Camille Paglia: The Radical Libertarian


Reading through Camille Paglia’s criticisms of the culture, one cannot help but think that most other social critics of our generation either feed a confirmation bias or speak about things for which most of us have no interest. As evidence of their lack of confidence, they scratch and claw their way through the competition to achieve an unprecedented depth in the sewer. On those occasions when Ms. Paglia does use overly provocative words, she backs it up with objectivity and a display of knowledge that is so vast that the adjective “informed” seems incomplete.

Camille Paglia is not a conservative, or liberal, and her politics have been described as “radical libertarian”, but she is a life-long Democrat. The “difficult to define” nature of her politics is something that most partisans pine for, but few of these “all over the map” thinkers could finish one paragraph of Camille Paglia’s thoughts without acknowledging that there is a comparative consistency to the overview of their thinking that could only be called limited to a certain ideology. Most diverse thinkers would also shrink at the evidence of inconsistencies in their beliefs system that suggests that they’ve either never been challenged, or that they’ve never truly given opposing views any consideration. From what I’ve read of Ms. Paglia’s work, when she is confronted by inconsistencies she confronts them head-on, and in a manner that contains no obfuscation or spin.

She is in favor of pornography, abortion, prostitution, drug-use, and assisted suicide. She is a proud lesbian, an atheist that respects religion, and a self-described dissident feminist, or as some feminist critics have called her an “anti-feminist feminist”.

1412025458115_Image_galleryImage_Mandatory_Credit_Photo_byIf you have strong views on a specific topic, she’ll probably offend you in some manner, but her methodology does not consist of the quick to the throat one-liners that one has come expect from a provocateur. Those that worship at the altar of provocateurs may not even recognize what Camille’s methodology for what it is, as her criticisms dig deep and leave a lasting wound.

The average and ubiquitous provocateur will say something along the line of: “I don’t want some guy (Ted Cruz) that purportedly memorized the constitution at twelve years-old to be my president. If I would’ve been in his grade, at twelve years old, I would’ve put my knee into his throat until he changed … I want the guy I vote for to smoke pot, have premarital and post-marital affairs … and yes … I’m talking about in the White House, and I want my guy to snort coke off their partner’s backside. I want my politician to be a real man or woman that has lived a real life.”

Those of us that worship at the altar of provocateurs are temporarily put in a jam by such comments, because they’re directed at “our guys”, but it’s not that, and we find ourselves in a sand hole trying to defend our disinterest. It’s that that type of ridicule is lacking in ingenuity and depth, and originality. It’s something George Carlin was saying forty years ago, it’s Lenny Bruce, it’s retread. Those of us that pine for something different want that cutting-the-edge-of-the-throat type of originality from our social critics that is informed and appears to have no influence, and we also want the kind of critiques that have staying power in the manner Camille Paglia’s criticism does:

“(Ted) Cruz gives me the willies. The guy is a fanatic! He’s very smart, clever and strategic, and he has a fine education from Princeton, so people have to watch out for him. But I think he is self-absorbed and narcissistic to a maniacal degree. I will never forgive him for his insulting arrogance to Dianne Feinstein when the Judiciary Committee was debating gun control two years ago. There’s a two-minute clip on YouTube which I urge people to look at it. Cruz is smirkily condescending and ultimately juvenile. He peppers Feinstein with a long list of rat-a-tat questions, as if he’s playing Perry Mason grilling a witness on the stand. He was trying to embarrass her but only embarrassed himself. A president must be a statesman, not a smart-alecky horse’s ass.”

There is no substance to the insight of most provocateurs. Listen to the most caustic crowd long enough, usually found on satellite radio, or on podcasts, and you’ll hear that their analysis of even the most important subjects devolve to 5th grade potty humor and fart jokes. Provocative jokes like those have their place, but they don’t have the kind of staying power that a Camille Paglia statement does, as her most recent interview with Salon.com, part II, and part III proves.

On Bill Clinton:

“Bill Clinton was a serial abuser of working-class women –he had exploited that power differential even in Arkansas. And then in the case of Monica Lewinsky– I mean, the failure on the part of (iconic feminist leader) Gloria Steinem and company to protect her was an absolute disgrace in feminist history! What bigger power differential could there be than between the president of the United States and this poor innocent girl? Not only an intern but clearly a girl who had a kind of pleading, open look to her–somebody who was looking for a father figure.

“I was enraged! My publicly stated opinion at the time was that I don’t care what public figures do in their private life. It’s a very sophisticated style among the French, and generally in Europe, where the heads of state tend to have mistresses on the side. So what? That doesn’t bother me at all! But the point is, they are sophisticated affairs that the European politicians have, while the Clinton episode was a disgrace.”

Camille preceded this observation with a slight correlation between Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton:

“Right from the start, when the Bill Cosby scandal surfaced, I knew it was not going to bode well for Hillary’s campaign, because young women today have a much lower threshold for tolerance of these matters. The horrible truth is that the feminist establishment in the U.S., led by Gloria Steinem, did in fact apply a double standard to Bill Clinton’s behavior because he was a Democrat. The Democrat president and administration supported abortion rights, and therefore it didn’t matter what his personal behavior was.

“But we’re living in a different time right now, and young women have absolutely no memory of Bill Clinton. It’s like ancient history for them; there’s no reservoir of accumulated good will.”

Salon.com Interviewer David Daley: “A cigar and the intern is certainly the opposite of sophisticated.”

