In honor of…

this, this happened – here.

We’d be lucky to still have you, George, or Eric Arthur Blair, or whoever you were.  I fell in love with your sour, pessimistic-yet-whimsically-longing-for-a-simpler-time works in a Senior honors single-author course and I’ll never forget how right you were about so many things and, still, how repugnant my moderately-modern sentimentality finds some of your thought.

I still hope to someday write a long, convoluted piece on how Saul Bellow was the eyes, Orwell the nose, and some yet unforeseen author the ears of the becoming-modern essential-face.

The Fractured Contemporary Mind: My Interaction with Saul Bellow’s It All Adds Up

I often find myself horrified by my own inability to form sustained, iterative, progressive thoughts. My thinking is tangential and erratic; most of my intellectual activity is reactive. By and large, my mental resting-point is a near-trance tinged with equal parts exhaustion, frustration, and mild terror. I read frequently, then sporadically and, in bursts, voraciously. Each time I rest a book on the nightstand I try to think back through the meaning of the material that I’ve just read – and, here, I generally find a failure of comprehension.

Today, I’m reading Saul Bellow’s It All Adds Up, a collection of reflective essays spanning nostalgic odes to Depression-era Chicago, biographical pieces which describe the unlikely musical and political genius of Mozart and FDR, respectively, drafts on the state of the American soul and the writers, both real and potential, who struggle to revive it, and introductions and farewells to places and people of importance to the author. Throughout the book the nut of Bellow’s thought wrestles with who we (Chicagoans, Americans, Jews, Post-Modern Westerners, Globalists wrestling with, just then, Cold War realities) are, how much humanity we retain, whether we can squirrel away those humanistic holdovers in a post-Romantic, Nihilistic, materialistic world, and how we might shield ourselves from the wiles of the intellectual class he abhors.

Bellow certainly is a powerful essayist – on par with Orwell, I’d say (they both share a rabid disapproval for formal intellectuals). While Orwell relies on olfaction for exposition, Bellow draws us in with eyesight and where the Englishman steadies our attention on the meaning of material conditions, Bellow brings us to the soul. Bellow’s illustrative description of his Depression Chicago flat, for example: the decaying mattresses and “see-through sheets” and walls with buckling wallpaper which separated his bookish behaviors from the workmen’s’ trades beyond them – the steel mills, the slaughterhouses, and the furniture factories – each sustaining the city he loved dearly. These are physical-descriptor metaphors for the ruddy contemporaneous human condition. For Bellow, this was the best the world had to offer and disappointing all the same.

While I’ve sincerely enjoyed it, the book lends itself to my personal anxieties. Here we have a piece of literature illustrating the impoverished state of the human mind and soul and a reader with a sinking suspicion that his own mental state is generally out of sorts — jumbled and disrupted by a combination of a lack of personal discipline and an external overload of stimuli. We’re a species who’s greatest and most temporary happiness comes at the cash register, who’s longing lies the way of the till, and whose minds can’t be troubled with the dictates of a meaningful existence.

The discomfort transcends personal space, too, as the collection of essays takes you through Bellow’s own political journey. Here I found a quandary that I’d wager is regnant throughout our thinking populace yet unheard of in mass culture: a Nietzschean revaluation of values that’s political in nature and language. While he began his political life a Trotskyite, like so many Bellow was pushed rightward by the appalling political realism of the Stalinists who held so much sway in the early post-war era. He found his roots, then, as a liberal and, I believe, he steeled himself there for a lifetime as the world moved scattershot in a multitude of directions.

Here’s a man who’s all for the Liberal state, who’s familiar with the horrors of the authoritarian-totalitarian regime, who detests cut-and-dry jingoism while, at the same time, decries ubiquitous American self-loathing spurred on by an unctuous intellectual class. Saul Bellow was a liberal: it’s the meaning of the word that has changed.

The ultimate truth that emerges is that it is now Conservative to support the modern Liberal state. To share worries with a man like Bellow that, when a society rejects all public talk of prejudice, we’ve castrated ourselves politically and that, while formalized laws that oppress groups by color, creed, gender, sex-act, and religion are odious, a personal preference for one’s own choices and natural circumstance creates, defines, and seasons character and ought not be driven out of us as Jesus drove the demons from the swine, is now a socially and political unwieldy position to take.

