Collected Thoughts

January 2012
January 3, 2012

If you’ve checked this web site recently, you know I’ve been on a furlough. It began when my laptop broke down while I was in Florida. But it has persisted longer than can be explained by mechanical reasons. That’s because the interruption gave me a chance to reformulate how I want to structure the site and what I want to accomplish with it. I even thought of closing it down altogether. But not having it puts a hole in my life I don’t enjoy.

So here’s what I’ve decided. I don’t want to continue with the old format. It worked well for me over the past seven years. I wrote a lot and the writing required me to reshape my thinking about quite a few things. But it became quite laborious. Trying to turn out a daily essay of about eight hundred words, and to make it fit one of the categories I was posting under, took more time and effort than you might imagine. It held me back from doing other writing I would like to do. I am an inveterate note taker. Part of why I do it is that I like the physical experience of making marks on paper. But in any case I jot down quite bit of information and some thoughts almost every day. So from here on I’m going to make those notes the basis of my postings which I hope I can place here on most days. On some occasions they will be moderately extensive; more often they will be brief. I’m not going to worry about their length anymore. I won't simply reproduce my notes. That would be too boring. But they will afford me the substance of what I put here.

The previous site will remain up as a kind of archive. But in the future the site will consist of a miscellany of information I found interesting and my thoughts about it. I hope it will generate more conversation than my old site did. When I started in 2004, I, of course, hoped to acquire a vast readership. That was silly. Now I’m hoping simply to find a group of people who will check my thoughts now and then, and occasionally tell me what they think about them. I recognize that some people use Facebook for that purpose. But I doubt I will ever be enough of a Facebook guy to make it work that way for me.

One of the things I did during the interregnum was to stick a Post-it note on my closet door which said, “If you want the rewards of the establishment, you have to lie to get them. Lying is key to success in most American institutions, and maybe in all others too.”

After all my reading, and experience, and question-asking, and wondering, and befuddlement, that’s the conclusion I’ve reached about the socio-political condition. Consequently, because for some reason I can’t seem to abide living in lies -- I sometimes wish I could -- I have to take up a stance of continuous suspicion of respectability. I have to give up wanting it, and I have to stop wishing to snuggle up close to it. I don’t expect it to be easy but it’s what I’m going to try to do henceforward.

If anyone should read what I have to say as I push on with this site, I hope they’ll keep that resolution in mind. It should make clearer what I’m trying to express.

I don’t want to be solemn about this, though. The human world is not only corrupt, it’s also funny and even lovable in a fashion. I like to laugh as much as anyone I know, and I also enjoy, at times, waxing sentimental. But I don’t want those propensities to cause me to forget how falseness, generally, rules among our kind. Given that ubiquity, it’s surprising that truth does occasionally appear to gain a foothold here and there.

With that introduction to the new format out of the way, I’ll start with two short items.

The Iowa caucuses take place today. I don’t in the least, care how they turn out. If I were given magical power to determine the outcome, I wouldn’t use it. The only interesting thing about them is the way the major media give maniacal attention to the opinions of the most absurd fringe of a small atypical state. I suppose we can say the media are always seeking to ballyhoo something, and Iowa Republicans are about all they have right now. Still, the entire furor is ridiculous.

Glenn Greenwald has a useful column in Salon today about how a crack is appearing in the hypocrisy that the US foreign policy establishment welcomes democracy in the Middle East. Establishment spokesmen are beginning to admit that maybe democracy is not really our cup of tea when it’s applied to other countries. Greenwald’s column concentrates on a statement published recently in the New York Times by Jon Alterman, director of the Middle Eastern Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (what could be more establishment than that?).

Mr. Alterman informs us that “what Egyptians and Americans need” -- note the implication that they both need the same thing -- is something “murkier” than outright control by either the democratic forces or the military in Egypt. Murkiness is the atmosphere most favored by foreign policy gurus, so that nobody can see what they’re up to.

Greenwald points out that public opinion polls in Egypt show overwhelming opposition to the policies of the United States. But what the people of other countries want simply doesn’t matter when it comes to the programs our foreign policy establishment wishes to feed the population of the United States.

Come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you a bit of what I thought about the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.


January 4, 2012

Glenn Greenwald this morning made a strong recommendation that we read Matt Taibbi’s recent Rolling Stone column titled “Iowa: The Meaningless Side Show Begins.” I took Greenwald’s advice and I’m glad I did.

Taibbi’s main thesis is that the upcoming election may well be the most meaningless in America’s history. We’re likely to get either a private equity parasite or a paper progressive who has showered Wall Street with bailouts, and who will never threaten the 1% moguls with prosecution for their criminal deeds. The people who own the political process don’t really care which is successful. As long as nothing upsets their money machine they can remain indifferent to political rhetoric, which means almost nothing in any case. As Taibbi reminds us, the candidate who raises the most money wins the presidential election 94% of the time.

The hopeful news is that voters of whatever political stripe are disgusted with this process, and are showing signs of an uprising. That may be true, but we need to recall that not all voters are disgusted for the same reasons. So I think we should be encouraged by some uprisings and worried about others. Horrible as it is to consider, the people who cheer at the thought of a man dying because he doesn’t have health insurance, may be worse than the directors of Goldman Sachs (notice I said “may be”). Nevertheless, I do hope Taibbi’s right when he says that a majority of people are waking up to how they have been duped by the political “reality show” we see reported on television every day.

I promised yesterday to say something about the American rendition of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But now that I come to the task, I not sure exactly what to say. Is it a good movie, standing by itself? Yes. Is it faithful to the novel? Pretty much. Is it better than the Swedish version? I don’t like to make comparisons of that sort but if I were pushed I guess I would say, no.

Americans like to smooth things out, and this is not a story that should be smoothed out. Its grittiness is a major element of its identity. It’s not that the American film doesn’t show the horror of what went on. The famous rape scene, for example, is even more graphic than the Swedish depiction. But the tone, overall, is softer and more sentimental. There has been discussion about whether Noomi Rapace or Rooney Mara makes the better Lisbeth Salander. I don’t think there’s any question about that, if you want the character to reflect the novel. This is not to say that Rooney Mara is not good in the role, but she’s sweet underneath her toughness. Lisbeth Salander is not sweet. Life dealt her such a hand that she had to become hard to survive. So she became hard to the core. That’s not to say she lost her humanity. She has a firm integrity. But she doesn’t expect anything from her fellow humans. She may not even long for anything from them. She takes them as they are and responds accordingly. It’s an approach to life that Noomi Rapace captured almost perfectly.

