Tuesday, August 29, 2023
Wednesday, August 23, 2023
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I don't understand most of the reviews here. This book is hardly 'about' Joe Gould. It's about a period in America - a literary period barely detached from Lepore's Harvard, during global cultural and economic and political upheaval. It makes a kind of meta-history by way of an apparently brilliant but psychologically troubled individual. The meta part is that our subject was inventing a kind of history - oral history - which has since become important. A move away from artifacts, written records, and big players to history as it's being written on the streets.
Lepore documents the famous people around Gould and their writings regarding him, which make him seem hardly more strange than they were. Ezra Pound promoting fascism from Italy, and writing in some Greenwich Village insider patois. William Carlos Williams dispensing medicine. EE Cummings writing correspondence the same way he wrote poetry. A black artist who was Gould's love object who probably destroyed much of her own work. Gould's disgusting traits did at least have a post-hoc psychological diagnosis about them. He wasn't just a product of his times. But his literary friends were. All of their behaviors , in writing as well, were the output of the history documented here.
Lepore's writing - the way it enters the time - might make you think that she herself was being affected by the craziness, in the process of her writing; the proto-beat sensibility. Allen Ginsberg appears accurately in her almost psychedelic fugue pastiche epilogue, looking back at what she had entered and was pulling away from. She had clearly had enough. To continue on could only induce a kind of mania. Things would keep showing up as quickly as they were receding. Facts galore.
There must have been something brilliant about Gould. Despite his lousy hardscrabble appearance, other brilliant people wanted to know him and keep tabs on him. His fame was genuine, as was his actual presence for the people who walked the streets and frequented the dives that he did.
Gould's fame was thanks to stories in Lepore's own New Yorker. Those stories in that time represented a very different approach (from Lepore's) to the present truth, which also implies how history was being written. That way of writing history almost feels like the way that psychiatry was being practiced - remove teeth and all unnecessary organs including parts of the brain and call the resulting calmed and cleaned-out patient a success. We want our history the same way.
I thought I knew the people and the period, but I couldn't have known them without this excursion into Joe Gould's Teeth.
Ironically enough I'd call this art as much as history. I say ironically because it implicates much history as artifice or outright lying. History is not supposed to be art. It's supposed to be depictive, schematic, accurate. Lepore accomplishes at least the analog of a complete oral history by bringing an atmosphere back to life. There were hardly any facts about it. But what she saw and what we see in reading is accurate. Trued by details. Enhanced by sharp vision through a fog of absence. Connecting iota dots.
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Tuesday, August 22, 2023
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm just not there yet. The book is a lovely read. There is much to learn here. But I still want to know how to locate the self which aligns with mountaintop adventure and superstar rock bands and living in the orbit of Jackson Wyoming while remaining mostly helpless among the lure of shikse blonds and drugs. But the man does grow.
Shlim is honest in his self-disclosure, and holds back subtly with his crowing about himself. I read the book because my sister learned about it from a friend whose son goes or went to school with the author's daughter. My sister worked in the Katmandu clinic with the author, and has a very difficult mountain route in Patagonia named after her. Caw Caw!
She wanted my take. The world the book describes is entirely familiar to her. But she wasn't a part of the story. Still, I wanted to learn about her as much as to learn what the author had to teach. She wanted me to check her mild skepticism.
Sis has dragged me up enough mountains to be certain that I don't want that particular kind of exposure. My own youthful passions led me under or over water, or passing through social spaces in some conveyance about the size of a sailboat cabin without having to engage too closely. I do share motorcycling with the author. And I do still aspire to some sort of Buddhist detachment, though my particular journey leaves me, still, detached from the derivative of religion. I'll take my Buddhism raw.
Sis and I wonder about the ego thing. Ego tempered by compassion, sure, but wanting more attention than either of us could endure, each modestly, ahem, accomplished in our own ways. Now he has Tibetan Tantric monks wanting attention. Can that be right? By happenstance I once visited the loosely related place near Cooperstown that Shlim had a vague hand in. I was stunned. I was a tourist passer-by.
There is irony here which might be beyond the author's awareness. But he tries convincingly hard to get beyond that.
