Tuesday, November 15, 2016

At the Existentialist Café, by Sarah Bakewell

At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others, by Sarah Bakewell (Other Press, 2016), is about the 20th century philosophies of phenomenology and existentialism. It integrates explanations of philosophy with biographical information on the principal figures in these movements: Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, and others. It examines the philosophies of the 19th century and earlier, with special attention paid to Kierkegaard and Hegel, which provided the foundations of existentialism, and quickly moves to the 20th century. It’s written for a lay reading audience. By that I mean an audience of intelligent readers who can deal with complex ideas on a relatively high level. I often found myself losing track of the philosophical discussions. This was especially true for phenomenology, not so much for existentialism. For the most part, I grasped the general gist of the matter: phenomenology Is a philosophy of the self, experience, and consciousness. Existentialism concerns the freedom of the individual to act and live in defiance of the world. However, different references often give divergent definitions of phenomenology.
I grew up in the era of existentialism. The counter culture and protest movements of the 1960s and 70s were existentialist movements, though few of the participants could explain why or were even aware of the fact (include me in that proviso). Although I never studied their ideas in much detail, I knew about Camus and Sartre and to a lesser extent about de Beauvoir, Heidegger and others. I read Camus's The Stranger and The Plague and Sartre’s Nausea. In a loose sort of way I regarded these figures as models of how to live and be in the contemporary world, as models of the artist. At some point I became interested in Heidegger, perhaps because of the titles of his works, especially Being and Time, and also because I felt he might be an influence on the novelist William Faulkner.
Heidegger is an especially problematic figure. For about a year under the Nazi regime he held an administrative position as rector of the University of Freiberg,  a leading German university.  He was a member of the Nazi party. In 1934 he resigned his post and returned to his hometown and sought to live a private life. His letters and private papers give evidence of his involvement in Nazism. He never renounced his membership in the Nazi party. He wasn’t judged fit to teach until four years after the end of the second world war. He didn't talk much. Goodwell describes his writing style as complex and impenetrable, like his personality.
Bakewell views Simone de Beauvoir as a central figure in existentialism. She regards her book The Second Sex not merely as a founding document of modern feminism but as a major work of existential philosophy. Although she was for most of her life involved in a deep professional and private relationship with Sartre (it was sexual for less than a decade during the 1930s), she was an independent thinker, not an acolyte. At the same time, she and Sartre read and commented on each other’s work--they were major influences on each other.  They worked together on a daily basis, often sitting next to one another as they wrote. Clearly de Beauvoir and Sartre were part of an important philosophical movement which she helped form.
Sartre and de Beauvoir were prolific—in addition to their works of philosophy, they wrote plays, novels, journalism, biographies, political commentary, literary criticism, memoirs. Sartre wrote so much, especially after the war, that he probably damaged his health and even the quality of what he wrote.  In the later, politically activist years of his life he decided not to revise first drafts: he regarded revision as bourgeois. This is an opinion I do not hold myself and which I will not share with my students.
For its discussions of the lives and personalities of the major figures in existentialism, At the Existentialist Cafe is a fascinating book. Existentialism seems to me today to be a profound and still pertinent explanation of our place in the world, of our freedom to choose the course of our lives.  Many scholars of philosophy, and perhaps many philosophers, view existentialism as a movement that ran its course back in the 20th century and that has been supplanted by new forms of philosophical thinking. It’s difficult for me to conceive of existentialism as a movement that is mainly a matter of historical interest, and that no longer offers a way to live. But such is time and the short spans of human life.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Universe in Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond, by Christophe Galyard

I have read a number of books in which writers attempt to explain complicated concepts of modern physics, Einsteinian relativity, quantum physics, string theory, and the like. These writers employ different strategies in their attempts to make comprehensible to an intelligent lay reader complicated concepts. Most of them don't succeed. One of the most difficult concepts in Einsteinian relativity is the concept of time dilation. Time dilation refers to the idea that if you travel at an extremely high rate of speed, say, 95% of the speed of light, time for you slows down. Or to put it another way, time seems to pass in a normal fashion for you but in the world through which you're traveling it speeds up. This means for instance that if you travel on a rocket ship for a year at 95% of the speed of light, when you return to your starting point you'll discover that eight hundred years have passed while for you only one year has passed. I understand what time dilation is, but I don't understand why and how it works. It's been proven repeatedly through various experiments. It's a fact that it works, that it exists. I just want to understand why.

Christophe Galfard, the author The Universe in Your Hand: A Journey Through Space, Time, and Beyond (Flatiron Books, 2016), invites the reader to imagine that he is sitting at night on the beach with friends looking up at the stars. Suddenly his mind leaves his body and soars up into the cosmos. From this perspective the reader oversees the history of the solar system which ends billions of years hence in the sun's explosion. We plunge into the core of the sun, visit black holes, study atomic particles up close, learn about atomic structures and quantum forces.  During these visits Galyard shows the reader how different physical principles work.

The premise of the book: that by understanding the scientific principles of the universe, Newtonian physics, Einsteinian relativistic physics, quantum physics, string theory, and the like, mankind will one day have enough Information to be able to ensure the survival of the human race into the future before the sun explodes.

