David Bowie Is

1911677_10152806636999468_8353018692930207009_nAfter posting a review of Simon Critchley’s book of short essays, BowieI couldn’t help but put down a few words about the David Bowie Is exhibit currently running at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. My wife and I first heard about the exhibit in the April 2013 edition of Q. The exhibit displays Bowie’s personal collection of clothing, instruments, music notes, video presentations and just about anything a Bowie fan would like to see.

When we learned that it was only going to have a limited North American tour with Chicago being the only US location, we knew that we had to make it a destination since our common love for Bowie’s music is a passion that blends her rocker preferences with my electronic and jazz based sensibilities. We went this past weekend, sacrificing the beautiful indian summer of San Francisco for the season turning cold of the windy city. The travel was further complicated by the O’Hare airport fire that occurred the prior week that was still causing air traffic delays on our date of departure. All of those setbacks were minor because this exhibit was totally worth it and more.

Unfortunately photo10414647_10152805446469468_4419622882338507685_ngraphy wasn’t permitted inside to catalog the experience, but this exhibit offered something that could never be presented in photography. All attendees were given headsets to listen to what was expected to be an audio tour, but on entering the exhibit the audio captivated my attention as it was uniquely set up with a positioning system that recognized where I was standing and what I was looking at. Bowie’s voice would whisper as he described his early influences as I look at his collection of books by Jack Kerouac and J. G. Ballard as well as his framed photo of little Richard. The next room presented videos of “Space Oddity” alongside posters for “2001 A Space Odyssey” and newspaper clippings of the first photos of Earth taken from space, while the opposite wall played a video of Bowie as a mime who wears a mask to gain favor and attention only to be trapped by the pressure to wear the mask and be subject to the public’s expectations. The video of the mime wearing the mask was actually one of the my favorite surprises because it was prophetic of the themes that Bowie developed and would elaborate throughout his career.

1016729_10152352128262927_2600500374728503587_nThe exhibit was extremely comprehensive, and each room utilized new forms of video alongside posters, journal entries, song clippings and stage designs for his concerts. There was a room set up as a sound booth that simply played mic-checks and instrument adjustments that was both eery and beautiful. There was a room set up like a theatre that played clips from the many movies he has acted in from “The Man Who Fell to Earth” to “The Prestige”. The dialogue content from Prestige clip with Bowie playing Tesla was oddly reflective upon Bowie’s own obsessions throughout his career. I especially enjoyed the room set up to honor his “Berlin Period” that had several screens and photographs in a dark room with each display connected via white painted lines leading to the synthesizer located in the center of the room that he had used on the “Low,” “Heroes,” and “Lodger” albums. The mood in this room was dark but hopeful and fit perfectly with the mood of the themes of rediscovery presented on these albums.

My favorite experience was the final room, which was a large hall with three large screens that played clips from his concerts. As the concert videos changed the background would light up and reveal hidden screens showing the different clothing worn during his performances. At one point “Heroes” was played on the three separate screens during three separate concerts in 1984, 1995, and 2001 and I walked back and forth through the room to hear the different presentation of the song through the ages. His later concerts lack the theatrically of his early artistic and creative youth, but they make up for it with a refined musicality that has only gotten better with age.

The entire exhibit was truly a phenomenal experience and it saddens me that it will only be presented in Chicago. Since the exhibit is presented in a limited venue, I regret that I cannot share this experience with my friends that cannot not make it there.

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Bowie

download Simon Critchley, 2014

This is not a biography. This is not simply a summary of Bowie’s ground-breaking artistic achievements, nor is it a comprehensive discussion of his stage characters or musical adaptations through the years. Simon Critchley’s Bowie is a love song written about Bowie the artist’s impact on Critchely the author’s personal and creative life. It is a blend of personal reflection and pphilosophicaldiscourse with an examination on the culture of Bowie’s time, that is the culture of our times. This is a slim and concise read, a collection of 23 short essays that average only 4-5 pages each focused on a different facet of Bowie’s career, his innovativeness, his relationship to the cultural milieu and impact upon it.

