Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Note On Walter Mosley's Six Easy Pieces


I'm reading Six Easy Pieces, six Easy Rawlins stories by Walter Mosley. They are undertied by Easy's personal situation, his job, kids, relationship with his girl friend Bonny, his business interests, the question of and his deep, deep feelings about his best friend Mouse's death  and his central inner conflict. He is conflicted  between his shot at serious, responsible, domestic bourgeois life, and the call of the streets, the wildness, the life and death dangers, and excitement of them. 

The Los Angeles black social history, the concreteness of a class of people in a certain time and place, including fraught black white relations, on top of the actual story telling is illuminating.

One very short part of it all keeps knocking around in my head. 

At one point Easy, who is comprehensively well read, musing on that conflict within himself thinks about that very excitement generating danger, which is the streets' siren call to him. He meditates on the mortal danger to everyone  simmering just below the surface of his now dead best friend Mouse. He places Mouse at one ferocious bookend of kind of a spectrum of the ways black men respond to white men. Mouse never backs down from any man, regardless of his colour. If any man (or woman for that matter) messes with him, then that sets off an explosion in Mouse that burns that man alive. 

Mouse is the worst of the streets, giving back ten fold for whatever they take. He is the embodiment of the darkest, most violent danger of the streets, but a few ticks below wanton. He is loyal unto his own death to his best friend Easy who is loyal to him. He dies trying to help Easy out a life threatening jam with some very bad men. 

In the description of Mouse standing violently up to any man regardless of colour, I thought in way that he prefigured the Black Panthers.

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Few Notes On Dickens's Style In Oliver Twist


I'm rounding the club house turn reading Oliver Twist.

One question that continually occurs to me is: what is the essence of Dickens's totally singular style? 

One thing I'm noting is the narrator's high and inapposite rhetoric when talking about the various lowlifes and pompous phonies. He may refer to Bill Sykes's sleeping as his "slumber" or Fagin's declarations or assertions as "asservations" or Mr. Bumble's self importance as his "state of high elevation." The examples are so endless as to be a key pattern in the fabric of the novel's prose. 

The inapposite high language is of course purposefully high burlesque, meant, in a playfully, whimsically arch way, to demean and puncture the objects of its description. 

So, for example, Mr. Bumble's self importance gets underlined, mimicked and parodied by the high rhetoric

And Fagin and Sykes get diminished by the whimsy that undercuts them by bracketing them even as the portrayal of their leeching, parasitic viciousness is shown full bore, Sykes soaked in his violent predatory nature, moving violently forward like a shark, and Fagin in his predation, in his insidiously malignant false sympathy and false affection,  "Ma Dear," mere cover for his manipulative exploitation and destruction of young lives to feed his own maliciously obsessive acquisitiveness . The destruction they both wreak is perhaps most pathetically evident in Nancy, whose few shreds of dignity, sympathy and pride shine out from and make seem worse the otherwise hapless, destroyed creature that Sykes and Fagin have reduced her to. 

In contrast to the tension in the narrator's paradoxical high falutin descriptions of the lowlifes and pompous fools, some malign and some benign, is the constancy of suitably approbative language, even to the point of sentimental idealization verging on caricature, in the descriptions of the exemplary characters like delicately sensitive Oliver himself or saintly Rose Maylee or the goodly Mr. Brownlow. In these descriptions there is very little, if any, irony or playfulness or anything arch, although the narrator does poke fun at the self important but ultimately harmless Mr. Grimwig, who repeatedly threatens to eat his own head and who his great friend Mr. Brownlow doesn't usually take too seriously.  

Anyway, these are some immediate thoughts. It would be interesting to take a passage or two and closely analyze them to try to get more particularly text based in showing what Dickens is doing.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Charles Diickens and Stevie Ray Vaughan: Can You Dig It


I'm at the part of Oliver Twist when Nancy gets Oliver from Fagin to deliver him with Fagin's say so to Bill Sikes. Sikes wants him because he's small enough to help Sikes and crew complete a promising robbery.

It's in Chapter 18.

I mention it only because, maybe, Dickens can be said to write the way Stevie Ray Vaughan, may he continue to rest in the rockin' Blues peace, plays. Strong, large genius strokes both of them that are so compelling that you may be tempted to wonder about delicacy and nuance.

