Thursday, December 29, 2011

Joseph Roth on The End of the World

The New York Review of Books (December 22, 2011) has an essay by Michael Hofmann about Joseph Roth that will serve as the introduction to Hofmann's translation of Roth's letters. Here a passage that puts the end of the world in its place:

I am not in a tizzy about the letter from. . . . In view of the approaching end of the world, it's no big deal. But even then, in the trenches, staring death in the face 10 minutes before going over the top, I was capable of beating up a sonofabitch for claiming he was out of cigarettes when he wasn't, for instance. The end of the world is one thing, the sonofabitch is another. You can't put the sonofabitch down to the general condition of things. He's separate.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Western Civilization

The headline, with an Abbot involved, seemed to implicate me. And then a second article about religious intolerance made me wonder just what s0-called religious men fear about women (and female animals). And how is that fear related to a need to control? And then I remembered the mission statement of the grounds crew of Mormon BYU: "The grounds will be kept clipped and controlled." And then I thought about what Gandhi said when asked what he thought about Western Civilization: "I think it would be a good ideal."

Greek Abbot Jailed Over Land Swap Scandal
Published: December 28, 2011 at 12:13 PM ET
ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek authorities on Wednesday jailed the abbot of a 1,000-year-old Greek Orthodox monastery pending trial for his alleged key role in a land swap with the state that blew up into a major political scandal.

Investigators have said the deal was weighted in favor of Vatopedi Monastery in northern Greece and cost taxpayers about euro100 million ($131 million). Two ministers lost their jobs over the swap, which the conservative government canceled, acknowledging that it had hurt the public interest.
The scandal nonetheless contributed significantly to the conservatives' 2009 general election defeat.
Abbot Efraim, 55, was led to Athens' Korydallos prison after spending the night in the capital's police headquarters, following a 600-kilometer (370-mile) journey from the Orthodox monastic sanctuary of Mount Athos — from which women and female animals have been banned since 1046.
Israel detains ultra-Orthodox man in bus row with soldier

JERUSALEM | Wed Dec 28, 2011 12:57pm EST
(Reuters) - Israel detained an ultra-Orthodox man on Wednesday on suspicion of calling a woman soldier a "whore" on a public bus for refusing his appeals that she move to the back of the vehicle, a police spokesman said.

The incident came days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to crack down on acts of harassment by religious zealots, with the publicity surrounding these cases risking upsetting his political alliances with ultra-Orthodox parties.

Much of the controversy has surrounded complaints by women against ultra-Orthodox men trying to force them to sit separately in the backs of public buses in deference to their religious beliefs against any mixing of the sexes in public.

Soldier Doron Matalon said on Israel Radio that a devoutly religious man had approached her and insisted she move to the back of a bus in Jerusalem earlier on Wednesday, after she had embarked at a station near her military base.

"It was very frightening," Matalon said, saying the incident was not the first in which she had been asked to move to the back of a bus but that this time she felt more defiant.

Matalon said she replied to the man: "You can move to the back if you want. Just like you don't want to see my face, I don't want to see yours." She added that she was "serving our country, which unfortunately means I am also defending you."

The man responded by shouting at her "whore, go sit in the back," Matalon said, adding that the driver later stopped the vehicle and police arrived.
Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld confirmed an ultra-Orthodox man was taken into custody and "questioned about his motives" for insulting the soldier, but no decision had yet been made as to whether he would be charged.

Some bus lines that serve predominantly religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem and other cities have been segregated despite complaints from women's groups that their civil rights were being violated.

Under Israeli law women are entitled to object to sitting in the back, but they risk verbal and physical abuse for refusing to do so.

Several thousand activists demonstrated in the city of Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem on Tuesday against incidents in which ultra-Orthodox zealots have spat at and insulted women and female children, complaining they were immodestly dressed.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Altered Consciousness and "The Idiot"

Yesterday, in the late afternoon, I sat in front of the stove, feeding it wood now and then while reading Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot in  Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation.

