Sunday, August 15, 2010

1 Philosophy Major (Who Is Not A Philosophy Professor)

What with all these football players seemingly going about our country raping and pillaging the countryside, I thought it might be a good idea to highlight a player or two who seem to be upright citizens. Last week, Austin Murphy wrote about why "College Football Blows Away the NFL." In this article, Murphy mentions former Ohio State tight end Anthony Gonzales. Murphy writes:

Gonzalez, now an Indianapolis Colt, was a philosophy major with a 4.0 GPA nearly every academic quarter. I remember his admonition when I confessed that I'd never read Plato: "You've got to read The Republic."

I saw Gonzo a few months later at the NFL's annual scouting combine, so named, I suspect, because it combines elements of a beauty pageant, a cattle auction and hard-core interrogation sessions. Like all other prospective draftees, he was dressed in an NFL-issued gray sweatshirt, on which was stamped his league-assigned four-character code. We chatted while he was shuttling between physical and psychological tests. He was bemused, I recall, by some of the Bizarro World questions posed to him by the grim-faced NFL personnel "experts." "Whatever you do," I advised him, "don't mention Plato."

Gonzalez was a three year letterman with Ohio State, and he played for the team that beat Notre Dame in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, and for the team that lost to Florida in the BCS game the next year. More importantly, he was an Academic All-American and a Rhodes Scholar candidate.

Look at that bald, shiny head, all covered in brains.

Unfortunately, Gonzalez suffered a knee injury in 2009, and is beginning the 2010 season with the Colts on the injured list. Also unfortunate is that he left Ohio State after his junior year. Maybe now he'll have the time to go back to school and graduate, maybe write that thesis paper, Meno at the Combine: Can Virtue be Practiced?

Peyton Manning Colts Quarterback Peyton Manning talks to Tiger Woods as Peyton's caddy and teamate Anthony Gonzalez looks on during the Pro-Am for the Quail Hollow Championship at Quail Hollow Golf Club on April 29, 2009 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Peyton Manning;Tiger Woods;Anthony Gonzalez

Or he could write about what a dick Peyton Manning is.

Another football playing philosopher is former Oregon State quarterback Sean Canfield. Canfield was drafted this year in the seventh round by the New Orleans Saints. I don't want to praise Canfield too much - less I be accused of a pro-Beaver bias - but I'll be rooting for him to succeed in the NFL. Of course, Canfield won't have the privilege of playing with real life superhero and linebacker Scott Fujita, who was traded to the Browns over the offseason. Fujita may not have been a philosophy major, but he was a poli-sci major at Cal, where he was a walk on safety, an Academic All-Pac 10, and got his Master's in Education. He's also the winner of the Teamster's Human Rights Award.

He's also really cute with kids:

And can fly:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fire Deepak Chopra!

Today on the Huffingpost, noted crazy person and charlatan Deepak Chopra has an essay pronouncing the Good News that he, finally, has found the soul. In eight pages of questionable science, bad logic, and pseudo-philosophy, Chopra and his co-author Stuart Hameroff re-package the rather worn belief that questions of metaphysics and spirituality can be solved through a rather gross misapplication of quantum physics. The whole article is really a waste of time - five of my hours, to be precise - but is interesting in its masquerading of religious beliefs as scientific theories. It actually wouldn't be worth anyone's time if it were not for the fact that ascription to this kind of tripe is widespread, and, in my opinion, a symptom of our country's greater dissatisfaction with our medical industry. As more and more Americans are let down by "conventional" medicine, more and more of them will turn to this form of New Age-ism as providing easy answers to difficult questions.

Here are a few of the most egregious claims Chopra makes, with commentary. The complete essay is here.

All Apologies.

Can Science Explain the Soul?

(Joel: Stop right there. No. The answer is no, right? Because science, by definition, must have nothing to do with matters of the soul, right?)

Redefined by the new field of quantum biology, the soul could be the link that connects individuals to the universe, a dynamic connection that could explain how consciousness came about, and why the cosmos itself seems to mirror our own intelligence and creativity.

