July 26, 2007

Sunshine On A Cloudy Day

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Nature Photography © 2007 Catherine King.

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July 24, 2007

I Will Fly

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Photograph © 2007 Catherine King.

More pied beauty. This afternoon, after that sustained and soothing and wonderful rainfall, we received an unexpected visitor --a young red-tailed hawk with a sprained wing suddenly appeared in our driveway. We were able to get close enough to take some photos, and to shepherd it to safety from the neighborhood cats.

Puts me in mind of a John Hiatt song:

Red-tailed hawk shooting down the canyon,
Put me on that wind he rides;
I will be your true companion
When we reach the other side.

I will try, and I will stumble,
But I will fly --He told me so.
Proud and high or low and humble,
Many miles before I go.
Many miles before I go.

Travel well, little friend.

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July 23, 2007

Pied Beauty

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Photocollage after Gerard Manley Hopkins, © 2007 Jerome du Bois.

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July 21, 2007

ELVIS LEFT

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Paranormal Photograph © 2007 Catherine King.

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July 18, 2007

Harry Potter And The Money Changing Hands

Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the woods.
--Walter Tevis

by Jerome du Bois

Recently I gave in to a persistent itch and ordered another copy of the 1980 futuristic novel Mockingbird by Walter Tevis, to reread. Years ago, I pressed my original copy on one my children: Read! read! I'm sure I ranted, or you'll end up like these people! This modern classic is about the rediscovery of reading in the 25th Century, when a few sophisticated robots supervise a dwindling, dope-addled, sheeplike, and just plain dumbass human population.

As I finished the novel I came across this article in the NYT, with the headline "Potter Has Limited Effects On Reading Habits." After ten years of this phenomenon, somebody finally did some research on the "Rowling has got kids reading again" meme. (Catherine pointed out to me that Rowling is the latest example of the "Educational Messiah Complex," even though she is outside the pedagogical institutions. I had no idea there was such a well-developed dysfunction in educated minds.)

The results, briefly:

. . . federal statistics show that the percentage of youngsters who read for fun continues to drop significantly as children get older, at almost exactly the same rate as before Harry Potter came along.

More precisely, from a piece in the Joplin, Missouri Globe:

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a series of federal tests given every few years to students in grades four, eight and 12, the percentage of kids who said they read for fun dropped from 43 percent in the fourth grade to 19 percent in the eighth grade. That was in 1998, the year “Sorcerer’s Stone” — the first book in the Harry Potter series — was published in the United States. In 2005, when “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” was published, the results were unchanged.

Most of these people --I refuse to call them kids, youngsters, or children-- there is, woe betide, at least one college course about Harry Potter-- these people read a Potter book, then, between installments, apparently go back to what they were doing before --probably being spoiled, boring, creatively empty, and endlessly needy, impatiently demanding the next cultural tchotke in a long line of diversions from real life. They don't go on to read other novels, or, if they do, they choose more fantasy titles, not realistic novels. Why not? Why the dead end?

I have a couple of ideas, which I'll attend to after the jump. But some clues appear in this announcement by Changing Hands Bookstore, detailing all the events they'll be hosting this weekend, starting Friday at 9 PM:

Time: Friday, July 20, 2007 9:00 PM

HARRY POTTER MIDNIGHT LAUNCH 9PM-12:30AM Pre-purchase your copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows from Changing Hands Bookstore and receive our exclusive lightning-bolt rubber bracelet—your pass to our VIP midnight release party featuring popular local rock band Seconds to Breathe and the fire arts troupe Fyrae, who demonstrate their wizardry skills in fire-breathing and fire-eating! Changing Hands Bookstore will donate $7 in free books to a charity of your choice for every pre-purchased copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ($34.99). There's no limit to how many copies you can order, or how many dollars in book credit we'll donate on your behalf!

But that's not all. Le partie continue:

Time: Saturday, July 21, 2007 10:00 AM

HARRY POTTER BOOK LAUNCH PARTY 10AM-3PM. The party continues with lots of Harry Potter activities for the kids (and kids at heart), including free rub-on tattoos, wand-making, tea leaf and tarot card reading, creating a Make-A-Spell Book and a special reading of the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

The Harry Potter package is not about reading at all, sad to say. The books are merely the tickets, the heavy, plodding tickets, the price of admission to Potterpalooza, a careful carnival of merchandise and venues regularly replenished by money which flows, with each book, each movie, each wanky wand, one way --away from the readers and into the coffers of all the participating sycophants, including "independent" bookstores like Changing Hands. And what the customers get, besides took, are infantile feelings of belonging, an excuse to talk to other people about something safe, that hollow sinking stomach you get when the sugar rush evaporates, and an exclusive lightning-bolt rubber bracelet.

