Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Thoughts From Confucius

From The Analects:

The Master said, "A man is worthy of being a teacher who gets to know what is new by keeping fresh in his mind what he is already familiar with." (II, 11)

The Master said, "Yu, shall I tell you what it is to know. To say you know when you know, and to say you do not when you do not, that is knowledge." (II, 17)

Thursday, October 25, 2007


This article in the New York Times has made me homesick. A favorite quote (the writer is describing a Houston Tex-Mex restaurant named El Jardin):

Steaming combination platters of beef tacos and guacamole-topped chicken flautas cover the tables. For $5.55, the No. 16 was paralyzing — three pork tamales steamed in cornhusks dripped with gravy and cheese. You want to take a nap after lunch.

Monday, October 22, 2007

In Which I Rant About An Esteemed American Critic

Adam Gopnik is one of the best critics writing in America today. Along with Louis Menand and John Updike, he’s one of the critics in the New Yorker that I always read. He is intelligent, of course, (how do you become a critic for the New Yorker if you’re not? Only David Denby knows); but more importantly he’s enthusiastic; he isn’t cynical about what he reads and he manages to combine the erudition and training of an expert with the passion and perspective of an amateur.

That said, there is inevitably a passage in every one of his essays that irritates the living heck out of me. The passage in question this week comes at the end of a discussion on abridged versions of classic novels. (Apparently a British press is now publishing half-length versions of long 19th-century masterpieces like Moby Dick, Vanity Fair, and Anna Karenina.) Gopnik is surprised to find that most abridged novels seem to read as well as the originals.
“.... when you come to the end of the compact “Moby-Dick” you don’t think, What a betrayal; you think, Nice job—what were the missing bits again? And when you go back to find them you remember why the book isn’t just a thrilling adventure with unforgettable characters but a great book. The subtraction does not turn good work into hackwork; it turns a hysterical, half-mad masterpiece into a sound, sane book. It still has its phallic reach and point, but lacks its flaccid, anxious self-consciousness: it is all Dick and no Moby.”

What drives me bonkers here is the last sentence. It’s intended to be clever, but in fact it’s false—and the reason it’s false is because Gopnik is trying so hard to be clever.

Why is it false? Because the abridged version of Moby Dick is not, in any way, phallic. I’ll leave aside the question of whether or not “reach” and “point” are accurate descriptions of a phallus; let’s say for now that Gopnik is right, and that they are (but they’re not). Even so, there exists no person in this Universe who, upon finishing a book sharing the traits with the abridged version of a classic—one that is “sound, sane” and well-plotted—thinks to themselves, “You know, that book had reach. It had point.” No one. Not even Adam Gopnik. How could he? Those words bear no relation to the reading experience he describes.

What’s more, Gopnik knows this. How can he not? Anyone smart enough to write the rest of this essay must have known, when he coined that formulation, he was saying something that was not true. He knew, and did it anyway. The pun at the end of the paragraph (“All Dick and no Moby”) was important enough that he could justify the falsity its creation demanded. He wanted to sound clever, and even though that required him to say something untrue, he didn’t care.

It’s one thing to distort experience because you are, at root, unable to capture it. That’s a lack of skill; and though it is a failing, it is not a moral one. But Gopnik has no problem getting experience right, if he wants to. He has the skill; he’s just chooses not to use it. (If you don’t believe me, read the rest of the essay). And that, ultimately, is why passages like these make me so angry—because his failure is not the failure of the mediocre writer. He could say something true, but chooses not to. He would rather sound smart than write the truth. And that IS a moral failing.

Friday, October 19, 2007

"L.A. Is The Apocalypse"

This mildly deranged, Dave Hickey-esque, rumination on L.A. comes from a pretty excellent blog about contemporary architecture, urban planning, and all sorts of other nutty stuff . (Via: ASWOBA). It's intense, but funny and--at least in my limited experience--fairly accurate.

Greater Los Angeles

No matter what you do in L.A., your behavior is appropriate for the city. Los Angeles has no assumed correct mode of use. You can have fake breasts and drive a Ford Mustang – or you can grow a beard, weigh 300 pounds, and read Christian science fiction novels. Either way, you're fine: that's just how it works. You can watch Cops all day or you can be a porn star or you can be a Caltech physicist. You can listen to Carcass – or you can listen to Pat Robertson. Or both.
That's how we dooz it.

