Are We Out of Big Ideas?

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“The Gods have died!”, the villagers cried.

“What should we do? Mourn? Grieve? Plead?”, the Chief asked the Priest, desperate.

“No”, said the Priest, looking at the sky, afraid.

**

Here’s a tiny question. Are we idearupt? As in: bankrupt of great ideas?

Go ahead. Name me an “ism” that still works.

I’ll wait.

Conservatism? #LOL. Liberalism? #lol. Capitalism, or what’s left of it? Sure, maybe for billionaires. “Libertarianism”? I invite you to Mogadishu, good sir. Socialism…syndicalism…anarchism…mercantilism…revanchism…shit!!

Wait. What about…Bronyism?

Perhaps you see my point.

We’re living through a kind of implosion. Not just of institutions—that much is obvious. But a collapse of institutions that was detonated by an implosion.

Of ideas.

Yesterday’s ideas about how to organize societies and economies simply don’t work anymore.

And so we’re left in a vacuum. What’s a vacuum? A void. An emptiness. An absence. We’re out of good ideas about how societies, democracies, and economies should be organized and managed.

But not just “how”. More deeply, by whom—and why.

What’s the point, you often wonder. Of your life. Of the sheer goddamned futility of it all.

Working harder on stuff that doesn’t matter to buy junk you can’t afford to impress people you don’t like obeying the orders of robots programmed by assholes who’ve never read a book in their lives that oversee the entire economy purely for the production of “profit” not real things that actually benefit human lives which are getting poorer so they’re just one paycheck away from disaster…and even if you do somehow win the infernal contest of all the above, what’s the jackpot at the end of the rainbow? A life that’s totally meaningless in the first place.

What the fuck?

If you think all that’s…futile…you’re not wrong. You’re precisely right. It is. Yesterday’s great “isms” do not offer enough, to enough, for enough, from enough.

Whether it is “liberalism” or “conservatism”, the result is the same.

The middle class implodes; the rich grow incalculably richer; the poor are trampled. What’s the result? To pay for social services, the assets of the state are “privatized“; but they cannot do so for long. Eventually, ninety percent plus of people see their incomes stagnate; their wealth vanish; economies stall as people grow poorer. Society can no longer afford public goods, as tax bases dry up; public and private debts grow; and currencies are devalued. People’s lives go from prosperous and stable to precarious and impoverished in a generation or two.

See the pattern? The collapse of great ideas about to organize stuff isn’t merely…an idea. It’s reality.

Consider the twentieth century. The world created international law, international development, international trade, and international human rights. These were tremendous, astonishing human accomplishments. The kind that mankind might never have even dreamed of a few short centuries ago.

And now? What do we consider “great ideas”? Cruising to your less-than-minimum-wage temp gig at a robo-warehouse in your self-driving car share checking how many “friends” Spot made on the latest doggy dating app hoping you got another heart on yours?

Those aren’t great ideas. They’re clever businesses, and for that we should applaud them. But we must recognize. You can’t Tinder your way to a better world. You can’t even Tinder your way to a life worth living.

All the great “isms” are winking out. And so. The world is starting to burn. Nations are fracturing. Social contracts are being torn apart. In most of the world’s richest nations, not one but two generations will be lost. The global economy is stagnating.

And already from that witches cauldron is rising the smoke. Of violence, animosity, extremism, hatred. Which will eventually, if the fire is left untended, kindle into a wildfire of war.

All this is not inevitable. Yet. But it is predictable. For a single, simple reason.

We no longer have ideas powerful enough to organize the world. Yesterday’s “isms” are vanishing. And in their place is left a vacuum.

Here’s the catch.

You.

You probably believe that something always fills a vacuum. For you’ve been trained to be an obedient believer in progress; in advancement; in growth; in efficiency; in spontaneous order; in self-organization; in automaticity; in manifest destiny; and in all that’s inevitability.

In other words, you’re a True Believer in…the Big Idea: the idea of the progress of ideas.

Something always fills a vacuum, right? A bigger, better idea?

Wrong.

Sometimes, nothing does. For a very long while.

Sometimes, there is no progress of ideas.

Sometimes the darkness stays. And lasts. And deepens. Into an endless, frozen midnight. An abyss of collapsing ideas; from which mankind must escape.

We call those times Dark Ages. And my worry is that we’re stumbling headlong into one.

**

“The Gods have died!”, the villagers cried.

“What should we do? Mourn? Grieve? Plead?”, the Chief asked the Priest, desperate.

“No”, said the Priest, looking at the sky, afraid. “We must pray!”, he shouted, angrily.

“Pray?”, the villagers muttered to themselves, confused. “To whom?”

“To the Gods”, the Priest whispered.

“But the Gods are dead”, the Chief protested.

“Who do you think killed them?”, the Priest demanded.

“Gods who were more powerful still. And it is to them we must pray”.

“New Gods! But who are they?”, the villagers asked one another, astonished, anxious, afraid.

“They will reveal themselves. But only if our prayers prove worthy. Come. Let us pray!”, the Priest commanded.

“We are saved!”, cried the villagers.

“Glory!”, cried the Chief.

The Priest smiled.

He raised his hands to the heavens; and they all bowed beneath the perfect sky the new Gods hid behind.

The sun rose high. There was not a cloud to be seen.

It was how every Dark Age begins.

View story at Medium.com

BLOGGER COMMENT:  The “big ideas” of today are silly multimillion dollar phone apps and dumping ice cubes on your head in front of the new Audi.

I recall having many conversations like this in the Sixties. I’m happy there are those beginning to question the status quo in the 21st century.  Perhaps one might begin by looking back to Aristotle, Plato, Socrates…

Facebook, email and the neuroscience of always being distracted

I used to be able to read for hours without digital interruption. Now? That’s just funny. I want my focus back!

"War and Peace" tortured me: Facebook, email and the neuroscience of always being distracted
This essay is adapted from “The End of Absence”

I’m enough of a distraction addict that a low-level ambient guilt about not getting my real work done hovers around me for most of the day. And this distractible quality in me pervades every part of my life. The distractions—What am I making for dinner?, Who was that woman in “Fargo”?, or, quite commonly, What else should I be reading?—are invariably things that can wait. What, I wonder, would I be capable of doing if I weren’t constantly worrying about what I ought to be doing?

And who is this frumpy thirty-something man who has tried to read “War and Peace” five times, never making it past the garden gate? I took the tome down from the shelf this morning and frowned again at those sad little dog-ears near the fifty-page mark.

Are the luxuries of time on which deep reading is reliant available to us anymore? Even the attention we deign to give to our distractions, those frissons, is narrowing.

It’s important to note this slippage. As a child, I would read for hours in bed without the possibility of a single digital interruption. Even the phone (which was anchored by wires to the kitchen wall downstairs) was generally mute after dinner. Our two hours of permitted television would come to an end, and I would seek out the solitary refuge of a novel. And deep reading (as opposed to reading a Tumblr feed) was a true refuge. What I liked best about that absorbing act was the fact books became a world unto themselves, one that I (an otherwise powerless kid) had some control over. There was a childish pleasure in holding the mysterious object in my hands; in preparing for the story’s finale by monitoring what Austen called a “tell-tale compression of the pages”; in proceeding through some perfect sequence of plot points that bested by far the awkward happenstance of real life.

The physical book, held, knowable, became a small mental apartment I could have dominion over, something that was alive because of my attention and then lived in me.

But now . . . that thankful retreat, where my child-self could become so lost, seems unavailable to me. Today there is no room in my house, no block in my city, where I am unreachable.

Eventually, if we start giving them a chance, moments of absence reappear, and we can pick them up if we like. One appeared this morning, when my partner flew to Paris. He’ll be gone for two weeks. I’ll miss him, but this is also my big break.



I’ve taken “War and Peace” back down off the shelf. It’s sitting beside my computer as I write these lines—accusatory as some attention-starved pet.

You and me, old friend. You, me, and two weeks. I open the book, I shut the book, and I open the book again. The ink swirls up at me. This is hard. Why is this so hard?

* * *

Dr. Douglas Gentile, a friendly professor at Iowa State University, recently commiserated with me about my pathetic attention span. “It’s me, too, of course,” he said. “When I try to write a paper, I can’t keep from checking my e-mail every five minutes. Even though I know it’s actually making me less productive.” This failing is especially worrying for Gentile because he happens to be one of the world’s leading authorities on the effects of media on the brains of the young. “I know, I know! I know all the research on multitasking. I can tell you absolutely that everyone who thinks they’re good at multitasking is wrong. We know that in fact it’s those who think they’re good at multitasking who are the least productive when they multitask.”

The brain itself is not, whatever we may like to believe, a multitasking device. And that is where our problem begins. Your brain does a certain amount of parallel processing in order to synthesize auditory and visual information into a single understanding of the world around you, but the brain’s attention is itself only a spotlight, capable of shining on one thing at a time. So the very word multitask is a misnomer. There is rapid-shifting minitasking, there is lame-spasms-of-effort-tasking, but there is, alas, no such thing as multitasking. “When we think we’re multitasking,” says Gentile, “we’re actually multiswitching.”

We can hardly blame ourselves for being enraptured by the promise of multitasking, though. Computers—like televisions before them—tap into a very basic brain function called an “orienting response.” Orienting responses served us well in the wilderness of our species’ early years. When the light changes in your peripheral vision, you must look at it because that could be the shadow of something that’s about to eat you. If a twig snaps behind you, ditto. Having evolved in an environment rife with danger and uncertainty, we are hardwired to always default to fast-paced shifts in focus. Orienting responses are the brain’s ever-armed alarm system and cannot be ignored.

Gentile believes it’s time for a renaissance in our understanding of mental health. To begin with, just as we can’t accept our body’s cravings for chocolate cake at face value, neither can we any longer afford to indulge the automatic desires our brains harbor for distraction.

* * *

It’s not merely difficult at first. It’s torture. I slump into the book, reread sentences, entire paragraphs. I get through two pages and then stop to check my e-mail—and down the rabbit hole I go. After all, one does not read “War and Peace” so much as suffer through it. It doesn’t help that the world at large, being so divorced from such pursuits, is often aggressive toward those who drop away into single-subject attention wells. People don’t like it when you read “War and Peace.” It’s too long, too boring, not worth the effort. And you’re elitist for trying.

In order to finish the thing in the two weeks I have allotted myself, I must read one hundred pages each day without fail. If something distracts me from my day’s reading—a friend in the hospital, a magazine assignment, sunshine—I must read two hundred pages on the following day. I’ve read at this pace before, in my university days, but that was years ago and I’ve been steadily down-training my brain ever since.

* * *

Another week has passed—my “War and Peace” struggle continues. I’ve realized now that the subject of my distraction is far more likely to be something I need to look at than something I need to do. There have always been activities—dishes, gardening, sex, shopping—that derail whatever purpose we’ve assigned to ourselves on a given day. What’s different now is the addition of so much content that we passively consume.

Only this morning I watched a boy break down crying on “X Factor,” then regain his courage and belt out a half-decent rendition of  Beyoncé’s “Listen”; next I looked up the original Beyoncé video and played it twice while reading the first few paragraphs of a story about the humanity of child soldiers; then I switched to a Nina Simone playlist prepared for me by Songza, which played while I flipped through a slide show of American soldiers seeing their dogs for the first time in years; and so on, ad nauseam. Until I shook I out of this funk and tried to remember what I’d sat down to work on in the first place.

* * *

If I’m to break from our culture of distraction, I’m going to need practical advice, not just depressing statistics. To that end, I switch gears and decide to stop talking to scientists for a while; I need to talk to someone who deals with attention and productivity in the so-called real world. Someone with a big smile and tailored suits such as organizational guru Peter Bregman. He runs a global consulting firm that gets CEOs to unleash the potential of their workers, and he’s also the author of the acclaimed business book 18 Minutes, which counsels readers to take a minute out of every work hour (plus five minutes at the start and end of the day) to do nothing but set an intention.

Bregman told me he sets his watch to beep every hour as a reminder that it’s time to right his course again. Aside from the intention setting, Bregman counsels no more than three e-mail check-ins a day. This notion of batch processing was anathema to someone like me, used to checking my in-box so constantly, particularly when my work feels stuck. “It’s incredibly inefficient to switch back and forth,” said Bregman, echoing every scientist I’d spoken to on multitasking. “Besides, e-mail is, actually, just about the least efficient mode of conversation you can have. And what we know about multitasking is that, frankly, you can’t. You just derail.”