* * * * *

Because Harry Potter has nothing to do with this world, and this world's problems. I can say this just from reading reviews and plot synopses. Everything significant takes place in the "magical community." The only touch with reality is the arrogant elitism of Rowling calling normal human beings "muggles" in a pathetic vengeful swipe at the decrepit but persistent British class system. The real world is like Harry's horrible aunt and uncle: something you want to leave behind. Otherwise there is scant intersection between the wizard world and ours. Ours is irrelevant, simply the background before which the wizards whip out one deus ex machina after another, dazzling the dutifully dull.

Rowling has created a self-contained world (and a marketer's dream), but from what I've read about the phenomenon this Potterworld is like The Truman Show; it provides no roads out into the wider world --no references to, say, the science of gemology or astronomy or ancient alchemical symbols-- which would pique a reader's interest in something other than Harry Potter, get the mind itching, get the brain busy, get the curious engine going in a spiral ever outward, diminishing the margin of ignorance while immeasurably enriching one's reflective capacity.

But no. And it shows in the figures, but it shouldn't be surprising. Almost half of American adults don't read one single novel during the course of a year. This according to Ron Charles, a book editor at The Washington Post, in his revealing Sunday column "Harry Potter and the Death of Reading." "Not one. And the rate of decline has almost tripled in the past decade." So why should we expect the children of these people to read regularly? I'm pretty sure I read all the time because my family read all the time --especially my father, who subscribed to about six book clubs and read everything they sent him. We were always tripping over books. I started reading later than most --I grew up on the beach in Hawai'i-- and certainly loved going through Tom Swift and other space cowboy books, but when I was thirteen I picked up The Fountainhead and started reading seriously.

Potter partisans can claim that the books teach all kinds of solid humanistic values, and demonstrate the complexities of friendship and loyalty, and other good nourishing examples. But do they really? In one of the books, when the Dark Mark appears in the sky --what sky? the wizard sky? everybody's sky?-- as an omen that the Dark Lord, who else, is rising again, what's the response of the good guys? Some kind of extreme magical sport tournament. Reminds me of Doc Holliday in Tombstone: "I know! Let's have a spelling contest."

Of course I can't object to people reading the Harry Potter books. I've read a lot of crap in my time; I even got through a James Patterson "thriller" once; it was submental, and I kept throwing it against the wall to convince myself that it was real, but I survived.

Some things bother me, though. One is the odd notion that a huge number of people reading a certain thing could lead to the death of reading. Ron Charles depicts a chilling scene:

Perhaps submerging the world in an orgy of marketing hysteria doesn't encourage the kind of contemplation, independence and solitude that real engagement with books demands --and rewards. Consider that, with the release of each new volume, Rowling's readers have been driven not only into greater fits of enthusiasm but into more precise synchronization with one another. Through a marvel of modern publishing, advertising and distribution, millions of people will receive or buy "The Deathly Hallows" on a single day. There's something thrilling about that sort of unity, except that it has almost nothing to do with the unique pleasures of reading a novel: that increasingly rare opportunity to step out of sync with the world, to experience something intimate and private, the sense that you and an author are conspiring for a few hours to experience a place by yourselves --without a movie version or a set of action figures. Through no fault of Rowling's, Potter mania nonetheless trains children and adults to expect the roar of the coliseum, a mass-media experience that no other novel can possibly provide.

Reading Rowling en masse is not singing at the edge of the woods; it's chirping in chorus with the faithful flock in the choirs of the big safe tree. But again, Harry Potter, Registered Trademark Goes Here, is not about the reading. It's about riding that collective wave every year or so, and submerging oneself in an artificial and temporary community. That's the sad need, and the sad news. And that's where Cindy Dach and the other managers at Changing Hands, rubbing their hands, come in. They create that loud and colorful bubble bauble, and profit from it.

I guess I'm the last to realize how sold-out this so-called Independent Bookstore has become. They must really have come to depend on this weekend's income, because they're going all out to spin magic into every one of their sidelines. They even have the bread company next door making butterbeer and eyeball cupcakes. (Shades of Goosebumps.) As booksellers, they must have already learned in the last ten years, through six Potter hardbacks and paperbacks, what the NYT article now tells the rest of us: the youth-reading surge was and is an illusion. Their spreadsheets, year after year, would tell the tale. There was no traction, no chain reaction, so to speak, after the appearance of each Potter book, and no lasting or overlapping waves of growing eager readers, no expansion of the young readers' section, and not a lot of repeat business. (Is this why they have eleventy-two reading "clubs"? Just to get people physically into the store? To maybe also buy a jasmine-scented sandalwood bookmark? It's locally made. Hey, come back here . . .)