From his first encounter with Bowie in 1972 on Britain’s Top of the Pops when Bowie performed “Starman” dressed in other-worldly catsuit and totally unique orange hair captivated the twelve year old Critchley who was drawn to this odd-creature performing a song because “he seemed so sexual, so knowing, so sly and so strange. At once cocky and vulnerable.” (10). From this moment to the current, Critchley has followed Bowie’s career and the essays in this book are an homage to the many changes and faces expressed through Bowie’s performances that challenged the listener and viewer since “alienation was confronted through a confrontation with the alien” (60).

As is apparent in Crithcley’s obsessive love for Bowie he is able to reveal common themes of dystopia, yearning, love, spiritual longing, and dissatisfaction with cultural norms that span decades of the artist’s work. And yet, Critchley manages to express the allure of Bowie’s obsession with dystopia and decadence through his charasmatic charm of performance, his refusal to accept norms, his ability to use his voice as a multi-tonal instrument, and ability to adapt his sound one step ahead of the cultural norms. For such a slim an quick reading little book, no other book best expresses my own personal obsession with David Bowie the artist, the alien who became a man.

“Bowie was able to mobilize an artistic discipline that is terrifying in its intensity, daring, and risk. It is the very opposite of rock star complacency. It is as if Bowie, almost ascetically, almost eremitically, disciplined himself into becoming nothing, a mobile and massively creative nothing that could assume new faces, generate new illusions, and create new forms. This is weird and rare. Perhaps it is unique in the history of popular music.” (116)

 

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Siddhartha

download (1)Hermann Hesse, 1922
Translated from the German by Hilda Rosner, 1951

“Knowledge can be communicated but not wisdom.” (142)

Hermann Hesse’s slim little book, Siddhartha, first made its way into my grubby hands many years ago when I was only seventeen or eighteen years old. It was handed to me by a close friend who was some nine years older than I, a friend I spent a lot of time with while he was jamming on his guitar singing an eclectic mix of Scott Weiland and Christian songs on the La Jolla cliffs overlooking the ocean while I was pondering life during my youthful explorations into Christian fellowship and literary explorations. That friend had often told me that he recognized a maturity in my demeanor and he felt that this book would speak to me.

On my first reading it felt odd that an outspoken Christian would hand me a fictional account written by a German author exploring eastern enlightenment, but the simplicity and directness of the story was truly eye opening to my eager and curious adult mind. After reading Siddhartha for the first time I quickly reread it and later turned to Hesse’s canon for further fuel to feed my spiritual hunger during my late teens and early twenties. Of his many books that I read, only Narcissus and Goldmund came close to satiating the hunger ignited by Siddhartha. Hesse was the first author that captivated my developing mind during my young adult life, however as I read more and more of him I found that the universal themes within his novels tended to repeat themselves. On reading Demian in my later twenties its story failed to ignite my interest and I finally laid Hesse to rest as I realized that my life experiences had changed my palate and I was no longer hungry for Hesse’s worn themes of wandering spirits and theological explorations into eastern philosophy.

And so, Siddhartha, has been sitting on my shelf for many years, forgotten. Somehow in the past year or so it has been catching my eye, inviting me to reopen its cover. After recently finding renewed joy in rereading a short novella in between a longer work, I decided to rediscover the words cherished by my youthful self and revisit Siddhartha.

The simple story of Siddhartha is a tale of self-discovery of a young man who initially renounces his family’s wealth and social position to live for many years as an ascetic, renouncing all possessions and achieving states of ecstasy through prolonged fasting and mastery over his bodily desires through meditation. He later steps away from the ascetic life to explore the pleasures of lust and material wealth and becomes a successful businessman finding peace in this new life as he learns to connect with humanity’s social structure that he had denied as an ascetic. In his middle age years he has a crisis of conscious and nearly kills himself after leaving behind all of his possessions and material power. Through the luck of circumstance, he bumps into an old friend of his who had sought the path of the Buddha during their shared years as ascetics in their youth. The interaction with this old friend reawakens Siddhartha and he chooses to adopt a simple livelihood as river ferryman, finding peace in a life of simple purpose unburdened by want.

