Sunday, July 29, 2007

Torrential Downpour: More Business

My recurring dreams

I have frequent dreams that I'm involved in the theater. Usually in my dreams I'm a stage actor, but sometimes I'm involved in other ways (last night I was sort of the director in a dinner theater version of King Lear; the producer/star actor disagreed with my idea that the throne should be moved from center stage to the side).

These dreams about plays have various themes. Often I would find myself cast as an actor in a play in which I didn't know the words, the blocking, or, frankly, the play. But there have been many other themes.

The thing is, I actually have only acted in two plays, the last in 1999. I don't know why I continue to have these dreams about working in theater.

Surely there's something there about playing roles, acting, putting on a show, and the tension this causes for me. But what else.

Bringing the C to the OCD

I can see why people with OCD come with the compulsions. When you're busy checking the stove and the lock by numbers divisible by three and frequently washing your hands, you have less time to spend with the pure O obsessions.

Dostoevsky is my master

In the future I may take some time to talk about why Dostoevsky is my master in all things. The ideas, the themes, the talking, the characters, the dialogical nature of it all, it all furrows into the depths of my soul and stays planted there, ready to burst into plant when the time comes.


Read this NY Times article on a farm animal sanctuary.

Read "Thomas Bloor's top 10 Tales of Metamorphosis" at The Guardian.

Here's a book critic (Ron Charles) that doesn't like Harry Potter (I've never read Harry Potter and probably never will).

It's difficult to get rid of books that you actually don't need (Inside Higher Ed).

The Valve talks about The Simpsons.

The Onion always has cutting insight into our society: read these two articles.

"Study: Iraqis May Experience Sadness When Friends, Relatives Die"

This gets at so much of the way people in America talk about the suffering of this war. Always in war there is a dehumanization effect: one side doesn't treat the other side as fully human, as fully capable of human thought and feeling. It has happened in past wars (see General Westmoreland's statement that "The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient"). It happens now. Let us remember what binds us: we are all human, and we all suffer. It's sad (but expected) that The Onion is the best source capable of pointing this out in a piercing way.

I'm not currently very good at talking eloquently about pacifism. Once I finish up Dostoevsky's Demons, I'll be reading some essays by John Howard Yoder (lent to me by a friend and pastor) about Christian pacifism. I want to find better words to express the deep thought and emotion I feel.

And a little lighter:

"New Sitcom Pulls Back the Envelope"

I always wonder of the stars of the conventional sitcoms feel like they're doing something important, or if they realize they're doing trash.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Compromised Art

Here is note 9 to Part Two, Chapter One of Richard Pevear's and Larrisa Volokhonsky's translation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's Demons:

"Charmeur was a well-known Petersburg tailor. According to his wife's memoirs, Dostoevsky had his own suits made by Charmeur, whom he also advertised in Crime and Punishment."

Do you consider Dostoevsky's masterpiece novels compromised becasue he slipped in advertisements for a preferred tailor? Because I don't.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Ex-Girlfriend

Jerry: You should just do it like a Band-Aid: one motion, right off!

Jerry? Have you re-read those books yet, by the way? You know the great thing, when you read Moby Dick the second time, Ahab and the whale become good friends.

Comment: George is really coming into his own: his anxiety over a breakup, his swallowing of a fly, his disdain for chiropractors, his cheapness, it's all emerging and developing (and his books are Do I Have to Give Up Me to be Loved by You?, Staying Well: the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, and I'm OK, You're OK).

Here is my fantasy: I want to see James Gandolfini play George Costanza and Jason Alexander play Tony Soprano.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Stock Tip

George: Guys with cats...I don't know.

Kramer: That's for me.
Jerry: Yeah, and you're just what she's looking for, too.

Comment: Let me try to list off all the things I LOVE about this episode:

--Jerry's bit about the confusion of getting a check after the meal, because you're not hungry anymore.

--Jerry and George discuss Superman's sense of humor.

--Elaine gets Jerry not to order tuna because of the dolphins (Jerry tries to argue he's a good person because he lets people in when he drives), then George orders tuna.

--Kramer's roll-out tie dispenser.

--A new way to televise opera and a robot butcher

--Kramer tries to get Jerry to let some anarchists he met at a rock concert stay at his place when he's out of town.

--Jerry saying "We could play 'Steal the old man's bundle!'" (You have no idea how much mileage I've gotten out of that line in the last decade)

--AND THE BEST: George makes $8,000 in the stock market, so he's smoking a cigar, trying to get Jerry and Elaine to order dessert. When the waitress comes with the check, he doesn't look at it: he gives her a bunch of cash and says "That oughta cover it." As she's walking away, he calls her back, looks at the bill, and takes a dollar back. It is that sort of little cheap moment that makes George Costanza such an inspiration for us all.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

I attend a pro-war church and it makes me want to jab daggers into my belly

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Love your enemies.