The Changing Hands managers have to know about this phantom reading phenomenon, but they have no problem shilling out this mental popcorn, this chewing gum for the mind, this hodgepodge of old ideas, beginning with Harry as a changeling, and expanding outward into yet another fantasyland, replete with wands, cloaks, and spells-books (see price list); and with the real world, not the wizard's world, reduced to cardboard and paper.

You could argue that Mockingbird is a fantasy novel as well. True, but it is firmly grounded on the Earth. Harry Potter isn't. Walter Tevis, probably drawing on his fifteen years of university experience with young people, extrapolates from the narcissistic trends just forming in his time: political correctness, multicultural equality, moral relativity, not giving offense, "you're so special," "gotta love me," and "my feelings count."

So that in his future, to protect Personhood and Privacy and so-called Individuality, people wander about in a pot- and sopor-induced stupor. Social communication is nearly nil. Everything, from the drugs to the clothes they wear, is provided by automatic equipment and human-looking robots lined up smiling at the Super Shef! Would you like fries with that? And reading is a crime,

. . . the subtle and thorough sharing of ideas and feelings by underhanded means. It is a gross invasion of Privacy and a direct violation of the Constitutions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth ages. The Teaching of Reading is equally a crime against Privacy and Personhood. One to five years on each count.

The book kept coming to my mind because of a buildup of other persistent cultural phenomena: they range from the world-wide solipsistic blanket of the iPod (it's my small world, after all), to the recent double handful of prescription drug abuse cases spilled rattling across our TV screens, to the kudzu of what Catherine calls FaceSpace personal web pages, which record the minutiae of mediocre lives to create the illusion of fame and immortality. (We ourselves have no such illusions.) People who don't really read; they text-message.

So I must be a fool to complain about Harry Potter and Changing Hands and the whole money machine, right? So what if the kids don't go on to read His Dark Materials, for example, or even Moby Dick. At least they're reading. Being contemplative. Exercising their imaginations. Aren't they?

Remember, there's no such thing as magic. It's all sleight-of-hand. In the real world, even fun takes work, and the rewards of deep reading sometimes feel like wounds.

Posted by Jerome at 01:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

July 02, 2007

¿ Quien Eres? Five Answers

[Long answers, too. Bring a sandwich. Also, for the first time in two years, I'm opening up the comments --for this posting. We'll see how it goes. For those who have forgotten the rules: real names, please; stick to the subject; and no personal attacks. Thank you.]

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The Haunting Lamp (detail), © 2003/2007 King & du Bois

by Jerome du Bois

During a dark day at the beginning of this year, while Catherine and I were talking about many things, I mentioned something I hadn't recalled in years, and had no idea why I summoned it then. It was a scene from one of Castañeda's books --my favorite scene-- wherein Carlos is waiting for don Juan in the middle of the urban bustle of Mexico City. A man appears before him out of the crowd; an impeccably-dressed Indian in a dark-brown three-piece suit with a wide smile on his face. When it dawns on Carlos that this is don Juan, from his neatly-knotted necktie to his polished brown brogans, the knowledge chills him to the bone and he starts shivering in the street, in the sun. Later, I think, don Juan tells him this appearance was a lesson in being impeccable.

I told Catherine I thought the book was Journey To Ixtlan, and since we had a copy, and since I was depressed, she suggested I read it. So I did.

I was wrong about the suit scene, but I was glad I reread the book, because it contained a passage that chilled me to the bone:

"Don't explain yourself," don Juan said dryly. "There is no need. We are fools, all of us, and you cannot be different. At one time in my life I, like you, made myself available over and over again until there was nothing of me left for anything except perhaps crying."

That accurately describes my life up until about two years before I met Catherine. For most of my life I was always available to be an instrument of someone else's agenda, until finally all that was left of me was a handful of tears. And so, for that reason, and other reasons complicated and private, I turned my back on everyone and lived a hermit's life in my small apartment, reading and writing and thinking; I worked when I had to and ate very little, and began recovering the substance of who I was.

Just after my fiftieth birthday I had the word-name "Shekhinah" tattooed in Hebrew on the back of my neck. In Kabbalah, Ha-Shekhinah is the feminine presence of God which both infuses and suffuses all creation --the closest God(dess) comes to touching the Earth --the force that through the green fuse drives the flower. I figured that if She saw Her name, She would draw close to me.

And She did. Six months later I met Catherine King, answer to all my prayers. Unlike most people in my personal history, she didn't want to make me into someone else. Nor I her.

But enough about me. By some confluence of serendipity and consequence --and what Catherine tells me is "the male time of the year"-- I have before me, in a small pile of books and one magazine, five examples of men coming to terms with the title question: Who are you? Which may include Which side are you on? and Who made you? Two of the examples come from real life, three come from fiction. (Spoilers come with the fiction.)