“I just always feel I’m missing something important,” I said. “And that’s precisely why we lose hours every day, that fear.” Bregman argues that it’s people who can get ahead of that fear who end up excelling in the business world that he spends his own days in. “I think everyone is more distractible today than we used to be. It’s a very hard thing to fix. And as people become more distracted, we know they’re actually doing less, getting less done. Your efforts just leak out. And those who aren’t—aren’t leaking—are going to be the most successful.”

I hate that I leak. But there’s a religious certainty required in order to devote yourself to one thing while cutting off the rest of the world. We don’t know that the inbox is emergency-free, we don’t know that the work we’re doing is the work we ought to be doing. But we can’t move forward in a sane way without having some faith in the moment we’ve committed to. “You need to decide that things don’t matter as much as you might think they matter,” Bregman suggested as I told him about my flitting ways. And that made me think there might be a connection between the responsibility-free days of my youth and that earlier self’s ability to concentrate. My young self had nowhere else to be, no permanent anxiety nagging at his conscience. Could I return to that sense of ease? Could I simply be where I was and not seek out a shifting plurality to fill up my time?

* * *

It happened softly and without my really noticing.

As I wore a deeper groove into the cushions of my sofa, so the book I was holding wore a groove into my (equally soft) mind. Moments of total absence began to take hold more often; I remembered what it was like to be lost entirely in a well-spun narrative. There was the scene where Anna Mikhailovna begs so pitifully for a little money, hoping to send her son to war properly dressed. And there were, increasingly, more like it. More moments where the world around me dropped away and I was properly absorbed. A “causeless springtime feeling of joy” overtakes Prince Andrei; a tearful Pierre sees in a comet his last shimmering hope; Emperor Napoleon takes his troops into the heart of Russia, oblivious to the coming winter that will destroy them all…

It takes a week or so for withdrawal symptoms to work through a heroin addict’s body. While I wouldn’t pretend to compare severity here, doubtless we need patience, too, when we deprive ourselves of the manic digital distractions we’ve grown addicted to.

That’s how it was with my Tolstoy and me. The periods without distraction grew longer, I settled into the sofa and couldn’t hear the phone, couldn’t hear the ghost-buzz of something else to do. I’m teaching myself to slip away from the world again.

* * *

Yesterday I fell asleep on the sofa with a few dozen pages of “War and Peace” to go. I could hear my cell phone buzzing from its perch on top of the piano. I saw the glowing green eye of my Cyclops modem as it broadcast potential distraction all around. But on I went past the turgid military campaigns and past the fretting of Russian princesses, until sleep finally claimed me and my head, exhausted, dreamed of nothing at all. This morning I finished the thing at last. The clean edges of its thirteen hundred pages have been ruffled down into a paper cabbage, the cover is pilled from the time I dropped it in the bath. Holding the thing aloft, trophy style, I notice the book is slightly larger than it was before I read it.

It’s only after the book is laid down, and I’ve quietly showered and shaved, that I realize I haven’t checked my e-mail today. The thought of that duty comes down on me like an anvil.

Instead, I lie back on the sofa and think some more about my favorite reader Milton – about his own anxieties around reading. By the mid-1650s, he had suffered that larger removal from the crowds, he had lost his vision entirely and could not read at all—at least not with his own eyes. From within this new solitude, he worried that he could no longer meet his potential. One sonnet, written shortly after the loss of his vision, begins:

When I consider how my light is spent,

Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide, and that one Talent

which is death to hide Lodged with me useless . . .

Yet from that position, in the greatest of caves, he began producing his greatest work. The epic “Paradise Lost,” a totemic feat of concentration, was dictated to aides, including his three daughters.

Milton already knew, after all, the great value in removing himself from the rush of the world, so perhaps those anxieties around his blindness never had a hope of dominating his mind. I, on the other hand, and all my peers, must make a constant study of concentration itself. I slot my ragged “War and Peace” back on the shelf. It left its marks on me the same way I left my marks on it (I feel awake as a man dragged across barnacles on the bottom of some ocean). I think: This is where I was most alive, most happy. How did I go from loving that absence to being tortured by it? How can I learn to love that absence again?

This essay is adapted from “The End of Absence” by Michael Harris, published by Current / Penguin Random House.

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/08/17/war_and_peace_tortured_me_facebook_email_and_the_neuroscience_of_always_being_distracted/?source=newsletter

Art & Physics: Leonard Shlain on Integrating Wonder and Wisdom

by

“Art and physics, like wave and particle, are an integrated duality … two different but complementary facets of a single description of the world.”

“It’s part of the nature of man,” Ray Bradbury told Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke as they peered into the future of space exploration, “to start with romance and build to a reality.” “What would happen,” Marshall McLuhan wondered in his seminal 1964 treatise Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, “if art were suddenly seen for what it is, namely, exact information of how to rearrange one’s psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties?” More than a quarter century later, Leonard Shlain picked up the inquiry with added dimension in Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light (public library) — an exploration of how “the inscrutability of modern art and the impenetrability of the new physics” intersect in a shared system of thinking about how the world works. In the preface, Shlain — neither an artist nor a physicist himself — considers how his training as a surgeon lends him a unique perspective on the two fields and their cross-pollination:

A surgeon is both an artist and a scientist… Surgeons rely heavily on their intuitive visual-spatial right-hemispheric mode. At the same time, our training is obviously scientific. Left-brained logic, reason, and abstract thinking are the stepping-stones leading to the vast scientific literature’s arcane tenets. The need in my profession to shuttle back and forth constantly between these two complementary functions of the human psyche has served me well for this project.

Shlain lays out the basic premise of the parallel between the two fields:

Art and physics are a strange coupling. Of the many human disciplines, could there be two that seem more divergent? The artist employs image and metaphor; the physicist uses number and equation. Art encompasses an imaginative realm of aesthetic qualities; physics exists in a world of crisply circumscribed mathematical relationships between quantifiable properties. Traditionally, art has created illusions meant to elicit emotion; physics has been an exact science that made sense…

Yet, despite what appear to be irreconcilable differences, there is one fundamental feature that solidly connects these disciplines. Revolutionary art and visionary physics are both investigations into the nature of reality. Roy Lichtenstein, the pop artist of the 1960s, declared, “Organized perception is what art is all about.” Sir Isaac Newton might have said as much for physics; he, too, was concerned with organizing perceptions. While their methods differ radically, artists and physicists share the desire to investigate the ways the interlocking pieces of reality fit together. This is the common ground upon which they meet.

Roy Lichtenstein, ‘Sunrise,’ 1963

Turning to the question of originality, Shlain argues that both art and physics are propelled by revolutionary insight — that transcendent clarity of vision that Rilke called a “conflagration of clear sight” — which reframes our understanding of the world:

Although the development of physics has always depended upon the incremental contributions of many original and dedicated workers, on a few occasions in history, one physicist has had an insight of such import that it led to a revision in his whole society’s concept of reality. . . .

Emile Zola’s definition of art: “Nature as seen through a temperament,” invokes physics, which is likewise involved with nature. The Greek word, physis, means “nature.” … The physicist, like any scientist, sets out to break “nature” down into its component parts to analyze the relationship of those parts. This process is principally one of reduction. The artist, on the other hand, often juxtaposes different features of reality and synthesizes them, so that upon completion, the whole work is greater than the sum of its parts. There is considerable crossover in the technique used by both. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “There is no science without fancy and no art without facts.”

[...]

In addition to illuminating, imitating, and interpreting reality … artists create a language of symbols for things for which there are yet to be words.

This capacity for abstraction and symbolic representation, Shlain argues, is hard-wired into the evolution of our cognitive development:

Observe any infant as it masters its environment. Long before speech occurs, a baby develops an association between the image of a bottle and a feeling of satisfaction. Gradually, the baby accumulates a variety of images of bottles. This is an astounding feat considering that a bottle viewed from different angles changes shape dramatically: from a cylinder to an ellipse to a circle. Synthesizing these images, the child’s emerging conceptual faculties invent an abstract image that encompasses the idea of an entire group of objects she or he will henceforth recognize as bottles. This step in abstraction allows the infant to understand the idea of “bottleness.”

This rudimentary faculty remains central to how we make sense of the world as adults and how we grasp its immaterial subtleties:

Concepts such as “justice,” “freedom” or “economics” can be turned over in the mind without ever resorting to mental pictures. While there is never final resolution between word and image, we are a species dependent on the abstractions of language and in the main, the word eventually supplants the image.

When we reflect, ruminate, reminisce, muse and imagine, generally we revert to the visual mode. But in order to perform the brain’s highest function, abstract thinking, we abandon the use of images and are able to carry on without resorting to them. It is with great precision that we call this type of thinking, “abstract.” This is the majesty and the tyranny of language. To affix a name to something is the beginning of control over it. . . . Words, more than strength or speed, became the weapons that humans have used to subdue nature.

Children’s use of metaphor, we now know, sheds light on the evolution of human imagination — something Shlain argues is central to our ability to navigate the world. Adding to history’s most elegant definitions of art, he argues for the cultural role of the artist in fostering this crucial domain of understanding:

Because the erosion of images by words occurs at such an early age, we forget that in order to learn something radically new, we need first to imagine it. “Imagine” literally means to “make an image.” … [If] this function of imagination, so crucial to the development of an infant, is also present in the civilization at large, who then creates the new images that precede abstract ideas and descriptive language? It is the artist.

[...]

Art [lives] not only as an aesthetic that can be pleasing to the eye but, as a Distant Early Warning system of the collective thinking of a society. Visionary art alerts the other members that a conceptual shift is about to occur in the thought system used to perceive the world.

One of Lisbeth Zwerger’s imaginative illustrations for ‘Alice in Wonderland.’ Click image for more.

He cites art critic Robert Hughes’s assertion that “the truly significant work of art is the one that prepares the future” and adds:

Repeatedly throughout history, the artist introduces symbols and icons that in retrospect prove to have been an avant-garde for the thought patterns of a scientific age not yet born.

[...]

Revolutionary art in all times has served this function of preparing the future.

Shlain returns to the common ground between art and physics, both of which serve as tools for mapping the unknown:

Both art and physics are unique forms of language. Each has a specialized lexicon of symbols that is used in a distinctive syntax. Their very different and specific contexts obscure their connection to everyday language as well as to each other. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy just how often the terms of one can be applied to the concepts of the other… While physicists demonstrate that A equals B or that X is the same as Y, artists often choose signs, symbols and allegories to equate a painterly image with a feature of experience. Both of these techniques reveal previously hidden relationships.

[...]

Revolutionary art and visionary physics attempt to speak about matters that do not yet have words. That is why their languages are so poorly understood by people outside their fields. Because they both speak of what is certainly to come, however, it is incumbent upon us to learn to understand them.

Illustration from ‘Alice in Quantumland: An Allegory of Quantum Physics’ by CERN physicist Robert Gilmore. Click image for more.

Turning to the famous Tower of Babel myth — a Biblical story about humanity’s collaborative effort to build a tower that would reach the heavens, paralyzed by an indignant god’s spell that transformed people’s previously common language into garbled speech that made them unable to communicate and collaborate — Shlain draws a parallel to the artificial garbling of the shared language of art and physics:

History has been the record of our agonizingly slow resumption of work on this mythic public monument to knowledge. Gradually the parochial suspicions that had been abetted by large numbers of local dialects have given way to the more universal outlook of modern humankind. Currently, this work in progress is the creation of a global commonwealth. The worldwide community of artists and scientists is and has been in the forefront of this coalescence, offering perceptions of reality that erase linguistic and national boundaries. Reconciliation of the apparent differences between these two unique human languages, art and physics, is the next important step in developing our unifying Tower.

Both disciplines, he argues, first require us to ask how we know the world. Tracing the history of the answer from Plato to Descartes to Kant, Shlain points to philosophers’ distinction between “the inner eye of imagination and the external world of things” as a toxic and artificial divide that drove art and physics apart:

The faculty we use to grasp the nature of the “out there” is our imagination. Somewhere within the matrix of our brain we construct a separate reality created by a disembodied, thinking consciousness. This inner reality is unconnected to external space and exists outside the stream of linear time. When reminiscing about a day at the beach, we knit together elements of that day that no longer “actually” exist. We can run the events forward and backward with ease, and amend with alternate possibilities what we believe happened… Consciousness, resembling nothing so much as long columns of ants at work, must laboriously transfer the outside world piece by piece through the tunnels of the senses, then reconstruct it indoors. This inner spectral vision amounts to a mental “opinion” unique to each individual of how the world works… When an entire civilization reaches a consensus about how the world works, the belief system is elevated to the supreme status of a “paradigm,” whose premises appear to be so obviously certain no one has to prove them anymore.

