New Poetry and the End of Purity

Spinozablue welcomes Colin James to its list of fine poets. Please send us your feedback regarding his poem, the site in general, the world as it is and ought to be, or whatever else is on your mind.

Garden With Courting Couples. 1887. By Vincent Van Gogh

Garden With Courting Couples. 1887. By Vincent Van Gogh

Finished Franzen’s Purity a few days ago, and was surprised at the sudden drop off in the quality of the novel, especially when the character, Tom Aberant, narrates in the first person. It was, frankly, agonizing to get through, and I couldn’t wait for the author to get back to the story of Pip (Purity) Tyler, but that didn’t happen until nearly the end of the book.

From this reader’s point of view, the problem lay in his decision to focus on the love/hate relationship of Tom and Anabel, diving into their respective neuroses to a fault. While deep psychology wounds, torments and a character’s way of coping with them can sometimes make for a riveting story, there is such a thing as too much, for too long, without coming up for air. There is such a thing as being swamped by the neurotic, by the viciousness and cruelty of relationships, which, if there is no escape, no sense of learning from these things, no real attempt by either party to stop torturing each other, tries the patience of even the most sympathetic among us. Fish and guests and the three day rule on steroids, basically.

And the story of Andreas Wolf wasn’t much better by the end. His relationship with his mother was toxic. His relationship with Anagret was toxic. As was his ambiguous love/hate for Tom Aberant, and Tom’s for Andreas. Perhaps it’s just me getting older, but when I read novels, I want at least a few of the fictional characters I encounter to be “good company.” I want, preferably, the main characters to be people I’d enjoy being around and spend time with. Because you do, in a sense. You spend time with them, they’re company, at least for a time, and if the novel is moving, well-written, compelling, you will likely keep company with them after you put the book down for the last time. In the case of Purity, Pip, and to some degree, Leila and Jason were it for me, and Franzen chose others to focus on more.

Lastly, the sexual politics of the story seemed all too often tone-deaf as well. Franzen has taken some hits over time from some feminists for his depiction of women in his books, and I couldn’t help sensing that he was working through this in the guise of the story itself. It was as if he were carrying on a conversation, sub rosa, with those critics, both acknowledging some past errors and remaining defiant at the same time. Through his characters. Through their own battles. And this can sometimes work, but it typically requires sublimation of resentment and I think it was far too close to the surface.

Positives? Thought-provoking sections on the Internet and our loss of privacy, of the shrinking contours of private lives outside the Web, on social media, on the massive difference between public and private personas. And, as mentioned earlier, a truly beautiful section on the wilds of Bolivia, Pip’s wonder at her discoveries there. But, for me, the deep neuroses on display was too much to overcome.




Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

I’m about 300 pages into Franzen’s new novel, Purity, and it’s truly hit its stride. It started out a little slowly for me, and I think he did too much telling, rather than showing, but readerly patience has paid off. At this point, and especially after his brilliant, almost ecstatic description of Pip’s sojourn in Bolivia, it’s more than clear that Franzen can build a compelling case for his world, its multiplicity of emotions, motives, betrayals and jealousies, and especially the internal twists and turns of his characters’ minds.

Even after 300 pages, it’s difficult to summarize the plot. But it’s basically the story of a young woman’s search for the father she never knew, and the search for metaphorical daughters by four slightly less central characters, two men and two women. Franzen’s larger context is our present day, with flashbacks to East Germany right before the Wall came down and its aftermath. The Internet, the Age of Leaks, Assange, Snowden, political and corporate malfeasance, ground the story in a larger reality. But it is the creation of a complex, forever interesting female lead that drives the story.

Pip — her given name is Purity, which she sees as a ridiculous burden — is young, smart, strong and at times vulnerable to the machinations of older men. And they to her. Because Pip also doesn’t seem to realize how deeply attractive she is to people who have lived life for a bit — male or female. Her self-image is generally too low to understand this, and Franzen suggests that her lack of popularity with people her own age affects her self-image almost to the point of neuroses. Older people want to be her, be with her. Young people her own age don’t get her and seem put off by her darkness and quick and frequent sarcasm.

Will write more about the book once I’ve finished it.


Clever Autumns With Parochial Zephers

Odessa Port. 1898. By Kandinsky.

Odessa Port. 1898. By Kandinsky.

Looking at an old poem from decades ago. Trying to see if it still holds up. Some poets, like Yeats, revised even published works, changing new editions of their collections over time.

This isn’t really like that. But it is a return to some dark cove, some ancient lough, for reassessment and advice:


Clever Autumns With Parochial Zephers


Blindness and cacophony
Like time underwater

The yews tremble for their
Lovers on the mountain tops

Four beats to every heart
And roses for the poor

I believe the groans
Of doctors if
They’re out of work
Scrounging in the meadow

    For sustenance and rhubarb

If the play’s the thing
Why is the audience sleeping?

