Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Martin Buber's I and Thou

Martin Buber’s I and Thou, is a difficult, overly complex and abstruse book, further hobbled by its almost complete divorce from Jewish concerns.  

This great work of “Jewish” existentialism does not mention God into at least two-thirds into the book, and there is not a biblical, rabbinical, or Jewish reference in the whole work (that I could discern).  Buber quotes or alludes to Meister Eckhart, Dante, the Gospel of John, the Buddha, all the while steering clear of Jewish sources.

Well, you can say, he wanted to create a radical, universal work, not necessary tied down to uniquely Jewish concerns.  Your problem with the book is that it does not confirm to your ideas of what a Jewish book should contain.  Perhaps.  My idea of a revolution in Jewish theology, philosophy or practice should always maintain an strong flavor of Jewish tradition.  Because a revolution in Judaism can happen even within traditional confines.  Even as it redefines that tradition, it stays within the tradition; this has always been part and parcel of Jewish interpretative work for centuries.  You work with traditional sources and mold them to the time; you take what is old and make it new.

I and Thou just sprints forth in cloudy prose away from every marker that relates to me.  It contains no answers about the plight of being Jewish in our world from my vantage.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Signal and The Noise

Quite possibly the most interesting book I have read in sometime, Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise is a wide ranging work which revolves around one theme: what can people accurately predict?  It turns out very little.  In fact, this work is replete with examples of how falsely optimistic experts are about their forecasting ability.  Silver’s overall goal is to work within the parameters of what is possible to predict, and give the best possible approximation of how this can be done.
Certain events are fairly easier to predict than others. Baseball, one of Silver’s favorite examples, is a game played under proscribed circumstances, with the rules well-known, and the statistics of the game results recorded for many decades.  In this data rich and rule laden environment, forecasting is far easier than, say, in more complex systems.  Earthquakes are sometimes anticipated by minor quakes, but sometimes they aren’t.  There simply is no way to adequately predict the behavior of fault lines many miles under the earth.  They are too complex for our models.

Yet complexity isn’t the only measure of our ability to predict.  Silver claims that meteorological predictions is one of the great success stories of this book.  The atmosphere is a complex system, but it is governed by simple processes that can be observed and recorded.  In the last 30 years, with advances in computer modeling, forecasting has improved dramatically.  Weather prediction, often the butt of jokes, is actually a very successful forecasting method.

All in all, Silver’s book is a paean to Bayesian method of forecasting.  Created by Scottish clergyman Thomas Bayes in the seventeenth century, “Bayes' theorem is a formula that describes how to update the probabilities of hypotheses when given evidence.”  That is, it allows us to further change and refine our predictions based on new evidence.  A common sense approach, but one that has not always been taken.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

On Judaism: Martin Buber's Essays

I have never been enamored of Martin Buber’s work.   The special tone of “existential Judaism,” the field he plowed, always had a nice ring, and suggested great potential: a Judaism which unfolded itself not in vast, overwhelming abstractions, but in encounter with the world.

This seems to be the core of religious Judaism anyway.  The act, the deed, the mitzvoth is performed, and it is in that performance in this world that we find G-d.

But Buber’s opus I and Thou is an opaque work, largely devoid of Jewish content.   He studied Christian mysticism closely, and the work appears largely inspired by it; it also hurts the Jewish tenor of the book that many of the paraphrases are from the gospels.

That is why his collection of essays On Judaism are as helpful as they are frustrating in understanding Buber's philosophy.  The groundwork for Buber’s connection and disenchantment with his religion is here laid out far more clearly that in I and Thou.  

Like many turn of the century, educated Jews, Buber was disenchanted with Jewish religious ritual.  He says “Increasingly, the God-permeated, commanding, creative element was being replaced by the ridged, merely preserving, merely continuing, merely defensive element of Judaism.”  Buber was enamored of early Hasidism, but thought that the contemporary forms of those sects were fossilized.  He had an equal contempt of the “pale, feeble attempt at reform” of more liberal Judaism.