This strategy does work in a certain way. The author succeeds better than some others In making these concepts comprehensible. But I found his strategy condescending, inviting the reader to pretend that he is soaring through space or shrinking to a minuscule size and traveling around with quarks and electrons and protons and various other particles. In essence, it insults the reader's intelligence. Moreover, Galyard spends so much time setting up these journeys and joshing with the reader about what he’s learned that he denies himself the opportunity for explaining his subject in more depth. What I want from a book like this is clear writing and careful explanation of difficult concepts, not pandering.

Each chapter tackles a different aspect of cosmology: moving from the solar system to the universe to atomic particles and quantum particles to black holes and the Big Bang and string theory.  An introductory note promises that the book will use only one equation (E=MC2) and that the reader will take a “journey through the universe as it is understood by science today.  It is my deepest belief that we can all understand this stuff.”

I appreciate Galyard's attempt to explain difficult concepts, but his strategy is sometimes cloying.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Introduction of Roy Blount

Good afternoon.  I’m privileged to introduce to you a writer who since the late 1950s has been a prominent journalist, humorist, sports writer, novelist, dramatist, newspaper and magazine columnist, radio and television actor, screenwriter, and poet. I’m speaking, of course, of Roy Blount, who tomorrow will be inducted as a new honoree in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame (the induction ceremony is tomorrow morning at 10:00 in this room).

Mr. Blount was born in Indianapolis but raised in Decatur, GA.  He began his career as a newspaper journalist, earned degrees from Vanderbilt and Harvard University, served two years in the army, worked for several years for the Atlanta Journal, was a staff writer for Sports Illustrated, and has been an independent writer for the last 40 years, during which time he has published some 23 books of commentary, humor, fiction and history.  These include a book about Robert E. Lee and another (presciently?) about the first woman president.  He’s been published in virtually every prominent American magazine I can think of.  He’s been widely anthologized.  Two of his best known books are About Three Bricks Shy of a Load (1974) about the Pittsburgh Steelers, which has been called by Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post one of the ten best books about sports ever written, and Crackers: This whole many-angled thing of Jimmy, more Carters, ominous little animals, sad singing women, my daddy, and me (1980).  He’s written many other equally distinctive books since then.  He appears frequently on Prairie Home Companion, and I saw him last week on television present comments at the Mark Twain Prize ceremony at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. He has also written the best and perhaps only poem I’ve ever read about grits.

Roy Blount is one of the most important and active figures in American writing, journalism, and humor at work today.  I am pleased to present him to you.  He will speak on the subject of “Where I’m Coming From . . . .”

November 6, 2016, Georgia Writers Hall of Fame 
Special Collections Library, Univ. of Georgia

I drew for this introduction from the New Georgia Encyclopedia entry on Roy Blount by Lesa Carnes Corrigan (http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/roy-blount-jr-b-1941), his web site (http://www.royblountjr.com/), and common knowledge.

Friday, November 04, 2016

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover

A distinctive camera technique in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover, directed by Peter Greenaway in 1989, are long tracking shots that move slowly and methodically from the dining rooms of the restaurant where the film takes place to the kitchen, or in the reverse direction. The dining rooms are ornate and primarily decorated in red hues, and in them sit elegantly dressed diners on plush seats. We see a number of these shots throughout the film, set to rhythmic music one might associate with the Baroque.

There are only a few films I can compare this one to. It reminded me of Fellini Satyricon (1969), with its Hogarthian characters, physical gluttony, excess, scatology, and broadly comic moments and people. It reminded me even of Bahz Luhrmann who in such a film as Moulin Rouge (2001) tried to make art out of lushly ornate and romantic settings and characters and popular music. Luhrmann's film was more uplifting and superficial than this one, with its dark and gruesome depths.

“Excess” is one term for describing this film. It's fascinating to watch, so intricately detailed as it is in both mise en scène and character. But it's a cruel film, and it doesn't give much pleasure. Unless you like sex scenes in a refrigerated room where uncarved sides of slaughtered animals hang over the lovers, or cannibalism, or the abuse of a child, or the seemingly endless sadistic ravings of a narcissistic and abusive maniac and bully. His name is Albert. He owns the restaurant, which in some manner or other he stole from the previous owner.  In the first scene, Albert and cronies drag that owner from the restaurant, force him to strip naked, beat him, cover him with excrement, and force him to lie on the ground while dogs lick and otherwise molest him.  This is just one example of Albert’s behavior.

This is a Jacobean revenge drama. It might have seemed daring and tottering on the edge of what was wild and acceptable in 1989 but today those sensational aspects verge on the banal--excepting the cannibalism and various scenes of torture.

At first I felt fairly indifferent to this film. But it has an undeniable power, a kind of ritualistic momentum that gathers force and propels us towards an ending we should be able to predict given the models on which it is based but which comes as a surprise after all. Then it's merely disgusting, comic, and apt. But there's gratification in that moment too because Albert, the center of cruel darkness and destructiveness, gets his comeuppance. Is this art? It’s made with dramatic and cinematographic skill. Is it pornography of a certain sort—a pornography of epicurean excess rather than of sex? (The sex is fairly tame, mostly involving the entwined naked bodies of the lovers). Is it pornography that verges on art, or art that verges on pornography? I'm not sure. Any statement of praise I make about it leaves me feeling dirty.

