I fell in love with Joan Didion when I read The White Album. Maybe college, or shortly after. She was such a good observer. Wordmaster, yes. But above all, she was courageous. She reached down deep to the center of her being and pulled it out, and allowed everyone to see. The essay in The White Album about migraines. The one about water in California. The one about the Black Panthers, and then one about Doris Lessing. If we look carefully at the treatment of all these diverse subjects, we see her reflecting, shaping.
She continues revealing herself with this documentary on Netflix. She is frail, but her mind is still as sharp as ever. We get glimpses of the comedy and the tragedy of her life as her nephew feeds her questions to continue the dialog between her and the reader. Continually surprising (watch what she thinks about discovering a 5-year old on acid in the Haight (SF) of the 60’s). Yes, she is self-absorbed at times, but she is still observing and showing how she observes and tells it how it is, deep down, not just how it appears.
I have been lax, but am happy to be able to read her most recent 2 books even though they are real downers, about the tragedy and impermanence of life. Almost Buddhist. The title (The Center Will Not Hold) comes from a Yeats poem, The Second Coming (“the centre cannot hold”), which ends with the line about Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the title of the collection of Didion’s essays just before The White Album.
I try hard to keep up with Marilynne Robinson and her writing. The book that made me think the hardest in the last decade got me turned on to her. No, I am not a masochist, even though I do keep returning to Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self. She deftly drives right up the path where science and religion intermingle. Her Giliead trilogy is a remembrance of an austere midwest influenced by Protestantism and the dust bowl. With writing as sparse as Absence was rich, I was able to glimpse the breadth of her intellect. When I was a Child I Read Books is much more accessible, but a cautionary tale when we look at the direction of content being consumed today.
So when I saw her article on Humanism and thinking after the Enlightenment in the NY Review of Books, I was happy it was Sunday breakfast. An hour later, I came up for breath. What Are We Doing Here? looks at the control of information in the early days of publishing. With prose like “However, I am too aware of the ragged beast history has been to fret over the fact that its manners are not perfect yet. ” how can we resist getting that extra cup of coffee and listening to rain as we finish the long read. Taking the extra time is mirrored in her celebration of Liberal Arts. The meaning of liberal here is from libere, or free. Free to study, which has nothing to do with politics. Robinson:
It has given me an interesting life, allowing me all the time a novel requires and every resource for following the questions that arise as I work. I have enjoyed the company of young writers, and I have learned from them. I know that one is expected to bemoan the present time, to say something about decline and the loss of values. O tempora, o mores! But I find a great deal to respect.
The problem is that this “Liberal” is not working to make the rest of us, outside of the university, free. Robinson goes on to bemoan the current “eclipse” of humanism after its sunrise through authors like Walt Whitman and Keats. She looks at Competition (with a big C) and quietly advocates for a revolution of thinking about our purpose here. Humanities is a necessary opening of our thinking, the first real Big Data of our existence, but it is in danger from those who have influence and now the tools to create a Benthamist Panopticon, something we must run, at top speed, from.
The 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 theses by Luther on the church door in Wittenberg is next week, Wednesday, November 1. All this reminded me if we dialed back a couple of centuries, and listened to Dan Carlin’s podcast about the Rebellion of Munster in post-Luther society, we could actually see how a new media was causing terrible contortions, violence, and revolution in Europe. Not a pretty site. But between Marilynne Robinson and Dan Carlin, we can get perspectives on What Is Happening Now.
Frank is away, I am staying at his apartment in the Pansodong area of Yangon, waiting for the next session of teacher training. Today marks the first third of my six weeks here. Also the first time I have seen the sun on this trip. Two weeks in and we have finished sessions in Bago (monastery near Yangon, in the jungle) and in Sittwe, in Rakhine State near the Bangladeshi border. Of the two Sittwe (pronounced sit-way in Yangon, but sight-way locally) was the most successful.
We had 42 high school English teachers for 4 days, 5 hours a day (including lunch). Rakhine State is what the Burmese called Arrakan after conquering them in 1787. They are similar to Okinawa in that they have a rich heritage, but very little support (and lots of control) from the central government. They have a different language and different customs, along with different food from the Burmese. The Brits called the country Burma because the ethnic group around Yangon had that name. They pretty much ignored the other 129 ethnic groups. That continues to a certain degree.
This lack of support means that the acceptance rate for high school grads into university is the lowest among all states in Myanmar. The Education Minister of the region hopes that our training can help teachers raise entrance exam scores for students.
