Feb 02 2009
For regular people (whatever the heck “regular” means), Happy Groundhog Day! If you’re a Christian, then Happy Candlemas. For my Pagan friends, Happy Imbolc! But if you’re just a crusty old Celtic traditionalist type like me, then happy Lá Fhéile Bríghde! (Brighid’s Feast Day). Since Brighid is the patroness of writers, naturally I’ll be celebrating her day with much feasting and libations and getting some writing done.
Jan 28 2009
.. the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats went down into the hollow hills to rest with his ancestors.
Can anyone read those last two ineffable lines from his most famous poem without getting a cold chill? I’ve never been able to. Hell, I’m reading them right this second and they’re totally freaking me out.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Jan 26 2009
Jon and I were in agreement that the “inaugural poem” was a pedestrian, mundane bit of instantly-forgettable fluff, suitable for lulling small children (and not a few adults) to sleep, but not good for much else. I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am that Jon and I aren’t alone.
… it was no surprise to hear Alexander begin her poem today with a cliché (“Each day we go about our business”), before going on to tell the nation “I know there’s something better down the road”; and pose the knotty question, “What if the mightiest word is ‘love’?”; and conclude with a classic instance of elegant variation: “on the brink, on the brim, on the cusp.” The poem’s argument was as hard to remember as its language; it dissolved at once into the circumambient solemnity. Alexander has reminded us of what Angelou’s, Williams’s, and even Robert Frost’s inauguration poems already proved: that the poet’s place is not on the platform but in the crowd …
Jan 20 2009
Decades ago – long before I became gray and respectable – I was a big fan of the punk rock band Devo. I found myself remembering their second album just now; specifically, the title of the album: “Duty Now For The Future.” Today, that phrase seems to carry an unexpected weight; it seems pregnant with meaning and promise.
As I write these words, President Obama has just finished his inaugural address. It was an address for the ages, and yet one that was desperately needed at this particular time in our history. It pointed the way forward with resonant themes from a simpler and more honest time. The themes of duty, sacrifice, responsibility, obligation, and service.
To which I can only respond: it’s about time. Long past time, in fact. Long past time for Americans across the entire political spectrum (as well as those who consider themselves apolitical) to embody these ideas — ideas that have recently been misappropriated by the hard-right fringe of the body politic and used as blunt instruments of political demagoguery.
It’s a funny thing about America: almost no one talked about duties anymore. All we hear from Americans is the endless din about “rights.” The idea that our rights can exist in a social vacuum, without a corresponding set of duties, is a toxic idea that is poisoning America. We have come to believe that we are nothing more than individuals, and that as such all we need concern ourselves with is rights, and never with obligations.
Let’s talk about obligations for a change, and about duties. A philosophy that proclaims the idea that rights do not have their basis in duty and obligation must inevitably result in a sick, narcissistic citizenry, a citizenry from whom the endless, birds-nest cheeps of “Me! Me! Me! Me!” has reached deafening volume. It is time for less talk about our rights as citizens, and more talk about our duties as citizens.
Obama is not calling America to service because such service is “needed” in any practical sense. He is calling for service, and sacrifice, and a sense of obligation because these are the rhetorical clarion calls by which one inculcates a sense of shared duties and national solidarity, without which no healthy, committed society can be built or surv
Jan 16 2009
Goodbye, George. It’s time for you to go. Long past time, to be blunt. The low, shameful years during which you strutted and fretted upon the world stage, full of sound and fury but signifying less than nothing, are finally over. And what an eight years they have been! They were certainly the most eventful period in my lifetime — and I’m old enough to remember the Nixon era. It feels strange now, at the end, to be so completely indifferent to you and anything you might have left to say or do. All I can manage now is a sense of weary resignation at the prospect of cleaning up the mess you’ve left behind. You’ve left us so much to be angry about, if we only had the energy to be angry.
Terrorism? You’re 0-1 on the terrorism front, George. Much as you’d like us to believe that you magically appeared on the scene on 9/12/01 and took charge, the simple fact is that the attacks of 9/11 took place eight months into your watch. You “own” them, George – and you own the consequences.
Your self-described role as “war president,” a role you embraced with such juvenile abandon? You’re 0-2 there. Iraq, that monument to ego and hubris, remains a question mark; my personal sense is that, within a couple of years after we complete our withdrawal, the locals will go back to slaughtering each other with the same gusto with which they’ve slaughtered each other for 1500 years. As for Afghanistan, the good war, the war that a majority of Americans – including me – believe we needed to fight, things there are going very badly indeed. Your hand-picked puppet, Ahmid Kharzai, has been reduced to nothing more than the de facto mayor of Kabul, and an independent analysis recently concluded that the Taliban have managed to put “a stranglehold around Kabul.” Afghanistan cannot end well, and history will blame your pointless sideshow in Iraq for the loss.
