Tuesday, May 25, 2010

David Foster Wallace "Infinite Jest"

“It is increasingly hard to find valid art that is about stuff that is real in this way.” (p. 592). The level of comprehension required to have a decent grasp on life is entirely different than being able to articulate that knowledge. Enter the genius of David Foster Wallace.

Not having known the author, I can only guess that he was a truly empathetic individual. Infinite Jest is a modern classic, in part, because of the incredible difficulty of the various roles the author portrays. His greatest challenge is finding something relatable to everyone, and he succeeds tremendously. From the top of the social (and literal) hill of Enfield Tennis Academy to the bottom of drug addiction at Ennet House we SEE. We are taken inside the different personalities, conditions, social status and worldviews that comprise the complex search for the American “pursuit of happiness”.

I was a bit concerned until about halfway through the book that Wallace was making a parody of everything in life. I felt as I’ve often felt around people I know where anything serious/emotional/internal remains untouchable and is turned into a joke. I’m not deriding Wallace for his use of comedy. His brilliance in that respect has nothing to do with the completely different concept of humor as a cover. Then as if Wallace knew what the reader must have thought, the book took on a different tone. Sure, AA has cheesy clich├ęs. But the program works, and we are forced to face the serious consequences of the possibility of addiction. You suddenly realize that Wallace has all along had you thinking like his characters. We see the stage of denial through the logical thought process as if we WERE the character. At the beginning, any help offered or any attempt to analyze the internal is laughed at by those who can’t face themselves. This is life. This is America.

Addictions take different forms, and the damaging ones are done so out of fear. The existential search for meaning seems to come to a dead end. The tennis prodigies at E.T.A. certainly had more in the American sense of “more” than the drug addicts at the bottom of the hill. Ironically though, many of these athletes were drug abusers themselves. The very idea of training them to be mentally tough and “transcend” self through accomplishment in sport produced a vacuum where nothing could be reached. Their escapism was no different than those they looked down upon. The more the American seeks through work, entertainment, intellectual accomplishments, drugs, sex and obsessive activity, the closer they get to the end. We are eventually forced to turn inside. It’s the only answer.

If I could have a conversation with Wallace, I would commend him for his portrayal of what undoubtedly were deeply personal feelings of depression. It is well known that he suffered greatly. The way he describes the total despair of various characters makes one sad to think about what he himself must have endured at his own end. It’s obvious to the reader that there was a great deal of openness and access to the darkest parts of Wallace’s mind.

From a purely literary standpoint, I have never read anything like Infinite Jest. The twists and turns of the book and the sheer mind-boggling process that must have gone into it are simply indescribable. The prose is some of the most intelligent I’ve experienced. The dialogue between the characters and the thoughts in their minds seem to have been written down by the characters themselves, not by one man. You will laugh, feel empty, find redemption, sink to low depths, realize the potential to rise above, relate in some way and end with unanswered questions. Sound a bit like life? I think that was the point.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Reading Hemingway

To read a book at a particular time in life is to capture a moment. Never again will you have the exact same lens through which you view this very subjective experience. Each person looks at life, like reading, through the entirety of who they are. Great authors such as Hemingway are able to get past the lens and find something of the universal in each one of us.

For Whom the Bell Tolls is the first Hemingway book I’ve read since junior high. Back then it was The Old Man and the Sea. I don’t remember it. Hemingway for me is a brand new experience. His life, each life, is a lens as well. It is through his ability to convey his own humanity that makes this book what it is.