Shlain points to the beginning of the 20th century, when Einstein’s theory of photons challenged two centuries of considering light a wave, as a turning point for the integration between art and physics. Suddenly, by acknowledging the contradictory duality of light as both a particle and a wave, science had to confront its basic tenet of objectivity and fixed laws. As Shlain puts it, “at the turn of the century, what was to be a surprising feature of quantum reality amounted to a Zen koan.”

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky from ‘On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein’ by Jennifer Berne. Click image for more.

In 1926, Niels Bohr formalized this notion in his theory of complementarity, which stated that light was not either a wave or a particle, but was both a wave and a particle. Shlain writes:

As it turned out, light would reveal only one aspect of its nature at a time, resembling an odd carnival peep show. Whenever a scientist set up an experiment to measure the wavelike aspect of light, the subjective act of deciding which measuring device to use in some mysterious way affected the outcome, and light responded by acting as a wave. The same phenomenon occurred whenever a scientist set out to measure the particlelike aspect of light. Thus “subjectivity,” the anathema of all science (and the creative wellspring of all art) had to be admitted into the carefully defended citadel of classical physics. Werner Heisenberg, Bohr’s close associate, said in support of this bizarre notion, “The common division of the world into subject and object, inner world and outer world, body and soul is no longer adequate…. Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves.” According to the new physics, observer and observed are somehow connected, and the inner domain of subjective thought turns out to be intimately conjoined to the external sphere of objective facts.

From this revolutionary duality of light Shlain extracts a broader metaphor for his central thesis:

[Through] the complementarity of art and physics … these two fields intimately entwine to form a lattice upon which we all can climb a little higher in order to construct our view of reality. Understanding this connection should enhance our appreciation for the vitality of art and deepen our sense of awe before the ideas of modern physics. Art and physics, like wave and particle, are an integrated duality: They are simply two different but complementary facets of a single description of the world. Integrating art and physics will kindle a more synthesized awareness which begins in wonder and ends with wisdom.

In the remainder of Art & Physics, a mind-expanding read in its totality, Shlain goes on to trace the evolution of human thinking and knowledge from Ancient Greece to the Renaissance to the 20th century, exploring various aspects of the parallels between the two disciplines, from Einstein and Picasso’s “common vision” to the interplay between illusion and reality to how music integrates the reason of science with the emotional expressiveness of art. Complement it with Dorion Sagan (son of Carl) on how science and philosophy enrich each other.

 

 

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/08/07/art-physics-leonard-shlain/

100 “Best” Novels in English, Since 1900

http://storiesbywilliams.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/novels.jpg?w=439&h=253

 

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and ALEXANDER COCKBURN

 

In my study hangs a hand-colored photograph of James Joyce ambling down the Rue Saint Jacques on the Left Bank of Paris. The photograph was a Christmas gift to our household from Alexander Cockburn. As was so often the case with presents from Alex, this wasn’t something he’d just bought on a sudden whim through e-Bay (a mode of commerce he was, it can now be disclosed, seriously addicted to for several years) with us in mind. Alex liked to test-drive his gifts and we grew to cherish his (often quite visible) fingerprints on them. A few years earlier, he’d been given two photographs of Joyce from our mutual friend the late Ben Sonnenberg, the former publisher of Grand Street. The photographs had migrated from his room, to his study and up to the old CounterPunch tower, before one of them was wrapped in well-thumbed copies of the Anderson Valley Advertiser and sent by UPS to Oregon City, where it landed on X-mas Eve 2008.

I look at that photograph many times a day and think of Alex. Joyce was one of our favorite writers (though neither of us could make heads-0r-tails of Finnegans Wake) and each year on Bloomsday we’d try to top each other with a juicy quote from Ulysses. So it’s no surprise that James Joyce’s Ulysses leads our list of the 100 best novels in English.

Alex and I both studied English Literature, Cockburn at Oxford, me at American University in DC 15 years later. During our 20 year friendship, we talked about novels, films and poems nearly as much as we did politics and certainly found greater enjoyment in long-ranging debates about the relative merits of Waugh, Stendahl and Proust. Before Alex died, we’d been working on putting together two lists of our favorite novels written since 1900, similar to the very popular lists we’d done years before for nonfiction books in English and in translation. We set some ground rules. First, one of us had to have actually read the book and convincingly described its merits to the other. Second, we limited each writer to one entry; otherwise, novels by George MacDonald Fraser and Patricia Highsmith might have dominated the list. Third, each of us had unlimited preemptory challenges to be invoked against writers we hated. Thus no: George Orwell, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen. Fourth: the novels had to have been published after 1899, which meant that one of Alex’s favorite books, the rousing Dumas-like adventure set in Richelieu’s France Under the Red Robe by Stanley Weyman (1894) just missed the cut. We didn’t distinguish between so-called genre fiction and serious literature, thus you’ll find a gripping thriller like John Masters’ The Deceivers lodged very near Vikram Seth’s novel-in-verse The Golden Gate. 

Unlike our previous lists, this time we chose to rank the books. Why? Because people tend to feel more passionately about novels than treatises on the surplus-value theory and we hoped that our list would give CounterPunchers something new to fight over. Here though the rankings are tilted more toward my own biases, since Alex and I had only gotten round to slotting the first 25 or so books before he died.

We hope that our novels list confirms some of your own tastes and at other times confounds you, irritates you and turns you on to some fresh reading pleasures. As Alex was fond of saying: “By the quality of life, art and freedom that radicals commend, so will radicals prevail.”

In a few weeks, we’ll publish our list of the best novels in translation since 1900. In the meantime, there’s much reading to be done. Better hurry, before all the beaches disappear…

–Jeffrey St. Clair

 

1. Ulysses: James Joyce (1922)

2. Absalom, Absalom!: William Faulkner (1936)

3. Gravity’s Rainbow: Thomas Pynchon (1973)

4. Native Son: Richard Wright (1940)

5. Orlando by Virginia Wolff (1928)

6. The Rainbow: DH Lawrence (1915)

7. Under Western Eyes: Joseph Conrad (1911)

8. Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison (1952)

9. The Violent Bear It Away: Flannery O’Connor (1960)

10. Tropic of Cancer: Henry Miller (1934)

 

11. The Golden Notebook: Doris Lessing (1962)

12. The Sun Also Rises: Ernest Hemingway (1926)

13. Wide Sargasso Sea: Jean Rhys (1966)

14. The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse (1938)

15. Tender is the Night: F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934)

16. Giovanni’s Room: James Baldwin (1956)

17. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

18. At Swim-Two-Birds: Flann O’Brien (1939)

19. On the Road: Jack Kerouac (1957)

20. JR: William Gaddis (1975)

 

21. Pale Fire: Vladimir Nabokov (1962)

22. End of the Affair: Graham Greene (1951)

23. Red Harvest: Dashiell Hammett (1927)

24. Mumbo Jumbo: Ishmael Reed (1972)

25. A Lost Lady: Willa Cather (1923)

26. The Hound of the Baskervilles: Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)

27. Far Tortuga: Peter Mattheissen (1975)

28. The Iron Heel: Jack London (1908)

29. Jazz: Toni Morrison (1992)

30. The Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck (1939)

 

31. Their Eyes Were Watching God: Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

32. Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess (1964)

33. Riddle of the Sands by Erksine Childers (1903)

34. The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West (1936)

35. Catch 22: Joseph Heller (1961)

36. Beat the Devil: Claud Cockburn (1951)

37. The Indian Lawyer: James Welch (1990)

38. The White Hotel: DM Thomas (1981)

39. Neuromancer: William Gibson (1984)

40. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: Evelyn Waugh (1957)

 

41. Light Years: James Salter (1976)

42. Almanac of the Dead: Leslie Marmon Silko (1991)

43. Death of the Heart: Elizabeth Bowen (1938)

44. The Monkeywrench Gang: Edward Abbey (1975)

46. Slaves of Solitude: Patrick Hamilton (1947)

47. The Left Hand of Darkness: Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)

48. Novel on Yellow Paper: Stevie Smith (1936)

49.  A Feast of Snakes: Harry Crews (1976)

50. Vida: Marge Piercy (1975)

 

51. The Man in the High Castle: Philip K. Dick (1962)

52. Naked Lunch: William Burroughs (1959)

53. A Place of Greater Safety: Hilary Mantel (2006)

54. Voss: Patrick White (1957)

55. Dog Soldiers: Robert Stone (1974)

56. Animal Dreams: Barbara Kingsolver (1990)

57. Cat’s Cradle: Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

58. Sometimes a Great Notion: Ken Kesey (1964)

59. Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1944)

60. The Known World: Edward P. Jones (2003)

 

61. Written on the Body: Jeanette Winterson (1993)

62. Disgrace: JM Coetzee (1999)

63. Call It Sleep: Henry Roth (1934)

64. July’s People: Nadine Gordimer (1981)

65. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)

66. The Black Prince: Iris Murdoch (1973)

67. Julian: Gore Vidal (1964)

68. The Killer Inside Me: Jim Thompson (1952)

69. An American Dream: Norman Mailer (1965)

70. If He Hollers, Let Him Go: Chester Himes (1945)

 

71.  The Secret History: Donna Tartt (1992)

72. Flaubert’s Parrot: Julian Barnes (1984)

73. Matterhorn: Karl Marlantes (2009)

74. The Last Good Kiss: James Crumley (1978)

75. Salvage the Bones: Jesmyn Ward (2011)

76. Underworld: Don DeLillo (1997)

77. The Radiant Way: Margaret Drabble (1987)

78. Regeneration: Pat Barker (1991)

79. Snow Crash: Neal Stevenson (1992)

80. Ray: Barry Hannah (1980)

 

81. Tripmaster Monkey: Maxine Hong Kingston (1989)

82. The Golden Gate: Vikram Seth (1986)

83. Lucky Jim: Kinglsey Amis (1954)

84. Day of the Locust: Nathaniel West (1939)

85.  Gateway: Frederick Pohl (1977)

86. Machine Dreams: Jayne Anne Phillips (1984)

87. Two Serious Ladies: Jane Bowles (1946)

88. Mr. American: George MacDonald Fraser (1980)

89. Zuleika Dobson: Max Beerbohm (1911)

90. The Dogs of March: Ernest Hebert (1979)

 

91. The Deceivers: by John Masters (1952)

92. Sleeping Beauty: Ross McDonald (1973)

93. The King Must Die: Mary Renault (1958)

94. Tree of Smoke: Denis Johnson (2007)

95. House of Splendid Isolation: Edna O’Brien (1994)

96. Lucy: Jamaica Kinkaid (1990)

97. Affliction: Russell Banks (1989)

98. Gaudy Night: Dorothy L. Sayers (1935)

99. Flicker: Theodore Roszak (1991)

100. Greenmantle: John Buchan (1916)

 

(With many thanks for their valuable input, even when it was ignored: Ben Sonnenberg, Kimberly Willson-St. Clair, Daisy Cockburn, Joshua Frank, Ron Jacobs, Carl Estabrook, Christine Karatnytsky and JoAnn Wypijewski.)

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray) will be published in June by CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

 

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/08/08/100-best-novels-in-english-since-1900/

Kurt Vonnegut on Reading, Boredom, Belonging, and Hate

by

“Hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.”

What makes the commencement address such a singular pinnacle of the communication arts is that, in an era where religion is increasingly being displaced by culture and secular thought, it offers a secular version of the sermon — a packet of guidance on how to be a good human being and lead a good life. It is also one of the few cultural contexts in which a patronizing attitude, in the original sense of the term, is not only acceptable but desired — after all, the very notion of the graduation speech calls for a patronly father figure or matronly mother figure to get up at the podium and impart to young people hard-earned, experience-tested wisdom on how to live well. And implicit to that is an automatic disarmament of our otherwise unflinching culturally conditioned cynicism — which is also why the best commencement addresses are timeless and ageless and sing to us beyond the boundaries of our own life-stage. They supply even us cynical moderns with something true, something soul-affirming, something we can hang our beliefs on in a non-ironic way.

Kurt Vonnegut — a man of discipline, a champion of literary style, modern sage, poetic shaman of happiness, and one wise dad — endures as one of the most prolific and sought-after commencement speakers of all time. Nine of his finest commencement addresses, along with some of Vonnegut’s own drawings, are collected in the wonderful compendium If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young (public library), which also gave us Vonnegut on kindness and the power of great teachers.

