Thursday, February 22, 2007


Walking to town the other day, I saw three girls up ahead sitting on the sidewalk—not on the curb or a lawn, but on the main you-walk-on-it part—and I was reminded of an age when the sidewalk, if you dared to experience it outside the defined routes of socially acceptable action, could be a site from which to view what is. In seventh grade, the concrete water district platform in a nearby suburban neighborhood—think of John Carpenter’s Halloween—became a meeting place for a club of girls who renamed themselves Freedom, Spirit, Wisdom, Beauty, and Justice; they drew goddesses on the platform in chalk and rode off on their bikes to find the steepest hill for the loudest, livest Yoko Ono screams that ever echoed through the pines of Hayford Heights. Any space was available for any purpose: you could dance and sing on the green in the middle of the rotary, sit on the concrete ledge by the gas pumps to take photographs, climb up through the overpass to a point between the north- and southbound lanes of I-95 to experience the speed of highway traffic on a human scale, lay in the street at four A.M. and wish that the world’s war-makers could feel what it was like to dissolve so perfectly peacefully into the dotscape of everything. As I got closer to the group, striped track suits and fuzzy headbands came into focus, and my vision of pure world-experiencers evaporated—the girls were doing stretches to get limber for a jog: to be in the world is to muscle through it, to drown it in private music, to use it for traction in anxious reshapings of your body.

Later in my walk, a second event recalled the open experience-space of adolescence: spray-painted on a telephone pole was the word Be. That message, written on yellow sticky notes, had appeared one day in odd corners of my junior high school. Be, in the water fountain alcove, on the tiled wall of the stairwell, in the heated vestibule where we’d crowd at recess. It was the work of Jessica and Josselyn, popular girls who didn’t typically make public their dabbling in big ideas. But on this day they would approach you with wild eyes and ask, Do you get it? Say yes and you’d get a sticky to wear to spread the message.

How living things keep time

Some scientific findings that would have fit nicely into Hans Castorp’s research at International Sanatorium Berghof.

Monday, February 19, 2007

His cosmos has its sun, perhaps, in death

Saturday afternoon I opened the Arcades Project at random (the only way I make progress in reading it) and found this mysterious, late-career dictum from Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the teenage poet-prodigy who infamously and tragically lost his flow in such a way that he couldn’t really even be said to have “quit” poetry but who reemerged as a giant of the Austrian theater:
What drives us into contemplation of the past is the similarity between what has been and our own life, which are somehow one being [ein Irgendwie-eins-Sein]. Through grasping this identity, we can transport ourselves into even the purest of all regions—into death. [S2,2]
Benjamin attempts to illuminate this dark saying by considering the case of Proust, who sustained a pretty long look at this somehow-one-being.

Late in an imaginatively rich but objectively indolent life, Proust’s narrator comes to see that the act of thinking is all there is; consciousness doesn’t exist outside its own activity, and memories not recovered and articulated in language are lost to oblivion. This recognition sets off an extended Scrooge-like Christmas Eve of repentence in which the narrator relives his life, or lives it for the first time, by writing the words you and I read in Remembrance of Things Past. All the spiral arms of narration swirl back to a central point of productive negativity, for consciousness can appear to itself as what it is only when it recognizes the imminence of its own non-being. Benjamin writes: “His cosmos has its sun, perhaps, in death, around which orbit the lived moments, the gathered things.” [S 2,3]

At night I walked to town to meet Hilary, and in the nightspace of blackness and artificial light I tried out this cosmology on everything—Henry James, Thomas Mann, Poe, Exile on Main St., cinema as such, Buddhist sculpture, Yale—imagining their elements in solar-systemic motion and looking for the impossible axis around which they turn, the singular, central Other that animates the images, that has no actual visible features but countless symbolic guises and a quite particular and unvarying narrative shape.

So I was quite interested when Hilary proposed that we join a couple of her classmates who were meeting at midnight to discuss black holes. Our symposium was brief and mildly occult, ranging over light, gravity, dimensionality, and holes-in-general before degenerating into a You-Tube session—a social arc perhaps familiar to my virtual peers. Someone called up the video for Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” a downward-spiraling corporate grunge number noteable for a weirdly paced riff that floats under the guitar solo. The basic story of the video is that some aerial, off-camera object (or non-object) appears over a Midwestern suburb, causing the faces of the locals who gaze upon it to lock in a frightening rictus that seems to signify a psychic shift into some entirely private state of pleasure. The video’s particular combination of makeup and mid-90s computer effects makes the suburb’s residents’ smiling faces look increasingly really sick and possibly already dead, which licences the inference that whatever they’re looking at is objectively bad even if on some level they're enjoying it. (This predates David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, in which a video—“the Entertainment"—whose content is never reliably narrated has the same sort of effect on the people who watch it.) There may be another midnight symposium next weekend, on string theory, a topic which at present fails to give me the existential willies.

The last sentence of Within a Budding Grove, the second novel of Remembrance of Things Past, concludes with an image that illustrates Benjamin’s necrotic sun almost too literally to count as a real test of his thesis. It is the end of the season in the seaside resort town of Balbec and the narrator must depart. He recalls the height of summer, when on doctor’s orders he was confined to his room at the Grand Hotel, shut up in darkness while Albertine and her friends frolicked on the beach, left to construct in imagination the day’s events from the light and sound that managed to penetrate the system of curtains arranged by his servant.
And after Françoise had removed her pins from the mouldings of the window-frame, taken down her various cloths, and drawn back the curtains, the summer day which she disclosed seemed as dead, as immemorially ancient as a sumptuously attired dynastic mummy from which our old servant had done no more than cautiously unwind the linen wrappings before displaying it to my gaze, embalmed in its vesture of gold.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Snow was general

A snow storm caused school to be cancelled on Wednesday, so I had time to write a proposal for the 33 1/3 series of books on rock albums. You can read a list of all the pitches they received; I was one of the three people who made a case for being uniquely qualified to write about Cheap Trick at Budokan.