The classrooms were hot, sticky and noisy. We occasionally had to stop classes or do writing or reading when the pounding rain on the roof made conversation impossible. But the students were really motivated and most were open to new ideas. There have been rumblings in the Ministry about changing the entrance exam away from one that tested memory more than language. Teachers are ready. It was good timing.
Movies: I really liked Hell or High Water, and Jeff Bridges does a great job at the understated role of the hero. I kept thinking about the younger brother in the main role, that I had seen him somewhere before. Looked him up and was surprised to see. His Texas accent was so natural, yet completely gone in his other role as a space ship captain.
Politics follows, read if you like.
But yes, the feelings of despair in rural areas, and willingness to try anything, are a sober wakeup call. Pair that with the opioid crisis killing 50,000 farmers a year (more than AIDS in its heyday), add the information filter of social media, group sociology like acceptance of blue lies, and you can see why J.D. Vance resonates. (Andrew Sullivan, first part of article). But in the words of a guy in a similar situation to Vance, Where was the outrage 30 years ago when the factories in the rust belt were imploding?
He is moving from Silicon Valley back to Ohio and looking for startups, working from home on his investments, and searching out new companies. Surprisingly, startup success is better in rural areas and small towns, better than urban areas. The problem is J.D. Vance doesn’t know anything about small rural startups.
James Fallows is writing a book about flying around the country in a Cessna and visiting these small towns and how vibrant they are. Should be ready by the fall, but he has posted a lot of it in blog form at the Atlantic. So it is not as simple as pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.
Oh, and for those who like to listen, on a different topic, is John Dickerson (Face the Nation) who does a wonderful audio podcast (Dad, try these out) at Slate called Whistle Stop. He used to do reflections back on past campaigns, but now it is historical echoes of current topics. He covers the Bricker Amendment and how the isolationists were battling the internationalist elites to try to pare the power of the president (Eisenhower) and how Lyndon Johnson was so masterful in getting its proponents to shoot themselves in the foot.
I thought I had decided not to read Tom Wolfe’s latest The Kingdom of Speech, I had read a few reviews and remembered his declining quality since A Man in Full. I have read everything of Wolfe’s except The Painted Word, and found Back to Blood a warmed over Bonfire of the Vanities in Miami, following the same pattern as Man in Full and Charlotte Simmons. I liked his fiction better than his non-fiction. So I was surprised when it showed up in my Kindle. Ah, I had pre-ordered it before reading reviews. Spring break, why not read it? It IS about linguistics, my field.
I was pleasantly surprised. It was a wonderful 192-page rant. He is a great storyteller and a master wordsmith. His arguments sound really really plausible It is also a great lesson in critical thinking, about how a great author can get you to see one side of an argument.
Kingdom of Speech (KoS) has a style that harkens back to Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, but without the energy. In the 70’s he lampooned the liberal elite and their infatuation with the Black Panthers. In KoS he tries something more dangerous, lampooning Chomsky the linguist by way of Darwin and ultimately science as a whole. He doesn’t get away with it, but it is still an entertaining read. And he makes it all sound so plausible.
Wolfe starts with Darwin, and tells a story of another theorist, or scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who, according to Wolfe, beat Darwin and had solid evidence to boot, of the theory of evolution. Wallace was the outsider who collected evidence (a bug-catcher) in the Amazon Basin and Malaysia, and presented it scientifically as a theory. Darwin, who spent 20 years in an armchair came up with the theory only after seeing Wallace’s manuscript of an article, racing to publish at the same time with help from insiders. Then he tells a parallel story of Chomsky, tying the two together with the idea that speech is the only thing that makes man different from other animals.
Chomsky in this telling, is the armchair theorist and his Wallace is Daniel Everett, a linguist who studied a small tribe in the Amazon. Like Wallace, Everett used real data to support his claims, but was dismissed by Chomsky who was better connected. Chomsky rode the wave of scientificalization (great word) of the 50’s, but has this idea of a biological seat of language in the brain that is unrealistic, only changing the theory when pressured by other linguists or anthropologists. An example:
Thanks to Everett, linguists were beginning to breathe life into the words of the anti-Chomskyans of the twentieth century who had been written off as cranks or contrarians, such as Larry Trask, a linguist at England’s University of Sussex. In 2003, the year after Chomsky announced his Law of Recursion, Trask said in an interview, “I have no time for Chomskyan theorizing and its associated dogmas of ‘universal grammar.’ This stuff is so much half-baked twaddle, more akin to a religious movement than to a scholarly enterprise. I am confident that our successors will look back on UG as a huge waste of time.
High drama, but the facts do not bear out the assertations. We see Wolfe focus on one part of the science only, and like his supposed target, ignore any kind of data that gets in the way of a good story.