That synopsis is the basic skeleton of the story. It reads directly and to the point, with several beautiful and thoughtful verses that digress upon the purpose of life lived through self-awareness, the enlightenment offered through meditation, and the warmth and opportunity found in human interaction. The plot could be viewed as slightly contrived, with many circumstantial events happening far too easy in unbelievable fashion, but the contrived plot is forgivable because this isn’t a book written with plot as the purpose. The value of this book is in its presentation of the rewards inherent in a self-examined life.

On rereading this book I rediscovered why I loved it so much in my youth and on reading it in my mid-thirties it had new meaning for me. This book caused me to reflect on my life with joy and respect for the many experiences I have lived through. This book inspires me not to look on the past with regret or with shame or with pride but to accept my past for what it was, the past that I have lived. This book caused me to look to the future not with despair or anxiety or fear, but to look at the future for what it is,  an opportunity to be open to the many beauties and joys presented to one who is open to life and what it offers.

“I learned through my body and soul that it was necessary for me to sin, that I needed lust, that I had to strive for property and experience nausea and the depths of despair in order to learn not to resist them, in order to learn to love the world and no longer compare it to some kind of desired imaginary world, some imaginary vision of perfection, but to leave it as it is, to love it and to be glad to belong to it.” (144)

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Bleeding Edge

downloadThomas Pynchon, 2013

With Bleeding Edge I can say that I have read every book in the grand scope of Thomas Pynchon’s wild paranoia-driven postmodern world and Pynchon becomes the only author of whom that I have read in full.  This accomplishment may be meaningful only to myself, but it is an accomplishment. Pynchon’s encyclopedic, historical-arching, genre bending body of work has spanned vast historical time periods from pre-revolutionary America to the hippie-stoner nineteen-seventies. Set in post dot-com bust 9/11 New York, Bleeding Edge finds its own unique place in that expansive body.

One of the many elements of Pynchon’s writing that has drawn me back to him through the years is his ability to make poignant the obscure with references to forgotten events that were newsworthy during the historical setting of his questionable plot. True, any review of a Pynchon book must acknowledge that his narrative style breaks the expectations of plot and cohesiveness. The fun in reading Pynchon isn’t found in the plot, it is found in the telescoping narratives, goofy charades, and meandering escapades through an altered view of history. His characters use slang of the day and listen to music that was popular during their lifetime to set the tone, but the real meat in the writing is his use of history as an artistic mortarboard to both satirize and illuminate the present day.

Gravity’s Rainbow first exposed me to the horror of the Herero genocide and Against the Day illuminated the mining strikes that ignited Leadville, Co. These are just a few of the countless historical references that my feeble memory can recall from those past readings, but the Pynchon universe is saturated with seemingly obscure references expressed by a witty and intoxicating narrative voice. With a turn of expectations Bleeding Edge focuses not on the obscure, but finds itself taking place in the memorable recent past of 2001. Any reader will readily digest the familiar pop-culture references to furbies, beanie-babys, Pikachu, and Britney Spears all gravitating around the salient devastation of the 11 September attack. This book is unique in that out of all of Pynchon’s novels that explore different periods of American and world history, the recent history of Bleeding Edge is a time that I have actually lived through.

I had a vague idea of the historical background before I began the book, and didn’t quite know what to expect. Yet by the second page I found myself enjoying the familiar Pynchon narrative time warp that had stemmed from a background reference to the Kugelblitz School elementary school as a namesake to an “early psychoanalyst who was expelled from Freud’s inner circle,” into a moment imagined some one hundred years prior imagined as a conversation between Freud and Kugelblitz. The telescoping references to historical events is a characteristic stylistic device found in all of Pynchon’s body of work, and being transported from a scene describing a mother dropping her two boys off at school to an imagined argument between Freud and his protege put a smile on this reader’s face. However, throughout Bleeding Edge, the telescoping, time-warping narratives are not as prominently used as they are in Pynchon’s larger and more “difficult” works such as  Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixonor Against the Day. That early Freud reference ended up serving as a tease, since Bleeding Edge relies less upon long narrative digressions than it does on dialogue and forward moving plot progression.

