Monday, April 30, 2012

To Posterity by Bertolt Brecht


Indeed I live in the dark ages!
A guileless word is an absurdity. A smooth forehead betokens
A hard heart. He who laughs
Has not yet heard
The terrible tidings.

Ah what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!
And he who walks calmly across the street,
Is he not out of reach of his friends
In trouble?

It is true: I earn my living
But, believe me, it is only an accident.
Nothing I do entitles me to eat my fill.
By chance I was spared (If my luck leaves me I am lost.)

They tell me: eat and drink. Be glad you have it!
But how can I eat and drink
When my food is snatched from the hungry
And my glass of water belongs to the thirsty?
And yet I eat and drink.

I would gladly be wise.
The old books tell us what wisdom is:
Avoid the strife of the world, live out your little time
Fearing no one,
Using no violence
Returning good for evil –
Not fulfillment of desire but forgetfulness
Passes for wisdom.
I can do none of this:
Indeed I live in the dark ages!


I came to the cities in a time of disorder
When hunger ruled.
I came among men in a time of uprising
And I revolted with them
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.

I ate my food between massacres.
The shadow of murder lay upon my sleep
And when I loved, I loved with indifference.
I looked upon nature with impatience.
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.

In my time streets led to the quicksand.
Speech betrayed me to the slaughterer.
There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers would have been more secure.
This was my hope
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.

Men’s strength was little. The goal
Lay far in the distance,
Easy to see if for me
Scarcely attainable.
So the time passed away
Which on earth was given me.


You, who shall emerge from the flood
In which we are sinking,
Think –
When you speak of our weaknesses,
Also of that dark time
That brought them forth.
For we went, changing our country more
Often than our shoes,
In the class war, despairing
When there was only injustice and no resistance.

For we knew only too well:
Even hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas we
Who wished top lay foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow man,
Do not judge us
Too harshly.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

FBI Interrogation at Guantanamo by Ronald Kessler

Early on Art Cummings set up the FBI’s interrogation operation at Guantanamo and learned first hand how to get terrorists to cooperate without using coercive methods. When Cummings and other agents observed egregious conduct during interrogations at Guantanamo, they reported it back to FBI headquarters. Such conduct was not condoned by military policies.[It came mostly from the initiatives of the Bush Administration and their stooges in the CIA].

Coercive techniques were nothing new to Cummings. During his training as a Navy SEAL, Cummings had been subjected to such techniques, including waterboarding, that might be used on him if he were captured. But he argued that coercive and degrading techniques likely wouldn’t work on hardened Islamic militants.

“Okay, let me understand this,” he would say. “You are going to somehow coerce a young jihadist who has just traveled a thousand miles through desert and unfamiliar territory to go put his ass on the line to die in really austere, dirty, nasty, rocky conditions, wholly untrained. And you think you’re going to somehow make this guy uncomfortable? You found this guy in a cave starving and drinking only water, and what are you going to do to this guy that will compel him to do anything except hate you more?”

On the other hand, “if you are going against Johnny down the street, who was brought up in middle-class America, yeah, it would probably work,” Cumming says. “When you are talking about a jihadist, maybe it would work, maybe it wouldn’t.”

Cummings concedes that coercive techniques may elicit information faster But he says, “You may actually encourage deception. So whatever it takes to guy my head out of that bucket of water, I’m going to tell you something that’s going to make that happen.”

Cummings knew what does work. Maybe others couldn’t understand how FBI agents turned murderers into cooperative sources without using aggressive tactics. But the fact is, says Cummings, “we’ve had case after case after 9/11 of genuine, real, true-to-life bad guys who have sat down in hotel rooms with us, for weeks on end, just pouring it out.”

While the FBI likes to think it takes the moral high ground, “that’s not really the driving reason,” Cummings says. “The driving reason’s, frankly, because we think we as an organization are much more effective working that way. And it doesn’t take that much time. It’s something you learn as you go. You work with somebody, you see what resonates with hm. Is it family that drives him? Is it children that drives him? Is it career that drives him? Is it freedom? What is it that motivates him and keeps him motivated?”

The approach is the same as in working a criminal case.

“You try to understand the kid, whoever he is. Most of them are very young. You try to find out what’s driving him, what’s important to him based on his culture. It could be marriage a children..”

Cummings would say something like: “You are never going to see your mother again.” He explains, “Kids will be tough, but one of the values that should never be lost is compassion. You’re never unkind for the sole purpose of being unkind. Not because we’re just a bunch of great people, but because com[passion actually works. We will sit down with a bank robber and tell him his life is completely off track, and if he ever wants to live the life of a normal human being, he needs to get it back on track. It’s a compelling argument.”

Cummings found that what drives terrorists to respond most is a look into their future.

“You understand, you are going to die in this steel box, and when you are dead your life is nothing. You will die, and you will be nothing o anybody. When you die you will be in an unmarked grave, and no one will know how you died, when you died, or where you are buried.”

Cummings would look for body language that would tip him off to whether his approach was working. If not he might take another tack.

“I saw one kid who was sitting there, not moving. The tears were coming down by the gallons when I started talking to him about never having a child. He wasn’t blubbering, but I knew I had him. Maybe it takes a couple of days. But I’m not going to slap him on the side of the head. All that does is steel him – steel his courage. It reinforces why he hates me so much.”

Instead, Cummings would offer hope: If you ever want me to make an argument for you, I’m the conduit that gets you out of here I’m it. Look at me directly in the eyes. I’m it! No one else in the world. That’s it. You’ll have to help me out, and I’ll help you out.”

Most are susceptible top creature comforts as well.

“That’s the one thing plenty of time will always give you. Eventually these guys just get tired of living in austere conditions, and the government offers them different accommodations based on different levels of cooperation. I got this guy who was in Guantanamo Bay and had tried to go on jihad. He saw a little snuff on my lip . He asked for some, so I said, ‘Sure.” I gave him some.

The doctors at the base “went nuts because I was giving him snuff. I said ‘Okay, enlighten me here. What’s the problem? ‘Well, it’s not healthy.’”

“The only reason he’s talking to me is because I’m supplying him snuff, so I’m going to be bringing Copenhagen every time I interrogate this guy, and I guarantee you that every time before he starts talking, he’s going to put a big ol’ mighty healthy dip in his lip..”

The terrorist would up talking to Cummings.

When Cummings returned from Cuba, Director Mueller asked what he had learned.

“What we got was a general understanding of this whole mind-set.” Cummings told him.

“Are we getting any tactical answers?, Mueller asked.

“Well, tactical stuff is only good for a week or two weeks after they’re captured,” Cummings said. “These guys have been in for months. But they can teach us everything about how the organization moves its money, moves its people, where did they get their education, when did they get radicalized, when did that happen, at what age?”