I must celebrate this dose of Buddhism as among those medicines which our American society so desperately needs. And I must celebrate the man who administers it. The clinic he ran and where my sister worked was set up for trekkers from the first world drawn to that spectacular part of the world. And, strange though it may seem, detached monks also want good doctors. But who has contaminated whom?
I am as skeptical about perduring karmic self as I am about the Christian immortal soul which has a personal connection to a personal God. But each approach does ensure a morality which moves well beyond our deadly rational materialism. I also believe in mind over matter. I have a little trouble with the agency thing. After reading, I still don't know where the author stands. But then I don't know where I stand. Our Western read of agency makes it into amoral problem-solving. Neither I nor the author can buy that anymore. Medicine, like worldy success, is as much luck as prowess.
Shlim takes the kinds of outrageous coincidence that a denizen of Buffalo - the biggest small town in the world - takes for granted, as evidence for a kind of truth. If I sit down with ten strangers here, the connections among us explode almost exponentially. That composes some sort of godhead, as does my sister's lingering connection to someone she'd almost forgotten.
No wonder I mostly hide out. Like seeing a Yale classmate on the street in Beijing and still not wanting to say hi. Especially there. But does coincidence mean more when it's exotic?
Plenty of charlatans represent exotic truths as the salve that we require. This guy is no charlatan. But aren't we all charlatans to ourselves? I sure do harbor my own sorts of grandiosity. I tuck it away beyond what I will ever do for pay and sure don't want to be recognized for it. It is a shame that I must hide.
Or do I? Thank goodness English so easily loses referents.
The irony here between author and book exceeds my credibility threshold by just a tad. There is a certain pleasure to be derived from literary writing where the author is evidently as drawn as is the reader. That may be present here, but the book is not literature.
That is my puzzle. I want my author to lose agency. But this is an autobiography. Is my sister jealous? Absolutely not. Left out? Nope. Sour grapes? Not a bit. Me? I don't know.
In America we say 'congratulations' on a new car. Surely congratulations are in order for a new book. I have no standing. I don't want a new car, but do I want condolence for the troubles of my old one? Do I want recognition for holding back? I might.
Here is the central conceit: A drop of compassion won't put out the fire of anger. But many drops compose a gentle rain which can. Here is a gusher in this book. I congratulate the author. Nice book! Nice life!
Shall I return as a karmic worm that my suffering shall be brief? Is that just starting over? Rinpoche has so much responsibility. To meditate. Which must mean to conjoin with the all. Which just seems irresponsible to a rational materialist American success story. Meditation is harder than it looks. Which is it Martha? Truth or illusion? The Way that can be spoken is not the eternal Way.
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Thursday, August 10, 2023
As a general rule, I am in accord with most lefty thinking. The US is a mostly evil hegemonic empire which imposes our (supposed) will upon the rest of the world. The media acts as a cheerleader for this imperial program. And our so-called democracy is mostly theater as a front for all this evil.
But the fact is I vote. I champion voting. I care about the differences between Republican and Democrat, no matter how much I might agree with Ralph Nader (R.I.P., nearly) that they are really as different as Coke and Pepsi.
I think that's because, on a local level, I find people to be earnest and honest and friendly and American. I still go misty eyed about America. Maybe all of us are nice until we become distracted by the false choices of national politics. And, sadly, national politics now seeps back down to the local level. But even at the national level it's not that hard to tell that Joe Biden is a far more decent human being than Donald Trump is.
The trouble is that just as we want our bankers to be hardnosed, we don't think decency even matters anymore in our wonderful life.
Or is it really that easy? We have been pretty well trained by now to look past what is literally being told us. Advertising has inured us, with politics but a short step behind. If the spokesperson for a party can be captured behind the lines saying repugnant or incomprehensible things these can be spun to whatever level of evil is desired.
At a very local level, I am an outlier for not being able to purchase plastic storage bags. They feel evil to me, and I just can't. But a more reasonable response might be that their usage is so ubiquitous that my individual actions are less significant than a drop of water in the ocean. Reserving perhaps a little anger that we, individually, are held accountable, or hold ourselves accountable, to place "recyclables" in the right bin or pile.