The problem with Daniel Craig as Michael Blomkvist is that we can’t forget he’s also James Bond. Even if he doesn’t act bold and heroic, he looks that way. Blomkvist is not heroic; he’s a somewhat slumpy guy who does what he has to do. You may say that’s not a bad definition of heroism, but it’s not the Hollywood definition. In Hollywood, you have to be something different from what Blomkvist was, and Craig does that fairly well. But he doesn’t show us Blomkvist as honestly as Michael Nyqvist did.

The Swedish film lets us feel we were getting inside the characters quite deeply. Hollywood shows us surfaces.

We are left with the question of whether the American film will be better liked than the Swedish one. And there, again, there’s little doubt. Hollywood knows its customers -- fairly well, at least.

Tonight, I’m going out to Danville to Discuss Robert F. Murphy’s The Body Silent with a library group there. I’ll tell you what happened tomorrow. But I’ll say this in advance: if you want a book that will both inform you and shake you up, you can scarcely do better than Murphy’s study of the world of the disabled. I haven’t encountered a book recently that got inside me more shockingly.


January 5, 2012

Danville is about thirty miles east of Montpelier, along snowy, curvy U.S. 2. It's not a pleasant drive on a frigid January night with the temperature at about ten degrees. But I went there last night, to the Pope Memorial Library, to talk about Robert F. Murphy’s The Body Silent.

Murphy was a notable anthropologist, a professor at Columbia University, who as he approached the age of fifty was struck down by paralysis. It turned out he had a benign tumor growing inside his spinal cord, which may have been there all his life. Surgical techniques at that time -- the mid-1970s -- weren’t precise enough to remove the tumor without also destroying his motor functions, so he was condemned to long-term physical degeneration which eventually resulted in his becoming quadriplegic.

The Body Silent is his report of the process, the psychological as well as the physical effects, but most importantly, his analysis of the disorder as a kind of symbolic presentation of life itself. The book is informed throughout by an anthropological sensibility, which highlights the dangers of isolation for any individual person, and the way in which culture is supportive but also a form of prison.

It is one of the most disturbing books I have ever read. And, also, one of the most informative.

It’s sprinkled with insights about many of the institutions of modern life. His take on the medical profession is unusually acute, as when he notes that “medical people have a penchant for looking primarily at the biological aspects of health, considering state of mind only when their diagnostic skills fail.” He reports to us also a basic truth about hospitals. They are case studies of the awesome disparities between theory and practice -- “the practical results of the careful designs are often exercises in madness.” He reminded me of my own conclusion a few years back when I was confined to a hospital. Though I was grateful for the good being done for me, I couldn’t avoid the basic fact that the place was in some ways a looney bin.

More than anything else, the book is a warning about the dangers culture poses for the individual, and how each of us needs to be on the alert and ready to fight back against cultural impositions, against the stupidities and thoughtlessness that seem a ineradicable element of cultural life.

It is an extremely sad book but marked also by a kind of elevation.

Mr. Murphy died in 1990, some eighteen years after he first noticed major symptoms. Despite the horror of his situation he managed to live a full life throughout that time. But we need to keep in mind that he was an unusual person. As he said, “My thoughts and sense of being alive have been driven back into my brain, where I now reside.” I’m afraid that many people can’t reside in their brains in that way. They haven’t prepared them to be a functional habitation.

Driving back home along U.S. 2, thoughts of Iowa and the presidential campaign invaded my mind and blended with one of Murphy’s observations. “In the final analysis, social life is made possible by keeping a delicate balance between falling inwards and falling outward.” The Republican candidates all strike me as people who have fallen outward almost completely. Can we suppose that Mitt Romney has any inward life whatsoever? I know that politics is a profession for those who are mostly extroverts. That’s why Abraham Lincoln is such a startling exception in American history. But the current crop of candidates are extroverted to the point that they appear to be nothing but engines of ambition who never ask themselves who they wish to be because they have no concept of inward being. And since they have no concept of it for themselves they can’t imagine it for anyone else. Consequently, their plans for the nation are devoid of any notion of an environment that promotes and supports psychological health. Their hopes and schemes are sterile with respect to meaningful living. All they can talk about is a booming economy and booming military power. For them, what else is there?

I detest the thought of following their lead.

Then, at home, settling into my warm bed, I somehow recalled Samuel Johnson’s assessment of Robert Harley, the first earl of Oxford, and his political maneuvering during the reign of Queen Anne: “Not knowing what to do he did nothing; and with the fate of a double dealer, at last he lost his power, but kept his enemies.”

Think of Mitt and Newt. Will things never change?


January 6, 2012

I read yesterday a sprightly essay by Dave Lindorf, published in OpEd News and titled “Killing Kids is so American.” It wasn’t startling. There have been many similar pieces before. But what gave it some extra energy is that Lindorf began with the killing by police in Brownsville, Texas of fifteen year old Jaime Gonzalez, because he was carrying a compressed air pistol -- what we used to call a BB gun.

It seems that some people in Brownsville are angry about the killing. Lindorf asks whether there is any way the boy’s slaughter can be justified, and concludes that there’s not -- he was shot three times, once in the back of the head. But then Lindorf notes that there is some kickback by portions of the public. If a child had been killed under comparable circumstances by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, it would barely make the news. Incidents of that sort happen almost every day. The great majority of Americans can’t be bothered to pay them any mind.

Lindorf’s purpose, of course, is to rail against “America’s endless brutal imperial wars and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.” But that’s not a fresh message. It has been made many times before, without being given much attention by either the public or the media.

Anger in these cases is understandable. But it also tends to be futile.

We are not society in which most people can achieve moral coherence. Average Americans may well be kind and loving parents. They may support charitable events in their own communities. But at the same time they can agree with and even applaud the most vicious and brutal acts imaginable when they’re committed by persons who have been sanctioned by authority (a strange word, “sanction” -- it’s two main meanings are the opposite of one another). Their inconsistency is the result of brainwashing.

