Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Solnit, Abbey, Day: Three American Anarchists

My latest essay for Dark Mountain has just been posted. It covers a good Rebecca Solnit book about the communities that form after natural disasters, an Edward Abbey novel about a post-apocalyptic America, and Dorothy Day's memoir The Long Loneliness (her picture is below). I tried to use the three books to get at what bothers me about certain American writers and their glorification of self-sufficiency, an ideal (or rather, a way of naming an ideal) that has always struck me as ludicrous, since from birth to death we are never anything but dependent, both on other people and the natural world. All we can aim for is closer relationships, rather than distant and impenetrable ones, with a world on which we are always and entirely dependent; this is all "self-sufficiency" can really mean. Maybe a new term is in order?

Also, readers of this blog may remember that I am a fan of the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia. I reviewed another novel of his called Equal Danger for my Lost Classics series on the Ploughshares blog. (A previous entry dealt with an excellent novel by Selma Lagerlof.) Please feel free to suggest other books that might be good to review. I was planning to write about David Jones's long WWI poem In Parenthesis but ended up getting rather confused about what was going on and finally put it aside, to be taken up (maybe) on another day.

Somehow I seem to have stumbled into my own genre: long, essay-like reviews that compare disparate books of ecological and literary interest as an attempt to get at general truths! Alas, this is a genre for which, as far as I can tell, no market currently exists. I remain hopeful, though, that if I keep on dropping these bizarre fruits on the forest floor, some undernourished creature will eventually come along to see if they can be used for food. Thanks as always for giving them a try,


Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Few Notes on Election Spending

I have been doing my level best to ignore the election for the past several months. Some time ago, I realized, politics in America simply became a branch of the entertainment industry, but for some reason discussing the ins and outs of a campaign—unlike celebrity gossip or the pennant race—still earns one respect as a serious and intelligent person. I once enjoyed being such a person, but for several years, I have been unable to enjoy elections even in the spirit of entertainment. The body count has gotten too high, and it is hard to enjoy the flubs and one-liners when one thinks about the varieties of state-sanctioned murder that are going quietly undiscussed.

Of course, without real determination, one cannot entirely escape these people. In Massachusetts, where I live, the most expensive congressional race in the country is taking place. I have been forced to pay some small quantity of attention to it, and this has produced the single political thought that has occurred to me during this election season, which I would like to share.

Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren are running for Senate. Since I grew up rooting for the Orioles, I have watched a few baseball games this year, and have thus been exposed to dozens of ads from both of them. Brown's ads stress his willingness to share in the responsibilities of a household (he cooks occasionally for his daughters) and imply that this shows unusual nobility. Warren ads indicate that she wants to create jobs by investing in infrastructure.

While watching this Warren ad, again and again, something occurred to me: each airing of that advertisement is itself a job. If she chose not to air one of these thirty-second spots, she could pay a volunteer a healthy salary for months. Eschew the ads for several innings and she could create a proper job, perhaps several.

As a sample of the sums at stake, the Boston Globe reported that, in a six week period in July and August, Brown and Warren raised about six million dollars. (I have heard estimates for the total cost of the presidential race that run close to a billion.) The bulk of this money went to advertising. The first stops for both candidates after raising these funds were two huge Virginia ad agencies: Multi Media Services Corp. for Scott Brown, and Media Strategies & Research for Elizabeth Warren. Think hard about those names and how difficult they are to keep straight.

This is simply how all campaigns run—you raise money; you spend it on ads—despite the fact that no one is sure if this advertising has any impact on how people vote. The only widely accepted consequence of advertising is that, if the ads become negative, they depress turnout because of widespread fatigue and disgust (and how).

Now, forget about Scott Brown for a second. He is obviously an idiot. He is welcome to spend all of his money asserting that he has a pleasant relationship with his wife and daughters. But Elizabeth Warren, like many progressive candidates, has made the issue of greater income equality central to her campaign. She is sitting on a truly enormous pile of cash, enough to create hundreds of jobs, and she instead chooses to spend the bulk of it on advertisements that promise to create those jobs later.

What if, instead of trumpeting her support for struggling homeowners, and pledging to create an agency to provide counselling to help prevent foreclosures, she hired a few people to actually give out such advice? Or—on a simpler level—why not pay the volunteers who make phone calls and wave signs? Make an effort, if you happen to care about them, to hire the poor and unemployed.

If Warren—or any candidate—isn't willing to demonstrate her ideals through the structure of an organization over which she has complete control, why should anyone believe that she would work toward these ideals when in power?

