Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Introduction to the Art of Thinking and the Nature of Things

Henry Home, Lord Kames (1696-1782), judge and writer of the Scottish Enlightenment, laid down a series of still-relevant aphorisms that were first published in 1761. 

One of the most important accomplishments of Kames' career was helping decide a case that, in effect, banned slavery in Scotland for all time -- while American leaders conducted a "War of Independence" that kept the institution of slavery intact. Shall we admit that this Scotsman was a wise person, indeed? 

Here are some selections from Henry Home's Introduction to the Art of Thinking (1761). Page references are to an American edition published in New York City in 1818 by "W.B. Qilly." The only modernization requested for the 21st century might be to substitute, in most cases, person for man and humanity for mankind. Not bad for a 255-year old tract. Note: "chicaning" is the verb form of "chicanery." 

Mankind, through all ages, have been the same: The first times beheld first the present vices.  (p. 25)

So fond of liberty is man, that to restrain him from any thing, however indifferent, is sufficient to make that thing an object of desire. (p. 26)

It is more tolerable to be always alone, than never to be so. (p. 26)

So prone is man to society, and so happy in it, that, to relish perpetual solitude, one must be an angel or a brute. (p. 26)

A man is more unhappy in reproaching himself when guilty, than in being reproached by others when innocent. (p. 27)

Seldom is a man so wicked but he will endeavor to reconcile if possible, his actions with his duty. But such chicaning will not lay his conscience asleep: It will notwithstanding haunt him like a ghost, and frighten him out of his wits. (p 27)

Happiness is less valued when we possess it, than when we have lost it. (p. 28)

The pains of the mind are harder to bear than those of the body. (p. 28)

Our opinions are swayed more by feeling than by argument. (p. 29)

Every man esteems his own misfortune the greatest. (p.29)

The present misfortune is always deemed the greatest : and therefore small causes are sufficient to make a man uneasy, when great ones are not in the way.  (p. 29)

That reason which is favourable to our desires, appears always the best. (p. 30)

Change of condition begets new passions, and consequently new opinions. (p. 30)

It is idle, as well as absurd, to impose our opinions upon others. The same ground of conviction operates differently on the same man in different circumstances, and on different men in the same circumstances. (p. 30)

A new sorrow recalls all the former. (p. 31)

Men are governed by custom. Not one of a thousand thinks for himself; and the few who are emancipated, dare not act up to their freedom, for fear of being thought whimsical. (p. 32)

A man intimately acquainted with the nature of things, has seldom occasion to be astonished. (p. 33)

Men of a fearful temper are prone to suspicion and cruelty. Fear begets apprehension, the parent of suspicion; and suspicion begets hatred and revenge. (p. 33)

He must fear many whom many fear. (p 34)

It betokens as great a soul to be capable of owning a fault, as to be incapable of committing it. (p 35)

Whoever appears to have much cunning, has in reality very little; being deficient in the essential article, which is, to hide cunning. (p. 36)

If a man could at once accomplish all his desires, he would be a miserable creature; for the chief pleasure of this life is to wish and desire. (p. 36)

None are so invincible as your half-witted people: They know just enough to excite their pride, not enough to cure it. (p. 36)

The same littleness of soul that makes a man despise inferiors, and trample on them, makes him abjectly obsequious to superiors. (p. 37)

A man who gives his children a habit of industry, provides for them better than by giving them a stock of money. (p. 40)

Breach of friendship begets the bitterest enmity. (p. 43)

The young are slaves to novelty, the old to custom. (p. 44)

No preacher is so successful as time. It gives a turn of thought to the aged, which it was impossible to inspire while they were young. (p 44)

Unmarried men are the best friends, the best masters, the best servants, but not always the best subjects. (p. 44)

Today's Rune: Growth.


Monday, August 22, 2016

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard (1950) is a good reminder about Wilder's work. This is one of several enduring films he directed, part dark humor and part serious consideration of human foibles -- maybe one and the same thing.