Cummings found that religious fanaticism was not necessarily the driving force among all terrorists.

“Islamic extremism was a factor,” he says, “But a lot of these guys were young and adventure- seeking. A lot of them were pressured by their families to check that box: they wanted the jihad badge of honor. But believing that when they died they would have seventy-two virgins waiting for them and that this was just a wonderful thing to die in the of Allah was not the driver.”

Cummings looked at detainees and suspects as information collecting platforms. That approached worked well….

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Public Imagination by Jonathan Lethem

All writing, no matter how avowedly naturalistic or pellucid, consists of artifice, of conjuration, of manipulation of symbols rather than the “opening of a window onto life.” Abstract paintings of a giant octopus are all we have to put on view in my city’s aquarium. We writers aren’t sculpting DNA, or even clay or mud, but words, sentences, paragraphs, syntax, voice; materials issued by tongues or fingertips but which upon release dissolve into the atmosphere, into cloud, confection, specter. Language, as a vehicle, is a lemon, a hot rod painted with thrilling flames but crazily erratic to drive, riddled with bugs like innate self-consciousness, embedded metaphors and symbols, helpless intertextuality, and so forth. Despite being regularly driven on prosaic errands (interoffice memos, supermarket receipts, etc.), it tends to veer on its misaligned chassis into the ditch of abstraction, of dream

None of this disqualifies my sense of passionate urgency at the task of making the giant octopus in my minds eye visible to yours. It doesn’t make the attempt any less fundamentally human, delicate, or crucial. It makes it more so. That’s because another name for the giant octopus I have in mind is negotiating selfhood in a world of other selves – the permanent trouble of being alive. Our language has no choice but to be self-conscious if it is to be conscious in the first place. . . .

[But let’s face it], any text is woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony. The citations that go to make up a text are largely anonymous, untraceable, yet already read; they are quotations without inverted commas. The kernel, the soul – let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances – is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are secondhand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the gardener with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral caliber and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. Old and new make the warp and woof of every moment. There is no thread that is not a twist of these two strands. By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. Neurological study has lately shown that memory, imagination, and consciousness itself are stitched, quilted, pastiched. If we cut-and-paste our selves, might we not forgive it in our artworks?

Artists and writers – our advocates, our guilds and agents – too often subscribe to implicit claims of originality that do injury to these truths. And we too often, as hucksters and bean counters in the tiny enterprises of ourselves, act to spite the gift portion of our privileged roles. People live differently who treat a portion of their wealth as a gift. If we devalue and obscure the gift-economy function of our art practices, we turn our works into nothing more than advertisements for themselves. We may console ourselves that our lust for subsidiary rights in virtual perpetuity is some heroic counter to rapacious corporate interests. But the truth is that with artists pulling on one side and corporations pulling on the other, the loser is the collective public imagination from which we are nourished in the first place, and whose existence as the ultimate repository of our offerings makes the work worth doing in the first place.

The Ecstasy of Influence; A Plagiarism [Harpers’s, 2007]
The Ecstasy of Influence; Nonfictions, ETC. by Jonathan Lethem, Doubleday, N.Y. 2011

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The One True Path by Cullen Murphy

Moral certainty ignites every inquisition and then feeds it with oxygen. One might argue that there’s less moral certainty in the world today than there was fifty (or five hundred) years ago. The power of the Church is vastly diminished. The power of the great secular “isms” – communism, fascism – has dissipated. Moral certainty seems to lack the institutional base it once had. But as a personal matter –as what individuals actually believe – it is as pervasive as ever, even if certainties are in collision.

Moral certainty underlies the idea of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. Surveys consistently find that a large proportion of Americans – about a third – believe the Bible to be unerringly true in all particulars – the “actual word of God” and something to be “taken literally.” After authorizing the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush was asked if he had consulted his father, the former president, for advice as he weighed his decision. Bush answered that he had not – but that he had consulted “a higher power.”

For some, the higher power is not God per se but the forces of history, or democracy, or reason, or technology, or science, or a subset of science such as evolutionary psychology or genetics – and these people are no less certain in their convictions. Sometimes its even hard to tell the various parties apart: one mutates into another in surprising ways.

How different are the certainties of the ancients from those of the moderns? Writing in The New Yorker some years ago, Louis Menand posited the breakdown of traditional monotheism into “genetic polytheism” in which personal behavior is attributed to an individualized genetic pantheon. Where once there was a god of anger, now there is a gene of aggression. Where once there was a god of wine, now there is a gene of alcoholism. In ancient Greece, Phobos was the god of fear. Today he is gene SLC6A4, whose specific Olympian dwelling place is chromosome 17q12.

There is another way of looking at the certainty issue – by flipping it on its head. The presumption is now widespread, though rarely articulated in these terms, that lack of certainty is unacceptable. It is the presumption that if we only knew enough, and paid enough attention, and applied sufficient resources, then ills of all kinds would disappear. Anti-terrorism measures are built on this assumption, and so new forms of search and surveillance are added continually to the older ones. U.S. foreign policy has long been premised on the assumption that a threat to America anywhere is a threat to us everywhere. Though its proponents failed to consider that taking action entails as much uncertainty as taking no action, the policy of preemption, articulated by the Bush administration, was built on the proposition that uncertainty cannot be countenanced. The catalyzing moment was caught by the writer Ron Suskind, reporting on Vice President Cheney:

Cheney listened intently, hard-eyed, clamped down tight. When the briefing finished, he said nothing for a moment. And then he was ready with his “different way.”

“If there’s a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response,” Cheney said. He paused to assess his declaration. “It’s not about our analysis, or finding a preponderance of evidence,” he added. “It’s about our response.”

So, now, spoken, it stood: a standard of action that would frame events and responses for years to come. The Cheney Doctrine. Even if there’s a one percent chance of the unimaginable coming due, act as if it is a certainty. . . .

A few years ago, the political philosopher Michael Sandel published a small book called The Case for Imperfection. Its ostensible focus is on genetic engineering and other scientific methods for ensuring that human beings who walk the planet are as good as they can be – as close to perfect as we can make them. But the larger purpose is to raise the question: Is perfection desirable? Yes, of course, it is a worthy goal to diminish disease, incapacity, and other afflictions. But the quest for perfection goes well beyond such efforts, even as we disagree on what “perfection” actually means.

More to the point, Sandel asks, shouldn’t we pause to consider the contribution imperfection makes to the betterment of the human condition? Our individual qualities and flaws are distributed unevenly. For now, they are also distributed randomly. We deserve neither full credit for what is good about ourselves nor full blame for what is bad. No one does. This aleatory quality – each on of us in some sense represents a throw of nature’s dice – has important consequences. Rightly understood, it puts a premium on what we do have in common: to begin with, our moral equality as beings, regardless of specific attributes. Because all of us come up short in some dimension, it conduces to tolerance. “One of the blessings of seeing ourselves as creatures of nature, God, or fortune is that we are not wholly responsible for the way we are,” Sandel writes. “The more alive we are to the chanced nature of our lot, the more reason we have to share our fate with others.”