Are there shades of the old machine system here? Yes, absolutely there are, and that's fine. I prefer the machine to the current system, where all the average voter receives is rhetoric about putting people back to work and stimulating the economy, while campaign funds, which increasingly come from large donors, swirl around in the same elite stratum from where they came—or go from the pocket of some temporarily enthusiastic person to finance a fraction of a second of a television advertisement.

At some point, more people in this country are going to notice that the pendulum that swings back and forth between parties every few years is actually being used for hypnosis. It is the swaying of a pocketwatch—change, hope, greatness, change, hope, greatness—while the wars, extra-legal assassinations, despoiling of air, water, and land, growing system of surveillance, and utter lack of accountability for every disaster continue with eerie consistency regardless of the new bodies in the suits.

Eventually, though, when things reach a certain pitch (as they will, I suspect, before the decade is out), candidates will emerge from outside the current system: either new parties, or powerful fringe movements within the two major ones. I have faith that this will happen, because the American system of government is well designed, and capable of rejuvenation or at least slower decay.

One way to know when a genuinely different candidate has arrived—and this is my single thought for the election season—is that the money they receive will be spent to a large extent on the ground level in their community. Even an unsuccessful campaign, then, will be of some benefit to the district's constituents. My guess is that people are already so immune to political advertising that spending money in this way might actually be a better way to win. And if voters feel that the campaign is spending money in dishonest or unwise ways, it is significantly easier to evaluate such tangible actions than sussing out a candidate's character from ghostwritten speeches and carefully crafted advertisements.

Dorothy Day, who did more good with modest resources than most politicians manage with entire treasuries, said something worth remembering: “I have long since come to believe that people never mean half of what they say, and that it is best to disregard their talk and judge only their actions.”

If a campaign is filled with inspiring talk about supporting the middle class or (more exceptionally) the poor, simply take a look at how the candidate spends her money: does the lion's share go to a few consultants and media companies, with a smattering for caterers, buses, hotels, another smattering for a few core employees, and virtually nothing for the people who do most of the work?

If so, expect the perpetuation of policies that encourage just such a distribution of income when the politician is in power. If a person's own organization cannot be a model of the kind of society they say they want to create, they are not worth wasting a second of attention or enthusiasm on. What they are doing—consciously or unconsciously (it is usually the latter)—is providing a little momentum to help the pocketwatch swing across the eyes again. I look up sometimes and search for the hand that is holding the chain. For all my paranoia, I can never make it out, and I don't trust people who claim to have seen it. But, as it swings by again, I am quite sure that the clock is ticking.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Dark Mountain 3: An Interview with Dmitry Orlov

For the past few weeks, I have been reading through the third Dark Mountain anthology. It is a lovely book, and has a maroon color and tough hardcover binding that makes it look a little like my old high school English anthology ("Voyage to Literature" or whatever it was), which I never returned and discovered years later was full of wonderful stories.

The Dark Mountain book, too, is a pleasure to hold and look through. Pretty much everything I have read so far—the essays by Hannah Lewis and Charlotte Du Cann, the interviews—has been worthwhile, and "Dark Ecology," an essay by Paul Kingsnorth, is on its own worth the price of admission.

Or would have been, had I paid for the book—they sent me a copy for free because it contains some of my work, an interview with the writer Dmitry Orlov, who currently lives in Boston and sat down with me for coffee a few months ago. For the curious, this lecture is probably a good introduction to his work, and his book, Reinventing Collapse, is well worth reading.

Orlov is a formidable man, and our interview is a little dance between my not particularly well-informed good spirits (for whatever reason, I am happy most of the time), and his dark, witty, and more knowledgeable analyses. A sample:
AA: A quote from your book: “We may be hurtling towards environmental doom and, thankfully, never quite get there because of resource depletion...” This might be a mystical question, but is there some sense in which the planet will not allow itself to be destroyed? Do you have any sort of faith in that?

DO: No. We could generate gas by setting spent coal pits on fire. That will take care of the rest of the ecosystem. We could have open pit nuclear reactors using not just the spent fuel, but the nuclear weapons. We could make the whole place radioactive just for the sake of keeping the industrial systems and the military systems going a little longer. There's really no limit to human stupidity. If people set their minds to destroying this planet, I'm sure they'll manage to do it.
Any of my readers who have been interested in the reviews I've published with Dark Mountain would, I think, find the book worth owning. It is a little expensive, especially for people outside the U.K., but it's a beautifully produced volume, one that I'm proud to be part of. Like "Voyage to Literature," I think you won't regret keeping it around.