The same snow storm, a couple New England states higher, caused Feathers to cancel a performance in New York. I wasn’t going to go, but was disappointed nonetheless—the show represented a hope that the band, non-existent for months, might not be done for. Maybe they were relieved—it’s almost always nice when something is cancelled, especially by a natural event (pray that our species is destroyed by a comet and not something we did!) and I imagine it’s annoying when everyone treats you as though you had some generational responsibility to spiritually redeem popular music—maybe I’d crash my motorbike, too. Maybe the cancellation is built into the idea of Feathers: if the whole idea is to make music on a human scale, infinite in creative scope but non-crazy in the circumstances of its production, you’re not going to care whether you succeed as a rock band. Maybe if you really believe in the sound of acoustic instruments, the spirit of group improvisation, the independence of aesthetic experience from commodification, the human voice unamplified, and the creativity of beginners—maybe if you believe in these things, you’ll play a short, perfect set and let it be a single, beautiful event in the history of the universe. Chords make rainbows; melodies grow out of the sentences you sing to yourself when you walk; you don’t need anyone to do it for you.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

This next one is the first song on our new album

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Movie review

I saw Children of Men last night. If you haven’t seen it, I think you should, and if you are lucky like I was, it’s still showing somewhere, maybe a giant multiplex movie theater out in the sprawl whose airport parking and neon tubing and way-technical sound and truly comfortable seats will remind you that you are watching a UNIVERSAL motion picture, for if you forget that Children of Men comes to you through corporate channels you will lose out on a good share of analytical pleasure later as you work through its—wait—the theater is getting dark…

A young, handsome man opens a can of Pepsi, and as he drinks, the red-white-blue, wave-in-circle logo on the can becomes a swirling, fluid ball, and it rolls the man away, down the spiral ramp of a parking garage and out into San Francisco, the articulations of whose traffic infrastructure have become bumpers and flippers in a pinball machine, the terminal shaft of which dumps the man into a stadium in Oakland, where the scoreboard declares “Free Play” as a bonus pinball rolls out like a movie boulder to absorb the man in a pleasure-sphere of unity with the product, which, since cola is a food and a drug, is basically what really happens when you drink it.

One puzzling close-up graphic makes the pinball look pocked and crumbling like a glossy-on-the-outside, mooncratered-on-the-inside foam ball you might have taken a bite out of as a child; I imagine the animators were using a sort of Rumsfeld logic—the fact that a technology exists gives you a reason to deploy it—and simply selected some function within their computer program, just because it was available, that turns an even stretch of image into yellow, rotten Nerf.


Imagine that your death is imminent and certain; what reason would you have not to push a button, at the moment of your death, that would destroy the entire universe?

The instructor of an Ethics course in which I was a TA presented this thought experiment to the class during the final meeting of the term, but before she could call on any of the three or four reliable hand-raisers (who in this class, by some miracle, were not twitchy, out-of-state, Honors College students looking to get the most out of their education but college radio underachievers who seemed to just like to think), the doors of the lecture hall opened and a half-dozen work-study students came walking down the aisles, symmetrically on the left and right, carrying boxes of Scan-tron fill-in-the-bubble course evaluations and No. 2 golf pencils. The instructor said a quick goodbye, and she and the other TAs and I gathered our stuff and left, done for the semester.


I think it was around the beginning of Reagan’s second term that I began to turn my growing powers of abstract thought to politics and war, and recognizing the prospect of the nuclear demise of the whole species really gave me the willies, more than my own death or my parents’. While my generation has no special historical claim on the fear of nuclear war, it’s a pretty profound, Carl Sagan-level experience for any intelligent-imaginative being, no matter its location in time and space, to recognize for the first time that its species has carefully and purposefully developed the capacity to destroy itself. To a child, it did not appear that the Cold War was almost over. No one taught us to stop, drop, and cover, but we knew about Reagan’s escalation of the arms race, and nuclear worry saturated popular culture. “Communism” was not a concept for me—the struggle between ideologies was not part of my education—I just knew there were two opposed world powers with massive, impossible arsenals, and that the deployment of one would automatically trigger the other. My brain burned with a question pretty much the opposite of the philosophy instructor’s: if you knew that the horrific destruction of you and your countrymen was imminent and certain, how could you wish the same fate on everyone else? I feared annihilation without warning, shelter life, radiological anamolies, etc., but the deepest existential dread and anger I reserved for the thought that my government would choose the destruction of the whole species if faced with the destruction of just its own part.


Carl Sagan dismisses the suggestion that the universal mystical-mythic content common to religious revelation and psychedelic experience is the function of some brain structure favored by natural selection, or even the accidental result of some naturally selected neural circuit’s getting fried.
The only alternative, so far as I can see, is that every human being, without exception, has already shared an experience like that of those travelers who return from the land of death: the sensation of flight; the emergence from darkness into light; an experience in which, at least sometimes, a heroic figure can be dimly perceived, bathed in radiance and glory. There is only one common experience that matches this description. It is called birth. (Broca’s Brain, 356-357)

I was jubilant when Hilary told me that a wild child had been discovered in Cambodia—maybe the last one in human history, I fantasized in sad, sick awe—but this Guardian article sobered me up pretty quick—it’s more likely that the girl survived not in the wilderness but in some terrible form of captivity, and that her disengagement and feral impulses are the result of years of abuse and neglect. I hope she will be treated well, with every form of love and comfort she can still experience.