Resist the temptation for at least two reasons:

one, even, for both, amidst their strong broad art, their seeming "broad strokes" so to say,  is subtlety, playfulness, tasty placement, and layered complexity; and

two, then, there are forays into the sheer delicacy of their art,

as when, in  this scene, Oliver, who's pure victim here, in his lovely innocent goodness is solicitous of Nancy,

as what arouses his sympathy is Nancy shown desperately torn among her acute sympathy for Oliver, her fear of Sikes, and her also, fear aside, wanting to please him,

as when Oliver for all his innocence is shown beginning to calculate and have cunning, agreeing to go peaceably with Nancy on his reckoning he might be able to get away given crowded streets and possibly sympathetic bystanders,

and as when he's brought eagerly by Nancy to Sikes who's, again, shown as shark like in his single minded predation, the personification of virtually unmitigated maleficent functionality in which almost nothing else registers with him.

And such delicacy for Stevie Ray Vaughan, well, better to listen than for me ineptly try to convey it in words:

Sunday, July 2, 2017

On Joni Mitchell's Mediocre Version Of Last

Listening to Joni Mitchell's At Last, track 2, from Both Sides Now. The song was written in 1941, as a movie song and performed since as a standard. 

Musical Intro: perfect.

First few lines, compare to Etta James's definitive version. JM doesn't bring out the Etta's full throated, full bodied joy. She's pallid and ordinary in comparison. She has no life in her singing. Compared to Etta James, she sounds small. 

Now getting into it, her phrasing isn't terrible but it's nothing special. 

"My heart... that line, nothing interpretive in it. At this point she's basically mouthing the words, singing without feeling.

The music is great.  

"A dream to call my own... Here again her voice is flat, not as flat as in sharps and flats, but flat as in undramatic, and her voice tends to drag lifelessly even as the musical accompaniment is wonderfully rich and comes to her partial rescue. 

"I found a thrill to press ....Same comment. Not thrilling. Nothing thrilling conveyed.

Then she goes on a bit till "I found my love at last..." and a pattern emerges as I hear it with some flat lifeless singing then her taking a shot at some dramatic emphasis that is ok but a shadow of Etta James. 

"I found a dream that I could speak to..." an incompetently sung line as her voice just drags lifelessly. When Etta James does it, you hear and feel her emergence from weariness. Something, a bit like,  but not exactly, the way you do when Aretha Franklin's soul is rescued from the "lost and found." Or at least I do. 

"A dream to call my own..." same criticism as just above. I have never known... what I'm hearing hear is effortful singing to try to get at an effect, not natural or organic emotion in the singing. So different from how marvellously she sings her own songs.

So it's a serviceable version. She's too good a singer to sink below that.

If you look at the lyrics, they're quite trite and sentimental. But Etta James, who can sing great in most styles, takes them and makes something urgent and passionate out of them. Joni Mitchell much less so, to my ears. She can't do with this song, that holds the possibility of a great version if the singer can get past the corny images in the lyrics--say the way Cassandra Wilson does with so many pop songs, like the Monkees' Last Train To Clarksville--what Etta James does with it. 


Which is my thesis relative to this record, that JM is only so so with the ballads and standards on it. 

I'll agree that it's unlikely that Etta James could do Mitchellian justice to JM's hallmark songs, but that's irrelevant to my thesis.


On Reading Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist In Fact


Happy to announce I'm reading or rereading, I honestly  can't remember which, Oliver Twist.

Dickens,  it's trite to say, is a miraculous miracle of a writer.

I remember being taught second year English by the inestimable Warren Tallman, an Ichabod Crane looking guy, tall, gangly, bespectacled, with wisps of hair, a friend of Robert Creeley, and his fellow Black Mountaineers,  champion of the poetics that theorized following the rhythms of natural breath, as argued for, as I remember, by Karl Shapiro, and who championed the irascible Mordecai Richler, and who gave me, unexposed to so much, my first taste of intellectual Bohemia, especially on inviting a few of us to parties at his house, the likes of which at 19, grown up lower middle class, and knowing only little of the world, I couldn't begin to imagine, and who set me on my path to majoring in English and then on to graduate studies.

We read Great Expectations. I remember we were talking about some scene where an ultra obsequious merchant, not His Oiliness, Uriah Heep, was selling Pip something or trying to. And Warren Tallman was turning himself pedagogically and almost bodily inside out just to try to convey that factor X that makes Dickens's prose fiction so indescribably miraculous. I can't remember whether he was able to do it to his or our satisfaction. But I do remember his asking us with, what can I call it, maybe desperate enthusiasm, paraphrase, "Can you see what he's doing there? Can you see it?" 