The Inquisition – any inquisition – is the product of a contrary way of seeing things. It takes root and thrives when moral inequality is perceived between one party and everyone else. Inquisitions invite members of one group – national, religious, corporate, political – to sit in judgment on members of another: to think of themselves, in a sense, as God’s jury. Fundamentally, the inquisitorial impulses arises from some vision of the ultimate good, some conviction about ultimate truth, some confidence in the quest for perfectibility, and some certainty about the path to the desired place – and about who to blame for obstacles on the way.

Inquisitions have a tangible component as well as a notional component. On the one hand, there are the laws, the bureaucracies, the surveillance, the data-gathering, the ways of meting out punishment and applying force. One can imagine “reforms,” “restrictions,” “guidelines,” and “safeguards” in all these areas, to keep abuses in check. Some already exist, to limited effect. Individuals and organizations all around the world are engaged in efforts to enact legal curbs of one kind or another, I wish them well.

On the other hand, there is the idea that some single course is right, that we can ascertain what it is, and that we should take all the necessary measures to compel everyone in that direction. The drafters of the U.S. Constitution – fearful of rule by one opinion, whether the tyrant’s or the mob’s – created a governmental structure premised on the idea that human beings are fallible, fickle, and unreliable, and sometimes to be feared. Triumphalist rhetoric about the Constitution ignores the skeptical view of human nature which underlies it. The Church itself, in its more sober teachings on certitude and doubt, has always raised a red flag: Human beings are fallen creatures. Certitude can be a snare. Doubt can be a helping hand. When the Church says it has “no fear of historical truth,” the point it should be trying to convey is this: it has no fear because if historical truth demonstrates anything, it is that we will keep taking the wrong path – and to acknowledge that fact helps to keep us on the right one. Humility is the Counter-Inquisition’s most effective ally. It can’t be legislated, but it can come to be embraced.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

Leonard understood why psychiatrists did what they did. Their imperative, when confronted with a manic-depressive patient, was to nuke the symptoms out of existence. Given the high suicidality of manic-depressives, that was the prudent course of action. Leonard agreed with it. Where he differed was in managing the illness. Doctors counseled patience. They insisted that the body would adjust. And, to an extent, it did. After a while, you’d been on the drugs so long that you couldn’t remember what it felt like to be normal.

A better way to treat manic depression, it seemed to Leonard, was to find the sweet spot in the lower reaches of mania where side effects were nil and energy went through the roof. You wanted to enjoy the fruits of mania without flipping out. It was like keeping an engine operated at maximum efficiency, all pistons firing, perfect combustion generating maximum speeds, without overheating or breaking down.

What had ever happened to Dr. Feelgood? Where had he gone? Now all you got was Dr. Feel-O.K. Dr. Feel-So-So. Doctors didn’t want to push the envelop, because it was too dangerous and difficult. What was required was somebody daring, desperate, and intelligent enough to experiment with dosages outside clinical recommendations, someone, that is, like Leonard himself.

At first, he just took fewer pills. But then, needing to reduce in smaller increments than 300 milligrams, he began cutting his pills with an X-acto blade. This worked well-enough, but sometimes sent pills shooting onto the floor, where he couldn’t find them. Finally, Leonard bought a pill cutter at the P-town pharmacy. . . He took things slowly, dropping his daily dose top 1,600 milligrams for a week and then to 1,400. Since this was what Dr. Perlman promised to do in another six months, Leonard told himself he was just speeding things along a bit. But then he took his dose down to 1,200 milligrams. And then down to 1,000. And finally all the way down to 500.

In a Moleskine notebook, Leonard kept a precise record of his daily dosages, along with notes on his physical and mental state through-out the day. . .

The notion that he was carrying on significant scientific work entered Leonard’s head so smoothly that he didn’t even recognize its arrival. It was just suddenly there. He was following in the daring tradition of scientists like J.B.S. Haldane, who’d put himself into a decompression chamber to study the effects of deep-sea diving ( and perforated his eardrum), of Stubbins Ffirth, who’d poured vomit from a yellow fever patient onto his own cuts to try to prove that the disease wasn’t infectious. Leonard’s high school hero, Stephen Jay Gould, had been diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma just the year before, given eight months to live. Rumors around were that Gould had devised his own experimental treatment and was doing well.

Leonard plan to confess to Dr. Perlmann what he’d been doing as soon as he’d compiled enough data to prove his point. Meanwhile, he had to pretend he was following orders. This involved feigning side effects that had already disappeared. He also had to calculate when his medications would run out naturally, in order to refill them often enough to avoid suspicion. All of this was easy to do now that he could think clearly again.

The problem with being Superman was that everybody else was so slow. Even at a place like Pilgrim Lake , where everybody had high IQs, the pauses in people’s speech were long enough for Leonard to drop off his laundry and return before they finished their sentences. So he finished their sentences for them. To save everybody time. If you paid attention, it was amazingly easy to predict the predicate of a sentence from its subject. Only a few conversational gambits seemed to occur to most people. They didn’t like it when you finished their sentences, however. Or: they like it at first. At first, they thought it indicated a mutual understanding between the two of you. But if you did it repeatedly, they became annoyed. Which was fine, since it meant you didn’t have to waste time talking to them anymore.

This was harder on the person you lived with. Madeleine had been complaining about how “impatient” Leonard was. His tremor may have been gone but he was always tapping his foot. Finally, just that afternoon, while helping Madeleine study for the GRE, Leonard, unhappy with the pace at which Madeleine was diagramming a logic problem, had grabbed the pen out of her hand. “This isn’t art class,” he said. “You’ll run out of time if you do it so slow. Come on.” He drew the diagram in about five seconds, before sitting back and folding his hands over his chest with a satisfied air.

“Give me my pen,” Madeleine said, snatching it back.
“I’m just showing you how to do it.”
“Will you please get out of here? Madeleine cried. “You’re being so annoying!.”

And so it was that Leonard found himself, a few minutes later, vacating the unit in order to let Madeleine study. He decided to walk into Provincetown and lose more weight. . . .

