Pain has often been privileged over other sensations. It has been represented as a somewhat enviable experience, has had something of a heroic career in spiritual literature. Yet in truth, pain is no more and no less profound than any other sensation. Pain offers the same potential for learning as any other experience. In that sense one can simply say that pain…just…is.
The Passion and the Price
Kids, mortgages, careers — somehow all the crap we’d once dismissed as the bleak concerns of geezers had caught up with us. Well, not with me. I might not have had enough disposable income to fund many trips like this, but I hadn’t committed myself to kids or mortgages, either. I was single, self-employed, only rented apartments, and lived off taco cart tacos and ham sandwiches. Such concessions guaranteed that my time was mine to fill. I could stay up until 2 a.m. reading if I wanted to, or hike in the mountains on a whim, with no fear of abandoning or disappointing anyone else. I had no one to account for but myself. I was also at that age where you started to wonder if the life you’d fashioned in youth had lost its charm.
…Counter to the usual progression of things, the older I got, the deeper my musical appreciations grew. I got into blues in my late-20s, got into late-’50s/early-’60s hard bop jazz soon after. I went through a classical music period in which I listened to Handel’s Water Music and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos so frequently that a friend asked if I was going to start wearing white shirts with ruffles. Recently I’d seen 1950s jazz legends perform in New York, and octogenarian bluesmen tear through fierce sets in nondescript bars, men who used canes and had suffered strokes and still smoked. Although my tastes kept expanding, music had always been one of my central preoccupations.
…Unlike regular life, live music was never dull or predictable. It also elevated my existence without committing me to the sort of job required to finance the 18-year-plus task of parenting. I felt self-absorbed thinking this, even immature. So many of my friends who had kids constantly extolled parenting’s virtues: “You can’t imagine how much joy kids bring you,” they’d say, “that you could love another human being so deeply.” Baby’s first steps, baby’s first day of school, the quiet moments at home alone when they looked up at you and said, I love you, Dad — “It’s so rewarding. I would throw myself in front of a car for that kid.” I believed them, yet these were the same people who admitted: “I’m always tired.” “I’m buried in chores.” “I have no time to myself.” “I worry I’m doing it all wrong; sometimes I can’t breathe.” “I’m stuck at my job at least until she starts middle school.” “I wish I could just jump in the car and drive to the beach and talk to no one.” At night they drank too much wine to cope, or smoked occasional cigarettes even though they’d officially quit.
…Through the thin veil of our public deceptions, I could see the truth: like me, he was trying to disguise the consumptive intensity of his musical attachments, trying to look like less of a freak and avoid being typecast as the old guy who refused to “grow up.” And despite the differences in our clothing and the gray of his hair, there was no denying what he was: not only a kindred spirit, but precisely the person I might one day be if I kept living the way I was living.
I still couldn’t tell if that was a bad thing or not.
…Maybe it wasn’t parenting that bothered me so much as the mundane. Too much of life was just so earthly. If you broke down the activities that composed our daily existence, it didn’t amount to much: Which size garbage bag should I get? What’s the difference between spearmint and wintermint? Did the cashier actually give me my 10 percent discount? Always scrub the counter so food particles don’t stick. I needed something transcendent to counteract the blandness, even if it only lasted a few minutes. Which was the problem: It only lasted a few minutes. Then it was back to Is fluoride healthier than fluoride-free? Back to this.
It’s kinda strange; I’ve done all the “responsible adult” things that could be reasonably expected of me — held a steady job, had long-term relationships, owned a house, even raised a stepkid — but I’ve always felt in the world of my peers rather than of it, largely because music and books have always remained the centerpiece of my life. I prefer my music studio-packaged instead of live, but yeah, I get what he’s saying. I hardly ever talk about music anymore, because most people I know are stuck on repeat with the music of their late teens and early twenties if they even care about it at all. One friend, in the course of venting a bit about midlife crisis issues, asked how I stayed sane. Music, I said. Keeping music as my focus was what kept my entire sense of self from ossifying; it was the invigorating current that kept me from feeling like a stagnant lake. It’s all the transcendence I need.
