On the Consolations of Philosophy

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, ME with tags , , , , , , , on August 26, 2016 by travsd

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Yet another post triggered by working on The Iron Heel, this one less political than autobiographical and (quite literally) philosophical.

One of my characters in the ensemble of the current production is a pettifogging sociology professor. Early in the play, the hero (played by the excellent Charles Ouda) lambasts my character and his colleagues at some length for being “metaphysicians” rather than “scientists”. We were well into the process, probably already into performances, when the personal resonance of those speeches hit me with a big clang. I had read widely in philosophy, widely enough to know just what the character was talking about, even the peculiar way in which he was framing it.

Most mainstream contemporary thought (I don’t think I’m too bold in asserting this) has empirical science as its primary point of reference, not just in academia, but in most of the other major professional realms: journalism, politics, the arts, and even business. Absolute exceptions are rare. Modern adults are empirically oriented by default. They base their decisions upon data or the news. They may suffer from bad information from bad sources, but their method is to seek out the facts and weigh them. This is true to a large degree of people you may assume mightn’t, such as the deeply religious, who partake of such things as economics (modern business methods) and the media the same way everybody else does.

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This was not yet true at the time when Jack London was writing The Iron Heel. A revolution was taking place in London’s time, one that was not just social, political and economic but absolute. It was influenced by thinkers as diverse as Spencer, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and (William) James. What these and others eventually achieved was a revolution in thinking that puts the collection and evaluation of data front and center in nearly every field of endeavor. That change in our thinking is now so complete it is unquestioned. But that transformation has also been quite recent, at any rate more recent than you might think. It was clearly still contentious in London’s time, well into the 20th century.

What existed prior to that revolution? London refers to it as “metaphysics”, but in doing so he is being provocatively facetious and dismissive. Essentially, he is referring to pure philosophy, which used to occupy a much greater portion of the academic sphere than it does now, and an altogether more exalted one, so much so that it was still crowding out this “upstart” empirical science from encroaching on its prerogatives as late as 1908! Unthinkable but true. Indeed, it lasted longer than that, if pop culture is any bellwether — college professors were still being portrayed as possessing this weltanschauung in movies and plays and books as late as the 1930s.

The modern university system had been founded in the Middle Ages. The assumptions of western philosophy (as established by the ancient Greeks) were a large part of what defined it. Metaphysics were at the center, but perhaps only because existential inquiry is the most vexatious of all questions. But its salient difference from the modern outlook is one of intellectual method. Rather than automatically going to the material world for answers, it looks inward, building self-contained chains of logic and reason.  To the modern observer, it can look like the very definition of sophistry — a form of intellectual masturbation. In its day, it was what defined academic rigor. And indeed we rely on this mode of thought a great deal to this day, any time we make an argument, lay out a case, grope towards a conclusion. We draw from facts, but then we organize them into ordered portraits of reality. The old way, I think, was to perhaps place less emphasis on the constant gathering of updated facts. Certain premises were taken as “givens”, and that was enough. In our day and age, metaphysics, which is purely speculative, is about the only realm left where you could get away with that. London’s Iron Heel character Everhard rails against Aristotle, but probably the most crystal example of the Aristotlean system gone wrong is Ptolemy. To solve what the stars are, you need to look at the stars, directly at the stars, not build upon ancient edifices created out of people’s heads.

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Yet metaphysics has a place. This post was occasioned because it dawned on me recently how central to my worldview is the old system of pure philosophy. It is central to my thinking, it drives and informs my assumptions, and it orients me in the world quite a bit differently from people around me, most of whom tend to be either religious or scientific but not the third way, which is to be philosophical. It’s not that I am not religious or respectful of science. It’s that my default place is philosophical doubt and (attempted) Socratic humility, and I see both religion and science through those lenses. I believe in God, but I think it hubris to rashly define him (or her). I believe in observable facts, but I think they have their place and their purpose, and those are not coterminous with the sum of Everything.

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I have been sitting here trying to figure out why I was driven to classicism. Now that I think of it, a major influence in my life (other than the English and drama teachers I often write about) was my high school Latin teacher. I took Latin throughout high school, and had a semester of it in college. My high school Latin instructor was one of my favorite teachers. Among other things, he was extremely funny. He’d originally studied to be a priest, I think, and he didn’t teach Latin in a vacuum. He taught the culture of it. So I spent a good deal of time with my head in Rome and the Middle Ages, and the stuff we translated was usually drawn from the literature of those periods. This has to have been the foundation.

