19 January 2015

Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice. Another saw the movie and then read the book. I did like the movie, but I loved the book—in the middle of which reading I had to see again The Maltese Falcon. Screened the latter with twenty-year-old daughter who moaned when I said that it was made in 1941, and exasperatedly wondered, “Is it black and white?” And when I said indeed, it was, she rolled her eyes and sighed and resignedly fell onto the comfy couch seemingly determined to fall asleep. She remained awake.
          Near its end the novel defines inherent vice as, “what you can’t avoid, stuff marine policies don’t like to cover. Usually applies to cargo¾like eggs break¾but sometimes it’s also the vessel carrying it. Like why bilges have to be pumped out.” As I understand it, then, inherent vice refers to that which is inevitable: the bilge pump gets rid of water that inexorably enters the ship and that must be pumped out in order to keep the boat from sinking! The water is going to come in and so the bilge pump has to pump it out! Louis Menand in his review of Pynchon’s novel refers as well to the novel’s definition of inherent vice. Menand says that “The title is a term in maritime law (a specialty of one of the minor characters). It refers to the quality of things that makes them difficult to insure: if you have eggs in your cargo, a normal policy will not cover their breaking.” Inherent vice in this case refers to the quality of things and experience to break and fall apart. Of course, insurance companies prefer to bet on less risk and so in the above case the insurance company will not cover eggs not breaking as they are transported on sea (or even on land?) from place to place.
          But Wikipedia adds something interesting to me to this definition. They write that the phrase ‘inherent vice’ refers to a “hidden defect (or the very nature) of a physical object that causes it to deteriorate because of the fundamental instability of its components. In the legal sense, inherent vice may make an item an unacceptable risk to a carrier or insurer. If the characteristic or defect is not visible, and if the carrier or the insurer has not been warned of it, neither of them may be liable for any claim arising solely out of the inherent vice." What a perfect metaphor for existence: in its basic structure contains an inherent flaw, an instability that leads to the eventual diminishment of the whole. (I remember an early experience with Pynchon and this idea in his short story “Entropy”). And wasn’t the Sixties, 1970 is the year in which the book is set, a perfect exemplar of this phenomenon of inherent vice; wasn’t the Tate murder and the Manson gang (to which the novel makes repeated reference) emblematic of society’s hidden defect or the very structural vulnerability of society in general. For Pynchon that defect is revealed in part by the Manson murders; for me the events at Altamont come immediately to mind. But in the novel there exist numerous ‘flaws’ that reflect the instability of the social order that would lead to its collapse: the police, the racial and social tensions, the war in Vietnam. I do not doubt that the front pages of our newspapers today regularly reflect on the inherent vice of societies and the resultant deterioration of order and civility.
          Inherent Vice is at least partly about the end of the Sixties: “[A]nd here was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, all be lost, taken back into darkness . . . how a certain hand might reach out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good” (255). I loved the idea of the 1960s. I was there, even though Wavy Gravy suggested that if I remember the 60s then I wasn’t! But I was. And Inherent Vice suggests to me what might have happened by someone who I believe found value in that brief interval. This blog piece is not meant to be a paean to that era. But the book immersed me in the sense of the times and I felt in good company again. Like Doc at the book’s end, I wait hopefully, “For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time. somehow, to be there instead.”