And while I’m sure they do love their kids, I have to smirk a bit at how utterly boring most of them become as parents, boring in the sense of having no interesting thoughts about anything anymore. I don’t know how I managed to be born deaf to the siren song of the genetic imperative to pass on my DNA, but I sure am grateful for it.
Never Met A Wise Man; If So, It’s a Woman
The Chronicle on Emma Goldman:
Although Mikhail Bakunin, that fiercest of Russian anarchists, was one of her heroes, his famous definition of the revolutionary as a man who “has no interests of his own, no feelings, no habits, no longings, not even a name, only a single interest, a single thought, a single passion—the revolution” was as abhorrent to Goldman as corporate capitalism. If revolutionaries gave up sex and art while they were making the revolution, she said, they would become devoid of joy. Without joy, human beings cease being human. Should the men and women who subscribed to Bakunin’s credo prevail, the world would be even more heartless after the revolution than it had been before.The conviction that revolution and the life of the senses dare not be mutually exclusive made Goldman eloquent in defense of causes—sexual freedom, birth control, marriage reform—that a majority of her fellow anarchists derided as trivializing the cause. Comrades repeatedly took her to task for, as many of them said, interpreting anarchism as a movement for individual self-expression rather than a revolution of the collective.
Luxemburg’s letters from prison are, in fact, so resolutely cheerful and gentle that they can become cloying. There is a solemn whimsy in her devotion to animals, for instance, that puts the contemporary reader helplessly in mind of Disney cartoons: “Recently I sang the Countess’ aria from Figaro, about six [titmice] were perched there on a bush in front of the window and listened without moving all the way to the end; it was a very funny sight to see.” Yet coming from “Red Rosa,” this kind of thing struck the first readers of her letters with the force of a revelation. Here was a revolutionary who loved flowers and birds, and Hugo Wolf’s Lieder, and the poems of Goethe. This Luxemburg offers the strongest possible contrast with Lenin, who famously said, “I can’t listen to music too often . . . it makes you want to say stupid nice things, and stroke the heads of people who could create such beauty while living in this vile hell. And now you must not stroke anyone’s head: you might get your hand bitten off. You have to strike them on the head, without any mercy.”
Comma Chameleon, You Come and Go
How might punctuation now evolve? The dystopian view is that it will vanish. I find this conceivable, though not likely. But we can see harbingers of such change: editorial austerity with commas, the newsroom preference for the period over all other marks, and the taste for visual crispness.
…One manifestation of this is the advance of the dash. It imitates the jagged urgency of conversation, in which we change direction sharply and with punch. Dashes became common only in the 18th century. Their appeal is visual, their shape dramatic. That’s what a modern, talky style of writing seems to demand.
By contrast, use of the semicolon is dwindling. Although colons were common as early as the 14th century, the semicolon was rare in English books before the 17th century. It has always been regarded as a useful hybrid—a separator that’s also a connector—but it’s a trinket beloved of people who want to show that they went to the right school.
More surprising is the eclipse of the hyphen. Traditionally, it has been used to link two halves of a compound noun and has suggested that a new coinage is on probation. But now the noun is split (fig leaf, hobby horse) or rendered without a hyphen (crybaby, bumblebee). It may be that the hyphen’s last outpost will be in emoticons, where it plays a leading role.
Hmm. I am indeed a fan of the dash; I see it as a linguistic pause button, allowing a brief aside, saving the lengthier ones for enclosure within parentheses. I also would rather dehyphenate most words; something about the hyphen always strikes me as annoyingly retro, like when people used to write “to-day”. But as you can see from the previous two sentences, I find the semicolon very useful and fail to understand why it should have come to be synonymous with snobbery and esoteric rules.
An English professor friend of mine occasionally passes along egregious examples of the kind of writing her students submit; it’s fun to read them out loud, verbatim, in keeping with the lack of punctuation. I usually manage to stay sanguine about the “kids these days”, figuring that the glass has always been half-empty when it comes to basic literacy. The easiest way to become a good speller and good writer is to read, read, and read some more, and most people don’t like to do it. So it goes. But I have to admit that I’m currently ready to issue death sentences to all those people who refuse to ever capitalize anything, even when submitting information for an official form. The Internet has become the recessive gene pool of Cormac McCarthy and E.E. Cummings, it seems.
