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Explaining the Derangement of the Progressive Left

It seems Jeff and I have been doing more than a few posts lately cataloguing the angry derangement of the left. All of this anger, shrillness, violent pathology, intolerance, rage, and rejection of logic coming from those who claim to be the most peceaful, tolerant, and rational members of society creates a paradox. How can a progressive claim to be rationale, and yet consistently favor discredited and unsustainable economic policies? How can a progressive claim to be tolerant, yet demand that all contrary opinion be shouted down and dissidents be jailed? How can a progressive claim to believe all races are equal, but demand that blacks and hispanics be treated as inferiors that need to be condescended to and acccommodated because they just can’t be expected to perform as well as white people if all are treated equally?  And the greatest paradox of all; how are progressive leftists so blind to their own contradictions and hypocrisy?

(Progressive Leftist: “Um, because You’re a RACIST!!!”)

John C. Wright Attempts to explain:

The theory must explain, first, the honest decency of the modern liberals combined with their astonishing indifference, nay, hostility to facts, common sense, and evidence; second, it must explain their high self-esteem (or, to be blunt, their pathological narcissism) combined not merely with an utter lack of accomplishment, but with their utter devotion to destructiveness, a yearning to ruin everything they touch; third, it must explain their sanctimoniousness combined with their applause, praise, support, and tireless efforts to spread all perversions (especially sexual), moral decay, vulgarity, and every form of desecration; fourth, their pretense of intellectual superiority combined with their notorious mental fecklessness; fifth, it must explain both their violence and their pacifism; sixth, the theory must explain why they hate the very things they should love most; seventh, the theory must explain why they are incapable of comprehending an honest disagreement or any honorable foe.

The essay attempts to arrive at this theory, and as such, has to cover a lot of ground, and uses a lot of big words and philosophical concepts that would be utterly lost on the typical progressive Obama-voter. But it sort of comes down to this.

How can anyone continue to be a Leftist for a week, much less for a lifetime?

The answer, allow me to remind the patient reader, grows out of their theory. Again, their theory of knowledge is that there is no knowledge, no truth, only bigoted opinion. The only way to avoid bigotry is to avoid judgment and the use of reason. Avoiding reason necessitates a theory of morality that denies cause and effect. No vice causes loss, no virtue causes happiness. Hence life is a random roulette wheel. If there are no vices and virtues, not even the intellectual virtues of honest thinking, then no independent thought is desired or permitted. Instead, all thoughts are determined by social cues. Thought is collective.

The whole point of Liberal theory from start to finish is to form earplugs to smother the ringing of that alarm clock called reality.

The Leftists are people who abandon their innate intelligence and moral stature and who  deliberately make themselves to be stupider than average, less moral and upright and decent than average, who at once combine the worst features of a self-deceived fool and a self-deceiving conniving con-man. The only thing that saves them from the constant pain of the dentist drill of their conscience, the constant clamor of their wretched self-esteem telling them that they do not deserve to live, the only thing, indeed, keeping them alive, is their false and inflated sense of sanctimony.

Social Liberalism: The Wealth Gap

When I put up my first post on social liberalism several weeks ago, I envisioned a series of posts that would discuss many of the implications of the fact that modern liberalism is more a social phenomenon than an intellectual one.  I’ve done that in part, but have until now neglected to mention one of the largest implications of all, namely that most modern liberals make easy targets for propagandists of all stripes because their political identity is driven more by their feelings than by the facts, and so they rarely exert critical judgement over the memes and narratives of the moment.

Quite to the contrary:  to exert critical judgement is automatically to invite suspicion, because it means asking difficult questions, seeking facts, pointing out fallacies, noting inconsistencies, all of which make modern liberals profoundly uncomfortable because those sorts of activities advertise the questioner’s willingness to dissent from the orthodoxy.

Neo-Neocon wrote a great post many years ago where she quoted Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting on the power of “Circle Dancing”:

Circle dancing is magic. It speaks to us through the millennia from the depths of human memory. Madame Raphael had cut the picture out of the magazine and would stare at it and dream. She too longed to dance in a ring. All her life she had looked for a group of people she could hold hands with and dance with in a ring. First she looked for them in the Methodist Church (her father was a religious fanatic), then in the Communist Party, then among the Trotskyites, then in the anti-abortion movement (A child has a right to life!), then in the pro-abortion movement (A woman has a right to her body!); she looked for them among the Marxists, the psychoanalysts, and the structuralists; she looked for them in Lenin, Zen Buddhism, Mao Tse-tung, yogis, the nouveau roman, Brechtian theater, the theater of panic; and finally she hoped she could at least become one with her students, which meant she always forced them to think and say exactly what she thought and said, and together they formed a single body and a single soul, a single ring and a single dance.