Overall, this was a fun and quickly paced book but it isn’t Pynchon’s best. Despite its lesser status, it is actually in the realm of books that I would recommend to new Pynchon readers because it is approachable and easily digestible. Yes, Bleeding Edge has hundreds of characters that appear and disappear as a reflection of the myriad population of human life and the multiplicity of characters that is a Pynchon staple. Yet, few Pynchon books have what is considered a main character but Bleeding Edge gives us a believable and likable female protagonist in Maxine Tarnow, a separated mother of two, private-eye fraud investigator, who actually manages to capture the reader and writer’s focus and attention. As characters come and go through the narrative, we always come back to Maxine and her professional and personal troubles.

And what of the narrative? It is focussed on a possible conspiracy that ties a wealthy dot-com CEO that manages a computer security firm that may or may not be tied to the 11 September tragedy. Pychon’s persistent insistence to use the expression “11 September” rather than the culturally expected “September 11th” may be a satirical nod towards the fictional acknowledgment of Pynchon’s own blend of paranoia and backward looking perspective. The dot-com conspiracies vaguely pan out, and the paranoia is less significant when reflecting upon the intriguing perspective buried with the character’s dialogue about the event:

“Can’t you feel it, how everybody’s regressing? 11 September infantilized this country. It had a chance to grow up, instead it chose to default back to childhood.” (336)

In reflection thirteen years out from the tragedy, the true impact isn’t the the loss of life that occurred that day, the impact has resonated through many cultural waves such as the change in security policy that has conversely caused each “free” American to suffer the usurpation of political freedom in order to permit our governmental protectors greater powers to protect us. What better way to express the motivations that allowed that power grab than to describe this process as an infantile motivations of fear?

Now, aside from the focus on 11 September, Bleeding Edge is also an exploration of the cultural change ignited by the proliferation of the internet age into our cultural identity. As is expected of a paranoia-driven Pynchon narrative, all is loosely connected via some suspicious agency, but in reading the views imagined by the Pynchon’s characters, there is an eery familiarity to the present day state of culture and economy driven dependence upon the technology promised by the up and coming presence of the internet. From vague references to social media as a never ending yearbook of bullying to reflections upon the idealized promise of the internet’s possibility for human connection via communication, Bleeding Edge is focused on the technological redefinition of cultural identity. This is best expressed in the following conversation between the protagonist, Maxine, and her father as they discuss the development and expansion of the internet in our cultural lexicon:

“But History goes on, as you always like to remind us. The Cold War ended, right? the Internet kept evolving, away from military, into civilian – nowadays it’s chat rooms, the World Wide Web, shopping online, the worst you can say is it’s maybe getting a little commercialized. And look how it’s empowering all these billions of people, the promise, the freedom.”
“Ernie begins channel-surfing, as if in annoyance. “Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable. You remember the comics in the Daily News?  Dick Tray’s wrist radio? it’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, handcuffs of the Future. Terrific. What they dream about at the Pentagon, worldwide martial law.” (420)

These are the paranoias one comes to suspect from Pynchon, but what is eery about the paranoia is that with the current event revelations by Edward Snowden, the ongoing fight for net neutrality, and everyone’s addiction to their smartphones demonstrate that we really do live in a brave new world that should be suspect for a healthy dose of paranoia. The interconnected world is a commercialized world, that has redefined commerce and interaction. Some may say it is a world of vague disingenuity where it is easy to escape the “meat space” of the person next to us to escape into the technological promise of freedom via the screens in our hands.

