Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

I Wikipede, therefore I am

Check out my last post. I have a link to the Wikipedia article on "eternal return." Think about it; even for as esoteric a topic as eternal recurrance, someone has written a Wikipedia article about it. And not even a passing mention, either, but a really good, thorough, accurate Wikipedia article.

Which leads me to a certain intellectual despair. "Behold, there is nothing new under the sun." For someone as identified with the intellect as I am, it is a core part of my self-image to believe that my mind has something to offer the world that is unique and special. And yet, I have to say that I have yet to find any topic on which I have an understanding sufficient to even contribute to a Wikipedia article, much less write one from scratch.

There is, of course, more to intellectual life than one's knowledge of a specific subject. One collective knowledge, and more importantly, the way that knowledge is applied to the world, is surely of greater import. But it does make you feel really, really small.

Eternal recurrance . . .again

There is an idea called eternal recurrance, or more commonly eternal return, which posits that all of existence is destined to repeat itself. I had first run into the idea when I was reading Nietzsche in college, and later in P.D. Ouspensky. It is usually based on a simple analysis of reality: there is a finite amount of matter, but an infinite amount of time, so it is inevitable that the same state of matter should eventually repeat itself.

Anyone with the faintest degree of numercy could find the holes in such an argument. The number pi comes to mind: it is a simple concept (the ratio of a circle's diameter to its circumference) and yet the digits of pi never repeat, as far out as you go.

Why, then, does the idea have so much appeal? Or, at least, so much appeal that it (ahem) recurs in so many different contexts of mythology, religion, philosophy, and popular culture? I think it contains a couple insights:
  1. The eternal validation of the present moment. Spiritual teachings often stress the importance of the present moment -- that what's happening right here, right now, is a special significance and importance. We can't really have meaning unless what we're doing matters in some ultimate sense . . . and it's usually hard to believe that mowing the lawn or changing a diaper is significant at all, much less ultimately so. But eternal recurrance says that this is important, because it is destined to repeat, and so, in a certain way, eternally significant. What you do will have repercussions for . . . well, forever. Not because of its effects, necessarily, but just because it always will be. This is what captured Nietzsche's imagination -- you had to be completely committed to living every moment of life to its fullest to be able to be comfortable with the notion of recurrance.
  2. The absolute necessity of being. Everyone wants to believe that things happen for a reason. We don't want events to be arbitrary. Most religions explain things teleologically -- everything that happens is in God's plan. But eternal recurrance is a conveniently godless way to communicate the same sense of absolute necessity: everything happens because it must happen this way. It's not as comforting as "the whole world's in his hands," but it does have a certain Camus-like "brotherly indifference of the Universe" appeal.

I think that eternal recurrance is just the rational mind's misguided attempts to make sense of eternity. Eternity is not merely an infinite progression of time; it is the timeless Reality that is outside of and contains Time. From the timeless perspective, every moment in time always is -- past, present or future makes no difference. But the human mind believes that the past is forever gone, and only a continuation or repetition of the present could possibly validate its existence. (I think this is exactly the same tendency in human thinking that leads people to believe in an "afterlife"; since Eternity doesn't make sense to us, we imagine that our existence beyond death is merely a continuation of our life in time, rather than a Reality outside of time.)

Why does any of this matter? Why am I thinking about this now? It bugs me, because I feel, like Nietzsche, that I ought to be able to live as though eternal recurrance is true. I want to believe that I am living in such a way that I would have it no other way. I want to believe that everything is unfolding as it must. I am longing for a life without regrets. But right now, I don't have either the experience or the theology to do that.

I'm such a sucker

I got my very first "comment spam" this morning. Imagine my surprise and delight when I get an email from my Abandon Text blog declaring:

"Your site is on top of my favourites - Great work I like it."

It was from a complete, anonymous stranger, too. My heart skipped a beat -- "Oh my gosh, people are actually reading . . . ! And they actually like it . . . !"

I was half-way through writing a "hooray-for-me" email to my wife before it slowly dawned on me that I was being played. There was a link in the way, on a single character, evidently not intended to be clicked, or maybe clicked if the reader, like me, was wondering who the hell was reading their site. I almost, almost clicked on it. Then I read the text again . . . that utterly generic text . . . I didn't click on it.

The fact that I was duped did not surprise me. What surprised me was how completely susceptible I was to being manipulated through praise. Why was it that a single email from an unknown reader could make me so giddy? We are so hopelessly identified with our thoughts.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

August Surprise

Looks like the English plane bombing plot was exposed a couple days too late to help Joe Lieberman. There's nothing like a good, disruptive terrorist scare to blunt public outcry against the hawks. (Not that that makes sense, logically, since the war in Iraq really has nothing to do with the war on terror, but it doesn't have to make sense to work.)

