’re not on stage, when they’re not up their in the gleaming lights of celebritydom, you have different people. They’re many different people. In any person there are many people. Whole crowds of people within one person, that sometimes show themselves and sometimes fade into the sunlight of their own series of successes and failures.”

Gay Talese, discussing his book A Writer’s Life on KCRW’s The Treatment (2/21/07)

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I Love the Unknown

A song by Clem Snide's Eef Barzelay from the movie Rocket Science. Alex and I were charmed by the imperfect characters and the humor and the soundtrack. We seem to be unable to discuss it without, um, you know, talking, like,, stuttering.

The doctor asked him what he was afraid of
Just what was he running from?
And he said it’s not a fear of success nor of closeness
But of going through life feeling numb

Monday, October 08, 2007

I'm Not There

Quotes from "This is Not a Bob Dylan Movie" by Robert Sullivan, New York Times Sunday Magazine (10/07/07):

Todd Haynes’s Dylan project is a biopic starring six people as Bob Dylan, or different incarnations of Bob Dylan, including a 13-year-old African-American boy, Marcus Carl Franklin, and an Australian woman, Cate Blanchett. It’s a biopic with a title that takes it name from one of the most obscure titles in the Dylan canon, a song available only as a bootleg, called "I'm Not There."
“I just found this refusal to be fixed as a single self in a single voice as a key to his freedom,” Haynes [said]. “And he somehow escaped this process of being frozen into one fixed person.”
“If a film were to exist in which the breadth and flux of a creative life could be experienced, a film that could open up as oppose to consolidating what we think we already know walking in, it could never be within the tidy arc of a master narrative. The structure of such a film would have to be a fractured one, with numerous openings and a multitude of voices, with its prime strategy being one of refraction, not condensation. Imagine a film splintered between seven separate faces — old men, young men, women, children — each standing in for spaces in a single life.” [Todd Haynes, in a letter pitching the film idea to Bob Dylan.] (A seventh Dylan...was eventually cut.)

They're Lying Dormant in You Now

"The girl group I’ve created—Santa, Clyde, Isabel, Tori, and Pip—are my alter egos, different facets of myself. As a minister’s daughter, I was brought up with so much religion, and at a certain point I thought, ‘Wait a minute, where are the women?’ They’re either virgin mothers or prostitutes. So, I went back to Greek mythological goddesses for inspiration, to get away from those diluted stereotypes. I write separate blogs for each of the girls. They go out every week like a serial, so the girls have taken on a life of their own. When I go on stage, I’ll dress differently as if I’m each of them—it will be a big production. It’s really spurring me on—the girls are educating me. Everyone has alter egos inside them. They’re lying dormant in you now.”

--Tori Amos, AnOther Magazine, Autumn/Winter 2007

General Degrees of Perturbation

“Drama is about conflict and general degrees of perturbation, disarray. I’ve never been able to write a happy play, but I’ve been able to enjoy a happy life.”

--Harold Pinter, "Still Pinteresque," New York Times (10/07/07) Mr. Pinter wrote the screenplay for the remake of Sleuth which opens October 12.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Giving Meaning to the Improbable

"I think we live in a time of catastrophe. I don’t think that’s something specific, necessarily to how we live today. I think we’ve always had catastrophes in history—modern history and ancient human history. I think what’s different this time is how catastrophe is projected. And by that I mean it’s taken the form of spectacle almost. It’s very much image-based. And that’s very much a reflection of technology and the fact that we spend so much time watching television and our screens, whether it’s computer screens or our TV sets at home or movie theaters…The book is also about giving meaning to the improbable and being prepared for the improbable, whether that improbable is a catastrophic thing like the collapse of the World Trade Center, which was a horrific event, or falling in love."

--Viken Berberian, discussing his novel, Das Kapital, with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm

A Sense that Someone is Listening

"I’m quite fascinated with our narrative sense of ourselves. We tell our story to ourselves often, in fact we tell it all the time. We tell fragments of it. At certain times, we stop and try to tell the whole story of our existence and our lives to ourselves. And when we do that, we have a sense that someone is listening. We’re telling this narrative not just to ourselves, but there’s something about our mind that creates a listener even though we know that no one’s there. And it fascinates me how much we do in our life implies a listener who will be listening to the story of what we’ve done."