Being alone increased the volume of information bombarding him. There was no one around to distract him from it. As Leonard strode along, thoughts stacked up in his head like air traffic over Logan airport to the northwest. There were one or two jumbo jets full of Big Ideas, a fleet of 707s laden with the cargo of sensual impressions (the color of the sky, the smell of the sea), as well as Learjets carrying rich solitary impulses that wished to travel incognito. All these planes requested permission to land simultaneously. From the control tower in his head Leonard radioed the aircraft, telling some to keep circling while ordering others to divert to another location entirely. The stream of traffic was never-ending; the task of coordinating their arrivals constant from the minute Leonard woke up to the minute he went to sleep. But he was an old pro by now, after two weeks at Sweet Spot International. Tracking developments on his radar screen, Leonard could bring each plane in on schedule while trading a salty remark with the controller in the next seat and eating a sandwich, making everything look easy. All part of the job.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq

In fact, on the morning of 31 October, Jed received an e-mail accompanied by an untitled text of about fifty pages, which he immediately forwarded to Marylin and Franz, although he was a bit concerned: wasn’t it too long? Marylin assured him immediately: on the contrary, she said, it was always preferable “to go big”.

Even if today it is considered an historical curiosity, Houellebecq’s text – the first of this size devoted to Martin’s work – nonetheless contains some interesting intuitions, Beyond the variations of themes and techniques, he asserts for the first time the unity of the artist’s work, and discovers a deep logic in the fact that having devoted his formative years to hunting for the essence of the world’s manufactured products, he is interested, during the second half of his life, in their producers.

Jed Martin’s view of the society of his time, Houellebecq stresses, is that of an ethnologist much more than that of a political commentator. Martin, he insists, is in no way a committed artist, and even if The Stock Exchange Flotation of Shares in Beate Uhse , one of the rare crowd scenes, is reminiscent of the expressionist period, we are very far from the scathing, caustic treatment of a George Grosz or an Otto Dix. His traders in running shoes and hooded sweatshirts, who acclaim with blasé world weariness the great German porn businesswoman, are the direct descendants of the suited bourgeois who meet endlessly in the receptions directed by Fritz Lang in the Mabuse films; they are treated with the same detachment, the same objective coldness. In his titles as in his painting itself, Martin is always simple and direct: he describes the world, rarely allowing himself a poetic notation or a subtitle serving as commentary. He does this, however, in one of his most successful works, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, which he chose to subtitle The Conversation at Palo Alto.

Sunk in a wicker chair, Bill Gates was spreading his arms out wide while smiling at his interlocutor. He was dressed in canvas trousers and a khaki short-sleeved shirt; his bare feet were in flip-flops. It was no longer the Bill Gates in a sea-blue suit at the time when Microsoft was consolidating its global dominion, as when he himself, dethroning the Sultan of Brunei, became the world’s richest man. Nor was it yet the concerned, sorrowful Bill Gates, visiting Sri Lankan orphanages or calling on the international community to be vigilant about the outbreak of smallpox in West Africa. It was an intermediary Bill Gates, relaxed, manifestly happy about retiring from his post as chairman of the planet’s biggest software business; in short, a Bill Gates on holiday. Only his metal-framed glasses, with their strongly magnifying lenses, recalled his past as a nerd.

In front of him, Steve Jobs, although sitting cross-legged on the while leather sofa, seemed paradoxically an embodiment of austerity, of the Sorge traditionally associated with Protestant capitalism. There was nothing Californian in the way his hand clutched his jaw as if to help him in some difficult reflection, nothing in the look full of uncertainty which he sent his interlocutor; and even the Hawaiian shirt that Martin had decked him out in did nothing to dispel the impression of a general sadness produced by his slightly slumped position, and by the expression of disarray that could be read in his features.

The encounter, quite obviously, took place in Steve Jobs’s home. A mixture of coolly designed white furniture and brightly colored ethnic draperies, everything in the room recalled the aesthetic universe of the founder of Apple, the polar opposite of the profusion of high-tech gadgets, at the limit of science fiction, which, legend would have it, characterized the home of the founder of Microsoft had built in the Seattle suburbs. Between the two men, a chessboard with handcrafted wooden pieces sat on a coffee table; they had just interrupted the game in a stage unfavorable to the blacks – namely to Jobs.

In certain pages of his autobiography, The Road Ahead, Bill Gates occasionally lets slip what could be considered total cynicism – particularly in the passage where he confesses quite plainly that it is not necessarily advantageous for a business to offer the most innovative products. More often it is preferable to observe what the competitors are doing (and there he clearly refers, without using the name, to Apple), to let them bring out their products, confront the difficulties inherent in any innovation, and, in a way, surmount the initial problems; then, in a second phase, to flood the market by offering low-price copies of the competing products. This apparent cynicism is not, however, as Houellebecq stresses, the true nature of Gates; this is expressed instead in the surprising, almost touching passages in which he reasserts his faith in capitalism, in the mysterious “invisible hand”; his absolute, unshakable conviction that whatever the vicissitudes and apparent counter-examples, the market is always identical to the general good. It is then that the fundamental truth about Bill Gates appears, as a creature of faith, and it is this faith, this candor of the sincere capitalist, that Jed Martin was able to render by portraying him, arms wide open, warm and friendly, his glasses gleaming in the last rays of the sun setting on the Pacific Ocean. Jobs, however, made thin by illness, his face careworn and dotted with stubble, sorrowfully leaning on his right hand, is reminiscent of one of those traveling evangelists who, on finding himself preaching for perhaps the tenth time to a small and indifferent audience, is suddenly filled with doubt.

And yet it was Jobs, motionless, weakened, in a losing position, who gave the impression of being the aster of the game; such was, according to Houellebecq’s text, the profound paradox of the canvas. In his eyes stilled burned that flame common not only to preachers and prophets but also to the inventors so often described by Jules Verne. By looking more closely at the position of Job’s chess pieces as portrayed by Martin, you realized that it was not necessarily a losing one; and that Jobs could, by sacrificing his queen, conclude in three moves with an audacious bishop-knight checkmate. Similarly, you had the sense that he could, through the brilliant intuition of a new product, suddenly impose new norms on the market. Through the bay window behind them could be made out a landscape of meadows, of an almost surreal emerald green, gently descending to the line of cliffs, where they joined a forest of conifers. Farther away , the Pacific Ocean unfurled its endless golden-brown waves. On the lawn, some young girls had started a game of Frisbee. Evening was falling, magnificently, in the explosion of a sun that Martin had wanted to be almost improbable in its orangey magnificence, setting on northern California, and the evening was falling on the most advanced part of the world; it was that too, that indefinite sadness of farewells, which could be read in Jobs’s eyes.

Two convinced supporters of the market economy; to resolute supporters of the Democratic Party’ and yet two opposing facets of capitalism, as different as a banker in Balzac could be from Verne’s engineer. The Conversation in Palo Alto, Houellebecq stressed in his conclusion, was far too modest a subtitle; instead, Jed Martin could have entitled his painting A Brief History of Capitalism, for that, indeed, is what it was.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Red Strangers by Elsbeth Huxley

In front of the strangers house was a flat, open sward of excellent grass. When Matu first came there were no goats or cattle on it, and he concluded that it must have been set aside for some very highly valued herd. This idea was confirmed when, during the long dry period before the bean rains, Kichuti ordered six men to carry large cans of water from the river and to pour the contents on to the ground through a vessel fitted with a clever device that turned water into raindrops. Matu was much impressed and wondered with growing interest what manner of beast could be worthy of such preparations.