As I said in this earlier post, when I left high school I was cast out on my own and spent three years reading classics, the core of which was philosophy. During those years I can recall reading Plato, Euclid (crucial to the study of logic), Xenophon, Aristotle, Cicero, Plotinus, Plutarch,  St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, (among others, and not including poets, novelists, and playwrights, of course). After I finished the conservatory a couple of years later, I worked at a bookstore, and in this second phase I tackled many more including: Epicurus, Lucretius, more Cicero, Seneca, Bacon, Hobbes, Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, Montesquieu, Berkeley, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Bentham, Hegel, Emerson, Nietzsche, Bergson, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus and many others (including the above-mentioned Spencer, Darwin, Freud and James. I tried Das Kapital a few times without much progress).

Haha, hoo boy, does this bring back memories

Haha, hoo boy, does this bring back memories

I hasten to point out the course outlined above was all through solitary reading. It happened without a teacher to guide me, no discussions with fellow students, and (while I did do quite a bit of scribbling inspired and informed by this reading) no disciplined, academic writing. My understanding of these thinkers could be incomplete, it could be incorrect. But it is also my own. And it is also at least a partial understanding of them, which is more than what most people have.  (For the record, I did take a Philosophy 101 course at my local university but it was worse than useless. And later at NYU I did read lit-crit related philosophers like Foucault, Baudrillard, Barthes, Bataille, and others with the guidance of professors).

What good is it? people ask. I’m sure even asked it when I first encountered the ideas of some of these thinkers. But that very question reflects a bias — bias rooted in the very orientation of our times I described above. Must everything in life produce a tangible, material, measurable good?  Science cures diseases, and makes miracles affordable, and supplies us with Better Mousetraps. That’s terrific, but to my mind, as a thing to strive for, it is also superficial and even somewhat boorish. It is not only not inspirational it is not aspirational. What is the point of being alive, if you aren’t questioning, if you aren’t trying to figure it out? The general tendency is to say, “You’ll never solve the problems of existence, so what’s the point? What’s the point of doing something pointless?”

But that’s backwards. The act of questioning itself is what gives life meaning. It’s not some finish line you get to. To know the answer is to be dead! To ask the useless question “Why are we here?” is part of the same category of human activity as dancing, savoring food, making love, swimming in the ocean, appreciating art, making art. There is no reason for it. It feels good to do. It feels good to make something, to build an edifice, to chase something.

What myth?! It's real, I tell you!

What myth?! It’s real, I tell you!

Some (many I listed above, and others) come away from the grappling with despair or something close to it. Their conclusion is that “nothingness” is the answer and that reality is depressing. But they still keep flinging themselves against the question like a moth against a window. They like to do it. Sisyphus likes rolling that rock. It’s painful. It hurts. It’s actually unending misery. That’s what it is to be self-aware. But self-awareness is also GREAT! It’s who I am! It’s the stream of consciousness that begins when you’re born and ends when you die. It’s the life bursting inside you. How can you not be attached to that?

And it is a small step from here to the theatre I love best. The Greeks of course and Shakespeare and that profound farceur Moliere and in modern times the Absurdists. One of my favorite critical books (perhaps THE key book for me) is Robert Brustein’s The Theatre of Revolt, which casts key 20th century playwrights in this very light, restless, frustrated askers of the metaphysical question.

The title of this post is intended ironically. There’s a subway ad I’ve seen from time to time promoting classes at some “School of Philosophy” which promises “happiness”.  And I always laugh at it, which I guess that reflects a cultural bias on my part. I could see perhaps an esoteric philosophy, an Eastern philosophy promising and even delivering something like happiness. But Western philosophy offers nothing of the kind. The branches of Western philosophy concerned with human happiness split off a long time ago. We call them Political Science and Economics. What remains is the delicious agony of metaphysics.

Here’s an irony for you. To return to where we started: despite London’s holding up of Marx as the model of “science” (and similar behavior by all his apologists to the present day) his thought is actually mired in the same metaphysics as those earlier Aristotleans he criticized. Marx based his ideas on the Hegelian dialectic, a preconceived notion about the way history works, a system into which he and his followers attempted to fit all subsequent developments whether they fit the picture or not. Ironically, the “science” happened in the West, where freedom of inquiry allowed the unimpeded flow of data which permitted greater material well being for millions. And the way of Marx proved Ptolemaic.

 

 

 

Another Kind of Lilac to Sniff

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, ME, Travel, VISUAL ART with tags , , , , , , , , on August 25, 2016 by travsd

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My new feature about the Lightship Lilac and her current exhibition just hit this week’s Downtown Express. Read all about it here. As a bonus, here are are extra stray photos I took while on board. If there are beads of sweat on the lens, it’s because it was 105 degrees! I felt like I was on the African Queen!

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Want to find out where all this is? Read the damn article!

On Some Heroic Huguenots

Posted in AMERICANA, CULTURE & POLITICS, Frenchy, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, ME, My Family History with tags , , , , , , on August 23, 2016 by travsd
A painting of the Massacre by the Huguenot Francois Dubois

A painting of the Massacre by the Huguenot Francois Dubois

Today is St. Bartholomew’s Eve.