“Absolutely! It was frat house stuff! And Monica got nothing out of it. Bill Clinton used her. Hillary was away or inattentive, and he used Monica in the White House–and in the suite of the Oval Office, of all places. He couldn’t have taken her on some fancy trip? She never got the perks of being a mistress; she was there solely to service him. And her life was completely destroyed by the publicity that followed. The Clinton’s are responsible for the destruction of Monica Lewinsky! They probably hoped that she would just go on and have a job, get married, have children, and disappear, but instead she’s like this walking ghoul.”

Salon.com Interviewer David Daley: “Fifteen years later, that’s still the sad role left for her to play.”

“Yes, it’s like something out of “Wuthering Heights” or “Great Expectations”–some Victorian novel, where a woman turns into this mourning widow who mopes on and on over a man who abused or abandoned her. Hillary has a lot to answer for, because she took an antagonistic and demeaning position toward her husband’s accusers. So it’s hard for me to understand how the generation of Lena Dunham would or could tolerate the actual facts of Hillary’s history.”

Salon.com Interviewer David Daley: “So have the times and standards changed enough that Clinton would be seen as Cosby, if he was president today.”

“Oh, yes! There’s absolutely no doubt, especially in this age of instant social media. In most of these cases, like the Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby stories, there’s been a complete neglect of psychology. We’re in a period right now where nobody asks any questions about psychology.  No one has any feeling for human motivation. No one talks about sexuality in terms of emotional needs and symbolism and the legacy of childhood. Sexuality has been politicized–“Don’t ask any questions!” “No discussion!” “Gay is exactly equivalent to straight!” And thus in this period of psychological blindness or inertness, our art has become dull. There’s nothing interesting being written–in fiction or plays or movies.Everything is boring because of our failure to ask psychological questions.

“So I say there is a big parallel between Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton–aside from their initials! Young feminists need to understand that this abusive behavior by powerful men signifies their sense that female power is much bigger than they are! These two people, Clinton and Cosby, are emotionally infantile–they’re engaged in a war with female power. It has something to do with their early sense of being smothered by female power–and this pathetic, abusive and criminal behavior is the result of their sense of inadequacy.

“Now, in order to understand that, people would have to read my first book, “Sexual Personae”–which of course is far too complex for the ordinary feminist or academic mind! It’s too complex because it requires a sense of the ambivalence of human life. Everything is not black and white, for heaven’s sake! We are formed by all kinds of strange or vague memories from childhood. That kind of understanding is needed to see that Cosby was involved in a symbiotic, push-pull thing with his wife, where he went out and did these awful things to assert his own independence. But for that, he required the women to be inert. He needed them to be dead! Cosby is actually a necrophiliac–a style that was popular in the late Victorian period in the nineteenth-century.

“It’s hard to believe now, but you had men digging up corpses from graveyards, stealing the bodies, hiding them under their beds, and then having sex with them. So that’s exactly what’s happening here: to give a woman a drug, to make her inert, to make her dead is the man saying that I need her to be dead for me to function. She’s too powerful for me as a living woman. And this is what is also going on in those barbaric fraternity orgies, where women are sexually assaulted while lying unconscious. And women don’t understand this! They have no idea why any men would find it arousing to have sex with a young woman who’s passed out at a fraternity house. But it’s necrophilia–this fear and envy of a woman’s power.

“And it’s the same thing with Bill Clinton: to find the answer, you have to look at his relationship to his flamboyant mother. He felt smothered by her in some way. But let’s be clear–I’m not trying to blame the mother!  What I’m saying is that male sexuality is extremely complicated, and the formation of male identity is very tentative and sensitive–but feminist rhetoric doesn’t allow for it. This is why women are having so much trouble dealing with men in the feminist era.  They don’t understand men, and they demonize men. They accord to men far more power than men actually have in sex. Women control the sexual world in ways that most feminists simply don’t understand.

“My explanation is that second-wave feminism dispensed with motherhood. The ideal woman was the career woman–and I do support that. To me, the mission of feminism is to remove all barriers to women’s advancement in the social and political realm–to give women equal opportunities with men. However, what I kept saying in “Sexual Personae” is that equality in the workplace is not going to solve the problems between men and women which are occurring in the private, emotional realm, where every man is subordinate to women, because he emerged as a tiny helpless thing from a woman’s body. Professional women today don’t want to think about this or deal with it.

“The erasure of motherhood from feminist rhetoric has led us to this current politicization of sex talk, which doesn’t allow women to recognize their immense power vis-à-vis men. When motherhood was more at the center of culture, you had mothers who understood the fragility of boys and the boy’s need for nurturance and for confidence to overcome his weaknesses. The old-style country women–the Italian matriarchs and Jewish mothers–they all understood the fragility of men. The mothers ruled their own world and didn’t take men that seriously. They understood how to nurture men and encourage them to be strong–whereas current feminism simply doesn’t perceive the power of women vis-a-vis men.  But when you talk like this with most men, it really resonates with them, and they say “Yes, yes! That’s it!”

“Currently, feminists lack sympathy and compassion for men and for the difficulties that men face in the formation of their identities. I’m not talking in terms of the men’s rights movement, which got infected by p.c.  The heterosexual professional woman, emerging with her shiny Ivy League degree, wants to communicate with her husband exactly the way she communicates with her friends–as in “Sex and the City.” That show really caught the animated way that women actually talk with each other.  But that’s not a style that straight men can do!  Gay men can do it, sure–but not straight men!  Guess what–women are different than men! When will feminism wake up to this basic reality? Women relate differently to each other than they do to men. And straight men do not have the same communication skills or values as women–their brains are different!”