(Wait, I need to hypothesize the existence of the soul in order to explain my connection to the universe? Damn! That's why I haven't been able to move or touch things or communicate with other people! And maybe the cosmos mirrors your intelligence and creativity. If it mirrored mine, there would be way more Dino-Riders.)

Unable to fathom a rational explanation for out-of-body and/or after-death consciousness, modern science ignores such reports. (Boo! Modern Science! Boo!) Short-sighted skeptics reinforce the assumption that they are either subjective folly, hallucinations, or outside the scope of scientific proof.

(They are hallucinations. If by "hallucination" you mean "the perception of objects with no physical reality usually caused by a disorder of the nervous system." Also: Boo! Skeptical scientists and their need for "proof"! Boo!)

The central weakness here is that modern science can't explain normal, in-the-brain consciousness. (Really? It can't? Despite detailed understanding of neuronal firings and synaptic transmissions mediating non-conscious, 'auto-pilot' perception and behaviors, there is no accounting for conscious awareness, free will or 'qualia' (QUALIA!) -- the essence of experienced perceptions, like the redness, texture and fragrance of a rose. Philosopher David Chalmers refers to this as the 'hard problem' -- explaining qualia and the subjective nature of feelings, awareness, and phenomenal experience, -- our 'inner life'.

(Yes, this is the Cartesian challenge, the foundation of Modern Western Philosophy. And here is a list of great thinkers who have provided non-magic based solutions to this problem: Kant, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, William James, J.L. Austin, G.E. Moore, Richard Rorty, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.)

It seems there's an edge, or boundary between two phases of reality -- the quantum and classical worlds, and that consciousness may have something to do with that edge, also known as 'quantum state reduction', or 'collapse of the quantum wave function.'

(A red flag immediately goes up at "two phases of reality... quantum and classical." This is playing with language, not putting forward scientific statements. Everyone knows that physics operates differently when dealing with very small objects (atoms) or very large objects (stars). But this does not lead to the claim of there existing "two phases of reality." It is an entirely unnecessary jump that violates scientific method and, if we make it, it makes us believe that there must be a soul, or something to solve this problem of the duality of mind and body. It's probably in the pineal gland.)

What is the universe composed of? (Facts, not things.) If we were to shrink in size, smaller and smaller, we would see that atoms are mostly empty, as is the space between them. If we shrink smaller and smaller, (Heelllllpppp meeeeeee.....) 25 orders of magnitude smaller than atoms, we would eventually come to Planck scale geometry, laden with information and patterns around the Planck length of 10 to the minus 33rd power centimeters. Descriptions of Planck scale geometry include quantum gravity, spin networks, twistor theory and string theory. Which of these is correct remains unknown.

(Oh, really? Because they're all impossible to test? And therefore not scientifically valid?)

But we do know that Planck scale information is down there. And despite the vast difference in scale, it can influence our world, as spacetime is organized like a hologram, or fractal, with information repeating nonlocally and at different scales. (We can't describe it, we don't know anything about it, but we know it must exist, and it can influence our "world." Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the monad.)

Penrose and Hameroff (This essay's co-author.) published several papers on Orch OR in the mid 1990s, prompting near-immediate skeptical rebuke from many directions, having offended computer/artificial intelligence proponents, neuroscientists, philosophers and physicists alike.

(From which we must "conclude" that there is a massive conspiracy to keep the truth hidden from the masses, right Mulder?)

Clinical studies of patients who survive cardiac arrest have revealed consistent reports of so-called near death experiences (NDEs), white light, being in a tunnel, serene calm, life review and in some cases out-of-body experiences (BOOBs). Many people report similar phenomena unrelated to cardiac arrest, e.g. associated with meditation, psychological trauma, drugs, or straightforward life events.

(All of these are interesting events that can be explained through non-"quantum" science. In fact, if you want to explain psychological trauma, it is much, much more useful to the patient to deal with this on a real, social, human level. Telling him that his trauma is due to his personal connection to quantum reality through infinitely small particles in his brain not only violates Occam's Razor, but is also unethical and dangerous.)