The antiseptic detail of the men’s and women’s restrooms reminded me of the ornately severe bedroom near the end of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and of the general scenic design and décor of Clockwork Orange (1971).  The long dining table at which Albert and his changing array of friends dine night after night iconographically suggests (in what must have been intended irony) Leonardo’s The Last Supper.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Richard Pryor: Here & Now

Richard Pryor: Here & Now (1983; dir. Richard Pryor) is the comedian’s last concert film. He talks to a New Orleans audience about how he's been off drugs and alcohol for seven months and the new perspective his sobriety gives him. He feels good about himself, but also slightly off balance. Pryor was especially effective handling hecklers. He ignored some hecklers. Others he incorporates into whatever bit he's working on: sometimes he belittles them. Sometimes you can tell that they bother him. There's a lot of give-and-take with the rowdy audience he's talking to-- people call out to him, ask him questions, one person reacts to something he says with a loud and angry “Bullshit!” and he takes all of these comments in stride.  He playfully makes fun of people looking for their seats.

Pryor had an uncanny knack for inhabiting the persona of characters he created. In this film he takes on the character of an old man talking about his experiences in California. He also inhabits the persona of a junkie. In the bit the junkie shoots up and reacts to the drug and then gives a monologue about life and talks with the imaginary person who apparently sold him the drug. In the end, the junkie shoots up a second time and falls down on the floor unconscious, maybe OD’d. It's an uncanny and disturbing performance. The audience is quiet and doesn't quite know what to make of what Pryor is doing.

Race doesn’t isn’t the central subject of Pryor’s comedy in this film, but it’s always an undercurrent.  There’s no overt anger towards white people, but, again, anger is a strong and implied undercurrent. The characters he creates are often the victims of economic or social oppression (the old man, the junkie). Talking about drugs, Pryor observes that white people don’t get upset about drugs in the black community, but the first time drugs impact one of their children, they start talking about drug epidemics.

I can't think of many comedians today who come close to being able to do this kind of comedy. It’s performance art as much as it is comedy.  Pryor was a great comedian but he was also an accomplished actor, mainly on stage in his own routines. He also seemed to me a fragile person on stage.  He leaves us unsure what is going to happen next. We don’t know whether he is going to break out in a furious rant, or fall to pieces. That explosive uncertainty was part of his appeal. It's easy to understand, as much as we can regret it, how he burned himself up not only literally, but psychologically. His loss was a real loss. This film makes clear how talented he was.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize

I was pleased that Bob Dylan received the Nobel prize in literature. I expected that if an American got the prize it would be Philip Roth, among the greatest of our living writers. Don DeLillo was in the running too, and he would have made a worthy recipient. I was surprised that it went to Dylan. A lot of people might not regard what he does as poetry or literature. There are significant reasons why he was an appropriate choice. There's no denying that he has written his share of rotten lyrics. But he's also written some really fine ones, and I wouldn't limit them to the three albums often cited as his best--Bringing It All Back Home (1965)Highway 61 Revisited (1965), and Blonde on Blonde (1966). I would add to the list of his best albums The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), John Wesley Harding (1967--an overlooked great album), Blood on the Tracks (1975), Desire (1976), Oh Mercy (1989), Time out of Mind (1997), Love and Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006), and Tempest (2012).   (Not all those albums are equally good, and not all the songs on those albums are equally good).  There are other songs scattered throughout his work that are more than worthy.  Some of his lyrics may not read like poetry, but some do.  I can't deny that some of his lyrics work better set to music as opposed to being read silently or read aloud, but to me that seems a small matter.

Calling what Dylan does "literature" may require a certain expansion of the definition. And also an expansion of the definition of "poetry."  But not much of an expansion. Maybe no expansion at all.  Where are the standard universally accepted definitions of literature, of poetry?  Given the incredible diversity of poetry and poetic forms abroad today, and widely divergent literary tastes among readers, there is room for Dylan in the mix. The argument that the orality of his songs links back to the oral origins of poetry holds some weight for me--I wouldn't go back to Homer but might mention some of the songs from Shakespeare, William Blake, and others (I read that Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel Prize recipient, wrote some musical lyrics). I'm not equating Dylan with Shakespeare or Blake. I'm suggesting that some of his lyrics work musically in the same way as Shakespeare's. There's a lot of poetry in the American folk music tradition, even in the traditions of Tin Pan Alley. There's also an argument to be made for regarding Dylan's lyrics as a kind of public poetry that has made a tremendous impact on millions of people and that played a role in movements for social change across the world.  The sheer bulk of his work--given these other factors--is worth considering too.

Having made the argument, I wouldn't expect composers of rock or folk music to receive the Nobel Prize very often. I really can't think of anyone else in that category who would merit it in quite the way that Bob Dylan does. 

All of that said, writers like Philip Roth and Don DeLillo are far more deserving of the prize than some of the obscure winners of recent years.