On Atheists that sneer at Religion:

“I regard (those that sneer at religion) as adolescents. I say in the introduction to my last book, “Glittering Images”, that “Sneering at religion is juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination.”  It exposes a state of perpetual adolescence that has something to do with their parents– they’re still sneering at dad in some way.  Richard Dawkins was the only high-profile atheist out there when I began publicly saying “I am an atheist,” on my book tours in the early 1990s. I started the fad for it in the U.S, because all of a sudden people, including leftist journalists, started coming out of the closet to publicly claim their atheist identities, which they weren’t bold enough to do before. But the point is that I felt it was perfectly legitimate for me to do that because of my great respect for religion in general–from the iconography to the sacred architecture and so forth. I was arguing that religion should be put at the center of any kind of multicultural curriculum.

“I’m speaking here as an atheist. I don’t believe there is a God, but I respect every religion deeply. All the great world religions contain a complex system of beliefs regarding the nature of the universe and human life that is far more profound than anything that liberalism has produced. We have a whole generation of young people who are clinging to politics and to politicized visions of sexuality for their belief system. They see nothing but politics, but politics is tiny. Politics applies only to society. There is a huge metaphysical realm out there that involves the eternal principles of life and death. The great tragic texts, including the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, no longer have the central status they once had in education, because we have steadily moved away from the heritage of western civilization.

“The real problem is a lack of knowledge of religion as well as a lack of respect for religion. I find it completely hypocritical for people in academe or the media to demand understanding of Muslim beliefs and yet be so derisive and dismissive of the devout Christian beliefs of Southern conservatives.

“But yes, the sneering is ridiculous!  Exactly what are these people offering in place of religion? In my system, I offer art–and the whole history of spiritual commentary on the universe. There’s a tremendous body of nondenominational insight into human life that used to be called cosmic consciousness.  It has to be remembered that my generation in college during the 1960s was suffused with Buddhism, which came from the 1950s beatniks. Hinduism was in the air from every direction–you had the Beatles and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Ravi Shankar at Monterey, and there were sitars everywhere in rock music. So I really thought we were entering this great period of religious syncretism, where the religions of the world were going to merge. But all of a sudden, it disappeared!  The Asian religions vanished–and I really feel sorry for young people growing up in this very shallow environment where they’re peppered with images from mass media at a particularly debased stage.

“There are no truly major stars left, and I don’t think there’s much profound work being done in pop culture right now.  Young people have nothing to enlighten them, which is why they’re clinging so much to politicized concepts, which give them a sense of meaning and direction.

“But this sneering thing!  I despise snark.  Snark is a disease that started with David Letterman and jumped to Jon Stewart and has proliferated since. I think it’s horrible for young people!   And this kind of snark atheism–let’s just invent that term right now–is stupid, and people who act like that are stupid. Christopher Hitchens’ book “God is Not Great” was a travesty. He sold that book on the basis of the brilliant chapter titles. If he had actually done the research and the work, where each chapter had the substance of those wonderful chapter titles, then that would have been a permanent book. Instead, he sold the book and then didn’t write one–he talked it. It was an appalling performance, demonstrating that that man was an absolute fraud to be talking about religion.  He appears to have done very little scholarly study.  Hitchens didn’t even know Judeo-Christianity well, much less the other world religions.  He had that glib Oxbridge debater style in person, but you’re remembered by your written work, and Hitchens’ written work was weak and won’t last.

“Dawkins also seems to be an obsessive on some sort of personal vendetta, and again, he’s someone who has never taken the time to do the necessary research into religion. Now my entire career has been based on the pre-Christian religions.  My first book, “Sexual Personae,” was about the pagan cults that still influence us, and it began with the earliest religious artifacts, like the Venus of Willendorf in 35,000 B.C. In the last few years, I’ve been studying Native American culture, in particular the Paleo-Indian period at the close of the Ice Age.  In the early 1990s, when I first arrived on the scene, I got several letters from Native Americans saying my view of religion, women, and sexuality resembled the traditional Native American view. I’m not surprised, because my orientation is so fixed in the pre-Christian era.”

On Jon Stewart, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and the liberal media:

“I think Stewart’s show demonstrated the decline and vacuity of contemporary comedy. I cannot stand that smug, snarky, superior tone. I hated the fact that young people were getting their news through that filter of sophomoric snark.  Comedy, to me, is one of the major modern genres, and the big influences on my generation were Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. Then Joan Rivers had an enormous impact on me–she’s one of my major role models.  It’s the old caustic, confrontational style of Jewish comedy. It was Jewish comedians who turned stand-up from the old gag-meister shtick of vaudeville into a biting analysis of current social issues, and they really pushed the envelope. Lenny Bruce used stand-up to produce gasps and silence from the audience. And that’s my standard–a comedy of personal risk.  And by that standard, I’m sorry, but Jon Stewart is not a major figure. He’s certainly a highly successful T.V. personality, but I think he has debased political discourse. I find nothing incisive in his work. As for his influence, if he helped produce the hackneyed polarization of moral liberals versus evil conservatives, then he’s partly at fault for the political stalemate in the United States.

“I don’t demonize Fox News. At what point will liberals wake up to realize the stranglehold that they had on the media for so long? They controlled the major newspapers and weekly newsmagazines and T.V. networks. It’s no coincidence that all of the great liberal forums have been slowly fading. They once had such incredible power. Since the rise of the Web, the nightly network newscasts have become peripheral, and the New York Times and the Washington Post have been slowly fading and are struggling to survive.