Conventional science rejects the possibility of an afterlife.

Could consciousness exist outside the body after death?
(I don't know. Do green ideas sleep furiously?)

When the blood stops flowing and metabolic energy can no longer drive microtubule quantum coherence, (It's like I'm in an episode of Star-Trek...) quantum information relating to the subject's conscious experience and memory isn't necessarily lost or destroyed, but may dissipate to the universe at large, remaining entangled as a unified soul-like entity grounded in Planck scale geometry. (Woah slow down there, chief... is it "The Soul" or merely "a soul-like entity"? Get your pseudo-terminology straight, man.) If the body is resuscitated, the quantum information can return, and the subject may report an NDE or BOOB experience. If the body is not resuscitated and the patient dies, the entangled quantum information constituting the subject's consciousness and memory may persist in spacetime geometry, perhaps entering an embryo in the context of reincarnation. (Perhaps. Or maybe it just goes to that never-ending party in the sky.)

Science attempts to explore the ocean of consciousness from the outside. That is, the universe is taken to be 'out there', divorced from subjective experience and therefore measurable without personal bias. But if the brain is connected to the universe at the quantum level, the distinction between subjective and objective experience, between 'in here' and 'out there' no longer holds. The spacetime geometry configuration of the observed world is reproduced in the brain. Again, the Beatles said it well: 'Your inside is out, and your outside is in. Your outside is in, and your inside is out.'

(Yup, that's right. The only cited source in this entire spiel is The White Album. He even fails to mention that that Beatles quote is from "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey." Oh, the irony. )

We two authors (SH and DC) differ slightly with regard to the ocean of consciousness, and the subject/object split.

(LOL. "No, you can balance an infinite number of angels on the head of a pin!" "You fool! Everyone knows that the divine mathematics dictates that the number must be equal to infinity plus one!" )

These proposals are testable, and falsifiable. (No they're not.) We welcome critical analysis. (Here ya go.)


Monday, August 9, 2010

LMM: Final! Austen vs. Faulkner

After 62 death matches and six months of voting, we're finally down to the grand championship: Jane Austen versus William Faulkner! It was obvious from early on that Ms. Austen would be a juggernaut of literary prowess, but I must admit that I have consistently underestimated Faulkner's appeal. But he has defeated Henry James, Herman Melville, and Virginia Woolf, so maybe there's more to this Mississippi Mauler than meets the eye.

Also, if you please, let me know who was left off of this list? What great writers, or just your favorite, was cruelly excluded?

Austen v. Faulkner

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Joel's Daring College Football Picks: BCS!

Now for the only games that matter, followed by the only game that actually matters:

1) Rose Bowl - #9 Oregon State (10-2) vs #6 Utah (12-0)
The Rose Bowl could be in a tough situation this year. They have agreed that, if either the Pac-10 or Big Ten champion goes to the BCS game, they will replace it with a team from a non-AQ conference. (i.e., Boise State, Utah, TCU, or BYU.) I imagine that this is because the Fiesta and Sugar Bowls got tired of being forced to select these small market teams.
I'm surprised that the Beavers are not getting more press as possible Pac-10 champs. Like I said, they get Cal, USC, and Oregon all at home, and are good enough to win all three of those games. The problem, though, is that they also play Boise State and TCU in non-conference games, so if they do win the Pac-10, the Rose Bowl may be faced with a rematch that not very many people would want to see. They can't pick USC. They would probably settle for Oregon vs Boise State, but that means that the Ducks need to win the Pac-10.
I'm bailing them out by saying that Utah will win the Mountain West, defeating Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, TCU, and BYU.

2) Fiesta Bowl: #5 Texas (12-1) vs #4 Boise State (12-0)
Boise State was ranked No. 5 in the preseason poll on Friday. So, logic would dictate that, if they win all of their games, and only one team ranked higher than them also wins all of its games, then those two teams would meet for the national championship, right? WRONG! I don't know much, but I know that the voters will always pick a one-loss SEC champ ahead of an undefeated Boise State in the polls.
But don't worry Boise State fans. The Broncos go on to beat Texas 58-3, and finish third in the national polls. Texas finishes sixth.

