Friday, February 24, 2017

Sometimes the idea for a book is better than the finished product





Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-First Century – Marina Warner (2008)

            As an artist, I have always been interested in the way we humans perceive the world around us.  Most people take it for granted that what they see, hear, touch, etc. is corporeally real.  They assume that our brains are just receptacles, containers for the input our senses provide.  This is a very limited view of our minds.  Every single one of us is living in a world that exists solely in our minds, filtered by our personal experiences, beliefs, and prejudices.  Where some people see images in clouds, others never bother to look at all.  Our human culture, literature, and especially religion, has been reading into the visions of the mind since before we have record of it.  Marina Warner explores the many different ways that humans have tried to visualize the ephemeral.
            One thing that Ms. Warner does so well is to combine what appears to be a shit-ton of research and information into a concise accounting.  Each chapter describes human’s explorations into the meaning of ephemeral visions, such as clouds, shadows, fata morgana, mirror images, etc., from ancient times to the modern day.   This makes the book a very valuable resource from which to find other material that further explores the topics at hand.
            There is one big problem though.  I read such books to encounter new analysis and new insights into these subjects, as I am already well-versed with all these topics through my own personal research and reading.  This book does not have such analysis or thought.  After a few chapters it begins to read like a thesis by a graduate student, one that contains too many examples and too little substance.  Too many examples are cited with no context, just to pad out some of the thin chapters.  That is a shame.  I think a wonderful book could be written using this material, if it was more carefully edited and if it included more original insight.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Anaximander is my Newest Hero





The First Scientist: Anaximander and his Legacy – Carlo Rovelli (2011)



In my never-ending search for new reading material I came across the name Carlo Rovelli, a theoretical physicist who wrote a book intriguingly titled “Reality is Not What It Seems.”  That book is about the development of quantum gravity theories.  I wanted to read it badly, but could not find a copy at my Library of choice (I am still on the hunt!  Soon!).  What I did find available was a book by Rovelli about the Greek philosopher Anaximander, a man whose ideas about us and the natural world around us were so advanced for their time that they were quickly discarded in favor of the same old status-quo.  People like to throw out the old statement that there is nothing new under the sun, usually to bemoan the lack of originality evident in some artwork or research or idea.  This is a falsehood.  There truly ARE new ideas, never before thought or spoken.  Anaximander was the earliest human that we have record of who helped create the logical and rational framework that set the stage for the scientific revolution all humans have experienced over the past 250 years.

Rovelli does a fabulous job of explaining the radical difference between the worldviews that all humans lived under before Anaximander (The Earth is below, the Heavens above. All is put into motion by the will of gods.  Everything has been the way it is now since the beginning of time, etc.), and the general worldview that most of us modern humans live in, (The Earth is not the center of the Universe. The Universe is exceedingly old. Rain clouds form after water evaporates and climbs into the atmosphere. Land animals evolved from sea animals, etc.)  He explains how big a conceptual leap it was to go from the standard beliefs of the time, beliefs which persisted through all human cultures ever studied, to the core idea that pushes scientific thinking and study.

This core idea is a very critical thing, and it is something that many people do not grasp.  In essence, it is this: Nothing can be learned from certainty, especially certainty blindly accepted without analysis.  Certainty only leads to ignorance.  Before Anaximander, most people who wished to study under a master had to wholly accept that master’s wisdom and teachings without question.  They were assumed to be infallible, due to their prestige, age, or perceived wisdom.  This does not allow for knowledge to expand.  Blind allegiance to “certainty” negates critical thinking.  The ancient sage Thales was Anaximander’s “master.”  What Anaximander did that changed the course of human history is to absorb and understand everything his master had written, and then to LOOK FOR THE MISTAKES.  Anaximander assumed, rightly, that humans are not infallible, and that new knowledge and wisdom is to be found by asking questions of those that came before.  Each new answer creates new questions.  Nothing is absolutely certain in science.  It is only as good as the current data and experiences we use to create our scientific theories.  This idea is the germ of all scientific and rational thinking about the world around us.

Critics of science and scientific thinking despise this uncertainty.  They value the certainty their religion gives them.  Unchanging, unthinking certainty is an evil.  They claim that because Isaac Newton overturned the Ptolemaic idea of the Universe then Ptolemy must have been completely wrong.  Also, since Albert Einstein and his General Relativity overturned the Newtonian idea of the Universe, therefore Newton’s ideas must be completely wrong, according to these people.  Science does not work that way.  The genius of Newton is that his theories on gravity and the Universe and matter and energy were and are correct for 99.99% of the natural world we see around us.  Einstein absorbed this, understood this, and sought out the tiny areas where he felt the great genius Newton was incorrect or lacking information, and proceeded to flesh out those areas.   Newton assumed certain things about our Universe.  Einstein showed these things to be false, and because of his work, was able to understand the relativity of location, the curvature of space time, the “speed limit” set by light, etc.  These were concepts that Newton had no way to understand, but which Einstein, by building on Newton’s work, managed to ingeniously create. 