We live, he explains “in [a] uncertain state…. The last structure of the Oriental spirit within Judaism appears to be shaken, with no foundation laid for the new one.”  However he believes the foundation does exist, in the soul of the individual Jew.

So what does Buber want beyond this vague formulation?  It is hard to know with great certainty.  He wants Jewish people to delve into themselves to find their Jewish spirit, but also turn to their community (not mutually exclusive, of course, but still confusing, given his main thrust).  He says marvelous things like this: “…all genuine personal religion is merely the discovery and raising of an ancient treasure, the unveiling and freeing of folk-religion that had grown beneath the surface.”  Which I agree with wholeheartedly, but again Buber does not produce a program beyond very vague outlines, like “[t]he spirit of Israel is the spirit of realization.”  Yet for Buber, these times do not present any adequate way for people to reach this level of realization, whatever that might be.  I would imagine that program is found in I and Thou, but that is a nearly impenetrable work.  Rather than read, it must be explained.

So these essays are challenging, interesting, disagreeable, overly explicit in some places, and under explained in others.  All I can say in a positive sense of Buber’s essays is that he is tackling big issues about modern Jewish identity.  Although I disagree with most of his conclusions, and wish his Jewish existentialism took some other form, I admire him for the effort.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Dept. of Speculation and the "new" novel

I read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation because of this extended quote from the New York Times Book Review:

In recent years, a number of talented novelists have experienced a sudden and alarming loss of faith in their chosen literary form. David Shields thinks most novels are boring and disconnected from reality. Nicole Krauss is “sick of plot and characters and scenes and climax and resolution.” Rachel Cusk has decided that conventional fiction is “fake and embarrassing.” Karl Ove Knausgaard goes even further, dismissing the entire enterprise: “Fictional writing has no value.”
This distaste for the clunky machinery of traditional narrative fiction has spread quickly. Some of the most interesting “novels” of the past few years — Teju Cole’s “Open City,” Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation, Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station,” not to mention Knausgaard’s epic, “My Struggle” — are barely novels at all. They read more like memoirs, or a series of lightly fictionalized journal entries, recounting the mundane lives and off-kilter ruminations of their first-person narrators, who are either postgraduate students or blocked writers.

I happen to be of the opinion that novels with plot, characters, scenes, climaxes and resolution still have a place in novels, and that fiction writing continues to have great value.  

Regardless, the quotes above ignore the history of the novel, which is amazingly plastic in form.  The novel is almost anything we want it to be, and writers in the past have certainly done revolutionary things with the genre.  Haven’t any of the writer’s above read Stein’s The Making of Americans or Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.  Or even skimmed them?  Literary modernism was all about taking the novel in startling new directions.

I picked Dept. of Speculation to see this “new” style in action.  This is a very accomplished book.  Offill chronicles a disintegrating marriage in a series of terse, sparse vignettes. She writes well, filling the novel with a queasy sense of suspension, almost of the mystery or horror genre, even though this is a novel of adultery, which was once, incidentally, a great theme, the great theme, in novel writing.

So, Dept of Speculation is a compelling read, but certainly nothing extraordinarily new is done here.  The novel has a seemingly limitless capacity to be anything we want it to be.  This book is a novel. We need to know the history of what we write.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Some Thoughts: a fragment from a work

July 7

It is summer.  Dry.  We have the first chance of rain in many weeks – the first in a very long time.  Lawns dying.  Trees drooping. X&Y went to BLANK to see Z BLANK.  I’m tired of seeing Z BLANK.  When is the last time either Z or W read my work, commented on my work?  As usual, I am safe to ignore.  What harm can I do?  I am as obedient as a stray dog who has finally found a home. 

1. X, A, B, more Jewish.  Primarily Jewish in identity and view.  Our family orientation more aligned
2.  X with a larger BLANK.  Our BLANK’s more aligned.
3.  B less scared of some of the unknown. 

