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Autobiography by John Oxenford Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

this book is amazing — it is clear where Nietzsche developed some of his ideas. Goethe stands as a clear example of the strong, creative nature which Nietzsche so often extols. It was fun to read through Goethe’s discussion of his alchemical experiments, and his very neo-platonic views on Christianity. His take on atheism is interesting and is something which modern religious thinkers could really get a hold of. He is utterly unafraid of science — he is fascinated with the world and one can easily imagine him drinking in modern physics, and Darwinism and anything else without blinking. He rejects out of hand and with good humor philosophy which is used as an armature for despair.  Contemporary thinkers are much more vain than he was, and in the manner predicted by Nietzsche, because science has failed to give them the certainty which superstition once did, have rejected concepts such as meaning and significance and produced a series of gloomy books about why this is necessary. Goethe rejects this move with good humor, and without thereby falling into anything which might be equated with creation science.

Goethe’s personality is also grand, and his writing is delicious. Of course I am reading him in translation so I don’t get his sense of the sound of German, but his sentences are wonderful and complex, and his manner of developing his thoughts over pages is a theater of concepts which is entertaining on it’s own entirely independent of what concepts he happens to be discussing. I wonder if that is related to intelligence — does a highly intelligent persons mind just craft complex thoughts like that (as Simone Wiel has suggested) or is it a stylistic choice — could anyone learn to do it?

The reflection on the public reception of Werter in Book XIII is magnificent, and the whole book should be read just to understand this passage. It would not be enough to just read the passage — I think his comments would come across as snide if you hadn’t been introduced to his tone in the preceding chapters. His honest chagrin at the public’s inability to understand the work, and the insistent curiosity as to, for example, the true identity of Lotte is wonderful to read. As is his comment, which is deeply interesting in a writer, that the gulf between writer and audience is total. I don’t think he makes that comment in hyperbole — so then who is he writing for? Other writers? Himself? He trolls the observation out in the middle of a chapter where he has dealt with his own suicidal feelings, and then draws it back again and says no more about it.

The passage on the failed eye surgery, performed as a study of a decent man in an unfortunate circumstance is brilliant.  We see a good man who is performing what must have been almost a miraculous cure. Then something goes wrong, and he almost knows it ahead of time. It turns out to be the case, and we consider in detail how he reproaches himself. The image of Nietzsche’s higher man is so clear here — this is the man we are talking about. He goes above and beyond — yet he is still mired in his humanity. He is his own toughest critic, and in a sense he is so exaulted that he exites nothing but suspicion from others — and his work itself is held to an impossibly high standard. That shame that he feels on having been less then perfect, when he has already been more than human — what is that? It is a remarkable passage.

What is most amazing about this book, besides the lovely full sentences, is that scattered thoughout it are utter gems of thought. Small, almost accidental observations which leap out and almost make you put the book down. I would like to go through it again with a butterfly net, and capture some of these quotations — maybe for a future post.

October 27, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | Leave a comment

some people are born posthumously

I have been feeling profoundly alone. This feeling has increased steadily over the past year, and significantly over the last few months. I do not wish to create the impression that it is a negative feeling — I think it is possibly even a necessary feeling. For a long time when I would get riled up I would call people and try to talk to them — I have been cutting this back steadily and deliberately — the number of people decreased, and lately has fallen to zero. When the impulse to reach out comes over me, I think to myself “Am I looking to express something which will not be understood?” and if I feel that is the case, then I don’t make the call. This has led to a reduction in my perceived audience when I write — I used to write imagining who would read it. There were a handful of friends, and a couple of romantic interests who kind of traded off — I imagined barbs or insights that might strike one or more of them. Now I mostly imagine myself speaking to an empty room — I don’t see anyone nodding in agreement, or being offended, or finally understanding me.

I have tried several times over the course of the last year or two to explain a particular decision I made to my mother, and to explain the significance of that decision to her. It has become increasingly clear that I could not do this. We would exchange words, but the follow up questions would reveal that where I was coming from was not getting across — that the words were somehow similar but different. That understanding was not just not happening, but would never happen — that I would never be able to successfully explain myself and that this was something I just had to accept. As I have accepted that, I have accepted that this is the case with everyone else in my life as well. I am free to speak without having to explain myself, because I exist without explanation — my thoughts and experience are private.

