Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Earlier this week, National Public Radio ran a show on the new exhibit of paintings at the National Gallery in Washington, DC. The artist whose works they are exhibiting is one of the French Impressionists, but not a household name like Renoir and Monet, with their reproductions hanging in dentist’s offices and motel rooms around the country. Gustave Caillibotte hardly ranks with their fame, but he is, in my estimation and apparently the curators of this show, their equal in talent. I saw Caillibotte’s paintings at a heady time for me. It was San Francisco in the late 1980s, and I had recently finished a novel, now tucked away in a drawer, that an agent was shopping around to the publishing houses whose names were on the spines of my favorite books. I felt ready to leap into a new world in a city that seemed forever fascinating. Because my novel was about an unknown impressionist painter in the late 19th century, I felt a compulsion to visit the big Impressionist show that had come to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The other paintings at the show melt away in memory, but the painting called The Floor Scrappers and the one of the rooftops of snow covered houses viewed from the artist’s Paris studio are still vivid. The Floor Scrapers is roughly 6 ft. by 5 ft., filled with a golden light. It does not have the kind of hazy brush strokes of typical Impressionist art, but it does have the light. The story goes that this was a new studio his wealthy father was remodeling for his young artist son. The three men refinishing the floor have removed their shirts in the heat and they are immersed in their work. The artist appears to admire their skill as they strain against the plank floors. I was so moved by the paintings that I went home that day and wrote a poem about View of Rooftops. I tried to put myself into his thoughts as he painted, staring out the window at the white roofs in the gray winter light. It reminded me of the scene in Hemingway’s memoir of Paris called A Moveable Feast where he describes the cold room that he rented in order to write and how he carefully shaved the tips of his writing pencils and put a few pieces of coal on the stove to cut the chill. Caillebotte’s most famous, almost iconic, painting is called Paris Street, Rainy Day. The beautiful wide street of the new Paris, the triangular building in the distance, and everyone strolling along in the misty rain under their identical gray umbrellas – you are there in the moment, although the year is 1877. That is what I hoped to convey in my own writing – that sense of being there in a particular moment in time and the way it felt. I don’t know if I ever found that, but it always seemed the most important thing in writing or in painting. I think we will be able to go to this exhibit next month when we head south to visit my family in South Carolina. I think it will bring back memories of that summer in 1988, when my wife and I, newly married, saw the Impressionists in Golden Gate Park.

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Today, June 16, is Bloomsday, the day James Joyce had his first date with the incredible Nora Barnacle, who became his long suffering wife and the inspiration for Molly Bloom in his novel Ulysses. According to the Writer’s Almanac, Joyce choose this day for the action in his novel to take place based upon that first date, an afternoon walk along the River Liffey in Dublin.

Nora was also the inspiration for Joyce’s exquisite short story, “The Dead,” in his collection Dubliners. Read some Joyce today and be thankful for the muse Nora Barnacle.

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I had not read about her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards in November until I came across it online in a British newspaper yesterday morning. The 85-year-old author of many notable science fiction novels and short stories, Ursula K. Le Guin, used her barely five-minute speech to thank a few people before launching into a withering blast against the literary establishment for its ghettoization of fantasy and science fiction writers, the corporatization of book publishing, the acquiescence of authors in the selling of their works as commodities, along with some fierce jabs at Amazon for its attempt to dominate book publishing and her own publishers for their corporate greed.

Most readers of mainstream fiction will not necessarily know Le Guin, unless they came across her EarthSea trilogy when they were young or encountered her short story “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas” in a high school literature anthology. That story alone reserves her a lasting place in the hearts and troubled conscience of past and future generations of intelligent adolescents. The parable tells of a kind and peaceful city whose inhabitants’ happiness is based on the suffering of a single child, locked up in a mop closet, terrified, alone in the dark, and those few, rare children and adults who, ashamed, walk away from the city into the forests and the mountains. Omelas, the students are always intrigued to discover when they turn the letters of its name around, is not a foreign fantasy realm, but our own hometown.

It is the writers of imaginary futures that will help our increasingly fearful and corporately ruled society imagine a way out of our technology dominated present, Le Guin told an audience that probably consisted of none or few of the science fiction and fantasy writers she lauded and many of the publishers and so-called realist writers she disdained. They were fierce words from a frail woman writer of genre fiction, one of the few who had ever set foot outside the literary ghetto.