08 January 2015

Wild again

I enjoyed the film Wild as I had earlier written; indeed, took my younger daughter to see it when she returned from vacation. Besides the exciting performance by Reese Witherspoon, Wild exemplifies the themes I desire my daughters to consider: a life of action and acceptance. No regrets. When Strayed crossed the Bridge of the Gods she had come to acknowledge that everything in her life has brought her to that triumphant and had  moment, and thus what once appeared to be error became part of the process of becoming. To my mind regrets misuse energy better served in living.
And so I picked up the book from which the film was made. I had been reading memoirs and autobiographies, and especially contemporary versions of lives lived under what the authors consider extraordinary circumstances: e.g. Mary Karr’s trilogy, Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle; and now Wild. I have written elsewhere on this blog about this genre, likening it at times to the 1950s television show Queen for a Day, on which women were invited to tell the stories of their hardships and the audience would be asked to pick as queen for the day the woman who could narrate the most miserable life. As her prize she would receive those things (a washing machine, a trip to the a beach, a new kitchen) that would enthrone her.
But I think I have begun to sense a particularity of style common to this genre. The writing communicates consistently a sense of urgency and imminent crisis in so many of its sentences and paragraphs. I suppose that in a memoir of this type¾in which the narrator survives crises by acts of strength and courage¾the narration of crisis is de rigeur. That is, the narration describes a life of survival in the face of great adversities, and the sense and movement of the sentences and the paragraphs contains the crisis. Either experiences of adversity of circumstances or moments of insight comprise the entire narrative. Sentences and paragraphs are constructed to communicate this sense: every moment is filled with urgency and every sentence contains that urgency. I read: “In the previous days I’d been charged by a Texas longhorn bull, torn and bruise by falls and mishaps, and had navigated my way down a remote road past a mountain that soon to be blown up. I’d made it through miles of desert, ascended and descended countless mountains, and gone days without seeing another person. I’d worn my feet raw, chafed my body until it bled, and carried not only myself over miles of rugged wilderness, but also a pack that weighed more than half of what I did. And I’d done it alone.” I cannot prove it right now, but the comment on the weight of the pack occurs earlier in the narrative as well.
And I think I am finding the reading of these memoirs both exciting and exhausting. Perhaps that is the intent of the style. The inclusion of exact and quoted dialogue makes me suspect, though I know that there is some motive to reporting common conversation to elicit traits of character and to break up the narrative flow. But I refuse to accept that one can remember exactly conversation for even one day much less for months and years, and thus, these passages of talk are more part of style than of truth. I compare this to say, Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory, in which he eschews direct quotes and his narrative lacks all intensity and urgency.  

And so I am enjoying Wild, and still admire Strayed for both her physical and emotional accomplishment. No, more than admire: I applaud and accept her effort and her achievement. But I find myself exhausted after a while and have to pick up Pynchon’s Inherent Vice for some rest and relief.

30 December 2014

New Year, 2015

One year ends and another begins: the sun also rises and there is nothing new under the sun. I’m certain that much of what I experience derives from my state of mind, but the world seems darker at the end of this year than at the end of last. Of course, I am a year older, and my vision dims. Planes disappear, our politicians continue to be indicted for crimes against the public weal for which they are supposed to care and for which they legislate, and the climate continues to deteriorate while the blind continue to deny they cannot see.
I was going to use the word ‘fool’ to refer above to those I call ‘blind,’ but in fact the latter are willfully blind and not really sightless: mostly I might say they are clueless. Ah, but the Fool in Lear is so wise. We could stand a bit of the Fool in our world. As the Fool asks Lear who has abandoned all his responsibility, “Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?” Remarkably, Lear has already answered the Fool’s question in Lear’s retort to Cordelia who can say ‘nothing’ because her love for her father exceeds the capacity of any words. Lear says to in great anger to his daughter, “Nothing will come of nothing.” And indeed, though nothing can be made of nothing, Lear’s nothing can and does lead to great tragedy. “I am a very foolish fond old man . . . And to deal plainly I am not in my perfect mind,” Lear laments. The deaths of Cordelia and Lear result from his absurdly blind and self-serving actions. At the end of at least Shakespearean tragedy the world is a far darker place than at the play’s opening: in Hamlet Denmark is left to the brash and warlike Fortinbras, and in Lear the weak Albany assumes the throne. On January 1 of this year, the tragedy of the Democratic debacle will usher in the Republican ascendancy, and the world will suffer from far less hope.
The film The Imitation Game is the story of Alan Turing’s development during World War II of what has come to be called the ‘turing machine’ that successfully cracked the Nazi’s enigma code and shortened the war by several years and saved millions of lives. That ‘machine’ has led to the development of the computer on which I now write in the comfort and warmth of my home. After the war, Turing was persecuted for being homosexual, and was condemned to chemical castration by a judicial court that considered itself civilized representing a government that called itself modern. Turing died in 1954 at the age of 41 years from what some say was a suicide. Perhaps, and perhaps not. But the cruelties suffered by him from the society he helped save speaks to the nature of this world. His death recalled for me the death of Cordelia in King Lear, an act so cruel that becomes barely comprehensible.
I recognize that the love of Kent for Lear and Edgar for his father, Gloucester; and of even the Fool, offer some alternative to the cruelty the play portrays in the actions of Regan, Goneril and Edmund,, but the play’s end leaves little hope. Indeed, even the Fool has had enough of this world and disappears from the play after the great storm.

I would say welcome to 2015 but I am not certain there would be any sincerity in my invocation.     