So that's one thing about Dickens, the miraculously oddness of his writing, his playful archness, his ironic exaggeration, his savaging of the objects of his scorn with the most delicate but piercing tropes and verbal touches, and his sheer sentimentality, fat tears running down so-sad faces on a black velvet background sentimentality, but making incomparable art out of it, and bringing me near to tears with it too. 

His anti semitism notwithstanding.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Final Thoughts: Flawed Morality In To Kill A Mockingbird


I finished To Kill A Mockingbird.

I weighed my judgment of Atticus as I read it.

So here's a (probably idiosyncratic) morally based take on the novel as a matter of my first raw impression of it. This note is purposely unaided by reading any secondary material, be it reviews or more formal literary criticism.

If anyone has the patience or interest to read all this, I'd love to discuss it and be shown where I'm misreading and not seeing things right. 

At times I found Atticus's tendency to saintliness insufferable and not to be believed. At other times, in his failures, his world weariness, in his occasional weaknesses in (say) bowing to Alexandra, in his age showing more, in his tender love for his children, doing the best he can to raise them as a single parent, I liked him and believed in him as a formed and rounded character with strong and admirable values in word and in deed.

So I had, as I went along, mixed and opposed feelings about him. But two final things tipped the balance thumbs down, aesthetically and substantively. 

The two things are: Atticus's telling Jean-Louise, paraphrase, "No, in not hating anyone, I don't hate Hitler;" and secondly, his insistence at novel's end that Jem face the legal music, even if sure to be exonerated, for stabbing Bob Ewell to his death, when Atticus thought that was what happened. 

Atticus not hating Hitler is consistent with his preachment to his kids not to hate anyone, to walk in their shoes before judging others, to try to see matters as they might before judging them. The problem is that Hitler exemplifies a limit to that preachment, that it is inhuman and unbelievable that this preachment doesn't hit a wall in the instance of a Hitler. 

The novel makes clear that it's not insufficient knowledge, as in "We simply don't know enough to judge," that inhibits hatred. For Jean Louise's teacher has made it known to her what Hitler is doing to Jews. Atticus not only refuses to hate him but patronizingly says after Jean Louise, somewhat morally confused, tells Atticus that her teacher hates Hitler, "I'm sure she does." Atticus implies by this that the teacher's hatred is morally undeveloped, lesser, inferior to his own high minded refusal to indulge in such low emotion. Here, Atticus's is an irritating piety at odds, I'd argue, with the admirable man Lee thinks she portrays.

But the more damning instance of this insufferable piety is in Atticus wanting Jem officially to confront killing Ewell even after Hec Tate, the sheriff, insistently contrives a narrative for good reason that Ewell accidentally killed himself by falling on his own knife. At this point, Atticus wrongly thinks the reason for Tate's contrivance is to spare Jem the need to deal with the consequences of killing Ewell. 

He fights Tate every step of the way, rejecting the out he believes Tate's offering. No, no he intones, he must (as I gloss it) sacrifice Jem--a 12 year old sensitive and sheltered little boy, who's just been through hell, has been almost murdered, has been knocked unconscious, has had his arm badly broken, and has, so Atticus thinks, killed Ewell to protect Jean Louise--sacrifice him on the altar of his, Atticus's impossible piety, his impossibly superior morality. 

Atticus must, he says, live publicly just be as he does privately; he says he must live up to his own ideals; he will lose his children otherwise; they will see him doing something hypocritically differently from what he's taught them all their lives; better, much better, he says, to bring it all in the open (and, implicitly, let the chips fall where they may); if he agrees to Hec Tate whisking Jem's killing away, why then he will not be able to live with himself, he says. No, no, he says, Jem must face up to what happened even as Atticus presumes self defense will lead to acquittal. 

What kind of high mindedness is this? Isn't it more a kind of inhuman self righteousness, almost fanatical? What father, what kind of a father, in all these very particular circumstances insists that his broken up, traumatized 12 year old son court the possibility of criminal prosecution in order that he, the father, can live up to his own unflinching, unwavering moral code? What kind of a man can't here bend a little for the sake of his son's well being, for the sake of protecting his son, can't find another way with his son to deal with all this short of inviting legal process? Is he Abraham willing to slay Isaac in order to heed God's command? What kind of moral preciousness is this? 

