Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Magic 8 Ball Answers Several Philosophical Questions

What is the relationship between the phenomenal world and the objective universe?  In other words, is the world I experience the real world?


Why is there something rather than nothing?


Can something exist that doesn't exist in time?  What is time?  Is time an illusion?


What is the nature of reality?


Is a stack of logs still a stack of logs if you remove one log? If so, is it still a stack of logs if you remove another log?  At what point is it no longer a stack of logs?


Is morality absolute?


In light of infinite regression, can one truly possess knowledge of anything?


Is everything one thing?  Is there such a thing as no-thing?  Does nothingness exist?


Does the world exist outside of the mind?


What is the place of humanity in the universe?


What is the meaning of life?


Sunday, April 1, 2012

First Quarter Book Report

I rest my elbows on the table, the lamp brightly illuminates newspapers and boring books I'm dumb enough to reread.
--Arthur Rimbaud, "Childhood"


--Utopia, Sir Thomas More.  More like Me-topia, if you know what I mean, but other than advocating slavery & the use of mercenaries instead of the citizenry--hey, people are people--to wage war, as well as a spattering of a few other distinctly non-paradisical notions, More manages to get it right when he says, "So easy a thing would it be to supply all the necessities of life, if that blessed thing called money, which is pretended to be invented for procuring them, was not really the only thing that obstructed their being procured!"

--What Work Is, Philip Levine.  I have several of Levine's books, but either this or 7 Years from Somewhere is my favorite.  While I like the blue collar backdrop in much of his work, Levine's always seemed to me a rather humorless poet.  However, in "Gin," I suppose he intends as humor:

                                     Maybe the bliss
                 that came with drinking came
                 only after a certain period
                of apprenticeship. Eddie likened
                it to the holy man’s self-flagellation
                to experience the fullness of faith.

Yeah, I'm sure he's ROFL funny outside his poems--once you get a few slugs of gin in him.

--The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas DeQuincy. I read this book because I mistakenly thought it an alternative to the South Beach Diet. I guess I was thinking of Naked Lunch. An interesting read, though if you've never read it, I doubt if that sin of omission holds you back. It has a few interesting passages juxtaposing DeQuincy's intellectual pursuits with his addiction, the following a good example: "Now, then, I was again happy; I now took only 1000 drops of laudanum per day; and what was that? A latter spring had come to close up the season of youth; my brain performed its functions as healthily as ever before; I read Kant again, and again I understood him, or fancied that I did." In hindsight, he probably needed to double the dosage before reading Kant.

--The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, Clarence Brown & W.S. Merwin, trans.  I enjoyed much of this, though at times, it gets a bit repetitive because Mandelstam often repeats lines from previous poems. Still, there's much to be admired, not only in the poetry--e.g., "He is going nowhere. I came from there" (#349) or "And I would have whistled through life like a starling, / eating nut pies . . . / but clearly there’s no chance of that" (#202)--but also in the essay "Conversation About Dante," in which Mandelstam puts forth his own aesthetic theories while ostensibly talking about The Divine Comedy.

--Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane.  One of the easiest book I've read this side of Dr. Seuss, it traces the story of--hey, just read it yourself. It's easy!

--The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde.  Sure, you know the story, but it's well worth reading anyway, if for no other reason than the slew of Wilde-cisms, such as:
  • The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.
  • Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
  • The one charm of the past is that it is the past.
  • Philanthropic people lose all sense of humanity. It is their distinguishing characteristic.
  • Many people become bankrupt through having invested too heavily in the prose of life. To have ruined one's self over poetry is an honor.
Sadly, said honor does not include a monetary award.

--Elmer Gantry, Sinclair Lewis. When you consider the important novels he wrote--Main Street, Babbit, Kingsblood Royal immediately come to mind, as well as Elmer Gantry--Lewis may be the least appreciated today of those much admired writers from America's golden age of literature, the early to mid-20th century. Even though he won a Nobel Prize for Literature, the first U.S. writer to do so, his work doesn't receive the attention that his literary contemporaries, notably Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, & to a lesser degree, Steinbeck, continue to enjoy.


--Full Woman, Fleshly Apple, Hot Moon, Pablo Neruda, Stephen Mitchell, trans.  I've lost count of how many times I've read this collection.  On this particular occasion, I read it, cover to cover, in one sitting.

--The Sound & the Fury, William Faulkner. As a college freshman, the first time I read Faulkner, I found his brand of stream-of-consciousness confusing, the plot disjointed, the novel, on the whole, difficult. This time around, however, I found it much easier to follow, & as a result, much more enjoyable. I've always liked Faulkner's flair for language (here, yes, but more so in As I Lay Dying). For instance: It’s not playing a joke any eight year old boy could have thought of, it’s letting your uncle be laughed at by a man that would wear a red tie.  What's not to like?

--The Necessary Angel, Wallace Stevens. "Poetry is the imagination of life," among other things, according to Stevens. "Suppose we try, now," he poses, twitching like a decerebrated frog, "to construct the figure of a poet, a possible poet. He cannot be a charioteer traversing vacant space, however ethereal." As you contemplate the task at hand, please keep in mind that "What is true of one metaphysical term is true of all." It would also be wise to remember that "All things resemble each other." While Stevens believes "The illustrations are endless but really none is required," please feel free to post your answers in the comments section of this blog once you've completed the assignment.

