Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Portnoy's Complaint

Portnoy's Complaint is the third book in my assault on American Fiction. In it, author Philip Roth explores the darkly comic insecurities of a young Jew, Alexander Portnoy. Since I'm not Jewish, I often felt like an outsider listening to an inside-joke. I found it funny but missed out on the tearful belly laughs that I pictured Jewish men having--because they had their own childhood stories of guilt-inducing mothers and resenting Christmas. But in addition to being Jewish, Alexander Portnoy is also a boy, and the telling of his maturation fearlessly exposes an inner dialogue that is embarrassingly universal.

The style of narrative for Portnoy's Complaint is unique; the only voice heard is that of the protagonist himself. I have read this book described as 'a long rant', but I found it more like listening to a funny friend tell stories. We all have friends whose discussions are basically them speaking. For men, the struggles of poor Alexander Portnoy will provide a nostalgic remembrance of adolescence (ages 12-30)--that confusing inner experience rarely examined and, of course, never talked about. For women, enter at your own risk. The contents revealed here are vile, pathetic, and very real. You might not ever look at your man the same way again.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Last Intellectuals

The title of this book should be "The Last Radicals". Author Russell Jacoby has confused his words, apparently believing that an intellectual is by definition a revolutionary. The myopic vision of this guy was too much for me--and I'm on the Left. Consider that not one but two chapters were devoted to "The New Left on Campus" and not a peep about conservative academics except to lampoon them as adherents to The Man. Jacoby's legitimate concern--that our public intellectuals have lost their way--loses its power in the inconsistency of his argument.

A major premise to Jacoby's argument is that the loss of Bohemia through urban planning has interrupted a long history of citizen-intellectuals. The loss of cheap and hip neighborhoods forced these men and women to get a "real job" and sacrifice their ideals for practical needs. I don't buy it. A casual glance at intellectual history shows that major thinkers have often worked for or within the power structure of that culture. Churches, kings, universities, and governments have historically been the standard source of support for intellectuals. Further, there are still lots of cheap places to live in the US--ghettos, farms,etc. These might not be as hip as a Greenwich Village loft, but I doubt Spinoza would have minded.

More assumptions that must be shared to follow Jacoby are that universities are dominated by conservatives and that intellectuals are not publishing for the public. Does anybody, I mean anybody, feel like their professors were conservative? No. By a large margin, college campuses today are liberal. The media is conservative? Okay, sure. But not the universities. As for a lack of published work intended for the people, I don't see it. Or, to put it another way, I do. Lots of it. I am always impressed by the range and quality of work I see in bookstores. As an ordinary guy, I have more access to today's recent scholarship than the elite classes of the past.

So, those are my gripes. Like I said earlier, the loss of the public intellectual is a legitimate concern. While I share the "conservative" value that intellectuals do not have a responsibility to society, I respect the ones that take that burden upon themselves. If these men and women are marginalized, it is to our collective detriment. If this idea is intriguing to you, there several books on the subject. Check them out before you check this one out.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Myth of Sisyphus

One of my funniest memories from college is having a final paper returned to me with no grade. The professor, it seemed, saw my jumbled essay more as art than writing and complained in his summary that it was impossible to evaluate someone obviously going through an "existentialist crises". In his defense, my "paper" was an abstract audio compilation with footnotes. I suppose that's what happens when you place an impressionable student in a course on Nietzsche.

Well, that class wound up being a big influence on my thought; the implications of living, and dying, without God--the tremendous resulting freedom and responsibility--struck me very deeply. For some time I tried to face Nietzsche's Godless death, but in the end it was too hard. It was during this time I became familiar with other existentialist thinkers: Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Sartre, and Camus. The religion in Kierkegaard and the Marxism in Sartre turned me off to them. How can you be an existentialist and believe in historical determinism? Anyway, now armed with my big three of Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, and Camus, I felt I had found a body of literature with a strength and fearless insight to live by.

The Myth of Sisyphus did not disappoint. Camus writes in his signature style, something of a poetic pamphlet intended for the public. There is an urgency and public concern that fills the pages. I imagine the essay as a kindred spirit to Thomas Paine's "Common Sense". Both have a revolutionary spirit and democratic respect for the reader. And while Paine deals with how responsible men should respond to unjust governance, Camus examines how an absurd man responds to life.

