Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Interpretive Note On Heart Of Darkness


So I finished rereading Heart Of Darkness. I'm again fighting not to drown in the many-sidedness of its theme as I'm yanked back to the same problem I had 50 years ago or so, of trying to work out its mind-stretching meaning.

Here's a small stab at that with two questions, the first bristling with its own internal questions.

First Question:

When Kurtz says "The horror! The horror!" what's he exactly, or, better, not exactly, saying? Is it a condemning judgment of the wild and murderous chaos that has overtaken him and what he has done in that? Or is it a final realization, if he has not realized it before, that in his path from ambitious, enlightened, piety-filled, multi talented, intellectual European liberal to a heedless, savagely wanton, murdering, despot-God to the natives who worship him, his existence, all that he has done, is without meaning? Does he dying behold into the absurdity of the world? 

Could it be both? Is it something else? Do the first two exclude each other on the basis that the latter, seeing nihilism, precludes any moral judgment, that meaninglessness is literally the case? Or does the first evidence such life destroying rapacity that the only conclusion can be that if man can do such evil, then nothing morally matters. 

It's to be remembered that Marlow for all his condemnation of Kurtz is entranced by him, is in thrall to him, counts him remarkable, feels needful of defending him and keeping his meaning protected. It's to be remembered that much of this devotion comes from Kurtz's dying words, while Marlow then can say nothing. 

Here's my convoluted view. Camus in his afterward to The Stranger makes a big deal about Mersault's unflinching honesty and committment to his own truths, even at the possible cost of his life--he's an atheist; nothing really matters; he has no real feelings of remorse; we all die, so what's the point? But if it doesn't matter, as the world is absurd since we all die, then what matters this unflinching integrity that has Camus likening Mersault to a kind of Algerian Christ? What is the ground for virtue; why even privilege integrity? Isn't this the very fundamental and obvious contradiction in asburdism or nihilism? It's an intellectual abstraction entirely belied by our, all people's, experience and necessarily leads to its own reductio ad absurdum.

But Conrad, I argue, avoids this contradiction in Heart Of Darkness. When Kurtz repeats "The horror!" he intones his shocked realization of the harsh collapse of all things into abject meaningless and of the then murderous, rapacious sum of all that he has done. The meaninglessness is underlined by the manager's boy's announcement in a scathing tone of utter dismissiveness, "Mistah Kurtz—he dead."

But for Marlow, himself driven to the depths of existential despair by Kurtz who's “kicked himself loose of the earth" such that Marlow figuratively loses the sense of whether he's up or down, Kurtz's dying words offer him an awful truth. They offer him a clear glimpse into a terrifying, soul destroying abyss beyond judgments of good and evil but yet qualified by some inchoate sense of rightness signified by the capacity for judgment implicit in "The horror! The horror!" 

Second Question

It flows from the answer to the first. Why does Marlow in the end lie to Kurtz's "intended," allowing her to maintain the illusion of Kurt's shining goodness, that in the end Kurtz is the same man he was when he left fort the Congo? Marlow despises lies. The worst extrapolation from them is that all of normative life is a lie, just like the lie that rapacious imperialist purpose is imbued with high moral purpose. Marlow struggles against that extrapolation throughout. He fights a losing cause and loses himself in it until, as opposed to the master story teller who keeps his companions spell bound with his story throughout, he's, as noted, speechless at Kurtz's dying. Which is to say, he's without anything to say; which is to say, nothing means anything to him that's worth saying.

At the long last scene, as the room darkens about Marlow and Kurtz's intended, as she's still wearing black in grief a year later, he is physically revulsed by her clamoring devotion to her image of Kurtz. Marlow is revulsed by and torn between the prospects of shattering her illusion or lying to her, lies, most broadly, in one way implicating the meaninglessness of all things, but, in another way, keeping meaninglessness at bay by the myths, other lies, necessary to civilized life, protecting it from the heart of darkness. Marlow is double visioned. He has learned from Kurtz's dying words the yoked together paradox of the horror of the emptiness of things and the horror of depredation driving out all moral meaning, the latter dotted with the seeds of judgment. 