It is no longer my world.  How do you live in a world which is no longer yours?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

when the call comes - fragment

when the call comes
do not hear it
turn your ears to wind
to stop up the murmurs
of the whispering you
think are god
close your eyes
for dawn is not the image of god
but the semblance of fear
projected on your eyeball
we walk and walk and
yearn for god
the world is swoons with
our exertion, and the words
that charter our spirits
turn to god, to the leaf
in full summer bloom
everything comes back
only waiting will end us

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Norris Playground - a fragment

            While it was difficult to live with the uneasy sense of what she would do next, there was an always a line of retreat.  He could beat a path to Norris Playground, a patch of grass approached by a narrow, dirt lane, behind the suburban houses, as if forgotten somehow in the scheme of the town’s expansion.  It was in the middle of the large block, as if out of reach of seemingly close things.  In the beginning, it seemed far away.  But later, it was as close as his breast.  As near as the end of his nose.
            But there were other times he could not escape.  Like a long, dark tunnel, the realization of her moods, of what created the sense that things were moving along dusky tracks toward an incident, only struck him at bizarre intervals, and then it was too late.
            He, Jake, was told that his best friend, Roy, was adopted.  She told him not to tell his friends.  He did anyway.  And when he told her (why Jack did, he did not know) she hit him with a wooden spoon, and dragged him across the floor by his hair, and beat him with her hand on the floor of his bedroom.  All the while she screamed and cried: Why did you say that?  What can I say to her mother now?
            That nothing ever came of it was beside the point.  Roy continued to be adopted, and neither his divulgence of that secret nor his possible keeping of that secret had added or subtracted anything from the world.  As far as he could see, things were just the same.  He was still Jake and his sister was still his sister, and in some bizarre, yet to be determined, examined, or formed way, his family still hurt him and protected him at the same time.

            There was nothing special about Jake.  He was not a particularly  bright boy; his features were not pleasant or unpleasant - he inhabited a region between the gifted and the duds which would fail to generate any fruit of special flavor.  No one saw any particular spark in him: he neither expected too much nor worked too hard.  He had dry hands, bad breath, a rumpled Lacrosse shirt, small Adidas shorts with white piping, and flat, square glasses perched on the end of a blunt nose.  But he had something that very few of the boys and girls, the men and women he knew, know: that things are not really as they seem to be; that beneath the thick scab of the outer world, and below the wound the world that inflicts pain on us, there was something solid, with mass – a critical element, a surge of mass and energy that was all ignored but he felt like the beating of his own heart.

            “It’s filthy,” she screamed.  “Fucking filthy.  And I ain’t gonna be your fucking slave and clean all this shit up.”
            Jake sat with his father, mother and sister.  The climb up the slope of her resentment was reset.  Wrath, he said to himself - that is what it is called wrath.  And one day I will have revenge.  I will revenge myself. REVENGE.  He felt his own anger as his father and sister began to clean the unfinished part of the basement.  This area had the washer, drier, heater, his grandmother’s cedar chest, and shelves of toys and games.  Somehow these objects had reached a perilous mass in his mother’s overheated mind.  Now they were sitting in the basement, rummaging, placing the Fisher Price Airport in the pile of things that would magically appreciate in value at some future date in the attic. 
            But something was holding up the processes.  There were snags.  Words were being spoken.  They were angry, pleading, gruff, and his father stood there, not doing a thing to stop the progress of things toward the end he knew would occur, or Jake, or his sister, or father, or his mother.  Then she was screaming, and hitting, and she hit Jake’s bare knee with something hard, and a welt rose up.  His father was horrified, and Jake cried, and called her a  kike bitch, and he packed a bag and vowed to leave home.
            He rode his bicycle to Norris playground.  This was a hot summer day, in a season without much rain.  The zoysia grass was a yellow as straw,  as brittle as antique glass.  And he sat beneath a Norway maple, and watched the waves of heat roll over the black roofs of the bordering houses; keeping on edge, alert.  Despite his irrevocable departure, he knew there was unfinished business at home: a basement of scattered old toys, his sister in tears, his mother in bed in her dark room.  It was waiting for him regardless of his great need to stay here in Norris Playground, a place where no one cared and no one watched and expectations were as frozen and dry as a glacier.  There it was: the sense of the enduring, the thing not perceived but touched, perhaps, with an outstretched hand: it cared not, it had no demands.  It simply was; it existed in and around the grass and trees without being the grass and trees. 
            Jake decided to ride his bike around.  He moved in great loops, his house in the sloppy center of the radius he drew, until he was drawn back by the leaden gravity.  In the distance he could see his father, looking down the street for him, pacing up and down the sidewalk.