3) Orange Bowl: #10 Miami (10-3) vs #13 Cincinnati (10-2)
Yes! Dolphins versus Bengals in t.... wait, what?

I think that the ACC is wide open this year, with three or four teams each having a decent chance of winning it. The Hurricanes have scheduled a tough non-conference schedule, with games at Ohio State and Pittsburgh, but the conference will be decided on Nov. 20, when they play Virginia Tech in Miami. The Big East will be decided two weeks later, on the last day of the season, when the Bearcats host the Panthers.

4) Sugar Bowl: #3 Alabama (11-1) vs #7 Penn State (10-2)
Despite not having any conference champions in their game, the Sugar Bowl will be the big ratings winner of the BCS. They will benefit from the Rose Bowl's clause requiring it to select a non-AQ team, and snatch up JoePa and the Nittany Lions. Then, in a slightly controversial move, they will pick the Alabama Crimson Tide over the Florida Gators, even though Florida played (and lost) in the SEC championship game, whereas Alabama didn't get to play at all.

5) BCS Championship: #1 Ohio State (12-0) vs #2 LSU (12-1)
It seems like everyone and their grandma are picking the Buckeyes to get to the championship game, and I admit, it does seem like the stars are in their favor. They get an early home game against Miami that will boost their favorability with the voters. They also get Penn State at home. The two toughest challenges for the Buckeyes will be games at Wisconsin and at Iowa.

Picking LSU is more of a wildcard pick - they are #16 in the coaches preseason poll. Their key game will be on Nov. 6 versus Alabama. Alabama won the last time they went to Baton Rouge, in 2008, but I'll bet on the home team this year.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Joel's Daring College Bowl Picks

There are 35 bowl games scheduled for the 2010-2011 college football season, which means that 70 out of 120 of FBS schools will qualify for a bowl game. I'm not sure how this is going to work, since, in order to qualify for a bowl game, a team must have won at least 6 games, or, roughly, 50 percent of their games. So if there's a reasonable way for more than half of the teams to win at least half of their games, well, then the NCAA is better at math than I am.

A few of the new bowl games this season include the "Pinstripe Bowl", played at Yankee Stadium... :P.... the "Dallas Football Classic," which will be played at the old Cotton Bowl, even though the Cotton Bowl game will now be played at the brand new Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX, and, my favorite, the "Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl" in San Francisco. I'm wondering how long it will be before we just shorten that down to the "Hunger Bowl." So the absurdity continues.

Here are my predictions for all 35 bowl games, from BCS Championship to the uDrove Humanitarian Bowl:

1) New Mexico Bowl: San Diego State (6-6) vs Idaho (9-4)
I like this game because it would pit the Aztecs against the Vandals. On a related note, shouldn't Michigan State always beat USC?

2) Humanitarian Bowl: Miami (OH) (6-6) vs Hawaii (8-5)

3) New Orleans Bowl: East Carolina (8-4) vs North Texas (8-4)
Nobody ever seems to notice that neither East Carolina nor North Texas are real places.

4) St. Petersburg Bowl: Rutgers (8-4) vs UAB (6-6)

5) Las Vegas Bowl: #17 TCU (10-2) vs Stanford (8-4)
The first bowl game that matters. Lots of people are picking TCU to bust the BCS again this year. But even if they beat Oregon State in their opener, they still have to play at Utah in November. I think they'll lose both of those games.

6) Poinsettia Bowl: #19 BYU (10-2) vs Navy (7-5)
The Poinsettia Bowl is obligated to select Navy this year, if they qualify. I think they will. Brigham Young will just be happy to playing somewhere other than Las Vegas for the first time since 2004.