There is no lesson here. The books, the men, seemed to gather of their own volition, as if washed in by some elliptical tide from my unconscious. These certainly don't represent the best five answers, much less the representative five answers. In fact, yesterday I thought of a sixth, from fiction (real lives are messy, stories show the outlines more clearly): Elvis Cole in Robert Crais' The Forgotten Man. And a seventh: Gulliver Foyle, the jaunting nomad spaceman in Alfred Bester's classic novel The Stars My Destination. How about Arkady Renko? Jack Reacher? So, you see, I'm just having fun, pointing them out to you, enjoying myself. It's the male time of the year.

The first example, from Philip Kerr's compelling and sobering novel Hitler's Peace, is the protagonist, logical positivist philosopher (and half-German Jew) Willard Mayer, who literally saves Hitler's life.

The second is cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter and his frustrating new book I Am A Strange Loop, a spiritual autobiography without the spirit.

The third is the Russian Outsider Artist Aleksander Lobanov (1924-2003), deaf, speechless, institutionalized for his adult life, with his intransigence, his imagination, and his deadly arsenal of cardboard and paper weapons.

The fourth is the fictional Mattias Tannhauser, 16th-Century Saxon adventurer; former kidnapped Christian boy, former fanatical Islamic janissary, present nonbeliever, and Venice-based trader and arms dealer. He is the hero of Tim Willocks's brutally poetic new historical epic The Religion, which is about the Siege of Malta in 1565, the last great confrontation between Islam and the (Christian) West until 9/11/2001. (The Moslems lost then, and they'll lose again.)

The fifth example, again from fiction, is the most complicated. This person would be the composite made of LA Detectives Harry Bosch (good) and Calexico Moore (evil) in Michael Connelly's The Black Ice from 1993. Or, rather, this example compares the two men as two sides of one coin, with this phrase etched on its edge: I found out who I was.

* * * * *

1. I'll use two excerpts from Hitler's Peace to show Willard Mayer's true colors; one from the beginning, with Mayer meeting President Roosevelt, and one from the end, with Mayer meeting Adolf Hitler. In the beginning, Mayer is summoned to the White House because he has been part of Bill Donovan's fledgling intelligence service in the recent past. He doesn't know that he's to be part of the entourage for the nascent Teheran Conference between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. After mildly deprecating his professional fame --"being an American philosopher is a little like saying you play baseball for Canada"-- he listens, amazed, as Roosevelt shows he knows Mayer's best-known book, On Being Empirical:

". . . It's when you use that method [empiricism] to suggest that morality is pretty much a dead cat that I begin to have a problem." He opened the book, found the sentences he had underlined, and read aloud:

"'Aesthetics and morality are coterminous in that neither can be said to possess an objective validity, and it makes no more sense to assert that telling the truth is verifiably a good thing than it does to say that a painting by Rembrandt is verifiably a good painting. Neither statement has any factual meaning.'"

Roosevelt shook his head. "Quite apart from the dangers that are inherent in arguing such a position at a time when the Nazis are hell-bent on the destruction of all previously held notions of morality, it seems to me that you're missing a trick. An ethical judgment is very often merely the factual classification of an action that verifiably tends to arouse people in a certain kind of way. In other words, the common objects of moral disapproval are actions or classes of actions that can be tested empirically as a matter of fact."

In even other words, Roosevelt is saying, with good ol' William James American pragmatism, "Decent educated people know what's right."

Before Mayer can engage the debate, Roosevelt changes the subject, and we're off . . .

Much of the book is about Mayer trying to isolate a double agent in the President's entourage, partly to keep secret certain parts of his own past. At the end of the book all three principals are meeting in a subterranean room in Teheran --and Adolf Hitler crashes the party. After the initial shock, negotiations resume, and then, suddenly, someone pulls a gun, aims it at Hitler, and Mayer jumps in the way and deflects the shot. As the thwarted assassin --a US Secret Service Agent-- is subdued, and things settle down, Roosevelt and Stalin offer their apologies.

"Don't mention it, gentlemen," Hitler said, still holding me by the hand. "What is your name?" he asked me.

"Mayer, sir. Willard Mayer."

Even as Hitler held my hand, I felt an understanding of what the Führer and I were: two men for whom the entire spectrum of moral values had no real meaning, who had no real need of the humanities and the immaterial world. Here was the obvious extension of everything that I, as a logical positivist, believed in. Here was a man without values. And I suddenly perceived the bankruptcy of all my own intellectual endeavors. The meaninglessness of all the meanings I had striven to find. This was the truth of Hitler and all rigid materialism: it had absolutely nothing to do with being human.

So that's who Willard Mayer was, and how he found out. A cold shot, that one.

(Only after I finished the book did I realize that scene was a vivification of an old philosophical chestnut: if you could prevent the death of [Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Attila the Hun, Suleiman Shah], would you? Cheeky fellow, that Kerr.)

