There is an inherent connection between writing and death. A trilobite outline etched in Paleozoic mud is the first letter. The sign for something emerges when its signifier dies. The sign says “here lies X.” Nietzsche wrote, “That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts.” According to McLuhan, it is the letter, literacy, itself that is dying. A dead letter. This is a letter from a dead man, or minotaur, slain in his labyrinth. Let the dead bury the dead.

This post was written by H.G. Wells: “The markings and fossils in the rocks, and the rocks themselves, are the first historical documents.” (Outline of History)

This post was written by John David Ebert: “. . . [scholars] make the mistake, and it’s a big one, assuming that a written medium represents the beginning of the appearance of something when in most cases it actually represents the end of a tradition, as with the pyramid texts for instance. The pyramid texts were inscribed on these walls of pyramids starting with the fifth dynasty, because before that they hadn’t been inscribed at all, because they were orally recited, so it became clear that the reason they were inscribed in the fifth dynasty of Unas was because they were being forgotten, they were in danger of disappearing. . . Something appears in writing because it’s about to disappear.”

This post was written by Herman Melville: “The pale Usher- threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.” (Moby Dick)


Existential Roulette Update #1: Things you should listen to other than me

So how’s that Game of Life goin? Not too well. Not too well. I rolled “take a weekend road trip,” but it’s still Winter, so no go. I rolled the one about following news events, but I couldn’t make myself do it. Fiction, history and philosophy crowd out the present, always. Why should a random set of events occupy my precious mental bandwidth just because they’re happening now? So, on to the next one.

(Of course, now the investigation into Trump’s Russia connections is starting to grow some hair on its balls. Is the President of the goddamn United States a goddamn Manchurian candidate? Is he the victim of a Deep State smear campaign? Could both be true? Any possibility is fascinating! And yet, I can’t be bothered. I’m reading 4 or 5 books right now. Let me know in ten years if it was a scandal that destroyed Our Fair Republic. Then I’ll read the book, if it’s out in paperback. What’s that? No more books in Glorious People’s Empire of Google? Only Prolefeed beamed into our retinas every morning and Pornosec narrowcasting our dreams each night? We’ll fuck that dystopian bullhockey, I’m an Individual! I prefer not to! From my cold dead hands you damn dirty! I’m going full Fahrenheit Four Five One on y’all motherfuckers!  I’ve already memorized “Harrison Bergeron!” It’s short! *Jumps out window shouting “I got the fear!”*)

Sorry I . . . don’t know what happened there. Just, just roll the dice.

Write reviews of at least 3 of your favorite podcasts. Then give them money. 

Fine, that’s fine. I don’t remember my iTunes login, so I’ll just do it here. Here are 3 podcasts you absolutely have to listen to:

1. Literature and History

One of the things that the podcast medium has enabled is laser-specific topics and epic-length projects. Wait, that’s two things. The podcast medium has enabled two things: laser-specific topics, epic-length projects, and an outlet for people who are creative in more than one medium. Oh, fuck. Let’s stop there. For specificity and interminability, I give you Frank Delaney’s Re Joyce, a sentence-by-sentence explication of James Joyce’s Ulysses. (He covers a little bit more than a chapter a year.) For epic length, epic themes, and that other thing I said, plug Literature and History into your ears. Sure, it’s got a boring, institutional sounding name, but this is not even close to the kind of thing you would get from the BBC or NPR. Trust me, as someone always on the lookout for podcasts that are as entertaining as they are informative, this is the fucking mother lode (which is good, as opposed to a motherfucking load, which would be bad).

Literature and History is a podcast by Doug Metzger about the history of “Anglophone literature,” i.e. literature written in English. So, of course it begins just where you’d expect it to, with Beowulf  Cuneiform and the Tower of Babel. At this rate, it’s quite possible I’ll have grandchildren before he covers Shakespeare. But that’s the right way to go: in order to understand anything, you have to understand everything. That’s the vicious hermeneutic circle for you.

But right now I don’t really care if he ever gets to the ostensible subject. He’s great with the ancients. Episodes are divided roughly equally between a summary of the topical text and the historical context necessary to understand it. Oh, and there’s songs. Doug composes all of the music used in the background of the show, as well as a closing song that’s generally super-cheesy, and quite funny. Like, there’s a rap battle between the Greeks and Trojans, a country ballad about how Zeus likes to fuck everything moving, and a pretty clever chantey about the crew of the Argo and the Pequod running into each other. Like I said,   people who are creative in more than one medium.