“Historically, talk radio arose via Rush Limbaugh in the early 1990s precisely because of this stranglehold by liberal discourse. For heaven’s sake, I was a Democrat who had just voted for Jesse Jackson in the 1988 primary, but I had to fight like mad in the early 1990s to get my views heard. The resistance of liberals in the media to new ideas was enormous. Liberals think of themselves as very open-minded, but that’s simply not true! Liberalism has sadly become a knee-jerk ideology, with people barricaded in their comfortable little cells. They think that their views are the only rational ones, and everyone else is not only evil but financed by the Koch brothers.  It’s so simplistic!

“Now let me give you a recent example of the persisting insularity of liberal thought in the media. When the first secret Planned Parenthood video was released in mid-July, anyone who looks only at liberal media was kept totally in the dark about it, even after the second video was released.  But the videos were being run nonstop all over conservative talk shows on radio and television.  It was a huge and disturbing story, but there was total silence in the liberal media.  That kind of censorship was shockingly unprofessional.  The liberal major media were trying to bury the story by ignoring it.  Now I am a former member of Planned Parenthood and a strong supporter of unconstrained reproductive rights.  But I was horrified and disgusted by those videos and immediately felt there were serious breaches of medical ethics in the conduct of Planned Parenthood officials.  But here’s my point:  it is everyone’s obligation, whatever your political views, to look at both liberal and conservative news sources every single day.  You need a full range of viewpoints to understand what is going on in the world.”

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The Big Lebowski and Philosophy II


[Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part review of the subject matter discussed in The Dude and The Zen Master. Part one can be found here.]

All wars, all conflict, can be resolved, and redefined, through interconnectedness—

“You might think it would be wonderful if we could go in and extract all the evil people out of this world, like we extract cancer out of a body,”  Jeff Bridges says in the collection of philosophical anecdotes The Dude and the Zen Master he made with Zen master Bernie Glassman. “But as Solzhenitsyn says, evil runs through all our hearts, and who wants to cut a piece of her own heart? We are part of nature and nature uses violence and war to make its blade sharper and sharper.”

The-Dude-and-The-Zen-Master-Gear-Patrol-FullBridges expands upon this theme by describing cells and magnification, and how the magnification of a cell reveals that every cell involves two parties fighting for survival, and that those parties are both essential components of the same cell. “They are,” in his words, “an interconnected whole fighting for the same thing.” Bridges states that there is order within the perceived disorder of that cell, and if we were able to disrupt that order to such a degree that we were able to kill all of the germs, viruses, and bacteria in our body, we would cease to live. Germs have a right to live too, he concludes, –which when taken to Bridges’ extended analogy between the internal skirmishes that occur within a cell and the wars of human history– reminds one of Rosie O’Donnell’s line: “Terrorists have children too.”

Bridges then speaks about how the fight that occurs within a cell is equivalent to the fights between good and evil that have occurred throughout human history. Within a cell there is the constant division process that occurs in which the organisms fight, and who is right and who is wrong is less important than the fight for survival. When you alter the magnification even more, he says, you could equate that cell to the Earth, in which humans are fighting in the same manner, and each parties believes he is right, and when you alter the magnification even more, you have Space, where the simplistic differences between right and wrong are negligible in the grand scheme of things.

Taking such a philosophical overview of humanity is a wonderful notion, and if everyone agreed to debate the topic in that forum, planet earth would be a wonderful place to live in. Humans have to live on the sphere we call Earth, as opposed to the theoretical one that is a speck in the universe, and doing so requires that we accept the realities of the place where we live in, and it also requires us to do everything possible to maintain livable conditions.

Bridges states that setting that forum to make planet earth a more wonderful place to live in should be the whole idea. He says that we don’t have to accept the realities of the place we live in, and that we can alter it. “Anyone that questions this,” says Bridges, “should look at how President John F. Kennedy set the course for landing a man on the moon.  He said that at one point in our nation’s history, sending the man to the moon seemed a far-fetched idea, until the president changed the conversation by informing the nation that it would be done. After he did this, the conversation centered around how it was going to be done, not if it was going to happen. ”

Bridges general approach to war, conflict, and his specific approach to the attacks on 9/11/01, is that we should try doing nothing to see how that works. On the subject of 9/11/01, Bridges states that he was all for doing something to those responsible for that act, but that he didn’t agree that that something should involve such a global war on terror. He says that we should’ve spent more time examining our role in 9/11/01, and that we should’ve apologized for our role in making them angry. As anyone that has read the history of terrorism vs. America knows, we did try the tactic of holding those responsible in criminal courts, after the first World Trade Center attack, and al Qaeda saw that as a sign of weakness. They called us a “paper tiger” and decided to explore the idea of doing something more. We have tried apology tours to quell the animosity the world is purported have for America, and humanity has also tried appeasing the evil intentions of those that plan to do us harm. These procedures have not worked. We should, of course, continue to try every method at our disposal for maintaining peace on our planet, and just because one measure did not work, with one lunatic, doesn’t mean that it won’t with another, but there is a point where Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity comes into play, and Bridges fails to incorporate that definition into his line of reason.

A philosophical inconsistency later arises when Bridges begins speaking on the subject of slavery. He states that when we were forming our Constitution, it was a difficult chore for our Founders to find unity on the many subjects before them, but the issue of slavery proved to be so divisive that it threatened to end the proceedings, so they decided to shelve it for a later date. They decided that all of the other aspects of our founding were so important that they couldn’t be derailed.  This, of course, came back to bite the nation in the butt, and Bridges believes that if the Founders had tackled this issue at the time, there may not have been the sense of disenfranchisement among blacks that lives on to this day. By the same token, it could be said that if we initiated a more global war on terror after the first World Trade Center attack, the incident that occurred on 9/11/01, may never have happened. The fact that we followed what Bridges still believes is the desired course of action, after the first World Trade Center attack came back to bite us in the butt.  