Give us reasons in the mist
To talk about the mail

Give us songs to sing
When supper is thrown to wolves and
Like twenty annual events

Some epiphany among the clowns
Before they taste their red makeup

    Before they fall off their red tricycles
Notch just one more scream
Along the highway

Along the road to verdant

Aren’t bitter marvels always fighting
Always shoving off spectacular ennui?



by Douglas Pinson


4 Non Blondes: What’s Going On?

To avoid any conflict with the song by Marvin Gaye, Linda Perry and company renamed their beautiful, angsty, anthemic (1993) single to “What’s up?” But it’s all about that question from 1971, and about the knowing confusion, the justifiable frustration and alienation of the young. That’s at least how it sounds. One of the original 4 Non Blondes, Christa Hillhouse, says it’s a mistake to read too much into it. Linda was just playing guitar down the hall from Christa when she wrote it, and it was so good, Christa thought, she stopped having sex and ran down the hall to find her. It happened organically, naturally. The song writing. The questioning about that song. Linda Perry was afraid it had come from somewhere else, and asked Christa if she had borrowed some of it from others. And that’s a key. Good to great art often gives the appearance of pre-existence. That it must have always been, even to the author. This seems especially true with music — even more so with Rock and Pop. And if a song gets someone to stop what they’re doing in the bedroom, chances are pretty good it’s going to be special.

The title “What’s up” sounds entirely too friendly, casual, easy going and it doesn’t fit this song at all. At least to me. Ironically, when the song is covered by others, especially on talent shows, the powers that be seem intent on making it friendly and casual, as they try to remove the angst, the anger and the potential threat inherent in the lyrics and musical variations. The quickest way to do this, of course, is to remove the line that calls for a revolution. That’s a no no on TV. Unless it can be done in such a way that alters the meaning, like a “revolution” in product development, or in the way new content is delivered to consumers.

It’s an old story, already a shadow of itself. Rock used to have revolutionary powers, but was co-opted long ago. We’re several decades past that co-opting, and were already, give or take, two decades past it when “What’s up?” came out. So I listen to it with nostalgia and regret. I listen to it for a host of reasons, one of most important being to catch a spark of something that was once genuinely, authentically in the air. And the listener hears this, hears that spark and more. Catch fire.





Timbuktu. 2014

Timbuktu. 2014

One of the best films of the past year is Timbuktu, directed by Abderrahmene Sissako. Understated, beautifully shot and composed, it tells the story of a village, a people, caught in the arbitrary and repressive grip of a Jihadist takeover. The focus of the film, but never at the cost of the village’s story itself, is a small family on the outskirts of Timbuktu, making a life on the dunes. Kidane, the father, Satima, the mother, their daughter Toya, and the young shepherd, Issan. Perhaps because of their existence on the periphery, this small family had managed to avoid most of the cultural and social repression being arbitrarily imposed on those in the village, but a tragic accident changes all of that.

I was struck by the images, again and again. The incredible beauty of the desert, the dunes, the motion of people crossing them, running on the sand. But, especially, the scene of a soccer game, which is one of the most beautiful in any film in recent memory. The jihadists had just handed down yet another absurd and meaningless edict, this time outlawing soccer (football for them). But this didn’t stop the youth of this village from playing the game without an actual ball. The flow, the joyful resistance to arbitrary, ridiculous power, along with the expressiveness of the camera work, make for a classic scene worth the price of admission all by itself.

And then there was music, which had also been banned. Resistance lives within music as well. Primarily led by the women of the village, we see people risking their lives for that part of life that gives it meaning, sustains them, brings them closer together in memory and song. One woman is whipped for being caught singing the blues (in a gorgeous and moving performance), and her extreme bravery continues as she sings under the lash.

These are a people with tremendous courage and resilience, and the movie never shows them breaking or collaborating with the authorities. But it also hints that there is no way out and that this is just the beginning of the repression. This is just the beginning of a return to primitive visions of “justice,” where people accused of adultery are stoned to death.

Why do we believe in fictions that crush life? Why do we accept the word of those who say they speak for divine power? Of course, once we accept the fiction that divine power exists in the first place, we are all too susceptible to that. But it’s not inevitable that we would hand over our personal autonomy to other humans, just because they claim to speak for those fictions. Even believers should demand they prove their legitimacy, prove they can justify what they ask of us, at least within the context of that fiction. All too often, however, fundamentalists in all the major religions pull nonsense out of thin air, and can’t show that even the founders of those religions ever paid the slightest attention to their particular obsessions. Soccer? Music? Dancing? And, of course, Christian fundamentalists have their own list of totally arbitrary, puritanical obsessions never mentioned by their Christ. To me, if a religion does not affirm life and bring joy into the world, it has no purpose.

Life is tough enough all by itself. To add more chains is nothing less than insane.


Welcome to Spinozablue!

Joan Miró's Birth of the World. 1925

Joan Miró’s Birth of the World. 1925

The work is done. Rebirth is here. We’re ready, finally, to start adding again to this fine collection of poetry, fiction, reviews, art, photography and film.

Six years of excellent contributions. Then a pause. But that pause has been lifted.