They have been told, for example, that American troops are heroes defending our freedom. Everybody -- so to speak -- knows that. So when American troops do things that would cause a wave of pure revulsion in this country, such as slaughtering a group of children for no defensible reason, people simply look the other way and prepare to cheer “the boys” when they come marching home.

The result is the boys will be sent ever more regularly to destroy the lives in other countries for reasons that are, equally, indefensible and unexamined.

This character of inconsistency on the part of a majority of citizens cannot reasonably be called democracy. It is more accurately perceived as the ignorant following the severely deluded, who are encouraged in their distortions by never being called to account (if you want to read Barack Obama into this sentence, that would be okay with me).

The only solution to the spiral of degeneracy is for the people to wake up and start asking vigorous questions. But at the moment relatively few Americans seem willing to rouse themselves. As a consequence, most media also remain asleep.

Glenn Greenwald, who is awake and does ask vigorous questions, yesterday defended himself against so-called progressives who took him to task for comparing favorably Ron Paul’s foreign policy proposals to Obama’s -- even though Greenwald predicted in advance that partisanship would lead critics to distort his points in exactly the way they did. His point, simply, was that Paul, despite being the champion of odious domestic developments, is the only major national spokesman now -- that is the only figure the mainstream media will report on  -- who is making arguments against an array of vicious U.S. behavior, such as the suppression of habeas corpus, the canceling of legal rights formerly considered crucial to our identity as a nation, the secret drone war, and so on. So though Paul has deficiencies which make him absurd as a presidential candidate, he is bringing important issues into the national debate that can get there in no other way at the moment. As Greenwald reminds us, if the campaign boils down to Obama versus Romney, we will not hear a word about the suppression of civil rights. And that will be fine with all but a small minority of the public.

Yesterday, I began reading Louis Breger’s Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision. I was led to it by having read the same author’s later book, A Dream of Undying Fame, which is a study of Freud’s early career and his relation with his onetime mentor Josef Breuer. I found the latter book fetching, with its balance between admiration and fairly deep, and dark, criticism. I doubt that my friend Mark Adair is a fan of Breger’s because Mark is a strong advocate of the founder of psychoanalysis. But I can’t be sure. I’ll have to ask him. In any case, I’ll let you know what Mark says, and, also, what I think of the full biography as I work my way through it. It will be the fourth biography of Freud I’ve read, and I’m somehow naive enough to hope it will be the best.


January 7, 2012

At the end of the text, and just before the notes, of his biography of Freud, Louis Breger placed a twelve page essay titled “Background and Sources.” I was glad to see it. It confirmed several of my assumptions about how Breger approached his task. Breger, being a psychoanalyst himself, assumed that he needed to analyze his subject in order to tell his life story. You might say that makes sense, given his basic orientation.

In “Background and Sources,” though, he goes well beyond that revelation to lay out a fairly full explanation of self that’s quite unusual for an author. It’s not too much to say that Breger thinks well of himself. That’s no sin but in his case it may be a bit of a problem. He sees himself, mainly because of his career, as being singularly qualified to get to the bottom of who Freud was. Thus he implies that nobody else is likely to be as coherent in his interpretation of Freud as he is.

I can’t say for sure that he’s wrong. From what I’ve read so far, his Freud seems to be a competent book. Yet when a historian is deeply immersed in the precepts of a profession, his story can turn out to be more what the profession prescribes than what reality justifies. The irony here is that theoretical prescription is the fault Breger lays heavily on his subject.  In his famed self-analysis, Freud, according to Breger, ended up working harder to confirm his theories than he did to discover the emotions he had actually experienced as a small child. But in arguing for that conclusion, Breger indicates that he, too, is strongly predisposed to confirm his own theories.

The weakness of scholars like Breger is they give more influence to experience and training than those phenomena deserve, and, thereby, give too little to power of mind. They would do well to read Samuel Johnson, who tells us that genius is breadth and depth of mind concentrated on specific issues. Without strong minds all the training in the world will come to little effect.

I don’t want to dismiss Breger too thoroughly though. He seems to be, at least, a moderately bright guy, who has a clear style of writing. As I move through his book, I’ll let you know from time to time how it strikes me.

I see that Michael Hastings, the reporter who was instrumental in the downfall of General Stanley McChrystal, has a new book out titled The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan. “Wild and terrifying” are probably not exaggerated adjectives to describe the U.S. invasion of that country. Because the adventure in Iraq was so utterly crazy, most media figures have tended to hold that Afghanistan was where we should have concentrated our military might. This is based on the underlying, perhaps near-subconscious, belief that we had to invade somebody and the only serious question was who it should be. There appears to have been scarcely anyone in Washington in the first years of the last decade with the individuality to ask, “Wait a minute. Is invading a foreign country the best way to address our problems right now?”

I’m hoping that, maybe, Hasting’s book will prompt at least a few people to ask that question belatedly.

The other thing the book’s appearance might do is reactivate the argument about whether a mere journalist, simply because of his fixation on truth, should dare to issue reports that threaten the careers of generals. You’ll recall that John Burns of the New York Times and Lara Logan of CBS were in high dudgeon about it at the time. The idea that one’s responsibility to accuracy rises above popular notions of patriotism seems to be inconceivable to goodly parts of our population.

I confess I’m willing to hope for something beyond further discussion of Hastings’s ethics. I wish we could discuss what patriotism means, how one should manifest it, and whether, as it’s commonly employed, it has even a tincture of reason. But in my heart of hearts I know that an insane desire. You’ve got to love your country and make any sacrifice for it, even if you can’t begin to define what it is. That’s the American way, and far be it from any journalist even to think about asking whether it makes any sense.

A significant portion of U.S. citizens think we define ourselves by what we cannot imagine discussing.


January 8, 2012

I noticed that Kevin Drum of Mother Jones wrote recently that the sex offender thing in the United States has driven us into a collective national insanity. I certainly agree with that, but his saying so got me to wondering how many other collective national insanities are afflicting us. Another half dozen come easily to mind.