So in between the author Hemingway, and you or I as the reader stands interpretation. In a war novel, we are faced with many tough questions. Is the value of the cause worth killing and dying for? To Robert Jordan it was. For me, I have only viewed modern American warfare, which is quite simply imperialistic expansion. I am cynical as to any good motive for fighting a war. I have to take this viewpoint and combine it with that of Robert Jordan, who was fighting for and with an oppressed people. These people could not escape the fascists around them. They were forced into the situation. This is similar to the Palestinians and any oppressed peoples throughout the world today. It comes down to self-defense. What do you do if your wife, husband, mother, father, sister, brother, is tortured, raped or killed? Even with my anti-war stance, that takes me beyond. At that point, a part of me is violated. But I must be very careful here. Because the problem with this line of thinking is it can degenerate into pre-emptive warfare. Fear takes over, and your own drive for safety turns you into the tyrant you oppose. Not having been placed in this situation, it is difficult to say how I’d react, but I believe that I wouldn’t hesitate to fight. Not when it becomes as personal as my own family.

We see the internal dissonance that comes with war killing in the minds and thoughts of many of the characters. This is one of Hemingway’s strengths. Richard Wright has the same gift. Thoughts are experienced as if they’re our own. Hemingway shows the conflicts best when describing the internal dialogue in the minds of Anselmo and Robert Jordan. I was particularly struck by the old man Anselmo. At the end of the book he was forced to kill a stranger, but a fellow countryman. Anselmo realized what all of us who are pacifists have already contemplated. That man was not much different than himself. The sentry was not even a true fascist. He was probably forced to serve or die. But he stood in the way of Anselmo and his family and friends experiencing a peaceful life. What do you do when you live under tyranny and oppression?

Hemingway’s war story is a life story. There are themes of purpose, love, firm conviction, and the uncertainties of time.

Nor is the opportunity to show the importance of the moment missed by Hemingway. Robert Jordan realizes that a life well lived can be done just as much in 3 days as 30 years. It’s the quality and the experiences lived and learned that count. It’s the difference that you make in the lives of those around you. We may find it a bit unbelievable that Robert Jordan and Maria could really feel so strongly for each other so quickly. But Hemingway was showing the human mind when faced with mortality. Everything important and valuable rises to the surface and all else fades away. You feel death hovering inside the mind of Jordan. He thinks deeply about life, feels deeply, and loves deeply in his last days. He didn’t know if he was going to die, but he acted as if he were.

Some live their whole lives looking for purpose. Others find their voice and individuality very early in life. My interpretation of Hemingway at this moment in time has come through my own experience of looking death in the face. So, the book struck me as a search for the value of life NOW not later. That’s why I write about books. The exact same experience of a particular read will never happen again. I hope to see what this and other great books will mean to me in the future.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Separate But A Part

I see something clearly. I think. That’s the way my thoughts have run recently. I wouldn’t call it self-doubt. Not at this point. The reason being is that I know I’m moving forward. I know certain things about where I’m going. I’m definitely seeing and seeking some more of it, but what I’ve learned is that I’m avoiding absolutes. That is exactly why my thoughts have been clear and muddled all at the same time.

I have always felt separate. As I look back upon the constant restlessness that has been in my life, there was an ever present intuition. I knew that I was uncomfortable in almost any setting, but I didn’t know why. Simple insecurity was an inadequate explanation. It went deeper. Only recently have things STARTED to make sense. I was looking for individuality and voice.

More than ever, I don’t and have never wanted to be ordinary. I have always searched for something DIFFERENT. I thought it would be in radio. The problem WAS radio. It has a role in societal conditioning. My vision hadn’t extended BEYOND. So, I fell into playing the role because it superficially stroked the ego. Nightlife was a big part of Las Vegas radio. Is there a greater example of nihilistic actions from those seeking escape? I thought I was unique by having access to this culture of excess. The desire to be unique was ultimately illusion. In a world where you aren’t noticed unless you’re “creative” or “privileged”, I fell into the very trap I was trying to avoid. I didn’t realize that I wanted acceptance by society. But I was never comfortable playing that role; it was all a lie.

Through my journey, it has come to me that I am now rejecting society. From the structures imposed upon us – schools, churches, working environments, politics, consumerism – to the way we are expected to respond in a culture imposed at birth, it’s all control, absurdity, conformity to those in power. So I reject organized religion, political affiliations and materialism. It has been said that most of our decisions are based on a form of fear. Perhaps even this decision is a fear of being “normal”.