Science fiction’s origins in the pulp magazines of the thirties and forties, with paper-thin plots and penny a word payments to authors, was like a mark of shame that was carried into the third and fourth generations, long after many brilliant practitioners had raised the standards for imagination and skill to a high level. I came into a great inheritance of books from science fiction’s Golden Age, the period that began roughly post-World War Two and included Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke. In my teens I encountered the New Wave and a group of experimental and literary writers like Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, and Samuel R. Delany. There were the brilliant eccentrics, among them the strange and ceaselessly imaginative R.A. Lafferty, the perfectly beautiful Cordwainer Smith and the endlessly mined- for-movies Philip K. Dick.

Many of these marginalized writers were complete masters of many fields of science or engineering. In their spare time they studied history, philosophy and religion, wrote books on architecture and astronomy, Shakespeare and James Joyce. They were, I would wager, more widely read and broadly educated than their mainstream counterparts. And they brought their interests into their readers’ imaginations and opened them up to a rich cultural experience beyond the small towns where we lay in our silent bedrooms with a stack of magazines and a pile of books, imbibing worlds, yes, and galaxies.

Ursula Le Guin created some of those worlds — complex, grown-up imaginings that tested our small-town mores and conventions and made us more questioning citizens of the society we found ourselves stranded in, the city we could not walk away from.

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Some weeks, looking at the news, it is hard not to despair for humanity. Nightly the violence played out in the streets of Ukraine’s capitol and across Syria, where a madman in an ordinary business suit, looking like somebody’s brother-in-law at a wedding you didn’t want to go to is without any trace of conscious slaughtering old men, women and young children – his people.

While the world was watching the Olympics in Sochi the past week, a report was released by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights that seemed to make barely a ripple in the collective conscious of the media. The almost 400-page report detailing the atrocities in North Korea was like reading Orwell’s terrifying novel 1984 in the form of a legal indictment, or like wading through a sewer of human degeneracy.

I only read the 36-page summary, which was enough to grasp the horror and outrage of the authors, who compiled their report from the eyewitness accounts of many North Koreans who have escaped from prison camps or simply risked death crossing the border into China or South Korea to avoid starvation.

In some ways we knew what was going on all along. For forty years the Kims, like Big Brother in the novel, have been brainwashing their people into the cult of the Glorious Leader, but also running vast prison camps where thought crimes were and are punished by a lifetime of forced labor if the brainwashing fades or doesn’t take hold.

North Korea is only an isolated aberration, I thought. But I had picked up a copy of Nick Turse’s new book about the “American” war in Vietnam, Kill Anything that Moves, and began to read it while I lay in bed recovering from the flu. I’m not sure which made me more nauseous, the viruses in my stomach or the brutality of American policy such as body counts and free fire zones as we burned the villages and killed the civilians in a kind of casual racist bureaucratic frenzy. All of it was known, most of it was approved, and vast relics of it were hidden away and forgotten in cardboard file boxes in basements, or in the traumatized psyches of those who came through it.

We teach our children the most whitewashed history, the most idealized view of kind Pilgrims and hardy pioneers, leaving out the ugly details that tell a different story. I don’t think that is so bad in the earliest years when we’re turning pumpkins into turkeys, but beyond the fourth grade it is just another form of brainwashing.

There is, I think, some tragic flaw in mankind that we have not discovered yet with fMRI brain scans or century of psychology. The Greeks knew it long ago and named it tragedy – the goat song. First it was the gods that drove us mad and made us kill our mother to revenge our father. Later they learned it was the tragic flaw of our own nature, often pride or arrogance, usually blind to itself, that destroyed the tragic hero like Oedipus. We saw that clearly in the opening years of the Iraq war – shock and awe – and the arrogance of the empty suits in the Pentagon and White House blind to their emptiness.

But tragedy is not futile or nihilistic. We can, through struggle, transcend our moral blindness, if not our human condition. We can learn why we see the evil in others but not in ourselves. And maybe someday we can develop a true science of mind that can guide us out of the abyss of our inhumanity.