  • The belief that virtually all members of the military services are heroes.
  • The notion that the United States is a more democratic nation than any other.
  • The conviction that the United States is the greatest nation there has ever been because .... well it’s so obvious that if you don’t grasp it without reasons it must be because you’re perverted.
  • The assumption that it’s all right to put tyrannical powers into the hands of good men because they won’t exercise them in any bad way and, at least, not against anybody who’s really white.
  • The faith that the amassing of great wealth is the surest sign of intelligence.
  • The concept that conducting war against anything -- drugs for example -- is the best way to get rid of it.

Just think of what a country we might be if we could modify just those six.

Sometime ago a friend sent me a link to an article which appeared on the Forbes web site at the end of last November. I’ve been lazy and delayed looking at it but yesterday, I finally opened it up. It’s by James Marshall Crotty and entitled “Why Republicans Embrace Simpletons and How It Hurts America.” It struck me as a curious essay to be published by Forbes. It’s not really brilliant but it does have some lively diction. Crotty, for example says that this presidential campaign has made vast contributions to the “national dumbass folklore.” It doesn’t astonish me to consider that there is such a thing as the national dumbass folklore, but I hadn’t really thought of it before.

I don’t think Crotty delivered on his promise to explain why Americans, and especially Republicans, are so enamored of ignoramuses. It’s actually not a very easy question and probably involves numerous impulses, many of which are seldom explored. The most interesting thing he says is that the core principle of conservative orthodoxy is that intelligence equates with moral relativism. It’s doubtless true that intelligent people are willing to accept greater complexity than dull people are. But does that mean that because conservatives think what they call moral relativism is bad, that intelligence is bad also? If that’s the case, conservatives are worse off than I thought they were.

Instead of explaining much, Crotty entertains us with anecdotes and reminders, such as that Ronald Reagan was the first of many “morally unambiguous dimwits” to warm the cockles of the conservative heart. Though that’s an agreeable thought, I doubt that Reagan was the first. So, I have to conclude that though Crotty has given us a spritely essay, it doesn’t drill to the core of its subject.

I’ve been reading in Johnson’s Lives of the Poets while pedaling on my exercise bicycles in the morning, and yesterday finished the biography of Milton, which I regard as one of the best in the series. It shows Johnson’s largeness of mind because though he despised Milton’s political sentiments and, particularly, his support for the killing of King Charles, that didn’t stop him from recognizing Milton’s poetical genius and seeing him as a national treasure.

The seventy page essay is also littered with some of Johnson’s most delightful general observations, which he couldn’t resist including whenever his subject gave him the slightest opportunity. This is a habit which many see as a literary fault, but I have never been able to agree with them, unless the intrusions are themselves flat and stupid. I don’t suppose it needs to be added that Johnson was never stupid, and seldom flat.

Milton, evidently, told his nephew John Phillips that his poetical vein “never happily flowed but from the autumnal equinox to the vernal.” Johnson was always dismissive of notions of that sort, even when they came from the very greatest of writers, and he dusted off Milton with the following comment:

The author that thinks himself weather-bound will find, with a little help from
hellebore, that he is only idle or exhausted. But while this notion has possession
of the head, it produces the inability which it supposes.

My favorite among these interpositions comes in the section when he is speaking of Milton as a schoolmaster and his belief that teaching should be directed towards authors that treat of physical subjects, such as the astronomical treatises of the ancients. Johnson had little patience with putting such books at the head of the educational list.

But the truth is, that the knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which
that knowledge requires or includes are not the great or the frequent business
of the human mind. Whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we
wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral
knowledge of right and wrong; the next is an acquaintance with the history of
mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth, and prove
by events the reasonableness of opinions. Prudence and justice are virtues and
excellencies of all times and all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are
geometricians only by chance.

I may not agree perfectly with Johnson about education, but he expresses himself well and makes a point that will always be worth considering.

The Lives of the Poets are wonderful literary essays, which I know very few people will read now. But that doesn’t stop me from wishing they would.


January 9, 2012

Last night on 60 Minutes, Leslie Stahl warned us that Chinese truffle spores might be invading French soil. I’m not sure how big a tragedy that would be. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a truffle. I’m deficient in knowledge about elegant foods, even though I did, for a short while, work for a culinary institute. The reason, I suspect, is that my appetite is strong enough that I enjoy most any food, elegant or not, that hasn’t been mushed up in a plastic box. That could be a curse, or a blessing. I don’t know.

I mentioned the new publication, The Operators, yesterday and now I have read a few excerpts on the web. The pure inanity of General McChrystal’s entourage will likely be the main thing revealed by Hastings’s book. The conversations reported among them are pathetic.

The juvenile intellect of many people mentioned in the newspapers as major national policy makers is a condition the public would do well to discover, though we can’t be sure what percentage of the population would recognize the evidence.

I read Murat Kurnaz’s essay, “Notes From a Guantanamo Survivor.” He was a German citizen of Turkish descent who was snatched off a bus in Pakistan on his way to catch a flight home. The Pakistani police turned him over to the Americans, evidently for a three thousand dollar bounty. There seems to have been no credible evidence against him but he was held for five years and tortured repeatedly. He says that after a while he realized his interrogators were not interested in the truth. He was astounded that a democratic country would treat an innocent person that way. His essay, by itself, was not as interesting as the thread that followed it on Reader Supported News. Most of the people who commented, remarked on the absurdity of any longer considering the United States a democracy. I wonder how widespread that opinion is? From what I can read, it appears to be growing rapidly.

Steve Chapman had a column in the Chicago Tribune yesterday titled “Rick Santorum’s Moral Delusion,” which almost went to the point of positing a positive correlation between religion and crime. Journalists are usually not good in distinguishing between correlation and cause. It’s true that states which have a high church attendance have higher crime rates than ones which don’t. My own state of Vermont, for example, has modest church attendance and a murder rate only one-quarter of the national average. That, however, shouldn’t be taken to mean that going to church increases the chances of murder. Crime rates are connected causally to education and states with the most public profession of religious devotion generally have pretty poor educational performance. I guess you could try to make the argument that religion leads to bad education which leads in turn to crime, but that would be quite a stretch. Chapman’s point, however, about the fallaciousness of Santorum’s position that the best way to decrease anti-social behavior is to get people to go to church is soundly based in evidence.

To tell the truth, I don’t know what any of this has got to do with reasonable politics. Is there anyone who thinks a principal duty of the president is to persuade people to go to church? I suspect most of us would find that creepy. But I don’t guess it would be any more creepy than lots of stuff we’ve heard on the campaign trail this year.