Ideological arguments become tools in the hands of power. We are told that it is in these structures we will find meaning, satisfaction. We point out control and tyranny in those who oppose us. Yet, when we gain control, we discover that at the root we were only seeking power. Then we become what we were trying to avoid. Tyrants realize this. The tyrant is not on the OUTSIDE. The tyrant is INSIDE the structures/ideologies that one subscribes to. In fact, tyranny is common in every individual. We are all fearful of what we don’t know or understand, so our initial reaction is not love, but control. Control both of our own lives and imposing what we feel is right upon others.

In a very real way, I am confronting questions with viewpoints that have always been there. We ARE a product of conditioning, DNA, past environments and cultures. Each one experiences life different than the next, but is any way of looking at the world truly original? Isn’t everything we see or think a conglomeration built upon the teachings of the past but with new arrangements? So, I’m aware that my search is much like anyone else’s. How we interpret it all is a part of our individuality.

That also explains why so much in life is subjective, such as cultural tastes. My most recent readings have been Richard Wright and Toni Morrison, both of whom I’ve read obsessively over the past week. Three works from Wright and two from Morrison.

Both of these writers appeal to me because of the themes I recognize in my own life. Toni incorporates many references to avoiding something so much that you become it. That has had a great influence on my personal and political views. Wright has a way of making you FEEL. Never have I been taken into the mind of a character and had such an intense experience. Wright’s book The Outsider pulled together much of this for me, because I FEEL outside of things.

Much like Wright’s character Cross Damon, I recognize that there are certain levels of understanding that people reach. I became a Socialist because I believe in love and equality, and through living in a Capitalistic society, I could see that there were no answers there. The drive to power is so blatant in Capitalism that it’s encouraged in everyone. However, Socialism is also a power grab, but it preaches equality and “deals in human hearts” as Wright says. That’s why it can be deceiving. Yet, someone must lead in Socialism just as in Capitalism. Therein lies the problem and the open door for tyranny. I still subscribe to many Socialistic ideas in the abstract (because they are based on people not people as commodities), but minds become suspicious and paranoid in an ideology where one class controls another. The same is true in Capitalism.

So, I face myself with the question. What does it all mean? I wish I could tell you. I know that looking out for others is the only thing that makes sense. Love really is all there is. However, even love has its pitfalls. Justice is a form of love. How do we determine unjust situations? Will solving those situations turn the oppressed into the oppressor? That may happen, but do we stop trying? Do we adopt a nihilistic attitude or do we love? I’m disillusioned with society, but I’m not disillusioned with love. It’s the only thing I can find that makes any sense whatsoever.

(This blog to be continued for a lifetime)

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"Jazz" becomes an experience with Toni Morrison

Anyone who has been through adversity knows the view. It’s that view of life stripped down to nothing but the basic. All you’re left with is your breath, and sometimes that feels like it’s slipping away. But you still have something, even if it’s ugly, even if it has no map, even if no one cares. What happens next is a choice. You can choose to take the basics of life that are left and build around them. What you weave becomes something on your terms. Why else does adversity create some of the best art? It sheds that which arrived from the outside.

On a large scale, adversity is represented in oppression. Old paradigms no longer apply. Either something new is created, or death occurs. Jazz, because life requires improvisation; this is a route that no one has traveled. People constantly thrown into immobile structures have to re-create themselves to absorb the impact. Adaptation regains control.

Understanding WHY is not always the intention. A Toni Morrison novel is beautiful through the way it weaves in and around. You ride on the words, seeing areas that compliment rather than obscure. Stay on the surface, don’t drown. Like the voice guiding us through Jazz, life calls for your touch. In a society where imitation is expected, individuality becomes destroyed.

Your heritage merges with the present, and becomes the future. But the route is quickly adjusted to accommodate the other. Recognize the part. Move, bend, and retain your tone. Someone else is not playing your role, but you do live among them. Hate stops the music. To keep the interplay vibrant and tonal, we love.

