Monday, January 27, 2014

Brain Pickings spotlights an Alan Watts classic

I could probably piggyback a Brain Pickings post at least once a week or so. It's surely one of the finest blogs on the internet and a must-read if you aren't already into it.

Today there is a nice lengthy post on one of my favorite books, Alan Watts' classic The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. There haven't been many books in my life that I've found to be so consistently rich and rewarding that I've been compelled to actually carry them around on my person for weeks at a time. I can think of just two: Watts' The Book and Ralph Waldo Emerson's Nature and Selected Essays. (Any reader of this blog knows how much I love Ulysses and Finnegans Wake but both are weighty, encyclopedic tomes dense with obscurity. Not ideal for carrying around in your pocket.)

Watts is undoubtedly one of the all-time great Western scholars on Eastern philosophy and this brilliant little book is essentially a philosophical lecture on the Hindu Vedanta perspective of the universe and man's place in it, explained in the most basic terms that a child could understand. It also serves as a nice summation of Watts' work as whole. There is a great collection of over thirty Alan Watts audio lectures on iTunes that I purchased a while back and I find myself coming back to these lectures over and over again for their soothing eloquence, humor, and Watts' unique combination of scholarship and wisdom. It's safe to say The Book is a distillation of his philosophy into a very compact, accessible format.

Definitely go check out the Brain Pickings breakdown and here's a snippet from Watts:

We suffer from a hallucination, from a false and distorted sensation of our own existence as living organisms. Most of us have the sensation that “I myself” is a separate center of feeling and action, living inside and bounded by the physical body — a center which “confronts” an “external” world of people and things, making contact through the senses with a universe both alien and strange. Everyday figures of speech reflect this illusion. “I came into this world.” “You must face reality.” “The conquest of nature.”
This feeling of being lonely and very temporary visitors in the universe is in flat contradiction to everything known about man (and all other living organisms) in the sciences. We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Falling Down the Kubrick Rabbit Hole

Since first hearing about the documentary Room 237 about a year and a half ago, I've become increasingly interested in the artform of Stanley Kubrick and the internet's rich array of exploration into his work. At this point, it's become a minor obsession of mine.

Much like James Joyce, Kubrick was an artist capable of building layer upon layer of meaning and reference into his work. His movies amount to moving-picture puzzles that invite the viewer to dive into them and try to uncode their messages according to their own perspective. When asked to explain the meaning of any of his movies, Kubrick was always deceptively vague and wouldn't offer much, preferring to let the films stand for themselves as works of art to be interpreted. Asked about the symbolic meanings contained in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick once said:
"They are the areas I prefer not to discuss because they are highly subjective and will differ from viewer to viewer. In this sense, the film becomes anything the viewer sees in it. If the film stirs the emotions and penetrates the subconscious of the viewer, if it stimulates, however inchoately, his mythological and religious yearnings and impulses, then it has succeeded."
Personally, I haven't really gotten much enjoyment out of any of Kubrick's movies, haven't even seen any of them more than once. They strike me as too dark. Although I do recall that upon seeing A Clockwork Orange for the first time, knowing virtually nothing about it or its director, I declared to my friends that whoever made this movie is an absolute genius.

But it's the world of Kubrick analysis and interpretation I've found to be endlessly fascinating, much the way my fascination with Joyce's work began long before I'd read any of his books. The medium of film seems much more ripe for such deep analysis, though. Great as Finnegans Wake or Ulysses are, there's only so much you can squeeze into a sentence or paragraph, whereas a master filmmaker can insert a staggering amount of material into one shot and this is exactly what Kubrick---a true visual artist who was a renowned photographer prior to getting into film---specializes in.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Indigenous Arts of Moondog

I don't know how it took me all this time before I finally discovered Moondog. But, thanks to the glory of the internet, once I tasted a few drops of his music it wasn't long before the floodgates opened.

Moondog was a blind composer, street musician, and poet who spent decades plying his craft on the streets of New York City in the mid-20th century, busking and selling his music and poetry. Known as "The Viking of 6th Avenue", the eccentric blind bearded artist always wore full Viking regalia
New York Times image
(clothes which he made himself), spear included.