At the church I attend, there is a donation drive to send care packages to soldiers in Iraq. This in itself is a noble gesture. But in the display in the narthex, there is a used mortar shell, a toy tank, and other symbols of killing. It's my belief that such symbols of killing act to promote war, and should not be a part of a Christian church.

In today's sermon on the good Samaritan, the pastor, believe it or not, used the text to support the fraud known as Just War Theory. Now, if you're inclined to justify warfare, you could use the good Samaritan story by arguing that our country has an obligation to try and help people suffering in other countries (I'd still argue that's screwed up, and war is a detrimental and possibly non-Christian way to try help, but the argument has a certain internal logic). This pastor didn't even do that: he said if radical terrorists are trying to attack our nation we're justified in defending ourselves, and if somebody breaks into our home, we have a right to defend ourselves (logical enough statements in themselves). I'm still not quite sure how he got to that--it was a jarring separation from a sermon that was mostly about the duty to help our neighbors, whoever they may be, even if they are traditionally our enemies.

That may be logical--but it doesn't sound Christian to me. The Christ I've read says that if somebody slaps your cheek, you turn the other cheek to be slapped. He says an eye for an eye is done. He says if somebody takes one item of clothing from you, give him another one. He says that those that live by the sword die by the sword. He says peacemakers are blessed. He says we are not to hate our enemies, but to love them. He doesn't say we have a right to wage war against our enemies. He doesn't say we are justified in using violence against our enemies. He says we should love them, pray for them, bless them.

I don't want to be a person that usurps Jesus' words for my own political agenda. I hope I am sincere in interpreting these lines (though "blessed are the peacemakers" is pretty direct, isn't it?). I want to be sincere in following Christ's message, and not co-opt Christ's message for myself. But then, I believe those using Christ to justify war are doing just that.

But for various reasons, I attend, often wear a peace shirt, and occasionally seethe.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Love your enemies.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Stake Out and The Robbery

The Stake Out

Jerry: I don't see architecture coming from you.
George: I suppose you could be an architect.

George: I'm ah...I'm an architect.
Vanessa: Really? Well, what do you design?
George: Ah...railroads.
Vanessa: I thought engineers do that?
George: They can.

Comment: The lies we'll see again and again first show up here: George is an achitect, Art Vandalay, they know an importer-exporter. It's amazing how many times these characters rely on elaborate lies throughout the series.

The Robbery

Jerry: Regarding sexual activity. It's strictly prohibited, but if you absolutely must, do us all a big favor and do it in the tub.

Kramer: I'm human.
Jerry: In your way.

Comment: I've always found this episode boring.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Downpour: the business

Deadwood, season three, episodes 1 and 2
In hindsight, it is rather simple how the show guided me from despising Al Swearengen as a villain to siding with him as a protagonist. It wasn't the attempts to humanize him with a soft side, with his confessions to prostitutes, with his appealing language, with the respect others had for him. Similar techniques failed to swing me toward sympathy for Tony Soprano (well, it did briefly, but not for terribly long). It was much more simple: bring in characters more loathsome than Swearengen (Tolliver and Hearst), ally Swearengen occasionally with our hero (Bullock), and simply have Swearengen perform fewer nasty deeds, distancing himself from his past crimes.

And now, if they ever do make a movie, I'd enjoy it if it were three hours of Bullock and Swearengen just beating the piss out of E.B., Tolliver, and Hearst.

Egalitarian Elitism 1: Plurality and Freedom of Expression
I've long held views on free expression of ideas similar to those of John Stuart Mill: let anybody say anything he or she wants, with the only limit on speech that intends actual harm. If you don't like the ideas somebody else is expressing, you have two choices: argue against it, or ignore it.

But this should not lead to the belief that all ideas are equal. Indeed, many ideas are lousy and should either be argued against or ignored. And this is where my egalitarian elitism takes a turn toward the elitism: yes, I think you should have every right to express your ideas, and society is better served allowing everybody to express their ideas. But I still retain my right to snobbery in dismissing your ideas if I think they are worthless, irrational, or just stupid. I will rarely simply dismiss--I'm almost always willing to discuss the ideas. But I don't hold all ideas equal.

And of course we come to the internet, which has as its greatest advantage the lack of a filter, and has as its greatest disadvantage the lack of a filter. Anybody can say anything he or she wants on the internet, for better or worse. Sometimes that is better, and often it is worse. We can't shy away from the freedom that offers--but we needn't become wishy-washy and accept ideas we find utterly stupid to be of equal value with ideas we find excellent.. We should consider all ideas for what is possible to understand from them, but we needn't accept them.