This Bleeding Edge narrates the the cusp of the dot-com proliferation as a faint mirror of the true impact of the internet age on our culture, and for this Pynchon has written a sardonic satire upon our present day. However, through my reading, it wasn’t the overt exploration of the internet to culture or the sly inversion of 11 September paranoia that made this book enjoyable. Those elements were actually kind of disappointing and at times overbearing. Bleeding Edge isn’t simply about culture or the paranoia of cultural change. Bleeding Edge is about a mother with children in a vast city of possibility, a mother with children witnessing the world change around her, a mother with children who lives among the unknown masses and is part of the masses. The most poetic moment throughout the novel was a moment of anonymity that had little to do with paranoia or idealization of technology. It was the following passage that describe a moment of pure human awareness and connection:

“Sometimes, down in the subway, a train Maxine’s riding on will slowly be overtaken by a local or an express on the other track, and in the darkness of the tunnel, as the windows of the other train move slowly past, the lighted panels appear one by one, like a series of fortune-telling cards being dealt and slid in front of her. The Scholar, The Unhoused, The Warrior, The Thief, The Haunted Woman . . . After a while Maxine has come to understand that the faces framed in these panels are precisely those out of all the city millions she must be in the hour be her own – they are the day’s messengers from whatever the Beyond has for a Third World, where the days are assembled one by one under non-union conditions. Each messenger carrying the props required for their character, shopping bags, books, musical instruments, arrived here out of darkness, bound again into darkness, with only a minute to deliver the intelligence Maxine needs. As some point naturally she begins to wonder if she might not be performing the same role for some face looking back out another window at her.” (439)

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The Stranger

downloadAlbert Camus, 1942
Translated from the French by Matthew Ward, 1988

My first reading of The Stranger was unimpressed. I’ll admit that I was only 18  when I had read it during my summer break between my freshman and sophomore years of college and my initial impression was distracted because The Stranger was handed to me by an enthusiastic friend that had proclaimed this book’s originality and importance as the quintessential existential treatise. Reflecting on my initial impression I recognize that one element of my character that has been unchanged through the years is that I am often subject to a self-inflicted criticism susceptible to deflated expectations. The great blockbuster is typically a flop to my overtly sensitive sentimentalities and the buildup of the The Stranger‘s importance affected my initial impression. Now, on a second visit through more mature and experienced eyes I was engrossed by Camus’ narrative as the unrecognized masterpiece read by my younger mind.

What captivated me in this second reading was the concise and direct narrative voice. The abrupt and direct sentences spoken by the indifferent narrator, Meursault, portray a man that lives among but separate from his surroundings. He is a blank slate that floats through the circumstances that surround him. His simplicity may seem off-putting or unsettling to conservative sentimentalities, yet his openness and malleability represents the modern man disjointed from tradition or history. Though his actions are far from perfect, his separateness from the expectations of the society that surrounds him ultimately serves as his condemnation.

The book opens with the death of his mother and Meursault attends her funeral because that is what is expected of him. He declines the offer to look upon her deposed body and sits through a long night of funerary viewing unemotional and appearing disinterred. The day after her funeral he begins a relationship with a sometime acquaintance simply because the opportunity presented itself and he only shared his mother’s passing with the lover interest after he had slept her. His neighbor asks him to be his close friend and confident and Meursault accepts not out of friendship but simply because it appears as though what is expected of him.

These apparently indifferent choices are later perceived by the social order as indications of a corrupt moral character but the astute reader is better informed and will not so easily be seduced by the social expectation to judge and convict. Meursault isn’t necessarily evil or morally corrupt. Neither is he heroic or a representation of the ideal. Meursault simply is. Meursault exists as a man with only one motivation, to be. When faced with a morally challenging scenario, to defend his friend’s honor, he acts not out of anger or brutality, he simply acts. When imprisoned and put to trial for his action, he does not cry the victim or plead his defense, he simply accepts the consequences of his actions as the expectation of his social surrounding.