Living in a multicultural world where vocal public preference is abjured and culture-clash-irritants are forced inward for contemplation, we’ve essentially stilled our social critics – those from within and without. Resentment is the only recourse for elucidation. Hatred is a human quality that’s best engendered by stifling thought and muzzling speech. In truth, we’ve created a new political-correctness-Puritanism not unlike the early-20th-century American Puritanism that D.H. Lawrence worried had broken the “sympathetic heart,” had made us all “stink in each other’s nostrils.”

The battle lines are drawn – those who wish to conserve elements of humanity that are often deemed undemocratic and, at the same time, beautiful vs. those who call for a grey mass of material equality of purchasing power and freedom of superficial expression. Neither side has a perfect platform for utopia. Increasingly, we rely on abstract technological progress, material access, and a super-abundance of choice to arbitrate our differences. This was what Bellow wrote about.

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Housekeeping Item

So, I’m slowly but surely easing in to the blogging bathtub here.  A few sweetheart bloggers have been kind enough to link to me recently, even in my period of office-crazed absence.  I believe it’s in good taste to return the favor when they have good material.  I’m a minimalist — or at least someone who likes to keep particular snippets of life (in this case, words) tidy.  The best way I can think to achieve this is a BLOG ROLL … which you’ll see above now or after the jump if you click on the shiny blue text.

**only a few of these nice folks have linked to FH … others simply contribute to the internets in an enjoyable way … be that political and cultural commentary or baseball banter.

A One Dimensional Man

Leisure, which comes to be an important topic for discussion in modern society, is generally seen as time to alleviate the fatigue of labor, a time necessary for making people work again and a compensation of labor time. Therefore, leisure, at first glance, is a means, not an end. With the development of capitalism and capitalism’s desire to turn everything to a commodity, leisure also becomes an area of profit. 

Specifically, it is argued by many socialist thinkers that by developing a leisure industry, capitalism seeks the ways of getting back the wage paid in order to buy labor time. According to these thinkers, as distinct from modes of production, capitalism sees in everything related to man a commercial issue and what is calculated is not only production, but also how the products are to be consumed, how people are made to consume. That is why, advertisement sector, entertainment sector, brands, mass media are so important. Certainly, there is a leisure industry. 

I’ve been unwilling (before edit I wrote unable) to post since starting my new job.  The feeling of failure still clings to life like the cigarette smell that remains long after the baking soda treatment you applied to that garage sale rug.  Even after more than a month, the anxiety of a job search rents space in my mind.  When I find myself wondering about the worth of my current vocational situation, I often recall how the small, kafka-esque, buggy little man at the unemployment office, half-jokingly, asked about my ethnicity and religious preference prior to granting my application to get those last two weeks of benefit checks.  Things (and, in that case, my particular answers) could have been much worse just based on chance.

So, I’ve been exhausted lately…a pile of human hamburger trudging through a commute and sliming home to put in an appearance at real life.  Roughly 50 hour weeks at the new office and very little else has piqued my (sparse remaining) interest in labor and leisure – hence the quote above and this shiny blue text.

If you’ve never heard it before, let me be the first person to tell you that the vast majority of us exist for no other reason than to make money for a few of us (and the pronoun us probably isn’t very apt here, either – these people occupy another stratosphere of the human experience).  The world we’ve constructed is a funny-seeming, absurd mass labor farm akin to a Matrix-type scenario in which the beneficiaries aren’t even concerned with putting on a show of concern enough to alter our perception of reality.  Hell, they’ve just made certain our education system is farcical enough that we’re no longer capable of perceiving reality at all.

With Occupy becoming a shell of a movement (see sophomoric & alienating, dow-rod brandishing black block mayday tactics as one example…the NATO whimper as another), it’s doubtful any systemic change is forthcoming, no?  So, let’s just sit back and assess.

At least we have our time off.