I lived in a van for approximately 18 months — that was likely the beginning of this insight — because I realized for the first time how unfree people were — people could not imagine making the decision I had made. It must be either an example of poverty or mental instability. What I experienced it as was freedom — I did not have to consider the stress involved in maintaining an apartment — either the practical stress of having to go back home every night, or the financial stress of paying for it. Over and over when I have tried to express this to people, they pretend to get it (presumably because of the pretense that there is something spiritual in giving up on social pretences — and god knows anyone will lie before they will admit they are not following another person on a spiritual insight.) Oh yes, I used to think about that when I was young. We used to talk about that in college. Yes these things were interesting before I grew up. You would imagine, to hear people talk, that we were, only a very short time ago, a nation of philosophers.

But in truth it’s just that it is very easy to fake spiritual understanding.

So they nod sagely and then say “But where did you go to the bathroom?” Which is like asking someone who has been cured of cancer “But what did you do with your hospital gown?” Who knows — maybe that is the most relevant part of the conversation — maybe I am the one who isn’t getting it. Maybe the most important thing in making a lifestyle choice is that other people can make a consistent picture in their head of where you went to the bathroom. Suffice to say that I did it. I successfully voided both bladder and bowels for 18 months, and I maintained a job, and I didn’t freeze, and I wasn’t arrested.

But what I realized in the failure of this conversation, time and again, with everyone who I tried, was that conversation is not about the exchange of information. Like many other animal activities, it is nothing more than the playing out of irrational patterns. Who I am as a person does not come across in conversation — and if it did, it isn’t received. My thoughts are uniquely a writers thoughts, because I experience life as a writer, and through the lens of other writers who I have read. I do not actually even exist conversationally, and there is no way that my need to be understood — in the way that a human being can be understood by history, or by literature, can occur in a coffee shop, or over the phone. Which brings us back to the empty room. The steel walled empty room, almost like the inside of a spaceship. That is the thing, I think, that William Burroughs used to talk about when he used the metaphor of being a reporter on assignment from an alien civilization. It is possible that someone will one day read this and really get it, but I probably won’t know them, and if we met and tried to talk about it, it would probably be embarrassing.

I like to think that I could have sat and talked to Nietzsche and followed a lot of what he said — but the truth is that I didn’t understand a great deal of what he was saying until I read Goethe. Which doesn’t mean that he is necessarily so deep, or that I think I’m as deep as he is, or anything else a muckraker might make out of that sentence, but only that the type of understanding which a person who reads and thinks is likely to be interested in is different from what you talk about when you are sitting in a room. Nietzsche described this as being born posthumously — which has not so much to do with fame, as with the fact that your understanding of a complex thought will continue to change after you are finished reading it. You do not understand this essay right now, but if some part of it catches in your mind you may repeat it to yourself next week when you are reading something else, you will think of it differently, it’s understanding will become alive and significant in your mind, after you have put the essay itself down — in this way there will have been a conversation between my own incomplete understandings and your incomplete understandings — which is a kind of posthumous understanding both because I am dying into these words, and these words will die into your own living, and a new understanding may be born in your own artwork (if you are an artist.) And then someone can come along and look at Nietzsche, and me, and you in the same way that I looked at Goethe and Nietzsche – and they can think to themselves — oh yes, I didn’t see that before, now I understand.

October 26, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

I was totally unprepared for what a relevant and inspiring piece of literature this was. I have always thought of it as a collection of Greek stories, which it is not. Not essentially — essentially it is a warning to Augustus and to Rome generally about the stupidity of the passions and the importance of the intellect. This point is subtle in the book, and of course it is a collection of stories, but they are chosen with a purpose in mind — the book builds towards it’s end. In the final chapters we are presented with the story of Hercules (with its strange and wonderful echoes of the Christian story), of the argument between Ajax and Ulysses about who is fit to wear Achilles’ armor, and a long philosophical chapter on change, with a discussion of the “eternal” Roman empire afterward. I refuse to believe that this does not add up to a single warning statement.

A second source of great joy in reading The Metamorphoses is the astonishing number of scenes which were clearly inspirational to Shakespeare. Not just Shakespeare of course — the whole of Western History echoes with ideas from these pages, but particularly Shakespeare. If you have read the plays you will recognize not just plot elements, but themes and nuance. Shakespeare was clearly formed in the womb of Ovid.