Funny — despite having worked on this post for several days, I was thinking to myself only yesterday that August doesn’t really have a holiday and that the calendar is a sort of desert between Independence Day and Labor Day. Yet, here we are. From the time of the Middle Ages, the Feast of the Apostle St. Bartholomew was celebrated on August 24, and it was a day with many happy associations. Traditionally, a late summer fair was celebrated in London on the day, from 1133 to 1855 — it was even the title and the setting of a play by Ben JonsonBartholomew Fair.

In modern times, the positive side of St. Bartholomew’s Day has been largely forgotten due to the Massacre that happened on this day in France in 1572. There were many wars of religion during the period of the Protestant Reformation, but for some reason the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre particularly captures the modern imagination. It may be that, unlike many or most such events in Western Europe, this persecution resembles recent atrocities that strike close to home, such as the Holocaust. You have a large majority (Catholic France) persecuting a small minority (the Huguenots, or French Protestants, who made up 10% of the country) strictly on the basis of religion. And you have the official sanction of wiping them out. The word genocidal is wrong in this case, since they were the same people ethnically, but it’s a similar concept. The people of France were whipped up into a frenzy of hatred, and the Huguenots who did not convert and betray their faith were either killed or otherwise mistreated or harassed. Many chose to leave. Historians differ widely in their estimates of the number killed in the actual Massacre, ranging from 5,000 to ten times that. In its wake, the number of Huguenots in France was drastically reduced. Future events (below) would reduce it still further, eventually finishing them as a cultural force in France. The carnage actually began on St. Bartholomew’s Eve (Aug. 23) which is why we post this today rather than tomorrow.

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Ironically, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre happened at a time of official tolerance for the minority, and a wedding between both forces (the Protestant Henry III of Navarre and the Catholic Princess Margot, sister of King Charles IX) was still being celebrated. You can read a romanticized version of the court intrigues that led to the violence in Dumas’ novel Queen Margot, though as usual with him it is better entertainment than it is history. Likewise, the event is one of the story threads in D.W. Griffth’s Intolerance (1916), which I think is where I first became interested. This is one reason I so vehemently insist that I am not a historian (though no one listens). My main interest is stories.

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Still from Griffith’s “Intolerance”

At any rate: what’s it to me? My recent casual research has uncovered many Huguenots in my ancestry, one of the most surprising revelations of my exploration. They are a tiny but real part of my background, and also an illuminating new way to look at the familiar American story. For, like Puritans, Quakers, Jews and (ironically) Catholics, Huguenots came to America to flee religious persecution. Wonderfully the stories of these ancestors are quite well known, and have been ferreted out by others over the years. There is no single profile that fits all of them. They came at different times, under different circumstances, and settled in different parts of America.

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Nathaniel Basse (circa 1589-1654) was of a Huguenot family which had moved to England a generation or two before his birth. His father Humphrey was a stockholder in the Virginia Company. Nathaniel made his first voyage to the colony in 1619 and moved the rest of his family there in 1621 on a 400 acre spread on the James River he called Basse’s Choyce Plantation. Basse served in Virginia’s General Assembly, the Governor’s Council, and as a justice in the courts. My (9th) great grandmother Genevieve Knight is said by many sources to be one of his ten children, but accounts differ and it is admittedly somewhat murky. Other sources say all of Basse’s children but one, named John, were killed in an Indian massacre, and other sources say he “died without issue” (although the latter source is a contested will). John’s tale, if true, is a ripping yarn, for he is said to have been raised among the Nansemond Indians as one of their own.

All of the folks described in this post are ancestors on my dad’s side of the family, except for one. John Paddoc (1550-1603) left Nord-Pas-de-Calais in 1580 and moved to Tullygovan, Ireland. Ireland was to be a refuge to many Huguenots. My (9th) great grandfather Robert Paddock born there in 1584. He emigrated to the Plymouth colony with his wife and family somewhere between 1631 and 1634. A line runs all the way from him to my mom, and then to me.

My (10th) great grandfather Robert Brasseur (ca 1597-1665) emigrated from Avignon to England around 1630. He shows up in Maryland land records in 1635, having arrived with his wife and seven children.  As is well known, Maryland was a Catholic colony; Brasseur (sometimes Anglicized to “Brashear” and a dozen other spellings) moved to Virginia, where my (9th) great grandmother Margaret was born.  She was to marry into an English family, the Jordans, and convert to Quakerism.