Still, I find if you are going to argue ideas rather than ignore them, civility and as much respect as is possible in the situation is preferable to merely insulting each other. Argument should be kept to the content of the argument, and not turned to personal attacks. There need not be a filter, and we need not accept each others' ideas, but we should at least be peaceable and as respectful as possible in arguing against another's ideas.

Lack of civility and the move toward personal attacks (explicit or subtle) are the bigger threat to open discourse on the internet.

Egalitarian Elitism 2: Snobbish in our own way
I've maintained on this blog that disrespected mediums and genres (television, horror, science fiction, comedy) have much to offer us, and are often as worthy of being called "art" as anything else. I've written about it all over, but particularly in September I began developing the idea of "Low Brow Aesthetic, High Brow Ideas" to focus on the quality of the content and ideas in works that are dismissed for their mediums, genres, or aesthetics.

And yet, I admit to a total snobbishness within this theory. I am snobbish in my own way: I'll defend the content of sitcoms I love, while expressing total loathing dismissal of sitcoms I find devoid of value whatsoever. The egalitarian anti-elitism that allows me to respect frequently disrespected mediums and genres has not prevented a strong elitism in my assessment of works within these mediums and genres. Once again, I don't consider all TV equal: I consider some horrid beyond acceptance.

Manners = Intelligence? Please. We left the aristocracy in Europe, thank you very much.
In Ken Tucker's condemnation of reality TV, I mostly agree: a lot of the people on reality TV shows are daft and dull.

And yet, I dismiss Ken Tucker as an asshole and an idiot for this line: "these studs and babes hold their eating utensils like monkeys..." Tucker dismisses most reality TV participants as unworthy of his attention...because they hold their silverware wrong. As if these customs have anything to do with wit, entertainment, or anything of cultural value.

Mr. Tucker, I've got a M.A. in English slapped up on the wall. I teach college English. Right now I'm flipping between reading Dostoevsky's Demons and some poetry by Ted Hughes. Do you want to dismiss me because I don't hold a fork right? Would you appreciate it if I dismissed you as a mere TV critic?

I always balked at economics
When I took Economics in high school, I could never accept the basic premises. The abstract concepts I spent so much much of my time considering (love, faith) never fit into the scheme of economic theory. I didn't know at the time I was expressing the same skepticism over economics' ability to explain everything that Dostoevsky might have been getting at in many of his works (particularly in Notes from the Underground, but not just there). Dostoevsky dismissed rational, scientific explanations and predictions of human behavior, believing that the complexities of the human psyche and the hunger for spiritual meaning could not be so easily quantified. I've always agreed, and even though, for example, I enjoy the deeper statistical metrics for sports analysis, I've always maintained a skepticism that they could tell me as much of the story as their more vehement advocates claimed.

David Leonhardt writes

"of the economics profession’s imperialist movement. For the last decade or so, economists have been increasingly poking their fingers into other disciplines, including epidemiology, psychology, sociology, oenology and even football strategy. These economists usually justify their expansionism on two grounds: They say they’re better with numbers than most other researchers and have a richer understanding of how people respond to incentives."

Leonhardt also expresses some skepticism over this movement. While I may be scoffed at by economists, I'm willing to stand with Dostoevsky, my master, against the tide of economics in everything.

It's Les Mis
It was $7.98 at Half Price Books for the complete original Broadway cast recording: Les Miserables is the musical I'm now living to.

Every once in a while I think I've moved past being an obsessive-compulsive mess. But then every year or so, the pure O obsessions come back strong. C'est la vie. The obsessive periods do change the way I read and think--and it's possible I get my best and most serious writing and thinking done during these otherwise internally miserable phases. Let us make the best of it all, I suppose.

RK has a very entertaining new blog, The Daily Rube, where he explores Auteur theory in practice.

Motoko Rich says Harry Potter really might not be increasing reading for pleasure among young people.

I don't think I've linked to this already: Anthony Daniels' "Diagnosing Lear" looks at Shakespeare's masterpiece.

Via Arts & Letters Daily (which you should check, well, daily), Terry Eagleton says that "For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life."

Bookslut interviews Miranda July.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Judd Apatow and the narration of life.

Judd Apatow is guiding us through the stages of middle-class American life. In Freaks and Geeks, he gave us the fringes of high school, and in Undeclared, we saw college life for the typical non-participant. The 40 Year Old Virgin showed us about the introduction to sex and relationships (and a lot else), and now Knocked Up shows us the beginnings of parenthood. And since to a large extent you're watching the same actors work through these different stages of life, you really feel like you are just following life through its archetypal stages.

