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November 2004

Sunday Night Journal — November 28, 2004

The Elemental Thanksgiving

I’m sure we’ve all, in the last week or so, seen a number of lists of Things For Which We Are Or Should be Thankful. Having just read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume 1, I’m of a mind to add something which I haven’t seen on anyone’s list: most of us should be thankful that we have never achieved great fame, the kind of fame that prevents one from being able to live a normal life and going about one’s daily business unnoticed. I’ve long suspected, and Dylan’s book confirms, that this is one of the worst things that can happen to a person.

But more about Dylan’s surprisingly good book another time. Much higher on my Thanksgiving list than the absence of fame is existence. Not my personal existence but the simple fact that there is anything at all, something rather than nothing. Why should there be anything? Taking Occam’s Razor—not to multiply entities without necessity—as far as it will go, why should there be any entities in the first place? Would not a pristine nullity be as it were the most natural…what? Thing? Condition? State? Each of those words implies existence. Some months ago I picked up in a bookstore a book about the concept of nothing. The few pages that I sampled seem to indicate that the author was dealing more with the concept of zero or emptiness or specific instances of absence rather than of nothing: no space, no time, nothing, which is as difficult to imagine as infinity. To the extent that one can conceive of it, there would seem to be no way at all to get from Nothing to Something. Steven Hawkins, I read somewhere, disposed of the concept of God as unnecessary because “a quantum fluctuation in the void” would be sufficient to begin the cosmos. But quanta are not Nothing. And as Nothing is a great deal simpler and more reasonable than Something, it seems that surprise and gratitude that there is Something should inform our attitudes and our thinking.

Second on my Thanksgiving list is my personal existence: the fact that I exist and have a consciousness capable of perceiving other entities and of knowing that I perceive them. This seems to me the elemental pleasure of human life. Once in my college days I attempted to comfort a despondent friend by saying that the simple ability to see things like sunlight and green leaves ought to be enough reason for living. I learned later that there are states of agony in which this is not true, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the seeing becomes impossible. Moreover, as life goes on it is possible, if one has no belief in transcendent purpose, for this simple pleasure of existence to be blighted by a sense of futility; indeed it is probably inevitable, given a long enough life and no hope of heaven. Still, for a soul in anything less than deathly sickness or decrepitude I think my old insight is valid.

I am thankful that I have and can perceive Being. Thanksgiving becomes rejoicing when I reflect that Being is itself a person: the I AM, the great revelation given to the Jews and later through them to all the nations. God is not an entity among others, he is existence itself, the Uncontingent One, without whom was not anything made that was made, and he encompasses and exceeds everything we can see or imagine in the entities for which existence is only an attribute and not their essence, including persons and their personhood. Surely it is only habit and apathy which can render such an idea tiresome to us, and so it is well that we have a day set aside for Thanksgiving, even if we do not use it in contemplation of God. The contemplation, in gratitude, of anything outside ourselves will do for a start.

Sunday Night Journal — November 21, 2004

Yeats vs. Eliot

A couple of recent biographies of Yeats have, not surprisingly, provoked in some reviewers that potent urge to rank the modern poets as if they were so many sprinters or show dogs. This is an odd compulsion, and seems no less so to me for the fact that I find it in myself and thus have a case study close at hand. It seems to affect the aficionados of any art; it certainly does those of my main interests, which are literature and music. I have a co-worker who is as much a pop music fan as I am, and who has attempted to draw me into playing one of the most futile of these ranking games: that of picking the All-Time Top Ten Greatest Albums. I’ve never gotten very far with that one; only a few minutes thought suffice for me to come up with dozens of works that deserve to be in the top ten, and so that’s where I leave it.

The game of Greatest Modern Poet is much more appealing. I suppose that’s because there are not a great many candidates for the position. For me it comes down to a choice between Yeats and Eliot. I favor Eliot, and my reasons for doing so involve an important aesthetic question: to what extent does truth matter in literature?