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I use Wikipedia all the time, but it has been a long time since I’ve looked something up in an encyclopedia. But the other day I was doing some background research for an upcoming column and happened onto a beautiful and very meaningful article on the topic from the online Encyclopedia Britannica.

The search term I used was “tragic flaw,” which took me to a dry as dust one-page article on Wikipedia. But a half page down I noticed the unusual word “hamartia,” with a link to a 28-page entry in Encyclopedia Britannica. (Note: When I tried the link at work later, it only gave me a synopsis.) Whichever scholar wrote the Britannica entry, he or she produced a tour de force of literary and philosophical insight. I came away both moved and enlightened, and with maybe a deeper understanding of humankind and myself. It is the sort of experience I was looking for, and often found, in my literature classes long ago. It is, I think, the justification for the Liberal Arts in higher education.

Looking at college as career training is a lot like that Wikipedia page:  information without much context and with no particular impact on our humanity. We learn a trade, pick up some skills, and become useful economic participants in society. But do we polish our souls? Do we deepen our humanity? We learn to make a living, but rarely learn how or why to live.

We don’t need to go to some exclusive college out in the country or even any college at all to know ourselves. There is many a self-educated thinker and philosopher, Abraham Lincoln and Eric Hoffer spring to mind. The library is the treasure house of learning. But it takes tremendous discipline to really educate ourselves. Sometimes a great teacher can guide us into understanding. It’s happened to me a few times, and the memory of the experience lingers for a lifetime.

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Somewhere in one of the books on the shelf I will find the quote exactly, but for the moment you will have to take my word for it. Stuck in my memory are the words “We live our lives to the lyrics of popular songs.”  It is a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who knew what he was talking about.  He and his wife Zelda were the poster children for the “Roaring ‘20s,” reckless and beautiful and doomed.

I remember a summer night in south Florida driving north on the Palmetto Expressway that edges the city of Miami.  I was playing the radio, a rock and roll station called the Magic Bus, and when the music stopped the DJ reported the sad news that Tim Hardin had just died of a heroin overdose. I felt an unexpected sense of loss, a sudden emptiness, as though someone close to me had died, although I only knew him through a few songs he had written and other people had sung.

One of those songs was called “A Reason to Believe,” and we used to play it on the jukebox at the Duck Inn where there was sand on the floor and you could hear three songs for a quarter. This was the version sung by Rod Stewart back when he was a serious rocker, before he became a pop star. You can still hear it on the radio now and then, and it always gives me a tingle to hear that phrase, “Still, I look to find a reason to believe.”

I think for many of us our personal philosophy is made up of bits and pieces, sometimes as random seeming as the objects that the waves toss up on the shore. We walk through our life as though on a private beach, picking up a little knowledge here, some understanding there, and all along we search for things we can believe in. The end result, whether or not we think of it as such, is philosophy. Some of it we have even learned from the lyrics to popular songs.

Philosophy is how we explain our lives to ourselves.  It is not the thing taught in the classroom, anymore than a frog dissected on a lab table is the same as a living frog leaping a lily pad. Philosophy is what prompts us to get up in the morning, though we may call it duty or obligation or desire.

Some 1,500 years ago the Roman statesman/philosopher Boethius wrote a book called “On the Consolation of Philosophy” from his prison cell to ease his dying.  After the Bible, it was the most important book of the Middle Ages in Europe. To Socrates, philosophy seemed crucial enough to give his life for. Now, too often, it is a dry and dusty subject for dissertations.

Poetry and song lyrics both condense meaning into a small space, a brief phrase. If the particular phrase resonates for you, you may find yourself repeating it at certain turnings of your life, like a mantra or a koan. Once I was part of a group of students in a candlelight procession on the campus of Old Dominion University the night after the shootings at Kent State. I think that all of us that night were numb with disbelief, and the words that gave me comfort and that I repeated over and over as we carried our candles through the dark were from a song by Crosby, Stills and Nash called “Carry On.” The words, “Rejoice, rejoice, you have no choice,” helped me to carry on. It was the consolation of a philosophy embodied in a song.