The Box Is There for a Reason
Tony Harrison: When are you gonna start thinking outside the box?
Saboo: The box is there for a reason; to keep ball-men like you inside it.
As a rule, we’re always supposed to applaud the collapse of the record industry. We are supposed to feel good about the democratization of music and the limitless palette upon which artists can now operate. But that collapse is why Lulu exists. If we still lived in the radio prison of 1992, do you think Metallica would purposefully release an album that no one wants? No way. Cliff Burnstein from Q Prime Management would listen to their various ideas, stroke his white beard, and deliver the following 45-second pep talk: “OK, great. Love these concepts. Your allusion to Basquiat’s middle period was very apt, Lars. Incisive! But here’s our situation. If you guys spend two months writing superfast Diamond Head songs about nuclear winter and shape-shifting, we can earn $752 million in 18 months, plus merchandizing. That’s option A. The alternative is that you can make a ponderous, quasi-ironic art record about ‘the lexicon of hate’ that will outrage the Village Voice and mildly impress Laurie Anderson. Your call.”
…For much of my life, I lived under the myth that record labels were inherently evil. I was ceaselessly reminded that corporate forces stopped artists from doing what they truly desired; they pushed musicians toward predictable four-minute radio singles and frowned upon innovation, and they avariciously tried to turn art into a soulless commodity that MTV could sell to the lowest common denominator. And that did happen, sometimes. But some artists need that, or they end up making albums like this.
Ahhahaha. I haven’t paid attention to Metallica for fifteen years, so I don’t really care what they’ve done this time in their quest for utter shamelessness. But as far as the general principle goes, I blame the Romantics. I blame them for this incoherent muddling of creativity with chaos, the belief that uninhibited expression is a close relative or necessary precondition of genius, all of which manifests itself in everything from insufferably pretentious portrait-of-the-artist tossers to the knee-jerk opposition to ADHD drugs for children. Sometimes the tension between the untrammeled vision of the artist and the crass demands of the public or the market is what combusts into greatness.
The Thing’s Hollow—It Goes on Forever—and—Oh My God—It’s Full of Air!
I speak, of course, of Mary Elizabeth Williams’s head.
But has a guy who once made a bit out of peeing himself at the MTV Awards truly had “an impact on American society in ways similar to the distinguished 19th century novelist and essayist best known as Mark Twain”? Is the guy who rocked a jazz flute solo in “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” really “a fearless observer of society” with an “uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly”? You betcha.
Momma Says Stupid Is as Stupid Does
Well, we can go on for a while about whether Steve Jobs was a “smart” man or a “stupid” man for spending so much time dicking around with alternative medicine in the first year after his cancer diagnosis, how people we would generally describe as “smart” can still do “stupid” things in particular, or whether it even makes sense to use broad adjectives like “smart” and “stupid” in an all-or-nothing manner when talking about the sum total of a person’s identity, but surely we can all agree that this is a stupid essay, all told. I would excerpt parts of it, but it’s so wild and scattershot that you really have to just read it all.
CliffsNotes version: if you’ve never been faced with a life-threatening illness you have NO RIGHT to judge what anyone else does when faced with a hard choice about treatment and anyway you’re probably a Republican who hates poor people and wants to outlaw abortion too and Jobs was a Zen Buddhist which is a hell of a lot better than being a Bible-thumper, yeah I know I was just ranting about being judgmental but pfft that was like so many paragraphs ago so whatevs, anyway Zen is what made him great just like rasta made Bob Marley great so we have to accept the good with the bad, Q to tha E to tha muthafuckin’ D – non-sequitur? what non-sequitur? – and if you still say Jobs acted stupidly in postponing treatment, well then you’re a CATHOLIC too, and you think God has dominion over your life, dont’cha? Huh? Huh? Dont’cha? Catholicsezwhat HA GOTCHA, NOW, LIKE I WAS SAYING, just cuz Jobs himself came to feel that he had made a stupid mistake doesn’t mean anything cuz he was large he contained multitudes and now let’s take this baby offroad cuz I’m going to rant about Facebook and private parts and itchy noses and how just cuz Jobs was one of the most famous people in the world and a cult hero to unbelieveably annoying fanboys and fangirls and the subject of a new biography that everyone is wanking about DOESN’T MEAN that we have any right to invade his postmortem privacy by having an opinion on how he handled his illness and GAAAH here we go now I’m really gonna blast off Sarah Palin OWS pot-smoking witchfinder looking under the bed for hippies to punch Big Pharma ack glurg huff puff wheeze gaaaahhhhhh…
Damn, dude. Maybe try some, uh, kava or something. I hear that helps mellow you out.
