Updated on July 12, 2016
Every once in a while, when I get ambitious, I try to tackle the writings of Edmund Wilson, the great man of letters who was my grandmother’s cousin.
Lately I’ve been trying to slog through To the Finland Station, subtitled “A study in the writing and acting of history.”
The first chapters are about a lot of historians I had never heard of, such as Michelet, Taine, Saint-Simon and Vico, and I can’t make much of them.
But there’s a good explanation of the Paris Commune of 1871, during which 20 to 40 thousand communards were executed by the government in a single week.
More people were killed, imprisoned or exiled during that one week than during three years of The Terror under Robespierre.
Here’s a passage about Karl Marx that illustrates the difficulties I have understanding what Cousin Bunny is talking about:
“Certainly there went into the creation of Das Kapital as much of art as of science. The book is a welding-together of several quite different points of view, of several quite different techniques of thought.
“It contains a treatise on economics, a history of industrial development and an inspired tract for the times; and the morality, which is part of the time suspended in the interests of scientific objectivity, is no more self-consistent than the economics is consistently scientific or the history undistracted by the exaltation of apocalyptic vision.
“And outside the whole immense structure, dark and strong like the old Trier basilica, built by the Romans with brick walls and granite columns, swim the mists and the septentrional lights of German metaphysics and mysticism, always ready to leak in through the crevices.”
I looked up ‘septentrional,’ and it means northern or boreal — having to do with the septentrion, the seven stars of Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, a constellation in the northern sky.
It can refer to the northern reaches of a region, or to the culture of northern peoples like the Vikings.
So that clears that up.
Posted on July 1, 2016
For the disaffected Bernie supporters who say Hillary Clinton stole the nomination, I say “I cannot disagree.”
For those who say, it doesn’t matter which party wins the presidential election, I say, “You are tragically misinformed.”
For one thing, there’s the Supreme Court. For another, there is international funding for family planning, which is automatically cut off when a Republican becomes president. It’s not up to me to list the devastating consequences of a Trump presidency, but believe me, it will take decades to scrape the shit off our shoes.
But I do have a suggestion for disaffected Bernie supporters who have seen with their own eyes the loathsome corruption of the Democratic Party: join the Republican Party!
Right now the Republican senators and congressmen who we might expect to act responsibly are afraid of a primary challenge from the right. What if they were afraid of a primary challenge from the left?
I’m going to do this myself, and I think it’s going to be immensely entertaining. Can’t you see the bumper stickers if hordes of Bernie supporters joined the Republican Party? ‘Republicans for Reproductive Rights,’ ‘Republicans for Immigration Reform.’ ‘Republicans for Background Checks,’ Republicans Against Fracking’
This could be a huge amount of fun for everyone. I confess one reason I suggest this is that Abraham Lincoln has been bugging me for years to restore his party to the principles he espoused. So when you go join your town’s Republican Committee, take a lot of Lincoln quotations with you.
Just don’t vote for Donald Trump. That’s something you’d regret for the rest of your life.
Posted on May 26, 2016
I read a poem in the Frontier High School (Deerfield, Massachusetts) Red Hawk Report which I think should be read by every educator in America, especially by “special” educators.
The poem is titled “Ignorance is Bliss,” by Will Bliss, and it was published in volume II issue 4.
In this poem, in calm, simple terms, the author challenges the assumptions made by thousands of educators who are paid millions of dollars by us, the taxpayers.
“One day, on a whim, I decided to/ Maybe do a bit of reading on a/ Disorder that I’ve been told I have/ Attention Deficit Disorder is its name…
“Apparently, I have the Hyper subtype/ Meaning being still is not my forte./ I was given a 504 plan and that’s it./ After seventeen years of life, only now/ Have I sat down to learn about it & myself/ Resulting in a mind-numbing revelation.
“My most discerning qualities, what I/ Thought made me stand out from the rest/ Were suddenly in front of me, right on the page/ In a list titled ‘symptoms,’ printed in ink./ As I read on, I couldn’t help but feel empty.
“Everything that made my personality unigue/ As merely symptoms. I thought, I was sure/ That I’m that outside thinker, puzzling tinkerer/ Curiosity & energy nearly never ceasing
“Coupled with ‘an eccentric view of the world,’/ Too much feeling for the things I believe in/ And little empathy for things I do not…”
“All I can think of, over and over again/ Echoing in my now vacant thinking space, ‘Am I really nothing but a disorder?'”
I think every educator, and every taxpayer, has to ask, “Are we spending millions of dollars on a system designed to eradicate individuality?”
Personally, I think the world is insane, and a lot of people think that because they can’t adjust to it, they must be insane, but this just isn’t true.
I believe the answer is for everyone to find kindred spirits who have made successful adjustments to an insane world.
Updated on May 8, 2016
I have always had difficulty understanding the great books written by my grandmother’s cousin Edmund “Bunny” Wilson, but I have come to appreciate the great contribution this great man of letters has made to the field of literary criticism.
In Axel’s Castle, for example, I learned all kinds of things about William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot and Marcel Proust which I never could have found out on my own.
In Patriotic Gore (great book, stupid name) he tells us all about Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose books I have great difficulty reading. I tried Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but just couldn’t get through it.
Cousin Bunny has read all of H.B. Stowe’s books, and tells us all about them, but he has also read all the letters of her husband, Calvin Stowe, and tells us all about them, too.
Turns out Calvin Stowe was visited by lots of spirits from the other side. In fact, once Harriet came home early from a trip and sat down in the living room and he didn’t even know she was there because there were so many other worldly spirits about.
One of the spirits that visited Calvin Stowe most often he named Harvey, after a classmate to whom the spirit bore a resemblance.
