Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Enlightenment is always a crime."

I highly recommend this fascinating history of a time in American history when the Government allowed medical research into LSD.  Two samples to whet your appetite.  First, the opening:

At 9:30 in the morning, an architect and three senior scientists—two from Stanford, the other from Hewlett-Packard—donned eyeshades and earphones, sank into comfy couches, and waited for their government-approved dose of LSD to kick in. From across the suite and with no small amount of anticipation, Dr. James Fadiman spun the knobs of an impeccable sound system and unleashed Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68.” Then he stood by, ready to ease any concerns or discomfort.
For this particular experiment, the couched volunteers had each brought along three highly technical problems from their respective fields that they’d been unable to solve for at least several months. In approximately two hours, when the LSD became fully active, they were going to remove the eyeshades and earphones, and attempt to find some solutions. Fadiman and his team would monitor their efforts, insights, and output to determine if a relatively low dose of acid—100 micrograms to be exact—enhanced their creativity.
It was the summer of ’66. And the morning was beginning like many others at the International Foundation for Advanced Study, an inconspicuously named, privately funded facility dedicated to psychedelic drug research, which was located, even less conspicuously, on the second floor of a shopping plaza in Menlo Park, Calif. However, this particular morning wasn’t going to go like so many others had during the preceding five years, when researchers at IFAS (pronounced “if-as”) had legally dispensed LSD. Though Fadiman can’t recall the exact date, this was the day, for him at least, that the music died. Or, perhaps more accurately for all parties involved in his creativity study, it was the day before.
Then this, from a few graphs further down:
Over the course of the preceding year, IFAS researchers had dosed a total of 22 other men for the creativity study, including a theoretical mathematician, an electronics engineer, a furniture designer, and a commercial artist. By including only those whose jobs involved the hard sciences (the lack of a single female participant says much about mid-century career options for women), they sought to examine the effects of LSD on both visionary and analytical thinking. Such a group offered an additional bonus: Anything they produced during the study would be subsequently scrutinized by departmental chairs, zoning boards, review panels, corporate clients, and the like, thus providing a real-world, unbiased yardstick for their results.
In surveys administered shortly after their LSD-enhanced creativity sessions, the study volunteers, some of the best and brightest in their fields, sounded like tripped-out neopagans at a backwoods gathering. Their minds, they said, had blossomed and contracted with the universe. They’d beheld irregular but clean geometrical patterns glistening into infinity, felt a rightness before solutions manifested, and even shapeshifted into relevant formulas, concepts, and raw materials.
But here’s the clincher. After their 5HT2A neural receptors simmered down, they remained firm: LSD absolutely had helped them solve their complex, seemingly intractable problems. And the establishment agreed. The 26 men unleashed a slew of widely embraced innovations shortly after their LSD experiences, including a mathematical theorem for NOR gate circuits, a conceptual model of a photon, a linear electron accelerator beam-steering device, a new design for the vibratory microtome, a technical improvement of the magnetic tape recorder, blueprints for a private residency and an arts-and-crafts shopping plaza, and a space probe experiment designed to measure solar properties. Fadiman and his colleagues published these jaw-dropping results and closed shop.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

"He was drunk and exhausted but he was critically acclaimed and respected."

Dream Song 14

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no

Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Thinking about Sorkin

I've never read John Irving.  I don't want to any more than I ever have (not much) after reading Charles Baxter's excellent review of Irving's new book in the recent NYRB.  I've been thinking about the ending of the review for several days.  Here it is:

Reading John Irving’s novels, I have often found myself swept away by the story and emotionally overwhelmed at the same time that I have felt an uneasiness bordering on rage. Irving doesn’t mind assaulting his reader with full-frontal sentiment until that reader finally gives up or capitulates. Reading his novels is like spending the night in a bed-and-breakfast filled with Victorian furniture and being mugged in the middle of the night. I finished The Cider House Rules—the orphan takes over the orphanage!—in tears, but also outraged by what had been done to me. The reader of one of these novels does not collaborate with the author so much as submit to him, a condition that creates polarized responses of resentment and tender sentiment. The combined effect reminds me of an anecdote told by that charming and neurotic memoirist, pianist, and film star Oscar Levant, about a movie he once saw in the company of the composer Virgil Thomson: 