To question is to step outside the  circle, to resist the lure of the dance.  And so the memes and narratives proliferate, pushed on by those who “feel moved” by them and are too afraid to question them.

Among the many liberals I know, this week’s meme is a viral video about “the wealth gap.”  I first noticed a college acquaintance (and an enthusiastic Elizabeth Warren supporter) mention it on Facebook on Sunday, and have noticed at least three other references to it by others since then.  The video is only 6 minutes and 24 seconds long, but if you’re like me, after about three minutes, it will seem like it is going on forever.

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I’ve recorded some of my thoughts below the fold.

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Writer’s Quarantine Coming to an End?

Posted by B. Daniel Blatt at 6:00 pm - January 29, 2013.
Filed under: Blogging,Literature & Ideas,Writing

Now editing the sixth chapter of my fantasy epic, I am beginning to find the flow that should make it easier for me to write on a routine base — and have time for other pursuits.  Just last night instead of sketching out notes for the next chapter, as has been my wont while finishing one chapter up, I found myself mapping out the next four — and finally getting the main characters out of the fortress city of Nah-nathas and onto their adventure.

It has been an interesting process and I’ve been trying to take notes about it.  At first, it was kind of overwhelming to find a story that had been kicking around in my head coming together as a written narrative I can share with others and possibly publish.  And as I realize how much of a commitment I am undertaking as I begin to appreciate how much work is left to be done, even with the six chapters that are now “presentable.”

Unlike the time in the 1990s when I made the choice to write my first novel, this time I know that just following through on the inspiration, writing the story that just comes to you (and even manages to move others), is not enough to sell the book.  This time, I am aware that I could succeed at a writing a novel, but fail at earning a living from it.

Still, the story is there and continues to come to me, like old memories suddenly rediscovered when dipping a pastry into a cup of tea.  I finally understand why the dragon is not doing as the Dark Lord would have her do when he summoned her, why she threatens to frustrate his schemes to extend his domination over this imaginary world that exits within my mind — and now increasingly on my computer (and in the hands of friends).

As the novel emerges, as the characters find names and create relationships, I do find myself thinking again about politics — and expect to start blogging at a more regular pace, though perhaps not the same pace as I had before I started finding a means to share this story.

If I could have adapted The Hobbit . . .

Several years ago, when I learned that Peter Jackson was helming a screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, I found myself scribbling out a plan (not quite an outline) how I would handle the challenging process of producing a prequel to a successful film trilogy, knowing that the book had been written long before the author had even imagined the story behind that trilogy.

That is, in Tolkien’s imagination, The Hobbit came first.

For many filmgoers, however, the Lord of the Rings would be their first taste of the Beowulf scholar’s fantastic realm.

Tolkien himself provides the key.  In the short narrative, “The Quest for Erebor” published by his son Christopher in  Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, he reports of an exchange that took place in Minas Tirith shortly after the coronation of King Elessar.  Some members of the fellowship had asked Gandalf how he had come to ask Bilbo to join the thirteen dwarfs in their quest to recover their treasure — and their long-lost mountain home — from the dragon Smaug (i.e. the quest that takes place in the movie released today).

That is where I would begin it, with the members of the fellowship sitting around in a house (or a pub?) in the restored capital of Gondor, asking Gandalf that very question.  We would fade from his telling not to the first scene in the book (i.e., The Hobbit), with the wizard approaching the hobbit at his home, but to the scene presented in that tale, with him encountering Thorin just outside the village of Bree.

Thorin would show some reluctance to including the hobbit, perhaps familiar with Bilbo’s very bourgeois and bland father.  Durin’s heir would eventually defer to the Maia whom Manwë himself had dispatched to Middle-earth.

Even as he accepts the wizard’s choice, the dwarf leader would often find himself at odds with Bilbo.  The film would present the two as almost opposites, with a tension between them similar to that we often see in cop movies with such pairings.