I've discovered, through four Philip Kerr books, that they resonate with current events, no matter the time period. The One From The Other, for example, shows jihad going back to the Twenties and before. In Hitler's Peace I think that logical positivism is a stand-in for Derrida-type deconstructionism, and Mayer resembles those blithely heartless professors, administrators, and other academics who only want to grind unique people down into fungible atoms, the better to manipulate them.

* * * * *

2. Douglas Hofstadter answers the question Who Are You? in the title of his new book, I Am A Strange Loop. And answers it. And answers it. In fact, he answers it so many times, he has so many examples of what a strange loop is, that they proliferate like kudzu, threatening to drive this reader, anyway, right out of the book. In fact, I would have published the present piece five days ago if it hadn't been for this damned thing.

Why does this guy bother me so much? First, he discovered this strange-loop / self-learning feedback idea back in 1979 with Gödel, Escher, Bach, won the Pulitzer Prize, got to found a university research group on the basis of his book's ideas, and has been researching strange loops and creative analogies and the richness of language and brains and minds and recursion ever since. He's a cognitive scientist, says here. In this book, I expected him, like his hero Kurt Gödel, to come up with some theorems, some distillations, some compact verbal general statements based on twenty-seven years of research. Throughout the book, after all, he argues for the power of causality for a few very-high-level abstract categories and concepts, those that shape the I at our cognitive centers.

But as far as I can tell, we find no analogue, not even a rough one, for E=mc², or anything close. Hofstadter has paid a lot of attention to the physical appearance of the book, laying it out himself according to strict aesthetic rules. He even has a final balancing footnote for the whole book, with the precise number of words in the precise order to blah blah blah. But when it comes to a definition of strange loop, when the reader consults the index, under "definition of," we see a reference to pp. 101-2, which reads:

And yet when I say "strange loop", I have something else in mind —a less concrete, more elusive notion. What I mean by "strange loop" is —here goes a first stab, anyway— not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive "upward" shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one's sense of departing ever further from one's origin, one winds up, to one's shock, exactly where one had started out. In short, a strange loop is a paradoxical level-crossing feedback loop.

As if that isn't confusing enough, his "canonical example" is Escher's Drawing Hands. But then he admits that it's not a real strange loop because there's no true paradox: we see, from the next level, that it's just a drawing. So why use it at all, then?

Hofstadter makes a lot of noise about the size of souls, and when someone can be termed human (you'd be surprised at this humanistic scientist --two years old!), but he offers no ascending scale of neural complexity --with numbers, Doug-- to make the demarcations between the different-sized souls, or the exact moment when enough neurons are firing to his satisfaction to deem the entity thus firing a human being. Have you ever read Walker Percy's novel The Thanatos Syndrome, Doug? with its earnest arguments for neonatal euthanasia?

He's a strange loop, all right, but not a likable one. I was surprised myself. I mean, look at him: the nerdy genius scientist who loves art and is a whiz at fiddling with language. What's the problem? To me, though, the endless puns are not examples of a nimble mind, but the distractions of a comedian with threadbare material, and boy, sometimes he strains at those puns like a dog that-- never mind. Here's one about a memorial service after his wife's death (p.358):

To close this sad ceremony, I chose the final two-and-a-half minutes of the opening movement of Sergei Prokofiev's violin concerto . . . . The beautiful and moving passage that I selected from this concerto . . . might as well have been written to evoke the image of an ascending soul, so tenuous, tremulous, and delicate it is throughout, but most of all in its final upward-drifting tones. Though neither Carol nor I was religious in the least, there was something that to me rang so true in this naïive image of her purest essence leaving her mortal remains and soaring up, up, forever up, even if, in the end, it was not into the sky that her soul was flying, but merely into this guy. . . (Emphasis in original.)

Excuse me, but I hope I'm not alone in groaning at this clunky conflation of Prokofiev, Hoftstadter's wife's death, and a Jimi Hendrix joke. Her soaring soul drifts into purple haze. It is completely unnecessary. Problem with Hofstadter is, he doesn't see it, he's too busy going for the laugh --or showing he knows the cultural wrinkles here-- to respect his dead wife, who he's been going on about for half the book. (There's one photograph of her in the book, a cutesy pic of him and her in profile on a hillside reaching out and touching each other's noses. Treacly.)

I've believed for a long time, based on evolutionary arguments, in Hofstadter's (and Daniel Dennett's) basic premise: that what we call the "I" is a shifting, progressive, constantly refined agreement between contending subparts of ourselves. How could this be news, since literature and history are filled with characters learning about themselves, and arguing with themselves? But I do have problems when these confident scientists leave out the spiritual, while at the same enjoying its rewards.