If peace could be attained in a manner where all the good guys had to do was view the human characteristics of their opponent as nothing more than an organism that wants to survive, and that that opponent would then appreciate that acknowledgement so much that they sat down at a peace accords table to engage in a serious and genuine discussion of their grievances, the Earth would be a more wonderful place to live on. Everyone wants to live in that world. Viewing this world through that lens, however, neglects the irrational component of evil people. Why would anyone want to set out hurt another person? They do. It’s irrational, but they do. Yet, it appears that ridding the world of evil, in this manner, would be like cutting out a piece of our heart out.

The danger of viewing evil people through such a simplistic lens occurs when we believe those humans, that happen to be evil, are evil. The thoughtful approach suggests that we view these people as people too when they enter into a Munich Agreement. It’s simplistic to view the individual that just wants Poland and Czechoslovakia as evil, and it’s much more thoughtful to pare back our forces and draw down our defenses with the knowledge that peace is the solution. The danger occurs when that evil person leaves that peace accord, and joins their generals at the planning boards with the knowledge that they acted their part so well that we’re now a little more vulnerable to their forceful persuasion. 

In a certain magnification of the historical lens, everything Adolf Hitler did may have been evil, but in another setting, say his, they could be viewed in another manner. Did Hitler wake up in the morning and think, I’m going to do something evil today, or was he eating apple fritters and drinking cocoa with his wife and dog? Hitler was a person too, and he had a quest for survival that was similar to the quest of germs, viruses, and bacteria. They don’t invade our body’s cells with evil intentions. They just do what they do. If we happen to get cancer, as a result of their victory over our white blood cells, we may consider that a bad thing, but if we alter the magnification, and attempt to view it from their perspective, we could view it as their victory.

Modern day evil people may go home at the end of the day to watch Happy Days reruns, and laugh with their kids bouncing on their knees, but that doesn’t change the fact that the actions they engaged in that day left their streets littered with dead people, homeless people, and a greater portion of their population starving than there were the day before. If we view that from a different magnification, an objective view that accounts for their definition of these actions, we could see the mass slaughter of civilians as a victory for their cause.  It’s all relative. 

If you’re one that lives with the relative notion that murdering an estimated eleven million people is a bad thing, or that a leader’s policies led to the mass starvation of his people, then you have to be willing to set a course of actions in motion that will, in a temporary fashion at least, set aside the fact that these evil people are just human, with kids, for at least as long as it takes to either contain their evil, or to set a precedent in the minds of evil men that their evil acts will no longer be tolerated. 

Some peacenik did not abide by the methods of achieving peace that The Dude did. His method alluded to the idea that the best way of achieving peace was through strength, and his record proved to be more successful than The Dude’s, Neville Chamberlain’s, or any other theoretical attempts at achieving peace in our time. We won’t talk about that person though, because he was icky, and his actions portend that there are icky, evil people that require alternative methods.  

Consider the Lobster: A Review


This book starts out the way most brilliant, pop psychology books do from an angle you may have never considered before. Since this book is a collection of divergent essays, it should be reviewed chapter by chapter and essay by essay. The first essay “Big Red Son” involves comedic talk of the porn industry. To be fair to the author, David Foster Wallace, this essay was first written in 1998, and some may conclude it unfair to declare it dated, but I didn’t read this until 2012, so I am forced to say that this material has been mined for all its worth at the time of my reading. (See Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff.) The second chapter “Some Remarks on Kafka’s funniness…” whets the appetite. The general idea behind this chapter “that humor is not very sophisticated today” has been mined by those of us obsessed with pop culture, but Wallace does get some points for listing the specific problems with the current sense of humor that doesn’t understand the sophisticated and subtle humor of author Franz Kafka. He says: “Kafka’s humor has almost none of the particular forms and codes of contemporary US amusement.” This launches the Wallace into a detailed list of complaints about contemporary humor brought to the homes of TV watchers.

David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

“Kafka’s humor has almost none of the particular forms and codes of contemporary U.S. amusement. There’s no recursive wordplay or verbal stunt-pilotry, little in the way of wisecracks or mordant lampoon. There is no body-function humor, nor sexual entendre, nor stylized attempts to rebel by offending convention. No slapstick with banana peels or rogue adenoids. There are none of the ba-bing ba-bang reversals of modern sitcoms; nor are there precocious children or profane grandparents or cynically insurgent coworkers. Perhaps most alien of all, Kafka’s authority figures are never just hollow buffoons to be ridiculed, but they are always absurd and scary and sad all at once.”

The point that Wallace attempts to make is that his students don’t understand Kafka’s absurdist wit, because they are more accustomed to being spoon-fed their entertainment. They’re not used to having to think through something as complex as Kafka’s central joke:

“That the horrific struggle to establish a human self-results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.”

The chapter is worth reading not for its “When I was a kid, we had to walk ten miles to school” style of complaining about the youth of the day, but the illustrative manner in which Wallace complains about humor in general. A complaint this author laments may not be generational.