Now that I have outlined how I would have adopted the classic book, I am prepared to see the movie.  I’ve tried not to watch the previews, but have seen in at least one an image of Cate Blanchett reprising her role as Galadriel, so it seems Jackson has made some changes, given that this daughter of Finarfin does not appear in The Hobbit.  Nor in fact do any women.

I wish I could go into this without expectations, but having been a Tolkien geek for the better part of my life, I cannot alas.

No better way to say welcome home than a strip search

Posted by B. Daniel Blatt at 2:10 am - November 30, 2012.
Filed under: Literature & Ideas,Strong Women

The title is a paraphrase from an interview the fetching Stephen Green conducted with writer Sarah Hoyt:

BTW, I recently had the chance to read an advance copy of her book A Few Good Men, to be released next March 5 (it’s not too early to pre-order though) and it is fast-paced and well worth your time, with a theme and story elements certain to appeal to gay patriots.

Happy Birthday, George Eliot!

On this the 193rd anniversary of the birth of the greatest English novelist, let me offer, in slightly modified form, the tribute I have offered in years past.  It is also the 116th anniversary of the birth of my late, beloved Aunt Ruth.  In her life, that great lady embodied the qualities of a heroine of an Eliot novels.

A few years back in anticipation of Eliot’s birthday, I watched the BBC version of Silas Marner, perhaps her most accessible novel.  The story got to me as the book always does.  It’s odd I who love books so much and am moved cry so little when I read (yet tear up frequently when watching movies).  Wwhenever I hear the story of the lonely weaver of Raveloe, however, whether in print, via the spoken word (i.e., book on tape/CD) or on screen, I am always touched, always lose it, so to speak it.

Ben Kingsley’s Silas plea to keep an apparently orphaned child who had strayed into his home, “It’s a lone thing; I’m a lone thing. . . . It’s come to me,” is the plea of every human being who has ever felt cut off from his fellows.  Indeed, that line in quintessetially George Eliot who so understood human loneliness and recognized our need for the companionship of our fellows.

And how meaningful that companionship can we find it.  Or how powerful the presence of someone who listens to our concerns and manifests sympathy for our plight.

George Eliot so delighted in the effect of a child on an adult with an open heart:

She [that child] was perfectly quiet now, but not asleep–only soothed by sweet porridge and warmth into that wide-gazing calm which makes us older human beings, with our inward turmoil, feel a certain awe in the presence of a little child, such as we feel before some quiet majesty or beauty in the earth or sky–before a steady glowing planet, or a full-flowered eglantine, or the bending trees over a silent pathway. (more…)

A somewhat sympathetic insight into Romney’s adolescent antics

Posted by B. Daniel Blatt at 2:35 pm - May 15, 2012.
Filed under: 2012 Presidential Election,Literature & Ideas

When I first came out, I read and enjoyed Edmund White’s early fiction Nocturnes for the King of Naples and Forgetting Elena.  His later work become increasingly sloppy and solipsistic; sometime in the 1990s, I stopped reading his stuff.  Of the gay writers writing today, White is perhaps the most gifted stylist — or at least was in his early work.

Last night, however, when Walter Olson linked an essay White had written, reflecting on his years at Cranbrook, the “boys’ prep school outside Detroit” that both he and Mitt Romney attended, though at different times, I discovered the writer I had once enjoyed. He reflected on his own years at the school, then considering the nature of the place and the background of the studies, turned his thoughts to the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and considered the recent allegations of the candidate’s adolescent antics:

On the one hand he had an embarrassingly famous father, the governor of Michigan, whom he idolized as the youngest child. On the other he was the sole Mormon, a member of what was definitely seen as a creepy, stigmatized cult in that world of bland Episcopalian Wasps (we had Episcopalian services at chapel three mornings a week). When his father was president of American Motors, he lived at home and was a day student, an envied status. When his father was elected governor and moved to the state capital of Lansing, he became a boarder. Suddenly he was surrounded by other Cranbrook students and the strict “masters,” 24/7. He no longer had the constant support of his tight-knit family. Now he had to win approval from the other boys.