Let’s turn to the economy, George. The consequences of particular brand of laissez-faire, buccaneer Capitalism has forced the pundits and economists to keep reaching farther and farther back in American history to find comparisons. In some cases, they’ve had to reach all the way back to those halcyon days of Herbert Hoover to find equivalent levels of damage to our economic structure inflicted by the man in the White House. Think of it, George: for centuries to come, historians will mention your name in the same breath as Herbert Hoover.
And looming over all of it, possibly the greatest obscenity of your entire time with us, is the disaster known as “Katrina.” What made it a disaster was your sad, laughable (non) response to the crisis; if there was ever a moment when the phrase “crime of omission” had meaning, it was in August 2005.
It’s an odd thing, George: if one were of a paranoid mindset, one might wonder: do you actually hate America? It’s a question that really does need to be asked, so complete and all-encompassing has been the damage you have inflicted on America in your relatively brief time at the helm.
As you strut off into the sunset in your trademark plenty-tough kippy-ki-yay cowboy fashion, grinning that inane, pointless grin of yours, many millions of us who were foolish enough to open the door and let you in back in 2000 struggle to find a way to forgive ourselves for playing a part, however small, in all the damage that you have inflicted on our country and on our world.
Your hour upon the stage is over, George. Finally, and forever – go!
Jan 16 2009
I have very little compunction about taking your artistic vision and twisting it into something readable- Number Nine, Number Nine, Number Nine, Number Nine
Veteran actor Patrick McGoohan died today at the age of 80. I will always remember him for that one brilliant season of his life, that “Citizen Kane” moment when he created, from sheer talent, drive, and force of will, the most disturbing and thoughtful TV series ever: “The Prisoner.”
The first time the series was broadcast here in the US, I sat riveted for every episode. In the closing minutes of the last episode, I had to tear myself away and run to the bathroom, and so did not get to see the final, shattering revelation in which we discover the answer to the question that haunts the opening credits of every episode: “Who is Number 1?” (my mother saw it, but she refused to tell me — she just smirked and winked). Many years later, when the series re-ran, I caught it and this time made sure not to miss the end of the last episode. Once I realized what I had just seen, I thought to myself: “Of course. Who else could Number 1 have been?”
In honor of McGoohan?s masterwork, I resurrected an essay I wrote back in early 2003; it’s the first sustained piece I wrote after coming back to writing after a (30-year) “hiatus” from writing.
Jan 11 2009
Apparently the fairly graphic representation of the agonies of The Cross
were “upsetting the children” and was, in theirwords, a “put-off.” Now, I’ll admit I’ve been away from Mother Church for awhile, but as a good Irish Catholic boy,
I seem to recall being told over and over again that the unimaginable agonies of Jesus on The Cross were the point of Christianity; his agonies and suffering were what redeemed humanity. Silly little bake-sale Christians; when they say things like “we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross,” we realize that they’ve lost any reverence for — hell, any understanding of — the broken, tortured body that for 2000 years was the central truth of their faith.
A statue of the crucifixion has been taken down from its perch on a church in Sussex because it was scaring local children and deterring worshippers, a vicar admitted today.
Souter, formerly a cell biologist, said: “The crucifix expressed suffering, torment, pain and anguish. It was a scary image, particularly for children. Parents didn’t want to walk past it with their kids, because they found it so horrifying.
“It wasn’t a suitable image for the outside of a church wanting to welcome worshippers. In fact, it was a real put-off.
“We’re all about hope, encouragement and the joy of the Christian faith. We want to communicate good news, not bad news, so we need a more uplifting and inspiring symbol than execution on a cross.”
Jan 11 2009
Apropos of nothing in particular, but it’s the kind of thing I’ve been working on since the election (a period of intellectual recreation before the hard work ahead), so I figured I’d share. Hope it amuses …
Everybody thinks that my ancestors the Irish are, along with the Italians and the Spanish, the most Catholic people in Europe. I’m starting to wonder. I’ve been researching a lot lately (the whole “getting in touch with one’s ancient roots” thing), and last night I had a moment of Zen reading this article about the oddly-named “pattern days.” First time I heard of them, I thought “oh you whacky, Jesus-smitten Micks, any excuse to worship some 3rd-rate Saint.” Then I read this article and discovered that “pattern” was a slur of “patrun,” which was a slur of “patron,” as in patron “saint” of a particular place. Those places turned out to be the same wells, lakes, and high places (especially giant burial mounds, the “hollow hills” of folklore) that the people visited and celebrated in the pre-Christian days. And it hit me like a revelation: oh, you clever Irish bastards! You subverted Mother Church and held onto your old traditions, while simultaneously avoiding nasty things like The Inquisition! A wink and a nod to the local cleric (who probably joined in the celebrations, since he was usually a local boy) and the archbishop back in Dublin is none the wiser. Brilliant!
The description of a “pattern day” festival from the early 1800s really brings home the joyous, community feel, and gives some vague sense of what wonderful things the original festivals must have been back in the day. I wonder if we didn’t lose something important when we lost these kinds of happy, communitarian celebrations.
cf also the intriguing and suspicious “Order of Bridget” in Kildaire who kept “Saint” Brigit’s sacred fire burning for centuries. What kind of freaking Christian Saint has sacred fires in her honor?