Open up and learn how to live. Music is able to be enjoyed because one note leads to the next. Why move so quickly? Slow down and listen. Once it’s over, that time and place are gone.

Morrison confounds in a world where we don’t know how to experience. Just be. Soak everything in. The journey is seen through your lens. Let all you are and all you’ve ever been become your expression. Then learn to see through the lens of the suffering. Bring more and more artistry to the piece by allowing their voices to bend around your own. Beautiful harmonies are then created.

Sometimes dissonance will occur. Like jazz, life is improvised as you go. The exact same note-pattern-tone never occurs twice. Learn from that. Move with it. Look for the best. Make the tone return to a rich, sweet sound.

Don’t let others put restrictions on your artistry. Never conform. We are here to complete, not to take away that soul, that deep passion from our fellow musicians.

Morrison comes from a people who have mastered this art. However, we share life, and improvisation is required from everyone to make a unified expression. We all have our own forms of adversity. Use it to learn how to express. Take the experience, and don’t regret. Move forward never back. What you played in the past is over. The future is always a new piece. But the musical proficiency is easier as you go, and the fun part, like reading Morrison, is experiencing each note in that one moment it’s played.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Richard Wright's "Native Son"

“Mr. Max, how can I die”? Those words from the ending of Richard Wright’s powerful novel Native Son leaped out of the pages at me. To learn to live, we must learn how to die. The realization finally comes to our protagonist Bigger. All through the story, we see the process of societal conditioning expressed in the form of race shaping the actions of a confused young man. He is full of fear, hate, shame and guilt. He knows that he hates the whites because they own everything and they tell him what he can and can not do. He hates his fellow blacks because he sees in them the same faults that he sees in himself. In fact, these faults become the only thing he CAN see. He knows he is black, and black is not “good”. He hasn’t found his identity.

Throughout life, one of our strongest searches is that of identity. The search for identity is so powerful because it’s about purpose. Identity is the search for ultimate meaning, for love, and because of that people are afraid. They are afraid because they attach their identity to the external. The African-Americans surrounding Bigger in his home and community wanted what they didn’t have. They wanted something to call their own in a world dominated by whites. For centuries, the process of conditioning had been passed down from white to white and black to black. The hate, xenophobia and fear were prevalent on both sides.

However, to find identity we need to turn to the INTERNAL. This is not to discard external oppression but to explain it. There are multiple layers to the idea of the internal in Bigger. First, Bigger doesn’t know why what he has inside of him is there. All he knows is that it’s the way things are, and he hates. He is bearing the results of the conditioning of a race. We communicate in more ways than just the verbal, and he has always known oppression even though he couldn’t put a finger on it. It is in the very fiber, the DNA of the city around him. He recognizes it to a degree outside of himself. The segregation, ruling class and unfair economics are in his face and obvious. But he can’t see inside. He can’t get down to the root of his humanity.

Bigger’s very name carries so much power and meaning. Wright, (even if didn’t understand his entire novel, as he claims), is inviting us into more than just one man’s world. Bigger represents the ugliness that we all have to face inside of ourselves. It is said that Bigger committed many more murders than just the external two we see in the book. He killed in his mind whenever he looked at someone with hate. He hates because it brings fear. He fears because he doesn’t understand. He is the consummation of a part of our being.

The more we love, the more we erase fear. However, love takes understanding. This is how Bigger represents the internal workings of groups as well as individuals. From nations to ethnicities, we fear what we don’t understand. We perceive things to be a threat to us when they are different from us. We feel something rise within us. What if their way is better? What if they don’t like us? What if they choose to take over our world and run things the way they want them to run? It becomes dualistic. We immediately react instead of searching for the humanity in the other. This happens because we haven’t been able to recognize the humanity in ourselves. Therefore, we cling to the familiar on the outside. We attach ourselves to ideologies, groups, our own race, our nation, our work. We let all of this take the place of the much more difficult process of trying to recognize our own humanity.