Einstein was not 100% correct either.  NO ONE IS.  Anyone that tells you is either a liar out to steal from you or use you in some way, or they are deluded morons, trying to make you live in their blindly ignorant and simple worldview.  Either way, they are enemies of rational thought, of rational and human exploration of the world around us.  We, as a human race, owe Anaximander for this conceptual leap.  We owe him big time. 
           Anaximander lived around 600 BC.  That is a little under 3,000 years ago.  He was able to deduce through observation and rigorous thought, that Zeus does not cause the rain but that it is caused by water evaporating from the Earth, heated by the Sun, with no need for any supernatural intervention.  He understood that the Earth was a solid mass, floating in the nothingness of space, with the “heavens” in all directions.  He understood that the first land animals must have come from the oceans, and that humans are descended, along with all creatures, from the sea.  He posited that the Universe was born out of chaos, that all that happened afterwards was dictated not by the capricious will of some gods, but by natural laws.  Before Anaximander humanity was like a child, full of blind faith and certainty.  After Anaximander we have a world where a human can, by virtue of study and hard work, truly understand the causes and effects of the natural world around them, constantly building upon the knowledge of previous humans, and correcting any errors along the way.  This is the true genius of humans.  It is so sad to see that nearly three thousand years later, so much of the world is still obsessed with their religious and philosophical certainties, and willfully ignorant of the uncertain truths that science and logical thinking can provide us.

(This great book can be purchased here:  https://www.amazon.com/Anaximander-Carlo-Rovelli/dp/159416262X )

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Hail! Hail! Rock n' Roll! (and Chuck Berry too!!)





Chuck Berry: The Autobiography – Chuck Berry (1987)

            I am not a fan of biographies for the most part.  They tend to tell an individual’s story through rose-tinted glasses, and are usually meant as a quick cash grab to take advantage of notoriety of some sort of project the subject of the book is involved in.  My issue with most autobiographies is that the subject of the book very rarely actually writes the book.  What happens is a ghost-writer is brought into interview the book’s subject.  Sometimes they talk for days, discussing different events to include in the book, but a lot of the time the ghostwriter has maybe 6-8 hours of recorded interview with which to cobble together an “autobiography.”  Because of this, they usually suck hard and I avoid them.  Sometimes though, a particular autobiography piques my interest.
            In reading about one of my favorite O.G. Rock n’ Roll heroes, Chuck Berry, I found that he had written his own autobiography, and thanks to the amazing M.D. Anderson Library at the University of Houston, I managed to check out a copy.  Chuck Berry is currently still kicking around, having released a blues album last year with his children as the band.  He is an octogenarian, and has lived through the fits and starts of rock n roll, through the worldwide fanfare for it all the way to its current day death throes.  It is amazing to think that in 2017, as I write this review, three of the main original heartbeats of Rock n’ Roll are still alive, in varying degrees of health.  The great Howler himself, Little Richard, is 80+ years old, and in failing health.  The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis, still performs regularly slamming the hell out of those piano keys.  It is an awesome thing that all three of these cats survived the rock n roll life. 
            I have been drawn to the music of Chuck Berry, and to the man himself, since I can remember.  His compositions are classics, and many of them have been Rock n’ Roll standards since they were first released.  His stage-presence, charisma, and wild guitar skills made him seem like the ultimate rocker.  I had seen the great, if contentious, concert film that was put together in 1976 called Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll!  (It is awesome and you should check it out if you care anything at all about the history of rock music)  Because of all this I was immediately drawn into this book.  It really felt like I was visiting an old uncle and being regaled with the tales of his musical and personal life.  In fact, I could hear Chuck’s voice in my head as if it was a book-on-tape as I read. 
            There are parts of Chuck’s life that I did not know about and those make up the first third of the book.  His childhood, parents, friends, schooling, and everything that helped make him into such a rock star are covered, and in quite embarrassing detail sometimes.  Chuck describes the racial tensions of being a black musician from St. Louis asked to play “mixed” shows down in Dixie.  Everything from segregated hotels to roped off sections for whites only at the concerts, to having to sneak into an alley to grab food from a restaurant kitchen window to the incongruities between official segregation policies and the goodhearted and welcoming nature of southern people is covered.  If anything, Chuck has always been a cold-blooded realist, learning from every experience and trying to better himself at all turns.
            Only in one chapter does Chuck discuss the songs that have made him a legend.  He details the construction and writing of these tracks and it is a very cool window into how a musician’s mind works as he creates his art.  Throughout the book he details other, less savory aspects of his life, such as his romantic affairs, his trouble with the law at various times in his life, and the three separate incarcerations he endured.  Life comes with its ups and downs and Chuck does discuss these things.  He never became a drug addict, or an alcoholic.  This may have helped keep him in shape for performing for the past 60 years.
            Sometimes reading the words of one of your heroes can really deflate the admiration.  This was not the case with this book.  Chuck is Chuck is Chuck, and the world is better for having had him in it.  His seminal and auto-biographical composition, Johnny B. Goode, is included in the Voyager golden records sent along with the spacecraft on a journey outside of our Solar System.  Chuck Berry’s music could, conceivably, travel for millennia before some star-traveling civilization discovers it, and plays the record within.  It would be an amazing thing to have people rocking out to a tune that came to being due to Chuck Berry hearing his mother tell him countless times that “someday your name will be in lights.”  Hail! Hail! Rock n’ Roll indeed!
 *****
(One of the stories that Chuck tells is about a nightclub which he refers to as "Jimmy Menutis' club on 3236 Telegraph Road, at the southern end of Houston."  This was actually on Telephone Road, not Telegraph, and was a famous joint for seeing all the rockers, jazz, blues, and boggie woogie stars back in the day. Here is a picture and a short story about that club https://bill37mccurdy.com/2010/08/05/jimmy-menutis-the-houston-heart-of-rock-n-roll/ )