And so Marlow lies, allows the grieving lady her blatantly false image of Kurtz, in 180 degree contrast to the truth. And in this, doesn't Marlow make a small bid for some slight glimmer of life continuing amidst the enveloping darkness:

....The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness....?

Friday, December 2, 2016

A Note On George V. Higgins


Listen, I love George V. Higgins, and I must've read 90% of his 26/27/25 whatever books.

And what I love most is his story telling and world creating through dialogue, and not just dialogue, but through the way guys talk, and I use "guys" advisedly, as in street guys, guys who live on the ground not in the air, lawyers, judges, cops, bar tenders, fixers, crooks, killers, dope dealers, scum bags, politicians, bag men, doormen, and like others, and some women, a few, who fit into these categories, guys who see the world as it is, see human nature for by and large the grubby thing it is, guys who are practical and reason practically by real world consequences according to the rules and logic of their worlds. 

It's unique in American fiction and I love it.

To me, it's strongest in Higgins's first novels, and he came flying out of the gate brilliantly with his first, The Friends Of Eddie Coyle, made into a strong movie too with a great performance by Robert Mitchum. That novel is as good as anything he wrote, I'd argue. He was a Federal prosecutor. Norman Mailer said of him,"Who knew the fuzz could write like this." 

So I'm reading what I think is his second last novel, The Agent, and it's got some, a lot, to be sure, of Higgins's great writing strength.

But 2/3ds through it, I've got this nagging feeling, and I'm trying to resist it, hoping it'll all make sense: there's too much talk, too much extraneous talk for its own sake; it imparts a lot of information, sure; but it seems slack somehow, as, the way David Simon has a tendency to do even more so, characters speechify and make points for the author through dialogue that's ostensibly authentic but is at bottom serving some polemical, in the case of Simon, or some informational, in the case of Higgins, purpose at the expense of the story.

I'm hoping out of my love for Higgins that by story's end, it'll all make sense and that my nagging feeling is a false positive.

A Note On The Tipping Point


Right at the last few pages of The Tipping Point.

What's its theme: the structure of the tip; or, more general, that small things can matter a lot? The book's subtitle is "How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference." 

I'm certain that with effort you can diagram the structure of the tip as it emerges in Gladwell, with its main parts, sub parts, sub sub parts, sub sub sub parts and so on: the law of the few, mavens, connectors, salesmen, stickiness, contagion, the rule of 150, and what have you. I can't from memory keep up with them all or from memory explain the whole system by all its constituents.

The parts and seeming endless subdivision of them, and the sheer discursiveness, wherein sometimes the numerous instances are looped back to the central argument and sometimes, seemingly not--seemingly because maybe I just missed the loop, make me think that really the book essentially boils down to the proposition that small things can matter a lot.

In his conclusion, for my own example, he cites a Cali education prof who concluded that more money, smaller class sizes, and other such benefits, weren't enough to "tip" more teachers into going into tough schools in tough neighborhoods. But the educator, deriving an insight from the Tipping Point, and going beyond the container of conventional benefits, suggested that entire staffs or teams of teachers and principals go into these schools together. In these numbers, there is then born the greater will to attack these tough school/tough neighborhood problems. That new approach might "tip" greater numbers of teachers to those schools than otherwise. It's too early to tell, Gladwell says, if it worked.

Now, I don't knock the idea: there's the lovely application of a good insight there. And more power to The Tipping Point that the insight came from it. But how is that application of that idea an example of Gladwell's elaborated structure of the tip? Where's the social epidemic here with all its moving parts, as Gladwell has them? His use of "tip" here seems a touch gratuitous to me, only a touch because Gladwell is so delightful, congenial, good hearted, well intentioned, clear thinking, prodigious in his research, unpretentious and accessible. And his book is choc a bloc with intriguing insights and examples, many counterintuitive, such as Paul Revere as a connector.

But I think the example I cite is telling. I'm arguing his theme, despite his overall argument, is that small things may be hugely consequential and not, now against his argument, so readily systematized.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Rape Culture: A Note On Jon Krakauer's Missoula


I'm 2/3ds through Missoula, by Jon Krakauer.

I'd make it required reading for people who thought as I did.

I took a highly skeptical view of rape culture.

I took too sanguine a view of the ambiguity inherent in drink fuelled hook ups, thinking rather abstractly that preponderant truth is by and large unattainable without smoking gun evidence and where the issue is he said, she said.