In one of the best speeches in the collection, Vonnegut addresses the graduating class at Fredonia College in New York on May 20, 1978. He begins, Patti-Smith-style, with a silly and seemingly mundane piece of advice that he uses as a springboard for a deeper reflection:

I suppose you will all want money and true love, among other things. I will tell you how to make money: work very hard. I will tell you how to win love: wear nice clothing and smile all the time. Learn the words to all the latest songs.

What other advice can I give you? Eat lots of bran to provide necessary bulk in your diet. The only advice my father ever gave me was this: “Never stick anything in your ear.” The tiniest bones in your body are inside your ears, you know — and your sense of balance, too. If you mess around with your ears, you could not only become deaf, but you could also start falling down all the time. So just leave your ears completely alone. They’re fine, just the way they are.

Don’t murder anybody — even though New York State does not use the death penalty.

That’s about it.

But that, of course, isn’t it, as Vonnegut is no mere goof. Speaking the same year that Susan Sontag bemoaned how false polarities limit us, Vonnegut cracks open the heart of his message:

I am being so silly because I pity you so much. I pity all of us so much. Life is going to be very tough again, just as soon as this is over. And the most useful thought we can hold when all hell cuts loose again is that we are not members of different generations, as unlike, as some people would have us believe, as Eskimos and Australian Aborigines. We are all so close to each other in time that we should think of ourselves as brothers and sisters.

He extends this notion of our shared humanity by poking gentle fun at our sense of entitlement, uniformly exerted despite the different particularities on which it is pegged:

We are all experiencing more or less the same lifetime now.

What is it the slightly older people want from the slightly younger people? They want credit for having survived so long, and often imaginatively, under difficult conditions. Slightly younger people are intolerably stingy about giving them credit for that.

What is it the slightly younger people want from the slightly older people? More than anything, I think, they want acknowledgement, and without further ado, that they are without question women and men now. Slightly older people are intolerably stingy about making any such acknowledgement.

Above all, however, Vonnegut congratulates graduates for having blossomed into “Clarks,” named after “inhabitants of the British Isles who were remarkable for being able to read and write.” Twenty years before urging young women not to give up on books, Vonnegut celebrates the monumental gift of recorded thought:

You have spent most of the past sixteen or more years learning to read and write. People who can do those things well, as you can, are miracles and, in my opinion, entitle us to suspect that we may be civilized after all. It is terribly hard to learn to read and write. It takes simply forever. When we scold our schoolteachers about the low reading scores of their students, we pretend that it is the easiest thing in the world: to teach a person to read and write. Try it sometime, and you will discover that it is nearly impossible.

What good is being a Clark, now that we have computers and movies and television? Clarking, a wholly human enterprise, is sacred. Machinery is not. Clarking is the most profound and effective form of meditation practiced on this planet, and far surpasses any dream experienced by a Hindu on a mountaintop. Why? Because Clarks, by reading well, can think the thoughts of the wisest and most interesting human minds throughout all history. When Clarks meditate, even if they themselves have only mediocre intellects, they do it with the thoughts of angels. What could be more sacred than that?

Vonnegut moves on to the question of boredom and belonging:

No matter what age any of us is now, we are going to be bored and lonely during what remains of our lives.

We are so lonely because we don’t have enough friends and relatives. Human beings are supposed to live in stable, like-minded, extended families of fifty people or more.

Your class spokesperson mourned the collapse of the institution of marriage in this country. Marriage is collapsing because our families are too small. A man cannot be a whole society to a woman, and a woman cannot be a whole society to a man. We try, but it is scarcely surprising that so many of us go to pieces.

So I recommend that everybody here join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. It does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.

(It’s hard not to wonder how Vonnegut might feel, if he were alive today — despite his unambiguous distaste for computers — about online communities and the relationships they sprout, which often spill into “offline” life.)

And yet, like Susan Sontag, he concedes that boredom is central to the human condition:

We are supposed to be bored. It is a part of life. Learn to put up with it, or you will not be what I have declared the members of this graduating class to be: mature women and men.

He leaves the graduates — members of a generation often criticized for being apathetic — with a meditation on the intoxicating poison of hate, which rings with double poignancy in our age of trolling and bullying:

As a member of a zippier generation, with sparkle in its eyes and a snap in its stride, let me tell you what kept us as high as kites a lot of the time: hatred. All my life I’ve had people to hate — from Hitler to Nixon, not that those two are at all comparable in their villainy. It is a tragedy, perhaps, that human beings can get so much energy and enthusiasm from hate. If you want to feel ten feet tall and as though you could run a hundred miles without stopping, hate beats pure cocaine any day. Hitler resurrected a beaten, bankrupt, half-starved nation with hatred and nothing more. Imagine that.

[…]

The members of your graduating class are not sleepy, are not listless, are not apathetic. They are simply performing the experiment of doing without hate. Hate is the missing vitamin or mineral or whatever in their diet, they have sensed correctly that hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young is a treasure trove from cover to cover, full of Vonnegut’s expansive spirit and irreverent wit. Complement it with more excellent commencement addresses, including George Saunders on the power of kindness, Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, Bill Watterson on not selling out, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Ann Patchett on storytelling and belonging, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life.

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2014/05/12/kurt-vonnegut-if-this-isnt-nice-fredonia/

Everyone I know is brokenhearted by Josh Ellis

Everyone I know is brokenhearted.

All the genuinely smart, talented, funny people I know seem to be miserable these days. You feel it on Twitter more than Facebook, because Facebook is where you go to do your performance art where you pretend to be a hip, urbane person with the most awesomest friends and the best relationships and the very best lunches ever. Facebook is surface; Twitter is subtext, and judging by what I’ve seen, the subtext is aching sadness.

I’m not immune to this. I don’t remember ever feeling this miserable and depressed in my life, this sense of futility that makes you wish you’d simply go numb and not care anymore. I think a lot about killing myself these days. Don’t worry, I’m not going to do it and this isn’t a cry for help. But I wake up and think: fuck, more of this? Really? How much more? And is it really worth it?

In my case, much of it stems from my divorce and the collapse of the next relationship I had. But that’s not really the cause. I think that those relationships were bulwarks, charms against the dark I’ve felt growing in this world for a long time now. When I was in love, the world outside didn’t matter so much. But without it, there is nothing keeping the wolf from the door.

It didn’t used to be like this when I was a kid. I’m not getting nostalgic here, or pretending that my adolescence and my twenties were some kind of soft-focused Golden Age. Life sucked when I was young. I was unhappy then too. But there was always the sense that it was just a temporary thing, that if I stuck it out eventually the world was going to get better — become awesome, in fact.

But the reality is that the three generations who ended the 20th century, the Boomers, their Generation X children, and Generation Y, have architected a Western civilization that’s kind of a shit show. Being born in 1978, I fall at either the tail end of Gen X or the beginning of Gen Y, depending on how you look at it. I became an adolescent at the time Nirvana was ushering in a decade of “slacker” ideology, as the pundits liked to put it. But the reality is that I didn’t know a whole lot of actual slackers in the 1990s. I did know a lot of people who found themselves disillusioned with the materialism of the 1980s and what we saw as the failed rhetoric of the Sixties generation, who were all about peace and love right until the time they put on suits and ties and figured out how to divide up the world. I knew a lot of people who weren’t very interested in that path.

The joke, of course, is that every generation kills the thing they love. The hippies became yuppies; Gen X talked a lot about the revolution, and then went and got themselves some venture capital and started laying into place the oversaturated, paranoid world we live in now. A lot of them tried to tell themselves they were still punk as fuck, but it’s hard to morally reconcile the thing where you listen to Fugazi on the way to your job where you help find new ways to trick people into giving up their data to advertisers. Most people don’t even bother. They just compartmentalize.

And I’m not blaming them. The world came apart at the end of the 90s, when the World Trade Center did. My buddy Brent and I were talking about this one night last year — about how the end of the 90s looked like revolution. Everybody was talking about Naomi Klein and anti-consumerism and people in Seattle were rioting over the WTO. Hell, a major motion picture company put out Fight Club, which is about as unsubtle an attack on consumer corporate capitalism as you can get. We were poised on the brink of something. You could feel it.

And then the World Trade Center went down. And all of a sudden calling yourself an “anticapitalist terrorist” was no longer a cool posture to psych yourself up for protest. It became something you might go to jail for — or worse, to one of the Black Camps on some shithole island somewhere. Corporate capitalism became conflated somehow with patriotism. And the idea that the things you own end up defining you became quaint, as ridiculous spoken aloud as “tune in, turn on, drop out”. In fact, it became a positive: if you bought the right laptop, the right smartphone, the right backpack, exciting strangers would want to have sex with you!

It’s no wonder that Gen X began seeking the largely mythological stability of their forebearers; to stop fucking around and eating mushrooms at the Rage Against The Machine show, and to try and root yourself. Get a decent car — something you can pass off as utilitarian — and a solid career. Put your babies in Black Flag onesies, but make sure their stroller is more high tech than anything mankind ever took to the Moon, because that wolf is always at the door. And buy yourself a house, because property is always valuable. Even if you don’t have the credit, because there’s this thing called a “subprime mortgage” you can get now!

But the world changed again. And kept changing. So now you’ve got this degree that’s worth fuck-all, a house that’s worth more as scrap lumber than as a substantial investment, and you’re either going to lose your job or have to do the work of two people, because there’s a recession on. Except they keep saying the recession ended, so why are you still working twice as hard for the same amount of money?

We started two wars, only one of them even marginally justifiable, and thousands and thousands of people died. Some of them were Americans, most of them weren’t. The world hated us again. It’s psychically oppressive to realize you’re the bad guy.

Of course, for a lot of the world, America had always been the bad guy…but we didn’t really know that before, because we didn’t have the Internet in our pocket, to be pulled out at every lunch break and before the meal came and when the episode of Scrubs on TV dragged a little, and before bed. We were encouraged to immerse ourselves in the endless flow of information, to become better informed, because knowing more about the world made us better people.

And maybe it did, but it also made us haunted people.

Yesterday morning, when I woke up, I clicked on a video in my Twitter feed that showed mutilated children being dragged from the streets of Gaza. And I started sobbing — just sobbing, sitting there in my bed with the covers around my waist, saying “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” over and over to the empty room. Dead children, torn to bits. And then it was time for…what? Get up, eat my cereal, go about my day? Every day?

So you’re haunted, and you’re outraged, and you go on Twitter and you go on Facebook and you change your avatar or your profile picture to a slogan somebody thoughtfully made for you, so that you can show the world that you’re watching, that you care, that it matters. But if you’re at all observant, you begin to realize after a while that it doesn’t matter; that your opinion matters for very little in the world. You voted for Obama, because Obama was about hope and change; except he seems to be mostly about hope and change for rich people, and not about hope at all for the people who are killed by American drones or who are locked away without trial in American internment camps or who are prosecuted because they stand up and tell the truth about their employers. There does seem to be a lot of hope and change in Fort Meade and Langley, though, where the NSA and CIA are given more and more leeway to spy on everyone in the world, including American citizens, not for what they’ve done but what they might do.

And the rest of the world? They keep making more dead children. They slaughter each other in the streets of Baghdad and Libya and Gaza and Tel Aviv; they slaughter each other in the hills of Syria; and, increasingly, they slaughter each other in American schools and movie theaters and college campuses.

And when you speak up about that — when you write to your Congressperson to say that you believe in, say, stricter control on the purchase of assault weapons, or limiting the rights of corporations to do astonishing environmental damage, or not sending billions of dollars to the kind of people who think it’s funny to launch missiles filled with flechette rounds into the middle of schools where children huddle together — you’re told that, no, you’re the fascist: that people have the right to defend themselves and make money, and that those rights trump your right to not be killed by some fucking lunatic when you’re waiting in line at Chipotle to grab a chicken burrito, and your right to not be able to light your tapwater on fire with a Zippo because of the chemicals in it, or not to end up in a grainy YouTube video while some demented religious fanatic hacks your head off with a rusty bayonet because your country — not you, but who’s counting — is the Great Satan.

And the music sucks. Dear God, the music sucks. Witless, vapid bullshit that makes the worst airheaded wannabe profundities of the grunge era look like the collected works of Thomas Locke. Half the songs on the radio aren’t anything more than a looped 808 beat and some dude grunting and occasionally talking about how he likes to fuck bitches in the ass. The other half are grown-ass adults singing about their stunted, adolescent romantic ideals and playing a goddamn washtub while dressed like extras from The Waltons.