There are (at least) two problems I see with Lee having Atticus take this firm position. One is that it fails aesthetically. It's simply not believable that a man like Atticus who is not shown throughout to be at his core a rigorous fanatic, who is shown having weak moments, who is shown knowing the way of the world, who is not a naïf, who knows what evil lurks where, wouldn't take the out he thinks Hec Tate offers. 

The second is that Lee means to shows Atticus as morally exemplary in his fine refusal to make an exception of his son even in these benighted circumstances. But this high morality is really an (unmeant by Lee) repugnant moralism, both inhuman and unreal, that gets away from her. And presenting Atticus so is of a piece with a certain thematic soft headedness that flaws this novel. 

In touching on that, I ask why exactly is Atticus ok with the contrived "fell on his knife story" once he comes to understand that in fact Boo Radley killed Ewell and Jem didn't? Why the bending now? Why the exception now? Sure Jem is Atticus's son and Boo Radley isn't in Atticus's charge. But, still, Atticus is a lawyer, an officer of the court, duty bound to do the legally right thing and here's a sheriff fabricating a false narrative to spin the reality of what happened in order to spare Boo Radley all manner of legal and other consequence (including even being bothered by the Maycomb community in thanking him.)

But now not even a word in protest, no counter argument that in principle it's not right. Why alright for Boo, but not for Jem? Why solicitous compromise sparing Boo but all inflexible moral stricture for Jem? My argument is that it makes no sense and is ill thought through. 

The encapsulation of what I call Lee's soft headed piety--on display in Atticus being too morally superior to hate Hitler, on display in his (intended by Lee as admirable) insistence that Jem be made to face the consequences of killing Ewall--is evident in symbol of the mockingbird and in the maxim that it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. The theme in this is that it's a sin to kill something so innocent, that makes no problem for anyone--not like (say) those thieving blue jays--and which only sings prettily, copying the songs of other birds. Atticus knows that Jean Louise understands the wisdom of covering up what Boo Radley did when she says that to pursue him for killing Ewell would be like killing a mockingbird. Atticus approves and agrees.

This supposed insight, however, accords Boo Radley not an iota, not an ounce, of human agency and contradicts what Atticus has been trying to teach his kids about Boo throughout the novel in order to demystify him, that, in effect, he's a person too, to be understood as such and respected as such. Boo watches the kids, plants gifts for them--some of which he made. Not only does he watch them, he watches over them. He too is their protecter. And so he fulfills what Atticus has been trying to teach about him. 

If so, then how does the mockingbird come to stand for him, for a flesh and blood human being capable of love and violence and who acts out of his own agency to kill Bob Ewell? Why is the mockingbird, without its own song, merely singing prettily other birds' songs and, so, mocking them, likened to him? My argument is that Lee has undermined her novel thematically and symbolically in this deep inconsistency with Boo. 

While likening Boo to a mockingbird is textually explicit, it's arguable that there's a similar likening of it to Tom Robinson. True it is that he has a record for fighting, but in relation to Mayella Ewell, he's a total innocent, merely doing her kindnesses, taking no money from her for them, befriending her in ways on seeing how pitiable and ill used she is, even to the point of not wanting to upset her or make her feel rejected when trying to resist her. And he's killed in his innocence. 

So in fact it's highly arguable that the symbolic and thematic import of the mockingbird attaches to Tom Robinson too. If so, then the just discussed flawed contradiction concerning Boo Radley is even more deeply and offensively apparent in relation to Tom Robinson. To deny him, a mentally fit man, agency by way of the symbol of the mockingbird is, finally, racism, unaware racism, but racism nonetheless. The descriptions of Tom reflexively running away enhance that depiction of him. 

I can see an argument that Lee subverts, or chips away at, the pedestal on which she places Atticus. But in my heart of hearts I think that's a stretch, a way of rationalizing his flawed piety. The book just doesn't read to me that way. For example, with Atticus's refusal to hate Hitler, the teacher who in contrast hates him is later shown to be a hypocritical anti black racist, which reinforces Atticus's smug dismissal of her hatred of Hitler when he says, "I'm sure she does." The symbol of the mockingbird seems so misbegotten to me for among the reasons I note that I can't see Lee capable of such subtle subversive tough mindedness. 