Everything about Sunset Boulevard is memorable. The setup is pretty basic: a great silent film diva now has to live in the talkie age, enduring technology and the fickle finger of fate, after making a killing in her heyday. Now she's confused and distraught. 

But beyond the specifics, Sunset Boulevard explores what happens when people (any people) have to deal with a vastly changed landscape while partially living in the past. 

And beyond that, Sunset Boulevard considers what it means for the human condition to be a mortal one -- the existential absurdity of it all. 

Speaking of, like Michael Jackson in his Neverland Ranch, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) has a pet chimp -- "the grandson of King Kong, perhaps" as Joe Gillis (William Holden) quips in the narration. An inspiration for Bubbles, perhaps?  

Let's not forget Norma's lone butler, Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim), nor the fact that Michael Jackson named one of his chimps Max. It's a small world, and a particularly weird one at that. 
Sunset Boulevard even touches upon the Year of the Fire Monkey, which will take us through the rest of the year 2016. 

From an article earlier this month, here's Clint Eastwood, not talking to an empty chair but to an interviewer

"Erich von Stroheim. My favorite film . . . Two different styles: the style of the silent-movie actress, and then with William Holden's character, someone more contemporary. The two styles working so well together. And I always liked Billy Wilder." (Full Esquire interview here).  

In addition, a completely different article -- about Donald Trump -- connects Trump culturally to Clint Eastwood and Sunset Boulevard -- must be in the Zeitgeist:

'While we watched "Sunset Boulevard” together on one flight, Trump leaned in over my shoulder during one of the film’s iconic scenes: Gloria Swanson as the silent film star Norma Desmond, bemoaning the arrival of the talkies. “Oh, those idiot producers. Those imbeciles! Haven’t they got any eyes? Have they forgotten what a star looks like?” Desmond says. “I’ll show them. I’ll be up there again! So help me!”

“Is this an incredible scene or what?” whispered Trump, who has regularly demonstrated during his presidential campaign the importance of batting down anyone who questions his star power. “Just incredible.”' (Full Bloomberg article here).

Can you dig?  Lights, Camera, Action!

Today's Rune: Strength. p.s. I'm not sure about Max, but as of this post, Bubbles lives!

Monday, August 15, 2016

The 2016 Playbook: A Lot of Moving Parts

The 2016 presidential election cycle in the USA has been going strong since mid-2015! 

Here's a quick guide to the language of this grueling campaign. Most of the terminology is a sort of coded shorthand slang. 

Keep eyes and ears open next time the election comes up anywhere in the public sphere. How many of these can you find in print, on a screen or in open conversation? 

Every one of these is from personal observation -- paying attention not to "political content" but to wordplay.

The parlance of the 2016 election

Baked-in = this is the given situation or trend you have to work with.

Optics = how things look. Theatre -- most of politics.

Wheelhouse = area of expertise or leadership. 

Full-throated = enthusiastic, "all in" vs. half-assed or reluctant.

Strategic = "big picture," long-term goals kept in mind, "eyes on the prize."

Battleground states = states "up for grabs," "purple states" not completely dominated by Democrats, Republicans, or some other faction. 

Doubling down = total commitment, increasing pressure.

Unpack = fully analyze or consider repercussions.

Transparency = what seems to be, really is more or less factual.

Takeaway = that which one has "unpacked" or learned from an incident or text.

Rigged = everything is a set up from behind a veil. Fixed. Unfair insider advantage. 

Pay to play (or pay-to-play) = enter a field or project only by paying a fee of some kind. 

Donor class = super rich people who back candidates as in a horse race.

Outsider = not presently a part of the status quo, usually meaning Washington, DC or a state or local equivalent. 

False flag = conspiracy theory jargon. Things are not what they seem. A shooting is actually a hoax put on by those who would make you do something else according to their diabolical hidden agenda.

Dog whistle = coded language meant to exploit fear or hatred of one or more groups. 

Playbook = plan of action, strategy, tactics, aiming at winning an election or turning out votes.

Unforced error = get into trouble of one's own accord, usually by saying or doing something foolish in the public sphere. 

Spin = twisting facts or events to protect one's own candidate or belief system.