One day, when he arrived for work, he found a strange contraption with two long horns of wood standing on the pasture. It was moving backwards, and a man gripping it by the horns followed behind. As it moved it made a loud noise, like countless grasshoppers singing by a high waterfall.

At first he thought it must be alive. It appeared to be devouring the grass at an astonishing rate as it moved. In front was a thick sward, ankle-high; where it had passed only level turf, smooth as a grinding-stone, as left. He gazed at it dumbfounded, and would have ruin away if the guard who took him to work every morning had not been there. Surely, he thought, only a beast of enormous magical powers could eat at such a pace.

The creature stopped, and the man with it: the noise ceased. “Come here,” said the man. “You are to take this cord and pull. And do not let the string grow slack, or I shall know that you are lazy.”

Mat approached cautiously, eying the grass-eater with apprehension. He did not know whether it might charge, like a rhino, although it was small. He took hold of he cord but still it made no move.

“Pull,” said the man behind, “you are very slow.”
“I am afraid,” Matu answered. “Does this beast bite?”
The man turned away his head and laughed loudly, shaking all over.
“I can see you know nothing,” he said. “This thing is not alive. It contains knives which go round and round and cut the grass, like many women together cutting millet.”

Matu could scarcely believe this to be possible, but he pulled on the string and felt the object move behind him. Very nervously, and using all his willpower to control his shaking knees, he walked forward. The creature sprang into life and followed with a loud clatter at his heels. Sweating with terror, he increased his pace, but the creature only came on faster. He dared not look round to see whether it was gaining on him. He broke into a jog, his red blanket flapping around his wobbling knees.

“Slowly, slowly,” the man behind shouted, laughing above the noise. “Do you think the Masai are after you” Don’t you know how to walk?”

Matu, with great effort, slowed down, and the grass-eater also slackened speed. As the morning went on he grew more used to it and realized before noon that, as the man in charge had said, it was not alive. Later in the day he was told to sweep up the grass which it had cut and not, apparently, eaten.

He puzzled over the purpose of this device all day. Before he returned to his sleeping quarters he decided to ask Karanja what it was for.

“Outside the stranger’s house is excellent pasture,” he said, “yet no cows have come to eat it. Now the grass has been cut as if it were ripe grain. What is the grass for? Who is to eat it?”

“No one,” Karanja said, “It is to be thrown away.”
“But that is impossible!” Matu exclaimed. “The stranger has taken great trouble to secure a wonderful pasture. I have never seen such rich grass. In the dry weather I and five others carried water to it every day, it grew thick as the finest sorghum, green as young maize. There could be no better grass in all of Kikuyu. You cannot tell me that all this trouble was taken in order that the grass should be thrown away! Does the woman burn the millet she has weeded many times and guarded from the birds for many months? Does a man kill his healthy young she –goat?”

“Nevertheless,” Karanja said, “Kichui has ordered that all the grass be thrown away.”

“Can it be for a sacrifice to God?” Matu asked.

Karanja shook his head. “I have never seen him sacrifice anything to God,” he said. “It is just that he likes grass to be short, instead of long.”

“Then why does he have water sprinkled on it to make it grow long?” Matu asked.

Karanja shrugged his shoulders. “I do not know,” he said. “If you work for these strangers it is useless to ask: ‘Why must I do this?’ They have no sense, and do many foolish things without reason.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

The word ‘delusion’ in my title has disquieted some psychiatrists who regard it as a technical term, not to be bandied about. Three of them wrote to me to propose a special technical term for religious delusion: ‘relusion’. Maybe it’ll catch on. But for now I am going to stick with ‘delusion’, and I need to justify my use of it. The Penguin English Dictionary defines delusion as ‘a false belief or impression.’ Surprisingly, the illustrative quotation the dictionary gives is from Phillip E. Johnson: ‘Darwinism is the story of humanity’s liberation from the delusion that its destiny is controlled by a power higher than itself.’ Can that be the same Phillip E. Johnson who leads the creationist charge against Darwinism in America today? Indeed it is, and the quotation is, as we might guess, taken out of context. I hope the fact that I have stated as much will be noted, since the same courtesy has not been extended to me in numerous creationist quotations of my works, deliberately and misleadingly taken out of context.

Whatever Johnson’s own meaning, his sentence as it stands is one that I am happy to endorse. The dictionary supplied by Microsoft Word defines a delusion as ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder.’ The first part captures religious faith perfectly. A. to whether it is a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, I am inclined to follow Robert M. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: ‘When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When many people suffer from delusion it is called Religion.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

[ “If there were such a thing as inspiration from a higher realm, it might well be that the neurotic temperament would furnish the chief condition of the requisite receptivity.”, William James modestly remarked in The Varieties of Religious Experience –J.S.]

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . .

A widespread assumption, which nearly everybody in our society accepts – the none-religious included – is hat religious faith is especially vulnerable to offense and should be protected by an abnormally thick wall of respect, in a different class from the respect that any human being should pay to any other. Douglas Adams put it so well, in an impromptu speech made in Cambridge shortly before his death, that I never tire of sharing his words:

Religion. . . has certain ideas at the heart of which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? – because you’re not!” If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say ‘I respect that.”

Why should it be that it’s perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows – but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe. . . no, that’s holy?. . . We are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how much of a furore Richard Dawkins creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you are not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.

Here’s a particular example of our society’s overweening respect for religion, one that really matters. By far the easiest grounds for gaining conscientious objector status in wartime are religious. You can be a brilliant moral philosopher with a prize-winning doctoral thesis ex[pounding the evils of war, and be given a hard time by a draft board evaluating your claim to be a conscientious objector. Yet if you can say that one or both your parents are Quakers you sail through like a breeze, no matter how inarticulate and illiterate you may be on the theory of pacifism or, indeed, Quakerism itself.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from pacifism, we have the pusillanimous reluctance to use religious names for warring factions. In Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants are euphemized to ‘Nationalists’ and ‘Loyalists’ respectively. The very word ‘religions’ is bowdlerized to ‘communities’, as in ‘inter-community warfare.’ Iraq, as a consequence of the Anglo-American invasion of 2003, degenerated into sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Clearly a religious conflict – yet in the Independent of 20 May 2006 the front page headline and first leading article both described it as ‘ethnic cleansing’. ‘Ethnic’ in this context is yet another euphemism. What we are seeing in Iraq is religious cleansing. The original usage of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the former Yugoslavia is also arguably a euphemism for religious cleansing, involving Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians.