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One of the most important guys on this page: my (11th) great grandfather Robert Vanquellin (1607-1698), from the Normandy region. After spending time on the Isle of Jersey, in January, 1665 he went to England. In April he departed for America in Philip Carteret’s ship, ”Philip,” with about thirty passengers. Robert then settled in northeastern New Jersey, under British rule (since Sept. 1664) of this part of New Netherland as it was in dispute for the next decade until full Dutch capitulation. (Contemporary New Yorkers may be aware of New Netherland’s openness to the Huguenots from certain nearby place names still in use. e.g., New Rochelle, NY and Huguenot, State Island).  Carteret was to become Governor of New Jersey. Vanquellin was to be its Surveyor General. His daughter Anne married James Bollin, Secretary of the Province of New Jersey, also my (11th) great grandfather.

Jesus Wept

Jesus Wept

Now we come to another phase. In 1685, Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, a decree which revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which had declared a policy of relative tolerance for the Huguenots. Thus a new period of persecution began, resulting in a new wave of Huguenot immigration to the American colonies.

Virginia was to be an early focal point during this phase. In 1698, a settlement with the hilarious name of Manikintown (which would be an excellent title for a Twilight Zone episode) was founded on the James River west of what is now Richmond. Several of my ancestors moved here.

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My (7th) great grandfather Pierre LeGrand arrived there from Normandy with his wife and five children in September 1700 on the second shipload of emigrants aboard the galley ‘Peter and Anthony’ of London. LeGrand was a land surveyor. 

My (8th) great grandfather Francois Benin (1679-1710) is stated by some sources to have been born in Tartigne. Purportedly a Huguenot, he is said to have fled to the Dutch-Belgium border, and from there to Bristol, England where he married Ann Elizabeth Debonette, another French Huguenot exile in 1704.  The Benin (Benning) family migrated to Virginia with the Guerrant family. Francois is believed to have died around 1710; his son, Antoin (Anthony) was born around 1705 and is believed to have been orphaned while a small child.  He is described in some documents as an “unlearned and tyrannical man”.

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Another (7th) great-grandfather Abraham Michaux (1672-1717) came from the Ardennes region. His wife Suzanne Rochet Micheaux was the youngest of the three daughters of Jean Rochet to be smuggled out of France and into Amsterdam, Holland following the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685. According to one story, “she, her two sisters, a cousin and her baby were trying to escape when the baby began to cry and the guards were alerted and found the young women. The three Rochet sisters were returned to their father, but the Church took a very hard stance on the daughter’s education and Jean Rochet feared they would be removed from his home and sent to live with the nuns. Before too long the two older daughters made successful escapes to Amsterdam, but fearing the climate was still too dangerous, they had left Suzanne behind. Before they left France, however, the sisters and their father had determined that they would send for Suzanne when they felt the time was right, but fearing the letter would fall in the wrong hands, they had worked out a code. They would tell their father that they thought ‘it would be perfectly fine to send the little nightcap which we had left behind.’ Finally, the letter arrived. After several unsuccessful attempts to get Suzanne out of France, her father had her hidden in a large cask, or hogshead, which was entrusted to friendly sea-captain, who had the cask placed on board the ship. When the ship had sailed and they were safety past the guards, the cask was opened and Suzanne was lifted out of her narrow, dark, chamber and was brought to safety in Amsterdam. She is still known in the annuals of French Huguenot history as ‘Little Nightcap.'”

Micheaux married Suzanne on 13 Jul 1692 in the French Church in Amsterdam. On 20 August 1702 Suzanne Rochet Michaux became a member of the Huguenot Church of Treadneedle Street, London, England. They pressed on to Manikintown a few years after that. 

The last of Huguenot ancestors (and I believe the last of my French ancestors) to arrive was my (7th)great grandfather John Noblett (1690-1748). Like most of these stories, his journey embraces several countries and more than one generation. His father Peter Noblett (1677-1719). moved first to England from France his with parents around 1684, joining distant relatives. Then they moved to Ireland, to a Huguenot community near Dublin. He married Marie Godfrey in 1698.  In 1721 John and his brothers left Ireland with a group of Quakers to settle in York, Pennsylvania. They arrived on the ship Querrier (or Gauffier,) at Grandy’s Point located on Cape May below Philadelphia. It was there they indentured to work for someone to pay for their passage. John, the oldest of the brothers, upon disbarking was informed that William Plumstead of Sugartown had paid his passage. He was obligated to work for three years before he could claim any land of his own. His term of indenture to Plumstead ended in 1725. Noblett first appeared on the tax rolls as a resident citizen of Newton Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, during the tax year of 1729. He married Ann Brereton, another child of Huguenot exiles who’d come over from from Dublin. Their daughter Mary (1746-1811) is my last full French ancestor (that I know of). She married into a Quaker family, the Stouts, whom we wrote about here, and moved with a large group to North Carolina.

The only Huguenot Church left in America. Located in Charleston, South Carolina, it was built in 1844 for a congregation that had been founded two centuries earlier.