Chapter V of Part Two has Prince Myshkin back from Moskow, looking for Rogozhin and then Nastasya Filippovna. His mind starts to slip, a sure prelude to an epileptic seizure, and he fights for clarity of thought, wrestles with his perceptions.

"He fell to thinking, among other things, about his epileptic condition, that there was a stage in it just before the fit itself (if the fit occurred while he was awake), when suddenly, amidst the sadness, the darkness of soul, the pressure, his brain would momentarily catch fire, as it were, and all his life's forces would be strained at once in an extraordinary impulse. The sense of life, of self-awareness, increased nearly tenfold in these moments, which flashed by like lightning. His mind, his heart were lit up with an extraordinary light; all his agitation, all his doubts, all his worries were as if placated at once, resolved in a jolt of sublime tranquillity, filled with serene, harmonious joy, and hope, filled with reason and ultimate cause" (225-226).

"'So what if it is an illness?' he finally decided. 'Who cares that it's an abnormal strain, if the result itself, if the moment of the sensation, remembered and examined in a healthy state, turns out to be the highest degree of harmony, beauty, gives a hitherto unheard-of and unknown feeling of fullness, measure, reconciliation, and an ecstatic, prayerful merging with the highest synthesis of life?' . . . If in that second, that is, in the very last conscious moment before the fit, he had happened to succeed in saying clearly and consciously to himself: 'Yes, for this moment one could give one's whole life!'—then surely this moment in itself was worth a whole life" (226).
Reflection on Kitchen Counter

"'At that moment,' as he had once said to Rogozhin in Moscow, when they got together there, 'at that moment I was somehow able to understand the extraordinary phrase that time shall be no more. Probably,' he had added, smiling, 'it's the same second in which the jug of water overturned by the epileptic Muhammad did not have time to spill, while he had time during the same second to survey all the dwellings of Allah'" (226-227).

"Then suddenly it was as if something opened up before him: an extraordinary inner light illumined his soul. This moment lasted perhaps half a second. . . . Then his consciousness instantly went out, and there was total darkness. He had had a fit of epilepsy, which had left him very long ago. It is know that these fits, falling fits properly speaking, come instantaneously" (234).

As I'm reading about this extraordinary (and the word is used repeatedly) hightened consciousness, perhaps 8 hours since I last ate something, and while drinking a strong gin-and-tonic, I can feel my own consciousness shift. I put down the book and gaze into the fire. I lay my head on the chair's arm and gaze out the window. The vertical lines of the house, of the window frames and the post of the front porch and the stucco corner stand out vividly. I shift my gaze slightly to the maple skeletons, find a dark spot, it must be a remaining leaf, that breaks the lines of the branches, and savor the experience of unexpected and powerful perception. The dark spot. I focus on the dark spot, on the contrast between the spot and the ink lines of the trees. I'm flooded with joy at the beauty—the simple beauty that is obviously in the eye and soul of the beholder and perhaps only thus beautiful. I wander into the kitchen and find an extraordinary reflection shining from the counter.

Thrilled, I get my camera and take pictures of what I am seeing, wondering how the images will resonate in the morning.

So here they are. While I think they are striking, there is no way, other than in these descriptions in language, to get at the phenomenological experience, at the feelings and perceptions that were the experience.

Later in the evening, wondering, as had Myshkin ("Was he dreaming some sort of abnormal and nonexistent visions at that moment, as from hashish, opium, or wine, which humiliate the reason and distort the soul? He could reason about itsensibly once his morbid state was over. Those moments were precisely only an extraordinary intensification of self-awareness" (226)), how real or how authentic or how meaningful the experience was, I thought again of the careful, rational, abstemious years I spent as a practicing, teetotalling Mormon. There are benefits to such a temperate life; but as I was trying to make sense of my own life in the new context that emerged with the death of my brother John, of AIDS, as I measured my prim abstinence with his sometimes profligate drinking, I remembered calls from Van Winkles, the restaurant he worked at in San Tee, California, a Chargers' game blaring in the background, John's voice both excited and a bit slurred.