Otoh, I've always thought that universities, a big site for that kind of sex, are right to delegalize the adjudicative/investigative process concerning sexual assault and rape, nowadays a form of sexual assault. This is a theme in Missoula, the contrast between the criminal process and the university's delegalized, more streamlined process.

Much of the change in my thinking comes from the reported stories in Missoula, painstakingly researched and elaborately presented, and from the account of this football-addled small town's sensibility, and what privileged, elevated, cocooned, demiGod status star football players have.

I also didn't have anything approaching an experiential understanding of the trauma that can be suffered by victims of serious sexual assault. The reporting in the book gets me closer to that. 

On rape culture, I reject the abstraction that in North America we live in one, where sexual assault has been made normal and acceptable. But in pockets of society, say towns like Missoula, an archetypal college football town, there can be. A culture is, in one understanding, the mind of a group. And among the Missoula football players, there was an attitude of sex as a prerogative. Not the brutally explicit act of attacking women with weapons, brutalizing them and forcing them to have sex: this can't be the model for what constitutes serious sexual assault. No, rather, it includes taking nonconsensual liberties with a woman who may be drunk, may be high on drugs, may simply be fatigued, who may start in but then wants to stop, other things. 

The feeling of sexual entitlement by highly regarded, some iconically so, athletes  flows from all that adulation. It's a feeling that comes from thinking the ordinary rules can be flouted. Maybe this is one modality of power corrupting. And this culture is aided by lenient coaches, athletic establishments within the university, and even highly placed university personnel partly on the premise that "boys will be boys."

As this rape culture exists in this core pocket of Missoula, it's easy to imagine and understand that it exists in like towns and cities throughout North America, and that it exists in fraternities and in segments of student culture as well, where kids, away from home, away from parents, with freedom and money, drink and party as a rite of college passage.

The ambiguity of drink fuelled hook ups hasn't been obviated, but reading the minutely and elaborately reported accounts of concrete incidents makes it clear that the bottoms of some allegations can be gotten to, by way of first hand accounts, post incident conduct, what gets told to third parties, how and when, forensic evidence, other things. Ambiguity, differing accounts, a seemingly benign context--a party, a dance, friends hanging out, drunkenness or other highnesses a party, some sexual willingness, the accused being a generally good guy, and so on, pose investigative difficulties to be sure, sometimes insuperable, but not necessarily, as Krakauer makes convincingly clear.

A premise of criminal law is ten guilty go free rather than convict one innocent. That can't apply to universities. There, a chief responsibility of the administration is safety of its generally young charges. That means leaning towards the victim, not allowing the accused to gum up the works with technicalities, overly onerous standards of proof, and generally the legalistic. The trick is to afford the accused sufficient rights so that the process isn't inherently unfair but will as well allow for expeditious uncluttered determinations. The university simply cannot have in its midst predators who get away on technicalities. The stakes are different too. Expulsion as against jail time, and expulsion that is usually confidential.

While there will be mistakes, miscarriages, it's vital here that the perfect not be the enemy of the good. It is, after all, in the nature of administrative proceedings that they're more streamlined and legally relaxed than civil and criminal actions. Hearsay is allowed; documents can be reviewed under looser strictures; and non lawyers can be the deciders for some examples. Institutions within society like schools and business need the ability to govern themselves. They can be sued later if they seriously misstep. The argument that schools should not be determining for their own purposes within school criminal behaviour is a non starter.  

Most of these points emerge persuasively from Missoula. But it's not a screed. The frustrations inherent in the streamlined university process, the athletes' obtuseness and lack of self reflection, the possibility of seeing the incidents differently are all made real. But they simply don't outweigh Krakauer's argument as it emerges through his account.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Is Rock And Roll Here To Stay?

Intriguing argument by Renaissance Terry Teachout, a cultural critic for all seasons, and a former working musician, that, contra Danny & the Juniors, rock and roll will die.

I'm unpersuaded but then again rock and roll is the music I grew up with and and stays in my head. So I have, I'll cop to this, a vested interest in my position. 

A few quick criticisms. 

The whole of rock and roll is too wide and deep, too vast, to somehow say, reductively I'd argue, it will all die. 