The only Huguenot Church left in America. Located in Charleston, South Carolina, it was built in 1844 for a congregation that had been founded two centuries earlier.

The Huguenots assimilated more completely than nearly every other America immigrant group to the us, including other French immigrant groups like the Acadians/Cajuns and the Quebecois. Even relatively assimilated immigrant groups like the Germans had retained their own church denominations and culture. By contrast, after about a century, the Huguenots ceased having a separate church (with the exception noted above). Most converted to other faiths. In some ways, their only footprint here became certain French surnames that continue to pop up, especially in the South. I’m a “Never Forget” kind of guy, so today I choose to remember them.

 

The Genius of George Herriman

Posted in African American Interest, AMERICANA, VISUAL ART with tags , , on August 22, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great George Herriman (1880-1944). I almost just called Krazy Kat the greatest comic strip of all time — surely no strip has ever been greater — but in a world that has also included Little Nemo and Thimble Theatre/ early Popeye, I hesitate to be so rash.

If I were African American, I would claim Herriman’s place in that pantheon of their greatest geniuses, like Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Bert Williams, Zora Neal Hurston, August Wilson, etc etc. Few seem to, perhaps because it is not well known that he was of Creole/ mixed-race ancestry (he was originally from New Orleans), and he kept his ethnic identity a secret during his lifetime (it wasn’t widely known until 1970). But clearly the complex cultural mash-up (white, black, Cuban, possibly Native American) that went into the forming the individual known as George Herriman enriched his art a great deal.

My first exposure to his work (I think) came through his illustrations for Don Marquis’s jazzy free-verse thingy archy & mehitabel. That he managed to make the latter character quite distinct from his most famous cartoon cat was a triumph by itself. Krazy Kat ran from 1913 through Herriman’s death in 1944, although he had been a professional cartoonist since the turn of the century. Prior to that, he had worked as a sideshow talker on Coney Island!

Krazy Kat is full of wonderful contradictions: steeped in Americana yet the most sophisticated strip ever, a work of modern art; simple in structure yet dense in detail. It is set in Coconino County in Arizona’s Monument Valley, where Herriman loved to spend his time. Already an otherworldly landscape, Herriman stylized it even further so that it literally seemed like another planet. Cactus plants, mesas and rock formations, adobe buildings, and above all uncluttered wide open spaces extending beyond the horizon turn it into a dreamscape, not unlike the sort one finds in the surreal visions of Salvador Dali. 

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And while this world is populated with all manner of kooky creatures, we are primarily concerned with just three: the titular feline, a slinky, sassy, funky and gender-ambiguous jazz age creation; Ignatz Mouse, the object of his/her affections whose only reciprocation is to bean bricks off of Krazy Kat’s head (the strip’s central ritual); and Offissa Pupp, who locks Ignatz in jail for the brick-beanings (the strip’s secondary ritual). The repetition of this cycle (against the stark landscape) reminds me a lot of Beckett and Godot…only it was created decades earlier. It is effortlessly existential. It is the dance of life.

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On top of that simple framework, like so much colorful papier macher, goes Herriman’s dialogue, which is absolutely unique, and to my mind makes him as much of a literary genius as he is a visual one. The characters speak some weird, hybrid patois, constructed out of various American and foreign regionalisms, slang, and whimsical spellings. Surely, Herriman’s own New Orleans origins can be heard in that voice, but some of it is just out his own gonzo head. His writing is both poetic and folkish, a highly wrought tapestry of language that to my mind makes some scholastic-minded aspirant like, say, Anthony Burgess seem like a piker.

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The dialogue (and the cycle of events described above) make it tempting to want to “do” something with Krazy Kat. Ya know, like ya do. Most of the major comic strips have been turned into plays and movies and animated shorts. The attempt was made more than once with Krazy Kat, and one simply has to come to the conclusion that — NO. Just no. I realized with some resignation the other day that even if these attempts had been good (they are not) they would still be bad, because they would always be wrong. Krazy Kat is so good because it is the ultimate expression of the comic strip medium. It is made FOR this medium. It is built out of the shape of its panels. The humor often refers directly to the shape of the layout itself. It occurred to me yesterday…of COURSE I don’t WANT to see what’s in the blackness beyond that horizon and therefore we CANNOT move through that space. It is imperative that we don’t! An animated version of Krazy Kat is kind of like a record album of somebody narrating an illuminated manuscript. It doesn’t CONVEY.

And this makes me a little sad because it means Krazy Kat will always be a bit obscure, known only to the people who do things like read books and go to museums. The numbers of people who once knew Krazy Kat from the newspaper’s funny pages will soon dwindle to nothing. Yet the strip was never popular with the masses, even in its heyday. It may well be just as popular today as it ever was. And that’s just Krazy.