Religion is also privileged in public discussions of ethics in the media and in government. Whenever a controversy arises over sexual or reproductive morals, you can bet that religious leaders from several different faith groups will be prominently represented on influential committees, or on panel discussions on radio or television. I’m not suggesting that we should go out of our way to censor the views of these people. But why does our society beat a path to their door, as though they had some expertise comparable to that of, say, a moral philosopher, a family lawyer or a doctor?

Here’s another weird example of the privileging of religion. In 2006 the United States Supreme Court ruled that a church in New Mexico should be exempt from the law, which everybody else has to obey, against taking hallucinogenic drugs. Faithful members of the Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal believe that they can understand God only by drink hoasca tea. Note that it is sufficient that they believe that the drug enhances their understanding. They do not have to produce evidence. Conversely, there is plenty of evidence that cannabis eases the nausea and discomfort of cancer sufferers undergoing chemotherapy. Yet, again the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that all patients who use cannabis for medical purposes are vulnerable to federal prosecution. Religion, as ever, is the trump card. Imagine members of an art appreciation society pleading in court that they believe they need an hallucinogenic drug in order to enhance their understanding of Impressionist or Surrealist paintings. Yet when a church claims an equivalent need, it is backed by the highest court in the land. Such is the power of religion as a talisman.

Witness also the ‘sympathy’ for Muslim ‘hurt’ and ‘offense’; expressed by Christian leaders and even some secular opinion-formers when the distinguished author Salmon Rushdie was put under a death sentence for writing a novel. If the advocates of apartheid had had their wits about them they would have claimed –for all I know truthfully- that allowing mixed races is against their religion A good part of the opposition would have respectfully tip-toed away. And it is no use claiming that this is an unfair parallel because apartheid has no rational justification. The rest of us are expected to defend our prejudices. But ask a religious person to justify their faith and you infringe on religious liberty.

In 2004 James Nixon, a twelve year old boy in Ohio, won the right in court to wear a T-shirt to school bearing the words ‘Homosexuality is a sin, Islam is a lie, abortion is murder. Some issues are just black and white!’ The school told him not to wear the T-shirt – and the boy’s parents sued the school. The parents might have had a conscionable case if they had based it on the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech. But they didn’t. Instead, the Nixon’s lawyers appealed to the constitutional right to freedom of religion. Their victorious lawsuit was supported by the Alliance Defense fund of Arizona, whose business it is to ‘press the legal battle for religious freedom.’

The Reverend Rick Scarborough, supporting the wave of similar Christian lawsuits brought to establish religion as a legal justification for discriminations against homosexuals and other groups, has named it the civil rights struggle of the twenty-first century: ‘Christians are going to have to take a stand for the right to be Christian. Once again, if such people took their stand on the right to free speech, one might reluctantly sympathize. But that isn’t what it is about. ‘The right to be Christian seems in this case to mean ‘the right to poke your nose into other people’s private lives.’ The legal case in favor of discrimination against homosexuals is being mounted as a counter-suit against alleged discrimination! And the law seems to respect this. You can’t get away with saying ‘If you try to stop me from insulting homosexuals it violates my freedom of prejudice’ But you can get away with saying ‘It violates my freedom of religion.” What. When you think about it, is the difference? Yet again, religion trumps all.

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[ If we look on a man’s whole mental life as it exists, on the life of men that lies in them apart from their learning and science, and that they inwardly and privately follow, we have to confess that the part of it of which rationalism can give an account is relatively superficial. It is the part that has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down with words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions. If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature that the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits. Your whole subconscious life, your impulses, your faiths, your needs, your divinations, have prepared the premises, of which your consciousness now feels the weight of the result; and something in you absolutely knows that the result must be truer than any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it. This inferiority of the rationalistic level in founding belief is just as manifest when rationalism argues for religion as when it argues against it.

The vast literature of proofs of God’s existence drawn from the order of nature, which a century ago seemed so overwhelmingly convincing, today does little more that gather dust in the libraries, for the simple reason that our generation has ceased to believe in the kind of God it argued for. Whatever sort of being God may be, we know today that he is nevermore that mere external inventor of ‘contrivances’ intended to make manifest his ‘glory’ in which our great-great grandfathers took such satisfaction, though just how we know this we cannot possibly make clear by words either to others or to ourselves. I defy any of you here to fully account for your persuasion that if a God exist he must be a more cosmic and tragic personage than that Being.

The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. Then, indeed, our intuitions and our reason work together, and great world-ruling systems, like that of the Buddhist or of the Catholic philosophy, may grow up. Our impulsive belief is here always what sets up the original body of truth, and our articulate verbalized philosophy is but its shadowy translation into formulas. The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the deep thing in us, the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition. Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow. If a person feels the presence of a living God after the fashion shown by m quotations, your critical arguments, be they never so superior, will vainly set themselves to change this faith.

Please observe, however, that I do not yet say that it is better that the subconscious and non-rational should thus hold primacy in the religious realm. I confine myself to simply pointing out that they do so hold it as a matter of fact.
– William James; The Varieties of Religious Experience, Lecture III, ‘The Reality of the Unseen’- j.s.]

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

American Nietzsche by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen


This book examines what American readers were drawn to in this philosophy and its author, and what, in turn, they drew from them. It analyzes the dynamic history of how Nietzsche’s anti-foundationalism (the denial of universal truth), together with his sustained critiques of Christian morality, Enlightenment rationality, and democracy, has compelled many Americans to question their religious ideals, moral certainties, and democratic principles. Turn-of-the-last-century scholars, writers, political radicals and ministers (Intellectuals) form the first generation of Americans whose confrontations with his thought compelled then to reevaluate their inherited values in light of his criticisms. It was at this time when Nietzsche’s concepts such as the “trans-valuation of all values”, “slave morality”, and “will to power” and the newly minted term Nietzschean made their debut in American English. This history of the transformation of modern American thought reveals that their new language signals a dramatic development in both the style and substance of moral inquiry. Where once the moral life was couched in terms of foundations, now, “after Nietzsche,” thinkers and writers imagined it as life on the open seas.