An art of which language is the raw material inevitably has a discursive element, and touches on truth and falsehood in a way that music, for instance, does not. The mundane facts of the work may be entirely imaginative, but they must be true to what we know about the world, and the higher the work rises from the mundane the more important it is that it be true. Inevitably ideas present themselves, and we will either agree or disagree with them. In the latter case we may choose to ignore the disagreement, depending on how serious it is and on how important the ideas are to the work. We may even make an effort to enter imaginatively into the state of mind of one who believes the ideas, as a sympathetic and appreciative atheist might do with Dante, if the work seems to warrant the effort. Still, we naturally and inevitably prefer the work which does not require that effort. It is not only that such an embrace is easier, but that the experience of it is more whole. The work itself may be lesser, yet our enjoyment of it greater, because we are not forced to withhold our admiration for important aspects of it.

I think Yeats has a much greater poetic gift than Eliot, and he certainly produced more poetry of a higher quality than Eliot did, and yet I value Eliot’s work more, because Eliot is a Christian, and so am I, while Yeats is not. It was not for nothing that Christ promised us not peace but a sword; the division between those who believe in him and those who do not is profound and cannot be ignored or wished away. Christian faith is among other things a set of propositions about the essential nature of things, and a work of literature which is not based on Christian faith is, for the believer, fundamentally inaccurate. To repeat myself, as a defense against misunderstanding, this does not mean that the believer cannot admire and enjoy and love a work which arises from a non-Christian view of things, but it does mean that he is always left with a sense of something missing or awry in it.

Much of Yeats’ work is spoiled by bad philosophy, and by that I don’t mean only that it is non-Christian but also that it is eccentric and esoteric and doesn’t seem to be of much use or interest to anyone except those who want to understand his poetry better. A Christian recognizes in it the old enemy Gnosticism, and it shares with other forms of that ancient sensibility a penchant for obscure and complex symbolism. He wrote it all down in a book called A Vision, which I actually read when I was young and of which I now recall nothing. His best poems are understandable without the paraphernalia, but there are too many which were no doubt the product of great labor and now seem only to take up unnecessary space in his Collected Works.

I took down that book for the first time in many years while I was considering what I would say here, and I have to say that I think Yeats’ reputation no less well deserved now than I did when I was an enthusiast in my twenties. There truly is not another poetic voice in the modern period—that is to say, between the late 19th century and the present—which ranks with it in sheer genius, the sheer ability to put together potent and unforgettable sequences of words. I’m tempted, in fact, to retract what I have just spent several paragraphs saying. Yet in comparison with Eliot I still would have to say that if I had to do without one of them I would take Eliot. I might even take only the Four Quartets. To play another of those silly ranking games, the one that asks what you would take with you to a desert island, Eliot would still be my desert island choice. If I had to choose, which I’m glad I don’t.

Sunday Night Journal — November 14, 2004

Rediscovering Jimi Hendrix

A few months ago, writing about the pleasures of driving, I described myself listening to a Jimi Hendrix album on my daily commute. As soon as I wrote that sentence I felt slightly embarrassed: what a stereotypical baby boomer pop fan, on the far side of middle age, tooling down the highway to the nostalgic accompaniment of the music that was new when he was in college and has long since passed into the realm of the conventional. I considered changing or removing the reference, but in the interests of honesty left it in; it was, after all, what I was listening to on the day I was describing.

But I can also, in honesty, say that I was not indulging in nostalgia. In fact, at the time it was current Hendrix’s music never really meant that much to me. There was a period of six months or so when Are You Experienced? was inescapable, at least in certain circles, and although I was, like everyone else who was interested in pop music, pretty amazed and intrigued by the guitar work on it, this was not music that really touched my emotions. His second album was a disappointment and the third a mixed bag, and by the time of his death in 1970 I had pretty much lost interest in his music and didn’t hear it again for many years, except for the few songs that had become staples of classic rock radio.