I visited the restaurant, and I've thought, often, about contrasts between two brothers, some in his favor, some in mine:

Van Winkles, 1994

The tiny khaki-colored can of Emergency Drinking Water among John’s things was for that horrible moment, perhaps, when there was nothing stronger in the house. During telephone conversations with Mom, John routinely promised he would quit drinking and get more education. His calls to me were often fortified by alcohol. 
I don’t get drunk. Nor did I call him.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Thomas Mann, East German Edition: Bibliotragedy

When I traveled east for graduate studies in German at Princeton, I carried with me a 12-volume edition of Thomas Mann's works given to me by Chuck Hamaker, a friend and librarian. We had one child, Joe, and very little money, living on the $2500 yearly stipend the German program had awarded me.

 Books were precious.

After about a year in Princeton, our daughter Maren was born. She sometimes slept with us in those first months. One night I fell asleep while reading Mann, letting the book slide down to the floor. 

 During the night, one of us changed Maren's diaper and dropped the soaked cloth beside the bed. Directly onto the open book.

By morning the book was swollen to three times its normal thickness. Days of drying ensued. I tried all kinds of things, including showering the pages with baby powder. Today, 33 years later, while taking photos of the books, I slammed the pages of the book together and was greeted by a fragrant puff of baby powder.

And which of the volumes was it? The Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull (The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man), of course, a book that drips delicious irony all on its own. This page (646) doubles down on the irony with its account of Lust und Liebe, which, as Mark Twain pointed out, is like familiarity, which breeds children in real life, if not in novels.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


sunset, december 21, 2011, from our porch in woodland hills
Today the sun-stands still (sol-stice) after having wandered south for six months. Tomorrow it will start moving north again. That's good news for all of us who get SAD this time of year.
This figure from a Weber State site shows what's up:

Lots more information at the site (click on the caption).

Seasonal sadness doesn't seem to be a new thing. Alignments of standing stones set up thousands of years ago mark the point the sun will reach before finally starting to come back. 

The photo below shows the southernmost reach of the sun, right at the top of Santaquin Mountain. Moving to the left, as the sun now will do, it will slide down the mountain, climb the peak with the microwave tower, and descent down into the next dip before June 21.
sunrise, day after the solstice
I spent a couple of weeks one summer traveling from Land's End to the Orkney Islands, visiting standing stones and thinking about why we stand up stones. There are burial sites and fertility sites as well as the astronomical sites, so the answers are multiple.

In honor of this year's solstice, some photos from that trip (much better ones all over the internet; but these are mine and thus memoryladen):



Stonehenge: No Access to Stone Circle!

Standing Stones of Stenness (Orkney Islands)

Ring of Brogar (Orkney Islands)

And the most phallic of them all! The Devil's Arrows

The Flowerville blogger's response to the photos took me back to the notebook I had with me on the trip. A couple of images scanned from the book I left in a London cinema near the end of the trip, after seeing Wim Wenders' Bis ans Ende der Welt, and then retrieved, gratefully!, hours later):

Standing Stones of Stenness

Ring of Brogar

What Remains of my Orkney Lunch
Finally, a poem of George Mackay Brown's, recommended by flowerville:

A Work for Poets

To have carved on the days of our vanity
A sun
A ship
A star
A cornstalk

Also a few marks
From an ancient forgotten time
A child may read

That not far from the stone
A well might open for wayfarers

Here is a work for poets --
Carve the runes
Then be content with silence

And a poem by my friend Leslie Norris, may he rest in peace, about poetry and life and the cromlech in the photo above (note the 12 stanzas -- *sta-nzas):

“The Twelve Stones of Pentre Ifan”

The wind

Over my shoulder

Blows from the cold of time.