Chapter Four (excerpt):

Expressing the sentiments shared by a generation of early twentieth-century American literary radicals and political reformers, the novelist and popular lecturer John Cowper Powys described his lingering romance with Friedrich Nietzsche: “I cannot see a volume of Nietzsche in any shelf without opening it. . .; [I] cannot open it without feeling, just as I did at first, the old fatal intoxication.” Preferring imagery more suggestive than mere alcohol, Isadora Duncan likened her first encounter with the nineteenth-century German philosopher to the voluptuous joys of the flesh when she recalled that “the seduction of Nietzsche’s philosophy ravished my being.” Others described their experience of Nietzsche’s philosophy in spiritual terms. Jack London and Eugene O’Neil were two of many who referred to Nietzsche as their “Christ”: and Thus Spoke Zarathustra as their “Bible”. Throughout the essays, letters, and autobiographies of many young writers who came of age in the early decades of the twentieth century, there is a virtual library of rich imagery for Nietzsche and his thought. HE is described as a prophet and a martyr, and his philosophy was portrayed as an intellectual intoxicant, and emotional elixir, and a spiritual astringent, as well as a romp in the hay. Though the metaphors for Nietzsche and his writings are as diverse and colorful as their authors, a theme runs throughout. They described their experience with Nietzsche in deeply intimate terms; indeed, many of them confessed to feeling as though Nietzsche had developed his philosophy expressly for them.

If part of the intellectual historian’s task is to recover the lived experience of historical persons, to try to recapture not only what they thought but how they felt about certain ideas, then perhaps we should start by taking these young writers – those who contributed to the “Chicago Renaissance”; who participated in the traffic of ideas and lovers at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s 23 Fifth Avenue salon; who cobbled together magazines like The Masses, The Seven Arts, and The New Republic; who spent their summers working and playing together in Massachusetts as members of the Provincetown Players – at their word. In their novels, critical essays, plays and memoirs, they documented in great detail their first encounters and their ongoing “relationships” with Nietzsche’s ideas. If they felt, as they said they did, that Nietzsche was s[peaking to them personally, then we will get a better understanding of their mental and moral worlds if we actually listen to what they had to say. Their references to Nietzsche’s image and ideas provide an opportunity to understand their vision of the Beloved Community of liberated individuals, and to grasp their conception of their roles as intellectuals in fostering it.

Nietzsche’s arguments for the interpretive and provisional character of human knowledge and beliefs provided early twentieth-century literary radicals with a romantic and pragmatic approach to the study of culture and political ideals in America. His writings presented them with a description of Western culture teetering on shaky intellectual and moral foundations that mirrored their own impressions of a modern America that could no longer be supported by its moral and cultural inheritances. Nietzsche emboldened them in their revolt against the stifling genteel sensibility, the psychic bankruptcy of a de-spiritualized Christianity, and the airy idealism of late nineteenth-century democratic theory. He taught them that their battle with their inheritances was no standard revolt of sons against fathers, or New Women against the matriarchal ideal, but rather a full transvaluation of intellectually feeble and yet culturally robust moral absolutes, which had overstayed their welcome in a modernizing America. In his assessment of a will to power underlying all human knowledge and belief, his savage critique of the life-denying impulses of Christian asceticism, and his attack on the “slave morality” of democratic egalitarianism, Nietzsche offered the radicals a method and language for critiquing an American life that they believed had not yet fulfilled its promise.

Playwrights, novelists and poets like George Cram Cook, Upton Sinclair, and Kahlil Gibran found in Nietzsche a romantic model of modern divinity after the “death of God”. Socialists including Max Eastman and Hubert Harrison enlisted Nietzsche’s theory of “slave morality” to challenge American capitalism, racism, and militaristic nationalism. The literary critic Van Wyck Brooks drew from Nietzsche as he criticized the tepid aesthetics of the American bourgeoisie, while self-identified pragmatists such as William English Walling and Walter Lippman turned to Nietzsche’s romantic instrumentalism as an antidote to modern drift. And figures as diverse as Emma Goldman, H.L. Mencken, and Ralph Bourne mined Nietzsche’s texts for his critique of Judeo-Christian asceticism and moral psychology as they attempted to come to terms with the lingering influence of Puritanism on modern American thought. They bewailed an infertile American culture that failed to nourish native intellect at its roots, and pointed to Nietzsche as an example of the kind of genius they believed America could never cultivate. Many years before members of this generation were “lost” in Europe, they felt at home in Nietzsche, and homeless in modern America.

The literary radicals had many uses for Nietzsche, but their broader aim was singular: Nietzsche helped them think about thinking in modern America. His new moral vocabulary enabled them to articulate their criticisms of and longing for American culture. His writings demonstrated the practical power a mighty pen could yield. And his ideas showed them the ecstasy and and agony of a world beyond the good and evil of their religious and moral inheritances. Nietzsche influenced them with both the intellectual life he theorized and the one he lived. Young intellectuals wrote extensively about his persona in an effort to come to terms with the perils and possibilities awaiting the oppositional intellect who longs for a footing in modern democratic culture while tearing up the ground beneath his feet.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The greatest contribution of this book is the revelations it contains with respect to the debt that Friedrich Nietzsche himself owed to the American Author Ralph Waldo Emerson. Nietzsche’s own notes, journals, letters and annotations are full of references to Emerson who he considered the greatest of modern genius. Many of Nietzsche’s works are eloquent re-phrasings of Emerson’s. As the philosopher Stanley Cavell pointed out, the entire passage in Genealogy of Morals in which Nietzsche lamented that “men of knowledge” are especially unknown to themselves because they are strangers to their own thinking dialogues intimately with Emerson’s essay “Experience”. Cavell cited a “circuit” of concerns between the two authors, finding in Nietzsche a direct “transcription of something Emerson means.”

It is amazing, and a somewhat mysterious irony: the extent to which American intellectuals, in the midst of a craze for Nietzsche that extends even to the most recent times, manage somehow, almost always, to “forget” Emerson.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Fables For A Puppet Theater by Kenneth Gross

A man is pursued by his shadow.

A child picks up a tiny stone and kills a giant

Thrown from a ship during a storm at sea, he is swallowed by a whale and lives happily in its stomach for days. His son arrives to rescue him.

The old king comes upon the body of his daughter and does not know whether she is alive or dea.,

A stone cries out against being stepped on, kicked, buried, and split. It meditates revenge.

The ghosts of girls betrayed by men dance living men to death. A man and a woman exchange parts of themselves with each other – a hand, a leg, a heart. For a while this contents them. In the end they have to rent each other to pieces.

A mirror walks down the road.

Children plant a doll in the garden and wait for spring.

Lovers try vainly to touch each other through a hole in a wall. Their hands grope in the dark. The wall tries to console them. The hole alone is happy.

Children carry the corpse of their mother to a distant graveyard. From time to time she raises her head up from the coffin, crying “Faster, faster. . .”

On top of a mountain, a man binds his son to the pile of wood on the alter. An angel takes the knife from the old man’s hand. The ass looks on.

Blocks learn to spell out words.

Buildings shake themselves awake at dawn.

On far-flung islands, he studies the different sizes and shapes of beaks, the speciation of claws and eyes, the drift of feathers, the flow of blood, the fragmentation of bones, the appetite of worms.