***** 

(Chuck Berry was one of the first poetic lyricists in rock music, and influenced nearly everyone that came after, with all the heavyweights of the genre naming him as their idol, and rightfully so.  The Autobiography contains a few of Chuck's poems, and this one I particularly like:

          Those who don't know and do not know they don't know, are awful, avoid them.
          Those who don't know but know they don't know, are awkward, assist them.
          Those who know but do not know that they know, are asleep, awaken them.
          Those who know and know that they are alert, accept them. )

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Alan Moore's novel Jerusalem contains the whole of existence within its pages





Jerusalem – Alan Moore (2016)

(1296 pages.  That is what arrived in my mailbox after sending a hand-written letter to Alan Moore’s publisher.  In the letter I explained that I love books and have written this here book review blog for over 2 years.  I proclaimed my love for Alan Moore’s previous work and my desire to read and review his upcoming opus, Jerusalem.  Receiving that galley copy in the mail a few weeks later was one of the coolest moments in my book-reading life!  My deepest thanks go to the good folks at Liveright Publishing Corporation for their support of my love of books.)
*****
Alan Moore has been one of the most inventive and complex authors of the last 30 years.  The fact that most of his work was done for the supposedly lowly medium of comic books changed nothing for me.  I love comics and Alan Moore’s have been some of the greatest I have ever had the pleasure to read.  V for Vendetta, From Hell, Promethea and especially Watchmen are to me some of the highlights of modern literature and I hope they will be seen that way in the future.  Moore’s work is always dense, instantly engrossing, and deeply thought-provoking.  When I read in the trades that he had been working on a full-on novel I was intrigued.  After receiving my review copy, I immersed myself in the world of Moore’s Jerusalem for these past two months. This is why I have not added any new reviews.  It was totally worth it!
How to describe the scope of Jerusalem?  First, let me explain the significance of the title.  Jerusalem is a holy city.  It is also a symbol for the “promised land” and for “heaven.”  William Blake, the mystic/poet/artist wrote of each one of us creating our own “Jerusalem” within us, allowing each human to experience the truly divine and to achieve peace for one’s soul.  Alan Moore, through his intensive esoteric studies, understands that the “lower classes” live lives so rife with brutality and despair that they are unable to share in the philosophies and world views held by those whose lives are softer, safer, and more stable.  Alan Moore’s aim with this book is to provide a mythology/philosophy for the world’s downtrodden, and all the while he tells an amazing story.
The skeleton that Moore’ hangs his story on is that of the Burroughs, a long-standing neighborhood of poor and working class Brits whose lives, like the lives of all those that live in historically impoverished and neglected areas, are extremely insular and desperate.  The novel jumps back and forth in time following the Vernall family, a family whose roots in the Burroughs go way back in history.  The Vernalls suffer a long history of mental illness in the family.  Many of their members, male and female, lose their marbles so to speak.  Because of this madness, they are also able to step out and above time and space, converse with angels and demons, see the future and the past, and otherwise experience things that those around them cannot.  I do not want to give anything away.  It is hard to discuss this book without doing so. 
At the same time as we hear the story of the Vernall family we are also introduced to dozens and dozens of peripheral characters, each a piece of the overall fabric that makes up the odd space-time continuum that the Burroughs exists in.  There are stories like that of a monk from the actual Jerusalem, who is sent to travel to the center of Britain over 400 years ago with a specific task to accomplish.   There is a tale of a son of slaves, who moved to the Burroughs in the late 1800’s to start a new life.  There is the story of a young boy, who dies and awakens to find himself in Mansoul, which is neither heaven nor hell, but instead is the dimension above our Earthly plane of existence where all of time exists simultaneously, and the friends he makes there.  There is the story of an eccentric artist, the sister of the young boy above, whose artworks describe the visions of Mansoul.  These are just the stories about the living people in the Burroughs.  Interspersed throughout are also stories of events that take place in Mansoul, of the angels who build existence and are in charge of the lives of every resident of the Burroughs, and who control their fate through what appears to be a giant game of billiards.   