I work 50-hour weeks.  To be successful at my desk, you really ought to put in 60 or more.   As it is just now, I come home, I do my best to conjure up the scraps of emotional and spiritual leavings I have left from a day full of monotony and meaninglessness and I try to refocus on what really matters – the few meaningful relationships I keep, my intellectual curiosities, personal goals, etc.

I’ve come to the conclusion that – even in a world where labor saving technology is rampant – we have no experience of meaningful leisure.  If you buy Aristotelian ethics and political thought – in which, leisure is a requirement of citizenship (or “honorable action) – this is a bleak outcome.  Do a quick back of the envelope calculation of what you consider leisurely.  If you’re anything like me, you’ve come to see dining at restaurants, big bar tabs, vintage furniture shopping, and a night at the movies as your only recourse to recuperation from work.  Our lives are just as disconnected from DIY leisure as they have become from DIY sustenance.  We’re each and every one of us commodities, even when we’ve finished working.  Mass (wo)man incarnate.

We depend on spending to rest.  The only way to feel the experience of your free time comes at a hefty cost.  That deep sigh of carelessness that used to come from the factory whistle now resonates through the ATM beeps, the clanging of the cash register, the live music that streams around the edges of the bar door as you’ve paid your cover charge.

Perhaps Adorno is right here.  Could time off be nothing more than “a shadowy continuation of labor”?  God only knows I spend enough downtime simply staring off in to space to suggest that it may be.  If anything, it may have become a pastiche of consumer-voyeuristic-restlessness in which there is no possible reprieve.  Let’s rephrase the positives here, then.

At least we’ll certainly see unemployment every 10 to 18 months in this economy.

I’ll close with a quote that’s, to me, powerful but that seems quite contrary to the American notion of the labor/leisure paradigm:

Leisure is essential to civilization, and in former times leisure for the few was only rendered possible by the labours of the many. But their labours were valuable, not because work is good, but because leisure is good. And with modern technique it would be possible to distribute leisure justly without injury to civilization.   – Bertrand Russell (In Praise of Idleness)

*Interesting sidenote/rant – all of the dyed-in-the-wool (yet often well-meaning and intentionally optimistic) progressive types who I know well or otherwise who tend to bleat away about life-improving technology ubiquitous in our contemporary world seldom seem to work in a realm where labor-saving technology is rampant (i.e. labor is devalued).  They’re typically serving at restaurants.  Coincidence?

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Announcing an FH, Anti-Bush-Family-themed Super-PAC…

to go toe-to-malevolent-cloven-hooved-toe with (Jeb’s son) George P. Bush’s set of (two) super(evil)-PACs.  I’m not sure why Latino voters would align with the youngest Bush, other than the fact that he’s latino — because, you know, his dad loves courting latinos so much that he procreated with a Latina out of political aspirations.  Don’t think so?  Nay FH, you say — that’s just too far…  See the following Google results string:


You’re right, you’re right … I can’t say (or write) unequivocally that Jeb Bush hooked up with a Spanish-speaking lady in a post-Machiavellian ultra-political-realist attempt to WIN BACK THE LATINO VOTE that propelled his idiot bro’ to the presidency… but I just did.

So… how do we start that Super-PAC?  Was it here that I read the directions or here?  You guys let me know if you’re in, ok…

In my best (mis[under]{is this FOIL?})estimation, Bush(es) collecting Latina/o votes is on par with the political-act-par-excellence of Obama backing Gays-Marrying-Gays-at-this-term-in-the-reelction-cycle (marriage equality makes sense but I can’t stand such blatant political tactics, no matter the outcome).  Wash.  Rinse.  Repeat.  Dandruff.

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I got a job…

started today.  /euphoria.  thank the universe I’m a human being again, albeit a non-factoring one considering I don’t own stock in anything. this phenomenon may impact my posting abilities for a time.

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GRE Panic

I don’t usually post about personal stuff but I just took the GRE today and wanted to share.  As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been out of work for 6 weeks — just prior to getting let go I signed up for the test.  I had thought I’d get ample time to study but I really wasn’t able to motivate myself for whatever reason.  Today was test day and I certainly wasn’t expecting much.

