Sunday, August 29, 2010

Poem of the Day

Night, street, lamp, and pharmacy,
A meaningless and misty light.
Live on a quarter century—
The same. There is no hope of flight.

You will die, rise from where you fell,
All be repeated, cold and damp:
The night, the wavering canal,
The pharmacy, the street, the lamp.

-- Alexander Bloc (1888 - 1921)
Trans. Leo Yankevich

Friday, August 27, 2010

Another Day, Another Year

A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn't think he'd remember.

-- Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane (1941)
The summer between my fourth and fifth grade years my family moved from Philadelphia to Cambridge, Massachusetts. So when I went to school for the first time that September -- I think it was September, not August -- I was new, and didn't know a single soul.

I therefore have no idea what the name of the student was (if I knew him later, I didn't then). I'm fairly certain he was in my grade. But I vividly remember that I was walking directly behind him -- through the school yard, up to the school door -- when I saw him greet a fellow student, presumably for the first time since school let out the previous June, and say, with a world-weary voice, "Another day, another year."

We were just boys. But it struck me at the time as filled with meaning beyond the simplicity of the words themselves. I heard in them a profundity with echoes of Ecclesiastes -- a venerable wisdom that today I would laugh should anyone think it present in a statement by a twenty-year-old, let alone a nine- or ten-year-old, as those boys were then.

And yet, in truth, I don't think there's been a school year that's started since in which I haven't thought at some point on or about the first day of school about that sentence, and the profound, sorrowful wisdom that I still (despite all) hear in it.

Friday, August 13, 2010

We All Live in Omelas

Fred Clark did a magnificent drash on Ursula K. LeGuin's classic short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" (text file) in a series of three blog posts, put up on (and between) the anniversaries of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I recommend you read LeGuin's story if you haven't previously done so -- it's fabulous anyway, and I'd recommend it regardless of the commentary -- and then read Clark's series:

Greetings from Omelas
August 9

There's also a postscript, "Sez Who", here, which is not as central to the rest of the series.

Go, read.

*"YNATKC" is an acronym -- of Clark's devising, so far as I know -- for "You're not allowed to kill civilians", and point he's made repeatedly (although, as I suspect he'd agree, it's a point that can never be made sufficiently here in Omelas).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ithaca-Focused Post

To any Ithacans who happen to be reading this blog: this fall, our local bookstore Buffalo Street Books is organizing a series of reading groups, and I'm offering one called "Literature of Constraint", about four novels written either by members of the French literary group the Oulipo, or (in one case) done by an American working on parallel lines. Follow the second link for more information. (There's also a facebook page here.) Any readers of this blog are invited to come!

Update (Sunday, December 12): Sadly, even before our final discussion on Wednesday, Buffalo Street Books has taken down the above-linked page about the group. So, more for my own reference than anything else, I'm going to list the four books that we discussed, and the dates (all dates from 2010).

September 15: Italo Calvino, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
October 20: Georges Perec, A Void
November 17: Walter Abish, Alphabetical Africa
December 15: Harry Mathews, Cigarettes

Incidentally, my rereading of Perec's A Void and my reading of Abish's Alphabetical Africa each produced two blog posts, and my reading of Mathews's Cigarettes produced one, all linked in this selfsame sentence.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Tony Judt

The internets are saying that the great historian and essayist Tony Judt has died. If so, it is a great loss, if not a surprising one, since he has been suffering from ALS for some years now. Nevertheless, the loss is keenly felt, as he was a fabulous writer -- Postwar is a terrific book, and his essays (collected in this volume) are very good as well. And, of course, he was a brave and pioneering voice on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as well.


Update: This is now being confirmed by mainstream news sources, e.g. the NY Times, the LA Times and the Associated Press. So far as I can tell, though, both were scooped by Monoweiss here.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Today in Unintentional Irony

Dennis Prager, in a column called "A Speech Every American High School Principal Should Give":
I am reorienting the school toward academics and away from politics and propaganda.
Dennis Prager, later in the very same paragraph:
We will have failed if any one of you graduates this school and does not consider him or herself inordinately lucky -- to be alive and to be an American.
No politics or propaganda here, nosiree. (But "global warming" is on Prager's list of exemplars of what would count as politics and propaganda. Oi vey.)