I understand that a novel isn't a polemic. It's not an argument to be picked apart by showing how it doesn't stand up for any number of reasons, or to be counter-argued. That said, still a novel must be thematically and symbolically coherent. It must, so to say, be able to live with itself. Where it has incoherence, things that can't stand together, parts that defy believability, then it is fairly criticized for those failings. I think this is the case with To Kill A Mockingbird as I read it.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Note On Hayek And The Meaning Of Social Justice


Someone posted this by Hayek:

..."Social justice rests on the hate towards those that enjoy a comfortable position, namely, upon envy."

~Friedrich August von Hayek...

I responded thusly:

....Serious question from a decidedly *non* social justice warrior: Hayek, for example, favored something like a minimum income for every adult citizen in arguing for the need of a social safety net of a certain kind. Isn't that provision social justice as distinguished from justice (which traditionally understood is an individual based thing, the giving of each person their due) and, so, continuous with social justice? 

It could be argued that the provision of welfare to those in need is a form of individual due giving and, so, individual justice, but on that reasoning we see the collapse of the distinction between justice and social justice as Hayek's disparagingly thinks of social justice by what you quote. We could equally say that health care or decent housing is giving each person their due and therefore individual justice. 

In a nutshell, how do we reconcile Hayek's disparagement of social justice with any kind of welfare program?

A friend of mine wisely argues:

...But principles are not theories; they are action guiding , and normally there are contrary principals, also action guiding, and there are no super principles for selecting principles. That is what Aristotle meant when he asserted, against Plato, that values are incommensurable, i.e., there is no value that is a yardstick higher than all other values that can determine which of two conflicting principles should prevail in a given situation. So, if, say, freedom/liberty are in conflict with the demand for social security in a given situation, there is no principle that can resolve the issue; a practical decision has to be made by responsible men of affairs. That is why libertarianism/free market theory is so cockeyed; it elevates individual freedom over all other social values as the yardstick by which various proposals are decided. If  the necessities of freedom are in conflict with the need for social security, freedom trumps everything, and social security loses automatically. But I reckon that Aristotle knew a thing or two more than Milton Friedman ever did, or could...

A response:

Easy to reconcile. Support for welfare programmes is not conditioned by the desire to do ' justice'. Supporting poor and sick , the first priority, is charity based on compassion. Poor and sick do not deserve anything in my eyes more or less than you or I. But we provide for them out of compassion. 

Then there is another class of people who are covered by welfare and who regularly attract the wrath of the conservatives: useless lazy good for nothings. For ages I opposed accommodating them. I no longer do. Let us give them welfare - to protect ourselves from them. They are pure destruction. There is no point of demanding them to work. They will not. Ever. And if you make them- they will be fired in 5 minutes. Usefullness and productivity is foreign to them. Let us neutralise them. With welfare.

My answer back:

Good point but I'm not persuaded it's so easy.

You raise a distinction between compassion and justice.

 A few thoughts.

When welfare is a right, an entitlement, then does the distinction endure? 

What about universal benefit programs, like (say) single payer health care, some form of which is present in every liberal democracy except the U.S., paid out of general revenue, which everyone receives including those who haven't paid in or who receive treatment way in excess what they've paid in, or those, like prisoners, who receive treatment even after  they have acted in (sometimes heinously) socially destructive ways? Are these programs reducibly understandable as compassionate or do they, as I think they do, reflect what a "just society" provides to its citizens? 

So, to ask my first question to you in a different way, if essential medical treatment is considered a right--the question now up for consideration in the U.S.-- can we distinguish compassion from justice, or, maybe more likely, justice subsumes compassion, as the philosophic underpinning of this kind of social provision? 

If Hayek entrenches a social safety net of a kind, his motives for it may vary, compassion, social utility, a way of rationalizing general welfare provision, a conception of pure social functionality, a vision of what the state in its nature owes its citizens, some or all of that. I have a hard time seeing compassion as the necessary and sufficient account of the ground for the provision. And once that entrenchment becomes an entitlement, I'd argue it is better understood as a matter of justice as that particular society judges it.

If so, then I am still unable to reconcile the Hayek quote with the provision of benefits that mark what we call the "modern welfare state" save by rejecting what Hayek says as general proposition and restricting it to claims that of necessity jettison individual liberty in the ongoing and unbalanced search for  greater equality.