Friday, July 20, 2012

Jefferies, Jensen, and Catastrophe

Dear Readers,

I apologize again for the enormous delay in posting, but at least I have still been writing. I recently published a review on the literature of catastrophe, focusing on Richard Jefferies, the Victorian nature essayist, and a number of much lesser modern writers. I think this one is a pretty good piece of writing.

I also wrote a less satisfactory review of the second volume of Derrick Jensen's Endgame, which was a difficult book for me to engage with. Nonetheless, Jensen's work is worthy of respect, perhaps more than I gave him. Here is the review for the curious.

Also, in case I have readers in India, my essay about Joseph Tainter's book is being republished in an Indian environmental journal called Eternal Bhoomi, copies of which are apparently sent to various schools there. The dominion of English in India is a troubling phenomenon, but one that I have no right to criticize, considering my skills in Hindi and Kannada. In any case, if my writing finds an audience in my home country, I can only be grateful.

I think I have been writing a little too much about impending doom. It's probably time for something else. I might review Catherine Carswell's fascinating book about D. H. Lawrence, The Savage Pilgrimage, or the wonderful poetry of Thomas McGrath. The abyss, after all, is not going anywhere. In the meantime, my mysterious audience, be well,


Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Lagerlof, Tainter, Donkeys

I have started a series for Ploughshares called Lost Classics, and the first entry is Selma Lagerlof's The Phantom Carriage. The Norvik Press is re-issuing a number of Lagerlof's novels in new translations.

I have read two: Lord Arne's Silver and The Phantom Carriage (translated, fittingly, by Sarah Death and Peter Graves!) and think she is a special writer who deserves to be remembered. Her books are difficult to find in America, but I encourage you to seek them out.

To quote Hermann Hesse, an admirer, Lagerlof "possesses what is perhaps the most essential characteristic of the person of genius, an inner relationship with all being, a wealth of connections to all the things and creatures of the world..."

Next, Dark Mountain published my first new review for them, of Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Complex Societies, and Energy Bulletin republished it. I am proud of this one and I hope you read it.

And finally, Cerise Press published my review of Beso the Donkey, a collection of poems by Richard Jarrette. I was drawn to it because of the praise of W. S. Merwin on the back. Also, donkeys are some of my favorite creatures.

Speaking of which: I don't listen to much modern classical music, but happened to come across a CD of short piano pieces inspired by Platero y yo, one of my favorite books (by Juan Ramon Jimenez, about his friendship with his donkey). The pieces are composed and performed by Sandrine Erdely-Sayo, and I picked the CD up purely out of affection for the book.

And what a pleasant surprise, considering that I usually hear modern pieces and have no idea what to make of them. Erdely-Sayo has written a wonderful collection of miniatures, with the best of the tracks calling up the sense of nostalgia that fills Jimenez's book. I unfortunately don't have the vocabulary or knowledge to write about music—if it helps, the pieces sound a bit like Liszt working with Iberian melodies, with some of Liszt's over-fondness for embellishment but also with a touch of his magic. You can listen to a little of it here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Fantasy Sports and the Destruction of Awe

Sports have been a big part of my life ever since I came to America. I spent afternoons playing basketball and football with my friends, of course, but there was an exponentially larger amount of time spent watching games, checking scores in the paper, and listening to chatter on the radio—the whole business of following professional sports. I have been thinking lately about how my personality was shaped by this investment, and what an enormous role sports continue to play in the lives of most Americans, particularly men. Also, I want to tell you about why I hate fantasy sports.

I was eight when I arrived here. Within a few years, I became devoted to following professional basketball, football, and baseball in a way that I had never followed cricket in India. In America, I watched as many games on TV as I could, and on most nights I tucked a radio beneath my pillow and struggled to stay awake until the end of the Orioles or Bullets game (they are the Wizards now, and as uncompetitive as ever).

The next morning, I would open the sports section and read almost all of it. Obsessions began to coalesce around certain teams, players, and races. One year, I became deeply invested in the duel between David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal for the regular season scoring title. I was rooting for Robinson—the quiet and classy player—and I remember being elated when he scored 71 points on the last game of the season to secure the title.

I shunned the obvious stars like O'Neal and Michael Jordan. Instead, I followed second-tier notables who I decided were in some way morally superior to the stars. Tim Brown and the Raiders were one mysterious obsession. For several years, I desperately rooted for the Trailblazers to beat the Bulls in the Finals, which never happened. I fixated on Terry Porter, the Blazers' point guard, who had a strangely-shaped head and a fantastically accurate three-point shot. He hustled; he was a good ball distributor, calm and never showy; he never argued with refs or got into fights. He played the game, I decided, the right way. All of my favorites were finesse players, soft-spoken, who usually fell in the end to more determined and (I thought) ruthless teams.

