Friday, July 23, 2010

If I Had a Twitter Account, I'd Twitter This

It's worth remembering that in his first substantial* passage on the notion that "God is Dead" (The Gay Science, Book 3, Sect. 125), Nietzsche attributes the notion to a "madman" who is addressing not people who believe in God, but people who do not.

(...which just goes to show why I'm not made for Twitter, or at any rate not ready for it, since that comes to 207 characters not counting the link (or the footnote), half again as many as are permitted on that site.)


* It's mentioned in passing in the first section of Book 3 of the same work, but section 125 is the first one in which it is the central subject.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Poem of the Day: Aubade


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what's really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
- The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused - nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear - no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anasthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small, unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape,
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

-- Philip Larkin

H/t to Sully. An "aubade", by the way, is "a song or poem greeting the dawn".

Friday, July 16, 2010

Stray Thought

If he'd made his name a little earlier, Jeet Heer might have had a chapter of Christan Bök's Eunoia dedicated to him.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Harvey Pekar (1939 - 2010)

In the long run, we're all dead anyway.

-- Harvey Pekar, The Quitter
I just found out that Harvey Pekar, the amazing comics writer who specialized in small, autobiographical anecdotes about his daily life as a file clerk, died today.

A fabulous movie based on his comics (and, hence, about his life), called by the title of his ongoing comics series, American Splendor, came out in 2003.

Some of you may know that for some years now (far too many) I've been working on a graphic novel (illustrating my own script). I'd long harbored a fantasy of sending him a copy once it was done and (FSM willing) published, and saying I'd love to do a story with him if he had any interest in it.

I should have worked faster.

If you've never read his work, the best place to start is probably the collection of (most of) his collaborations with artist Robert Crumb, American Splendor Presents: Bob & Harv's Comics (1994), which was for me the best work either of them ever did.

Some links:

David Ulin has a nice appreciation in the LA Times. Since I'm away from my collection of Pekar comics at the moment, and can't go through them looking for a good epitaphial epigraph of my own, I filched one from his piece.

• Tom Spurgeon has yet to post his full obituary, but his 382 word (2,226-character) Twitter (!) response -- serialized, natch, but thankfully collated at the link -- is probably better than most of the full-scale obituaries by other people will be. [Update: Spurgeon has one of his massive "collective memory" link collections on Pekar here.]

• Journalista has posted Gary Groth's 1993 interview with Pekar from The Comics Journal.

• As of now, Wikipedia has a thorough article on Pekar's comics series American Splendor; hopefully the publicity of his death won't draw enough attention to it that the powers-that-be at Wikipedia decide to ruin it.

Maybe more links later.

Harvey Pekar, RIP.

(Irrelevant and slightly irreverent footnote: am I the only person who sees six kinds of irony in the fact that the Coroner in Cuyahoga County, where Pekar died, was named "Frank Miller"?)

Update, July 16: More Pekar links:

Tom Spurgeon's full-length obituary is here.

Jeet Heer has an obituary here.

Alan David Duane's 2005 interview with Pekar is here.

This blog post by John Glenn Taylor has a nice sampling of random panels from Pekar comics.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Why Political Satire Doesn't Work Anymore

Satire as a literary device depends on a comprehending and homogeneous audience with commonly understood standards of rightness and reasonableness. Since the satirist can expose to instantaneous contempt only what is readily condemned by the opinion of his readers, he must necessarily be on intimate terms with them and count on their sharing his tastes and viewpoint. If this intimacy should break down, if the satirist's audiences should become heterogeneous and the once-shared values become confused and doubtful, if the satirist has to explain what his ridicule means, then the satire is rendered ineffectual.

-- Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters (2006), p. 251

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Words Hard to Take Seriously Enough, However Seriously You Take Them

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

--The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

They're hard words to live by. Jefferson, who wrote them (with some later editing by committee), had trouble living by them, seeing his role in personally denying hundreds of people their inalienable right to liberty. Indeed, many of those who signed the declaration, people who took them very seriously indeed (the pledge of their lives, fortunes and sacred honors was not simply a rhetorical flourish, since they could have been hung if they'd lost the war), had trouble taking them seriously enough.

But it was hardly the only time. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton repeated those words, adding only a few self-evident edits ("all men and women are created equal"), it took decades for her to be taken seriously enough. When Ho Chi Min said those words (in Vietnamese) in saying that his colonized people also wanted to "dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them", we did not take him seriously enough, and sent troops to aid his colonizers (who had, ironically, themselves aided us when we were the colonized).

And today, our government is threatening the life and liberty and pursuits of happiness of its citizens (not to mention its non-citizens: and after all those inalienable rights are due to all men and all women, not simply to American citizens), but somehow, we don't take those rights seriously, or the idea that governments derive just powers only from consent of the governed, and only to protect those rights, seriously enough.