--The Life of Dante, Michele Barbi. In my early twenties, I had a dream in which I was Dante, not in hell, but living with my parents, so close enough. A haunting dream, in any event. A few years later, when I saw Barbi's book at a yard sale, I remembered the dream, obligingly dug in my pocket for the requisite change & bought it. Now decades have passed & I've actually read it. None of it seems to pertain to me or my dream, but given the information it provides on Dante's life & times, my older, wiser self regrets not having read it earlier, say, before reading The Divine Comedy.

--Writing the Australian Crawl, William Stafford. My latest reaction to reading this collection of essays was much the same as when I first read it as an undergraduate & each subsequent read: free! free! free! Stafford makes writing sound easy--& it is, as far as he's concerned. Writers who suffer writer's block, for example, have set their standards too high. If you know how to write, then ipso facto, you can write. Rumor has it that Stafford wrote four or five poems a day, which perhaps helps explain the rather uneven quality of his collected work, but it's hard to fault production.


--1Q84, Haruki Murakami. A sexy assassin.  A beefy aspiring novelist. A beautiful, enigmatic teen prodigy. Add a few giant robots & you have a monster anime series. I'm a huge Murakami fan--I've read just about everything--but frankly, his latest work, which I eagerly awaited however long, would have made a better anime than a novel. It's not the characters themselves, though perhaps that's part of it, not just the gimmickry, though that doesn't help, but what really put me off was the endless repetition. For starters, the phrase "in other words" was used about a gazillion times in dialogue. (Who uses "in other words" when talking? In most conversations, people don't say "in other words," but instead rephrase what they said without the explanatory lead-in, "in other words.") If the repetition of a phrase weren't annoying enough, characters constantly repeat verbatim what another character has just said to them. Well, that makes writing dialogue easy, I suppose, if all you need do is retype the same thing. Worse still, Murakami keeps repeating plot points, as if the reader were too dense to remember from one page to the next. It feels vaguely patronizing. Speaking of patronizing, at one point, a character compares his mind upon first waking to "frozen lettuce," a great metaphor, the kind that Murakami habitually makes, the kind that makes me a fan, but this time, he feels the need to explicate, adding that some people still don't know you can't freeze lettuce, then explaining what happens to lettuce if you freeze it. Suddenly, I'm reminded of The Rachel Maddow Show because 1) she often repeats points ad nauseam, as if viewers are too D-U-M-B to understand unless she slows everything down to the speed of stupid; & 2) once, while presenting a story on ocean ecology, she prefaced it by informing her viewers that fish breathe oxygen too, just like people, only fish don't have lungs--they have these things called gills. True story. I'm no Rhodes Scholar, but you know what? I learned that little ichthyological tidbit in grade school. You know what else I know?  How to pronounce "posthumous." Hint: it's not "pose-thew-mus."

--Fasti, Ovid, A.J. Boyle & R.D. Woodard, trans.  It took me a long time to get through this fusty version of Fasti. Granted, my Latin's not nearly at a level in which I can translate anything more complicated than epigrams & not all of those, but I like to think I know what makes good poetry & much of this translation, blame it on the content or not, seems flat. However, the oodles of endnotes, which provide background information about Roman culture & whatnot, I found interesting enough to propel me forward, though as I said, the book took forever to read.

--The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. I've read this collection countless times--yes, all 500 plus pages, essays too! Some of it brilliant, some not so much, O'Hara may not be the greatest poet ever--in fact, I'm fairly sure he's not--but he remains one of my personal favorites, if not top ten, top twenty, for sure, if for no other reason than as his poetry helped me to find my own voice.

--ABC of Reading, Ezra Pound. To be honest, this book isn't how I remembered it from college. It's very opinionated, but Pound does little to support his beliefs about what makes one piece of literature greater than another, but he's as insistent as today's political pundits. I can almost hear him, pounding the table, yelling in a mishmash of various languages about the genius of Flaubert, Fielding, Homer & Greek poetry in general as some pipsqueak with a puny voice cowers in defense of Virgil.

--Selected Sonnets, Odes, and Letters, Petrarch, Thomas G. Bergin, ed. Probably a bad idea to read this at the same time as ABC of Reading, given that Pound slams Petrarch repeatedly, but some of the sonnets remain, if nothing else, pretty.

--Washington Square, Henry James. I've never been completely convinced in re the greatness of Henry James, but I enjoy his stories from time to time, this one in particular.

--The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky. Initially, Pinsky's avoidance of technical jargon normally used in discourses on poetry struck me as perhaps condescending, perhaps aimed at the novice, but the more I read, the more I liked his plain approach. As he himself points out in the brief introduction, if you want a more exhaustive, detailed discussion of poetics, there are plenty of books from which to choose, among them, Harvey Gross's Sound & Form in Modern Poetry, which I mention here because I, in fact, have this particular book, & reading it is as enjoyable as reading a textbook, which, incidentally, in my case, it was.

--Venetia, Georgette Heyer. Before anyone gets on my case, let me say, in my defense, that when I read, I don't read for plot as much as I do for language & I enjoy the language of the Regency Era (1811-1820). This, of course, was the period in which Jane Austen lived & wrote (I've read most of her novels) & the Romantic poets flourished in England. Speaking of the Romantics, it's really unfair, I think, the absolute beating Wordsworth takes among today's critics. As far as I'm concerned, of all the Romantics, his work remains the most accessible to contemporary readers, a testament to the timeless vision put forth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. Although the careful reader may view my digression as an attempt at subterfuge, I nevertheless refuse to say anything further at this time on the subject of my reading a light romance.