Sometimes, when I think about the time and emotion I spent on sports, I feel like I must have wasted half of my childhood. Lately, though, it occurred to me that something valuable happened during those years, that I was building a personality and a place in the world using the tools at my disposal. Already, in my choice of idols, I was feeling out the kinds of success that, at my best, I would be capable of. Other children, of course, chose differently. Locked up in the bubble of modern childhood, we all found heroes to act for us—with us, it sometimes seemed—as a way of developing an identity and a sense of consequence.

“Recognize the natural power in the man, as men did in the past,” D.H. Lawrence writes in Apocalypse, “and give it homage, then there is a great joy, an uplifting, and a potency passes from the powerful to the less powerful.” On dozens of nights, this energy passed into me, both joy and despair, through a television or a crackly radio, with an intensity that has rarely been equaled in later life.

When Jordan pushed Bryon Russell at the end of Game 6 to get off his jumpshot, and no foul was called, I learned something about the privileges of the powerful. When Jeffrey Maier interfered with what should have been a long Yankees fly-out, I learned something too. The play was called a home run, and probably cost the Orioles the game. I was in a rage for days, but some knowledge started to move inside me about how nothing in the real world was going to live up to my theoretical ideals of purity. Obviously, these lessons were coming through the world as well, but in sports, as on stage, the inessential drops away, and how much more memorable the action becomes! Certain games and plays become talismans for a lifetime: instructive, illustrative, sometimes beautiful.

As I got older, my sports fixation weakened. I left my hometown; I became more able to influence the circumstances of my life; and I stopped forming as many profound relationships with players and teams. Increased free agent movement was maybe part of it. I also no longer had as much time to devote to following sports. With less information, the moral qualities I attributed to these players felt more like fantasies, unsupported by their behavior on the field or court. So I went in search of other heroes.

Sports were always there, though, in the background. I still like the sense of community they can create with very different kinds of people. A more authentic foundation for community would probably be better, but, well, as in childhood, you take what you can get. A regional identity based on sports is better than none at all. Now that I've been in Boston for a while, I even have the stability and information to form new identifications. Tim Wakefield is a hero of mine (recently forced into retirement by the increasingly soulless Red Sox); so is Ray Allen (still playing with the Celtics, also increasingly soulless, as demonstrated by the awful Kendrick Perkins trade).

Even though I still care about a few teams, I've never returned to the kind of attachments I had when I was a child. A few years go, though, at the request of friends, I joined some fantasy leagues and started to follow baseball and football more closely again. This is not uncommon; as far as I can tell fantasy sports are becoming an American obsession. Some people I know spend as large a portion of their free time following sports as I once did. The spirit, though, is very different.

I suppose most people know how fantasy works by now: you choose players from real teams to form an imaginary one. The complex network of interrelationships in every game is reduced, by league consent, to a handful of tracked categories. The players' performance in the real world then generates points for you, and you compete against other players in the league based on this statistical ground.

This is fun at first. People watch games with the computer in front of them; the stats update every few minutes. Very soon, though, as anyone who has participated in fantasy knows, it starts to change how you interact with the players and the sport. The game begins to appear through a lens of numbers. You start to root for meaningless things (late touchdowns, inconsequential yardage), watch games in which you have no interest, and weaken emotional attachments to players as you cut and bench them. There is no such thing as an honorable defeat or a shameful victory in fantasy football, only larger or smaller numerical margins. It is roughly analogous to reading a book to count how many times the word "the" appears, or counting the number of B flats in a symphony, and then comparing your total to an opponent. You destroy the point of the exercise for the sake of ending up with a number.

Why are so many people participating in something that works to drain the emotional significance out of sports? It took me some time to think of an explanation, and here it is. I think this is actually the whole point of the endeavor.

Spectators are devoting a great deal of their lives to following the ups and downs of a group of people who are, for the most part, stronger, more graceful, better paid, and more respected than they are. What relationship can one have with such idols? Well, you can bow before them. This is what children do. I think this is healthy, especially if the heroes are genuine. David Foster Wallace's beautiful essay, "Roger Federer as Religious Experience," is an example of how this can occur as an adult. The feeling of awe is more sophisticated, more analytical, but it is awe all the same—it is a species of what I felt as a child. And it is the only way you can justify spending any part of your life watching strangers play games. The same applies to being a spectator of an art form. If you aren't looking for gods, and willing to pay homage when you find them, you are wasting your time.