Yet those words, written in haste by a slaveowner, derived from commonplaces of enlightened thought of his day, edited by a committee and passed hurriedly so they could return to the managing of a war, those words remain worthy of being taken seriously. The words were larger and better than he or they meant; larger and better than he or they knew; and larger and better than we have yet fully and truly grasped. Indeed, the question we should continually ask our government -- and ourselves -- is whether we are acting worthy of them.

Happy July 4, everyone.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Quote of the Day: Jim Henley on Standards for the High and Low Roads

Jim Henley, responsible for so many fine posts over the years, hits another home-run in this one:
...what we see over and over again is that we judge high-road approaches as failures unless they produce nigh-instant and complete favorable results, while we show nearly infinite patience for journeys down the low road.

Nine years into the invasion of Afghanistan we have to agree that pulling out after a decade is just too soon. Back in 2001, the Taliban’s failure to turn over Osama bin Laden within a couple of weeks showed the hopelessness of diplomacy. When torture “works” at all it takes weeks and months, just like more classic rapport-building methods of interrogation. And it involves more false positives. Plus, oh I forgot to mention, it is deeply evil. But even though classic interrogation methods produce statistically better results, we live in fear that there may be some time somewhere that torture might get an answer that classic interrogation missed, so of course we must continually torture for that possible moment’s sake. As Gene points out, O’Grady judges the European and Canadian liberation of travel to Cuba a failure because Cuba has not become a neoliberal paradise in the decade since, while leaving aside the fact that Cuba hasn’t become a neoliberal paradise after 50 years of American cold-war against the country.

Compare also the standard neocon “U SUCK LOL” directed against nonviolent resistance – Hitler would totally have just killed Gandhi hahaha! We accept that successful violent resistance might take years or decades to achieve victory – Mao, Castro – and that guerrilla movements might suffer casualties to ranks and leaders but keep on. But we can’t imagine that nonviolent resistances might achieve the same. The war on drugs will surely work at some point – we’ve only been at it for 90-odd years, trillions of dollars and countless deaths and humiliations. But should anyone anywhere decriminalize anything, a single death or inconvenience in the first week would condemn the entire effort....

The open question, to me, is who “we” are in the above. American culture, or the human race? I suspect the latter, and that relative power simply gives the US a greater opportunity to take low-road approaches. But I’m not sure.

-- Jim Henley
(I quoted most of it -- it was that sort of post -- but that link goes to the rest if you want it.)

Friday, July 02, 2010

In Sorrow

I've been trying to write this post for a few days now. I can't quite figure out how I want to say it. But I feel uneasy not having said it. So I'm going for plain, short and simple.

Last week, while my wife and I were away (she had a business trip, I went along) our beloved lovebird Boojum died.

He was with a bird sitter, and flew into an uncurtained window. He died instantly.

It's hard to know what to say about the death of a pet. The loss is real and powerful, even if those of us who have experienced both would never confuse it with the death of a human being. -- And yet grief about a pet is often scorned or dismissed or mocked -- or, even when this is not true, it is hectored for its triviality (hence the disclaimer in the previous sentence, which I felt compelled to add not because I think it wasn't obvious but despite this).

Hard, too, because so many of the consolations (and rationalizations and excuses and translucent veils of denial) we grasp at when a human being we love dies fail with an animal. Perhaps the only thing we can say about an animal, from among all of the various things that we say to console ourselves about the death of people we loved, is that they lived a happy life, and died without pain. (Yes, I am aware that there are people who believe animals end up in heaven. All I can say is that I don't, for either animals or people, and nothing you say will convince me, so please don't try, not now, not here.)

Lived happily and died without pain: thankfully, for Boojum, this is true. It's hard to know what "living a good life" would be for a bird (let alone a human (or is it the other way around?)), but he was happy, as happy as we could make him. He was a strong flier -- or became one: when he came to us, his wings were clipped; but he relearned to fly, and flew frequently around the room when, once or twice a day, we let him out to do so -- a brave little cosmonaut, we thought of him. He explored, and learned to fly in all sorts of complicated and strong ways (almost hovering at times, for instance). At other times he would just circle, for the sheer joy of it.

And it is a consolation, if a small one, that he went out flying.

Once we returned from our trip -- and brought our surviving lovebird, Snark, safely home again -- we claimed the body; and while our son was with a babysitter, we buried him under a tree, and said, yes, a few words.

We have been worrying about Snark -- yet another way we deal with death: fret on the survivors -- but he seems fine, although the day we picked him up he was, understandably, a bit agitated. We are hoping to find a new bird to serve as a companion for Snark, since it is not good for lovebirds to live alone (hence the name). But it's hard to believe he does not, in whatever way the mind of a bird does, miss Boojum.

As do we.

Rest in peace, Boojum. Thank you for enriching our lives.