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Recent Additions & Musings . . .

Recent Additions & Musings . . .

Spinozablue welcomes the fine Haiku of Virginie Colline, and the poetic works of Dan Corjescu and Neil Ellmann.

 

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As long as we are alive, nothing is complete. We define this or that aspect of art, music, religion, life itself, and we kill it. In some way, small to great. Yes, poetry can lift art; art poetry. But neither can define or limit or stifle the other. There is always more. Much more. And the best critics know this. The most attentive, aware, tuned-in admirers of all the arts know this.

Nothing is written in stone, literally and metaphorically. The stone does not last. It crumbles and becomes something else. The metaphors are a bridge to another place and time, another way of seeing. Ancient sages recognized the multitudinous quality of perspective and embraced that for centuries. But we lost that, until the late 19th and 20th centuries when revolutions shook the arts and sciences.

Those revolutions were made possible by a return, a sneaking, stealth-like return, of humility in a sense. Paradoxically, the masters of those revolutions, the Einsteins, Heisenbergs, Kafkas, Schoenbergs, the Picassos, the James Joyces . . . were not what most people would define as “humble.” But in order to pursue their ventures, they needed to recapture the ancient past (Buddhist relativity, African ceremonial masks, Noh Dramas and a myriad cultural complexes) to don “the Other”, to live outside themselves and their hand-me-down assumptions.

In short, they escaped their egos at least long enough to create dynamic beauty that shattered the present again and again.

All great revolutions are both a return to the commons, to our shared human roots, and an explosion of tired, dated, outworn egos. On the individual all the way up to national and international levels.

The winds and the sea, the animals and the green, all tell us it’s time again. Prepare the way for another return, another joyous, riotous humbling!!

 

Persepolis

Persepolis

I am not a reader of graphic novels and know next to nothing about them. But I heard good things about this movie version of one such series (Persepolis and Persepolis2, by Marjane Satrapi) and thought it would be worth a look. More than a pleasant surprise, the film actually knocked me out.
 

Persepolis movie trailor

It’s the largely autobiographical story of Marjane Satrapi, her time in Iran before and after the revolution of 1979, her family, and her flight to France. I did not think that a cartoon would be moving in this way, nor as thought provoking. But it is. The DVD adds excellent special features, takes us behind the scenes and includes interviews with cast and crew. The work involved in making the film is stunning, laborious, time consuming and admirable.

Marjane Satrapi strove to make this a universal story, a coming of age story, albeit one with extreme circumstances. I think she succeeded. It also made me think about the nature of revolution, how many start with high ideals and compassion and end with massive violence and oppression. Probably because the same people who provide the intellectual and humanistic underpinnings for these revolutions are almost never the same people who end up in charge once they take hold.

It may in fact be a case of incommensurabilities. Those who would launch revolutions against oppressors, those who would change the world for the better and bring liberation to the oppressed, are typically unwilling or unable to control events with an iron hand . . . the kind of hand needed when revolutions happen. Because destroying the old order means a new one must be formed nearly from scratch, and that rarely can be done without severe brutality, dictatorial and authoritarian rule. The anarchy created when one regime falls . . . must be controlled eventually. Oftentimes those who wind up controlling that anarchy are no better and sometimes worse than the regime they replace.

It’s almost a guaranteed dynamic. Those who seek great power, those who seek great power in an instant, especially, are not generally believers in freedom and liberation and fairness and equality and compassion and empathy for the people. They believe in power and want it now. They don’t want to wait. They don’t want to build something gradually over time. They don’t want to reform things. They don’t want to form the kinds of friendships and networks and institutions needed to enact progressive change over time. They are in a hurry. In their minds, brutality and more oppression are the best methods for access to quick power and control. A revolution is their perfect vehicle.

Reading Doctor Zhivago reminded me of that conundrum again recently. The peasants wanted to throw off the shackles of the Czar and the aristocracy. They wanted to keep the fruits of their labor. They wanted to grow food on their own land and be free to do so without being hounded by the Czar. They actually wanted to own their own land for once. They did not want to exchange one master for another. They did not want to give up their new found freedom to the Communist state.

The Iranian Revolution began as an attempt to throw off the horrific shackles of the Shah. It ended in establishing even harsher shackles when religious zealots took control. A true revolution of the people and by the people would have ended with no shackles, obviously.

Humans have seen this dance for thousands of years, and we seem incapable of learning. When will there be a true revolution that casts off all shackles and leaves us truly free?

Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Pramoedya Ananta Toer

Pramoedya Ananta Toer
Pramoedya Ananta Toer

 It’s not often that a great writer’s life is more interesting in some ways than his books. But that’s the case with Pramoedya Ananta Toer. Born on the island of Java in 1925, Toer lived through several revolutions and national rebellions, participated in a few himself, and was imprisoned both by the Dutch colonial government and then later by the Suharto regime.

While in jail during his first imprisonment in 1947-49, he wrote his first novel, The Fugitive. During his second imprisonment, this time by the Suharto regime in 1965, he accomplished something even more amazing. Denied pen and paper, he managed to construct a tetralogy, recite it to his fellow prisoners, and eventually get it down on paper and published after his release in 1979.

Toer said in an interview:

“Before I got permission, I had to do it behind their backs. For a long time, I was not permitted to write, so I had to do it orally. From 1971 until mid-1973, we were not allowed to socialize with the others. During mass executions of political prisoners, in the isolation cell I told the stories to my friends. During official ceremonies, my fellow isolated friends told the stories to other friends who were not being isolated, and that’s how they were spread.”

The result was The Buru Quartet, named after the island that housed his prison.

Later translated by Max Lane, the English titles are This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps, and House of Glass. The first is my favorite of the quartet. It’s the story of young Minke, the narrator of the first three novels, who awakens slowly to the reality of the oppression of colonial rule and the ways of the rich and powerful. The novels are semi-autobiographical, moving, and revelatory. But there are differences between Minke and Toer.

Toer said in the same interview:

“I don’t write to give joy to readers but to give them a conscience.”

Reading great literature from around the world, reading the stories of the oppressed, the forsaken, the ignored, accumulates in the mind, helps form soft, luminous layers for the soul. Reading gets us closer to the crux of the matter, to the heart of the human. Reading the best that’s been said, regardless of culture, geography, or time, lifts the conscience, expands it, accelerates it.

Literature has many uses, purposes, roles. The writer of literature can hope for few greater results than adding soul layers around the globe.

 

Timeless Beauty, Changing Times

Timeless Beauty, Changing Times

Frederic Edwin Church's Twilight in the Wilderness. 1860. Cleveland Museum of Art.
Frederic Edwin Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness. 1860. Cleveland Museum of Art.

There are things that should be protected and preserved. Nature. Lakes, rivers, oceans, mountain tops, valleys, blue skies. Protect and defend, preserve. Things that evolve in ways that preserve their timeless beauty, even in the midst of natural, organic change. Things to build foundations upon. Colors, shapes, organic, natural drama. We rest our minds there, within the natural change, seeking the core we can never find, joyfully.

These are things to conserve. But ideologies? Systems? Political schools, artistic schools? If these things do not grow, expand their base, remain open to natural and organic change–and they almost never, ever do–they die inside and they kill the souls of others. They become stagnant like malarial swamps.

Timeless beauty and the justifiably ephemeral. Destroying the first while holding on to the second is a current and past sin that plagues us all. More than youth against age, or the old against the new, it’s a mindset and a worldview that seeks to squeeze the life out of human and natural creations, in the name of . . . . what? Fear? Ironically, possibly, a fear of death in the form of change, which they mistake for the destruction of things that need to be reformed, revised, altered or surpassed in no uncertain terms. They prevent change out of fear that that change means death. A death of their own illusion of power over their world and the world of others.

In short, it’s a mistaken worldview, that does not differentiate between timeless beauty and the logic of evolution. It is a mistaken worldview that can not or will not recognize the difference between the reality of stones and the change they undergo as water passes over them, century after century. Or, better still, between comfort and life.

J.M.W. Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed. 1844. National Gallery, London.
J.M.W. Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed. 1844. National Gallery, London.

Though I have seen it all too many times, I can’t help but be baffled by young people who cling to “conservative” ideologies. Art, music, literature, philosophy, politics and so on. I have tried, but I can’t wrap my mind around this attitude toward the world, especially among the young. When someone is young, they should be filled to the brim with the desire to surpass the old with the new, with their new vision of the new. They should be bursting at the seams to make their mark by changing the things they see, as they protect timeless, natural beauty and the world of nature. They should be minor revolutionaries of the soul, filled with a passion for change.

Some may say that, well, yes, that is the realm of the young. But when you get older, you change, grow “conservative” about things, slow down a bit, take stock of things in a realistic manner. You see the world for what it is, for what it really is, and you become conservative.