7) Hawaii Bowl: Tulsa (7-5) vs Nevada (6-7)

8) Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl: Purdue (6-6) vs Ohio (8-4)

9) Independence Bowl: Boston College (6-6) vs Wyoming (6-6)
We're really scraping the bottom of the barrel here.

10) Champs Sports Bowl: Clemson (8-5) vs Michigan State (7-5)
The ACC is in a tough spot, because most of its good teams are in the Coastal Division. So it's very possible that a team like Clemson could make it all the way to the ACC championship game; if they win, they go to the Orange Bowl, but if they lose, they fall all the way to the Champs Sports Bowl.

11) Insight Bowl: #24 Northwestern (9-3) vs #20 Oklahoma State (10-2)
The first match-up between two top 25 teams. The Big Ten is scheduled to send seven teams to non-BCS bowl games this year. That means that eight or nine of the eleven Big Ten teams have spots reserved for them in bowl games. I do not think that it is mathematically possible for eight out of 11 teams to finish at .500 or better. But what do I know.

12) EagleBank Bowl: Louisville (7-5) vs SMU (8-4)

13) Texas Bowl: Ball State (8-4) vs #23 Texas Tech (9-3)
This is supposed to be a Big Ten vs. Big 12 match-up. I'm subbing in Ball State because I've heard of them.

14) Alamo Bowl: Missouri (8-4) vs Arizona (7-5)
The Tigers and the Wildcats. The two most ubiquitous names in all of college sports.

15) Armed Forces Bowl: UTEP (8-4) vs Air Force (8-4)

16) Pinstripe Bowl: Texas A&M (7-5) vs USF (7-5)
The Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 30th. New York City has been working hard to get football to come to the city - the 2014 Super Bowl will be at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, NJ. It's a good idea in theory, but this will be a cold game, especially with a team from the Houston-area playing a team from Tampa.

17) Music City Bowl: Maryland (8-4) vs Mississippi St. (6-6)

18) Holiday Bowl: #18 Oregon (9-3) vs #15 Nebraska (10-3)
Although this match-up may have been better last year, when we could have seen Ndamukong Suh chase Jeremiah Masoli all over the field, I still like the idea of the Pac-10's top offense taking on the Big 12's top defense.

19) Meineke Car Care Bowl: Florida State (7-5) vs West Virginia (8-4)
This is the first New Year's Eve day bowl. Some smaller bowl will benefit from having two big name programs that will both under-perform; it might as well be the Car Care Bowl.

20) Sun Bowl: #12 Virginia Tech (10-2) vs California (8-4)

21) Liberty Bowl: Houston (8-4) vs Arkansas (7-5)

22) Chick-fil-A Bowl: #21 Georgia Tech (9-3) vs #25 Auburn (8-4)
This game was once the Peach Bowl. Then it was the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Now it's just the Chick-fil-A Bowl. What gives?

23) Dallas Football Classic: Kansas (8-4) vs Temple (8-4)
This will be the first game played on New Year's Day, 2011. A few questions: Why not just call it the Dallas Bowl? Can the first ever of something really be a "classic"? And how confident are you in its success when you're only going to air it on ESPNU?

24) Outback Bowl: Iowa (8-4) vs Ole Miss (7-5)
Masoli gets the last laugh after all when all of his old teammates and coaches are at home in Eugene watching him start for Ole Miss on New Year's Day.

25) Capital One Bowl: #16 Wisconsin (10-2) vs #8 Florida (11-2)
The Capital One Bowl used to the Citrus Bowl, but this name change doesn't bother me as much as the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Maybe it's because this game consistently has excellent match-ups. Or maybe because their mascots aren't a group of eco-terrorist cattle.

26) Gator Bowl: Michigan (7-5) vs Tennessee (6-6)
The Gator Bowl is the third New Year's match-up between the Big Ten and the SEC. At least one of these games will include mediocre or sub-par teams. But don't doubt for a second that any one of these bowls would jump at the chance to feature a crappy Tennessee take on a so-so Michigan.

27) GMAC Bowl: Kent State (6-6) vs Troy (8-4)
Most redundant name in college football? The Troy Trojans.