Oxymorons and the American Radical

Posted in AMERICANA, CULTURE & POLITICS, ME, My Shows on August 18, 2016 by travsd
If Only!

If Only!

 

“Why do Beft Always Go to the Left?” — Dr. Seuss

Tonight, we plunge back into performances of The Iron Heel after a hiatus of several days and so it seemed a good time to tuck some stray political thoughts into a post. This was original designed to be several posts; we’ll see how well we do at integrating them.

I had made some small, unnoticed noises in previous posts about a personal shift back to the Left, but those words are probably too well-defined for what I am groping my way through. I am an artist; I am attracted to ideals and to creative solutions and I have always been attracted to the radicalism of previous eras, historical eras. When it comes to casting a ballot in the here and now, I tend to be extremely cautious. And yet I believe in the Rights of Man and working in real time to achieve them for people of all births and orientations and identities and situations.

It’s just that many or most of the positive solutions people and their parties put forward come with unforeseen negative consequences, and prove to be dead ends, wrong turns or worse. I’m thinking of the old style Revolutionary Left. It’s never been politically popular to say so in the U.S., but the fact is, in hard numbers the Soviet Union and its vassal states were responsible for a far greater number of deaths than Nazi Germany, perhaps by an order of magnitude. I was greatly influenced by F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, which was written at a time when both spheres were oppressing millions, though here in the U.S. plenty could see the evil of one but not the other. Now that the U.S.S.R. has been in our rear view mirror for a quarter century there may be temptation to be bolder in the policies we propose in an attempt to blast past the gridlock that has paralyzed our forward momentum as a nation for decades. Certainly both Sanders and Trump (for good and for ill, in that order) both pitched ideas widely outside the playbooks of the two major parties. Given the plot of The Iron Heel, Sanders is the more interesting phenomenon to me at the moment.

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Americans, in their bubble, have little idea how skewed the political conversation has gotten in recent decades. Extremists on the Right have driven the dialogue into a place where up is down. The rhetoric  made more sense during the Reagan years when there was a real Left in the world, not just in the Soviet Union, but domestically as well. In 1980 and 1984 for example, Angela Davis was the U.S. Vice Presidential candidate on the COMMUNIST PARTY ticket. Can you imagine such a thing at any time since then? A true shift seemed to happen in the late ’80s and ’90s, when George H.W. Bush had to reinvent himself and run to his own Right to be deemed worthy of his purist, radical Republican base. The Democrat strategy to defeat that force was to tack to the Right itself, making the centrist Clintons their standard bearers and snuffing their own Left wing. At this historical moment, in the face of reality, Fox News and the Republicans moved heaven and earth to paint these moderates as Leftist extremists, and this is where our political rhetoric truly ceased to have any sensible meaning. The actual Left was dead on the vine. There were, and remain, a small handful of Left wing parties in the U.S., with membership in the hundreds. And candidates like Howard Dean and Ralph Nader ran slightly to the left of mainstream candidates. But a true, muscular radical Left wing had actually been dead for years and years. What does language even mean when you are comparing a woman a who garners huge fees for Wall Street speeches to Joseph Stalin?

Except when you went back to sleep again

Except when you went back to sleep again

It has always been hard to make a Left in America. I have been to the occasional march or rally or panel discussion since the 1990s, and when I synthesize the overall political vibration I took away from the experience I would have to say that I’ve always picked up more anarchism per se than socialism. People in America are AGAINST things. When it comes to creating an apparatus for actually BUILDING things, that spirit is largely absent.

But what would such an apparatus be but a party, and we hate parties, don’t we? We’re individuals in America. The very idea of a party fills me with anxiety. The Nazi Party. The Communist Party. The notions are intrinsically ominous. There are those great scenes in the movie Reds when Warren Beatty as John Reed very reasonably wants to go see his wife, and yet his leaders tell him that “party discipline” forbids it. Party discipline? For what!? Isn’t the goal the freedom and happiness of humankind? And experience has taught us that “the Party” has no intention of relaxing that “discipline” once it gets into power. So screw discipline. Screw that from now until Doomsday.

This is one thing both Left and Right in America have in common, by the way. We hate authoritarianism. We are both the squabbling children of Jefferson. And say what you like about “libertarian extremists” (I know that you will), the entire history of humanity has been about small numbers of people oppressing large numbers of people and the instrument of control is always government. You may say “Well, the government I empower won’t do that”, and you’ll just have to forgive me for snorting in your face.

And yet the last several decades have shown that other forces, no more benevolent, are all too happy to step into the breach where government is absent. If I don’t want an American politician deciding my child’s future, I really don’t want an American CEO having that power.