Without disclosing too much, I went through the ETS Prometrics security screening process and couldn’t help but feel as though I was taking the test in that area just beyond the airport security line where you fumble around with all your stuff and slip your shoes back on just before you head to the terminal.  I spent four or so hours on the test until, finally — just before I fell asleep at my computer workstation, I had completed all six sections.

As I clicked through the completion menu on the computer screen I ultimately reached the the SCORES page.  Here was the moment I had been waiting for and, if I was really lucky, I wouldn’t have to retake.

My heart sank to my feet as, exhausted, I watched the page finally load and my scores came in to view.  Why the F@#% was the first number for both portions of the test — quantitative and qualitative — a 1   ?!?!?!?!?!?!  GRE scores range from 200 – 800 — it should have been IMPOSSIBLE TO SCORE IN THE 100S.  OMG AKA WTF!

I had rid myself of my iPhone a few weeks ago so there was no way to see what the hell had gone wrong and I was taking public transit home from downtown so I had a 40 minute commute to boil over.  Panic attacks, identity crises, legitimate fears for my health and mental wellbeing … and then I got home and found out ETS had completely revamped the scoring system as of August of 2011.

What a moron.  I surely deserve to go to grad school, no?

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Arthur Miller, Barton Fink

Lee Siegel has a piece up this morning in the International Herald Times titled Death of a Salesman’s Dreams.  Being a salesman of sorts and having recently seen Arthur Miller’s The Price, I was drawn in.

Siegel seems to feel the contemporary rendition of the Arthur Miller play rings hollow because the middle class dream — a dream described by Miller himself as a “pseudo life that thought to touch the clouds by standing on top of a refrigerator, waving a paid-up mortgage at the moon, victorious at last,” — has no place in a society where top marginal tax rates have dropped from 82% to 30% or less, depending upon your capital gains receipts.  He finds irony in the fact that only the affluent can afford tickets (starting at $111) to see Philip Seymour Hoffman portray Willy Loman, a salt-of-the-earth type who struggles to make good financially while retaining his humanity.

What Siegel misses is that Miller’s target audience was never real life Willy Lomans — not in 1949 and not now.  Siegel suggests that “elite intellectuals like Mr. Miller himself unwittingly created an atmosphere hostile to such middle-class attitudes”.  If Mr. Siegel knew better, and I think he does, he’d have dropped the term “unwittingly”.

Siegel’s thinking — that a new affluent class has adopted the play as a means to feelings of superiority — is just plain wrong-headed.  Though he hints at it, Siegel never quite admits that Miller meant “Death of a Salesman” , not as a mirror for the middle-class to behold their failings, but as a critique of the materialism of the capitalist middle class … for the self-congratulation of the elite.  The play affirms the superiority of the minority, a claim that always informed Miller’s thought.  Anti-democratic sentiments are ubiquitous throughout his work — his critique of the feeblemindedness of the masses in the face of demagoguery in The Crucible, his scathing review of the amoral nature of the social-climbing professional class in The Price, his adaptation of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and so on.

 “You see, the point is that the strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.”

“The majority is never right. Never, I tell you! That’s one of these lies in society that no free and intelligent man can help rebelling against. Who are the people that make up the biggest proportion of the population — the intelligent ones or the fools?”

“What sort of truths are they that the majority usually
supports? They are truths that are of such advanced age that they are
beginning to break up. And if a truth is as old as that, it is also in
a fair way to become a lie, gentlemen.”

Quotes from Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People

Would a man who’d aligned himself with the masses or gave much mind to their reform set out to adapt a play like Ibsen’s?  Was marrying starlet-of-the-century Marilyn Monroe a decidedly working-class act on Miller’s part?  Would a mass-minded-populist glorify the character Victor Franz (The Price) — a simple working-class flat-foot stiff who firmly knew his place — while vilifying his brother Walter for his unchecked ambitions and his awkward social-climb in to the professional class?  Siegel’s latest piece is just another contribution to the myth of Arthur Miller, American Populist, Leftist, Communist — revealer of the flawed-but-humane popular hero.