It has
Shaped the hill,
It has honed the rock outcrops

With the
Granules of its
Rasping.  When the old ones

Were born
They dropped in dark-
ness, like sheep, and hot animals

Howled for
The afterbirths.
I watch the great stones of

Faith they
Moved in the flickering
Mountains of their nameless

Lives, and
See once more the
Points of adjusted rock, taller

Than any
Man who will ever
Stand where I stand, lifting their hope

In still,
Huge stone, pointed
To the flying wind.  The sea ebbs again

And round
The endless brevity
Of the seasons the old men’s cromlech

Its hard shadows.
The four great stones, elate and springing,

And the
Smaller stones, big
As a man, leaning in, supporting.
                        Leslie Norris (Walking the White Fields: Poems 1967-1980)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Jim Harrison's "The Great Leader"

I've been reading Jim Harrison's new novel, The Great Leader. It's about an upper peninsula detective with history as a hobby. His wife left him 3 years earlier. He mourns that loss as well as the death of his beloved dog.

I'm drawn to Harrison much as I'm drawn to Charles Bowden's work: neither writer has been castrated by too much civilization; both men see clearly and feel deeply; neither is afraid of revealing the weaknesses and proclivities that we (men especially) are prone to.

He retires at 65, early in the novel, but keeps on with a case he had —investigating a religious leader with pseudo native-american new-age sensibilities who gathered a group together in a longhouse in the woods and fucked them one and all. So the detective keeps following him, first to Arizona and then to Nebraska, even as he retires, trying to figure out the connections between sex, religion, and money. 

Early on the Great Leader shared some blackberry wine with him: "he was amused when Sunderson [the detective] had spit his blackberry wine on the ground thinking it tasted strongly of Robitussin cough syrup. 'What kind of fucking geek would drink this?' Sunderson had asked. 'My people,' G.L. had answered, adding that all herbalists knew that blackberries increased sexual energy." 

In another early part, he's half dreaming about naked cult members and his girlfriend Roxy: "he didn't care for one of her favoritye sexual positions which was to sit nude on his clothes dryer turned to 'cotton sturdy high' to feel the warm vibrations. He was 5'9" and had to stand on a low stool for proper contact and feared pitching over backward at climax. . . . In contrast, on a trip to Italy with his wife he had been absurdly and elegantly stimulated by the draped forms of Renaissance women in paintings. Sexuality had so many layers and those at the bottom were pathetic indeed." 

The old man in this ragbagofabook drinks too much and is getting old and although he peeks through his window at the neighbor girl who gets naked for him he would never sleep with the 16-year-old although he does with plenty of women.

And what to do now that he has retired, now that he is divorced, now that he is 65? He walks a lot, thinks about brook trout, tries to get close to the cult leader, drinks and dreams:

"Before answering Mona's call he had had a confused dream that had his favorite brook trout creek becoming round, a perfect circle in the meadow, woods, and marsh that was its path. Toward the end it had become coiled and serpentine, which reminded him of some of Marion's favorite ideas. The aging process was linear with the inevitability of gravity but our thinking and behavior tended to occur in clusters, knots that wound and unwound themselves."

"Turning from the beach and the loose sand and snow blasting into his face with the thunder of the waves in his ears he resented the frailty of his age. He felt that the cold was his heritage and now it was betraying him, a bit dramatic for the simple fact that he had forgotten to put on his wool long underwear."

In the end the book doesn't really end but that's perfect for this guy who isn't dead yet so why should the book end.

Darkest day of the year tomorrow.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Fog and Ice and a Dog Named Blue

Blue and I took a walk this morning. Here's some of what we saw (wish I could have photographed what he smelled):

Sunday, December 18, 2011

An Odd Concatenation of Memories

Just had, while reading Jim Harrison's new novel "The Great Leader," a passage about the old man's childhood paper route, an odd set of thoughts.

They begin when I was in junior high school, living in Farmington, New Mexico. I had a paper route, The Albuquerque Journal, and the subscribers were in our subdivision and a neighboring one. I delivered the papers dutifully every day. But collecting for the paper wasn't as easy. I would go around to the houses with a little notebook the Journal provided, and when they paid would give the customer a little receipt. But sometimes they weren't home and one month would lead to another and soon they owed for three months or four or even six and I felt guilty myself and unable to ask for so much money. I knew kids near my age in a couple of the houses and that made things difficult as well, for whatever reason.