The music sucks. The movies suck — I mean, they didn’t suck the first time they came out, in the 1980s, but the remakes and gritty reboots and decades-past-their-sell-by-date sequels suck. Indiana Jones is awesome, but nobody needs to see a geriatric Harrison Ford, lured out of retirement by the promise of building another mansion onto his mansion, running around with fucking Shia LeBeouf in the jungle. And besides, we’re all media experts now; we can spot the merchandising nods from the trailer all the way to the final credits. There’s no magic left. It’s just another company figuring out a way to suck the very last molecules of profit out of the things we cherish, because that’s what corporations do.

Everything is branded. Even people. People are “personal brands”, despite the fact that, by and large, you can’t figure out what most of them are actually even good for. They just exist to be snarky and post selfies and demand that you buy something, anything, with their picture on it.

You actually know who Kim Kardashian is. In an ideal world, you’d be as unaware of her existence as you are of the names of the Chinese kids who made the futurephone or featherweight laptop you’re almost certainly reading this on. In an ideal world, Kim Kardashian would have spent her life getting sport-fucked anonymously by hip-hop stars in some Bel Air mansion, ran a salon, and either died of a coke overdose or Botox poisoning. There is no reason that her face and her life and her tits and her deathless thoughts needed to be foisted upon the world outside of the 90210 ZIP code. Except that somebody figured out that you could make money off showing people the car accident in slow motion, that people would watch that. Sure they will. People love to watch stupid people do stupid things. It makes them feel less stupid.

And the Internet.

We built this thing — I include myself in that because I started doing HTML in 1994 and was part of the generation who took to the new medium like water and have made the majority of our adult lives creating it, to a greater or lesser degree — because we believed it would make things better for everyone. We believed it would give voice to the voiceless, hope to the hopeless, bring us all together, help us to understand and empathize and share with one another. We believed it could tear down the walls.

And in a lot of ways it has. But in just as many ways, it has driven us all insane. There’s an old story — I have no idea if it’s true — about monkeys who had the pleasure centers of their brains wired up to a button. Push it, Mr. Monkey, and you have an orgasm. And the monkeys did. They pushed the button and they pushed the button, until they forgot about eating and they forgot about drinking and sleeping and simply fell down and died.

What do you do when you first wake up? What do you do as soon as you get into work? After work? Before bed? Hell, some of us wake up in the night and check our feeds, terrified that we’ve missed out on something.

We do it because we are given that reward, that stimulus that tells us oooh, a new shiny! It’s the fourteenth Guardians Of The Galaxy trailer, with 200% more Rocket Raccoon! Some fucking null node in Portland made a portrait of every single character from Adventure Time out of bacon and Legos! And, maybe most poisonous, maybe most soul-crushing: somebody said something I don’t like that makes me feel frightened and threatened! It’s time to put on my superhero costume and forward unto battle!

Except it doesn’t matter. Because you’re not really changing anybody’s mind. How often does that little skirmish end with anybody changing their mind at all, even a little bit? Or does it just end with one of you invariably either blocking the other or saying something like “You know what, I’m going to stop now, because this is getting out of hand.”

Getting out of hand?

Everything they told you about how to live in the world when you were a kid is a lie. Education doesn’t matter, not even on paper. Being ethical doesn’t matter. Being a good person doesn’t matter. What matters now is that you’re endlessly capable of the hustle, of bringing in that long green, of being entertaining to enough people that somebody will want to give you money or fuck you or fund your startup. We’re all sharks now; if we stop swimming for just a little too long, we die. We lose followers. We’re lame. We’re not worth funding, or fucking. Because all that matters is the endless churn, the endless parade, the endless cycle of buying and trying to sell and being bought and sold by people who tell you that they’re your friends, man, not like those others. Microsoft is evil and Google is not evil, except when they are, but that’s not really important, and if you decide that maybe you’re tired of being reduced to nothing more than a potential lead for a sales pitch, like something out of a fucking David Mamet play, then you’re a hater and irrelevant and a Luddite. And besides, what would you do with yourself if you weren’t checking Facebook or playing Candy Crush Saga or watching some teenage dumbass smash his genitals on the side of a pool on YouTube? What the fuck would you even do, bro?

The comedian Bill Hicks used to do a bit where he invited the advertisers and marketers in his audience to kill themselves. He imagined them turning it into an ad campaign: “Oh, the righteous indignation dollar, that’s a good dollar, Bill’s smart to do that.” He laid out the futility of trying to escape: “I’m just caught in a fucking web,” he’d say.

And that’s where we are. You, me, we’re trapped, between being nothing more than consumers, every aspect of our lives quantified and turned into demographic data, or being fucking Amish cavemen drifting into increasing irrelevancy. Because it really does feel like there’s no middle ground anymore, doesn’t it? There’s no way to stay an active, informed citizen of the world without some motherfucker figuring out a way to squirm into your life to try and get a dollar out of you. Only fools expect something for free, and only bigger fools believe they’re anything other than a consumable or a consumer.

We didn’t get the William Gibson future where you can live like a stainless steel rat in the walls between the corporate enclaves, tearing at the system from within with your anarchy and your superior knowledge of Unix command lines. Now it’s just pissed off teenagers who blame you because their lives are going to suck a cock and billionaire thugs trying to sell you headphones and handbags, all to a soundtrack of some waterhead muttering “Bubble butt, bubble bubble bubble butt” over and over while a shite beat thumps in the background.

I know a lot of people who privately long for an apocalypse of some kind, a breakdown of the ancient Western code, because then they’d either be dead or free. How fucking horrifying is that?

But nobody pulls that trigger, because now we’ve all seen what apocalypses look like. We saw Manhattan in 2001 and New Orleans in 2005 and Thailand in 2004 and the Middle East pretty much any given day. Nobody wants to hate, because we’re pummeled with hate every day, by people who are too fucking stupid to understand that the world has passed them by as much as it’s passed by the dude in the Soundgarden t-shirt who still drives around singing along to “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” on his way to his dead-end job. The best lack all conviction, and the people who are full of passionate intensity? Fuck them. We’re all sick of their shit anyway.

And that’s where we are, and is it any goddamn wonder at all that the most profitable drugs sold in America for like a decade running have been antipsychotics? The world seems psychotic.

I feel like I need to figure this out, like figuring all of this out and finding new ways to live has become the most important thing I could possibly do, not just for myself and the people I love but for the entire human race. I don’t mean me alone — I’m far too self-loathing to have a messiah complex — but I feel like, for me, this is the best use of my time. Because the world is making me crazy and sad and wanting to just put a gun in my mouth, and it’s doing the same thing to a lot of people who shouldn’t have to feel this way.

I don’t believe anymore that the answer lies in more or better tech, or even awareness. I think the only thing that can save us is us. I think we need to find ways to tribe up again, to find each other and put our arms around each other and make that charm against the dark. I don’t mean in any hateful or exclusionary way, of course. But I think like minds need to pull together and pool our resources and rage against the dying of the light. And I do think rage is a component that’s necessary here: a final fundamental fed-up-ness with the bullshit and an unwillingness to give any more ground to the things that are doing us in. To stop being reasonable. To stop being well-behaved. Not to hate those who are hurting us with their greed and psychopathic self-interest, but to simply stop letting them do it. The best way to defeat an enemy is not to destroy them, but to make them irrelevant.

I don’t have the answers. I don’t know some truth that I can reveal to everyone. All I can do is hurt, and try to stop hurting, and try to help other people stop hurting. Maybe that’s all any of us can do. But isn’t that something worth devoting yourself to, more than building another retarded app that just puts more nonsense and bullshit into the world? Just finding people to love, and healing each other? I think it is.

Until I know more, I’ll just keep holding on. I won’t put the gun in my mouth. Because all of this sadness is worth it if there’s still hope. And I want to still have hope so badly. I still want to believe, in myself, and in you.

- See more at: http://zenarchery.com/2014/08/everyone-i-know-is-brokenhearted/#sthash.B4z9ObVE.D6JRWHho.dpuf

Relevance of Hannah Arendt’s “A Report On The Banality Of Evil” To Gaza

 

Self-Deception, Lies And Stupidity
 http://mantlethought.org/sites/default/files/hannaarendtsudomenica16ye8.jpg
by HAMMAD SAID

 

“We want the nations of the world to know…….and they should be ashamed”   Ben Gurion explaining rationale for Eichmann’s trial [i]

“The triumph of the S.S demands that the tortured victim allow himself to be led to the noose without protesting, that he renounce and abandon himself to the point of ceasing to affirm his identity. They know that the system which succeeds in destroying its victim before he mounts the scaffold…..is incomparably the better for keeping the whole people in slavery”[ii]  

Hannah Arendt (henceforth HA), philosopher, writer, academic of Jewish heritage, who studied under such luminaries as Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger in pre-war Germany, went to Jerusalem in 1961 to cover the trial of Eichmann, one of the actors in the Final Solution, for the New Yorker magazine. Her account of the trial regularly published in the magazine at the time, later became a basis for the book, “Eichmann In Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil”.

It is obvious from reading the book that HA’s account of the trial in the book transcended the culpability of the single individual, and in fact implicated the whole of western society in the crimes committed.

HA’s penetrating analysis in the book furnishes insights both into the mind of the perpetrators, and the overall societal mindset they were embedded in, which made these horrendous acts possible without any weight on their conscience.  It provides a template for studying all such acts of barbarity by the organized and brute force of the state, with full complicity of the overwhelming population, against people who are made stateless either in the sense of being deprived of the state they had hitherto lived in or are forced to live as stateless wards of occupying power.

It is precisely the later scenario that we are confronted with in Gaza, where an occupying power is conducting a pogrom and slaughter of the stateless, defenseless and caged population under its occupation. It is true that the scale of murder in Gaza is not comparable to the manufacturing of death on industrial scale and with industrial efficiency as happened during Holocaust, the period dealt in the book, nevertheless there are certain elements of the current situation and wider Palestinian suppression which make the comparisons, and hence the insights, not totally irrelevant. This is borne out by none other than the granddaughter of Holocaust survivor herself, when protesting against FIDF (Friends Of IDF), she remarked in a choked voice that the reason she was there was that her grandparents taught her that “this should never happen to any other people again, whether Jews or not”.

The elements of relevance are not only the unequal nature of the contest – with the most powerful army of the Middle East, backed to the hilt by the most sophisticated military might the world has ever seen (USA) arrayed against mainly defenseless population in congested urban setting, with all paths of exit and ingress shut , hence unsuitable for protracted guerilla warfare) – but also the apparent complicity and almost cheerleading attitude of the populace of the oppressor and the invader in the conflict and its powerful backers and abettors in the western media and government. The fact that all this is happening in this age of global information, and it is almost impossible to avoid images of innocent children and women being blown to smithereens, hospitals and even morgues and graveyards bombed and destroyed, makes the complicity of the population or their indifferent silence, both in Israel and its main supporter United States and to lesser extent Western Europe, all the more criminal and callous. For one who has read HA’s work, it is impossible not to see in this almost ubiquitous silence and complicity of the western seats of political and media power, echoes of what HA characterized as the “moral collapse of the respectable western society” in the face of irrefutable and hard to ignore evidence about mass murders happening close by. In Nazi Germany and its occupied and allied countries, the collapse manifested as “hear no evil, see no evil”, averting of the face from the horror if it all, if you will, and here in the US in the Israeli-Palestinian context it manifests as knowingly arming the murderer to its teeth, and then providing the fig leaf of diplomatic support and biased media coverage to hide and obfuscate the deed both from the domestic and international audience.

It is remarkable that in spite of the huge difference in scale, the psychological and societal factors underlying the brutal onslaught of these declared racist regimes against their captive and largely defenseless populations bears close resemblance. Not only that, USA, without whose total and unconditional support Israel cannot carry out any of its criminal acts, bears many marks of institutional mind control and propaganda so eloquently exposed by HA in her book.

So here are the those elements delineated clearly in HA’s expose of Nazi regime and its murderous acts that one finds reflected in the murderous acts of Israel and its main supporter, United States.