She burrows in the soil, building a network of tunnels, listening always for her enemies, the army of invaders and subtle spies, those within and above the ground – she is blind but not, as she thinks, invisible.

Lessons for a shadow: How to creep up a wall. How to watch from behind a door. How to fall suddenly across a page. How to stretch out along the ground. How to disappear in darkness. How to inseminate the light.

A creaking cry. A white sail appears on the horizon at a great distance, then moves out of sight.

Spindle, shuttle, and needle were guarded in the royal treasury and paid every honor.

Animals take over a theater.

A dream of rescue: swooping down from the air on a winged horse, the hero flies to the monster, the bound virgin, the ancient rock, the ancient chain, all the motions of water.

Punch descends to the underworld to recover his lost wife, knocking down all who stand in his way, charming dead souls with the sound of his stick.

A puppet show of hell. Flames shake as they tell their stories. Thorn trees speak in blood when their branches are broken off. Humans and snakes exchange bodies, or merge together. The murderous poet carries his severed head as a lamp, telling his story. Whirled about in a storm of wind, two puppets embrace for all eternity. Frozen in ice, one puppet gnaws at the head of another.

She turns to stare at the city and is turned into a statue of salt.

The whale instructs the drowning man.

The wire sings to the wire-walker.

Vanity presents a head and a leg, Truth a head and a heart, Love a heart and a hand.

The siege of the city. The death of a hero. The battle for his corpse. The burial of his armor. The wanderings of his name.

They gather at the edge of the dam, watching the rising waters.

The bird song speaks for the child whose bones lie buried beneath the roots of a juniper tree.

A bed sails away.

Don Juan tears up his book of conquests. Shreds of paper hover in the air and crowd around him, crying out in mockery.

The mail coach rushes along at twilight, bearing down upon a group of travelers. Some are crushed under its wheels, some leap over the coach and save themselves, other catch onto the door or the fender and are drawn along in flight beside it.

A crumb explores a table cloth.

She returns after many days.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Samuel Becket’s plays, clearly on the creators minds, give us human creatures at the edge of humanity, possessed of a severely limited, even mechanical range of movement and gesture, bound in the earth or to a rocking chair, or reduced to immobile heads, spot-lit mouths, disembodied hands, and depersonalized voices. They show us humans caught by the inhuman forces and orders that yet emerge from within the human, including human theater, forces they inflict on each other as much as suffer from themselves. Beckett’s actors portray humans brought close to death, to a form of death-in-life, a state joining entrapment and trance, their humanness recovered the more powerfully for being so reduced. Just for this reason I cringe to think of the plays performed outright by puppets. That would literalize the fiction and kill the dramatic force of seeing a human actor whose body and voice are under stress. It would also strip of their alien-ness, their thing-ness, those few inanimate objects that Becket does bring on stage: the carrot, the shoe, the gun, the bloody handkerchief, the stuffed dog, the book.

Yet the Leipzig-based company Wilde & Vogel’s rendering of King Lear made a place for the ghost of Beckett’s dramatic world within a play of puppets and humans together. Here the king and his fool, both human performers, were trapped together in a kind of limbo, A Beckettian dream space like that of Hamm and Clov in Endgame. The fool performed before the king scenes from his folly, madness and suffering, using puppets both beautiful and grotesque, representing variously his daughters, his courtiers, and inhabitants of the storm-torn wilderness. Lear sometimes himself collaborated in the puppet play, even supplied a puppet’s words. Or he might don a mask and take on the persona of one of his victims, such as the blinded Gloucester. Just as often he sat or stood, strangely impassive before the shows, stunned by the desolation he had created….

. . . . . . . . . . .

I think also here of how a poet such as Emily Dickinson turns here attention to small objects, small creatures, small occasions, forgotten or idiosyncratic intervals of time. The very diminutiveness that seems to put an object or moment at risk is also its source of power, even as its small size makes a thing the world is liable to violate, misapprehend, or embarrass. Such small entities – the buzzing fly, a bird, or bluebell, a rat said to be “the concisest Tenant,” a spider that “sewed at Night,” or even “A certain Slant of light” – stand for dimensions of knowledge and feeling that are too private, too strange, or too radical to be given larger or more conventional public form, that will not answer to established frames of judgment, that refuse to witness any grace or even suffering marked as good by an established system of belief.

The plays of scale in puppet theater are about more than visual paradox. They suggest that we do not yet know the dimensions and limits of what we call life. This theater will remind us that even the life of our hands is not our own, that these are subject to stranger motions, capable of stranger gifts. It may also remind us that we do not know fully the different kinds of death that humans own, or the shapes of the lives that can be lived by inanimate things. That is why locating precisely the life of the puppet, or the source of its charm and fascination, is so complex, so elusive a matter, and so endlessly suggestive of the paradoxes of our own lives.

There is a stark poem of Dickinson’s that catches something of this ambiguity, sowing her way of making urgent emblems out of the most ordinary objects and events. She describes the stopping of an elaborate clock, and the freezing of the tiny, mechanical figures within it:

A Clock stopped –
Not the Mantel’s –
Geneva’s farthest skill
Cant put the puppet bowing –
That just now dangled still-

Motion it has at first, mechanical animation. Yet it is only when the clock has stopped, when the automatic motion of the figures vanishes, when they experience a kind of death, that the poet feels a radiance and a sense of suffering life in these creatures. It is a life that includes a consciousness of a temporality – and of a timelessness –unmeasured by human mechanism, even as the figures themselves seem to grow in size, detail, and human feeling:

An awe came on the Trinket!
The figures hunched – with pain-
Then quivered out of Decimals
Into Degreeless noon-

Here the breakdown of the machine is the very thing which gives the figure life, makes the world newly charged. (In another poem Dickinson speaks of moments “when everything that ticked – has stopped -/ and space stares –all around- “.) The poet, indeed, makes of their sudden, mysterious illness not an image of death or failure, of merely passive suffering, but the image of an act of will, an act of refusal; a “cool, concernless No -/ Nods” from the clock face. (That “Nod” makes of the “No” a paradoxical assent.) The clock is “not the Mantel’s,” but something that belongs to a more metaphysical order. At the end of the poem, in a desperate turn of analogy, Dickinson makes such a stilled moment an image of her own blank refusal of obedience to the demands of the deity, “Decades of Arrogance between/ The Dial of Life -/And Him-.” This small soul-clock, in its broken, urgent, even deathly life, pits itself against the larger work of an invisible clock-maker God, whether of John Calvin’s Geneva or Dickinson’s own New England.

Puppet; An Essay on Uncanny Life by Kenneth Gross; University of Chicago Press, 2011

photo: Scene from Chair de ma chair (My own flesh and blood), Ilka Schonbein, by Marinetter Delanne