Game changer = some kind of major shift in the arc of events.

Punching up and down = aggressively attacking.

Reset = let's try this again with a different emphasis.

Reboot = let's try this again with a different emphasis and a staff shake-up.

Pivot = Same as reset and reboot, with lightning agility.

On message = stick to the plan, the script, don't wander off into "unforced errors."

At the end of the day = when all is said and done.

No there there = making a mountain out of a molehill. Response to those trying to create a scandal out of opponents' errors.

Going forward = from here on out. Really. We mean it. 

Political correctness = usually, cultural sensitivity. A favorite "punching bag" for those who prefer to use blunt force or nastier language.

A lot of moving parts = it's complicated, consider the repercussions, everything must work together if we are to succeed.

Branding = logo, gimmick, slogan, phrase. Goes back to burning ownership marks into livestock, enslaved people, prisoners or fraternity members with hot pokers. Pretty ugly concept when you think about it.  

Backlash = see branding. Goes back to whipping people on their backs until they bleed out and die, or carry scars for the rest of their lives. Usually a "backlash" is a "response" to some action, event or "unforced error."

Firestorm = great controversy. Compare with firebombing of Tokyo or atomic attack on Nagasaki -- political controversies never (or rarely) come close to the gravitas and tragedy of such actual wartime atrocities.

Meltdown = see firestorm. Compare with Chernobyl or Fukishima. I don't think so. 
Thanks to examination of the media-driven and media-exploiting style of Donald J. Trump, more sophisticated 2016 analysis includes such terms as:

Paralipsis (aka Apophasis)= drawing attention to something without stating it directly.

Down-ballot = for Republicans fearful of a Trumpian disaster, trying to save their lower slates of candidates.

Hostage video = when Trump is forced to read things that are distasteful to him from a teleprompter, such as his begrudging support for down-ballot candidates.     

Trumpenproletariat = a play on the Marxian term, Lumpenproletariat. "Here demagogues and fascists of various stripes find some area of the mass base in time of struggle and social breakdown, when the ranks of the Lumpenproletariat are enormously swelled by ruined and declassed elements from all layers of a society in decay." (Source: here). That is to say, the frustrated and angry masses from which Trump draws his support. By contrast, Bernie Sanders supporters are "vanguards of the political revolution."

Today's Rune: Harvest.  

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown (2014)

Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown (2014): Directed by Alex Gibney, produced by Mick Jagger. Aired on HBO and available with extras in DVD format. 

This one's an entertaining and insightful documentary for any and all James Brown fans. The archival footage is worth the whole package; newer interview footage is also better than the usual in such motion documentaries. 

I'm pretty well-versed in James Brown musicology and cultural impact, but even so, with Mr. Dynamite I learned a lot of new stuff, new ways of considering things. 

(In one of the more surreal scenes of Mr. Dynamite, see presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey sing along with James Brown in 1968. It's plain bizarre!) 

Alex Gibney is a trenchant documentary filmmaker -- compare with some of his other works such as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005); The [Lance] Armstrong Lie (2013); We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks (2013); Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (HBO, 2015); Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (2015).

Today's Rune: Gateway.      

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Monique Truong's 'The Book of Salt:' Take Two

Monique Truong's The Book of Salt (2003, 2004): a few pinches more.

“’I left Vietnam when I was twenty-two,’” said the man whose eyes were again back on the Seine. ‘I haven’t been back since.’ His voice trailed off, his words taking a quiet leap into the water below" (pages 91-92).  

Exile. Hasn't been back since. Because he can't, because of the danger or expense, or because he chooses not to? Questions for all exiles, expatriates, refugees and immigrants. In this case, the scene is from a bridge over the River Seine in Paris. 
“'He will always cook from all the places where he has been. It is his way of remembering the world'” (page 99). Sounds like a good idea to me.

“Men, believe me, are fragile in unexpected ways. Weak is another way of putting it” (page 125). 

“She is French, after all. Madame is a snob but not a prude” (page 132). 