The very next (and final) paragraph reads, in full:
Now, please stand and join me in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag of our country. As many of you do not know the words, your teachers will hand them out to you.
Good thing that pledging allegiance to "the flag of our country" has nothing to do with either propaganda or politics.*

Better conservative commentators, please.

Plus! Extra! Bonus self-contradiction within a single paragraph -- from the very same column! From early in the paragraph [emphasis added]:
My only interest in terms of language is that you leave this school speaking and writing English as fluently as possible.
Shortly followed by:
We will learn other languages here -- it is deplorable that most Americans only speak English...
I say again, in the American English vernacular: oi fucking vey.

* Yeah, I know I just lost a few of you here. But I have long thought that pledging allegiance in a public school is kind of creepy. And even if you support it -- and I am well aware that most Americans probably do -- you can't deny that it's propaganda, albeit propaganda you believe in. (Just causes can have propaganda too.)

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Politics Today

I was busy, so I didn't read the news yesterday. I come back this morning, and the top three stories people are talking about seem to be:
  1. Equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians, which a California court just declared a constitutional necessity yesterday (appeal pending);
  2. Conservatives who want to change the constitution to alter the 14th Amendment's guarantee of citizenship for everyone born in the U.S. (John Stewart's brilliant take here (h/t))
  3. Whether people should be allowed to build a religious center on private land -- controversial because it's Islam, a mosque and it's a couple blocks from the site of the 9/11 attacks.
In other words, it's all identity politics, all the time. It's the question of whether we're going to be an inclusive society, or not. Whether we are a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, or a nation of white, straight Christians -- of scared white, straight Christians.

On one very important level, this is utterly, thoroughly ridiculous. Our country and world face some really !@#$%ing serious problems -- global warming above all, but a horrible economy, two wars and the bipartisan eroding of basic civil liberties also -- and we're fighting about silly little identity politics? People are up in arms, not about politicians fiddling as the world burns, or blocking stimulus bills that would actually create some !@#$%ing jobs, or our country's occupying and fighting in countries with (at this point) only a fairly tenuous connection to national security (and an equally tenuous moral justification).... but about people getting married, having babies and building places to worship? You've gotta be kidding me.

But I guess that's where we are. Do we believe in the proposition that all are created equal, or not? Are the children of illegal immigrants, Muslims and gays and lesbians to be included in that consensus... or are they to be excluded, just as African Americans, women and so many others were when our nations creed was written?

It's a crazy fight. But if it's what we're fighting about, I know which side I'm on.

And, of course, it's ultimately deeply connected to the other fights, too. I find it hard to believe that, if not for the fear of other religions and other ethnicities, we would currently be fighting in Afghanistan and (certainly) Iraq.* Without the fears of those who want America to be Christian, and to be white, and to be straight, we would not fear that government money would go to "them" and not to "us"... and could digest the straightforward Keynesian argument that we need to let the government spend when no one else will to dig ourselves out of a recession. And without those fears, we could let the government tax the carbon that's going to roast us all, and keep the government from throwing civil liberties overboard on us out of the fear that "us" might be "them".

So I guess that, yeah, we need to have this fight -- this fight over who were are as a people (and as people) -- before we can deal with the rest. But I worry. Because people are dying in our wars, being held without trial in our jails, and suffering for lack of jobs now. Above all, the world will not wait for us to solve our cultural problems before it heats to unsustainable levels.

Fear of those not "us" -- not in the (false) image of those who "us" are -- is causing problems that will not wait for that fear to resolve itself. And what good will a tolerant, decent society be if we create it on the ashes of a livable world?

If there's a solution to this problem, I don't know it. But it's the problem we face in politics today.

* Iraq, a war based on errors, arrogence and lies, is obvious. But I think it applies to Afghanistan too. We didn't invade anywhere after the Oklahoma City bombing; we treated it as a crime, not an act of war.

Activist Court Overturns Popularly-Supported Laws Restricting Marriage Rights to Certain Couples

I assume that anyone appalled by yesterday's monumental and heroic opinion is equally appalled by this decision, on a form of marriage far more unpopular in its day than same-sex marriage is today.