In Patriotic Gore, Cousin Edmund wonders out loud whether this spirit that haunted Calvin Stowe might have been the inspiration for the eponymous pooka (animal spirit) in the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play of that name by Mary Chase, which was later made into a movie starring Jimmy Stewart.
I can’t give an answer to this question. It all depends on whether Mary Chase, a Colorado journalist, ever read the autobiography of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
It’s certainly possible.
Updated on April 19, 2016
Years ago I gave a friend a copy of one of Tony Hillerman’s books. When I visited him six months later I noticed he had a whole shelf loaded with Hillerman mysteries. They’re like peanuts: people just keep consuming them.
Most of Hillerman’s mysteries recount the adventures of Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Officer and later Sergeant Jim Chee. Leaphorn is an older man who loses his beloved wife Emma during the course of the books, and in the later works he’s retired and just kind of nosing around — finding trouble every time!
Jim Chee, in the first books, is training as a hataali, a healer who performs curing ceremonies involving chants and sand paintings intended to bring a person back into harmony. He tries to balance this training with his career as a police officer, but eventually gives it up to focus on law enforcement.
A lot of the early books treat Chee’s love life, which is always coming to grief. At first there’s Mary Landon from Wisconsin, a schoolteacher at the elementary school in Crown Point. They’re in love, but she wants him to leave the reservation, which he can never do, and she really can’t stay there.
Then there’s Janet Pete, a public defender who used to work at a hotshot law firm in Washington. She’s gorgeous and smart and they love each other, but she wants Chee to join the FBI so they can go be a power couple in Washington, and that’s not going to happen either.
In Hillerman’s last books he introduces Officer Bernadette Manuelito, a rookie on the Navaho Tribal Police force. Sergeant Chee is her supervisor, and she feels he’s giving her a hard time, and there are lots of complications, but eventually they find love and get married.
I’ve noticed with older mystery authors like Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, and Tony Hillerman, the focus is only partially on whodunnit. There’s also the question of when those two nice young people are going to get together.
When Tony Hillerman died in 2008, I felt sorry that I wouldn’t be able to read about Chee and Leaphorn and Manuelito any more, but lo! His daughter Anne has decided to continue the Hillerman tradition, and she has two excellent books: The Spider Woman’s Daughter and The Rock with Wings.
And don’t worry about her coddling the characters too much. At the beginning of her first book, Joe Leaphorn gets shot in the head. That’s not really a spoiler because it happens right at the beginning.
And Chee and Manuelito’s life together, though happy, is no bed of roses. We have a promising source of problems, with Bernie taking care of her elderly mom and her problem child sister, who has taken up drinking and running around.
So I’m looking forward to lots more fine stories in the great Hillerman tradition.
Posted on March 21, 2016
I had a fabulous time at the Casa de Tio Vincenzo in Huntington Beach, California. Everything was exactement comme il faut. I especially loved the rich cherry flooring:
And the extraordinary artwork:
And of course, one of the most important things for Americans these days is keeping ourselves safe from terrorists. I know it is for me. Sure, we’re three thousand times more likely to be killed by a home-grown, native-born gun nut, but still. At the Casa de Tio Vincenzo, I was completely reassured by the diligence of the security staff and felt completely safe:
Updated on March 21, 2016
On my trip to California, I had the opportunity to congratulate Atsuko Walker, who was sworn in as a US citizen along with 3,500 other applicants at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
President Obama was on hand to congratulate Atsuko
We went to lunch in Little Tokyo and saw the sights there, including the Friendship Knot, a 1981 sculpture by Shinkichi Tajiri.
Posted on February 4, 2016
I’m reading a fascinating book by Arthur Koestler called The Case of the Midwife Toad about an Austrian scientist named Paul Kammerer, who committed suicide after being accused of falsifying experimental results.
Kammerer believed in the theory advanced by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who advance a theory of evolution a generation before Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859.
Lamarck’s theory was quite different, though, in one essential respect: unlike Darwin, he believed in the inheritance of acquired characteristics.
Charles Darwin and the Darwinists of the present era believe that the only traits we pass on to our progeny are those that we ourselves inherited from our parents. They believe that the process of evolution is due to random mutations that occur over thousands of years.
“Since they are random,” Koestler explains, “most of these mutations produce harmful or lethal, but there must also occur from time to time a few lucky hits which confer some minute advantage on the carrier of the mutated chromosome, and this will be preserved by the operation of natural selection.”
Many scientists have wondered how this random process could produce the many astonishing adaptations that the world’s creatures have developed over the eons. Koestler quotes one such scientist who compared this theory to “throwing bricks together in heaps in the hopes that they will arrange themselves in an inhabitable house.”
Lamarck and Kammerer believed that characteristics acquired in response to intense and persistent challenges of the environment over several generations become eventually inherited. For Lamarck it was the long neck of the giraffe. For Kammerer it was the small callosities with thorny spines on the forelimbs of the male midwife toad, which give it a better grip on the female when mating.
While geneticists have long argued that the inheritable DNA of a creature cannot be changed by that individual’s experience, some modern researchers in “epigenetics” have found ways in which acquired traits could be inherited through a process involving “daughter cells,” whatever they are.
These epigeneticists style themselves ‘neolamarckists.’
I know next to nothing about biology, but I think the Lamarckian theory is a more sensible way to account for the complex adaptations that species make to survive in a changing world. Think of the nests birds build, or the wasps that lay their eggs in the abdomen of some unfortunate host beetle.
And if our experience is indeed passed along in some way, that would provide an explanation for the ‘collective memory’ of mankind that Jung talks about. It would explain the sense of deja vu that we feel with no apparent explanation and the sense of familiarity we feel when faced with primeval symbols and archetypes.
Why, if Lamarck and Kammerer are right, then a guy like me could have a dream and see things that happened long ago in the dim recesses of history.