The next meeting of the Johnson Society, which will be held at John Devitt’s house on January 17th, is going to take up the curious subject of great literary classics, renowned as the pillars of literary culture, which don’t seem to repay reading with much pleasure or instruction. Among these, John has hinted, lie Don Quixote and Paradise Lost.

I admit that over the years I have taken up the latter with the intention of reading it through but have never made it much past Book I. I don’t know that’s because I didn’t like the reading. It was just that other things came to carry my attention away. So, I have decided to try again, in preparation for the meeting. I have no expectation of getting through the whole poem in the next week, but I might make it through Book II, especially since I loaded a copy onto my Kindle, making it easily available at odd moments.

The great argument about Paradise Lost is the identity of the hero. Is it Satan or is it God? I think we have to acknowledge that Satan has his moments which raise a little thrill in the heart. When he first rises from the floor of the desolate place he has been thrown by the deity, that place of utter darkness, as far removed from God and the light of heaven “As from the Center thrice to th’ utmost Pole,” he shows no signs of whimpering but is, rather, ready to renew the battle. He vows never to give God the satisfaction of receiving his repentance:

That Glory never shall his wrath or might
Extort from me. To bow and sue for grace
With suppliant knee, and deifie his power
Who from the terrour of this Arm so late
Doubted his Empire, that were low indeed,
That were an ignominy and shame beneath
This downfall ....

In other words, Satan’s not a quitter.

The problem for those who want to make God the great figure of the poem is that he, by definition, can’t be as interesting as Satan. As Harold Bloom says in an introduction to the work, heaven is only the passive existence that obeys reason. Wow! There’s not a lot there to make the heart go pitty-pat.

Anyway, I’ll let you know how the reading goes. And at some point, I’ll also explain why I think the question we are asked to address for the topic is not the one we should be addressing. But that’s too complex an issue to get into right now.


January 10, 2012

I told myself I wouldn’t, but in the end I succumbed to temptation and watched the national championship game between Alabama and LSU. And I’m glad I did. Alabama played as perfect a game as I’ve even seen a college team play. If you are a football fan you would have to say it was a thing of beauty. I know that big time college sport has lots about it that’s not savory. Maybe we shouldn’t have it at all. But if we’re going to have it, it’s good to see a team bring itself to the level of skill Alabama reached last night. Besides, the boys who played seemed genuinely happy.

I read a sappy column in the Washington Post by Michael Gerson, which made the point that Mitt Romney is not an ideologue; he’s a manager. This in Gerson’s mind is a good thing. But, then, he’s Gerson. So what else can we expect? Reading him reminded me of Nietzsche’s point in Beyond Good and Evil, that every philosophy is no more than the confession of its originator and “a species of involuntary and unconscious autobiography.” If that’s true of philosophers, it’s doubly true of political theorists (who after all are nothing other than third-rate philosophers). The face of Mitt Romney is a picture of the world as Gerson would like it. I don’t know how much responsibility for bad taste a person can be assigned.

Breger’s biography of Freud yesterday informed me that its subject, even as an eighteen-year-old, felt himself surrounded by enemies and that his underlying suspicion and distaste for women persisted throughout his life. There may be some truth in those judgments, but how much is hard to say. They emerge from the ongoing psychoanalysis which this biography is. I am almost afraid that I will be brought to make the same judgment on this life story that Johnson commended Thomas Osborne for making about signs of sanctity in a person: “Do not wholly slight them, because they may be true: but do not easily trust them, because they may be false.”

As I write, ballots are being cast in New Hampshire to determine that state’s choice for the Republican nomination. I feel the same way about this campaign as I did about the Iowa caucuses: I don’t care how it turns out. Consensus seems to forming that Mr. Romney will win and thereby sweep forward to contend with Obama for the presidency this fall. I don’t guess I can honestly say I don’t care anything about that contest. If it’s to be a choice between Romney and Obama, I will hope the latter wins, if for no other reason than it will be easier for me to see his face on television for the next four years than it would be to look at Romney. There’s something so boldly inauthentic about Romney’s visage that I think it might induce national stomach disorders. But I also have to say that I doubt the country would be much different after the first Romney administration than it would be after the second dose of Obama. That’s the sad thing about the whole business.  Mr. Obama might have been a worthy president if he had been mature enough, and strong enough, to stand by the implications of his first campaign. But he wasn’t.

Am I becoming a hermit? It’s a question I’ve asked myself several times recently. Shirley is off in Long Island looking after grandchildren and as a consequence I find myself going out only rarely. I did go out this morning for breakfast at the Wayside, but I didn’t much enjoy it. I paid seven dollars for two eggs, home fries and coffee, not an outrageous price I don’t guess, but more than the meal and the ambiance of the restaurant were worth to me. The experience was symbolic of what’s been happening lately: what the world offers me isn’t worth going out for. I can’t say that’s the world’s fault. I’ve fashioned my tastes so they don’t much harmonize with what the world outside my door provides. Does that make me evil, or a snob? I doubt it. It’s likely that quite a few people feel the same way.

We, in America, actually are, in most areas a fairly puritanical society. We are busy with our business. That’s what people think about, talk about, and do. Or at least that’s what they give the appearance of doing. I sat in the Wayside this morning, listened to the conversations, and asked myself which of my fellow diners might offer a bit of company. I didn’t discover any, but that was probably because of my projections, which aren’t always of the most gentle or merciful character.

Remember when people used to brag about being people persons? I don’t think I ever said that of myself.


January 11, 2012

“We will restore freedom to this country!” I heard Ron Paul say that on TV last night. And he said it fervently.

“Freedom” is a curious word. It seems to have about as many meanings as there are people who use it. One guy’s freedom is another’s exploitation, and so forth. I recall that George W. Bush used to talk about it often, in ways that gave me the willies. Whatever meaning is assigned to it, it’s required that whenever anybody uses it he has to be a state of deep emotion. You can’t talk about freedom with the same composure you talk about the price of eggs.

A few years back I made a list of words I wanted to see retired for at least a decade. I would add “freedom” to it, if I could find it. But my list seems to have gone the way of many things in this house.