No wonder he became a daring and even violent prankster. He who worried about his own marginal status couldn’t bear the presence of an unapologetic sissy like Lauber, with his long bleached hair (the Mormons, then as now, have insisted on a neat, traditional, conservative appearance, especially in their young missionary men whom they send out all over the world). In scorning and shearing a sissy student and leading a gang of five other boys in this “prank,” Romney may have felt popular and in the right for the first time.

Emphasis added.   (more…)

Happy Birthday, George Eliot

On this the 192nd anniversary of the birth of the greatest English novelist, let me offer, in slightly modified form, the tribute I have offered in years past.  It is also the 115th anniversary of the birth of my late, beloved Aunt Ruth.  In her life, that great lady embodied the qualities of a heroine of an Eliot novels.

A few years back in anticipation of Eliot’s birthday, I watched the BBC version of Silas Marner, perhaps her most accessible novel.  The story got to me as the book always does.  It’s odd I who love books so much and am moved cry so little when I read (yet tear up frequently when watching movies).  Wwhenever I hear the story of the lonely weaver of Raveloe, however, whether in print, via the spoken word (i.e., book on tape/CD) or on screen, I am always touched, always lose it, so to speak it.

Ben Kingsley’s Silas plea to keep an apparently orphaned child who had strayed into his home, “It’s a lone thing; I’m a lone thing. . . . It’s come to me,” is the plea of every human being who has ever felt cut off from his fellows.  Indeed, that line in quintessetially George Eliot who so understood human loneliness and recognized our need for the companionship of our fellows.

And how meaningful that companionship can we find it.  Or how powerful the presence of someone who listens to our concerns and manifests sympathy for our plight.

George Eliot so delighted in the effect of a child on an adult with an open heart:

She [that child] was perfectly quiet now, but not asleep–only soothed by sweet porridge and warmth into that wide-gazing calm which makes us older human beings, with our inward turmoil, feel a certain awe in the presence of a little child, such as we feel before some quiet majesty or beauty in the earth or sky–before a steady glowing planet, or a full-flowered eglantine, or the bending trees over a silent pathway.

I rediscovered those words when I re-read Silas Marner a few years ago. When I opened the book I had just purchased containing the novel and some of Eliot’s short fiction, I did not quite arrive at the short story I had just begun.  I plunged instead right back into the novel, starting this time in medias res, reading well over two chapters before sleep overtook me.

Such is the power of George Eliot’s prose, the images she invokes, the ideas she presents, the emotions she expresses. She helps us find words for our deepest thoughts and shows compassion for our everyday weaknesses. She seems to see into the troubles of all our lives and finds the balm in tender relations with our fellows.

And that was how I introduced my George Eliot birthday post: (more…)

Did Commies Kill Camus?

Posted by B. Daniel Blatt at 3:52 am - August 16, 2011.
Filed under: Communism,Great Men,Literature & Ideas

Albert Camus has long been one of my favorite writers.  Indeed, I quoted the Nobel Prize-winning author in my very first blog post (with the quotation reposted here).  While Camus always considered himself a “man of the left,” I have long called him “the first neo-conservative“.  He had always strongly opposed tyranny which he first witnessed in fascist societies, particularly under the Nazi occupation of Paris, but soon began to see not just in Communists societies, but also in leftist movements.

His opposition to Stalin and Stalinism earned him the scorn of his one-time allies in the French left, including Jean-Paul Sartre, an apologist throughout his life for Soviet tyranny — and a man who dressed up his own participation in the resistance to Nazism.

Sartre became increasingly jealous of Camus after their split, particularly since the Algeria-born Frenchman had produced a far broader range of work than had he. I’d often wondered if maybe Sartre had leaned on his friends in the KGB to dispose of the more talented writer. Camus died in a car accident on January 4, 1960.

Now, David Zincavage, based on an account in an Italian newspaper asks, “Did the KGB arrange the death of Nobel Prize winning writer Albert Camus in a car accident in 1960?”

An article which appeared in the Italian paper Corriere della Sera on August 1 quotes Eastern European scholar Giovanni Catelli, who discovered that the complete version of the Diary of Czech poet and translator Jan Zábrana contained a reference to the death of Albert Camus omitted from abridged French and Italian translations.

Read the whole thing.  Well, this story doesn’t support my speculation about Sartre, but does raise some interesting questions.