Like many Americans, I think, I find myself confused, forever trying to reconcile some sort of balance between the twin, contradictory American ideals of freedom and equality. I am for empowering the disenfranchised, or, if it makes you feel any better “The Little Guy”. The way I jumped at the chance to do The Iron Heel is symptomatic. I love Jack London. While I often can’t think of much good to say about socialistic policies, I LOVE to read socialist and progressive writers. I have found that while I may respect the abilities of someone like Henry James , for example, I have very little use for the characters or events or situations in most of his novels. Whereas I have formed deep, strong bonds with writers like London, Carl Sandburg, Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Clifford Odets, Theodore Dreiser, and John Steinbeck. I am wired to care about the people who are struggling, not the idle rich. And so I always vote Democrat, though invariably with reservations and distrust. If there was an instrument besides a centralized, cold, distant, corrupt, inept and inefficient government that could level the playing field, I would be most receptive. People who work on devising those kinds of solutions are my heroes.

And so I want to have my cake and eat it, too. And this is true of most Americans, I think. Once, relatively speaking, this country had no services and no taxes. Then for a while in the 20th century, there were services and taxes. And then, since Reagan, the vast majority of Americans seem to want services, but no taxes. That’s not a good place to be in. Something’s got to give. Bernie was the first politician to talk straight to the American people in a long while. Greater taxation is coming. It has to. If not that? War: war for plunder or war with our creditors. Or SURRENDER to our creditors.  It’s either reduction in spending or one of those outcomes, because what else is there? Crack a history book!

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But we live in this dream world of escapism and illusion and pleasure. Americans have always been Utopians. It has driven each stage of progress, and it almost always comes with self-contradictions and willful blindness about same. I love reading about 19th century radicals because their naivete allowed them to dream big about solutions — bigger than we’ll ever be able to dream. In the wake of the Reformation and the American and French Revolutions you had all these movements brewing in the same cauldron: Feminism, Abolitionism, Spiritualism, Transcendentalism, Free Love, the Second Great Awakening — and Socialism was one of these. Countless thinkers espoused one or more or all of these often at the same time. People formed societies, lived in Utopian communities like Oneida and Brook Farm or, for that matter, the State of Utah, all to one degree or another revisitations of the original idea of Plymouth. (Such communities have generally failed historically because no one wants to do the work or pay the bills or follow the rules — or they run afoul of outsiders). The descendants of all these movements are all around us, and occasionally they stir up trouble, but for the most part the mainstream steers clear of their more radical expressions.

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But the thing that especially interests me about that period was their ability for their heads to contain those perennial contradictory impulses: utopianism and ani-authoritarianism, socialism and anarchism. To read 19th century free thinkers like Josiah Warren or Benjamin Tucker or Lysander Spooner or Voltairine de Clayre is to have your head expanded about possibilities. I feel like Abbie Hoffman was in their mold. He knew that he hated the Vietnam War, which enriched the privileged and disproportionately hurt the poor. He knew that he wanted fairness and civil rights. But this man, this activist (essentially a performance artist), had he lived to a ripe old age, was never going to, say, sit in Congress or run a foundation or an agency or something to effect his changes. He detested those trappings. The difference is the difference between Thomas Paine or Sam Adams…and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Centuries down the line (and much as de Toqueville had predicted) all imagination has been boiled out of our governing class. Mainstream politics has gotten farther than ever away from the deep American strain of idealism in recent years, to the point where the public doesn’t even seem to know it existed any more.

I can’t tell you how many people have said to me, “Left libertarian? Isn’t that a contradiction?” Uh, nope, at least not in my heart. I just haven’t figured out HOW. There’s property rights, the foundation of all our freedoms, i.e. The Pursuit of Happiness. And there’s the goal of philosophy for the Benthamites, “The Greatest Happiness for the Greatest Number.” I want ’em both, but like matter and energy in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle they can’t be observed to exist at the same time, at least in their pure form.

One possible solution for a compromise between intrusive, distant government and individual rights (because we have an open mind) is anarcho-syndicalism, or communes or mini-states of the type we described above. But that quickly raises the question of what, in practice, is to stop them from being mini-tyrannies themselves? I think we have had our answer in recent years: nothing. And thus all manner of human rights abuses can happen in such communities (against women, against children, against laborers) and then you get a conflict with the state in which I am chagrined to find myself 100% on the side of the state. There are certain standards for human rights which aren’t just Federal, they’re Universal. Who is going to enforce them (and I want them enforced)? If you want the Gummint off’n your back just so you can hit your kids and womenfolk and sech because you think that’s what a “Man” gets to do, well, that ain’t happenin’.