I have an undergraduate degree in English. I always felt my education neglected the classics. In particular, it’s difficult to really understand canonical Western literature without knowing the Greeks, the Romans, and the Bible. On these and more, I have found Literature and History indispensable.

It can’t be easy to put out something this good. I found some evidence for this on an article profiling Doug and his podcast:

 He explained that a typical podcast requires 40 to 80 hours of reading, another 40 hours of writing, and about eight to 12 hours crafting the original songs to which he closes most episodes (he plays several instruments, including the mandolin, guitar, banjo, oboe, and piano).

This guy is doing god’s work. He deserves support. I just paid $30 for all of the supplementary material. I recommend at least giving Literature and History a download or two.

2. The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps

While the individual episodes are shorter, this may be an even more ambitious project than Literature and History. Doing history of philosophy is seems like it is doing two things, but it is actually doing three: history, philosophy, and philosophical history. Doing this “without gaps” also means paying attention to figures and ideas that rarely get mentioned in survey courses. I would say that there is an error in the title, as the podcast only covers Western philosophy, but Peter Adamson, the creator of HOPWAG, has recently begun filling some of that gap as well with his History of Philosophy in India.

Like Literature and History, Adamson helps keep a heavy subject light by leavening the material with humor, not songs in this case but rather jokes, including many running gags about giraffes, Buster Keaton (in the Chaplin v. Keaton battle, I’m team Keaton all the way), and the Marx Brothers.

Awesome show, great job.

3. The History of English Podcast

I’ll just tell you up front that this one is dryer than the first two. But not too dry. Like a good wine. I don’t know anything about wine. Like a good towel. It’s a great subject. You get a lesson in both history and linguistics. If you’re interested in those subjects, you can’t do better. And just as Doug Metzger finds he can’t tell the story of English literature without telling the story of Mesopotamian, Hebrew, Greek, and Roman literature, Kevin Stroud winds up telling you the story of Indo-European in order to tell you the story of English. And like Doug, Kevin has some excellent bonus material for purchase. One is a history of the Alphabet, which I bought and listened to, and of course recommend. The other is called Beowulf Deconstructed, and I do plan on checking it out. Contra Woody Allen, it’s worthy subject matter.




The Opponents


Two men sit in rumpled suits at a table in a desert playing chess. They look bored but are not. They allow some time to elapse before a piece is moved. This is not for any tactical consideration, though they are given over to certain ruminations. They do not really desire an end to the game, though they know that there will be one. Each has already sacrificed his Queen to the other. One moves his King about in aimless exploration, while the other assaults him absurdly by inching his remaining pawns (of which there are a surprising number for this stage of the game) forward blindly. Each has one Knight remaining, which lopes opposed loops around the board one lopsided swing at a time, each in parody of the other. They (the players, not the Knights) try not to think of the two kinds of squares on the board as “black” and “white,”  but instead as “full” and “empty,” or “is” and “is not.” One of the players believes that a game of chess is nothing more than the moves made in that game in that order: an iteration of possible games. Board, pieces, players are inessential. There is a logical sense in which the game they are now playing has already taken place. Had to. For the other, whose name may be Harold, it is otherwise. Who plays, why, under what circumstances, are all part of what it means to play “a game of chess.” But he is troubled about where to draw the line, threatened by a potentially infinite concatenation of detail. Each of them knows that there are as many possible games of chess as there are atoms in the universe. What each opponent knows or does not, thinks or does not, all this had been established early. All that is left is making the moves. “Perhaps it will rain today,” neither of them says. One day it does.

10 Albums from 2008 #2: Los Angeles by Flying Lotus

Review autogenerated by AI nourished on the works of Lester Bangs, William S. Burroughs & Raymond Chandler:

Afroretrofuturism waking to sleep
in a posthuman landscape
he will reach out to her
and she doesn’t know he’s weird
comes to the hospital to have a small
dog that is an excellent

Vaporware the other way
around the revolver. A jugular
harp and the limited time
to come home. Thanks again,
your beat
beatdown the way I think—
good to know something about a new

Cartoonish spy action
to be there by 9
to be there by the end
the mezzanine I will check
the same as last