The plot scenario that failed to impress my young mind succeeds to impress my older mind primarily due to the economy of narrative and the believability of the scenarios depicted. The circumstances of the plot are simple and the narrative voice is direct. The scenario may not yield a universal portrayal of circumstances, but the perspective of Meursault, the narrator, is universal. His voice portrays a man that is aware of the falsity of the expectations of morality and social order for he lives apart from the learned and expected behaviors of society’s mores. He lives so not out of choice, but simply because he lives. Ultimately this simplicity is unacceptable within society’s expectations and his simplicity must end to appease the judgement of his surroundings.

The question posed to the reader extends beyond the plot scenario – how can society judge the strangers among us who live apart from our understanding. Are we moral in exacting such judgement and if not, what is the basis for any moral judgement?

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The Better Angels of Our Nature

download (1)

Why Violence Has Declined
Steven Pinker 2012

This was the opposite of light, summer reading. In fact, The Better Angels of our Nature felt more like summer school. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. Although this heavily academic and thoroughly researched book weighed in at four pages shy of seven hundred, the depth presented in Steven Pinker’s thesis about the decline of violence through the ages was thought provoking, informative, and inspired optimism about humanity’s future.

Now, you’re probably all up in arms at the proposition that violence is in decline, especially in world with recent tragedies such as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the beheading of journalist James Foley by the Islamic State, the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the subsequent militarized policing of the poor citizens of Ferguson. All of these recent events are admittedly distressing and discouraging. However, according to Pinker’s analysis of the trends of violence throughout history, these recent events are not actually signs of an unravelling world order but actually outliers in a downward trend of an overall reduction in worldwide violence.

Admittedly, I am just as much as pessimist about society’s misgivings as the next guy, but while reading Pinker’s book I allowed myself to swallow the kool-aid and accept his argument that violence has actually been in decline through the ages, despite our gut reaction to the contrary.

How so?

To acknowledge this trend, one must accept a big picture view when looking at current events. Pinker actually urges us to take a very, very big picture view that compares the global violence experienced today with a perspective that acknowledges that our ancestors were often brutal towards one another in ways that is unimaginable today. Yes, brutality does still exist today, Pinker is not arguing that violence has been erased from human nature, and no one can deny the relatively recent past of the first half of the 20th century as the father to the two most destructive wars in human history. However, through careful analysis of world population statistics, it becomes apparent that the proportion of people living today (or even during the time of the two world wars) untouched by the many faces of violence depicted through slavery, rape, genocide, murder, and war far outweighs the number and proportion of people living (and dying) than do feel the awful touch of violence’s brutal hand.

To consider the relative possibility of an ever present peace one must reflect on the brutal past. Genocides may occur this very day in under-developed and poor nations, but these occurrences are current outliers in the global scheme of historical reference. The record of history’s past, including both the biblical record, classical Greek poetry, and countless documents and artistic representations depict a world unlike ours that celebrated war and the total destruction, rape, and pillage of enemy tribes and nations that were frequently erased from human memory. Among countless examples to consider are gladiatorial fights to the death enjoyed as common entertainment that would be completely shunned by modern society. It was once common practice to watch executions for fun and now few modern countries permit executions at all (the US is the one exception in the western industrialized world). At one time gentlemen would settle matters via a duel to the death and now disputes are more often settled in court. Powerful nations thrived on extensive battles that lasted decades and exhausted the peasantry with little benefit to the common man and now the major focus of international relations is economic commerce that promotes shared prosperity. Even the total body count of wars of the current and recent past pale in comparison to the body count of years prior.

These are but a few examples of the many changes in human relations that are apparent as a downward trend in violence through the ages. In discussing these changes Pinker provides an in depth review of historical data to present the decline of the once common practice of violence through a step wise discussion of the process of pacification, civilization, and the enlightenment (otherwise called the humanitarian revolution) to demonstrate how cultural trends have reduced the frequency, magnitude, and length of global war and improved conditions for all mankind. His historical review is extensively reliant on graphical presentation of the trends. Although many readers may be distracted by the analytical data presentation, this reader accepted the graphic format as a persuasive tool to support the over arching thesis that violence has really decline through time. Over and over again through both textual and graphical discussion Pinker argues that the frequency and magnitude of inter-governmental war, civil war, torture, execution, murder, slavery, rape, the treatment of women, children and even animals has declined through the ages.