There's a certain realism to much of Apatow's comic work: even when the plot takes a conventional story arch, we go through that arch in a very authentic, uncontrived way. There's regular (and regular looking) people making their way the regular parts of life--but with an intensely funny edge.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Seinfeld Chronicles (Pilot) and Male Un-bonding

The Seinfeld Chronicles

George: Jerry, I have to tell you something. This is the dullest moment I've ever experienced.

Kramer: You got any meat?

Comment: The seeds are here: the analysis of the minutiae of life, including language and word choice, gestures and body language, clothing and laundry, cleaning and toiletry. But do you notice something weird? THE CHARACTERS ARE NICE! They seem to have feelings, they seem to support one another. It's a bit much.

Male Un-bonding

Kramer: They got a cure for cancer. See, it's all big business.

Kramer: It's all supervised!

Comment: Kramer develops his plans for a pizza place where you make your own pie (Kramer was golden in the early episodes, before Michael Richards turned him into a caricature. Then he was still funny, but not in the real, eccentric way. More in the contrived way. Jerry continues to actually care about peoples' feelings. George tries to change pennies into dollars and has to roll them himself (true story: because of this episode I thought you really did have to roll change yourself to get it turned into bills. When I wanted to change over a hundred dollars worth of change, I took the time to roll my own pennies. Of course, when I got to the bank they made me open them and pour them into a machine). The seeds are starting to sprout.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Summer of George

Kramer: So I said to him Arthur, Artie, bubele: why does the salesman have to die? Change the title. The Life of a Salesman: that's what people want to see.

Jerry (in George's imagination): What's the deal with airplane peanuts?

Comment: George's angsty anger in later seasons reminds me of Tony Soprano. Once again, season 8 is the least enjoyable season of Seinfeld. It's not like the show faded entirely after Larry David left--season 9 was very strong, in part due to the return of David Putty.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The Millenium and The Muffin Tops

The Millenium

Kramer: Those aren't for New Year's. Those are my everyday balloons.

Kramer: Do you think people will still be using napkins in the year 2000, or is this mouth vacuum thing for real.

George: What is a barometer exactly?
Kramer: It's pronounced "thermometer."

Comment: overall this episode isn't one of my favorites, but Kramer has some gem lines.

The Muffin Tops

George: If you take everything I've accomplished in my entire life and condense it down to one day, it looks decent.

Jerry's girlfriend: When you make a pizza bagel, you really shouldn't use cinnamon-raisin.
Jerry: You also shouldn't use a donut.

Comment: The corny: George getting traded for chicken, Jerry acting like a werewolf, no dumps taking the muffin stumps. The good: Kramer's Peterman Reality Bus Tour, the city eating George alive.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Stupid Summer Project: The English Patient, the Nap, the Yada Yada

The English Patient

George: You never know.
Jerry: Sometimes you do.

Jerry: They're real Cubans? They're human beings from Cuba?

Comment: A mediocre episode, but I appreciate Elaine's predicament of being the one person that doesn't like a movie that everybody else raves about.

The Nap

Elaine: Hey Kramer, listen. You've seen The Omen, right? What exactly was that kid?
Kramer: Oh, Damien? Nothing, just a mischievous, rambunctious kid.

Elaine: It'll be years before they find another place to hide cheese on a pizza.

Comment: While season eight of Seinfeld is better than 90% of anything that's ever been on television, this is the least good of the Seinfeld seasons.

The Yada Yada

Jerry: Because I believe Whatley converted to Judaism just for the jokes!

Jerry: But you yada yada-ed the best part.
Elaine: No, I mentioned the bisque.

Comment: I love this episode; it is very funny. From George showing up to visit Jerry at the dentist's office and the Catholic confessional, to the "anti-dentite" stuff, there are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Pacifism and Vegetarianism (II)

see also "Pacifism and Vegetarianism"

I have been considering a more developed argument for pacifists to become vegetarians. Here is the simple argument:

A pacifist, in general, believes that humans should not be inflicted to the suffering of violence. And while I respect the view that holds a moral difference between humans and animals, I must ask: is this moral difference so great that human life should not be inflicted to the suffering of violence, but animal life may be inflicted by the suffering of violence, and for our mere pleasure?

I can expand on or argue this point, but it is that simple. Human life may be morally different than animal life, but does that mean it is wrong to ever inflict violence on humans but it is morally acceptable to inflict violence on animals for our pleasure?

Kathy Freston, in "Shameless Name Dropping," also espouses the view that vegetarianism is part of a general individual moral program of world peace--one which she shows is shared by some major intellectuals of world history. I recommend you read it.