Remember, Albert Camus was one of the first prominent literary men of the left to publicly criticize Communist.  His outspoken critiques of the brutal system could cause more intellectuals to question their defense of the Soviet Union. (more…)

The Silas Marner Test

I put this post in our “Random Thoughts” category because I put it out there, as kind an observation with a question mark, wondering if the “test” really works.

As many of our blog readers know, I am a huge fan of the English novelist George Eliot.  Along with J.R.R. Tolkien and Albert Camus, she ranks as my favorite prose author, with Homer, Wordluf (AKA the Beowulf-poet) and Wordsworth ranking as my favorite poets.

I have often believed that if you really want to date someone, you would show an interest in their passions.  For example, before I came out, a German woman was obsessed with me, yet entirely indifferent to the things I loved, refusing to understand why I would prefer to sit at home reading than to go to a crowded club with loud music playing.  It seemed she was attracted to the surface and remarkably uncurious about what lay beneath.

Over a decade ago, I met a nice intelligent, attractive, libertarian man in a relationship and we struck up a friendship.  When I met him at his office for lunch, I caught sight of a brand new volume of Wordsworth’s poetry.  He had bought it because of my love for the great English Romantic.  I was flattered.  I also recognized that all was not well with his (then-)relationship.  In retrospect, I wondered if I should have done something more, given this obvious interest.  He would later break up with the boyfriend, but foolishly perhaps, I never pursued the matter.

Only later, much later, did I appreciate how significant his act was, going out of his way to buy a book of poems because I loved the poet.

I doubt I had that experience in mind when I bought Silas Marner, Eliot’s shortest, sweetest and most accessible novel for a close friend (but it may have been lurking in my subconscious).  When we first met, we started dating, but realized there wasn’t a romantic spark, so enjoying each other’s company, remained friends.  As to the book, he couldn’t, he claimed, get past its first few pages. (more…)

Anticipating A Dance with Dragons

Posted by B. Daniel Blatt at 2:28 am - July 12, 2011.
Filed under: Literature & Ideas

Just received word from Amazon that my copy George R. R. Martin’s A Dance with Dragons: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book Five (that I pre-ordered when I finished its mediocre “prequel” A Feast for Crows) has shipped.  And while my enthusiasm for his saga has somewhat lessened since I first blogged about Martin’s books, I expect to spend the better part of my free time in the coming week reading Dance.

In that earlier post, I noted that while I found much wisdom in Martin’s “tale, particularly in how the individual characters face their particular challenges,” I wondered if his story “was wise as is Tolkien’s trilogy, Tolstoy’s novels and Homer’s epics.”  After four books, we still don’t know and may not know even after reading the latest installment.  We may well have to wait until the last book comes out.

Martin’s wisdom lies, by and large, in how he portrays many of his many characters, particularly in showing the strength of the “outsiders,” characters who find themselves on the periphery of his imagined society similar to the chivalric world of the High Middle Ages.  We see how Jon Snow, the bastard brother in the family at the core of the saga, comes into his own, how Brienne, the woman with the strength, skills and values of the men of her society, faces her challenges and fulfills her duties, how Sandor Clegane, despite his burned face and gruff manor embodies the code of the knights whose honors (and title) he rejects, how the obese Samwell Tarly, who stumbles when he attempts to fulfill the obligations of his sex, shows unusual pluck when it’s most needed. To give put a few examples.

In just the first book (the subject of a recent HBO miniseries) A Game of Thrones, we see early on that Martin has crafted characters fare more complex than those we usually find in fantasy fiction.  When the aforementioned Jon Snow walks out of a banquet held at his father’s seat, feeling out of place because his bastard birth prevents him for enjoying the same honors as his siblings, he encounters the deformed dwarf Tyrion Lannister who has spent his life overcoming the disadvantages of his deformity in a family known for the beauty of its members. (more…)

Why I love movies (and still have hope for Hollywood)

Posted by B. Daniel Blatt at 5:25 am - July 3, 2011.
Filed under: Literature & Ideas,Movies/Film & TV

In the days leading up to my trip to the Bay Area, I haven’t been able to blog as much as I would like and write as many “essayistic” posts as is my wont because I’ve had a lot on my mind unrelated to politics.  With some many ideas rambling through my head, I thought it would best to take it easy this weekend and watch a silly, “escapist” type movie at home tonight.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), I picked a flick which reminded me why I love Hollywood so much and why I moved here, eager to become part of the biz.  Having just purchased *batteries not included for under $5 while at the Target in Livermore on my way back to LA, I popped my new acquisition into my DVD player.