Finally there is, in several passages, the presentation of a conflicted internal monologue which is far far ahead of it’s time. A psychologically realistic portrayal of self-deception and rationalization which easily could be modern. It is not on every page of the book — but there are a number of long monologues throughout the book which are striking.

The book is so strange — in a way the translation feels uninspired — the quality of the English is just sub-par. But the images are so vital — the stories are so much more interesting than the alternate versions I’ve encountered in books on mythology through the years. Everything in the book is familiar, but Ovid himself so seems to be present in this book. Did the translator do that? What kind of choices did Gregory make? Did he forgo the feeling of poetry so that the tone and sass of Ovid would come through. He seems (from the introduction) to have as strong feeling for the man. Of course how accurate that feeling is, is a whole other question.

The most striking thing reading this is how much of it is already familiar from movies and paintings and other books. But more striking than that are how powerful individual moments of the text are. It is almost like it was made to be represented in a series of paintings. I want to go through it and write sonnets capturing the single moments — they leap out with such vividness. I wonder if that is because Ovid himself received many of these stories from sculptures, paintings, reliefs and such? Or was that just his chosen style? It is such a pronounced effect that I almost think it has to be the former rather than the later — it almost has to be an artifact of the process of creation.

What an injustice that this book is taught in pieces — it is so clearly a single work with a single point. One cannot appreciate it by reading chapters — it has to be read whole and will be both rewarding and entertaining for those who dare it.

October 20, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | Leave a comment

Daf Yomi Physics

I’m not quite ready to start this idea, but it is getting closer and closer all the time. I have wanted to do something like the Daf Yomi, but for “my people”. I am really impressed with what the Daf Yomi does — in terms of educating and providing unity to contemporary Jews the world over. If I was Jewish I would participate in it — (if you are Jewish and haven’t heard of it please look it up, its really awesome.)

So I got to thinking, could I take this idea and use it to create a stable center for a secular population? To preserve values and education that benefit humanity in some way? Of course to answer this question I would have to first answer the question “Who are my people?” If I want to create a center for a population what center is it that I want to serve?

There are three broad answers to this that are mutually exclusive (as I see it) — first would be readers. What would be a course of daily reading that would serve readers world wide? Unfortunately I don’t think that there is a common cannon which would provide benefit to everyone — I think the question is better answered individually so that population would not be served by that tool.

Secondly I came up with “Those who understand and appreciate the rule of law.” — because I think that the rule of law is the most important political concept ever to have been created.  But while I believe this to be true, I don’t have a background in legal history and I could come up with a list of books and ideas, but I don’t have any sense that what I would come up with would be the best possible set — I would like to see a “Daf Yomi” for the rule of law, but I don’t feel competent to create one.

A subset of this might be “What it means to be American.” — a course of reading through the founding documents that make up the unique history of our nation. The contemporary political field has been both dividing us and dumbing us down. I think a focused, one page a day, reading list going through the Constitution, the Federalist Papers, various Supreme Court decisions etc. would be an incredible exercise. I also think that the people who would be willing to participate in such an exercise would be bound to be interesting, and that it might be possible to pull together a group of people who could accomplish a lot of good for the country.

Finally I came up with science and technology — and I’ve looked at this from a couple of angles — from a theoretical angle and a practical angle. In keeping with the spirit of the original Daf Yomi I think that the theoretical angle is the best one to take — a 7 year page a day course of reading that firmly establishes the scientific principles that make the modern mind what it is. It is not a program for specialists, but for everyone who wants to live in the modern world and know about it what there is to be known. So the focus is not on exotic problem solving or speed, but thoroughness of understanding.

Following the theoretical direction would be something along the lines of elaborating this document.

If I were to go with the practical direction I would use something like the McMaster Carr catalog (look it up) and go through page by page and explain what everything is and how it works — a thorough rendering would provide a phenomenal level of practical insight — I would love to sit in on that class.

I would love to get feedback from people about what the best direction for this project would be — like I said, I’m not quite ready to start it, but I think that I will be within the year. I will only be able to start one project like this in my life, so I want to make the choice well.

October 18, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Goethe and True Will

One of the beautiful things about a reading project is, of course, the incredible things you get to read.