Bubble rap a few minutes.
Gurgle the same thing.
Click-clack, I will check out
your email address. A nice,
juicy slice, worse than

Hiss and water and sewer
line is not relevant
to my genitals. Get out
your squinty eyeglass thing that scares me
because I’m not convinced
have been working on it but I
don’t know how to send

Zen robot and the light
in my head is crystalblue
stuff for a movie screen used
to being done with work
at the hospital. Sprinklers
pump acid in the dream
I had some questions about.
I’m going through someone

Assassins at dance
to get back in the gym
to be a problem
works of Isaac and I
don’t want any more
information please. The soft
machine is still available and
if you need anything please don’t
know how to get in
a major key. Japanese and Korean
shifting through syrup for a new

Trip me into the world
and everyone was so good
seeing that funky wonky
entropic loop in a bit
of reasoned argument with a
patient at alienating the other
hand. Digital signature and crystal
ball rolling on a daily
and weekly report. We
travel the spaceways, killer
and thence the way home, waking
to sleep in a posthuman


10 Albums from 2008 #1: Directions to See a Ghost by The Black Angels

Is this the best Black Angels album, or just my favorite? Is it because it’s the darkest and droniest, the most psycho-deeelic, or because it was the first one I listened to? Would I hold it against you to prefer the ones with catchier songs, like Phosphene Dream, or Passover? Do you like to party? Do you take the red pill or the blue pill? Why does Allmusic give every single Black Angels album 3.5 stars? Is such consistency admirable or actually boring? Shouldn’t they take artistic risks, producing a ludicrous failure from time to time, like Lou Reed? Or is it fine to be just über-cool all the time like Nico? Are the Velvet Underground comparisons, which the band is always inviting, at all relevant? Did The Black Angels ever produce anything as raw, strange, and confrontational as the VU song they named themselves after? Are they proper heirs to the Austin, Texas psych tradition as collaborations with Roky Erickson would suggest (not to mention that distinct Tommy Hall “electric jug” sound that shows up for a few seconds on “Never/Ever”: did you know he didn’t even blow into that thing, just made the sounds with his mouth? Isn’t that trippy?)? Are people who compare them to The Doors just ignorant plebs, or do they do sometimes sound kinda like The Doors? Is that so bad? Are you telling me you can’t totally hear the Lizard King crooning his evil way through “The Day” (from 2013’s Indigo Meadow)? Are you high? Are you holdin’? Does the whole dark-60’s/Vietnam shtick remind you of the scene in Jarhead when a couple marines in the Persian Gulf hear “Break on Through” played from a helicopter, and one says, “That’s Vietnam music, man. Can’t we get our own fucking music?” Well, can’t we? Can you imagine, say, “Beware,” or “Get Got,” by our own version of The Doors, Death Grips, blaring from a Black Hawk over the Arabian sands? How long does this stuff take to kick in? Is that not the problem of our whole generation, that it’s in the shadow of a previous era’s counterculture, that anxiety of influence causing us to go through the motions of impotent uprisings like Occupy Wall Street? Do you ever think about the Military Industrial Complex? Are you bothered by political correctness on campus? Do you know how many countries the U.S. military has established bases in currently? What covert operations are the CIA currently involved in? Shouldn’t we know, since they’re doing it in our name, whether we like it or not? Will we get blowback? Reap the whirlwind? Will they bomb us till Tuesday? Are we all guilty, always already, like Josef K? Are we in a K-hole? Is that relevant to music? Should I instead liberally pepper my review with namedrops of The Warlocks and Brian Jonestown Massacre? What about the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club? Are those guys cool? Did The Beatles stop the war? Was John Lennon a Freemason? Was he killed for wanting out? How much do you know about Mark David Chapman? Have you read The Catcher in the Rye? Do you have a theory about it? Is Paul Dead? Is war over if we want it? Do The Black Angels support the troops? Am I talking out loud? Am I sweating? How long ago did I take that pill? Is the 8-minute plus “Never/Ever” not absolutely the most epic deathtrip BA has never ever taken us on? Don’t you wanna go deeper? Do you believe that individuality is an illusion, that we are all fragments of the mind of God which split off so that we could subjectively experience ourselves, but that the burden of individual consciousness is just too much, man, and that’s why were always killing each other for abstractions like religion, race, and nations with their phony borders that are just like, lines on maps? Because we forgot we’re all the same, goo goo g’joob gabba gabba one-of-us? Ever tried salvia divinorum?  DMT the Spirit Molecule? Do you wanna get together and drink until noon? Is that the right approach to life for us dreamers, us mad ones who never yawn or write cliched flower-power lyrics and just burn burn burn? Do you wanna take drugs with strangers and drive around the desert all night? Is this what it would sound like if Ian Curtis hijacked the Jefferson Airplane? Would he not crash it gorgeously? Do you believe the official story of 9/11? Are you too cowardly to go down a rabbit hole or question consensus reality? Did you know that Alex Jones is also from Austin? Is he controlled opposition? Do you think the Devil Has Texas, as Daniel Johnston did? Is Texas the reason? Do you think the Beast is coming? Do you believe in prophecy or revelations? Is Helter Skelter coming down? Was Tim Leary CIA? Was Aldous Huxley Illuminati? Do you have a few minutes to hear about MK-Ultra? How many have sold their souls for Rock and Roll? Is this music relevant? Can anything be, in this post-postmodern age? Is it not better to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream? Would you like another beer or bowl before bed? Light another cigarette? Speak in secret alphabet? Learn to forget?