The fourth chapter may be the selling point for this book. In it, Wallace describes a war that has been occurring in the English language for a couple generations now. Wallace calls it a Usage War. The Usage War describes how one side, the more traditional side, AKA the prescriptive side, pleads for a return to traditional English. He talks of the other side, the more modern side that describes itself as a more scientific study of the language, updating our usage on a more inclusive plane. The latter, called the descriptive side, calls for more political correctness in its language. It calls for a more comprehensive list of words and usage that incorporates styles of language such as Ebonics and words that are more commonly used, such as “irregardless”. Previous to this reading, I heard that tired phrase “everything is political”, but I had no idea that that phrase could be extended to dictionaries. The author’s reporting on this subject is excellent. It is informative without being biased, and it is subjective with enough objectivity to present both viewpoints in a manner that allows you to decide which side is more conducive to progress in our language.

Wallace is not as unbiased in his John McCain chapter however. He makes sure, in the opening portions of an article –that was paid for by the unabashedly liberal periodical Rolling Stone— that his colleagues know that he is not a political animal (i.e. he is stridently liberal). He lets them know he voted for Bill Bradley. Other than the requisite need a writer of a Rolling Stone article feels to display their liberal bona fides, it’s not clear why Wallace would include his opinion in a piece that purports to cover an election campaign. If I were granted the honor of being paid to cover a Nancy Pelosi campaign, for example, I would not begin this piece with a couple of paragraphs describing how I feel about her politics, but such is the state of journalism in America today…particularly in the halls of the unabashedly liberal Rolling Stone.

To have such an article begin with a political screed that is different than mine, would normally turn me off, but I’ve grown used to it. (I know, I know, there is no bias.) The real turn off occurs after the reader wades through the partisan name-calling, to the languid dissertation on the minutiae involved on a campaign bus. If you’re ever aching to know what goes on in a political campaign, I mean really aching to know, this is the chapter for you. I would say that most are curious about the machinations that occur behind the scenes, but I would say that most of those same people would have their curiosity tested by Wallace’s treatment here. He says that the editors at Rolling Stone edited the piece. He says that he always wanted to provide his loyal readers a director’s cut. After reading through the first twenty pages of this chapter, I was mentally screaming for that editor to step in and assist me through the piece. It’s not that it’s poor writing, nor that it’s entirely without merit, but you REALLY have to be one who aching to know the inner workings of a campaign. You have to want to know bathroom difficulties —such as keeping a bathroom door closed on a tour bus— you have to want to know what reporters eat, why they eat it, and when. You have to want your minutiae wrapped in minutiae, until your eyes bleed with detail. It’s a cardinal rule of mine to never skip passages. I live with the notion that I can learn something from just about everything an author I deem worthy writes, and I deem Wallace to be a quality writer with an adept and varying intellect, but I had to break my cardinal rule with this chapter. It was too painful a slog.

As for the chapter on Tracy Austin, Wallace laments the fact that championship level athletes aren’t capable of achieving a degree of articulation that he wants when he purchases one of their autobiographies. Tracy Austin, for those who don’t know, was a championship level tennis player. Wallace purchased her autobiography hoping that, as an adult long since removed from the game of tennis, Austin would be able to elucidate the heart of a champion. He hoped that Austin would be able to describe for us what went through her mind at the moment when she achieved the pinnacle of her career, and he wanted to know what she thought about the accident that led to her premature retirement. He wasn’t just disappointed, he writes, in the manner that he is disappointed with sideline interviews that are loaded with “we give it 110%, one game at a time, and we rise and fall as a team” style clichés. He sums up his disappointment with the following:

“It may well be that we spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied. And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must (out of necessity) be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.”

imagesCAY91IXCIn other words, we are able to express these ideas based on the fact that we concentrate on the arena of the mind, and their concentration lies in physical prowess. We, non-athlete types, think about the things they do, we fantasize about them, and they do them. We think about how glorious it would be to sink a championship winning basket over Bryon Russell, Michael Jordan just does it. We think about, and write about, that incredibly perfect and physically impossible baseline shot of a Tracy Austin, Tracy just does it. We see the replays of their exploits endlessly repeated on Sportscenter, and we hear almost as many different analyses of them. We then think about these plays from all these varied angles that are provided, and we project ourselves onto that platform. We don’t think about all the rigorous hours a Michael Jordan spent in gyms preparing for that moment, we simply think about that moment, and what it would mean to us to have conquered such a moment. So, when one of these athletes steps away from that stage to offer us a few words about that moment and those few words center around the “I just did it” meme we are profoundly disappointed. To paraphrase Yoda, “They don’t think, they do, or they do not.” They use the force granted to them though spending a greater percentage of their lives in gyms, on tennis courts, and in weight rooms. They concentrate on muscle memory to prevent the mind from interfering with their eventual completion of the act. If we, non-athlete types, were in a similar situation, we would think about the significance of the history of the game, the profundity of the moment, how this moment may affect the rest of our lives, how many people are watching us, if Bryon is a better athlete than we are, and if he will block our shot, what the fellas are going to say about this play after the game, and we become so immersed in the enormity of the moment that we probably think too much to make the shot. The point is that they’ve made that shot so many times, in so many different ways and games, that they simply rely on muscle memory to make the championship shot. They may think about that shot, as long as it takes them to project it, but once they step on the court, they go on auto-pilot and complete the mission. They would love to give Hemingway-esque descriptions of their game, that satisfied us all, and lands them in a weekly spot on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, but for all the reasons described here they are simply not capable of it.

