Archive for December, 2005


Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

In The Voice of the Desert, Joseph Wood Krutch records his observations while living in the Sonoran desert near Tucson, Arizona. Much more than a guidebook or nature catalog, it is an ecologico-philosophical study of the life and origins of his natural environment. Krutch presents a subtle interpretation of desert life, probing the landscape not in a rigorous or statistical fashion, but simply by living in an environment and asking questions of the other occupants of the world he encounters. In particular, the question: how did it [the saguaro cactus; the roadrunner; the spadefoot toad; the grand canyon; etc.] become that way? Krutch reads the life and geography around him with great humility and wisdom. He writes:

Men of most races have long been accustomed to speak with scorn of the few peoples who happen to live where nature makes things too easy. In the inclemency of their weather, the stoniness of their soil, or the rigors of their winter they find secret virtues so that even the London fog has occasionally found Englishmen to praise it. No doubt part of all this is mere prejudice at worst, making a virtue out of necessity at best. But undoubtedly there is also something in it. We grow strong against the pressure of a difficulty, and ingenious by solving problems. Individuality and character are developed by challenge. We tend to admire trees, as well as men, who bear the stamp of their successful struggles with a certain amount of adversity. People who have not had too easy a time of it develop flavor. And there is no doubt about the fact that desert life has a character. Plants and animals are so obviously and visibly what they are because of the problems they have solved. They are part of some whole. They belong. Animals and plants, as well as men, become especially interesting when they do fit their environment, when to some extent they reveal what their response to it has been. And nowhere more than the desert do they reveal it.

This quote struck me as capturing something important about two really excellent documentaries I watched this weekend, Grizzly Man and Rize.

Grizzly Man is the story of Timothy Treadwell, a failed actor, (apparently he was beat out by Woody Harrelson for the bartender job on Cheers, and this utterly destroyed his fragile ego.), also former alcoholic and drug addict, who decides to devote his life to “protecting” a group of Alaskan grizzly bears (which live in a protected wilderness area). For thirteen summers he films the bears and lives with them in the “grizzly maze,” where he gets lost in his private fantasy world in which he is King of the Animals. He becomes increasingly paranoid about the park rangers, hunters and poachers who are conspiring to do him harm. He treats the bears like pets, giving them cutesy names like Mister Chocolate and playing out his elaborate fantasy of being one of them, being their loving master. It’s hard to tell how much of it is genuine craziness and how much is him being driven by his camera.

He’s very much aware of his camera; his film is both a self-conscious product he is crafting and also a record, so it’s difficult to judge where the craft ends and the record begins when it comes to Treadwell’s motivation and self-perception. Director Werner Herzog interprets him as a filmmaker and an artist, making a convincing case for Treadwell as a nature film auteur, an outsider artist whose movies present his own tortured and complex psychology under unique, compelling, and utterly baffling circumstances. As a filmmaker, Treadwell was craftsman-like, obsessively re-shooting scenes of narration for his story of the bears and his own naïve philosophy of life.

This is apparently a not-too-uncommon story. As one of the last great untouched wildernesses in the world, Alaska attracts this sort of Thoreau-inspired misanthrope, looking to throw away their humanity and achieve a kind of purity among the beasts. Another person who tried to use the wilderness to satisfy private fantasies of transcendence is Alex “Supertramp” McCandless, immortalized in John Krakauer’s book Into The Wild. Alex, like Treadwell, finds the human world corrupt and banal; he hitch-hikes to Alaska with no supplies except a 10-pound bag of rice. All his courage and resourcefulness is for nothing when he falls ill and starves to death, huddled freezing in an abandoned Winnebago, the victim of misfortune to which he was made vulnerable by his own hubris.

McCandless and Treadwell both come from upper-middle-class families. For both of them, their home life seems loving, well-fed, and supportive. Both lived in a society sheltered from the kind of adversity and constant mortal danger which has been the norm through most of human history, and which is still quite abundant today; in South Central Los Angeles for example, where pop glamour photographer David LaChappelle finds the stars of his own documentary, Rize.

Rize begins with the story of Tommy the Hip Hop Clown, a charismatic entertainer who has spawned a multitude of ghetto clown troupes. That’s right: hip hop clowns. Already you can tell this film is amazing, right? These communities have developed their own frantic, sort of ecstatic style of dancing. Tommy the Clown has a sordid history as a drug dealer and a Very Bad Person, who overcomes this by inventing a new character for himself and playing it to the max, essentially becoming that character. He performs at birthday parties and generally acts as a father-figure to a lot of kids who’s dads are gangsters, or in jail, or dead. So kids paint their faces up like clowns and dance like crazy lunatics.

Then some of these kids grew up and kept pushing the style further, (because there’s nothing else to do in Watts County except join a gang). As a mature form, called “krumping”, it is adapted to its surroundings and shaped by its unique hardships. It is, in a word, authentic.

Although Treadwell survived for a surprisingly long time, he never fit his surroundings. He was a fraud and a trespasser. He tried to change the nature of bears and foxes to match his own solipsistic idealism: the goodness and purity of nature in contrast with what he perceived as the degenerate fraudulence of human society. The only known cure for fraudulence is death, and Treadwell ultimately did succeed in fitting his surroundings: by becoming food and earth he finally managed to give up his humanity once and for all, which is what he was after all along.


Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

Chad Harbach contributes to N+31 a discussion of David Foster Wallace’s career.

David Foster Wallace’s 1996 opus now looks like the central American novel of the past thirty years, a dense star for lesser work to orbit.