--C.K. Williams, speaking with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW's Bookworm

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Let Me Tell You

how to do it from the beginning.
First notice everything:
the stain on the wallpaper
of the vacant house,
the mothball smell of a
Greyhound toilet.
Miss nothing. Memorize it.
You cannot twist the fact you do not know.

The blond girl you saw in the bar.
Put a scar on her breast.
Say she left home to get away from her father.
Invent whatever will support your line.
Leave out the rest.

Use metaphors: The mayor is a pig
is a metaphor
which is not to suggest
it is not a fact.
Which is irrelevant.
Nothing is less important
than a fact.

Be suspicious of any word you learned
and were proud of learning.
It will go bad.
It will fall off the page.

When your father lies
in the last light
and your mother cries for him,
listen to the sound of her crying.
When your father dies
take notes
somewhere inside.

If there is a heaven
he will forgive you
if the line you found was a good one.

It does not have to be worth the dying.

by Miller Williams

The Singing

by C.K. Williams

I was walking home down a hill near our house
on a balmy afternoon
under the blossoms
Of the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here
every spring with
their burgeoning forth

When a young man turned in from a corner singing
no it was more of
a cadenced shouting
Most of which I couldn't catch I thought because
the young man was
black speaking black

It didn't matter I could tell he was making his
song up which pleased
me he was nice-looking
Husky dressed in some style of big pants obviously
full of himself
hence his lyrical flowing over

We went along in the same direction then he noticed
me there almost
beside him and "Big"
He shouted-sang "Big" and I thought how droll
to have my height
incorporated in his song

So I smiled but the face of the young man showed nothing
he looked
in fact pointedly away
And his song changed "I'm not a nice person"
he chanted "I'm not
I'm not a nice person"

No menace was meant I gathered no particular threat
but he did want
to be certain I knew
That if my smile implied I conceived of anything like concord
between us I should forget it

That's all nothing else happened his song became
indecipherable to
me again he arrived
Where he was going a house where a girl in braids
waited for him on
the porch that was all

No one saw no one heard all the unasked and
unanswered questions
were left where they were
It occurred to me to sing back "I'm not a nice
person either" but I
couldn't come up with a tune

Besides I wouldn't have meant it nor he have believed
it both of us
knew just where we were
In the duet we composed the equation we made
the conventions to
which we were condemned

Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that
someone something
is watching and listening
Someone to rectify redo remake this time again though
no one saw nor
heard no one was there

* * *

“The most interesting thing about a poem is that it doesn't exist until it has its music. Every poem has a music. And until it has that, it's not a poem. It's just information or data that's floating around in your head or on your desk.” – C.K. Williams

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

He Wasn't Free at All

Joyce Johnson spoke with Terry Gross back in June 2001 when her book, Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters came out in paperback. She was in a relationship with Jack Kerouac during the time that On the Road was published. Her insights into him and how the success of the book changed him really rang true, and I think about her comments whenever his writing is brought up as it has been recently with the 50th anniversary of its publication (such as today's New York Times editorial by David Brooks). Joyce, whose memoir is titled Minor Characters, was airbrushed out of the photo that Gap used several years ago for an ad featuring Kerouac.

TG: You say in your book that you had to protect your memories from being swamped by Jack Kerouac’s legend. What are some parts of the legend that don’t fit with your memories?

JJ: Well, the idea that Jack was such a free spirit, mainly, a big example of freedom or that he was this great Buddhist. Those things. Because although he certainly did go on the road, deep inside him he wasn’t free at all. He was so knotted up and so miserable and so attached to his mother. Buddhism was something that was very important to Jack. It was one of those things he looked to, to find some solution to what troubled him. But he really misused it. Even though he had a profound intellectual understanding of it, he used Buddhism to sort of rationalize all his problems—what was the point of dealing with them since we’re all going to die anyway?