Sometime in the 1990s, I used to catch pieces of the film on cable. It always moved me, so I finally bought the VHS so I could watch the whole thing.

Well, last night, at first, I wondered why I had loved it so. Neighbors didn’t communicate with one another, an old building, standing alone amidst the wreckage of its former neighbors seemed a symbol of what happens to all of us when we age, isolated, alone, with younger folks waiting for us to collapse, even to accelerate the process.

No one in the building knew how to reach out to one another.  And then the miracle happens, something which brings everyone together, neighbors start talking, one silent man finds his voice, connections are made. (more…)

On storytelling & human relationships

Just after midnight last night, I pre-ordered the next volume in George R.R. Martin‘s .A Song of Ice and Fire, A Dance with Dragons. And while my criticism of the works has increased since I first blogged about this fantasy cycle, my enjoyment has not lessened. That said, these books differ from the other great fantasy cycles I’ve read in their absence of defining relationships. To be sure, there are relationships, but each seems limited to a particular volume, sometimes limited even to a series of chapters.

One character falls in love with another, either to see his feelings consummated or remain unrequited, yet certain to see the beloved perish shortly after the love was declared or otherwise acknowledged.  We see a growing sympathy develop between two seemingly opposed characters, only to have them part company, likely never to see each other again, even as each has helped transform the other.

It seems that in good fiction (and yes, this is good fiction, far more readable and offering more insight into human nature that much literary fiction) as in great movies, there is always a defining relationship, oftentimes several. In Star Wars, we see the mentor-mentee relationship between Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker as as well as his fraternal relationships with Princess Leia and Han Solo, the latter bond which causes the space smuggler to come back and help our hero destroy the Death Star. (Indeed, one friend believes it the absence of just such a character (Solo) which accounts for the weakness of the prequels; I believe that it’s also the absence of the hero’s relationship to a character like Han that makes Anakin Skywalker far less compelling than his son.)

Indeed, once director Francis Ford Coppola has established the character of Don Corleone character in The Godfather, the movie only really gets going when he notices the absence of his son Michael as the family poses for the requisite wedding picture. “Where’s Michael?” he asks, “we’re not taking the picture without Michael.” Later, when, through the blinds, he sees his son arrive at the reception, we know there is something significant about this relationship.  And it is that relationship which will define Michael’s journey in the film. (more…)

The Left Hand of Darkness & the Human Tendency to Dualism

I am finally getting around to reading Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction classic, The Left Hand of Darkness, a book that over the years, numerous friends and acquaintances have encouraged me to read, largely because she explores a topic that has long fascinated me — sexual difference.*

About half-way through the book, I find it at once the most brilliant work of science fiction I have ever read  – and among the most frustrating.  Brilliant because of Le Guin’s insights into how human sexual difference has defined our culture — the book is set on a planet where the humanoids are hermaphroditic.  Frustrating because, at times, it seems less a story than a reflection on sexual difference via conversations with and character sketches of some leading figures on the Planet Gethen (also called Winter), the setting for this novel.

What really got me thinking (and there is much in this book to get one thinking) was this paragraph in the chapter on “The Question of Sex”:

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive.   In fact, the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.

Perhaps, it is serendipitous that at the moment I read this book I am watching some lectures of Joseph Campbell on DVD.  That great scholar of myth is constantly talking about the images of difference which recur in mythological narratives and artwork (i.e,. the ying and the yang).  Carl Jung, one of Campbell’s mentors once wrote, “there is no energy unless there is a tension of opposites“.  Without sex difference, Gethenian culture would necessarily lack such tension. (more…)

Has any congressional leader ever been popular*?

Posted by B. Daniel Blatt at 10:08 pm - May 5, 2011.
Filed under: Literature & Ideas,Random Thoughts

“It,” Mark Twain quipped in Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar, ”could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.”  That most American of writers didn’t have a very high opinion of our elected federal legislators, attributing the “kindly feeling” Congresses had “for idiots” to their “personal experience and heredity”.