For a few examples, Teachout makes no motion of doo wop or ballads or the girl groups or enduring instrumentals or of soul or the entirety of the "British sound" or that some rock and roll tunes have become standards and have joined into the great American song book. He talks, for instance, about rap displacing rock and roll, but says nothing about sampling. 

As well, the rhythmic back beat of rock and roll--which Teachout concedes is compelling but is outweighed by the music's simple mindedness--is more of a force for rock and roll's endurance than he allows for. He misses the contrast between its compelling, physical, bodily power rooted in its beat and the more cerebral, sophisticated aesthetic of older American standards, which he thinks are musically superior and sees making a revival.

Too, Teachout, while he dips into R&B, doesn't mention rock and roll's other main sources-the blues, country, and the sophisticated ballads of groups like the Ink Spots. For as long as these vital, authentic and beautiful forms of music last, and why wouldn't they, so will their progeny rock and roll.

Finally, I question whether Teachout deals adequately with what musical survival means. What are the criteria for that judgement; how does what's happening now point to rock and roll's demise?

Anyway, people can come to their own judgments.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Lawren Harris

Something I wrote elsewhere today:

....We went today after a few false starts to the AGO (Art Gallery of Ontario) to see the Lawren Harris exhibit, entitled The Idea Of North--title appropriated from Glenn Gould--curated by Steve Martin, who spoke so sympathetically and knowingly about Harris in a looping video as part of the exhibit. 

What can I tell you? 

I was underwhelmed and under-evoked. 

Only a few of the paintings moved me even as I thought the exhibit was curated extremely well in that I learned a fair bit about Harris, the father of the Group of Seven, and in that Martin imposed a tightly coherent framework on the art. 

In seeing the exhibit I felt the same gap that I felt when I saw the most disappointing Basquiat exhibit at the AGO about a year ago, the gap, that is to say,  between high falutin art talk--full of words like "iconic," "explore," "investigate," "spiritual," "metaphysical," "experience," "intersection," "tension'" "inner," "reconcile," "landscape as an idea," don't even get me started on conceptual art talk, and on and on--and the actual works' lack of punch, crudeness and lack of inner coherence. 

These are fine words; and literary criticism, which I know more about, certainly has its share. But they tend to the fatuous and maddeningly pretentious when what they're applied to seems not stand up either technically or evocatively. Then, they tend to reify, i.e. make a non existent mountain out of nothing or maybe a few pebbles.

But, but, but, and now I likely show my low visual art IQ, but, but, here's some text from Harris on display that I found revelatory:

...If we view a great mountain soaring into the sky it may excite us, evoke an uplifted feeling within us. The artist takes that response and its feelings and shapes it on campus with painting so that when finished it contains the experience...

This insight opens up conscious worlds for me, making plain and clear a formative idea, a first principle of visual art, that had never formed itself plainly and clearly in my own mind. It moves me from a static understanding of a static relation between artist and subject to a clearer and deeper understanding of the objective and subjective reciprocal dynamism in that relation, between, that is to say, the "out there," the world as it is, and the "in here," our thoughts, feelings, intuitions, generally, our experience of the out there, as transforming each other and finding some resolution or even irresolution in the work itself...

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Trump Treasonous: Gimme A Break

I bow to no one in my Trump disgust but I'll keep my head about me thanks and not run around like a headless chicken. 

The dumbest meme of the week: threefold dumbness: Trump encouraged Russia to spy on Clinton; Trump invited Russia to influence an American election; and, dumbest, Trump committed treason.

Trump clearly said, I paraphrase, if Russia or China perchance have the emails she deleted, he hopes they'll reveal them.

The comment was off the cuff, likely a kibitz, maybe not; I'll stipulate not for sake of argument. 

So the reference is to past emails. No encouragement to hack now. And how can the election possibly be influenced by the revealing them?  Clinton said they're all about weddings and yoga and so on. Only she knows what's on them and she says they're all benign and Clinton is an honourable man, woman.

Plus who amongst us wouldn't like to see the content of those emails, 33,000 things she shouldn't have erased?

And on the king of dumbness: http://www.vox.com/2016/7/27/12299860/donald-trump-treason-russia-hack