I was saddened when Tim Hardin died because it seemed to me he had quit looking to find a reason to believe, and he had let the darkness overwhelm him. Yet he had left me with something to hold onto if I needed it at some dark turning of my life, a few words, the lyrics to a song. Sometimes that’s enough.

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I just found out on someone’s blog post that the author Colin Wilson has died, apparently at the same time as Nelson Mandela, which partially explains why it did not make the news. Wilson wrote something like 100 books, all on varied topics – science fiction, existential philosophy, biography, the occult, criminality – but all with one theme:  that human beings are capable of far more than we are aware, that we are sleepwalking through our lives when we should be purposefully expanding our consciousness.

For a large part of his career he wrote about the occult, mystics, and psychic phenomena. This made many of even his most faithful fans uncomfortable. He always presented this research as just the facts as he and others had uncovered them. Still, he was willing to believe much that a skeptical mind would dismiss. It certainly hurt his reputation among the establishment of intellectuals and academics.

Yet, sometimes I wonder. Recently I discovered a group at the University of Virginia that is trying to find scientific proof for many of the outrageous subjects that Wilson pursued – reincarnation, psychokinesis, near death and out of body experiences. Called the Division of Perceptual Studies, their website is worth a visit for anyone with curiosity about psychic studies.

Here is a reprint of a column I wrote several years ago about meeting Colin Wilson. Mr. Wilson, wherever you are traveling, enjoy the journey.

The New Outsider

On a fall evening in California in 1988 my wife and I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to a book signing in Marin County.

The bookstore was in a group of one-story redwood buildings near the bay, an upscale shopping mall in disguise. The author was a somewhat rumpled Englishman in his late fifties by the name of Colin Wilson.

He stood in the middle of a group of admirers and made small talk as he signed copies of his books.  He did not look or act like a genius, though I believe he was the genuine article.  He had said so on more than one occasion, and I was willing to take his word for it.

The crowd broke apart and my wife and I moved closer. Wilson was telling some small story. When he finished I made a comment, I forget what it was, but it made him laugh. He took my book, asked for my name and signed it “with warm regards, Colin Wilson.”  I noticed a middle-aged woman standing nearby who spoke to him with an English accent.  I realized she must be his wife, the same woman he had been staying with in a London flat the Sunday morning the phone began to ring and he realized that he was famous. He was 24 years old and the year was 1956.

The book that made him briefly famous is called The Outsider.  It is part existential philosophy, part psychological case study.  The personalities it examines are as diverse and interesting as Lawrence of Arabia, the dancer Nijinsky, the writers Hemingway and Kafka, the painter Van Gogh.   These often tormented figures, Wilson says, are a new type of human being, an evolution in consciousness. They are outsiders because society does not satisfy their longing for purpose. They are extremists and visionaries, misfits in a culture bereft of ultimate values.

Colin Wilson was an unlikely celebrity.   He was raised in a working-class family and left school at 16 to work at various unskilled jobs. The summer before the publication of the Outsider Colin Wilson was living in a sleeping bag on London’s Hampstead Heath and cycling into town each day to the Reading Room of the British Museum. Then, quite literally overnight, he became famous. Newspaper reporters and television crews came banging on his door. His book shot to the top of the nonfiction bestseller list in England and was quickly translated into 14 languages.  He was widely considered to be England’s homegrown existentialist, the answer to the French intellectuals Sartre and Camus.

The Outsider made a great impact on me when I came across it sometime in the late seventies. As our society slipped into a new period of materialism and greed, the message of the Outsider seemed more relevant than ever.

The year that Colin Wilson came to California I had been married for six months and I had recently finished a novel that was being shopped around to various publishing houses. I had a secret dream that I would waken one morning to find that I was famous and that, like Colin Wilson, my real life was about to begin.

That evening was golden, one of the best of my life. After our meeting with the author my wife and I drove back toward the Golden Gate Bridge and turned off on a small, winding road that led to the Marin Headlands, a series of steep cliffs that look out over the bay toward San Francisco.  We stood in the wind on the cliff’s edge looking at the gleaming whitewashed city and the dazzling bridge. Everything seemed possible.

My novel of ideas never found a willing publisher, but my real life had already begun. A year later our first child was born.  A few years later we moved from the city. The evolution in consciousness is still on hold.

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