"...That same night we went to see a preview of the movie Young Man with a Horn, based on the legend of the late Bix Biederbecke. The story begins with a young man from Missouri. Virgil, too, was from rural Missouri, so the identification was immediate…. The boy’s role was played by Kirk Douglas and was a study of a musician in search of the indefinable…. When the lights went on after the cornball climax, Virgil’s face was streaming with tears. “What an awful picture,” he complained."
* * * 
The reason this review's been in my head, I think--other than its sheer excellence and perspicuity--is because of Aaron Sorkin's new show, The Newsroom.  As many reviews have attested, it's an appallingly bad show (bad in a way that recalls the 5th season of The Wire; its badness not only offends in the moment, it casts a retrospective pall on all the writer's done before).  A long thoughtful explanation of all that's wrong with The Newsroom is beyond my ambition at this moment.  In part though, what makes it so frustrating is the quality that Baxter finds in Irving, and that Virgil Thomson found in the Young Man with a Horn--the excellence of the craftsman in contrast with the mediocrity of the artist.

And as a craftsman Sorkin is undoubtedly a master.  He knows every trick, and he conjures up supremely affecting and moving moments seemingly without effort.  Unfortunately, they're wasted in service of what increasingly seems a puerile and uninteresting mind.  He's like a musician who can sight-read any score but can't compose anything but banalities.  If he weren't such a master of his craft--if he were just a hack writer on True Blood--no one would care about the quality of his imagination.  Or at least, I wouldn't.  He's frustrating because he does so much so well, but his skills are unbalanced.  He's like Paul McCartney, in Wings, a great musician but not a great artist.  So I watch the show to pick up tricks of the craft, but I have to pause and fast-forward through at least 1/3 of it.  I hate it, but I watch it and am affected.  

Sunday, July 8, 2012

For All You Fans of Stephen King

I'd recommend this article in the Los Angeles Review of Books.  In it, critic Dwight Allen tries to overcome his lifelong resistance to the writings of Stephen King.  Spoiler That is Not Really A Spoiler Alert: he fails.

The comments below the article (almost all of them aggrieved) are almost better than the piece itself.  I found Allen's article fairly mild and un-snobbish, all things considered; his readers, apparently, did NOT.

I have no real horse in the race.  I've never read any of King's writing, but that's only because horror and ANCIANT do not mix.  I still can barely sit through The Shining, and I'm told that the movie is much less scary than the book.  I have been a little confused, in the last few years, by the New Yorker's insistent championing of King's writings, but not to the point of actually caring.

The core problem, I think, with Allen's argument is his valorization of literary fiction.  The percentage of all fiction, in any genre, written in America in any given year that's actually good--whatever 'good' means--is maybe 10%.  Doesn't matter if it's literary fiction, horror, of sci-fi; excellence is rare--as rare if you're reading Franzen than if you are reading King.  Maybe more so.  Allen, however, seems to want to encourage all the lover of King's novels to turn instead to Zadie Smith, where true pleasure and enlightenment awaits.  That is not a winning argument.  White Teeth is not--it can't be--better than The Stand.  Nor is Freedom.  If you want to say: abjure Stephen King and read Trollope, or Sebald, or Penelope Fitzgerald, okay.  There, I can go with you.  But at least make it a contest.

Anyway, it's worth a read.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

"Lord have mercy, Yes..."

"So You Think You Can Dance" has chosen the twenty contestants who will appear on the show this season.  Thank God, that Cyrus "Glitch" Spenser of the Dragon House dance crew in Atlanta was one of the twenty.  (For performance by his roommate, see below).

The people in the audience cheering for him in this clip, by the way: they're his competition.  In theory at least, they should be cheering for him to fail.  Except that there's no way anyone could cheer for this guy to fail--he's too damn good.  Also, he might call his fellow aliens to start bombarding the planet.