So racism and hatred become imbedded in society. People separate from the unfamiliar, and the ruling class/race pushes the other into a “safe” zone. Laws are set up, business arrangements are understood, politicians make deals and everyone is kept in their “appropriate” place according to conditioning. Children are raised in an “us” and “them” environment. We quickly become accustomed to that environment and learn unconsciously from others that it is safer than the risk of the unknown. The more we continue on this path, the more separation that occurs, the harder it becomes to recognize the shred of common identity that we all share. The process of understanding becomes more difficult because we have no idea of how to relate. Things just are the way they are and most people simply acquiesce.

Bigger didn’t know how to relate to the world of white around him. That world also didn’t know how to relate back. Bigger saw and judged through his lens of inferiority just as the white world represented by the Daltons judged through their lens of superiority. This situation can take on broader tones than that of race. It is oppressor vs. oppressed. It is more than injustice as Max says. When one or two people are harmed indiscriminately, that is injustice. When entire ways of life or people are pushed away from the rest of the world, then it becomes oppression.

The oppressed eventually get backed into a corner and strike out. Bigger’s hate was so strong that he started swinging and anyone in his way was caught. Mary tried to reach down from her table of privilege to lend a hand to Bigger, but she was at the wrong level both externally and internally to do so. Bigger recognized nothing but her whiteness and position in society, and he hated. He didn’t “really” intend to kill HER per se, but he wanted to blot out what she represented because it made him what he was. Oh yes, he hated her because she belonged to THAT world. But there were many Marys that he hated.

The white world, in turn, hated back because of its own interpretation of why the blacks act the way they do. Once again, we come to a lack of understanding in the vicious cycle of oppression and violence. The oppressors don’t understand that the violence of the oppressed is a direct result of the condition that has been forced upon them. So, they oppress some more by trying to cure the symptom rather than the disease. They attempt to distract through community centers and philanthropy rather than leveling out the playing field and acknowledging the humanity of the oppressed. The best gift of philanthropy is the acknowledgement of the humanity of the other. At this point, the patronizing term philanthropy becomes inappropriate. When you recognize humanity in others, philanthropy turns to love.

Max and Jan were examples of honest whites who were trying to understand. They genuinely desired to have better relations between the races, and had devoted their lives to that effort. However, the dynamic between them and Bigger is strained. This is a very important point in Wright’s examination of race. No matter how much they wanted to help Bigger, they needed to realize that in order to achieve equality, they had to EMBRACE the UNIQUENESS of Bigger. Instead of attempting complete integration and looking outside the color lines, they needed to let Bigger be WHO HE WAS just as they needed to embrace themselves for who they were. They could never be Bigger, but they could love him for his own unique expression of humanity. Bigger had never had his uniqueness embraced.

Humanity denied is racism defined. We see Bigger at the end of the book begging for a map to the internal. He gets a taste of it from Max and allows his thoughts to open up and guide him. He feels that there is a common connection in the world, but he can’t push himself above the surface to discover what it is. He senses that we all share something. He begins to realize that in the end everyone FEELS. They may not know why they feel, but they feel. The fear, they hate, they love. They are all on the search just as he is. He knows that he has something powerful inside of him; something worth fighting and even killing for.

It is perhaps absurd to think of a murder giving someone freedom. However, isn’t that how we think in war? Max asks that question to illustrate the insanity of clinging to the external for identity. Killing is part of the absurd human condition. Bigger kills, and for a moment he feels that he has exercised a CHOICE for the first time in his life. He doesn’t realize that that choice was just as conditioned and programmed as all the other choices he KNOWS that he is forced to make as a result of his race and status. In a very real way, he was guided to the murder by a sick society. This is a powerful reminder of how our actions both as a group and individuals carry profound significance in the lives of others.