But hey the successful marketing of plastic bags of all sorts made it possible to economize on plastic parts for cars, surgical equipment, durable housing parts, plumbing and all the rest. The entire industry needed that jump-start, and even I can't seem to find a way around using plastic disposal bags. I accept that my feelings about plastic are not rational. I accept that I'm weird.
On some level we know that we can't muster up the right decidering firepower to make the right decisions at the macro-level where they count. We know that all the little decisions will be packaged up into a palatable platform filled with objectionable content as required to gerrymander the right number of voters. Up or down between and among a very few choices is what we call democracy.
And many of us are concerned that China, for instance, though certainly not Russia, has formed a political system which can make the right decisions at the macro-scale. They built out a high-speed rail infrastructure at a higher relative speed than the trains go. Like a decade. We can't even get started.
China's goals for cleaning up the environment also go at warp speed, and they bulged the curve for college attendance as fast as they built the rail system.
But yeah, their economy can't keep pace with ours, right? Because ours runs on Artificial Intelligence. So long as every little decision is rendered up for the good of the corporate whole, we win every time. China still requires party representation among the leadership of companies larger than a certain (very small) size, and among college leadership. In theory no worse than our theories about democracy, this representation ensures that the people's interests will be attended to. While we celebrate our free speech. Which gives us some kind of absolute right now, to tell whatever lies we wish, so long as it's conceivable that we might believe them ourselves and they don't hurt anyone. Like using a plastic storage bag doesn't hurt anyone.
What's missing in both computer and corporate artificial intelligence are the recognizable qualities of actual life; things like love, emotion more generally, fellow feeling for fellow humans.
Can we fix this? Seems doubtful, doesn't it?
Words like liberal and progress and modern and woke have lost any common meaning. Sometimes it feels as though we have turned a corner and are hurtling back into the past. We forget that life as it is now has never been so secure. But our life-span is shrinking. Fascist autocracy is making a global comeback (at least it makes all decisions easier). World war seems right around the global warming corner. The stresses have become too great, and they're palpable now in such a global way that global really does seem suddenly local. What "natural" disaster will I suffer here and now then?
I have friendly feelings toward most people and can't even hold the oligarchs as accountable as I should. Maybe that's because I know some of them, and they're mostly really nice. Despite their objectionable political beliefs. Most oligarchic leaders actually do what they feel will optimize the outcome for most people. Sure, those decisions are embedded in a world-view which may be different than yours or mine, but that, in and of itself, doesn't make the individuals evil. No matter what Hollywood caricatures might have you believe.
Now I am weird in many many ways. I agree that the cost/benefit ratio for my plastic bag decidering is ridiculously minuscule. I'm also not all that excited about not eating meat. To me, that's a kind of misplaced and highly individualized kind of mawkish sentimentality about how nature works. But hey, we shouldn't cede so much of our individual initiative upward to the political deciders, so all the more power to you mammalian sentimentalists!
What I do get exercised about is the environmental cost of meat, and yes, the disgusting way in which we raise it. But in the aggregate, as my bestie indi.ca tells me (kidding, I'm too lowly for his awareness) we've been pretty good at decimating forests and species and peoples with the renewable and non-polluting technologies of sail and horse and buggy. Plus guns.
But maybe the weirdest thing about me is that I believe that physics matters to politics. Yup, I sure do.
Our physics is premised on a kind of primordial objectivity; that things at the level of fundamental physics will be as they are regardless of what we might think or feel about. Sure, we all know that this bedrock has been unsettled somewhat. We tag the unsettling with names like Einstein and Schroedinger and Heisenberg and vaguely suppose that these incursions of subjectivity on reality only matter at the remove of microscopes or telescopes are extravagant mathematical abstraction.
But, I say, what if our very notion and our experience of time is not a property of the objective physical world? Whatever else we know or don't know, time marches forward with certainty. We can measure it to increments so small that our clocks can be accurate for thousands if not millions of years. What could possibly explain this vast conspiracy of the whole if not its objective physical reality?