A Crisis A Chrysalis?

I’ve been listing to an audiobook of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich as I drive to and from work this week. It doesn’t have the same effect as listening to the Rolling Stones, but it does have me repeating “I can’t get no satisfaction,” in my head over and over again.

I checked out three books on CD at the library (Notes from Underground and The Time Machine were the others), which the librarian seemed to think was quite a novelty. “You goin’ on a long trip or something?” She inquired. No. I just need to pack in as much literature as a I can before I die in order to consider myself a worthwhile human being. I am having a midlife crisis.

Or something. Wikipedia defines a Midlife Crisis as “a transition of identity and self-confidence that can occur in middle-aged individuals, typically 45-64 years old.”

If that’s the age range, I’m way ahead of schedule. I’m 36. The average life expectancy for American men is currently 78, which puts the median at 39. So I can start calling myself middle-aged in four years.

The truth is that I don’t know if I feel old or young. Something in me was never born. Something in me was stillborn. Something in me was never wanted, but was still born. (Hat tip Cannibal Ox.)

I feel like I have no skin. I feel like the floor has dropped out from beneath me.

Last night I told my girlfriend I was a fraud and I didn’t feel like I had any real friends. This morning as I was listening to the drawn-out agonies of Ilyich I looked over at a van that delivered wheelchairs. It had a picture of a little girl who had gotten her first wheelchair, and the slogan underneath her read, “Life has just begun.” I started crying. Too happy. Too sad. Too much.

I haven’t actually finished the story yet, but Ivan Ilyich dies right at the beginning. Actually, he dies before the beginning, in the title. We all do.

“The phenomenon is described as a psychological crisis brought about by events that highlight a persons age, inevitable mortality, and possibly shortcomings of accomplishments in life. This may produce feelings of depression, remorse, and anxiety, or the desire to achieve youthfulness or make drastic changes to current lifestyle.”

Other than any “events” that may shed light on my stillbirth of a life, check check and mate.

I don’t know what I believe in anymore. I don’t know whether my politics are left or right. I don’t know whether I believe in magic or materialism.

I have a hodge-podge education that is economically worthless.

I live in an apartment building full of stoned twentysomethings and loud white trash. I live paycheck almost to paycheck, like probably everyone else in my neighborhood.

I have the skeleton of a novel whose aim is to convince people I am a genius. I am not a genius. I have about twelve good poems, mostly about being depressed and wanting to be a great poet.

I know I have more than this too. I have someone who loves me. I have good moods, good days.

But I still have this thing I’m going through. I feel I have to change everything in the next few years or I won’t make it to the other side of that hill.

Ivan Ilyich did everything right. He pursued status and pleasure. He married a beautiful wife, but they were soon unhappy with each other because of course they were. That didn’t matter too much as long as they kept up appearances and he focused his energies on work. But one day he became sick. A series of doctors failed to diagnose him, but assured him he’d be fine if he followed through with their treatments. Nobody seemed to want to acknowledge that he was dying and nothing could make it right. Only near the very end did Ivan ask what life was all about, and how it could be this way.