Self-Deception, Lies And Stupidity

“The German society of eighty million people had been shielded against reality and factuality by exactly the same means, the same self-deception, lies and stupidity that had now become ingrained in Eichmann’s mentality”  [iii]

“He was incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché”..HA on Eichmann [iv]

It has almost become a cliché to say that in this age of mass communication and social media, winning the media battle is almost as important as winning the actual, physical one. Nazis were the first to realize the importance of mass propaganda in a modern state, and created one of the most effective propaganda machines the world had ever seen, which presided over a campaign of self-deception, lies, distortions, mind control of unprecedented effectiveness and magnitude. The underlying philosophy was to sway the people through grandiose lies and distortions, making them feel as part of something grand and big. Hence, they were told that it was a struggle for the “destiny of the German people”, such as would pave the way for a thousand years Reich. As Himmler said that they were fighting a battle, which the future generations did not have to fight for another thousand years. For Hitler it was a struggle for the very soul of European civilization against the eastern barbarism, exemplified by Bolshevism. One finds almost parallel distortions and propaganda in Israeli official mythology of the “Promised Land”, and they, Jews, being the rightful heirs of the land of Israel in spite of their almost two thousand years sojourn in the west. All this self-elevating and grandiose mythology goes hand in hand with demeaning Palestinian people as a historical fiction – for instance, when Netanyahu said that there had never been a Palestinian state, never been a Palestinian nation and they were just migrants from neighboring Arab countries. Both the mythology and distortion are critical to Zionist project, as one cannot be carried one without the other. And both require erecting a virtual, alternate reality, based on massive dismissal of actual history. But it must be admitted that there is crucial difference between totalitarian Nazi ideology and official Zionist one, at least in the way they operated in their respective bases. The Nazi totalitarianism obliterated all opposition to it and became the only acceptable narrative in the state, the Zionist narrative could never achieve that monopoly in Israel, and thanks to the courage and integrity of people like Uri Avenry and Levy Gideon, there is a counter narrative, not confined to some nooks or banished to concentration camps, but is expressed through very mainstream organs like Haaretz and other Jewish progressive groups.

But one of the greatest ironies of the whole conflict is that it is not in Israel, one of the main protagonists pf the conflict, but in USA, its distant and arch supporter, that this propaganda based on lies, distortions and self-deception has met its total and unchallenged triumph yet. The success of this campaign is such that no less a person than the former President of the United States is forced to admit publicly that, “it is easier to criticize Israel in Israel than in the United States”.

From Alan Dershowitz’s fabrication of alternate history of Palestine (debunked by all serious scholarship on the subject) as an apology and defense of Israel and its peddling on all respectable US channels to the latest abominable rant “Israel has a right to defend herself” on Fox Channel, it is hard to imagine where to start when one considers the total complicity of US media in Israeli crimes. Just a recent episode in ABC’s coverage of the Gaza bombing highlighted both distortion and stupidity. It was a clear distortion when a Palestinian home, with Palestinian woman clad in traditional Muslim head gear in front wailing, was shown as an Israeli woman whose home was destroyed by Hamas’s rockets. But it also relies on the egregious ignorance and stupidity of the audience to mistake an obviously Palestinian woman for an Israeli one!

As far as the self-deception goes, it ranges from the ludicrous, “they hate us because of our liberties”, to the insidious, as in the recent column in NY Times[v] where the writers have turned the logic on its head, making this preposterous claim that the reason US public supports Israel is because of the failure of Arab spring! Not because of what NY Times writes and CNN, FOX spews day in and day out, but because of the failure of Arab spring! In the annals of self- deception by the so called literati of any society, this has to have the pride of place!

It is not an understatement to say that all mainstream media channels in USA are reduced to a point where they have become mere conduits for the continuous regurgitating of official Israeli talking points, without taking Israeli apologists and official up on even the most obviously absurd ones. It seems that like Eichmann, they are incapable of thinking except in official clichés! Take for example, this oft repeated Israeli assertion, blurring the boundaries between sane and insane, that Hamas is using civilians as human shields or putting their rockets near the civilian places, as justification for the high civilian casualties. Forget the obvious fact of Gaza being one of the most densely populated areas in the world, forget even that the so called warning to crammed homes and shelters is  given minutes before the real lethality if at all and there is neither place or time to run to, forget all that, and still should not a fair journalist challenge the Israeli position on the ground that the targeted population has no army , air force and navy to fight the mightiest army of the Middle East, and it is Israel which makes sure that not only they don’t get any comparable weapons , but even the basic weapons to fight so that Israel does not have to find itself in this, in their own words, unenviable position of fighting an enemy indistinguishable from the civilians? Does any journalist try to raise the question as to what desperation the people would be reduced to, if they could be killed with almost impunity from thousands of feet above the ground, and they had no means of hitting back?  It is morally bankrupt to even raise the question of Hamas using civilians without first asking how come they can’t put tank against tank, a helicopter against helicopter and an aircraft against aircraft, and a uniformed soldier, armed to the hilt with modern gadgetry, against uniformed soldier. The reality and logic of the situation, obvious to any astute observer, is that it is not Hamas but on the contrary Israel which is using civilians, its own, for a human shield. It is so because with all the sophisticated weaponry that Israel possesses its soldiers can kill from a distance with almost no fear of being hit back except in very close combat situations that Israel religiously avoids, but the only way Palestinians in Gaza can retaliate is by firing inaccurate and primitive and almost toy like rockets indiscriminately into Israel, that has the probability of hitting only civilians, if at all, not soldiers. Hence the very nature of this asymmetric power equation dictates that when Hamas retaliates it can only do so by hitting the civilians, and Israel does everything in its power to maintain that asymmetry, depriving Hamas the capability of fighting on equal terms. It is like one party to a duel stealing the other party’s pistols and then complaining that instead of firing shots they are throwing stones that can hit the bystanders!

The impact of all this media blitz in favor of Israel is that you can never ask an average American, who probably has a hard time recognizing Gaza on the map, about the current conflict without getting an automatic, almost knee jerk clichés about terrorism, destruction of Israel and her right to defend herself. The proof is in the pudding, and even Dr. Goebbels would have been envious of this efficacy of US media propaganda for Israel! It is after all he who famously said that a lie should be repeated often and with confidence and from the higher pulpit for it to be accepted as the truth. He has found the most loyal disciples of his craft in mainstream US media.

Dostoevsky, as HA pointed out in her book, recalled from his experience in Siberia that he never met a criminal there who was repentant of his crimes. HA offered an explanation for this in the self-re-enforcing closed environment of the gang the criminals were embedded in, which shielded them from contact with the reality. The American media is playing the same role of shielding American public from its culpability in Israelis crimes by embedding them in this reality created out of lies, half-truths, fabrications, and distortions.

Blaming The Victim

“Fuhrer as promised the Jews a new homeland……..if you build there will be a roof over your heads. There is no water, the wells all around carry disease……If you bore and find water, you will have water”[vi]

HA in her book tells the story of a German literary critic, Heinz Beckmann, who blamed a certain Jewish intellectual for deserting them at “the outbreak of barbarism”, conveniently forgetting that he was expelled by the Nazis, and did not desert. From this minor example of self-serving and self-righteous attitude of Nazis to their more fictional characterizations of Jews as responsible for Germany’s defeat in the Great war to their delusional beliefs of actually helping the Jews with forced emigrations, at least the Zionists, in their project of “finding the ground under their feet”, as Eichamann puts it, it was always the victim who has brought it upon himself. In a similar vein, in the eyes of Israelis it is always the Palestinians who were responsible for their ghetto like existence in Gaza, and for the bombs killing their babies. Just a sample of it was presented the other day, when an Isareli Ambassador to US, Mr. Ron Dermer, was talking to a radio show host and claimed that the reason for shortages in Gaza was that Palestinians used all the resources – millions of dollars – for building tunnels! Given that Mr. Dermer’s government was involved in preventing through violence even a peaceful flotilla carrying food and medicines to Gazans let alone the brutal siege, it requires monumental audacity of shamelessness to make such an assertion. But he was assured that even if he had asserted that Palestinians were directly getting aid from Martians and Anti-Christ in league to destroy Israel, he would not be called upon by the interviewer! So, it is the victim, it is the Palestinians who are offering their children as sacrifices so that they could “enjoy” the sight of Israelis being humiliated in the court of world opinion in the comfort of their tunnels!

It is the psychological and logical compulsion of a society based on notions of racial exclusivity and superiority to regard the other, especially if the others are the inhabitants of the land they want to grab, as untermensch, as lesser humans. Nazis’s policy of lebensraum, the land in the east, had to regard Slavs as untermensch as the Zionist policy of land grab and theft from Palestinians has to regard them as not “people like us”!

Moral Collapse Of The Respectable Society

“Dr. Servatius, I assume you made a slip of the tongue when you said that killing by gas was a medical matter”[vii]

“The net effect of this language system was not to keep these people ignorant of what they were doing, but to prevent them from equating it with their old, normal knowledge of murder and lies”[viii]

“Yes, he had a conscience, and his conscience functioned in the expected way for about four weeks, whereupon it began to function the other way around”[ix]

“From the accumulated evidence one can only conclude that conscience as such has apparently got lost in Germany”[x]

For me the most telling image of the current Gaza massacre is not one of death and destruction, of carnage, and torn limbs, and mutilated bodies of children. It is one of the regular Israeli onslaughts in last few years, and we have become numbed to these sights and they are telling us the same tragic story with only faces changed.  For me the most telling image is a peaceful, quiet image, almost serene, but containing within it the bottomless depths of the “heart of darkness”. It is an image of Israelis, men, children and even toddlers, in an almost picnic like atmosphere with drinks and barbecue watching the carnage unfolding before their eyes from the safety of their perch on the mountaintop. One Israeli critic of Zionism in a remarkable address called the last invasion of Gaza by Israel at the peak time of children’s getting out of their schools in the streets as the darkest day in the history of Judaism. No sir, I respectfully disagree. The darkest day in the history of Judaism was the day when a few people, no matter the numbers, flaunted their inhumanity in broad daylight, and were accepted by the majority either tacitly by staying quiet about it, or out rightly condoning it. This is the dangerous moral collapse which HA was alluding to, which Nazism, because of its creed of racism and naked power, brought about in the “respectable European society”. And God knows what monstrosities it led to. In HA’s incisive analysis, Eichmann was not a monster, neither was he legally insane, nor he was oblivious of the consequences of his actions. He was quite ordinary and commonplace, and hence the banality of it all. But he was caught in an ideology and the system that made him accept and commit those unspeakable horrors with relative equanimity. The respectable opinion, according to his testimony, never questioned or challenged his conscience. It was normally human to be inhuman in that atmosphere. He was embedded in a system which made such humanity almost seemed normal; in fact, alleviated it to the level of duty. That is what HA meant by the moral collapse of the “respectable western society”. It is a version of this moral collapse that was on display on that mountain top the other day: the moral collapse of “respectable Israeli “society.

Equally telling and matching the moral collapse of the ones doing the killings and their immediate cheerleaders was the moral collapse of the distant ones giving them the weapons and all the support of “soft power” they required. The moral bankruptcy on the top of hill in Israel was matched by moral bankruptcy on top of another hill, Capitol hill, namely, the shameless unanimous passing of resolution 480 by Senate, giving unconditional and full support to Israel’s Gaza offensive and yes, believe it or not, calling upon Hamas to separate itself from the unity government! Those who always blamed Hamas for its violence and non-acceptance of Israel, were baying for its blood when it officially , albeit in an indirect way, it did renounce violence by joining and accepting PA’s leadership which has recognized Israel’s right to exist! All those senators, without exception, with all their pretensions and protestations of peace were at that moment of endorsement of naked aggression were standing there themselves naked, without clothes, in their obeisance to the amoral God of power. Those champions of fairness and fair play and justice, Elizabeth Warrens, Al Frankens, Bernie Sanders of the world, totally exposed, with the whole world knowing, if they cared to look, that the only difference between them and John Boehners , Lindsy Grahams, Sarah Palins of the world is only in the choice of which Gods they prostrate themselves to. It is a difference of calculation not of principles. So much for the moral left in the US political system!

Influential media and government, there is nowhere one can turn to for any justice or even fair hearing in the case. Is this the moral collapse of the society we are witnessing here? Yes, there is , God bless her, Amy Goodman, there is this towering figure of Noam Chomsky, almost like an old Testament prophet, there is Chris Hedges and so on. Yes, there is a growing BDS movement and increasing awareness of Palestinian cause in Europe, and there is a strong anti-Zionist strand within Israel, and these are signs that prevent one from total despair or do they? Probably no society ever in history has totally collapsed morally, since even in the depths of it there is a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there is a Lichentberg (a Catholic priest who joined the Jews in their journey east and perished with them). Perhaps, the moral collapse of the greatest supporter and abettor of the crimes of Israel is not that deep or total. Perhaps!