To love a hero requires humility, though—the willingness to kneel, the consciousness of one's own inferiority. In a paradoxical way, it requires strength. The problem is that most Americans, especially American men, find kneeling an impossible posture to maintain. They are drawn to the spectacle of power on a grand stage, but are uncomfortable with worship or even sincere admiration, which acknowledges that someone is, in a profound and genuine way, better than you. At the one football game I went to recently, I was amazed at how much abuse was heaped on the players the instant a few plays went wrong, only to change back to cheering when things went well (all of this noise blurs together on television).

This crowd, I realized, resented its own idols. They were uncomfortable with their own adulation. All across our society, you can observe people acting out this anxiety. Listen to sports radio and you will hear an endless parade of know-it-alls who put themselves in the position of the general manager, suggesting trades and line-up changes. On television, the commentary is increasingly devoted to ranking plays and players, which is not the same as acknowledging superiority. To arrange things in an order of merit is a way to assuage a sense of insecurity through control—to place yourself above the people under consideration and move them around like pieces on a board. I know this because I used to enjoy making such lists.

This is the appeal of fantasy sports: to become a listmaker. Then you can push around what were once heroes and reduce them to sets of numbers, which are then used to achieve meaningless victories over your peers. It is the epitome of what Stephen Harrod Buhner calls the statistical mentality, which of course invaded real sports before the virtual ones. The hero of Moneyball, for example, is a manager who makes moves and trades based on computer-based statistical analysis, although it is unclear why this is heroic rather than merely clever (the movie insists on the former).

The players on such a team become irrelevant; all of the prestige goes to the coordinator and his computer sidekick, which is exactly the appeal of fantasy football. This is part of a larger trend of withdrawing admiration from the people directly involved in an activity—those who actually do things and make things—and transferring it to their coordinators. The problem is that there can be no beauty or courage or grace in coordination. To focus on such activity is to distance yourself from everything that makes a performance meaningful.

You do achieve something by creating this distance, though; you abandon the possibility of awe and instead experience a sense of phony power. One of the scenarios I've seen in several new ads is an ordinary fan berating a player for his poor fantasy performance.

A quote from Goethe: “The only way in which we can come to terms with the great superiority of another person is love.” Randall Jarrell added a perceptive modification: “But we can also come to terms with superiority, with true Excellence, by denying that such a thing as Excellence can exist; and, in doing so, we help to destroy it and ourselves.”

Jarrell, as an American, knew that something needed to be added to the quote. It is the danger in our otherwise noble egalitarian rhetoric: because power flows in both directions, anything we refuse to revere eventually becomes less worthy of reverence, and finally not even worth paying attention to.

Maybe this seems like too much weight to put on sports. Certainly we should all spend less time sitting on our asses. Still, when I think back to the intensity of my childhood memories, I feel like there was something of value in the way I cared and followed and obsessed. Even today, I can still be stunned into admiration by what human beings are capable of. Some of the most inspiring tennis I have ever seen has been played in the last few years; the football playoffs from this past year were incredible too. These are some of our society's few collectively shared pleasures, and in the right spirit they are genuine ones. Shut off the computer; try not to ruin it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Some happy developments

Hello, dear neglected readers. It's been too long and I will post something soon; the world is still full of good books. But, in the meantime, several pieces of my writing have appeared around the Web.

First, Paul Kingsnorth, whose collection of poetry I reviewed a few months ago, discovered this blog and generously invited me to be part of the Dark Mountain project. They are re-publishing some of my old reviews -- starting with this one -- and then I'll be writing new essays for them as well.

Also, a surprise: Energy Bulletin reposted that article. I wasn't a regular reader of this website, but there's very often interesting things there, and I recommend the site to anyone who doesn't find my recent gloomy preoccupations entirely baffling.

Next, a friend at htmlgiant asked me to write a review for them. I saw Stanislaw Lem on the list, a writer I loved in college, and requested The Cyberiad. It was just as enjoyable as the other books of his I've read, and unlike many other science fiction writers, contained little outdated techno-messianism, just a deep feeling for the limits of human understanding as well as a rollicking sense of humor. Here is the review. Htmlgiant publishes its reviews anonymously, to facilitate honesty/nastiness, but I am quite happy to identify it as my own work.

Finally, I secure my livelihood partly through the generosity of the literary magazine Ploughshares, where I work to put together the issues and often write for the blog. So far, I've reviewed a recent Tolstoy biography, the poetry of A. S. J. Tessimond (who I discovered through the wonderful blog First Known When Lost), and the Japanese writer Kanoko Okamoto. I also contributed to or assembled our lists on books for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and the Winter.

That's all for now. Some good books that I've read recently, but probably won't write about, include Joe Bageant's two books, In Zanesville, by Jo Ann Beard, and the Blackmores' excellent translations of Victor Hugo's poetry.