At some point in the ‘80s I had a yen to hear Hendrix again and discovered that I had lost my copy of Are You Experienced? and gained a copy of a greatest hits compilation which included most of the more popular songs from Experienced. Listening to it, I found I had completely lost the little taste I had ever had for the noisy riff songs of sexual bravado like “Foxy Lady,” but the album contained a gem I had missed in the ‘60s, a straight-up blues called “Red House.” I had always heard that Hendrix could play the blues when he wanted to, but I hadn’t known he did it with genius. This cut was timeless, unlike a lot of Hendrix’s recorded work.

It was only this year that I discovered the existence of an entire CD of Hendrix playing the blues (called simply Blues). After one hearing it took its place in my mind as one of the great blues albums of all time, even though it’s mostly comprised of jams and outtakes that were never meant to be released. Hendrix’s guitar work is just staggering. A song like “Once I Had a Woman” begins with fairly straightforward blues licks, then with every verse gets more imaginative and further out until it’s full of the intensely expressive screams and roars and wails that only he at the time could produce and few have matched since, even with electronics that can produce similar tones at the touch of a button.

The blues vocabulary is of course fundamentally limited, and even Hendrix doesn’t avoid clichés and repetition completely. I find myself wondering what it is about his playing that sets it apart. I think part of the explanation is in the rhythms, which somehow manage to be simultaneously tight and loose, heavy and light. It’s as if the temporal space in which he places each note is larger than it is for other players; as if he has some extra room to work with, and doesn’t have to be in a rush to put the note exactly where he wants it, so that there is a underlying relaxed quality even when he’s playing fast and intensely. Someone like Eric Clapton, who is equally quick, seems a bit four-square, almost stiff in comparison. Someone like Stevie Ray Vaughan seems like he’s working really hard. Almost everything Hendrix does seems effortless, unstrained, as if he has as much speed and power in reserve as he is actually using at any moment.

And then there’s the tone, or rather there are the tones. Few others have (and nobody at the time had) as wide a range, and yet most electric guitar aficionados need only a few notes to recognize the Hendrix sound. To compare him to his contemporary Eric Clapton again (and no criticism of Clapton intended, because he’s a great guitarist), Clapton’s tone is very pure and clean, while Hendrix’s is scuffed up, richer, thicker, and more varied. His playing in the middle and higher range of the instrument has a liquid quality which as far as I’ve heard has not been duplicated by anybody. And of course there are what might be called the post-guitar tones. Hendrix was the first pop musician to find a way to make an expressive tool out of what at first seems to be sheer noise.

It’s when Hendrix combines the controlled noise of feedback and whatever else he stirred into the mix with ventures into melodic territory well outside the blues vocabulary that people trying to describe it come up with terms like “blues from Mars.” It’s a combination of earthiness and abstraction that to me is nothing less than gripping. There are people who play faster and louder and with more complexity, but I don’t know of anyone whose playing has more emotional power than Hendrix at his best.

This blues album sent me back to some of the other Hendrix albums for the first time in many years. I have to say that most of his songs don’t really amount to a great deal as anything except guitar vehicles, and you have to overlook a lot of gimmicky lust and psychedelia to enjoy them. The tracks that I keep going back to are the longer mostly instrumental ones, like “Voodoo Chile” on Electric Ladyland (the less said about the title song the better), or the strange ones like “Third Stone from the Sun” on Are You Experienced?. One wishes he had recorded more covers, as “All Along the Watchtower” has probably had wider popularity than anything else he recorded. Speaking of which, its famous solo is a perfect example of that intense-but-relaxed quality, with moments where many notes are dropped into a small space and yet still have plenty of room. And I downloaded from iTunes a copy of the famous Woodstock “Star Spangled Banner” (I have no desire at all to hear the whole album) and it strikes me as some kind of unique American masterpiece.