L.A. is the apocalypse: it's you and a bunch of parking lots. No one's going to save you; no one's looking out for you. It's the only city I know where that's the explicit premise of living there – that's the deal you make when you move to L.A.
The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic.

It says: no one loves you; you're the least important person in the room; get over it.

What matters is what you do there.

And maybe that means renting Hot Fuzz and eating too many pretzels; or maybe that means driving a Prius out to Malibu and surfing with Daryl Hannah as a means of protesting something; or maybe that means buying everything Fredric Jameson has ever written and even underlining significant passages as you visit the Westin Bonaventura. Maybe that just means getting into skateboarding, or into E!, or into Zen, Kabbalah, and Christian mysticism; or maybe you'll plunge yourself into gin-fueled all night Frank Sinatra marathons – or you'll lift weights and check email every two minutes on your Blackberry and watch old Bruce Willis films.

Who cares?

Literally no one cares, is the answer. No one cares. You're alone in the world.

L.A. is explicit about that.

If you can't handle a huge landscape made entirely from concrete, interspersed with 24-hour drugstores stocked with medications you don't need, then don't move there.
It's you and a bunch of parking lots.

You'll see Al Pacino in a traffic jam, wearing a stocking cap; you'll see Cameron Diaz in the check-out line at Whole Foods, giggling through a mask of reptilian skin; you'll see Harry Shearer buying bulk shrimp.

The whole thing is ridiculous. It's the most ridiculous city in the world – but everyone who lives there knows that. No one thinks that L.A. "works," or that it's well-designed, or that it's perfectly functional, or even that it makes sense to have put it there in the first place; they just think it's interesting. And they have fun there.

And the huge irony is that Southern California is where you can actually do what you want to do; you can just relax and be ridiculous. In L.A. you don't have to be embarrassed by yourself. You're not driven into a state of endless, vaguely militarized self-justification by your xenophobic neighbors.

You've got a surgically pinched, thin Michael Jackson nose? You've got a goatee and a trucker hat? You've got a million-dollar job and a Bentley? You've got to be at work at the local doughnut shop before 6am? Or maybe you've got 16 kids and an addiction to Yoo-Hoo – who cares?

It doesn't matter.

Los Angeles is where you confront the objective fact that you mean nothing; the desert, the ocean, the tectonic plates, the clear skies, the sun itself, the Hollywood Walk of Fame – even the parking lots: everything there somehow precedes you, even new construction sites, and it's bigger than you and more abstract than you and indifferent to you. You don't matter. You're free.

In Los Angeles you can be standing next to another human being but you may as well be standing next to a geological formation. Whatever that thing is, it doesn't care about you. And you don't care about it. Get over it. You're alone in the world. Do something interesting.

Do what you actually want to do – even if that means reading P.D. James or getting your nails done or re-oiling car parts in your backyard.

Because no one cares.

In L.A. you can grow Fabio hair and go to the Arclight and not be embarrassed by yourself. Every mode of living is appropriate for L.A. You can do what you want.
And I don't just mean that Los Angeles is some friendly bastion of cultural diversity and so we should celebrate it on that level and be done with it; I mean that Los Angeles is the confrontation with the void. It is the void. It's the confrontation with astronomy through near-constant sunlight and the inhuman radiative cancers that result. It's the confrontation with geology through plate tectonics and buried oil, methane, gravel, tar, and whatever other weird deposits of unknown ancient remains are sitting around down there in the dry and fractured subsurface. It's a confrontation with the oceanic; with anonymity; with desert time; with endless parking lots.

And it doesn't need humanizing. Who cares if you can't identify with Los Angeles? It doesn't need to be made human. It's better than that.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Is It Wednesday? I Guess It's Time To Define Love

Rainer Maria Rilke on love:
We must trust in what is difficult. It is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult. It is also good to love, because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is mere preparation…. Love consists in this: that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.

Pretty great, huh?
Via Cosmic Variance

Tuesday, October 2, 2007