The blind man's sound is spellbinding, intoxicating, invigorating, enchanting---often a Native American-influenced thumping drum pattern forms the spine of his symphonic melodies with their whistling flutes, moaning horns, or lilting violins. Together with the indigenous tribal thump, his music is known for incorporating the sounds of the world, whether it's animals (frogs croaking, birds squawking), the crashing ocean waves, a boat's foghorn, or the grumbling of car engines. It's all combined together into a unique jazz-classical hybrid occasionally punctuated by readings of his short, playful poetry.

Mostly self-trained as a musician, he was adept with many instruments and even invented a few of his own. During his years busking in New York he eventually connected with some major composers of the era who helped get him to record studio albums and even conduct major orchestras. Despite reaching the heights of conducting symphonies in Carnegie Hall he remained devoted to the streets, regularly donning his hand-made Viking garb, rain or shine, to stand out and play for pedestrians.

Surely the most fascinating character I've come across in a while, his story sounds mythical and his sound is mystical. He even has a timeless look to him, his face could be the face of Da Vinci or Aristotle.

Thankfully there appears to be a documentary about him slated to be released this year.

A few of my favorite Moondog sound clips will follow. The first one should be strikingly familiar.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Catching Up and Looking Forward

Happy New Year!

I must apologize for yet another extended absence (more than 2 months without any posts here) as my life continues to undergo major changes. It's been nearly six months since I met my girlfriend (under highly serendipitous circumstances) and things continue to grow more exciting as we get to know each other more. I also recently gave in and decided to convert from part-time to full-time work after almost 3 years of working about 20 hours per week, during which time I was content to be just barely making it financially.

I was juggling two different part-time jobs for a while with the workload inching ever closer toward full-time so it finally made sense to ditch the sillyness of having two part-time positions and stick with one full-time job. The transition has gone pretty smoothly thus far but it will definitely be a challenge to keep up with all the reading and writing I plan to do while staying physically and socially active with half of my week's waking hours devoted to an office job. I'm taking solace and inspiration in the fact that there are writers out there who not only have full-time jobs and write prolifically on the side but who also have families to take care of, too. For now, I've got just one mouth to feed and should have plenty of mental energy to devote to my intellectual pursuits each week.

On that note, another reason for the slim presence on my two blogs lately is that I've spent an absurd amount of time working on one very large piece. I've wanted to write a very thorough summary review of Joyce's Book of the Dark by John Bishop for many years now because it is without a doubt the largest and most enlightening study of Finnegans Wake there is and I've always been disappointed at how little discussion there is about it on the internet. Bishop's book unpacks so many interesting ideas in such a thorough manner, you'd have thought someplace out in the far reaches of the interweb universe there'd be some intensive talk about it. But I haven't found much at all. Even the book's Amazon page only has 6 reviews, one of them a misguided and confused 1-star.

It was actually from Bishop's book that I got the title for my blog devoted to Finnegans Wake (pg. 169: "Finnegans, wake!, you have nothing to lose but your chains"), highlighting the imperative angle of Joyce's title, urging all the sleeping Finnegans to wake up! and take off their shackles of mental and spiritual slumber. A main part of my intention with starting that blog was to write reviews for the many fascinating studies of the Wake that are out there and certainly none come close to matching the originality and depth of Bishop's book.

So as soon as I finished up with reading the Wake last December, I jumped right into Bishop's book for the first time and devoured it within a few weeks. Then I started composing a review and realized... I needed to read it again. This second reading took many months as I was thoroughly parsing this heavy scholarly (yet entertaining and readable) text to take notes and distill its vastness into a sharp summary.

Almost a year later, I'm still not quite finished with the process but I've completed enough of it to start putting up the Bishop review/summary in pieces. PART 1 is up at my other blog now, I hope you'll go read it. [Just posted PART 2, two more to come soon.]

In the meantime, I'll be chipping away at the remainder of the review and trying to build up some writing momentum so as to keep both blogs alive and healthy throughout 2014.