I used to wonder what announcers were talking about when they said, “He’s too young to understand what this means.” This kid, as you call him, has been playing this game his whole life, and he’s lived the life of the championship level athlete, which means sacrificing the norms of daily life that his peers knew, and he’s done all that for “this” moment. What do you mean he doesn’t know what it means? It dawned on me, after a couple struggles with it, that “this kid” doesn’t know what this moment would mean to that announcer … or those of us at home watching. In that post-game interview, then, we’re looking for something, some little nugget that we can identify with. When we get phrases from the cliché vault, we’re so disappointed that they didn’t put more effort into identifying with our sense of their glory. We’re frustrated that they couldn’t reach us on our level. Yet, as Wallace states, it is the essence of a championship level athlete to be “blind and dumb” during the moments that define them, and we all know this to one degree or another. We’ve all seen these championship level athletes being interviewed about their individual moments thousands of times, so why do we continue to be so frustrated with them, and does this continued sense of frustration begin to say more about them or us?

How to Succeed in Writing III: Are you Intelligent Enough to Write a Novel?


I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of (poor fiction),” –Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the (poor fiction) in the wastebasket.”

The key to writing great fiction is streamlining your story. Cut the fat! Some of the greatest authors of all time have admitted that the best additions they made to their novel were the parts they deleted. Somewhere along the line, in their writing career, they achieved objectivity. Somewhere along the line, they arrived at the idea that not all of their words were golden. Somewhere along the line, they realized that some of their words, sentences, paragraphs, and even some of their chapters were quite simply self-indulgent, wastebasket material. These self-indulgent portions, or the “ninety-one pages of (poor fiction),” of any novel are usually found in the asides.

But asides are what we enjoy in a novel you say. Asides can provide setting, pace, and drama. Asides can also build suspense and fortify the characteristics of a character, but they can also kill your novel. Most asides are unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. As anyone who has read a novel can attest, most novels could be written in forty pages, but that’s a short story, and short stories don’t sell as well as novels. They don’t sell as well, because readers want involvement. Readers don’t usually want snapshot stories. They want a world. They not only want to know the humans that they are reading about, they want to be involved with them. They want to see them breathe, they want to hear them talk to an employee at a Kwik Shop, and they want to feel the steps these characters take from place to place. They want to know these people, so when something happens to them, they can care about them.  They want to know the minutiae of the human they’re reading about, but they don’t want to get so caught up in the minutiae that they’re taken off pace, and they don’t want to read a self-absorbed writer that thinks it’s all about them.  Cut the fat!  Get to the point already!

“I’ve met a number of intelligent people throughout my life, and I’ve met a number of people I consider brilliant. I’ve met very few that were able to combine the two.” –Unknown.

This desire to be perceived as intelligent is a strong, driving force in all of us. How many stupid and overly analytical things do we say in one day to try to get one person to think that we’re not a total idiot? This desire to prove intelligence is right up there with the drive to be perceived as beautiful and likeable. It’s right up there with the desire to be seen as strong, athletic, independent, and mechanically inclined. We spend our whole lives trying to impress people. Even those that say that they don’t care what others think are trying to impress us with the fact that they don’t care.

In my first era of writing, I wrote a lot of these self-indulgent asides that contributed little to the story. I was a new student to the world of politics, and I was anxious to prove to the world that I was one smart cookie. I also wanted to show that half of the world that disagreed with my politics how wrong they were. So, I put my main character through an incident, and they came out of it enlightened by a political philosophy that agreed with mine. In various other pieces, I wanted to inform the world of all of this great underground music I was experiencing. My thought process at the time was: “Hey, if Stephen King can get away with telling us about tired rockers that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Why can’t I tell a few readers about a group they’ve never heard before?” Copy the masters right?  I wanted the world to know both sides of my brain in the same artistic piece. After taking a step back, and rereading these novels, I achieved enough objectivity to realize that it was all a big ball of mess.

If I was going to clean this mess up and start writing decent stories, I was going to have to divide my desires up.  I was going to have to cut the fat.  I was going to have to discipline myself to the creed that should be recited nightly by all aspiring storytellers: Story is sacred. I was going to have to learn to channel my desire to be perceived as smart into political and philosophical blogs. I was going to have to channel my desires to have people listen to my “discovered” music into Amazon.com reviews, and my stories, my novels, and my short stories would be left pure, untarnished stories with no agendas.  By dividing these desires up, I would be able to proselytize on the role of the Puggle in our society today, and the absolute beauty of Mr. Bungle’s music, without damaging my stories or boring the readers of my stories. I learned the principle the esteemed rock band Offspring tried to teach the world when they sang: “You gotta keep ‘em separated.”

There’s one writer, he-who-must-not-be-named, that never learned this principle. This author presumably got tired of being seen as just a storyteller. This author knew he was intelligent, and all of his friends and family knew he was intelligent, but the world didn’t know. The world only knew that he was a gifted storyteller, and they proved this by purchasing his books by the millions, but they didn’t know that he was so much more. This author achieved as much in the industry, if not more, as any other writer alive or dead (It’s Not King!), but he remained unsatisfied with that status. He needed the world to know that he wasn’t just a master of fiction. He needed the world to know he was as intelligent as he was brilliant, and he wrote the book that he hoped would prove it. It resulted in him ticking off 50% of his audience. 50% of his audience disagreed with him, and his politics, and they (we!) vowed to never read another one of his novels again. This is the risk you run when you seek to be perceived as intelligent and brilliant in the same work.

thomas-mannBut politics makes for such great filler, and to quote the great Thomas Mann: “Everything is political.” Well, there’s politics, and then there’s politics. If you’re one of those that doesn’t know the difference, and you don’t think your politics is politics, you should probably be writing something political. If you’re one of those who wants to write politics into your novel simply because it makes for such great filler, however, then you should try to avoid the self-indulgent conceit that ticks off that half of the population that disagrees with your politics. You’ll anger some with this, you’ll bore others, and the rest of us won’t care that you think it’s vital that your main character expresses something in some way that validates your way of thinking. We will just think it’s boring proselytizing from an insecure writer who needs validation from their peers. Stick to the story, we will scream, as we skip those passages or put your book down to never read anything you’ve ever written again.