I’ve gradually begun to watch TV melodramas with a different mindset than I used to bring to them. I no longer pay much mind to the plot or how it turns out. Plots on TV are so hackneyed you know what’s going to happen before the show is five minutes old, and besides, what happens is of no significance. But I do pay attention to interesting little phrases that crop up from time to time. Last night on Body of Proof, Dana Delaney’s latest vehicle, where she plays a tough medical examiner who continually keeps the cops’ pants twisted into knots, her character consoled a young widow with a line from Thomas Campbell: “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” I guess she was referring to the Scottish poet of the early 19th century. How plausible is it that a modern medical examiner would have read Campbell and actually remembered one of his lines? But, then, plausibility doesn’t matter on TV shows. Some screenwriter stuck the line in. It would be good to know who he was and how Campbell came to him. But that’s a mystery I will never solve.

It seems that even on TV there is ongoing wonderment about how to achieve some form of immortality. One of humanity’s most persistent traits is to refuse to believe that all traces of oneself could simply disappear from the universe. All speculation, of course, is eventually swirled into the mystery of time, a collection of questions I suspect will never be sorted out. Still, it’s good to see that on a prosaic cop show questions about our existential condition find a way to break through.

In my biography of Freud, I’ve now reached the point where Freud, in his late twenties, went off to Paris to study with Jean-Martin Charcot, the famous head of a large section of the Salpetriere Hospital devoted to the treatment of women with various neurological and nervous disorders. Freud was very much impressed with Charcot, describing him as a man “whose common sense is touched by genius.” He was also a tyrant and a raging egomaniac. The account of Freud’s four months in Paris, starting in September 1885, reminds me of the need of many young men I’ve known to idolize some older, authority figure. It’s a propensity I’ve never fully understood. What is it about people that causes them to think that some figures rise above the limits of humanity? Some men and women are intelligent, yes, and ingenious, but none are worthy of being worshipped as gods.

In my experience, the men who have been presented to me as inexplicably grand have been nothing of the sort. For the most part, they have been people who were obsessed with building their own legends, and in the process were willing to trample on anyone who got in their way. Charcot seems to have been such a figure. Although he did make a few genuine contributions to the understanding of psychological disorders, he was also something of a quack. The trouble with him was he didn’t seem able to sort out the difference between his solid theories and his nutty ones. In his own mind, everything he did appears to have been magnificent, or at least that’s the impression he gave.

Freud, encountering Charcot at the height of his fame, fell completely for the great doctor’s reputation and seems to have totally repressed his own critical faculties. The only reason I can think he did it is that he wanted to. But why?

Years ago, when I was in graduate school in Charlottesville, my wife and I had to dinner a young man who was an intern in the University of Virginia Medical School.  During the evening he repeatedly spoke of what “the big doctors” said and did. I finally asked him what he meant by the big doctors, and he looked at me as though he couldn’t comprehend the question.

The human race is still in its pathetic stage. I keep hoping it will get out.


January 12, 2012

I just watched a clip of Bernie Sanders’s appearance on the Colbert Report on January 4th. The great thing about Bernie is he doesn’t wiggle like most politicians do. He says what he thinks. But then I guess we have to remember that he doesn’t have to wiggle. His seat in the Senate is safe as long as he wants to keep it and is able to carry out the duties of office. That does testify that Vermont is a rather extraordinary part of the United States. Some Vermonters go over the top in praising their own virtues, which I think is a bit silly. In many ways, Vermonters are just like other Americans. But they have created a political culture in which candidates can speak the truth, and that is no longer -- if it ever was -- a common condition in the United States. I happen to think that Bernie is the best senator, and he’ll get my vote as long as he wants it.

In The Life of Edmund Waller, I happened on a comment by Samuel Johnson which applies perfectly to the mainstream media in the United States today:

Poets indeed profess fiction; but the legitimate end of fiction is the conveyance
of truth; and he that has flattery ready for all whom the vicissitudes of the world
happen to exalt, must be scorned as a prostituted mind, that may retain the
glitter of wit, but has lost the dignity of virtue.

Remember how in 2002 and 2003, the media fawned over George W. Bush, who among all the persons alive in the world at that time was probably among the hundred least deserving of that attitude. But it was worse, even, than that; they fawned over Dick Cheney, who then was just as obviously unbalanced as he is now when he’s generally dismissed as a loon. The difference is that then he had power and could draw flattery from prostituted minds.

I’m not sure our media have even the glitter of wit to recommend them, though at times, I suppose, they are humorous.

Some may think it absurdly old hat for me to be adverting to conditions way back then. It’s not the sort of thing the serious people do. But my memory of those events is etched in my brain. I have stuck on my closet door a comment by diplomatic correspondent Michael Getler: “The decision to invade Iraq may well be the worst decision in modern American history, with tremendous long-term effects.” It goes as a corollary to that judgment that the assault on the people of Iraq marked the point in history when the concept of American honor became a joke to the world.

The web today is sprinkled with pictures of U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead men in Afghanistan.  The photos appear to be legitimate. I guess you could say, “So what? They’re dead, they won’t notice.” That’s true. On the other hand, some people who are not yet dead will notice, and I can’t see how the results of their attention will be beneficial for the United States. The Marine Corps, of course, professes to be horrified by this and say they’re going to look into it thoroughly. It may be, even, that the dweebs who did it will be offered up as a kind of sacrifice, in an attempt to appease somebody. But who brainwashed the dweebs? That’s what we ought to be asking, but won’t.

It has been snowing all morning here in Montpelier. Before you start to sympathize with me, let me say that the snow coming down, quietly, steadily, is somewhat soothing. The scene out my window really is a study in white, black, and gray. There are a few other colors, but they are quite mild and almost don’t count. The snow functions as a message that you don’t have to rush around all the time, and that’s a message I think we would do well to get more frequently than we do. Every night on TV I see a number of advertisements designed to explain that there are pills you can buy that will empower you to rush continuously. The people who are presumed to be taking these pills -- I hope they aren’t really -- seem to be living in a state of perfect frenzy, and this is posited as desirable. But why is it desirable? What state of human purpose is served by perpetual frenzy? I wish we could get a politician to address that question but, obviously, it’s silly to think that could happen.