I ended up eating the bills of some of these; and in any case was constantly in a state of knowing the books didn't exactly add up, always to my disadvantage, since I had to pay the Journal representative exactly what was owed.

Then there was the summer I worked for W. C. Bacon and Son, a water-well-drilling company in Salt Lake. I worked all summer, and aside from the drillbit I lost in one well and the time the company's pickup seized up when I was driving it past the Cottonwood Mall, I did my job and earned the company money. But the Bacon son, who was running the company, was having a tough time and the last month's money wasn't immediately forthcoming. We left for New Jersey with the debt unpaid. I lived with that for about 6 months, when the check, at least most of it, came in the mail.

Ever since then I have the occasional dream, almost nightmare but not quite, that there are some type of loose ends out there, often from hard work of some sort or another, money still not paid.

And this is where you come in with your corn selling job. Any time you heard me asking about that, I was really asking about my own past.

So there it is.
Hope your finals went as you hoped.
Much love,

Saturday, December 17, 2011


sage breakfast  (douglas fir for dessert)

frosty backs on these young ones

still bedded down

Amorphous Mitt

The photo in the previous post of the aggressively unaware moneymakers took me back to a piece the editor of The Boston Globe's Sunday Ideas Section asked me to write while Romney was running for governor of Massachusetts. Unfortunately, my argument didn't sway the voters. I did, however, get hundreds of mostly angry comments in the paper's electronic version. Mormons do love their own.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mitt (Money) Romney

In the previous post I featured a photo of five of my sons.

In this post I'll put up a photo of another group of young men. George Will linked to the photo in his Washington Post column today:

Will likes this kind of capitalist display (Romney front and center) and calls what's going on here "animal spirits." I'm less enamored of these arrogant young white men who are celebrating money they have made by acquiring companies, firing employees, and selling the companies for profit. Even if the company goes bankrupt, they still get paid a fee for their efforts. A fuller account here:

Monday, December 12, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011


1. through a glass darkly
Woke up before dawn this morning to find a lunar eclipse underway. Shortly before the moon was entirely engulfed by shadow, I tried to photograph the amazing sight through the window. Knowing that hadn't worked (see photo 1), I took the camera and myself in my undies out onto the deck and into the 10-degree Fahrenheit cold and knelt with bare knees on the frozen recycled plastic and steadied the camera on the steel railing that wanted my skin and took a couple of very long exposures, much too long, as it turned out (see photo 2).

2. too much exposure

You'll have to take my word for it; it was a sight for lunatics!

Addendum: early the following morning

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Fine Compliment

"He was nearly fifty years old, but he was very fresh; he only colored his mustache and limped a little on one leg."
—from Goncharov's Oblomov

I'll be discussing the standing metaphor in the novel at a new blog on the metaphor of standing, Homo erectus in the culture of Homo sapiens:

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Ben Abbott: Budding Scientist with Bad News

Some news the other day that has a father's heart beating proud, even while it scares the pants off me.

My son Ben is co-author of an article that just appeared in Nature. He let me know through his blog, which you can find here:

Here's the actual article:

There have been reports on the article in Time, The Washington Post, and lots of other places, including this one in Ben's local Fairbanks newspaper (with three nice photos of Ben at work):

Ben Abbott, a University of Alaska Fairbanks doctoral student at the Institute of Arctic Biology, poses in the ecology lab Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011, where he tests soil and water samples for carbon content. Abbott, along with seven other UAF researchers co-authored with an international group of fellow scientists an article appearing in the scientific journal Nature. They believe greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost will be released at a much faster rate than previously estimated, which could have significant implications for climate change projections. Sam Harrel/News-Miner 

Read more: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner - New estimate boosts permafrost contribution to climate change 

So, we'll celebrate Ben's very first published scientific article while soberly contemplating the future of our fragile life on earth.

I had a student ask me if Ben believed in global warming. I don't know if he believes in it, I said, but he's studying it.