Soundbite and Fury
Chomsky, a politically progressive linguist, should know better than to dismiss new forms of language-production that he does not understand as “shallow.” This argument, whether voiced by him or others, risks reducing those who primarily communicate in this way as an “other,” one who is less fully human and capable. This was Foucault’s point: Any claim to knowledge is always a claim to power. We might ask Chomsky today, when digital communications are disqualified as less deep, who benefits?
Going Forward In Reverse
Christianity may have forged a distinct ethical tradition, but its key ideas, like those of most religions, were borrowed from the cultures out of which it developed. Early Christianity was a fusion of the Ancient Greek thought and Judaism. Few of what are often thought of as uniquely Christian ideas are in fact so. Take, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps the most influential of all Christian ethical discourses. The moral landscape that Jesus sketched out in the sermon was already familiar. The Golden Rule – ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’ – has a long history, an idea hinted at in Babylonian and Egyptian religious codes, before fully flowering in Greek and Judaic writing (having independently already appeared in Confucianism too). The insistence on virtue as a good in itself, the resolve to turn the other cheek, the call to treat strangers as brothers, the claim that correct belief is at least as important as virtuous action – all were important themes in the Greek Stoic tradition
…If the story of the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution has been rewritten in the interests of creating a mythical ‘Christian Europe’, so too has the story of the relationship between reason and faith in the Enlightenment. What are now often called ‘Western values’ – democracy, equality, toleration, freedom of speech, etc – are the products largely of the Enlightenment and of the post-Enlightenment world. Such values are, of course, not ‘Western’ in any essential sense but are universal; they are Western only through an accident of geography and history.
…To challenge the myths and misconceptions about the Christian tradition is not to deny the distinctive character of that tradition (or traditions), nor its importance in incubating what we now call ‘Western’ thought. But the Christian tradition, and Christian Europe, is far more a chimera than a pure-bred beast. The history of Christianity, its relationship to other ethical traditions, and the relationship between Christian values and those of modern, liberal, secular society is far more complex than the trite ‘Western civilization is collapsing’ arguments acknowledge. The irony is that the defenders of Christendom are riffing on the same politics of identity as Islamists, multiculturalists and many of the other ists that such defenders so loathe.
We can’t seem to help it; we’re born storytellers. But I still laugh at how pervasive it is, this need to believe in some sort of golden age when things were so much clearer, better, happier or healthier. Myths of purity and simplicity are evergreen themes, but humans have always been conflicted and confused, and it’s only the increasing distance of time that allows us to think that history was ever so neat, tidy and linear.
Poking at the Giant Eyes of Ancient Gods (Slight Return)
Rick Perry is literally trying to steal Herman Cain’s thunder
Whoa. Herman Cain literally has thunder? Well, you know, traditionally, the thunder gods were the head of the pantheon, so I’m surprised Cain isn’t the nominee already. But more to the point: we all know what happened to Prometheus for stealing enough of a spark from Zeus’s lightning to bring fire to humankind. Given what we know already of Perry’s, ah, problematic racial issues, is it wise of him to be provoking a thunder-having black man? What would the punishment be for a Texas Republican? Would he be chained to that infamous rock for eternity and forced to read every scientific paper ever published on climate change while being sodomized by an endless line of gay atheists? Or, given his fondness for capital punishment, perhaps Cain would electrocute him with lightning bolts several times a day before bringing him back to life? Or will he be covered in cheese and tomato sauce (plus two toppings) and left to the wild animals?
Or — maybe I should have asked this to begin with — is it even possible to literally steal something metaphorical?