Like anybody who admires the work of Jimi Hendrix, I find myself wondering what might have been. I suppose drugs had a lot to do with the wildness of some of his experimentation, but I find it hard to believe that they did not also limit and hamper him musically (aside from the fact, of course, that they also killed him.) I find myself thinking of him less as a pop star who stumbled into moments of brilliance than as an innovator who was too bogged down in the stupid and destructive aspects of stardom and hippie culture to flower fully before his untimely death.

Attempting to be realistic in one’s speculations, one must suppose that had he lived, his subsequent development would probably have been like that of most of his contemporaries: an increasingly uninspired recapitulation of his early achievements. But there are moments in some of the pop songs on Are You Experienced? and his other official releases when it almost sounds like John Coltrane has dropped in on a recording session of the Rolling Stones, and I wonder if the work of a forty-year-old Hendrix might have had more in common with that of later musicians whom he helped to inspire, such as Bill Frissel, than with what he did at twenty-five.

Sunday Night Journal — November 7, 2004

Escape from Missouri

I intend to keep my resolution not to write about politics for the next four weeks, but I think I can justify the use of one reaction to the election as a segue into another topic. Novelist Jane Smiley, writing for Slate, tore into the people who voted for Bush with a ferocity remarkable even in a time of overheated rhetoric. The intellectual quality of the piece is made clear in its title: "The Unteachable Ignorance of the Red States." There’s no need for me to argue against it, as there is not much to be gained by arguing with a scream of rage. The gist of it is that the people who voted for Bush—the so-called red state people—are very bad, and aside from its ferocity it’s pretty much the same sort of thing we provincials are used to hearing from those who look down on us.

But here’s what I want to talk about: Jane Smiley is herself, she confesses, from Missouri, a red state, and is in at least enough contact with relatives there to know that they voted for Bush. She partially exempts them from her condemnation of the 58 million Bush voters, but only partially: “they’re not ignorant, they are just greedy, and full of…superiority”.

This is a familiar phenomenon: the person who rises (or thinks he has risen) above his roots and now despises them. I view this as a sort of cosmic bad form, and think less of anyone who seems to think and behave this way, at least if he is older than thirty or so and I can’t plausibly tell myself that he is likely to grow out of it.

Which of us has made himself? If one’s character and personality are determined by some combination of heredity and environment, how did Jane Smiley escape being the slave of the “ignorance and bloodlust” which she sees as dominating other Missourians? Other statements in her piece make it seem highly unlikely that she believes in God, and so would not attribute her lucky escape to divine favor or intervention. Perhaps she was just the beneficiary of a random mutation.

None of these possible explanations gives Ms. Smiley herself credit for her superiority. Yet those who despise the people and the culture that produced them generally leave the impression that they do give themselves such credit—as if they had in fact made themselves, and done a pretty darned good job of it. At the very least there is an implication that they rose above their origins as a result of some noble quality in themselves, for which they deserve credit. But surely it’s far more plausible to suppose that this virtue (if it exists) began with their genes, or their family environment, or both, and is in no way their own doing. The higher one rises, I would think, the greater ought to be one’s humility, for no amount of work can cause one to excel at anything that one is not equipped by nature to do. All achievement—even the achievement of rising above the hell that is Missouri—starts with some gift of potentiality which the recipient did nothing whatsoever to merit, much less to cause. We deserve credit for what we do with what we are given, but we can do nothing with what we were not given.

This idea of the self-determined individual is a common thread among outwardly dissimilar elements of the American mosaic. Jane Smiley would presumably locate her politics somewhere on the leftward end of the spectrum, but it would appear that she shares some basic attitudes with the Ayn Rand crowd. And I suppose it’s one of the reasons we really don’t, in general as a nation, take the past as seriously as we should, and suffer so much from the dream that we are superior to and untrammeled by the old incorrigible nature of the human race. We still want to think that we can just leap forth from the past like a waterfowl springing into the air. The belief that we can will ourselves out of the tragic cycles of history may itself be our tragic flaw.

That was one of the lessons I learned in the 1960s. Later on I learned that it is part of what is meant by the term “original sin.”