It is that way. I’m dying as I write this. In a blink I will be nothing. Not long after that I will never have been. I don’t have the achievements of Ivan to look back on, though I look forward to, or merely fantasize about, achievements of my own (my ambition, absurdly, is to be more like Tolstoy than like the young Ivan). It doesn’t matter.  None of those were a reassurance to Ivan in the slightest. He realized that he had been wrong all along, and the horror of this wasted life was a worse agony than the pain in his kidney or whatever it was. want to die in life so I don’t have to live that death. I hope to be moved to action in accordance with my true will. Tonight I will kiss my love and hope to sleep well. Tomorrow I will wake like I always do and I hope that I will be glad it is today, and feel that life has just begun.

Postscript: I finished the novel. There is something of a redemption after all the bleakness. It’s a deathbed conversion of sorts, but it is open to interpretation. Ivan may be accepting god, or he may merely be accepting the reality of his own death. At the very end, he is at peace. It raises the interesting question of whether it matters what are last thoughts are. If he was still in agony at the moment of his passing, then his nonexistence is a blessing, even if he isn’t around to appreciate it. The last moment may be bliss, which may be only your brain flooding itself with DMT or whatever the equivalent is. Does this matter? Life isn’t as neat as literature; it’s much more random, despite the best efforts of modernists to make literature equally miscellaneous. Knowing my brain, my last redemptive thought may be of the time I went to Goodwill in Olympia and found My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and The Breeders’ Last Splash on CD (even more satisfying was that the checkout girl was incredulous at somebody getting rid of those) for a couple bucks. Maybe that will be enough. It has to be.

A Year in the Stacks: 2017

I mentioned in my last post that my reading average is 35 books a year, which makes 2017 an almost perfectly average year. There’s always some honorable mentions that I don’t finish, and last year had some heavy-hitters. I spent a good deal of time on works by Kant (primarily the Critique of Pure Reason), Locke ( An Essay Concerning Human Understanding), and Hegel (both the Lectures on the Philosophy of History and Phenomenology of Spirit). I read all of these as abridged versions of the complete volumes, included as part of larger anthologies. (Honestly, I find that most philosophical works tend to repeat themselves over and over, and therefore don’t justify their massive length.) I also spent some time with a few essays by the analytic philosopher WVO Quine, and around the same time I read Symposium, I also read a few of the shorter Platonic dialogues.

Another honorable mention is Tony Tanner’s City of Words, a chance discovery from the shelves of Savers. It’s a study of postwar American fiction, and is a model of careful, incisive, inductive criticism. Dating from 1971 and refreshingly innocent of “theory,” it pursues the thesis that American writers (novelists, predominantly, and men, predominantly) are motivated by a pervasive fear of mysterious, anonymous forces that program & pattern individual behavior, i.e. American literature is the literature of paranoia. I read only the chapters on authors whose works I’m familiar with: Pynchon, Burroughs, Vonnegut, and Heller.

I’m going to do a quick-and-dirty shootfromthehip take on the list proper.