I couldn’t agree more. I lent my copy of Infinite Jest to a friend, and I said exactly that (absent the stellar metaphor) when I saw it on his bookshelf, unread for the past five years despite all my desperate cajoling and prodding.

1. N+1, issue 3. The currently featured story, The Reading Crisis, is also a must-read. I find myself agreeing so hard that it feels like I have to pee.


Saturday, December 17th, 2005

The citizens of Abdera wrote to Hippocrates crying for help, because their great atomic scientist had gone mad. Hippocrates was long delayed. When he arrived with his bottle of hellebore, the weeping citizens led him to Democritus, where he sat unshod, dissecting animals and making notes in the book on his knees. Hippocrates asked why he was doing it, and he answered that he was looking for the causes of madness in the parts of beasts, and he demanded what had detained Hippocrates. He answered, “Family matters, engagements, money and other business.” Democritus roared with laughter — that men called great so waste their lives, marrying only to fall out of love, seeking wealth without measure, making wars to no purpose, and in peace overthrowing one tyrant to set up another. Hippocrates listened to his railing and, turning to the people, told them to cease their lamentation, for Democritus was not only sane but the wisest man in Abdera.

From Warren S. McCulloch’s 1962 essay, “Where is Fancy Bred?,” collected in Embodiments of Mind. In addition to being a great scientist and philospher, he had a rather compelling visage:


Sunday, December 11th, 2005

Reasonable people have come to the conclusion that the war against christmas is unwinnable. We must pull out, cut and run, let the terrorists win, and give timetables for breaking Christmas without buying it. We must end this campaign before more innocent people are wished “Merry Christmas” OH GOD PLEASE WHY.

Certain lunatics see themselves as righteous defenders of (the word) Christmas. Yet they seem immune to the irony of using “Merry Christmas” as a synonym for “Fuck you.” Thus does the dreadful logic of escalation lead us inevitably to subvert the very values which we claim to defend. War is hell, my friends.

One of the cultural values that Christmas represents is the power of belief. I saw Polar Express in 3D at the IMAX on Friday. It was part of the office christmas festivities, and I felt like I should participate, and it actually wasn’t bad. The animation was nice, but the message of the film bothered me, that there is something flawed and morally weak about doubting. The character arc of this genre is familar: child on the cusp of puberty begins as a sullen skeptic, doubting the existence of Santa. The child goes on a magical journey to learn that if you only believe with all your heart, you can MAKE THINGS TRUE, and see (or hear) what is hidden from the skeptic.

In Polar Express, this journey ends when Santa Claus arrives on the scene. The boy cannot hear the jingle bells jingling. Shaking the bells as hard as he can, no sound comes out. But he’s the only one who can’t hear; everyone else seems to hear them just fine. There must be something wrong with him. He convinces himself that he can hear the bells after all, and that they make the most beautiful sound ever. This is considered a moral redemption and he is rewarded by receiving a personal gift from Santa(/God).

For some, this is a laudable way of forming beliefs. For myself and others, not so much. We believe that skepticism is valuable, and that doubt should be rewarded as much as beliefs created by the need to be a member a club, or to acquire some other good which supercedes the good of believing truth.

Haha just kidding. Merry Christmas!


Monday, December 5th, 2005

Wow lists!


1. Hunger by Knut Hamsun
This book describes the adventures of a crazy homeless writer in Norway. Guaranteed to crush your will to live.

2. Oblivion by David Foster Wallace.
It’s by David Foster Wallace!

3. Pastoralia+Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders
Saunders has a very distinct style, with little variation across these two collections of stories. Fortunately Saunders is totally effin hilarious.

4. Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen
I’m gay for Leonard Cohen!

5. The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia
This book rocked my world, it is inventive and perfectly constructed. Maybe the only book I read last year actually published in 2005!

6. Siddhartha+Demian by Herman Hesse
Hey hey hey
I have nothing to say!

7. Mother, Come Home by Paul Hornschemeier
I just read this last weekend. Another downer book. This is an intensely sombre graphic novel about a kid whose mother dies of cancer and whose father goes insane. After that, it gets really depressing. Fun fact: Hornschemeier is the only cartoonist of his generation to take a degree in philosophy. Coincidence?

8. Vox+Fermata by Nicholson Baker
Porny! Vox is a novella transcript of a phone sex chat session. Fermata is about a guy who is able to stop the flow of time for everyone except himself, and he uses this power to thoroughly admire boobs. Summaried like that, they sound just like any of a billion other cheesy jerk stories that nobody cares about anymore since we all have broadband. Vox and Fermata are different. These books subvert the genre conventions *unh* of erotica to shed light on the complex network of internalized irony *buh*… of modern… *spooge*


1. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
Thomas Mann is kicking my ass. It is unquestionably the finest book I didn’t read this year. It’s the kind of book that is so epic and perfect that it’s a little bit scary. Also, it’s huge.

2. Atonement by Ian McEwan
It’s good, I guess. Atonement seems like a pretty straight-up Austinean study in social anxiety, and if that’s your bag then no problem. I stopped reading right before the crucial plot moment where the lovestruck young gentleman accidentally delivers to his secret admiree an early draft, (containing various lusty and ribald sentiments), of a letter of chaste romantic intent he has written. Perhaps someday I will find out how it all plays out, but I lost interest in discharging the mechanism that McEwan had so craftily arranged. It seems like a good place to leave off; I felt like I got the gist.

3. The Tesseract by Alex Garland
I really liked his first book, The Beach, but this one failed to make me care.