If you’d like to contribute, please click on the submissions page and follow the directions therein. No previous publishing experience is required. All that matters is the quality of the work itself.

Spinozablue promotes an internationalism of the arts and knows no geographical boundaries. Actually, we’re not all that impressed with the idea of boundaries in general. When it comes to the Republic of the Arts, the world is one. We’re open to all of it.

A few notes about the relaunch:

Unlike the first incarnation of Spinozablue, we won’t have comments turned on underneath the articles, though a separate forums section is a likely addition in the future. Technical obstacles in the recovery period and overall site speed were major considerations, so we decided to keep them off for now. This doesn’t mean we don’t want to hear from our readers. We definitely do. Please use the contact form in the “contact us” or “about” pages and let us know what’s on your mind.

Okay. So enough of that. Read. Enjoy. And, if you’re so inclined, send us the best expressions of your own voice and aesthetic.


*     *     *


Update from 8-9-15: Spinozablue uses https encryption tech, so it’s better to go to and bookmark that, instead of just This is especially the case for Mobile viewing. At present, it doesn’t always render images correctly if you land on the site via http. Also, as you may have noticed, the old addresses for individual posts have changed. We updated the links to better conform with the latest recommendations for speed and ease of use. The post titles are now a part of the URL, instead of the old post numbers, along with year and month.

I know, I know. Your eyes are glazing over and getting sleepy. So enough of that, too.


Necessary Fictions, Their Sources and Utility

The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which can be Used as a Table, Salvador Dali. 1934.

The Ghost of Vermeer of Delft Which can be Used as a Table. Salvador Dali. 1934.

Stumbled upon a fascinating TED talk this morning, by Yuval Noah Harari, entitled What explains the rise of humans? In a nutshell, his thesis is that we alone, among all the species on earth, are capable of flexible cooperation in large numbers, and that the chief galvanizing force behind this is our ability to create and believe in fictions. 

His recent book is now on my must-read list: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. From the author’s website:

Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.

Starting from this provocative idea, Sapiens goes on to retell the history of our species from a completely fresh perspective. It explains that money is the most pluralistic system of mutual trust ever devised; that capitalism is the most successful religion ever invented; that the treatment of animals in modern agriculture is probably the worst crime in history; and that even though we are far more powerful than our ancient ancestors, we aren’t much happier.

In a recent post, I talked about the Paris Commune (1871) and how the early Russian evolutionists had a different view of things than Western Darwinists in that era. Harari’s talk doesn’t deal with that historical period directly, but I thought it fit overall. Under the rubric of our created and creative fictions, we’ve been led to believe that life is struggle, that competition, not cooperation, drives us, and that we survive because we see this. Ironically, it takes cooperation to maintain this particular fiction — both between rulers and the ruled, and among the ruled. It takes cooperation for us to settle upon unifying fictions, good, bad and indifferent. Without that cooperation the fictions die. Harari’s thesis is that we’re the only species which creates them in the first place, and our ability to flexibly believe in things that don’t exist defines us and our dominance. It makes sense that this flexibility is a major strength, especially if we’re able to see through those fictions, but a major curse if we can’t, if we hold onto them beyond their expiry date.

Fictions that once held millions together have vanished. Belief in old gods, old visions of the world, of empires, of the heavens, of the centrality of earth and human life, have faded away or disappeared entirely. But the creation of new fictions follows immediately upon the heels of the vanished, and all too often we actually believe our new fictions are factual and a major leap forward on the road to aletheia. Unlike those poor sods who believed in gods and goddesses, or the divine right of kings, we finally have it right — with our one god, our money, our nation-states, our conception of “democracy.” While there are certainly major benefits to cooperative, flexible belief, this can and often does lead to untold hubris and arrogance as well.

It also strikes me as ironic that we recognize novels, movies, TV shows and so on as “fiction,” and can laugh at our fellow humans who get too caught up in them, to the point where they seem to believe they’re real. Meanwhile, the same people who can see that a novel is a novel is a novel, can’t see that our religions, economic systems, nation-states and “natural rights” are also all works of fiction, for good or ill. Harari in his talk likes to contrast us with chimpanzees, and he would say of the above that chimps wouldn’t be able to understand the difference between our art and the rest. To the chimp, none of it would be “reality.” None of it would be concrete.

My favorite American poet, Wallace Stevens, had many things to say on the subject of truth:

   “Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor.”
    “Death is the mother of beauty. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.”

    “I do not know which to prefer,
    The beauty of inflections
    Or the beauty of innuendos
    The blackbird whistling
    Or just after.”

    “The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe in it willingly.”

    “The reader became the book; and summer night
    Was like the conscious being of the book.”


As an artist and writer, I (obviously) love that we create and keep creating. But I long for the day when humans recognize all of their fictional production for what it is, and that we can narrow down the list. As life gets more and more complex, it seems our production of necessary fictions grows along with it. For us to become far less dangerous to each other and the planet, we’re going to need to radically reduce them.