But maybe its not too late after all, since it looks like Joe understands how to play scare tactics as well as his fellow hawks on the other side of the aisle.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

When "all or nothing" equals "nothing"

So, Lieberman lost. A Democratic icon falls to a billionaire with no political experience. Those no-good Republicans always used big money instead of ideas, it's a crying . . . .

Oh, wait a minute. Lieberman lost to another Democrat? (I mean, if a billionaire businessman with no political experience can be considered a Democrat in the strictest sense of the word . . . ) Oh.
So, let me get this straight. The Republicans are in disarray, lots of scandals, lots of discontent over the war . . . and the Democrats are splitting into angry factions over the war . . . and MoveOn.org thinks this is a good thing because . . . ?

Monday, August 07, 2006

Juan Williams pulls civil rights back from the brink

I heard an interview this morning with Juan Williams about his new book, Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America--and What We Can Do About It. It was a little surprising, at first, because I'm used to listening to Juan speaking from the other side of the news desk, asking the probing questions but not stridently putting out his own opinions.

Thank goodness they are really good opinions. Juan is the epitomy of the well-spoken, well-educated black man, surpassed only by Barak Obama in smoothness of tone and intelligence of thought. (But, then again, Barak Obama is beating everyone at that game these days. God, I hope he runs for President.) It comes as a relief to me that he has some very common-sensical (i.e. conservative) views on the issues facing the black community. As a black man, he can get away with pointing out the obvious -- that Al Sharpton is a fraud and a fake, that Marion Barry is a corrupt son-of-a-wood-louse, etc. -- without immediately being branded as a racist. The cadre of sell-out politicians Juan attacks might try to stick him with the "Uncle Tom" label, but I don't think that will stick to him either, given the generally even-handed-to-liberal leanings of NPR. But they may have an even stickier label: "Fox contributor." In the popular liberal imagination, anything and anyone who appears on Fox News is suspect. There is also the question of his son, Antonio Williams, who is running for office in Washington, D.C. . . . some more cynical commentators might see the book as merely providing cover-fire for Antonio as he dashes to a city council seat and prepares for an ultimate bid for mayor.

I haven't read his book . . . yet. But I hope it becomes a lightning rod for some serious conversations in black politics.


Sunday, August 06, 2006

A History of Violence

I really wish I could be watching and reviewing movies while they were in theaters, and people were more likely to care more. But I just can't see myself getting to any premier showings with my current life, and maybe in a NetFlix age there is a greater call for trailing-edge reviews. . .

Some thoughts on A History of Violence: (warning: spoilers follow)
  • In the DVD interviews director David Cronenberg claimed (with some irony) that the movie was "too commercial for Cannes," and I really have to agree. I enjoyed the film, but on an action-y, plot-driven level, not on a deep, thoughtful character-driven level. And not for a lack of enjoyable characters: really, everyone did a great job in the film. The bad guys who hold up Stall's Diner are really good at being despicable low-lives; Viggo Mortensen gets to be a really good small-town Everyman AND a mob hitman, and moves between the two identities with incredible subtlety. Even Tom Stall's son is interesting and engaging as a geeky, wimpy guy who gets in touch with his (ahem) killer instincts.
  • So why doesn't the movie work at a character level? The whole point of the film is Tom/Joey's quest for redemption. We get a pretty good idea of who he has become, and get a good glimpse of who he was in his previous unsavory life . . . but we never really get to see why he makes that transition. What makes a stone-cold killer become a pillar of the local community? Did he consciously set out to leave his past behind for a morally better life, or was he just laying low and gradually became used to being a humdrum guy? If you stretch your imagination and open your heart, you can believe such a transformation is possible . . . but there's got to be something behind it, and we never really get to see what that something is.
  • The lack of a clear explanation for Joey's transformation into Tom would even be forgivable, except for the mountain of Christ symbolism heaped upon us. He says he was "reborn" when he met his wife-to-be. He holds his arms out in classic crucifixion stance as he is frisked at his brother's. He gets the Judas kiss from his brother Ricky. He goes to the lakeside on Ricky's estate, ostensibly to ditch the gun but really to have a good baptism scene. And then he returns to his family after three days. It's a nice little resurrection arc . . . but God never shows up, nor even a sense of grace.
  • There are also some yawning chasms of credibility for our willing suspension of disbelief to hurdle. Could someone as deadly as Joey not have a rap-sheet that would follow him to his small-town life? Don't you think the feds would show up to talk to someone who killed three well-known mobsters on his front lawn? Surely some lawmen, as well as mobsters, would recognize Joey on TV? I have forgiven greater lapses for the sake of a good story, I suppose, but it still marrs the quality of the film.
  • So what does the film have going for it? Really good suspense, for one. I was never bored. And I liked all the characters . . . as Stephen King says, if the characters are believable the audience will follow them into the most unbelievable situations.