28) Cotton Bowl: #11 Oklahoma (10-2) vs #14 Georgia (10-2)
Why is the Cotton Bowl being played on January 7? Why is it not being played in the Cotton Bowl? Why is it the only game being aired on Fox? Ah, the mysterious universe that is college football.

29) Bowl: #22 Pittsburgh (9-3) vs South Carolina (6-6)
Ah, that revered rivalry between the Bowl and the Little Caesar's Pizza Bowl continues....

30) Kraft Cheese Fight Hunger Bowl: Washington (7-5) vs Fresno State (7-5)
I appreciate Kraft trying to send a good message with the name of their new bowl game, but how long will it be until we shorten this to "Hunger Bowl"? I keep wanting to call it the "Hungry Bowl." Makes me want some f-ing mac n cheese right now. I think that the Huskies are being overrated in the preseason, but not so overrated that they won't beat Fresno State in the Hungry Bowl.

Next up.... BCS Games!!

Friday, August 6, 2010

My (Un-asked-for) Opinions Regarding Cormac McCarthy

So the other night Robyn and I (and our roommates) watched the movie The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen, based upon the novel by Cormac McCarthy. I really, really disliked it, even though I also thought that Viggo was good, and the little boy was good, too, but the movie as a whole left me shaken and depressed, and not in that good way. (Like the feeling that I got after seeing Das wei├če Band. That movie was amazing.)

My morose fascination with McCarthy began after seeing No Country for Old Men, which immediately became one of my favorite movies of all time.* Soon after viewing the movie, I went out and bought the book, and was shocked by what happened next. I hated it. It was dry, bland, violent, humorless, and had much stronger racist and anti-immigrant tones than the movie. I disliked it so much that I'm pretty sure that I gave it away, which is something that I never do with my books. In other words, I discovered that everything that I liked about the movie No Country for Old Men - the wit, the absurdity, the beautiful landscapes - had been put there by the Coen brothers. It felt to me as if they took a book completely lacking in self awareness and made it realize what was actually important in it and then showed it to the rest of us.**

And then along comes The Road. I haven't read the book, although after seeing the movie I went online and read the first chapter. I still think I will try to check it out of the library sooner than later. But based on my literary experience with No Country for Old Men, this film seemed much more "faithful" to McCarthy's overall world view; a hopeless, colorless, dying world populated almost entirely by men without names who are all simply standing in for some part of the human soul. As Robyn pointed out while we were watching the movie, "It would be the worst thing ever to be stuck in a Cormac McCarthy novel."

On the other hand, maybe I'm just missing something here. After all, The Road did win the Pulitzer Prize in 2007, and I pretty much trust those guys to know their literature.*** I've also had a few conversations with people whose literary judgment I trust and admire, who have said that they love McCarthy. I went looking for reviews of The Road, and found the NY Times glowing review by William Kennedy. It really helped cement some of my thoughts and opinions regarding McCarthy's writing. I'm going to try to restrict my criticism here to what I take to be McCarthy's primary themes in the book No Country for Old Men and The Road, and assuming that the movie was faithful to the book, which everyone says it was.

Kennedy writes, "The overarching theme in McCarthy’s work has been the face-off of good and evil with evil invariably triumphant through the bloodiest possible slaughter." Bingo. That was one of my biggest problems with No Country for Old Men. Not the evil triumphant part; I like evil triumphant. There would be no Orwell or Kafka without it. But the means by which evil triumphs in McCarthy's world leaves so much to be desired; it triumphs through bloodshed, through relentless, meaningless slaughter and violence. Look, now let me be absolutely clear****:I'm not opposed to violence, either. Violence - horrific violence - is a very real part of our world. As we speak, people are boiling to death in Moscow. But the way that McCarthy mystifies violence, the way that he makes it into something that, by its very nature, cannot be understood or resisted, I find to be particularly annoying.