In Dennett's Darwin book he spent a long paragraph on Bach's St. Matthew's Passion, and he has referred elsewhere to being inspired or moved by religious music, while remaining resolutely "bright" --e.g., atheist. And Hofstadter famously analyzed Bach's music six ways from Sunday in his first book. Only its structure, though --the math, the patterns-- not the soul behind the genius. Neither one of them writes about why Bach summoned the powers of his great genius to glorify Jesus and Christianity. And they can listen for years, but only he or she who has ears to hear will hear. I speak not as a Christian, but as a former Christian and a believer in the Great Continuing Mystery.

I suppose what bothers me most about Hofstadter and this book is the cold hollow at the center of both. He reminds me too much of Philip Kerr's Willard Mayer. The tousled, boyish-faced scientist with the toothy smile, who looks like a jester out of costume, feels comfortable defining and weighing souls, deciding the neural complexity level of true humanity, making stupid puns at inappropriate times, and rhapsodizing about religious music for the wrong reasons. But he's stuck in his own strange loop; he has not gone past it. Most people, if they learned the details of digestion, for example, would absorb it (hey, I get one pun), and then forget it and move on to a higher level: always seeking better. Hofstadter hasn't done that, either because he's stuck in his grief, or because cognitive science is still, after half a century of huffin and puffin, not living up to the "science" part. I expected more from that field, and from him.

* * * * *

3. Douglas Hofstadter, and I, and probably you, dear reader, grew up under freedom, always facing a panoply of choices. Aleksander Lobanov (1924-2003) lived most of his 79 years in an asylum in the belly of the Soviet beast, not because he was mentally disturbed, but because he was (1) deaf and speechless due to childhood meningitis, and (2) rebellious and angry. The authorities had flooded his hometown for a reservoir, and sent his father off to die in war. He was too much for the surviving family, so when he was twenty-three they had him institutionalized.

It took him seven years to calm down. He withdrew into himself. Then he took up drawing; that is, he showed he could fairly accurately copy images shown to him. Immediately, without any formal training. From then on, he produced thousands of drawings, collages, and photographs of increasing sophistication and formal power. Raw Vision #58 has a great layout of his work, along with a short but sensitive article by Michel Ellenberger. (A glimpse here. Also here. And here.)

As you can see, Lobanov was obsessed with firearms, and depicted them, with his own customizations, hundreds of times. In one piece, on the cover of Raw Vision #58, you can see rifles and handguns embedded in the very letters of his name, which he almost always made large and elaborate. One rifle I would call his signature weapon, his own invention, since I tried to find a real one on the internet, and couldn't. I refer to his double-barrelled, double-bolt-action rifle. I grew up around guns, and I loved to visit the gunsmith at my dad's sporting-goods store. This piece is probably technically feasible, but only an ambidextrous person could possibly make use of it. The design may seem absurd, but to me it satisfies Lobanov's obvious propensity for bilateral symmetry (and doubling) in many of his layouts, and it doubles the lethality of the weapon. Lobanov means business. Lobanov is ready for anything.

As far as I know, at least after his commitment, Lobanov never fired a weapon. (And I doubt before then.) And he only handled them once or twice. But I can understand his fascination, especially in his completely defenseless position. The guns and rifles are his talismans, and give him strength to sustain himself in what Ellenberger calls "the loneliness of victimization through social engineering."

Here is someone who could never become a New Soviet Man, no matter how that model changed with the leadership. Most of the printed matter and films Lobanov was exposed to consisted of Soviet propaganda, and he definitely responded to it in a direct way. In his own heroic self-portraits (and ones where he is doubled with Stalin, as if equals), he both mocks and transcends the idea of the Soviet hero, who was supposed to be a cipher. But Lobanov --narrow face, jug ears, piercing eyes-- is unmistakeably Lobanov, and that awesome rifle is absolutely unique, and could belong to no one but him.

To me Lobanov represents the elemental failure of any totalitarianism. If anyone was vulnerable to social engineering (not to mention liquidation), it was Lobanov, deaf, without speech, without family support, without skills "useful to the State." If famine ever came close, he could easily become a useless mouth. Perhaps his drawings kept him from being discarded, thanks to a psychiatrist schooled in such unorthodox practices as art therapy, which had sympathy in the Soviet Union. (It should also be noted that in the first heady days of the Soviet Union, art was given high priority. When Mayakovsky said, "Let us make the squares our palettes, the streets our brushes," he was serious. They were going to paint the trees red. Perhaps this sympathy toward art therapy was a vestige of that initial enthusiasm about the saving power of art.)

Aleksander Lobanov found out who he could be in his involuntary confinement, accepted it, and worked it out in such a consistent, complex, and sustained fashion, constantly evolving within his tropes, that his work rewards not only repeated contemplation, it's also an enduring visual testament to the indomitable power of the individual spirit. And Lobanov not only outlived Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev without being pulverized under their bootheels; he, like them, made a lasting mark whose lineaments are his alone, and yet, unlike them, without shedding a drop of blood.