Lest you think I’m sinking into pure quiescence, let me say that I am going to have to go out this afternoon, in order to get some food. I’ll have to scrape snow off the steps and off the car. And then I’ll have to negotiate the streets a little more carefully than I do normally. But it won’t be bad. When I go into Shaw’s, the warmth will welcome me agreeably. I may even go to a coffee shop, where the windows will be steamed and frosted like something out of Dickens. Then I’ll come home again and the snow will still be falling.


January 13, 2012

I see that Jimmy Fallon has merged Tim Tebow with David Bowie to create something called “Tebowie.” You can see it, or him, singing in a clip on The Daily Beast, and, actually he’s not bad. I suppose you could say that Tebow has brought all this on himself, but, then, we should remember, he’s a very young man. In the song, by the way, Jesus tells Tebowie he’s on his own against the Patriots.

I hope a goodly portion of the public will keep up with the kerfuffle started by Arthur Brisbane, the public editor at the New York Times. Brisbane, who either is, or is playing, the most clueless man in history, asked the readers of the Times whether reporters should attempt to challenge lies and distortions put out by public figures, or, rather, just report what they say. The response was, to say the least, vigorous, and fairly unanimous. It went something like this: “Are you out of your mind? Why is that really a question? What are journalists for if they don’t try to help their readers get at the truth of public events and statements?”

Brisbane has now issued a follow-up, in which he expresses regret that readers didn’t get the subtlety of the question he was asking (a subtlety which exists only in his own brain and the brains of some of his milktoast colleagues).

The Times, though it probably remains our best newspaper, has for years served as a stenographer for various public figures, presenting what they say as though it had been handed down by God. And, occasionally, when they can no longer cover up the degree they’ve been used, they’ll issue a tepid statement of regret. This, of course, happened most noticeably with respect to the buildup of the Iraq invasion.

It’s not only theTimes reporters, of course, who engage in this watered-down version of journalism. It has become so common it now serves as a kind of standard. Glenn Greenwald says it’s no longer just the practice of mainstream reporters; it has become their religion.

We certainly need a better press than we have. I suppose that’s true of all times and places. But it has become a more acute problem than it once was in the United States because politicians have discovered they can lie blatantly and incessantly, and get away with it. There is no independent criticism that can reach a wide public and point out that something a candidate might be making a lynchpin of his campaign is nothing but baloney. An example we see on TV virtually every night is Mitt Romey’s silly statement that Obama has gone round the world apologizing for the United States. Actually, I wish he had, but there’s no truth in Romney’s charge. It’s not just a distortion or a misinterpretation; it’s an outright lie.

There are some encouraging signs the public is getting fed up with stenographer journalism. The response to Brisbane is an example. But what portion of the public is even aware of the issue is hard to know. I hope it’s bigger than I think it is.

I learned last night, watching The Mentalist, that Patrick Jane does not think Red John is dead even though Jane claims publicly to have killed him. It’s curious the way TV series can become so dependent on particular villains they can’t find a way to let them go. It’s the nature of such villains that fascinates. They are all extremely brilliant, so smart in fact they threaten to overwhelm the intellect of their opponents on the right side. The good guys become for the villains little more than playthings.

I suspect what’s going on is a kind of subconscious envy. Though people don’t want to admit it, they all feel oppressed and mistreated by conventional morality. And they dream of breaking free from it in some way or another. Super-intellectual monsters offer them surrogates of escape. They suggest that if you’re just smart enough, the rules won’t have to apply to you. It’s a very tempting fantasy.

It would be interesting if a TV show would attempt to reveal not just the evils of outdated, bigoted morality but the genuine human cost of morality itself. But I suppose that’s far too radical an effort to expect from anything as conformist as television production. Still, popular culture does at times insinuate notions that have no other voice. That’s one of the reasons why, jejune as it is, I try a little bit to keep up with it.

Another thing my TV told me last night was that the first step to happiness may be a bowl of soup. I thought about that as I was drifting off to sleep, and just before oblivion overwhelmed me, I reached the conclusion that though I’m fond of soup (at least some soups), I don’t think it is the entryway to meaningful happiness. But, then, what is?


January 14, 2012

A friend called my attention to the review of a new book about Nietzsche which will appear in the Times book review tomorrow. The book is by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, and is titled American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas. The review, which expands into an essay stretching beyond the book is by Alexander Star.

Mr. Star’s essay is as balanced an attempt to convey who Nietzsche was to a general audience as I’ve seen. As I said in an e-mail to my friend, Star can’t really explain Nietzsche’s intellectual brilliance in the space he has. But we can’t blame a person for failing to do the impossible.

As far as I can tell from the review, Ms. Ratner-Rosenhagen ably explains why Nietzsche continues to appeal to Americans despite all the hatchet-jobs bad readers have tried to impose on him.

Nietzsche, of course, remains a mystery. How did he gain the perspective on human pathology that he achieved? I doubt that question can ever be answered. He sliced through such a gigantic mountain of refuse left in the train of world religions and powerful thinkers like Plato and Kant, it would seem to have required a superhuman effort. Yet his message was the most simple humanity imaginable: we should live healthy lives in this world as it is because it’s the only world we’ve got.

Robert Parry had a pretty good column in Consortium News yesterday about the effort to gin up a war with Iran. It’s overstated, as Parry’s writings generally are, but he makes strong points about the thinking -- or maybe we should say, the ambitions -- of people who are exaggerating the threat Iran poses. He reminded me that in the government of most nations there are war mongers. They don’t know that’s what they are, but their temperament is such that they are always on the lookout for situations which they can argue demand the employment of military force. That the use of military force is thrilling -- for a while -- to most people and that it brings fame to those who employ it are not negligible influences shaping who the war mongers have chosen to be. We shouldn’t, though, blame war entirely on them. Most people are entirely too receptive to the propaganda the celebration of war throws out. As long as we continue to glorify warriors we’ll be tempted to employ them, and we’ll dress young men up in silly-looking suits and send them out to slaughter one another.

Another thing, never to be forgotten, is that war makes a good many people rich. If there weren’t spoils of war, we might have a chance to resist its other appeals.

It ought to be obvious to everyone that an outbreak of warfare between the United States and Iran, with Israel jumping in eagerly, would devastate the world’s economy, create long-term hostility between the U.S. and its allies, and kill tens of thousands of innocent people in the Middle East. Who wants that?