            There was force.  Someone, even a loved one, could make you do something quite against your will.  Jake knew this: he knew it from the marks, bruises, the buried sense within his psyche that he was not really any good.  That what his mother said and how she acted, was an accurate reflection of the true state of his soul.   They were involved in a struggle that could only end in the victory of one and the defeat of another.
            She called Jake.  She wanted him to Windex the table, the chairs, the mirrors.  He said no.  He said no again.  Then they fought in the kitchen.  She would scream and pull his hair.  He pushed and punched her.  From the very bottom of his heart he wanted to kill her; this was not emotional hyperbole on his part... to see her dead on the kitchen floor.  She stood in the way of every human happiness;  her very existence was an affront to the existence of the good. They still struggled with the can of Windex.
            “Give it to me, you kike bitch,” he hissed.
            “You bastard, when you have a wife your gonna beat her,” and she clamped her mouth down on his arm.  But this did not stop him.  He pushed her against the refrigerator, and she let out a great wail - halfway between a cry and scream.  
            He rushed out of the house to the garage and grabbed a shovel.  The beat the can of Windex until the seam split, and a geyser of ammonia shot up into the air.  And before it fell to the earth, he was already on his bike, long gone.

                 He sat in the field as the dusky sun set over the trees.  Gradually, the streetlights went on, and their hum was hypnotic, soothing, as if a choir were singing a distorted, wordless tune.  As the field grew dark, the lights in the windows popped on one by one, like lanterns lit by some hidden switch, some inscrutable mechanism which ruled the world of light and dark. 
            Jake crouched down in between two hedges, wishing that he could disappear into the soft soil of this tiny field.  What kind of field was this?  Inconsequential, a mere postage size of land on the grand scheme of the world, yet hovering above it, within it, around it, though it, was a great dynamism.   This is IT.  Jake mumbled.  This…this…  This is the place where all things originate and return.  It is both the spoke of the wheel and the axis of the top. Spinning out the pulse of light and dark, good and evil, right and wrong; but Jake could not stay.  He had to go back to the kitchen with its interminable struggles.  Back to the living room and the dull, heavy chair, the soft, plush couch, waiting to trap you, to tie the noose around your neck and crush your windpipe.     

            His father was in the driveway near the stoop, sitting on an upright lounge chair, smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee.  Jake walked up to him.
            “If you put your hands on her again, you’re gonna have to find someplace else to live,” his father droned.
            “Bullshit,” Jake spat. “You chocked her last month.  You ran after Karry saying you needed to hit someone to ‘get this out of my system.’  Did you beat her?  Your own daughter?  You always say you’re gonna leave but you don’t have the balls. At least I fight her.  At least I have the power to fight her.”
            His father’s face grew taut, but did not fundamentally change its expression.  He took a puff of his cigarette before beginning again, as if Jake had said nothing.
            “You hit her again, find another place to live.”
            “I will hit her again,” Jake was emphatic.  “I won’t follow her fucking rules.”
            His father began to say something, but Jake was already walking away.

            They beat each other with mild severity.  She used her natural advantages.  If he grasped her to push her away, she would latch into this arm, and bite.  She would pull his hair, swipe his glasses away.  But the days of her physical hegemony were well over.  Jake just pushed her, pulled her, dragged her, she screamed and cried, was angry and hurt.  Their mutual hatred was always reconciled by Jake’s willingness to retreat.  He was small and powerless.  Now he had power in his body, and he used it to try and kill her.
            There was a lull in the fight.  By then she tried to pick up the phone and call the battered woman’s shelter.  Jake just ripped the cord out of the wall.
            “You think you are a battered woman?  You bitch?  You're the batterer.  You're the abuser.” He made a move to hit her, but instead went out the door and to the garage.  He was going to take the car and drive down to the beach.  She moved was soundlessly behind him.
            “You ain’t taking dat car.  Dat is our car.  It ain’t yurs…”  as she said this, she tried to wrestle the keys from Jake’s hand.  He let her have them, and in the process, she lost her balance.  He pushed her into the garage and brought the door down and locked it.   There was no side entrance or automatic door.  She hated enclosed spaces.  As he walked away she was strangely quiet.  She should be fussing more, that bitch, Jake thought.
            As he walked away, tears moved down his cheeks.  Their wild emotions had become so mannered, that he could no longer even trust her pain.