  1. Introducing Time by Craig Callender & Ralph Edney: This is one of those illustrated introductions to philosophical topics or thinkers you read when you want a global overview instead of granular analysis. Some of these are too superficial, but most are pretty good. This is one of the good ones. It explains both the philosophical problems and scientific implications that time involves, including the possibility that it does not exist, as well as paradoxes of time travel. I’ll illustrate my favorite with a different example than the book uses: In the movie Back to the Future, who wrote the song “Johnny B. Goode”? The film racistly revises history and has some little white punk write it in place of Chuck Berry, right? Wrong. In the film, nobody wrote “Johnny B. Goode.” Marty McFly heard it on the radio from Chuck Berry, and Chuck Berry heard it, via a phone call from his cousin Marvin, being performed by Marty McFly. It’s an ontological möbius strip or ouroboros. The same idea applied to a human life is explored by Robert Heinlein’s great short story “All You Zombies.”
  2. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn: I wish I had time to really get into this one. I think it’s an extremely important book, and I should probably read it again. It’s most famous for popularizing the term “paradigm,” though ironically he doesn’t use the term in the way that it’s normally used. Actually, he uses it in several senses, and exactly what it means is one of the most difficult and discussed aspects of the book. Which is a shame, because the book’s importance lies in its breakdown of how science actually progresses, as opposed to the way textbooks represent this progress. Science is not a strictly linear process where each step is built upon the triumphs of the past, with bad ideas failing and good ones succeeding. Instead, it consists of eras in which a given notion prevails and directs research, until enough anomalies build up that the structure is wrecked and replaced by a new idea. This is the famous “paradigm shift.” The real kicker is that the paradigms are incommensurable. Natural phenomena are now conceived in a totally new way. We don’t just get new ideas, new “facts.” We get a new ontology. There’s something oddly reminiscent of Spengler’s view of historical process here. What I’ve just said I’m sure is a simplistic and maybe distorted view.  But the upshot is that I think this is book is required reading, since we live in an era in which the crudest form of scientism is pushed as a superior alternative to the crudest form of religion. I think it’s a real tragedy that science split off from philosophy and feels it no longer needs its mother.
  3. Dune by Frank Herbert: The real mystery to me about this book is how I admire it so much and yet I would not name it among my favorite books. I think it’s brilliant, complex, visionary, a real stunning example of world-building in SF. It may even actually describe where we are headed as a species. But there’s something cold, cynical, and sterile about it, something very subtly bleak. I do not love the characters. There is something inexplicably vile about them and the cosmos they inhabit. The novel seems to reflect more of our politics than our dreams. Here civilization in Space is less an unfolding of our possibilities as a species than the mere spore-like expansion of our economy.
  4. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume: In which Hume takes Locke’s Empiricism to such a logical extent that he nearly deconstructs it.
  5. The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell: A pretty decent intro to the issues Russell thinks are important. Remember that Russell is an analytic philosopher though. Just last night I was rereading Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” which starts with the claim that suicide is the most important philosophical problem. The meaning of life is of utmost importance to an existentialist thinker. To an analytic thinker it is not relevant. Meaning is semantics, a branch of logic; life is biology, a branch of natural science. One is known analytically, the other synthetically and . . . what was the question again?
  6. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr: A triptych of stories in which humanity slowly climbs out of a new dark ages only to do the same shit all over again. Catholic symbolism. We can’t evolve our way out of a sinful nature. The war we will always have with us. I buy it. Jesus, I’ve really had a hardon for pessimism and historical cycles this year.
  7. Twilight of American Culture by Morris Berman
  8. Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline by Morris Berman: I’ll talk about these two books together; they’re of a piece, and since I read them back to back I can’t really tell them apart at this point anyway. (There’s a third book in this “decline” trilogy, Dark Ages America, but I wonder if it would add much.) Here is the major paradox of liberal modernity: the market is a socially progressive force. I should clarify. I mean that market relations on the one hand dissolve traditional social structures, and thus social solidarity or community. On the other hand they reduce the moral stodginess and ingroup/outgroup mentality associated with a “traditional” society. So the paradox is that capitalism delivers the kind of openness necessary for civil rights, feminism, multiculturalism, etc. Liberals like the fruits but hate the roots; conservatives contrariwise. Marxism acknowledges this truth, in theory. Thus Marx’s famous acknowledgement in The Communist Manifesto of the bourgousie as the first revolutionary class:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned . .  

Thus sometimes Left critiques of capitalist culture (if it’s ok to call it that) can seem a lot like reactionary ones (like that snob Adorno, the old prof too uptight for swing, much less rockandroll). Thus sometimes leftists make peace with capitalism (neocons, certain libertarian types). Thus, on the other hand, the occasional progressive so put off by rugged individualism and cold Yankee crassness that they say, “you know, those ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions weren’t all bad. They kinda helped keep the world from being ruled by money.”

Well, that’s Morris Berman. If you don’t like it, there’s ready trump card: “but what about slavery . . .”

9. Introducing Kant by Christopher Want & Andrzej Klimowski: This one was not particularly helpful. The authors seemed to be reading Kant through a postmodern lens and wound up obfuscating more than clarifying.

10. Sacred Number: The Secret Qualities of Quantities by Miranda Lundy: I’ve lately become interested in the philosophy of mathematics, because I think it’s a potential wedge issue for scientific materialism. It’s not an accident that the majority of Platonists are mathematicians. Here’s the way the problem works: 1. Numbers aren’t empirically real. 2. The scientific method, by which we determine all truth and reality, depends on numbers. We can only square this circle by either reifying numbers, in which case we must abandon a strict physicalism ( I believe this is actually the position Quine took, but he wasn’t happy about it), or call math a language, thus making the results of the scientific method more limited (there’s no reason to think any human-generated language, no matter how rigorous, is an exhaustive description of reality) and equivocal than scientists want to admit. At any rate, this book is somewhere between the magisterial “Meaning of Numbers” by Spengler (the arch-fictionalist) and that Simpsons episode where Lisa has to take a feminist math class where they ask you how numbers make you feel.