Despite the consistent presentation of the decline, Pinker could not get around the fact that the historical record clearly presents two recent blips of atrocity that could distract many readers from accepting Pinker’s argument: WW I and WW II. Pinker provides some good analysis of these blips by arguing that they were statistical anomalies that can distract historical review because “events that occur at random will seem to come in clusters, because it would take a nonrandom process to space them out” (203) and the overall impact of these world wars, though atrocious, are not the worst events to occur in human history. Through a review of the most horrible events that mankind has done to one another, Pinker clearly demonstrates that the two world wars of the early 20th century do not measure up to the global proportionality of destruction. Although those wars were the most brutal events that occurred with respect to total body count, when adjusted to compare the death toll to the proportion of human population at the time of their occurrence the second world war ranks as the 9th and the first world war ranks as the 16th as the most destructive wars in human history.

This presentation of the past may seem like clever historical revisionism, and in many ways it is, but one cannot argue with the realization that since the second world war a third has not come to destroy us despite the proliferation of nuclear weapons and despotic leaders in backwater nations capable to extend their power to exact such global destruction. Yes, since the second world war there have been many shocking and destructive events, but when looking at the most recent devastations such as 9/11 and the subsequent Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the total death toll is minuscule compared to atrocities of ages past.

So, what has changed? For one, you the reader are probably disgusted by the suggestion that  9/11 is a minimal event. That disgust is actually a good sign of changing human sentiment. Pinker argues that this human sentiment is a result of a progressive change in human awareness and rationality that is a result of several fortuitous historical events. Primarily, as human civilization moved from rural hunter gathering tribes towards agrarian and then towards urban metropolitan styles of living, the civilizing process had a pacifying element that curbed our violent nature through an increased sentimental appreciation for the value of human life. Every year in the US there are approximately 17,000 to 18,000 deaths resulting from murder, but these deaths are distributed across a nation of greater than 300,000,000 and therefore represent only a small percentage of actual death as a result of murder. The approximately 3,000 that died on 9/11 is only 1/6 the total that die year after year as a result of murder in this nation, yet the gut reaction to the 9/11 event is heightened by the media attention, national pride, and ideologies that surround the event. The atrocity may seem appalling, but the truth is that it is an outlier and we generally live in peace.

The reasons for that peace have a lot to do with our respect for the atrocity as a representation of a loss of human life that could easily be yours or mine. In times past that respect was lacking. What has caused that change in respect for life through time? Pinker presents several multi-factorial arguments that play together to change human nature for the better. First among many factors are the pacification and civilizing process necessarily inherent in the development of societies that moved from tribal to cosmopolitan nature. As more people lived together in tighter more dependent relationships, people grew to value commercial and social relationships. Secondly, the development of a state system with a monopoly on the jursidication of social order served to limit the violent behaviors of the social constituents for fear of the judicial consequences of social disorder. The increased availability of knowledge through print and literacy subsequently affected and expanded the possibilities for empathy and understanding that ignited the humanitarian revolutions that sought an end to slavery, promoted woman’s suffrage and feminization, racial rights, gay rights, children rights, animal rights and so on.

In short, as mankind has grown to accept reason and rationality while concurrently become reliant upon a system of social order, our moral perspective has expanded and has grown to expect rational and moral treatment towards each other. Of course we are far from perfect and many continue to struggle for safety and simple livelihood across this expansive globe, the fact that you or I can grow so inflamed towards a jaywalker or a car that has cut us off in the fast lane to only forget it minutes later is a sign of a greater good, for these inconsequential problems that ignite and later quench our emotions are but mere trivialities when compared to the greater perspective of mankind’s capacity for atrocity towards one another.