It seems most Americans share his disdain for Congress.  For a post yesterday, I tracked down Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s favorability ratings, I expected them to be low, but what I also noted was that both Republican leaders, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell are slightly underwater, with each having an unfavorable rating slightly about his favorable, 4 and 2 points respectively.  The Democratic leaders by contrast have even more significant deficits, 29 points for Mrs. Pelosi and 26 for Mr. Reid.  While a plurality of Americans give the Republicans unfavorable ratings, a majority give such ratings to the Democrats.

And no matter which party is in power, congressional disapproval remains high.

This lead me to wonder has there even been a time period when Americans had a favorable opinion of the legislative branch — and its leaders?

(more…)

On reading George R. R. Martin

Posted by B. Daniel Blatt at 6:36 pm - April 24, 2011.
Filed under: Literature & Ideas

I believe I first heard about George R. R. Martin’s fantasy saga in response to a posts I had written on fantasy fiction.  I had begun the first book earlier this month and today am well into the second, A Clash of Kings, likely certain to finish before the week is out.

More than any other writer of fantasy I have read since I was a child, reading and re-reading and re-re-reading Tolkien, loving Terry Brooks and devouring Stephen Donaldson, Martin has crafted a series which avoids the pitfalls* of much fantasy fiction.  And he’s a really good writer to boot, with some sentences as well crafted as those in literary fiction.  While the prose of most fantasy writers is serviceable, relating the facts of the tale and details of the imagined realm, in language that is clear enough for our understanding, Martin writes in a flowing — and sometimes even musical — manner.

Yes, he does occasionally include a clunky sentence of two, but these stand out because they are so rare.

And we believe his characters.  He has transported individuals that we see in contemporary life to this realm of his imagination, clearly crafted after serious study of castles and chivalry in the late Middle Ages.  Had our readers — and the books’ other fans — told me Martin’s Song was less a story of a quest and more a kind of War of the Roses set in a fantastic landscape, I likely wouldn’t have read it.

But pick it up I did.  And I can hardly put it down.  This is not the type of fantasy fiction I typically enjoy, more Ivanhoe in medieval England than Aragorn in Middle Earth.  And I was longing for a quest against a Dark Lord with delusions of grandeur and a desire for omnipotence.  This series, at least so far, gives us something entirely different.  And to its credit, it lacks the overdependence on magic which seems to drive, if not define, all too much fantasy fiction.

Much as I enjoy this new series, I disagree with our reader who lamented that this series “probably outdoes even” Tolkien.  And while, to be sure, both are works of fantasy fiction set in a a medieval landscape, as far as narrative structure goes, you can’t really compare the two.  In Martin’s opus, there are a number of plot lines, instead of one overarching quest.

Martin’s books read more like historical fiction set in a fantastic landscape while Tolkien’s are more akin to myth.   (more…)

Cheating students by depriving them of the classics

Just about a year ago this time, I was intensely working on my dissertation, re-reading (and re-re-re-reading) several key passages in the Iliad and the Odyssey, even delighting in some of the scholarly work on these epics.  As I read about Achilles, Telemachus and Odysseus, I often thought I was reading about people I know, in some cases, I felt I was reading about myself.

I saw in the way Athene manipulated her father in the first book of the Odyssey techniques my sisters used to manipulate our father — and my teenage nieces to manipulate theirs.  These stories may have been set in the Bronze Age where supernatural beings intervened on a regular basis in the lives of mortal men and women, but they addressed themes and related experiences similar to those we face today in a world where we’ve banished deities and developed technology that the ancients couldn’t even conceive.

And just as the Olympians have been banished from our stories, all too often those who wield power in academia seek to banish the works once called the “Great Books.”  They replace stories put to paper by dead white males with current accounts by more contemporary authors who address themes these scholars believe more “relevant” in a world of rapid technological progress and instant communication.

In reality, however, students assigned such “relevant” stories find themselves bored and sometimes even cheated, as David Clemens relates:

My former student Joshua, now ambivalently quartered at UC Santa Cruz . . . has an article in Literary Matters about cheating.  Not students cheating; students who feel cheated.  He’s found a couple of excellent literature classes (Cervantes) but most just use books as a vector for stone-cold political ideology.