* * * * *

4. Another man seemingly shaped by immense events, helplessly trapped between the juggernauts of Cross and Crescent, and who shed a lot of blood, is Mattias Tannhauser in Tim Willocks's The Religion. I say "seemingly" because Tannhauser is no mere tool of the powerful --at least, not anymore. Tannhauser is like a human "hinge of history," in Thomas Cahill's memorable phrase. He's known life under both Cross and Crescent, as a warrior with dozens of dead men --armed adult enemies-- in his incredibly violent past. Now he just wants to be a trader, and to learn.

This is the key to Tannhauser: ahead of others, he recognizes his times. This is how Willocks put it in a recent interview I won't link to because I don't like the site's name:

I discovered the incredible richness and beauty of the 16th century --a world turned upside down, a world of chaos and passion, a world full of dreams that had never been dreamt before-- in philosophy, music and art, in science, astronomy and medicine, in politics, economics, exploration and warfare. The Western mind at last broke free from the chains of the Middle Ages, and the collective imagination just exploded in every realm. The energy of that era was extraordinary, and this energy fed the characters and the writing of the novel in a way I hadn’t expected. I was fascinated -- and this inspired characters who themselves are fascinated and who are filled with wonder at their world and the cosmos beyond.

He's like an advance flame of the Enlightenment, a burning spearpoint of light, constantly refining itself, a modern man being born before us in the book. He says:

". . . And Fate is a web whose threads we acknowledge only when once entangled. But pattern or purpose or no, religion brings forth mighty legions of fools, that they may call each other devils and deny the inner nature of Things . . . I've worshipped at mosque and altar both, because I was told to, and I obeyed. But I heard God's voice in neither, nor felt His Grace. In the end, I heard only the braying of the book burners and the whimper of an inextinguishable fear."

Later, when someone important to him says she can't escape Malta, currently under siege, because she has "been called." Tannhauser replies:

"We're surrounded by the Called. They're hacking each other to pieces as we speak."

Later still:

"You've harnessed your fate to that of the Religion [the Knights of Malta]. More than that, your heart, your mind, perhaps even your soul. I understand. There's comfort in belonging. And no mortar binds more strongly than the threat of death. But do not imagine that there's some higher principle at stake. This is just another scabby little war. It will end. A line will change on a map, or not. And then there will be other wars . . ."

Tannhauser is no longer impressed with kings, popes, and sultans. He has wrestled himself out of his own times to stand above them and catch a glimpse of the future, when the actual rudders of power change hands, and direction. He is himself one of those rudders. He is a lesson --in not being fooled again-- for our times as well. I look forward the next two books of the trilogy.

* * * * *

5. Best for last, at least for me, and the seed of this meditation. Michael Connelly's second novel, The Black Ice, tells the story of one LA police detective, Harry Bosch, trying to make sense of the suicide (or is it?) of another LA police detective, Calexico Moore.

Several parallels run between the two men, which are revealed as Bosch finds out more about Calexico Moore. I'm going to be skipping through the book, not to summarize the story, but only to illustrate my theme. I'll try not to make it too choppy.

Bosch is an anomaly: an institutional man who won't conform to institutions, who won't be a cog, who can't just go along to get along. At the beginning of the book it's Christmas night, and Bosch is alone at home with his chicken dinner and his police scanner: he's on call. Then he hears, over the scanner, that a body has been discovered in his jurisdiction, but he hasn't been notified, as he should have been as the on-call detective; the brass have simply passed right over him.

Naturally Bosch goes right down to the scene, a crappy motel. Apparently, Calexico Moore, a narcotics detective who was going sketchy, it was rumored, and had Internal Affairs sniffing around him, had taken his own life, brutally, with both barrels of a shotgun. Although the man's face is unrecognizable, Bosch, who spent one evening in a bar with Moore a few months before, notices something familiar:

. . . a misshapen tattoo on the right arm, a devil's grinning face below a halo.

At first the brass just wants Bosch out of there --to accept the "streamlining," to "respect the command decisions of this department"-- but eventually he manages to wrangle a part of the case: the "dirty work," next of kin notification. Just before he leaves the scene to break the bad news to Moore's estranged wife, Bosch learns there's a suicide note. One line stuffed into the back pocket of the dead man's jeans:

I found out who I was.

When he relays this message to Sylvia Moore, the detective's wife, she says that her husband was caught on the past, without telling her anything about it, and that's what drove them apart. Bosch thinks, Everybody has a need for their past. Sometimes it pulls harder on you than the future. Later, at home, he reflects:

Calexico Moore had apparently answered a question that all people carry deep within themselves --that Harry Bosch, too, had longed to answer. I found out who I was.

And it had killed him. It was a thought that pushed a fist into Bosch's guts, into the most secret folds of his heart.