You will need to be somewhat intelligent though. You’ll need enough to know your punctuation and grammar rules, you will need to know when and where to make paragraph breaks, and you will need to know how to edit your story for pace, but these aspects of storytelling can be learned.

“I am not adept at using punctuation and/or grammar in general…” A caller to a radio show once informed author Clive Barker. She said that she enjoyed writing, but it was the mechanics of writing that prevented her from delving into it whole hog. “Are you a clever story teller?” Clive asked her. “Do you enjoy telling stories, and do you entertain your friends with your tales?” The woman said yes to all of the above. “Well, you can learn the mechanics, and I encourage you to do so, but you cannot learn the art of storytelling. This ability to tell a story is, largely, a gift. Either you have it or you don’t.”

Be brilliant first, in other words, and if you can achieve brilliance, you can learn the rest. You can gain the intelligence necessary to get a thumbs up from a publisher, an agent, and eventually a reader, but you cannot learn brilliance. You cannot gain artistic creativity, and it’s hard enough to prove artistic brilliance. Why would you want to further burden yourself by going overboard in trying to also prove intelligence, and thus be everything to all people?

Let the people see how brilliant you are first! Gain a following. Once you have achieved that pied piper Wildeplateau, you can then attempt to display your intelligence. The preferred method of achieving all of your goals is to ‘keep ‘em separated’, but there are always going to be some who need to prove their intelligence and brilliance in the same Great American Novel. Those people are going to say Stephen King is a much better example to follow to the best-seller list than I am, and he achieved his plateau with a little bit of this and a little bit of that sprinkled in his prose. The question you have to ask yourself is, is he the rule or the exception to the rule? If Stephen King’s model is your preferred model, and these political and music parts are so germane, so golden, and so uniquely special to your story, keep them in.  As Oscar Wilde says, “You might as well be yourself, everyone else is taken.”

The Invention of Lying: A Review


The gist of this movie is that the greatest lie ever told to man is the existence of God. The fictional movie also exists in a world where everyone always tells the truth, no matter how bold or harsh. No one, in this movie, even knows what a lie is–hence the name of the movie. The Gervais’ character discovers the idea of lying in another scene, and he realizes that it makes life much easier for him in some ways. In another scene, his mother is dying, and she is fearful and desperate. She believes that she will face an eternity of nothingness following her death. In a desperate attempt to soothe her, Gervais’ character invents a place of mansions and happiness (heaven). The doctor and nurses overhear this, and they are intrigued. Word gets out that Gervais’ character has received information about an after-life. He is pursued for this information, and he invents a man in the sky (God). The people are irrationally soothed by Gervais’ character’s ideas. There are no counterpoints to Gervais’ character’s claims in the movie, and there is no counterpoint of enlightenment. The character merely claims at the end that he invented the whole thing.

I feel it’s my duty to inform you that this is not a chick flick, and it’s average. It is not as good as Gervais’ other movie Ghost Town, and it’s not as good as his shows Extras and The Office. The aspect about the ‘lie of God’s existence’ is not listed on the back jacket of the movie, and it’s not in any of the promos I saw. It caught me off guard. Now that you know, feel free to rent, buy, or download if this is your thing.

As to the counterpoint, it would’ve been nice to see some commentary about the other side. Example: While some believe in the existence of a man in the sky, others believe the sky is falling (i.e. Global Warming). While some believe that a bum on the streets is always a victim of circumstance, others believe most of them are there as a result of some form of self-indulgence. While some believe in the mythical assistance men in the leadership roles of government can provide to humanity, others believe that the key to success and happiness in life is through self-sufficiency.

It may have been difficult to fit such counterpoints into the plot, without being too preachy, but the writers of this movie could’ve done it.  They wouldn’t have had to devote huge chunks of dialogue to it, or numerous exchanges, to satisfy the other side.  They could’ve had one scene, or one simple piece of dialogue that questioned the other side.   They could’ve said something along the lines of “a man in Washington spear-headed a movement to attempt to curtail human indulgence, so he got together with his other buddies, and they invented something called Global Warming/Climate Change/Climate Disruption.”  They could’ve written that this attempt to shame human indulgence is equivalent to the definitions employed by individuals of Biblical times that believed that indulging in pursuits that God didn’t approve of, would result in a damaged harvest for the year.  They could’ve written some form of dialogue that suggested that shaming people into acting a particular way is as endemic to the human being as indulging is, and in this particular case (in the movie) the man in Washington was so upset by his unsuccessful bid to become president that he decided that he needed a legacy, so he latched onto an idea that stated that our Capitalism-run-amok form of   indulgence is causing a catastrophe of epic proportions.  They could’ve then concluded that this man’s legacy is now one of self-indulgence based on attempting to curtail indulgence, until he built an ostentatious, and indulgent home, and lavished in the riches his principled stand afforded him, until, like King Midas, everything he touched turned into gold, and his vain sermons on self-indulgence become a method to feed his own need for further indulgences.

This writers of this movie could’ve then had the people of the world irrationally worship the man in Washington, until a Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to him, and the writers could’ve had this man avoid any dissent and debate with some wild declaration along the lines of “all the science is in.  This catastrophe is happening.”  The writers could’ve had irrational exuberance occurring on both sides, but I’m sure they didn’t want to offend anyone.