When he was at Monterey Peninsula College, Josh was the midwife who helped deliver a great books program to a college that had been out to axe all its literature courses.  In my Intro. to Lit., class he heard me refer to Robert Hutchins’s metaphor for Western literature as a “Great Conversation,” and in Literary Matters he writes

“Within weeks other members of the class and I were meeting on our own time to discuss the Great Books. We read Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. We read Sappho. We felt and spoke as if we had rediscovered some long-forgotten treasure abandoned by the generation before [my emphasis].” (more…)

Happy Birthday, George Eliot!

On this the 191st anniversary of the birth of the greatest English novelist, let me offer, in slightly modified form, the tribute I have offered in years past.  It is also the 114th anniversary of the birth of my late, beloved Aunt Ruth.  In her life, that great lady embodied the qualities of a heroine of an Eliot novels.

A few years back in anticipation of Eliot’s birthday, I watched the BBC version of the novel (featuring Ben Kingsley).  And the story got to me as the book always does.  It’s odd I who love books so much and am moved cry so little when I read (yet tear up frequently when watching movies).  Wwhenever I hear the story of the lonely weaver of Raveloe, however, whether in print, via the spoken word (i.e., book on tape/CD) or on screen, I am always touched, always lose it, so to speak it.

Ben Kingsley’s Silas plea to keep an apparently orphaned child who had strayed into his home, “It’s a lone thing; I’m a lone thing. . . . It’s come to me,” is the plea of every human being who has ever felt cut off from his fellows.  Indeed, that line in quintessetially George Eliot who so understood human loneliness and recognized our need for the companionship of our fellows.

And she delighted in the effect of a child on an adult with an open heart:

She [that child] was perfectly quiet now, but not asleep–only soothed by sweet porridge and warmth into that wide-gazing calm which makes us older human beings, with our inward turmoil, feel a certain awe in the presence of a little child, such as we feel before some quiet majesty or beauty in the earth or sky–before a steady glowing planet, or a full-flowered eglantine, or the bending trees over a silent pathway.

I rediscovered those words just a few nights ago. When I opened the book I had just purchased, I did not quite arrive at the short story I had just begun.  I plunged instead right back into the novel, starting this time in medias res, reading well over two chapters before sleep overtook me.

Such is the power of George Eliot’s prose, the images she invokes, the ideas she presents, the emotions she expresses. She helps us find words for our deepest thoughts and shows compassion for our everyday weaknesses. She seems to see into the troubles of all our lives and finds the balm in tender relations with our fellows.

And that was how I introduced my George Eliot birthday post: (more…)

Steve Martin’s (Mostly) Disappointing Memoir

Ever since I saw him on Saturday Night Live, I have considered Steve Martin one of the funniest men alive. So, when I saw his memoir Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life on the bargain table at a bookstore in West Chester, Ohio (that I visited with a reader after we lunched together), I quickly snatched it up.  I mean, at six bucks, it seemed a steal.

The book alas wasn’t worth more than its (marked down) cover price.  I had been reading it since I bought it, carrying it with me on at least two trips out of LA, but only finishing it last night.  At times, the prose is stale, with Martin merely jotting down the facts of his life, as if he were just typing up his notes without trying to craft a narrative.

He seems reticent about his feelings, rarely going into much depth about his various relationships with women or describing his friendships with his fellow entertainers.

Yet, we do learn that he had a trying relationship with his father.  When he was a boy and his father suggested they play catch.  ”This offer,” Martin writes, “to spend time together was so rare that I was confused about what I was supposed to do.” Later, the elder Martin wrote a “bad review” of his son’s first appearance on SNL (leading a co-worker to chide the action as “wrong”).

He got his showbiz start selling guidebooks at Disneyland, soon moving on to the magic shop there.  While in the park, he would visit the shows, watching and learning from the performers.  Later, he performed himself at nearby Knott’s Berry Farm and at various theaters around Los Angeles, then at small venues across the country.  He wrote for television, appeared on “The Tonight Show” and finally got the call for “Saturday Night Live.” (more…)

Sophocles’ Advice to Obama (& his advisors)

Whoever thinks that he alone is wise,
his eloquence, his mind, above the rest,
come the unfolding, shows his emptiness.
A man, though wise, should never be ashamed
of learning more, and must unbend his mind.

Antigone, trans. by Elizabeth Wyckoff.

Please, Mr. President, unbend your mind; your policies aren’t working.