Evil or violence in a text without meaning adds nothing to that text. In No Country for Old Men, Chigurh is without ethnicity, age, face, class, motivation, etc. He is merely a force of evil - which is the point. But to that my response is: so what? If I am being presented with a picture of violence that I find to be useless and unrealistic, what interest do I have in reading more about it? In an excellent negative review of The Road on, Levi Asher observes:

The first thing the reader detects is that this will be a thoroughly humorless book, a book of punishing, guilt-ridden unpleasantness, a book that must be aiming to be "good for us", because it's sure not aiming to be fun. That's the moral outlook Cormac McCarthy always offers -- a stern "church lady" tone warning of stark choices between evil and redemption.
Right. In the way that McCarthy presents evil - what I call "apolitical evil," because it is an evil that transcends meaning and identity - the only expectable response from the reader is this kind of Opus Dei flagellation. We have always already sinned, and now it is too late, the Reaper cometh, and all we can do is bemoan our cruel fates. And I think this kind of conception of evil - the kind that warns us against action - is cowardly.

The second major problem that I have with McCarthy is with his prose. In his review, Kennedy says:

But on the basis of “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road” it does seem that he has put aside the linguistic excesses and the philosophizing for which he has been both venerated and mocked — those Faulknerian convolutions, the Melvillean sermonizing — and opted for terse dialogue and spartan narrative, a style he inherited from another of his ancestors, Hemingway, and long ago made his own.
I must tread carefully here because three of my favorite things in the world are linguistic excesses, philosophizing, and Melvillean sermonizing. And maybe this is something that does, in the end, just come down to taste. But what Kennedy calls "terse dialogue and spartan narrative" I call a lack of concern for his world that he has created. I keep thinking about Henry James, and how probably the most common criticism that I have heard of him regards his "artifice", his tendency to go on and on, describing every last minute detail in a scene, the slow pace with which is narrative proceeds as he rambles down shadowed hallways of thought and aside; his questionable use of semi-colons. But let me put it this way: The opposite of gilded is not authentic.

Finally, I call shenanigans on McCarthy being the inheritor of Hemingway. Yes, they both have "terse" prose and, yes, they have both become known as "tough guys." But Hemingway is a creator of worlds in a way that I have not seen from McCarthy. First, Hemingway's novels are populated by human beings. Not Men. Sure, maybe the most admirable quality in a woman is that of being like a man (Pilar from For Whom the Bell Tolls) and the worst quality in a man is being like a woman (Robert "The Jewish Guy" Cohn in The Sun Also Rises). But there is a certain sad empathy, a humanism, at work in Hemingway's work that I have found sadly lacking in McCarthy's.

Hemingway's novels are warm, real, oh-so-colorful, and most importantly, they have something at stake. There is nothing at stake in No Country for Old Men - in a way, everything has become predetermined, evil is ascendant, nothing to but sit and wait for the apocalypse. There is plenty of evil in Hemingway, an evil that is actually ascendant in the rise of European fascism, but it is a tangible and human evil, one that has roots within ourselves, it is the evil of banality. At the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan narrates: "The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it." I don't think Cormac McCarthy would agree with this statement. Even if The Man (Adam) carries within him The Fire in The Road, it is not the same idea of The Fate of The World being decided and decidable through human actions. All Man can do is tuck His burning Fire away from The World, the cruel, cruel world.

*One of my favorite things to do when I'm home alone is to get real drunk, stay up real late, and pop in No Country for Old Men while eating refried beans straight outta the can.

** Case in point: The movie would have been ten times worse if Javier Bardem were not sporting that ridiculous haircut. Seriously - the movie actually hinges on his pageboy do.

*** Although I realized that two of my favorite books, The Interpreter of Maladies and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, won the Pulitzer in 2000 and 2001, respectively. Maybe I'm just a pre-9/11 kind of guy? Also: Hooray, immigrant literature!

**** Said in his best Obama voice.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Best Quote Evah

"As before, the Pequod steeply leaned over towards the sperm whale's head, now, by the counterpoise of both heads, she regained her even keel; though sorely strained, you may well believe. So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunderheads overboard, and then you will float light and right."