We can not choose who we are when we are born. However, we can choose to DISCOVER our humanity. Bigger did discover his humanity. We may not have liked what he discovered at the end, and Max was indeed scared of what he saw in Bigger. But Bigger realized WHO HE WAS for the first time in his life. However flawed his external may have been, Bigger was able to embrace himself. His uniqueness, his humanity, his individuality, his internal could never be taken away from him. He had discovered life and how to have life. Because he had managed to drill down into his interior and take a look around with knowledge and recognition, he could now die. He knew that even in death he would still have something that no one else had. He would have his identity.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Open letter on my resignation from The International Socialist Organization

Interpretation, dogmatism, ideology, definitions and identity have been on my mind over the last number of weeks/months. Why is it that I always have to have something attached to my ego to identify who I am? Why is it not enough to just BE? This is not to say that we are not to take a stand when we see injustice or to give up our search for what truth, love and equality really mean, but quite the opposite. The search needs to become intensified.

What I’m saying is that I need to be able to separate myself from the influences of society and others in order to get to the core of myself and the true nature of BEING. This is not to say that I am not to LEARN from others, but that I am learning to think NON-DUALISTICALLY, taking the good from many different sources.

Nor am I saying that we are not to have a spine, a backbone, strength of character, clearly defined values or a firm sense of right and wrong. Life is not meant for neutrality. We need to be advocates for others who have no voice; we need to stand in the face of oppression even if we as individuals are the only ones. This can and will grate people at times. If you are satisfying everyone, you’re not even being authentic.

I’ve always said that my primary values in life are equality, love and justice. I have identified these common threads throughout many of the world’s great traditions: political, spiritual, humanist, secular, etc. All ideologies are imperfect to some extent, but these common qualities of goodness have tended to be apparent to me through close examination.

Where I see the problem is that we ALL are quite capable of becoming dogmatic and defensive which amounts (in my own search) to an identity crisis. For example, I often found myself in an argumentative and defensive position when challenged by my political affiliation with Socialism. I constantly tell myself that arguing with the same attack methods of the opposition convinces no one, but then I find myself caught in the trap once again. The question becomes why? I think the answer is that I have let Socialism, and specifically the International Socialist Organization BECOME a part of my identity, my ego, and I think that I put myself in a dangerous position to become as rigid as the opposition by doing so. This is the pitfall of a label.

Now, I have not been thinking that I have major disagreements with much of Socialistic thought. Sure, there are different interpretations of theory, but my values of equality, love and justice do match up with the spirit of Socialism. However, they can also be found in Buddhist thought, in Hinduism, Islam and yes, Prophetic Christianity or Atheism. There is also much good in Anarchist thought. There are well intentioned people who don’t even understand politics OR religion. They simply know that treating someone in a certain manner is either right or wrong. I tend to be an optimist, and I believe that most people have good intentions, whatever their belief system might be. There is a thread of truth that is common throughout the world if your search is inclusive.

However I do or don’t define myself, I’m aware that others will still put labels on me. That’s ok. I have certain principles that I practice in my life, and those are my own choices from the different sources and beliefs that I’ve accumulated over the years. However, I am choosing to discard labels I put on MYSELF. This necessarily involves not officially subscribing to one particular ideology, philosophy or organization.

I still consider my Socialistic friends within the ISO as my comrades in the fight for justice. I hope you still see me in the same light. However, at this point in my life, I am choosing to resign my membership from the ISO. This is not any kind of an attack on the ISO. I have truly enjoyed my educational experience with the organization and the connections that I have made. I have learned much and still plan on learning much more from the Marxist tradition. In addition, I plan on learning much more about other traditions.

As I look back, this decision has been approaching for some time. My thinking has been turned upside down in many ways through all the adversity of the past couple of years with my divorce, car accident/near death experience, and the necessity of moving away from Madison. It has forced me to search for my own identity and a truly individualistic voice. This is just one more step in that process, and it is what I need to do. All my respect and appreciation is sent to you comrades. Continue the fight for justice and may we all experience peace, respect, equality and love in our lives.

Tim Hartman