The real question through the ages is less so what is wrong with the world, but rather what is right?

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The Corpse Exhibition

downloadHassan Blasim, 2009
Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Wright, 2013

Gruesome. Macabre. Visceral. Telling.

The words needed to describe this collection of stories of Iraq by the expatriated Hassan Blasim all share a common theme. These aren’t stories for the faint of heart. These aren’t tales of sweetness or beauty. These are tales that communicate a blunt disregard for life by those that must live amidst a ravaged and crumbled society. As alluded by the title story, these stories exhibit the corpse, not life.

And yet, despite the grit and brutality on display in this body of fictional works, there is an eye-opening importance to this collection. Art serves many necessities, and at its best the written art-form inspires the reader with a new perspective that increases empathy and understanding. Blasim has succeeded in that endeavor; for despite the display of brutality in these stories, he is a writer capable of penning a narrative voice that remains in touch with a humanity worthy of consideration. For example consider this passage:

“The magic of words was like rain that quenched the thirst in my soul, and for me life became an idea and a dream.” (117, A Thousand and One Knives)

That passage was from a semi-magical tale about a group of unique friends that include a paraplegic soccer coach name Jafar who lost his legs in the Iraq-Iran war, Jafar’s sister-in-law, a butcher, and the narrator who was once a player on Jafar’s soccer team. The group each possess unique abilities to cause knives to disappear, with the exception of the sister-in-law’s ability to make knives appear. Jafar makes a living selling pornography on the black market, but he is inevitably arrested and tortured by the police for his secular profession. As the police attempt to cut off his arms (to punish him since he apparently did not learn god’s message when he lost his legs) he causes their knives to disappear, rending them unable to cut him. The police profess him a devil and ultimately amputate his arms with bullets instead of knives and then set fire to him. The reflection of his torture is told with a straightforward sincerity, reflecting that this is something that just happens to men such as him. Rather than succumb to sorrow for his lost friend, the narrator gives him new life by naming his newborn son Jafar.

Not all of the stories in this collection use magical devices to achieve an effective narrative impact. Many of the stories are blunt in their realism, while others have an otherworldly voice.

The opening and title story, The Corpse Exhibition, begins the collection from the otherworldly realm. The Corpse Exhibition is a first person monologue that spoken to a voiceless listener petitioning to step down from his role as artistic murderer. In this monologue the narrator describes with pride the artistic murderer profession a necessary class of men who kill and put their victim’s bodies on display in unique situations, such as cutting off limbs and hanging them from electrical wires or using colored thread to hang organs in different and ironic locations. These murderers aren’t terrorists or fanatical Islamists, they serve a higher cultural need since their actions are driven by an artistic pleasure that transcends religious or political motives. As the narrator ultimately expresses his displeasure at the listener’s desire to quit the profession, it the reader chillingly realizes that narrator’s intended listener is the next victim to be put on display.

The fantastic realm of The Corpse Exhibition is contrasted by the very real story presented in The Iraqi Christ, which reveals a man who is forced to set off a suicide bomb in order to spare his mother’s life. The straightforward progression of The Iraqi Christ is more chilling than the gruesome nature of the otherworldly narration of the The Corpse Exhibition because the existential choice to use a bomb to kill oneself and bystanders in order to save the life of a loved one is somehow believable and real.

There are a total of fourteen stories in this slim book and each tale is captivating with page-turning intensity. The few words I have shared above are only vague expressions of the grim but necessary feelings that came over me as I read these stories. Why is it that the gruesome words in print can affect the mind so greatly and why did I succumb to the compelling need to return to Blasim’s vision again and again? The answer to that may be driven by a need for catharsis or a nihilistic thanksgiving that I live in a more peaceful world unable to imagine the horrors expressed in this book. Despite those possibilities, somehow the visceral horror is necessary and a satisfying path to invoke the realization that these stories exist only as fictional and artistic representations intended as reflections of a life unlived, yet a life that is possible.

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