Well, life is also objectively real. We carry around with us narrative genetic markers which were cobbled together as many eons ago as we can reasonably claim for all of creation (time becomes extravagantly relative as you approach beginning or end times like the big bang or the apocalypse (whatever that means). Immortality anyone? My makeup partakes literally of nearly all our living forebears (using the same extravagant rounding process).
I am not the culmination of this grand summation because of my conscious intelligence. What I might say instead is that I embody the grandest potential for love since the beginning of time. That right there is time's direction, defined by the direction of evolution, no matter what Stephen Jay Gould might have said about it. Random might not be random on such a grand scale.
Actually, it can't be random. There is life. I wonder why we anglo objectivist imperialists can't accept that life isn't rando except sometimes once a week in a patriarchal church?
Now potential for love is a scary scary thing to own. I myself have been so beaten down by trying that, in a process which might be likened to PTSD, I can't even pursue another close relationship. No wonder we conjur up what God wants of us, and sometimes even claim to hear his actual commands, if not His voice. Deciding on our own is that scary.
Once upon a time, I, like many of my acquaintance, thought that it would be nice to bring religion up to date. End the irrational atavistic claims which are so transparently for an earlier, unscientific, age. But now, in these particular global-seeming end times, I want to say that we should return our beliefs to their most primitive roots.
There is god. Is all. Not a God, not The God, not a named or unnamable god, and certainly not a personal god. But there is god and we know it and god is the cosmic mind-space which is only love, which is all that there is.
You can't really go more primally primitive than that. Paleo god. The godhead. The "Force" which makes random happenstance so often meaningful, make of it what we shall and will.
And I think this fact must be incorporated into physics at the fundamental level. There is no reason why life has evolved without it.
And bizarrely and perversely perhaps, I think digital large language model artificial intelligence will be part of what pushes us across that boundary back to belief. It will make obvious what humans are and aren't and will highlight the responsibilities we've been abdicating.
And it will highlight what we must inject back in to our political decidering. Not the angry emotion of people afraid to decide for themselves. But the compassionate moves toward regulating all the AI.
I won't repeat myself here, but in lots of places on this blog I have gone into some detail about the physics. Perhaps I'll even find a way to prove that LLMAI (large language model - digital - artificial intelligence) is homologous to corporate and political AI. Digital means, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson or My Fair Lady, a bot is just like a human. Just remove the emotion. Digital, by definition, can't jack in to cosmic mind.
I have long believed that the mind is built on language, and that written language has ushered in our wonderful epoch of science. But we express only hubris if and when we think that all can be comprehended. And then we carry on to rationalize horrific choices. And yes, the emotive mob (especially with guns) is terrifying. But the AI of non-decision (with more guns) is more terrifying still.
We abdicate our responsibilities as often in the Name of God as we do for greed or personal gain. When we think that we are nothing and can do nothing it is we who have forsaken god and not the other way around. Groupthink Christianity is far more dangerous than any AI you can imagine. A codpiece over rampant lust for orderliness. And we become as amoral as bacteria, who are largely beneficent nonetheless. A fascist order is a one-way dead-end street.
Evil is relative to our potential. Our potential for good is far greater than whatever Oppenheimer envisioned. But we have to get it together. How about we start with more and better regulation on the limits of corporate (internally fascist) AI? How about we keep our resolve to leave religion out of government? How about we get rid of guns altogether, especially in our sci-fi epics? How about we communicate with one another without algorithms to point the way? How about we re-socialize those parts of the economy with no elasticity to demand? (Infrastructure, water, power, internet, education, healthcare - you get the idea). Econ 101. Which also means to stop creating demand in excess of carrying capacity.
And we have to go cold turkey on petro power without waiting for the ultimate meltdown of bringing solar generation down to earth so that we can carry on as we are. Our current arrangements are not a model for any future imaginable or desirable. We have to be open to growth on a better model. Growth that leads to maturity, and not the growth of infantile oligarchs who can sculpt their perfect private worlds on the backs of servile sycophants. Not an objectified projection of unnatural technologies. Meaning not cut off from the godhead, stupid!
Baby steps. My inspiration is my granddaughter.