As the book progresses we learn more about what both men have in common. Bosch never knew his father growing up; his mother was a prostitute who was murdered when he was eleven. He grew up in youth halls and foster homes until he volunteered for Vietnam. Calexico Moore was born in Calexico, California. He had a rich Anglo father who abandoned him and his Mexican mother when he was young, so he grew up in a barrio in Mexicali, Mexico, a stone's throw from his estranged father.

Both men have half-brothers. Bosch's is a defense lawyer in LA that he's never met; Moore's is a major Mexicali drug dealer --Humberto Zorillo, "the Pope of Mexicali"-- that he knows only too well. Both men chose the law as a profession, but whereas for Bosch it was a calling, a mission, for Moore it seemed to be a way to exercise authority.

While brooding about Moore, Bosch gets assigned the cases of a retiring detective. One of these homicides is a "Juan Doe," an unidentified dead Hispanic male. Bosch follows up on this one by visiting a missing persons detective named Capetillo who specializes in the Hispanic traffic. He digs through the telexes; Bosch hits the mark on one from Mexicali, and identifies the Juan Doe, who has a tattoo on his right upper chest: "blue ink ghost symbol --City of Lost Souls barrio."

"There's one thing," Bosch said. "You know what this City of Lost Souls description means? This reference to the tattoo."

"Yeah. Basically, the tattoo is a barrio symbol. Fernal Guitierrez-Llosa [the Juan Doe] resided in the barrio Ciudad de los Personas Perdidos --City of Lost Souls. Many of the barrio dwellers down there do this. Mark themselves. It's similar to graffitti up here. . . "

The detective is reminded of Moore's grinning devil with a halo. When Bosch next meets up with Sylvia Moore, he asks her about the tattoo.

"What about it?"

"He ever tell you where he got it, what it means?"

"He told me he got it in the village he grew up in. He was a boy. Actually, it was a barrio, I guess. They called it Saints and Sinners. That's what the tattoo means. Saints and Sinners. He said that was because the people that lived there didn't know which they were, which they would be."

He thought of the note found in Cal Moore's back pocket. I found out who I was. He wondered if she realized the significance of this in terms of the place he grew up. Where each young boy had to find out who he was. A saint or a sinner.

Bosch's trail leads him to the Calexico-Mexicali border area. While driving down there he recalls the time he tracked down his father, right after he came back from Vietnam. His father was a once-prominent lawyer made bedridden by cancer. He made his peace with the man. In Calexico Bosch discovers that Calexico Moore often came down to visit the now-deserted "castle" he was born in and exiled from. (His father is long dead.) Year after year he would return. He would just stand in the road across from the big house, not approaching it, only looking.

On his way back into town Bosch thought about Moore's lonely vigils outside the house of his father. He wondered if his longings were for the house and its memories or the father who had sent him away. Or both.

Bosch's mind touched his memory of his brief meeting with his own father. A sick old man on his death bed. Bosch had forgiven him for every second he had been robbed. He knew he had to or he would face the rest of his life wasting his pain on it.

Back in Calexico, while examining mug shots with a DEA agent, Bosch identifies one of Zorillo's hit men, a killer named Arpis. And he learns more. Here's the DEA agent, talking about Zorillo and Arpis:

"Those two, they came from a barrio south of here. Some--"

"Saints and Sinners."

"Yeah, Saints and Sinners. Some of the locals cops said Arpis had a real taste for killing. In the barrio they had a saying. Quien eres? Means who are you? It was a challenge. It meant what side are you on, you know? Are you with us or against us? Saint or Sinner? And when Zorillo rose to power, he had Arpis taking out the people that were against them. The locals said that after they whacked somebody, they'd spread the word around the barrio. El descubrio quien era. Means--"

"He found out who he was."

"Right. It was good PR, made the natives fall in behind him. Supposedly they really got into it. Got to the point they were leaving messages with the body. You know? They'd kill a guy and write out 'He found out who he was,' and leave it pinned to his shirt."

Bosch said nothing and wrote nothing. Another piece of the puzzle dropped into place.

I hope the reader can assemble the pieces I've collected into some kind of sense. I've been heavy-handed here, but Michael Connelly, of course, made all the comparisons between the two men elliptically, as part of the story.

He could have made one more comparison, by the way, but it would have been too obvious: Bosch also has a tattoo on his arm --a tunnel rat symbol from Vietnam-- and it played a big part in Connelly's debut novel The Black Echo. In this book, not a word about it. That was smart.

By the end of the book Bosch knows that even though parts of him are trapped in the past, those aspects could never cause him to cross the line, or to take his own life. He may be alone, he may work in the city's sewer, he may antagonize his bosses, but he has his mission and his integrity. It's enough.

* * * * *

And there you have them.

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