            Maybe he was a monster.  Perhaps he had no hope at all.  Out in the field, in the damp chill of the autumn night, he thoughts turned to the glum termination of things. The awful, perhaps inevitable point in depression when no light is seen before the coming of dawn; when the sky is just endlessly dark; when there is no hope of transformation. There was the sinking down into the soil; the transformation of his body to the dirt and detritus of the soil.
            And as he walked forward into the night, the field open wide - the expanse was as far as he could see.  Around the edges, were fringes of mist that arranged and rearranged in different shapes and forms.  And from those images, Jake emerged not as Jake, but as a creature of a finer material.  But at the same time, he was very much Jake, very centered in his Jake-ness.  
            And then a great wind blew, and there was nothing at all but the field and its swaying, rustling grass.


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Human Will Survive a Mass Extinction

Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction is both a unique and odd book; Annalee Newitz marshals a great deal of information and ideas to present her vision of the human condition and its future with a great deal of off-kilter zest. 

As the title suggestions, Newitz views three elements as key to human survival in the future.   

We must scatter in the face of hostile circumstances. There is much genetic evidence that the human diaspora contributed to human survival.  As more and more human groups moved out of Africa and into new environments, the more they adapted to varying circumstances, contributing to the likelihood of our species survival.  For Newitz, colonization of other parts of the solar system, and other planetary systems, is the logical path for future humans.

We are creatures apt at adaption, using our superior brain power and social systems to not only survive what nature throws at us, but to alter nature itself.  This proclivity has led to the transformation of our planet – with both highly negative and positive results.  Newitz believes that our ability to adapt and change our environment is yet another key to our future success: we must manipulate our planet and other worlds to survive.

Finally, there is remember.  Interestingly, Newitz’s views the stories people tell of their own cultures as a necessary piece of our continuance as a species.  She uses the example of the Passover Haggadah, the book used by Jews at Passover to remember and immortalize their flight from Egypt and survival as a people.  Stories like this will continue to be key to human survival.  As we move forward, we must tell stories which stress our continued vitality.

As stated, this book has a great many ideas, viewpoints, and insights.  Some are off the wall, while others make a great deal of sense. Newitz has crafted a strangely odd and beautiful view of ourselves. 

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Sublime Scam: Nabokov's Ada

Nabokov’s Ada is at times sublime, at other times silly.  It is both a soaring accomplishment, and a bit of a scam.  It is a bit of everything, and reviewing it is difficult.

This is a novel that defies easy categories.  It is a family novel, a tale of life-long erotic love and incest, an alternate history, a romp through language - this novel has them all in abundance.  

In Ada, Nabokov's imaginative capacities are on full display.  The characters in this novel live in a world called Antiterra.  Yet some have visions of a place called Terra, which closely resembles our earth and our history. Van Veen, a psychiatrist, studies these visions.  He does not believe in the physical reality of Terra, but he still ponders the meaning of this world.  In this passage, both Veen and Nabokov come as close as possible to summarizing this maddening, complex novel:

“He wondered what really kept him alive on terrible Antiterra, with Terra a myth and all art a game, when nothing mattered any more since the day he slapped Valerio’s warm bristly cheek; and whence, from what deep well of hope, did he still scoop up a shivering star, when everything had an edge of agony and despair, when another man was in every bedroom with Ada.”

Ada proves something I have always believed: the extreme plasticity of this form we call the novel.  There are seemingly an infinite number of permutations the novel can take; Ada, despite its challenges, is certainly a prime example of one of its more imaginative forms.