Yet, whether you like it or not the Right has ideas as well, often good and important ones, however much you care to deny it. Often many on their side hold the ideas for the wrong reasons, but that’s just guilt by association. For example, I’m someone who believes that bureaucracy (from multiple sources: each layer of government, each regulatory agency, unions etc etc etc) amounts to a human rights issue, once you tally up its toll in lost productivity, harm to the economy, etc. Jobs are lost, businesses fail, and scarce resources (something you should care about, environmentalists) are squandered due to outmoded, contradictory, obsolete, and merely unduly burdensome regulations. Almost without fail, the intentions of the regulations are coming from a good place, so summarily deregulating probably isn’t the answer. But that doesn’t mean the concern ought to be dismissed. It is a legitimate, even an urgent concern. Solving this problem, essentially a problem of structure and organization and thus theoretically solvable, would free up billions of dollars in lost wealth and resources.

I believe in being open to solutions, whatever their source, Left, Right, or in-between. Bernie and others started a buzz recently about the “Nordic Model”.  In response came a gleeful counterpunch from the Right, in which they pointed out that the Scandinavian nations and Finland aren’t strictly socialist — in many respects, their economies are even freer (i.e. more capitalist-friendly) than ours are. And then — like a bunch of Ptolemys — the commentators went on to take that as a REFUTATION of holding the Nordic systems up as a model. Uh…shouldn’t those facts make you guys MORE amenable to learning from what they do? Some kind of mixed economy seems the inevitable thing we are striving for. All we are looking for is a better mix. Unless, you’re not. Once upon a time, we were a forward looking nation. Personally, I would never want the word “paleolithic” attached to my name. And in that spirit of moving on, I now put this rambling radical rumination to rest.

 

R.I.P. Arthur Hiller

Posted in Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , on August 17, 2016 by travsd

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Just heard that Arthur Hiller has passed away at the age of 92. I had been planning a post on this interesting director for a while. It occurred to me a few months ago that certain of his films add up to a case for him as a comic auteur of sorts. Two of his films, The Out of Towners (1970) and The In Laws (1979) are among the funniest feature films of modern times — I have laughed so hard at both of those movies I gave myself bellyaches. And The Hospital (1971) is one of my favorite satires/ black comedies; and a worthy warm-up for screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s next outing in the genre, Network. I’ve never been crazy about Silver Streak (1976) but it has to be acknowledged that it was one of the most SUCCESSFUL comedies of its day, is very expertly made, and forever altered the screen careers of both Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Nearly as successful was his 80’s comedy Outrageous Fortune (1987) with Shelly Long and Bette Midler. The common denominator among many of his best comedies was interplay between two top notch comedy co-stars. Also worth mentioning in the comedy context are his earlier collaboration with Chayefsky, The Americanization of Emily (1964), Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite (1971), and that strange, factually challenged bio-pic of one of the screen’s greatest comedians W.C. Fields and Me (1976). And earlier oddments like Popi (1969) with frequent collaborator Alan Arkin and The Tiger Makes Out (1967) with Eli Wallach as a guy who’s trying to pick out a woman to kidnap.

He maybe hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves because there is a hit or miss quality to his career overall. It seems like lightning only struck for him occasionally. His biggest success of all was of course the smash hit weepie Love Story (1970), which now seems more of a dated curiosity than a perennial classic. The seventies proved to be his truly solid decade. After that, for the most part he was seriously off his game. One thinks of Author! Author! (1982) as the nadir of Al Pacino’s career prior to his comeback a few years later. There followed lots of other weak outings like Romantic Comedy (1983); The Lonely Guy (1984), which was the first true signal to me of how disappointing Steve Martin’s career was going to be; and the — well, unfortunate — See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). And we’ll not speak ill of the dead by talking about the movies that came after.

But at his height, as we say, very few film-makers ever made me laugh as hard as he did in a small handful of comedies.  I can’t think of a better way to celebrate his life than by watching those films right now! And maybe checking out some of his interesting films I still haven’t seen…

Troll Museum Resurrection!

Posted in Art Stars, SOCIAL EVENTS, VISUAL ART, Women with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2016 by travsd

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Great fun last night at the Chinatown Soup gallery for the gala opening of the one-week re-appearance of Rev Jen’s Troll Museum. The Museum (which contains more trolls than you will find any place outside their natural Scandinavian stomping grounds) was formerly ensconced in Rev Jen’s pad, but both she and the trolls were evicted a few weeks ago. They need your support; an easy and pleasurable way to do it is to swing by the gallery on Lower Orchard Street and make a donation or buy some of Rev Jen’s art. Here’s some of what and whom we saw last night. All art is by the cosmically brilliant Rev Jen:

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Old friend and long-time supporter CC John is the guy with the brewski. He took most of the photos and videos of my American Vaudeville Theatre’s earliest years

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Porno Jim was there with his pooch in a bag, Bowie

 

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Pay the toll to the troll!

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Portrait of the Artist as Out of Con-TROLL. Though I’ve known and occasionally worked with her for going on 20 years these pictures we took last night are the only photos I know of that contain us both. We decided to make them count. ALL POWER TO THE REV!

 

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