For those unfamiliar with the admittedly akward term "absurd" in Camus' works, it is simple, really. Camus sees as absurd the futility between man's desire to understand and the world's undecipherability; between man's desire to live and knowing we must die. It is not that the absurd man is not rational. No, the absurd man reaches these conclusions through reason. At the same time, reason is not deified in absurdism. The Enlightenment led many, whole cultures, to believe rational thinking somehow "held the key". The gift of thinking clearly is more grounded in absurdism. Birds can fly, but not to the moon. Men can think, but not know everything.

I believe that Camus recommended reading The Myth of Sisyphus at the same time as The Stranger. That makes sense. His non-fiction and his novels are drastically different and I could see the ebbs and tides of both works working well in combination. On its own, the Myth provides a forceful and lyrical examination of existentialism. The problem is, the style could be too poetic for someone not already versed in this philosophy (Nietzche's writing is also very creative, but I think the message comes across clearer). Overall, a strong recommendation. But Be Warned: Reading Camus can change your life.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The World that made New Orleans

The history of New Orleans is palpable. On a walk through town, the presence of the past is everywhere. The street signs are colorful and all tell a story. Frenchmen road, for example, is where the French protesters to the Spanish government were hanged. Reflecting a diverse blend of international cultures, the architecture of the ancient homes is excellent and the craftsmanship has stood well the test of time. Cobblestone streets are still here and there.

Many people have said these characteristics lend a European feel to the city. I disagree. New Orleans is American, through and through. What is different, what so many people can't quite put their finger on, is the sense of history this city carries. I can't explain what exactly is gained through living in a city with history, I just know that I like it. Reading The World that made New Orleans by Ned Sublette is an attempt to better understand that history.

I figured the focus of the book was going to be New Orleans. Wrong. On a second reading of the cover, I noticed that, although New Orleans was written twice as large, it was "the world that made" New Orleans that was the story. This means that this book is primarily about French and Spanish colonial politics and slave trading. Of course, these very interesting subjects are integral to the development of New Orleans, but I couldn't shake the feeling that I was having to learn about the city through my periphery--and I wanted to take aim at the bullseye.

The World was well-written and is recommended as a supplementary source. Sublette has done his research and presents the material with clarity and a touch of humor. His specialty is music, and he goes overboard with technical musical information at times. We'll forgive him this indulgence; however, for an overall good read. I don't know if books can become hip, but if they can, this one is. The literate of the city--although there aren't many--are all carrying this title on their hips these days. So, even if you don't want to learn about the city, be cool and read it.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Thoreau: A Life of the Mind

I didn't read Thoreau in high school or college, and I'm thankful for that. When I did first pick up Walden, I was living in Oregon and working as a wilderness guide. My occupation and earlier reading--specifically Jack London and Peter Matthiessen--enabled me to better appreciate his work at that time.

Many students are given "great" books to study and end up resenting the authors and even reading itself. I wouldn't doubt if millions of Americans today don't read because of their tedious childhood experience with The Grapes of Wrath or The Scarlet Letter. Both books are excellent, but their multi-layered social critique has a more receptive listener in someone not experiencing puberty. This idea that the reader must be ready to read a book properly is shared by Thoreau and is examined in detail in Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, by David Richardson.

My enjoyment of Thoreau comes from reading a beautifully written affirmation of my principles and a coherent wording for many of my jumbled ideas; it is both inspiring and illuminating. The only other writing that has resonated so strongly with my beliefs, in this instance political, is Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope.

This book does an excellent job of tracing the development of Thoreau's thinking. The major themes of political activism and philosophy in nature are covered in detail. Also revealed to the reader is the depth of his interest in other topics such as ecology, mythology, and the American Indians.

What is missing is an adequate exploration of the world around Thoreau. The author chose to focus exclusively on intellectual matters and the result is more an essay than a telling of a man's life. The meat and potatoes of the story remain in the dark. His friends and family, the United States during the early 1800's, even the town of Concord that he is so associated with, none of these vital elements of context take form in these pages.

This book was an enjoyable and informative read, but I can't shake the feeling that it is a second-best substitute for reading Thoreau himself; you won't learn much about his life and the best parts are quotes from his works.