The real main character of this novel is the Burroughs itself, a downtrodden neighborhood that Mr. Alan Moore himself grew up in, and which he describes in such intricate detail that it becomes a truly living thing.  Every single building, every tree, every paving stone has a million stories to tell, a million memories attached, from countless residents and their life experiences.  This is very much like any ghetto or slum or poor neighborhood.  There is no escape for the residents so they keep on building meaning and experience in the same places that their parents and their parents’ parents did.  Some places, like the Burroughs, have been involved in this process of isolationist stagnation for centuries, and it shows in the people that have to or choose to call these places home.
The only books I can compare to this one are the Illuminatus Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Jerusalem is like Illuminatus in that its purpose seems to be to rewire the thought patterns and reality tunnel of the reader, allowing the reader’s mind to expand and see the interconnectedness of all things as well as the absurdity of certainty of any kind.  Jerusalem is like Ulysses in that events of a single day are explored in near-infinite detail, letting the reader understand that at any given moment in time, there are an infinity of events occurring around them, an infinity of thoughts and feelings and decisions and crimes and good and evil.  Ulysses takes place in the city of Dublin.  Jerusalem takes place in the neighborhood of the Burroughs. Not only are different stories told but the method of delivering the stories changes too, never letting the reader become too comfortable.  Jerusalem switches point of view often, changes from prose to poetry, contains a chapter that is written out like a stage play, describes the internal mental state of an “insane” woman in a chapter that is near-Joycean in its phonetic creativity (It is best read aloud), and hops back and forth in time regularly.  Jerusalem is a complex masterwork, and I understand why Alan Moore took ten years to write it.
One of the greatest ideas in the book is that of the repeated nature of existence.  Some cultures believe in reincarnation, whereby one soul hops from organism to organism, on its way to the complete absolution of self which they call nirvana.  Jerusalem posits that we do reincarnate if we want to, but that each of us lives the same life over and over and over and over.  We make the same mistakes.  We experience the same joys.  We sometimes feel déjà vu because we get a feeling we have experienced this moment before.  While this idea seems to place a limit on free will, it is perfectly fitting to a world where the same problems, hardships, and fears plague generation after generation with no end in sight.  Upon death, our soul goes to the dimension above ours, Mansoul as it is called.  Some people are too attached to living and are unable to make it to Mansoul, instead spending eternity reliving their time on Earth as grey, lifeless shades, forever looping around, revisiting moments in their life, and being ignored by the living around them.  The way that Alan Moore describes all of this is so cool, and builds so carefully, that I do it a disservice with my description here.  It really needs to be read to be appreciated.
The hard part of reading this novel is that Alan Moore also describes the horrors and traumas experienced by the residents of the Burroughs.  They are the horrors of anyone living an impoverished and hopeless life.  Drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual abuse, violence, infidelity, joblessness, treachery, and plain old EVIL are constant residents of the Burroughs too, as they are in all poor areas.  The suffering of the disadvantaged human never changes.  It is the same pains that they have felt for generations.  It will be felt by those to come.  It is important to know this, to know that people are shaped by their circumstances far more than we wish to believe.  Modern humans have a delusion of free will, believing that anyone anywhere can improve their lot by proper decisions and hard work.  Only someone who grew up comfortable, able to indulge their individuality without fearing daily for their well-being, and able to take meals and education and opportunity for granted can be so carefree.  The poor of the world do not share this.  They suffer from birth to death, and even small victories such as graduating from High School, or getting a decent job become tragedies far more regularly than not.  Alan Moore understands this and is able to show the innate dignity of life in spite of the horrors that surround it.
          I read mostly non-fiction books.  If you see the list of reviews you will notice this.  There are a few novels and other such works of fiction included but the majority is not fiction.  Fiction takes longer for me to read by its very nature.  Non-fiction works have to be written in as clear a language as possible, because their aim is to pass on information.  It does not do to obscure the information by the use of literary language.  Fiction is the opposite.  It truly wants to transport the reader to a fully imagined world, and the actual syntax and writing style can change to suit the author’s desires and goals.  Alan Moore has achieved this.  I really hope more people take the time to read this book.  Even if it takes a year, it is worth it.  I know I will be thinking about the people and ideas found within Jerusalem for the rest of my life. 

(This book can be purchased here: https://www.amazon.com/Jerusalem-Alan-Moore/dp/1631491342 )