So many things I come across that I want to share, but this one plain stopped me in my tracks:

“When, namely, the youth of a man falls into a pregnant time, when production outweighs destruction, and in him the presentiment is early awakened as to what such an epoch demands and promises, he will then, forced by outward inducements into an active interest, take hold, now here, now there, and the wish to be active on many sides will become lively within him. But now human limitation is associated with so many accidental hindrances, that here a thing once begun remains unfinished, there a thing once grasped falls from the hand, and one wish crumbles away after another. But if these wishes had sprung out of a pure heart, suited to the requirements of the time, one could quietly let them fall right and left, and be assured that not only must this be found out and picked up again, but also that many kindred things, which one has never touched, yes, and never even thought of, will come to light. If now we see during our lifetime that performed by others, to which we ourselves felt an earlier call, which we had been obliged to give up with much besides, then the beautiful feeling enters the mind that only mankind taken together is the true man, and that the individual can only be joyful and happy when he has the courage to feel himself in the whole.”
(Autobiography; Book IX)

And that is, I think, one of the best expressions of a mature concept of “True Will” that I have ever encountered. One sees themselves in a local perspective and with clear boundaries, but one actually exists in continuance of everything else that also is. If you are honest and engaged with your world, then your innermost desires come from and go out into that world — expressions which begin with you are concluded by other hands far from you. And your innermost secrets are actually thoughts you picked up from others.

October 9, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project, People who fucking Rock | Leave a comment

Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

An exquisite novella — a perfect first work in that it is the key to all of Nabokov’s later themes. The gap between the mortal and the immortal. The primacy of memory, and thus of art. Subjectivity and deception. The book can most profitably be read with Glory. It is astonishing what a fully formed artist he already was at the penning of his first long work.

What is most satisfying and revealing in both Mary and Glory is the lack of resolution of the primary plot element — the lost past is irresolvable. In Glory we do not know if the ending is tragic or heroic, in Mary it is both.

October 6, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | 1 Comment

Peter Camenzind: A Novel by Hermann Hesse

A wonderful story which outlines a series of events where a man (Peter Camenzind) confronts a situation where he can see the pretension and the reality of the situation, and chooses the reality. In this way the book is surprisingly anti-romantic — situation after situation — nature, family, love and charity are addressed and in each case a simple human resolution is discovered after a kind of mental or intellectual struggle between an egoist and a transcendentalist perspective. The simplicity and significance of ordinary life is in every way affirmed — in once sense the story is highly Taoist, but in a more important way the book is profoundly Nietzscheian — in that what we see is the arc of Peter Camenzind becoming who he is.

Only a careless reader could mistake Hesse for a romantic.

October 6, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | Leave a comment

None So Blind by Joe Haldeman

Excellent book of short stories — it feels like Haldeman is pulling away from Science Fiction with these. He keeps at least one element — almost like anti-naturalism, but the naturalistic elements of the prose predominate. I think my favorite actual writing (aside from the Forever War) of his is in this collection – particularly the Hemingway Hoax — which is brilliant and almost postmodern in the way that it is a performance of itself (he actually makes money writing a story about an idea for how to create a fraudulent Hemingway manuscript.)

October 6, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | Leave a comment

Dealing in Futures by Joe Haldeman

My god — the nostalgia I experience on reading Haldeman again. Was he the first time (on reading Forever War) that I decided to be a writer? Maybe. It’s hard to review him or talk about him — his ideas have so entered into me. I read The Forever War maybe 30 times maybe more when I was 14, 15, 16 years old. Some lines from that book, when I re-read it now, strike me as echos of my own thought. It makes reading other things he’s written a very emotional experience — almost like reading something I have written in another life.

Ha! Sorry for such a personal review that is so meaningless to anyone else.

October 6, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Buying Time by Joe Haldeman

I started this long ago but I am not sure if I finished it. It’s funny — I think Haldeman’s less SF works are better written. I think when he limits himself to a single (or even less) divergent element as in Magical Realism, and then simply writes naturalisticly the effect is more profound. I wonder if that observation is idiosyncratic to me or if others have noticed that? Feedback welcome. There were some interesting ideas that he was playing with but it was just a failure as a novel. I especially thought that the deus ex machina of an unexpected drug interaction leading to the conclusion was weak, the whole last 50 pages seemed really rushed and forced.

October 6, 2008 Posted by | 40th Birthday Project | Leave a comment