“They promised her the words to an opera and the history of everyone who has ever lived” (page 181). 
“. . . the first thing Miss Toklas asked me was whether I had a recipe for gazpacho.
‘Did you learn it in Spain?’
‘Then it is best to forget it.’
‘Oh'" (page 211). 

Today's Rune: Signals.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Monique Truong's 'The Book of Salt:' Take One

Monique Truong's The Book of Salt (2003, 2004) takes her readers into the 1920s and 1930s milieu of French Indochina (Indochine française) and France through the eyes of a gay Vietnamese cook working in three spheres: the Governor-General's house, on board ocean-crossing ships, and in the service of two Americans-in-France -- Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. A novel that is both absorbing and consciousness-raising, The Book of Salt delivers.

Truong writes in vivid detail of both food and social relationships. We see Binh's family system (particularly his place in relation to his father, mother, and brother Minh), Binh's friendships with fellow travelers, and his arc of time working for the intense and fussy Stein and Toklas.  

Several characters tell stories, usually short ones, throughout the novel, with Binh commenting upon their style and manner. "That, for Bão, was of course the whole point of telling the basket weaver’s story. No matter who else may be present, Bão was the hero in all of his stories" (page 56). Don't we all know storytellers who put themselves in the starring role as hero?

Binh enjoyed, as a kid, his mother's creativity in storytelling; her tales rarely remained the same over time:  “While my mother’s hands followed a set routine, her stories never did. They were free to roam, to consider alternative routes, to invent their own ways home, especially in the retelling" (page 81). And: "For my mother and me, the story of Father Augustine was like any other, a thing to be repeated and retold. A story, after all, is best when shared, a gift in the truest sense of the word" (page 165). 
The Book of Salt is such a gift. 

Today's Rune: Signals. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of 'On War' (2016)

Vanya Eftimova Bellinger, Marie von Clausewitz: The Woman Behind the Making of On War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). Using primary source material, this book fills in gaps and contextualizes the story of Marie Sophie von Brühl and Carl von Clausewitz, giving readers a glimpse of European life before, during and after the Napoleonic period, most specifically from the point of view of Prussia and other German-speaking lands. The spirit of Napoleon and the French Revolution permeates everything, even fledgling German nationalism.

Back up a minute. Two of the great (and possibly most important of them to date) books on and about war and human society are:

孙子, 孙子兵法 / Sun Tzu, The Art of War (first Chinese edition circa 500 B.C.)

Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege / On War (first German edition 1832 A.D.).

We can't say much for sure about the creation of The Art of War, but Bellinger's well-researched study clearly shows that Countess Marie Sophie von Brühl (1779-1836) was a key player in the development of Carl von Clausewitz's (1780-1831) adult life and work. Though she started higher up in the social scale, Marie faced constraints in the public sphere because of the conservative status quo regarding gender roles. She pushed against them to the point of shocking many of her peers. 

The two married in 1810 and, when parted from each other's company due to wars and other duties, carried forth a lively correspondence. In person, they enjoyed free-wheelintête-à-tête discussions and active participation in literary salons. Throughout, she influenced him and he influenced her. They both wrote, organized and edited.

After Carl died at age 51 from cholera, Marie steered On War and Carl's other works into publication, and just in the nick of time. For Marie died just five years after Carl, at the age of 56. Marie, incidentally, like George Washington, was killed indirectly by her doctors, the most likely cause of her fatal infection. 

One of my favorite parts of On War is the discussion of "Friction" in war (which stands in for other aspects of life, as well). "Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult . . . Countless minor incidents -- the kind you can never really foresee -- combine . . . so that one always falls far short of the intended goal . . . Iron will-power can overcome this friction: it pulverizes every obstacle, but of course it wears down the machine as well . . ."  ~~ Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984 edition; originally published in 1976), page 119. 

Without Marie von Clausewitz, there wouldn't have been such a gestation and early launch for Vom Kriege; without Vanya Eftimova Bellinger, we wouldn't have truly grasped even that. This is important historical work -- making more visible a previously obscured mover and shaker, inspiring us to muse anew about On War and its impact. 

Today's Rune: Journey.