We’re in a little cold snap here in Vermont. It is going down to eight degrees below zero tonight, and according to my weather web site, it will feel even colder than that. I have said that as long as the temperature will stay above zero, I don’t really mind the cold. And I continue to hold to that feeling. But when the temperature drops into the negative range, it takes on a different character. Instead of being brisk, it becomes threatening. Temperatures below zero remind you they can kill.

I haven’t been out yet today but I guess I’ve got to bring my courage to the sticking point and stick myself out into the bracing atmosphere. The reason is I’m pretty well out of food again. Getting cold is not exactly pleasant, but hunger is even worse. Besides, I think I’ve let the benchmark of zero affect me too much. It is, after all, merely an artificial line. If I summon powers of mind I can bring myself to see that the difference between two and minus eight is not so much. Think of the difference between 75 and 85; it’s like nothing.


January 15, 2012

You’ve probably noticed that both Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum have made attacks on Europe a standard element of their campaigns. Supposedly, the worst thing that could happen in America would be to duplicate anything that’s done in Europe. That would make us socialists, of course.

I wonder what percentage of Americans are susceptible to this Yahoo appeal. I guess it’s clear that a majority of Republicans are. If they weren’t, why would candidates in Republican primaries make it a regular part of their campaign oratory? I wonder what the underlying cause of it is. Is it still the deep sense of inferiority that has been such a potent force throughout the history of American politics?

Nicholas Kristof has a column in the New York Times this morning which tries to refute the simplistic stupidity of the Republican charges. He points out that some aspects of life in Europe are superior to what they are here. I’m afraid it won’t influence anyone who isn’t already convinced. You’ll notice there is no specific information in the Romney and Santorum assaults. It’s all just vague abstraction -- the horror of socialism and so forth. I guess they know, also, that Republican voters aren’t much into fact.

The feature of the anti-European rhetoric that gets almost no attention in America is the effect this chauvinistic blather has on the reputation of the United States around the world. It’s as though we were all Bill O’Reillys, chirping incessantly that we don’t care what they think. Though it’s true that reputation shouldn’t completely determine one's actions, it’s not sensible for a national culture to dismiss it altogether. In the so-called “global” world we now inhabit, there are consequences for incessant proclamations of scorn for the rest of the world. They are hurting us already in ways we don’t recognize and I suspect in the future they’ll hurt us in ways even we can’t ignore.

•••••

The much publicized showdown between Tom Brady and Tim Tebow turned out as any sensible person would have expected. Brady, after all, is one of the finest quarterbacks in the history of the National Football League. He can see the field with amazing clarity and deliver the ball where he wants to put it. Tim Tebow is a young player just starting on his quest to be a good professional quarterback. He has some skills and lots of awkwardness. It’s unlikely he will ever be as good as Brady, but if he has a chance, it will take lots of work and a good deal of time. It was absurd to set the playoff game last night up as some kind of even contest. But that’s what the media like to do. They’ll hype anything they can, regardless of how silly it might be. I hope Tebow can find the composure not to let the defeat get into his head, and, instead, move forward to work on his abilities. And I hope Brady will stay as good as he is for at least a few more years. He’s a pleasure to watch.

•••••

I hope some of you will go to either the Washington Post or Reader Supported News and take in Jonathan Turley’s column about how the rights of citizens have been so severely abridged over the past decade that the United States has no right any longer to call itself a free nation. He lists ten government activities, such as the assassination of U.S. citizens, warrantless searches, and indefinite detention, to back up his claim that the U.S has become an authoritarian nation.

Articles like Turley’s are useful to remind people who are willing to be reminded. The serious difficulty, though, is to know how to get people to care. These abuses by the government of what were once considered basic rights, and the foundation of our republic, are extremely serious, yet they arouse very little discussion in the mainstream media and seem to make no difference in the political arena. It’s even worse than that. A major portion of the public applauds extra-judicial action against anyone the government picks out, extending even to murder and secret jailing.

The idea that the president could simply order someone to be killed, with no evidence against that person being submitted to a court where he had the right to defend himself, would, just a short while ago, have been considered horrendous. Now, it’s just a ho-hum matter. He won’t do it unless that person is really bad, people say to themselves, and let it go at that.

People who are that lackadaisical about government abuse are not likely to escape it over the long run.
The much publicized showdown between Tom Brady and Tim Tebow turned out as any sensible person would have expected. Brady, after all, is one of the finest quarterbacks in the history of the National Football League. He can see the field with amazing clarity and deliver the ball where he wants to put it. Tim Tebow is a young player just starting on his quest to be a good professional quarterback. He has some skills and lots of awkwardness. It’s unlikely he will ever be as good as Brady, but if he has a chance, it will take lots of work and a good deal of time. It was absurd to set the playoff game last night up as some kind of even contest. But that’s what the media like to do. They’ll hype anything they can, regardless of how silly it might be. I hope Tebow can find the composure not to let the defeat get into his head, and, instead, move forward to work on his abilities. And I hope Brady will stay as good as he is for at least a few more years. He’s a pleasure to watch.

•••••

I hope some of you will go to either the Washington Post or Reader Supported News and take in Jonathan Turley’s column about how the rights of citizens have been so severely abridged over the past decade that the United States has no right any longer to call itself a free nation. He lists ten government activities, such as the assassination of U.S. citizens, warrantless searches, and indefinite detention, to back up his claim that the U.S has become an authoritarian nation.

Articles like Turley’s are useful to remind people who are willing to be reminded. The serious difficulty, though, is to know how to get people to care. These abuses by the government of what were once considered basic rights, and the foundation of our republic, are extremely serious, yet they arouse very little discussion in the mainstream media and seem to make no difference in the political arena. It’s even worse than that. A major portion of the public applauds extra-judicial action against anyone the government picks out, extending even to murder and secret jailing.

The idea that the president could simply order someone to be killed, with no evidence against that person being submitted to a court where he had the right to defend himself, would, just a short while ago, have been considered horrendous. Now, it’s just a ho-hum matter. He won’t do it unless that person is really bad, people say to themselves, and let it go at that.

People who are that lackadaisical about government abuse are not likely to escape it over the long run.

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