I see a massive flaw in this. I see a logical flaw in that acceptance of conventional wisdom. And, I think that the impressions of the young, when they are brimming full with a love of change and a desire to effect change . . . are really the people who see the world realistically and for what it truly is. Evolution is endless. Evolution simply is. Change is endless. To hide from that is not wise or realistic or seeing the world as it truly is.

That said, perhaps the biggest reason why we should not grow more “conservative” as we age is because we continuously see the establishment making mistake after mistake after mistake in all realms. We continuously see those supposedly wise and serious and experienced powers-that-be drive us into ditches, destroy lives, nature, art, harmony and so on. We continuously see them take the world to the brink of disaster, ignore genius, destroy it, prevent its emergence.

In short, to be young and embrace change, to foment change, to foment progress in the arts, in life, in society, is truly the common sensical, the logical, the rational, the eternally intelligent way to go. When we question all authority and push for progressive change, we ride the waves instead of fighting against them. We cease being Yeats’ vision of Cuchulain fighting the water, fighting himself.

 

The Philosophy of Expectations

The Philosophy of Expectations

Harold Bloom talks about the importance of the reading life in the formation of character. For him, this is done through a lifetime of internal dialogue with oneself, with the characters, ideas, situations and conflicts in novels, plays, poems, short stories and so on. This lifetime of dialogue builds character, broadens horizons, exercises the mind, expands it. It is a key in the formation of our ability to listen to ourselves, listening to others, analyzing that data, looping it back into the ongoing conversation of a lifetime. For him, it is not the slant of the work that does this. It’s the quality. His is an apolitical ideal of the unique power of internal conversation with as diverse a reading life as is possible.

Art, music, crafts, etc.. all have this synergy, but words on the page and in our minds coincide with the structure of our communication vehicle most immediately. Language. Through language, because of language. Studying history teaches us that this thing we take for granted today was not available to the vast majority of human beings until recently. Prior to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1439, most people did not read. Most people could not freely select what they read. Most people didn’t know the vast wealth of conversation available to them from across the globe. And even with the invention of the printing press, literacy levels remained much lower than they are today for centuries.

It seems more than a coincidence that, throughout history, literacy levels go hand in hand with the amount of freedom and control the masses have over their own lives, and the amount of control others have over them. Church, state, kings, queens, and rulers of all kinds, across the globe, have a better shot at keeping the populace down and under their thumbs when that populace can’t read . . . or when it has limited access to a wide range of books, ideas, and conversations that transcend time and place. To take this a step further, it is also more than a coincidence that when people limit their own reading to one book, one set of ideas, one ideology, they are less likely to be truly free, regardless of the powers that be in their particular country, empire, region.

Which brings me back to the word, expectations. The tyranny of low expectations is a phrase we bump into now and then regarding a very different topic, but I think it better fits into this one. And those who use it today in that other context, often fall prey to it themselves. To me, what the phrase really means is that our own chance to broaden that internal conversation with the ages and the most diverse minds across the globe is all too often thrown away. Even in this age of vast access to the widest range of literature, theory, history, and information of all kinds, all too many people choose either not to read at all, or seem satisfied with the narrow pursuit of reading narrowly. They succumb to the tyranny of low expectations, and we all suffer because of that. We suffer as a people, because that narrowness of dialogue is repeated in our media, in our political contests, in the range of public conversation. And that in turn limits progress toward what the literacy revolution should actually have accomplished already: An end to the tyranny of all powerful elites.

Expectations. Because I’ve read widely my whole life, because I’ve read a great deal of comparative myth and religion, because I’ve read about various forms of government, the pursuit of empire, war, political corruption, rigid ideologies, crusades drenched in blood and terror, revolutions drenched in blood and terror, I am less likely to fall prey to special pleadings from those who seek to impose their will on us all—yet again. I am less likely to fall prey to rhetoric and propaganda telling us that this or that is the only possible way, be it religion, ideology, political structures, wars, economic visions and so on. The ability to see things whole, from a multitude of perspectives (which also brings modernist art into the conversation), is what reading widely can do, and this in turn should raise our expectations regarding our own role in our own lives.

I think the literacy revolution has stalled. At least here, at least in this country. We need to raise expectations again through a new concerted effort to broaden our internal conversations with the ages and all places. We need to embrace the all through the heightened embrace of the widest range of reading possible.