Each time I watch Barton Fink, I’m reminded of Arthur Miller and his set — literary opportunists ready to make a genre on the backs of popular struggles they’ll never know themselves:

Well, I don’t mean to get up on my high horse, but why
shouldn’t we look at ourselves up there? Who cares
about the Fifth Earl of Bastrop and Lady Higginbottom
and – and – and who killed Nigel Grinch-Gibbons?

I can feel my butt getting sore already.

Exactly, Charlie! You understand what I’m saying – a lot
more than some of these literary types. Because you’re a
real man!1

And I could tell you some stories –

Sure you could! And yet many writers do everything in
their power to insulate themselves from the common man –
from where they live, from where they trade, from where
they fight and love and converse and – and – and
. . . so naturally their work suffers, and regresses into
empty formalism and – well, I’m spouting off again, but to
put it in your language, the theater becomes as phony as a
three-dollar bill.

Yeah, I guess that’s tragedy right there.

Frequently played, seldom remarked.

Charlie laughs.

Whatever that means.

Barton smile[s] with him.

As an aside, I think Siegel also misses the mark by failing to identify that today’s Willy Lomans aren’t sales shills who’re out on the road selling widgets for the man — they’re creative men and women with a powerful longing to claw back some of their human agency.  Today’s Willy’s aren’t fighting to retain humanity within the inhumane business-sphere — they’ve already conceded the impossibility of that act.  This generation of middle-class-workers wants to get in and get out of the corporate environment — many of them have fixed their gaze on idyllic return-to-the-land schemes, DIY business start-ups, or a plethora of other means of “going it alone” to create a modest, humane life from outside the parvenue of the capitalist class.

*As a caveat, I enjoy Siegel’s writing and think his unrelated thoughts on the dangers of the internet are interesting, too.  In this case, I was simply struck with liberality of his most recent piece.  I think he’s a better writer than he showed today so I’m not just “hurling the Sprezzatura stuff” here.

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Hobbes & Caged Lions: A Video Metaphor for Occupy

[T]he underlying terror of death is what drives most of the human endeavor. — Moore & Williamson

Knowing that, take a look at THIS VIDEO of a family of tourists as they thoroughly enjoy themselves while a lion tries its best to eat their baby (courtesy of WhoIsIoz, one of my favorites).  At least one of them wonders aloud whether laughing at the specter of death was “right”.  Find yourself thinking there was something inherently problematic with a family caterwauling like jackals in the face of death?  I certainly did.

If we reach back to political theorist and all-around curmudgeon Thomas Hobbes and accept his work as fact (ugh), fear of death was the organizing principle that had us leave the state of nature to form civil society.  It’s important to note that Hobbes’ lifetime and career were contemporaneous with the English Civil War (1642-1651) and much of his work was informed by the violence, death, and destruction endemic to those times.

Fear, according to Hobbes, suffuses and shapes human life. It pervades the state of nature, of whose many miseries the “worst of all [is] continual fear,and the danger of violent death.” ‘It is both the sole origin of civil society (“the original of all great and lasting societies consisted not in the mutual goodwill men had towards each other, but in the mutual fear they had of each other”) and the only reliable means of its preservation (“during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, as is of everyman, against everyman.”) At once the principal cause of  war and the principal means to peace, fear is the basis both of man’s most urgent plight and of his only possible escape.  

Hobbesian Fear, Jan H. Blits, Political Theory , Vol. 17, No. 3 (Aug., 1989), pp. 417-431
Pessimistic Hobbes saw that fear has uses — it wasn’t the primary driver of humanity even if it was the ultimate organizing factor.  For Hobbes, insatiable thirst for power is the primary human characteristic and self-knowledge of that power-hunger is the root of civilizing fear and paranoia.
So what happens when a small sect of humanity is altogether freed from fear?  When an elite few understands all the levers of power are pulled in the direction that benefits them most?  Their avid power-pursuit goes unchecked and those individuals would become blatant, belligerent, and unapologetic in their pursuit of self-interest, no?  If you have a moment, watch that video again and then watch this: Wall St. Traders Laugh at Occupy Arrests    See any similarities?
*I’m in no way advocating violence here.  These are simple comments about what monetizing politics a la Citizens United could do to the status quo and the hyper-inequality we’ve seen perpetuated in this country since the 70s.
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