Moral Collapse of  the Victim

“Jewish Council Of Elders were informed by Eichman or his men of how many Jews were need to fill each train, and they made out the list of dportees” [xi]

“There can be no doubt that without the cooperation of the victims, it would hardly have been possible for a few thousand people ..to liquidate many hundreds of thousands of people”[xii]

 “And the acceptance of privileged categories…..had been the beginning of the moral collapse of respectable Jewish society”[xiii]

“It was a general practice to allow certain exceptions in order to be able to main general rule all the more easily” [xiv]

 “Theresienstadt, from the beginning , we designed by Heydrich to serve as a special ghetto for certain privileged categories of Jews”[xv]

One of the lesser talked and known aspect of Eichmann’s trial is how it reveals quiet poignantly the victims of the Holcaust turning, by the force of circumstances, into the willing instruments of their own mass execution. Nazis cleverly and quite cynically orchestrated what HA calls the “moral collapse of respectable Jewish” society, by holding out some avenues of escape in an otherwise hopeless situation. In the early phases before the unleashing of Final Solution, it was a policy of favoring one Jewish group over the other.  For example, Nazis support for Zionism chimed, at this early, with their method of seeking the solution to Jewish problem through forced emigration. They isolated and look down on the assimilationists and praised Zionists, as Eichmann puts it, as idealists.  They also created a special camp at Theresienstadt for the “privileged” category of Jews as a showcase to the world where Red Cross inspections could take place. In the later stages of mass executions, when the situation has become desperate, it is the pure animal instinct for survival and hope of saving some at the cost of many that led Jewish elders and councils to co-operate with the Nazis. For Nazis, it was much economical and convenient for the victims to handle the dirty police work themselves. Also, by creating categories for respectable Jews – those who fought in the previous war, for example – they soothed the conscience of folks at home who knew at least one “decent Jew”.

The moral of all this is to show that the people living under conditions of hopelessness and despair and made to fight for their survival and identity could be easily manipulated by the controlling authority holding power of life and death over them, into a seemingly self-destructive behavior and betraying their own people. It is exactly the same calculus that is at work in cynical Israeli policy of bringing about the moral bankruptcy of occupied Palestinian society by reducing sections of it to be willing policemen of their own captivity. The role of Palestinian authority and the corruption of its leadership must be seen in the light of this Israeli policy of finding venal partners for its illegal enterprise. The example of Jewish Council of Elders, and the co-operative police work in rounding up of Jews and policing the ghettos provides a template for this kind of control.

By  reducing Palestinian authority to a glorified police force in the west Bank tasked with ensuring control and peace as Israel never ceased building illegal settlements on their land, and reducing Gaza to an open air prison a la Warsaw ghetto , Israel wanted to divide and conquer the Palestinian opposition to it. Not only that, by arranging things so that only the most rabid, and extreme opposition remains as the only viable opposition to Israel, which can then be castigated as fanatic and bundled with other radical muslim jihadi outfits, it wanted to control the narrative and tone of opposition to its oppression. Hence the rage of Israeli Prime Minister, when Hamas joined the Palestinian authority and began to take steps to undercut this narrative! How dare Hamas relinquished the armed struggle and vows to destroy Israel for the peaceful struggle and co-existence! That is not what is in the script, and hence Hamas must be punished for it. This is and only this explains the latest flare up in Gaza!

There is one more aspect to this moral collapse of the victim as it relates to the surrounding Arab states. It is not an accident that I am using the word victim for the surrounding Arab states, and not what comes obviously to mind, especially as regards Saudi Arabia and Egypt, accomplices in the crime. They are victims in so far as their situation is analogous to the Nazi occupied countries of Europe such as Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and so on. Here the occupation is not a direct one by Israel, but indirect one by its biggest supporter United States, and not through direct occupation, but by supporting and installing the puppet, corrupt and tyrannical regimes. It is through these regimes that massive resources and policies of these regimes are controlled, and their populations kept educationally, culturally, and technologically backward. The moral collapse is reflected in the decadence of the ruling class and their conspicuous consumption and apathy of the masses to this situation. Even when attempts are made to rectify, they run up against the stone wall of US supported entrenched opposition. To this monarchical and tyrannical petro dollar driven regimes and consumption, is now deliberately added the lethal dimension of sectarian hatred in order to always keep the pot boiling and to provide channels for frittering away radical tendencies into self-destructive and divisive endeavors. All this is heaven sent for Israel, which not only sees in it an almost endless gold mine of propaganda to taint the opposition in the most unflattering and now the almost universal bogey of political or radical Islam, but also an enemy self- immolating in the fires of old, atavistic, sectarian hatreds. The upshot of all this is that both the sectarian battles, the fears of sundry caliphates and petro-dollar driven tyrannies are going to stay there for a while, since they suite both Israel and its arch supporter United States, in the wider scheme of things. But for the middle eastern Muslim society, they are the most potent expression of  their “moral collapse”.

Hammad Said is an IT consultant and lives in Portland, Oregon, and can be reached at hammad_said@hotmail.

Notes.


[i] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 10, penguin addition

[ii] David Russet, a former inmate of Buchenwald quoted by Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 11, penguin addition

[iii] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 52, penguin addition

[iv] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil

[vi] Eric Rajakowitsch, in charge of deportation of Dutch Jews: Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 75, penguin addition

[vii] ”Judge Halevi, asking the defense counsel of Eichmann to clarify his shocking statement about gasing: Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil:  penguin addition

[viii] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 86, penguin addition

[ix] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 95, penguin addition

[x] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 103, penguin addition

[xi] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 115, penguin addition

[xii] R. Pendorf, quoted by Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 117, penguin addition

[xiii] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 131, penguin addition

[xiv] Louis De Jong , quoted by Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 132, penguin addition

[xv] Hannah Arendt: Eichmann In Jerusalem, A Report In The Banality Of Evil: page 80, penguin addition

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/07/28/relevance-of-hannah-arendts-a-report-on-the-banality-of-evil-to-gaza/

C.S. Lewis on Suffering and What It Means to Have Free Will in a Universe of Fixed Laws

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“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”

If the universe operates by fixed physical laws, what does it mean for us to have free will? That’s what C.S. Lewis considers with an elegant sidewise gleam in an essay titled “Divine Omnipotence” from his altogether fascinating 1940 book The Problem of Pain (public library) — a scintillating examination of the concept of free will in a material universe and why suffering is not only a natural but an essential part of the human experience. Though explored through the lens of the contradictions and impossibilities of belief, the questions Lewis raises touch on elements of philosophy, politics, psychology, cosmology, and ethics — areas that have profound, direct impact on how we live our lives, day to day.

He begins by framing “the problem of pain, in its simplest form” — the paradoxical idea that if we were to believe in a higher power, we would, on the one hand, have to believe that “God” wants all creatures to be happy and, being almighty, can make that wish manifest; on the other hand, we’d have to acknowledge that all creatures are not happy, which renders that god lacking in “either goodness, or power, or both.”

To be sure, Lewis’s own journey of spirituality was a convoluted one — he was raised in a religious family, became an atheist at fifteen, then slowly returned to Christianity under the influence of his friend and Oxford colleague J.R.R. Tolkien. But whatever his religious bent, Lewis possessed the rare gift of being able to examine his own beliefs critically and, in the process, to offer layered, timeless insight on eternal inquiries into spirituality and the material universe that resonate even with those of us who fall on the nonreligious end of the spectrum and side with Carl Sagan on matters of spirituality.

Lewis writes:

There is no reason to suppose that self-consciousness, the recognition of a creature by itself as a “self,” can exist except in contrast with an “other,” a something which is not the self. . . . The freedom of a creature must mean freedom to choose: and choice implies the existence of things to choose between. A creature with no environment would have no choices to make: so that freedom, like self-consciousness (if they are not, indeed, the same thing), again demands the presence to the self of something other than the self.

What makes Lewis’s reflections so enduring and widely resonant is that, for all his concern with divinity, he cracks open the innermost kernel of our basic humanity, in relation to ourselves and to one another:

People often talk as if nothing were easier than for two naked minds to “meet” or become aware of each other. But I see no possibility of their doing so except in a common medium which forms their “external world” or environment. Even our vague attempt to imagine such a meeting between disembodied spirits usually slips in surreptitiously the idea of, at least, a common space and common time, to give the co- in co-existence a meaning: and space and time are already an environment. But more than this is required. If your thoughts and passions were directly present to me, like my own, without any mark of externality or otherness, how should I distinguish them from mine? And what thoughts or passions could we begin to have without objects to think and feel about? Nay, could I even begin to have the conception of “external” and “other” unless I had experience of an “external world”?

In a sentiment that calls to mind novelist Iris Murdoch’s beautiful definition of love (“Love is the very difficult understanding that something other than yourself is real.”), Lewis adds:

The result is that most people remain ignorant of the existence of both. We may therefore suppose that if human souls affected one another directly and immaterially, it would be a rare triumph of faith and insight for any one of them to believe in the existence of the others.

Lewis considers what it would take for us to fully acknowledge and contact each other’s otherness, to bridge the divide between the internal and the external:

What we need for human society is exactly what we have — a neutral something, neither you nor I, which we can both manipulate so as to make signs to each other. I can talk to you because we can both set up sound-waves in the common air between us. Matter, which keeps souls apart, also brings them together. It enables each of us to have an “outside” as well as an “inside,” so that what are acts of will and thought for you are noises and glances for me; you are enabled not only to be, but to appear: and hence I have the pleasure of making your acquaintance.

Society, then, implies a common field or “world” in which its members meet.

‘Tree of virtues’ by Lambert of Saint-Omer, ca. 1250, from ‘The Book of Trees.’ Click image for details.

That “neutral something” might sound a lot like faith, but Lewis is careful to point out the limitations of such traditional interpretations and to examine how this relates to the question of suffering:

If matter is to serve as a neutral field it must have a fixed nature of its own. If a “world” or material system had only a single inhabitant it might conform at every moment to his wishes — “trees for his sake would crowd into a shade.” But if you were introduced into a world which thus varied at my every whim, you would be quite unable to act in it and would thus lose the exercise of your free will. Nor is it clear that you could make your presence known to me — all the matter by which you attempted to make signs to me being already in my control and therefore not capable of being manipulated by you.

Again, if matter has a fixed nature and obeys constant laws, not all states of matter will be equally agreeable to the wishes of a given soul, nor all equally beneficial for that particular aggregate of matter which he calls his body. If fire comforts that body at a certain distance, it will destroy it when the distance is reduced. Hence, even in a perfect world, the necessity for those danger signals which the pain-fibres in our nerves are apparently designed to transmit. Does this mean an inevitable element of evil (in the form of pain) in any possible world? I think not: for while it may be true that the least sin is an incalculable evil, the evil of pain depends on degree, and pains below a certain intensity are not feared or resented at all. No one minds the process “warm — beautifully hot — too hot — it stings” which warns him to withdraw his hand from exposure to the fire: and, if I may trust my own feeling, a slight aching in the legs as we climb into bed after a good day’s walking is, in fact, pleasurable.

Yet again, if the fixed nature of matter prevents it from being always, and in all its dispositions, equally agreeable even to a single soul, much less is it possible for the matter of the universe at any moment to be distributed so that it is equally convenient and pleasurable to each member of a society. If a man traveling in one direction is having a journey down hill, a man going in the opposite direction must be going up hill. If even a pebble lies where I want it to lie, it cannot, except by a coincidence, be where you want it to lie. And this is very far from being an evil: on the contrary, it furnishes occasion for all those acts of courtesy, respect, and unselfishness by which love and good humor and modesty express themselves. But it certainly leaves the way open to a great evil, that of competition and hostility. And if souls are free, they cannot be prevented from dealing with the problem by competition instead of courtesy. And once they have advanced to actual hostility, they can then exploit the fixed nature of matter to hurt one another. The permanent nature of wood which enables us to use it as a beam also enables us to use it for hitting our neighbor on the head. The permanent nature of matter in general means that when human beings fight, the victory ordinarily goes to those who have superior weapons, skill, and numbers, even if their cause is unjust.

Illustration by Olivier Tallec from ‘Waterloo & Trafalgar.’ Click image for details.

But looking closer at the possible “abuses of free will,” Lewis considers how the fixed nature of physical laws presents a problem for the religious notion of miracles — something he’d come to examine in depth several years later in the book Miracles, and something MIT’s Alan Lightman would come to echo several decades later in his spectacular meditation on science and spirituality. Lewis writes:

Such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them. All matter in the neighborhood of a wicked man would be liable to undergo unpredictable alterations. That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behavior of matter and produce what we call miracles, is part of Christian faith; but the very conception of a common, and therefore stable, world, demands that these occasions should be extremely rare.