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Episode Where I Try, And Fail, To Pee

From the Desk of: Joel*

With Summer winding down, I figured that it was about time for me to clear my slate (is that a mixed metaphor?) and prepare for the return of routine in the Fall. I'm going to start volunteering as a writing tutor at the Danville Correctional Center in September, and on Friday I went down there with the other new volunteers for drug testing.

While I was waiting for my turn, I reflected that I have spent a lot of my time in one of three great institutions of our society: public schools, hospitals, and prisons. Therefore, I have had to pee in a cup in front of strangers many times. I wasn't nervous or anxious at all, and so when it came my turn, I jumped up, and followed "Tom," the hulking drug counselor, down the hall and into the tiny, un-air conditioned prison bathroom, plastic cup in hand.

But then the worst thing happened. Nothing. Tom and I stood there for what must have been ten minutes - it's a cliche, but it felt like hours - while I tried, and failed, to pee. I honestly was not nervous at first; I think that I couldn't pee because I had slept in and not had time for coffee or breakfast before we left. But as the seconds ticked by, and the tiny room became hotter and I started my unfortunate habit of sweating like a starving mule from Idaho, I became increasingly anxious. Finally, Tom suggested that we go back to the conference room, so that the other volunteers could have a turn, and I could drink a cup of water. (I was allowed 8 oz. every 30 minutes.)

So I sat and sipped my styrofoam cup full of water while two other guys went to the bathroom and returned, triumphant with test tubes filled with yellowish-clear liquid in hand. After a few minutes, I told Tom that I thought I was ready now, thank you very much, and he escorted me back to the prison bathroom.** And the same thing happened. I couldn't pee. I tried all sorts of tricks; swaying from side to side, sitting down, working the abs and then the butt muscles, etc. But nothing happened. Another ten minutes passed. Finally, Tom again suggested that we go back to the waiting room, where maybe I could drink another cup of water, or something.

I'm not quite sure where I'm going with this, except to say that everyone at Danville was really nice about the fact that I couldn't pee, and that they told me that it happens to people all the time, and that I was glad how patient everyone was while we sat in the conference room, everyone having by this time gone except for me, and we all sat and watched me sip water from a styrofoam cup and chatted about Brett Favre. After about another twenty minutes, I told Tom that I was ready to try again, and that, indeed, the third time was the charm, and I was able to fill the cup up just barely above the little 30 cc line that denoted the minimum necessary sample of urine. Then we went to the next room, where all of the volunteers were fingerprinted and photographed, and we had official ID's made for the next time we visited.***

I'll be going back to Danville once or twice a week this fall, helping inmates who are working towards their B.A.'s with their writing, and tutoring them when they need additional help, etc. Now that dreaded piss test is out of the way, and I'm one step closer to getting back into the structure and routine of the school year.

* Sometimes readers on Facebook get confused about who's writing. I don't want you to think that this happened to Robyn.

**The bathroom that we were using was in the sick ward wing of the prison, and was available both to staff and to inmates visiting the ward for one reason or another.

*** We were told to bring proof of a TB test with us, but no one asked us for those papers. But just in case you were wondering, I don't have TB, and I have a card in my wallet that proves it.

The Best Things On The Internet

One of the other reasons why reasons why I decided to complete the "Literary March Madness" that we started in, um, March... :$.... was this video, that hopefully y'all have seen already one place or another, that Robyn showed me a little while back:

I saw this and I was all like, "OMG! This is exactly what I would do with my life if I had unlimited resources and if the constraints of space and time were of no matter!" But I can't, so the next best thing is creating imaginary competitions where famous writers fight each other to the death for my amusement.

That's the best thing on the internet right now. The second best thing is this:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Kevin Kline
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionFox News

How much would you pay to see a traveling, two-man, impromptu show starring Kevin Kline and Stephen Colbert? One million dollars, that's how much. (Also, I just found out that Kevin Kline got a Tony nomination for playing Falstaff. So he's probably thought about that one alot.)