Dec 13 2008
An amusing little philosophical bon-bon having zero relationship to anything political. We might as well amuse ourselves from now till election day, because after that I expect we’ll be back to work trying to change the country. So take it for what it’s worth and have a little mental fun with it …
Originally published at http://www.rescogitans.sdu.dk/…
American mystic and writer Robert M. Pirsig struggled mightily with the question of
how to interrogate the Unspeakable within the mental constraints of Western logical discourse. This struggle took him on an internal journey far from his Midwest, mid-century home, eventually pushing him into the unknown country of mental illness and involuntary commitment. I believe that what Pirsig was pursuing was not an empty Nothing, a no-thing. It was a full, even overfull Nothing, for which he struggled in vain to find a name and a vocabulary. I have taken to calling it the ‘over-full Nothing’ and will continue to use that term here to indicate when we are speaking of Nothing as an ontological term. Pirsig would come to believe that the closest approach to what he was trying to articulate could be found in the Tao, and indeed the Tao’s mapping to the characteristics of this ‘over-full Nothing’ was quite close. However, he failed to latch onto the full significance of something he noted in passing: the striking similarities between his thought and the system of the important Pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides. We will look in detail at the most influential deployment of the Parmenidean ‘over-full Nothing’, in Plato’s infamously obscure dialogue The Parmenides. Plato’s attempt to wrap it in logical discourse runs aground for the same reason that Pirsig’s attempt to do so ran aground 2500 years later. Both of their attempts to encapsulate the ‘over-full Nothing’ within language and logic eventually collapse into silence in the face of that of which nothing can be said.
Nov 22 2008
Crossposted at http://StephenJGallagher.blogs…
An obscure internet radio station led me to American symphonic composer Gloria Coates, creator of some of the most relentlessly bleak music I’ve ever experienced. On the amazon.com page for one of her symphonies I saw a “listmania” item on the left side of the page. This is a user-produced feature of Amazon, sort of “If you like this, you’re gonna love the items on my list!” It was the title of the list that got the hook in me and kept gnawing away at me for the next several months.
Nov 11 2008
My mother was one of those one million Americans that bought the Great Books (and let me tell you, she had to do without a lot to scrape together the $$$). I wouldn’t have survived my high school years without them; they were my friends. It’s a sad commentary on the postmodern dumbing-down of America (the entire West, for that matter) that no one can talk about the Great Books without putting those infuriating “air quotes” around the word “Great”. The fact is, they are great, and they’ll be great long after “Desperate Housewives” and Eminem (see below) have stopped being the kind of sad, degrading memories that makes you feel just a little bit soiled knowing that you ever devoted a single brain cell to thinking about them. Kant, Hume, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, and even that annoying and consistently wrong Athenian elitist named Plato, whose Great Books volume still has a place of honor on my bookshelf, where I take it down every year or two to write yet another screed attacking yet another aspect of Plato’s wrong-wrong-wronnnnnnggggggg thought. (my personal feeling about Plato is this: if Plato doesn’t infuriate you to the point where you stand up and kick furniture, then you really haven’t understood him …).
Molly Rothenberg, a student at St. John’s in Annapolis, Md., told Mr. Beam of comparing notes when she was a sophomore with a fellow graduate of the public high school in Cambridge, Mass. St. John’s sophomores study works by such authors as Aristotle, Tacitus and Shakespeare. Her friend was attending Bates College in Maine. “She told me they were studying Rhetoric,” Ms. Rothenberg said, “and they would be watching episodes of ‘Desperate Housewives’ and listening to Eminem. They were going to analyze it. I just laughed. What could I say?”
Nov 11 2008
It’s a quiet time now, as we wait for the transition to happen and our new President to let us know what duties and obligations we citizens have in terms of helping out. A good time for some intellectual recreation with some things other than the day’s political news for a change. Hope you enjoy …
What was Indochina? What did it mean? And what visual images suggest themselves? For me, I have never been able to shake the image in Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now” of the American Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who tells his staff that a seaside village with wonderful surfing conditions is to be bombed flat so that he and his staff can get a bit of surfing in before dinner. When one of his offers warns him that Charlie controls that village, Kilgore screams: “Charlie don’t surf!” It is self-evident and rational that he has a RIGHT to that beach because he can make better use of it. Kilgore’s proclamation is the paradigmatic image of one type of rationality, the type of rationality that manufactures sensible alibis for horrific acts. The rationale he manufactures to justify his right to a particular stretch of beach is really no more or less dubious than the alibis that our first protagonist, Robert McNamara, offered during the American misadventure in Indochina. Our other protagonist, Coppola’s fictional Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, faces the same conditions as does McNamara, but Kurtz’s refusal to tolerate what he calls “the stench of lies” drives him insane and then kills him.