He offers an illustrative example:

In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him — if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking — then you could not have a game at all. So it is with the life of souls in a world: fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.

He closes by bringing us full-circle to the concept of free will:

Whatever human freedom means, Divine freedom cannot mean indeterminacy between alternatives and choice of one of them. Perfect goodness can never debate about the end to be attained, and perfect wisdom cannot debate about the means most suited to achieve it.

The Problem of Pain is a pause-giving read in its entirety. Complement it with Lewis on duty, the secret of happiness, and writing “for children” and the key to authenticity in all writing, then revisit Jane Goodall on science and spirituality.

 

 

My adventures in Hemingway

How I lived out a novel at odds with the modern world

As a young man in Europe, I immersed myself in the work of a master. What I learned changed me forever

My adventures in Hemingway: How I lived out a novel at odds with the modern world
Ernest Hemingway attends a bullfight in Madrid, Spain, November 1960. (Credit: AP)

At first, they died in the bullring, but the book that made them famous had swelled the crowds. By mid-century, the lack of space made it harder to outrun the bulls, so they began to die much earlier in the route, beyond Hotel La Perla, and most just before the bulls made their 90-degree turn onto Calle Estafeta.

I was there in Pamplona, standing on the balcony of the piso near this precarious juncture. It was 8 a.m.; the stone streets were shiny with rain. There was a wood barricade, like an outfield wall, that unnaturally ended Calle Mercaderes and forced the route right onto Estafeta. This is where I saw the first bulls slip, losing their footing at the turn, their bulk hitting the stones, their tonnage pounding into the barricade, the runners fleeing to the sidewalks, some, in fetal curls, waiting for death.

This was how the last American was killed in Pamplona, along this narrow corridor that offers no escape from the charging bulls. That morning, his killer, “Castellano,” had begun to run the 826 meters from the Cuesta de Santo Domingo to the Plaza de Toros at an unusually torrid pace, which frightened the runners and sent them scurrying. One of them fell.

Castellano plunged his horns into the limp American on the ground, goring his stomach and piercing through to his aortic vein. He began to crawl. But there were still more bulls in the stampede, and by the time the Red Cross unit got to Matthew Tassio, most of the blood had already drained from his body. He was dead just eight minutes after he finally reached the hospital.

Tassio’s was the 14th death in the recorded history of San Fermín — the festival most famous for hosting the annual “Running of the Bulls” — and the last American to die there. One other has perished since, in 2003, and many others have been badly damaged by the bulls, but perhaps none have died as gruesomely as the American did in 1995. I wasn’t in attendance for that run, thankfully.

In a year in which there would be no deaths, I came to Pamplona for the second time by bus from Madrid, passing through the sunflowers of Basque country. I had been invited by the correspondents of the Associated Press, with whom Dow Jones Newswire, my former employer, shared its local outpost to witness the Running of the Bulls from their prized perch.

That morning’s encierra would be the first of the new millennium. It was very wet and, even from the balcony, you could see the unevenness in the cobblestones. The only place to witness the run was from the balconies of the apartments along the route. When the bulls began to stampede, the runners, many still drunk and wearing all white save for a red pañuelico around their necks, filled all of the space in the corridors. It was a jogging gait until they saw the bulls. Most of them ran well ahead of the danger, but some were eventually chased down by the bulls.



I remember an American student who slipped nearly died on the curb by the cigarette shop on Estafeta, trampled, blood maroon in the grooves of the cobblestones, a small crowd coagulating around him to watch for death.

I remember the dense crowds, the public drunkenness, the street drink that kept you drunk and alert made from equal parts Coca-Cola and red wine. And, of course, I remember the monumental visage of Ernest Hemingway that hung down the side of the Hotel La Perla, where he set the novel that first recorded this mad dash from mortality.

* * *

It is not an overstatement to claim that Ernest Hemingway introduced Pamplona to the world. Until he first wrote about it in 1923 in an article for The Toronto Star Weekly, the San Fermín festival had been a regional affair: “As far as I know we were the only English speaking people in Pamplona during the Feria of last year,” writes Hemingway. “We landed at Pamplona at night. The streets were solid with people dancing. Music was pounding and throbbing. Fireworks were being set off from the big public square. All the carnivals I had ever seen paled down in comparison.”

This Toronto Star sketch of Pamplona comes from the appendix of new edition of “The Sun Also Rises,” released last week by Scribner’s to commemorate the 90th anniversary of its publication. The “updated” version will titillate Hemingway aficionados: unpublished early drafts, excised scenes and two deleted opening chapters. This “new” material provides a rare glimpse into the evolution and creative process of one of the great masters of American literature.

Drafted over six weeks across Spain (mostly in Valencia and Madrid) in the summer of 1925, set in Jazz Age Paris amid the psychic ruins of the Great War, “The Sun Also Rises” endures as one of the finest first novels ever written. Its itinerant narrative of Spain and France (they were largely unknowns to the American traveling public in 1925, but more on that later), depictions of café life and drinking, bullfighting and affairs with matadors, were all new to novels of the time. “No amount of analysis can convey the quality of ‘The Sun Also Rises,’” went the original review of the book in The New York Times in 1926. “It is a truly gripping story, told in lean, hard, athletic narrative prose that puts more literary English to shame.”

Hemingway chose to evoke disillusionment through Jack Barnes, an expatriated American foreign correspondent living in Paris, and his married paramour, Lady Brett Ashley. Their romance is complicated, to say the least: Jake’s manhood was marred in the war and he cannot procreate (in his famous interview with The Paris Review in the 1950s, Hemingway was adamant that Jake was not a eunuch). The war injury was a crucial detail in the text, and an emblematic signature of the Hemingway code that ran through his subsequent work. His male characters bore physical or psychic wounds (sometimes both). Jake’s injury was an outward symptom of an interior crisis suffered in the wake of WWI.

Hemingway’s genius was present in Jake and Lady Brett as protagonists and antagonists. We inflict our own wounds, Hemingway seems to say, an insight that bears out even today: Contemporary disillusionment is concerned with the surprising, man-made ironies of modernity — a dwindling sense of freedom, both existential and civil; the West’s waning hegemony even amid unparalleled wealth and technology; a diminished middle class and shrinking American dream; and an ever present sense of looming doom (an attack of some kind, perhaps) by forces beyond our control. The Lost Generation time of “The Sun” was infected with its own disillusionment, owing to man-made origins from the tragic period of 1914–1918. This disillusion plays out in “The Sun” almost nihilistically; by the novel’s end, both characters are badly damaged by the preceding events, degraded, alienated.

* * *

The two opening chapters, cut by Hemingway but offered to readers in the new edition, were fortunate omissions. The original opening lines of “The Sun” sound an awkward, conversational, and Victorian tone, inconsistent with the remainder of the novel:

This is a story about a lady. Her name is Lady Ashley and when the story begins she is living in Paris and it is Spring. That should be a good setting for a romantic but highly moral story.

Yet, in the rest of the deleted chapter, and elsewhere in the early passages, the Hemingway voice is undeniably present. That voice has drawn veneration and ridicule. The essayist E.B. White, hardly the type for big-game hunting and encierros, penned a famous parody of Hemingway in The New Yorker in 1950, deriding his so-called declarative prose style. Yet much of Hemingway’s best writing strains this easy stereotype. He is far less aphoristic and quotable than, say, Don DeLillo (a veritable one-man factory of sound bites), and you would find it difficult to locate a pithy tweet among the prose of “The Sun Also Rises.”

By the 1930s, Hemingway’s writing style had grown more intricate. “Green Hills of Africa” contains a  buffalo of a sentence, 497 words spanning five pages, reminiscent of Faulkner or Gabriel García Márquez. That magical realist, in fact, had lionized Hemingway. Writing for the New York Times about a fleeting, chance encounter with Hemingway on Paris’s Boulevard St. Michel, Márquez declares that “[Hemingway's] instantaneously inspired short stories are unassailable” and calls him “one of the most brilliant goldsmiths in the history of letters.”

For better or for worse, that unmistakably declarative, taut, gritty Hemingway music can overpower the substance of his stories, somewhat ironically drawing the attention back onto himself. Over the decades since his death in 1961, the Hemingway legend has bloomed and rebloomed many times over, until now there is a preoccupation with the Hemingway lifestyle, the man himself, in a way, morphing posthumously into a tourist destination, a literary Jimmy Buffet.

Those places in “The Sun” – Pamplona, Madrid, Paris – remain open for tourists, poet manqués, backpackers and the traveling gentility. But the tourism and concomitant commercialism have rendered quite a few of their landmarks ersatz. At the Closerie des Lilas in Paris’ Montparnasse district, where Hemingway set many scenes from his books (including my favorite, “A Moveable Feast”), practically the entire bar menu is a monument to Hemingway: daiquiris and mojitos, all made from Cuban rum, all named after Papa. After its much celebrated renovation, the Hotel Ritz saw fit to refurbish itself with a Hemingway-themed restaurant, L’Espadon (“The Swordfish”), in homage to Papa’s love of fishing, along with a Hemingway-inspired bar, which, no doubt, mixes up fanciful permutations of mojitos and daiquiris named after… you guessed it. The Spanish may have even more flagrantly exceeded the French in their quest to annex the Hemingway legend into their geography. Calle de Hemingway in Pamplona leads directly into the bullring. Placards outside restaurants on the Calle Cuchilleros in Madrid proclaim, rather declaratively, that “Hemingway ate here.” The website of Madrid staple Botin’s, the world’s oldest restaurant and where Hemingway set the final scene of “The Sun,” devotes cyber text to Papa, even directly quoting the final chapter.

A question worth considering: Were he alive today, could Hemingway have written a novel as great as “The Sun”? So much of its wonder derives from his keen eye for the undiscovered, heretofore unknown traditions. Ours, though, is a world of uber-awareness, search-engine omniscience. Those with wanderlust possess all manner of means to beam into a faraway place, efficiently and affordably, even instantaneously. One afternoon, in writing this essay, I called up Google Earth to view the squares and streets where I had been 14 years ago, astounded by the clarity of the street-level views. For the next few minutes, I flitted to and fro around the globe, a Peter Pan visiting Anthony Bourdain places.

* * *

I had first read “The Sun” in high school and was unaffected by it. Not until I had decided to move abroad after college and take up residence in Spain did I take up the text again. This time I clung to it, savoring every word about where to travel and where to eat and how to live like a good, knowledgeable expatriate.

Barcelona in July was a late-summer swamp. Soon, I missed the cool weather and took an overnight train north to the Basque country. In San Sebastian, I walked at dusk along the promenade that curled around the bay past the stalls that sold tiny, rare mollusks you picked like popcorn out of a cone of rolled newspaper. I saw some school kids perform the ancient Basque Riau-Riau dances and walked around the complicatedly arranged streets, names clotted with diphthongs, that smelled of the Atlantic, looking for Hemingway experiences.

That did not come until Pamplona.

It was late afternoon in August and very hot when I arrived. In my bag was a journal from my mother, some unremarkable reading, dirty clothes, a few measly legs left of a Eurorail pass I had purchased in Harvard Square the month before.

I had not thought the city would be so different after San Fermín, but I had come too late: the city was half-full. I roved for much of that afternoon, dodging in and out of curio shops and whatever else was open out of season. When it was dinnertime, I studied the menus of the restaurants off the Plaza Castillo until I found somewhere with a menu written only in Basque. I befriended a fellow traveler, Ryan, who was also from Massachusetts, and we made up plans to go drinking at a café in the Plaza Castillo afterwards.

By our third bottle of Estrella, an American couple approached to ask if they could join our table.

“We live in Paris and I am so tired of Paris that we have to leave. All I want to do is go back to Chicago but he won’t go,” she said.

“But Paris is so special,” I said. “Don’t you enjoy any part of it?”

“I despise it. They hate all Americans and you can smell the cheese in the cheese shops even from the street.”

She was menacingly beautiful and skeletal in that model way. Mark was a photographer, a little stout and balding, his shirt unbuttoned a touch salaciously. They had eloped some years ago and were living in an attic flat on the Île de St. Louis. When she began to flirt openly with Ryan, he would not look at her. When the couple began to quarrel, she kept saying she wished to return to America.

It was nearly midnight now and we were the only ones left in café in the colonnade of the plaza. Across the way, the lights were all out at the Hotel La Perla. There was only moonlight in the great square. When she finally began to kiss him, her husband placed his bottle on the table, stood, and shook his head at me. She was giggling the entire time.