22 December 2014


The movie Wild  is not about redemption but about acceptance. I do not believe that we are ever saved; perhaps we are found even when we did not know that we were lost. I think that in acceptance is redemption. Cheryl says about her life, “What if I wanted to sleep with all those men; what if I learned something from taking
heroin . . .” What were once thought of as mistakes, measures of bad judgment were just her life and life only. And acceptance means to have no regrets; to acknowledge that everything that happened had to happen because what happens derives from who at the moment we at the moment are. . Acceptance means that whatever action we have undertaken at the moment derives from who we are at that moment even if we consider that the action is our of character and not representative of the me in whom we have false belief.
It was not her mother’s death that turned Cheryl to sex and to drugs. Cheryl turned to sex and drugs because that was behaviors that at that moment Cheryl sought out; she could ascribe the behaviors later to her mother’s death and to her own grief. But along the trail I think she learned what her mother taught her at the beginning: that she drew her power from the same place as her weakness. That her weakness and power were equal energies that were Cheryl, and that the same drive that led her to sex and drugs also led her to the trail and her effort there. Cheryl was not redeemed by her work on the trail; Cheryl accepted Cheryl on her 1000-mile struggle.
Along the trail Cheryl for the most part remains alone with Cheryl and arrives at the bridge to acknowledge her responsibility for her own life, and perhaps in the writing of the journey can begin to accept the choices she will make in the future: in some part for her decision to again marry and have children.
The land through which she walks is not beautiful though it contains beauty; is not traversed with any ease, but her effort becomes easier as she literally and emotionally lightens her grossly overweight and overstuffed back pack. And along the way she meets others hiking the trail each for his or her own reasons Some of those she meets are helpful and some are not; some are no different than was she: and behave with equal cruelty as had she. Others are as vulnerable and others as wounded. suffering from his own unnamed problems yet sings for Cheryl “Red River Valley” Cheryl’s greatest demons derive not from others but from her own doubts of her own strength: but her power derived from the same place as her weakness. The movie is about acceptance and not redemption. Cheryl is not redeemed nor saved; Cheryl crosses the bridge at the end and is Cheryl.

19 December 2014

Too Much With Us

I find myself lately considering Wordsworth’s line, “The World is too much with us late an soon.” Certainly the sentiment figures prominently in the final chapter of my book, The Classroom: Encounter and Engagement, the latter an unabashed advertisement for an overpriced but much-loved work. Perhaps it stems from my own personal situationas I explained to AR last evening, to my own existential condition—but I find it hard of late to lose the world for even briefest amount of time. Once, access to the world was immediate: it occurred in the daily activity of work and play, with the engagement in relationships, both intimate and casual. The idea of ‘losing the world,’ as perhaps Wordsworth imagined, occurred in Nature, away from the environments of people and their busy environments. In Nature there was no access to the world outside Nature’s solitude, a solitude broken only by the troubled consciousness of the individual. And I could choose to cast off the world if I so desired: to return to the cabin, so to speak, where the troubles and turbulence stemmed from within.
But now there are few refuges from the world too much with us late and soon. We carry our attachments on our bodies, in our overburdened bags and pockets: we are rarely more than a thumb click away from access to everything. So many of the means of bringing the world to us, of immersing us in the world, we now carry with us that the world is always immediately about us. As devices become smaller the world becomes larger not so much in size but in presence. There is, it would seem, no escape from it. Even the effort to lose the world by viewing media on these devices delivers pieces of the world immediately to us and solitude becomes a rare, even an undesirable, event. We choose rarely to be alone—solitary—as if there it were to admit to some personal failing. Thoreau complains (though I lately find that word not at all appropriate to him),  “Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals not having had time to acquire any new value to each other.” We are never alone: the social media drown us in talk and image.  When we do finally meet, what is left to say?  “We should come home from far, adventures and perils and discoveries every day, with new experiences and characters,” but we must be engaged in our activities in the world that is not too much with us late and soon but that remains open for our questions to which the world is the answer. But the answers come not from our quests and studies but from the instant advice of our immediate contacts. There is no space or time for ourselves. “I find it wholesome [and therefore, I presume, healthy] to be alone the greater part of the time.” And perhaps this aloneness prepares him for the time he revels in society. Thoreau acknowledges that he loves society as much as the next: but he desires to bring to society, and that it return the gifts, something of value. He does have three chairs for at the cabin for society, though at times the company must sit at far ends from each other so that their sentences might have enough room to wind out sufficiently.

I am immersed in the media and cannot imagine giving it up, and I regret my immersion even as I crave it. Nevertheless, as Thoreau suggests, “All news to a philosopher is gossip, and those who read it are old women over their tea.” Alas, I drink my tea with honey. But I wonder, when the bell rings, why do I continue to heed it when it is my own music to which I would tend?