11. Jesus and Yahweh: the Names Divine by Harold Bloom:  Bloom dislikes Yahweh, doesn’t know Jesus (nobody does), and fucking hates John. This all has something to do with Gnosticism, Kabbalah, influence, misreading, and (probably) Shakespeare.

12. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner: A reread; last time was about 15 years ago, and my appreciation definitely grew. This book is great: the pathos, the psychological insight, the terrible lyricism, the grim irony, the infinite sympathy. In some of Faulkner’s more, um, metaphysical? sentences you can hear the germ of what became the outlandishly stylized prose of Cormac McCarthy. But McCarthy’s grotesque tales have all the complexity of an arcade game next to Faulkner’s human-scale epic.

13. The Book of J by Harold Bloom & David Rosenberg: If we set aside the completely unsubstantiated claim that the author of the “J” text was a woman in Solomon’s court, there’s some very good, sympathetic (though not definitive) readings of many biblical characters here, as well as a fine version of the text translated by Rosenberg.

14. The World of Odysseus by M.I. Finley: I read this dry but good excavation of the social (rather than mythical) context for Homer’s epic at the same time I was listening to Donald Kagan’s Yale course on Ancient Greek History.

15. Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes: Apollonius was no Homer. He wasn’t even a Virgil. Let’s face it: He wasn’t much of a poet at all. The deep mythic resonances of a great epic and the everbrimming splendors of the winedark seas do not interest him quite as much as geography. Apollonius is really, really interested in geography. But he was a capable storyteller, and this is a great story. I’m writing my own version of it, as part of my novel, The Ship of Theseus. Part of the story is narrated by the fascinating Medea, in a Molly Bloom-esque soliloquy which covers the events of the second half of the Argonautica as well as Euripides’ tragic play Medea. The rest is told in the form of a jaunty ballad sung by Orephus, a wandering minstrel who gives a comic version of the events of the Argonautica’s first half, replete with winking references to Moby Dick and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

16. Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Vol. 1 by Plutarch

17. Parallel Lives Vol. 2 by Plutarch: Plutarch was a Greek citizen of Rome in the 3rd century A.D. He was a philosopher and a priest of Apollo at the famous Temple of Delphi. This multivolume history (I believe the whole thing runs 4) is his most influential work, in which Plutarch offers comparing/contrasting bios of notable Greek and Roman figures (some we would consider “mythological,”). Some versions I’ve seen focus only on the Greeks or the Romans. I wouldn’t bother with those; the whole point is the analogy. Plutarch is famously a moralist. After each set of biographies,  (city-founders Theseus and Romulus, for instance), he makes an evaluation, usually favoring one over the other, by no means always the Roman. What’s interesting is how spending so much time finding parallels leads Plutarch to no grand ideas, no “theory” about history. Ancient Greece and Rome both formed what Spengler called the “Apollonian'” civilization, which had an extreme focus on the near, the present, and the limited. History is not relevant for it’s own sake (as it would be for us, with our Faustian drive for total knowledge), but the examples it can provide for the contemporary. Greek histories, as we shall see in a moment, are histories of the present. Herodotus and Thucydides lived through most of the events they describe.

18. On the War for Greek Freedom: Selections from the Histories by Herodotus: A very compelling read, but how much of it can you trust? He’s known as the Father of History and the Father of Lies. He gives detailed description of conversations at the Persian court at which he could not have been a witness. Many of his stories have a curious resemblance to myths. He believes that flying snakes live in India and nine-foot tall people in Africa. Well, they’re good stories.

19. Medea by Euripides: Medea is the great dynamo of ancient Greek myth, and one of my favorite characters. She completely takes over the second half of the Argonautica, her uncanny fury somehow blazes through despite Apollonius’ limited powers of representation, completely eclipsing the unremarkable Jason (in my novel, I make him vain, hapless buffoon a la Zap Brannigan). Thinking of Medea, I can’t help but recalling Harold Bloom’s characterization of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath as a “vitalist,” an application of the term which I doubt has anything to do with Bergsonian metaphysics, but which I take to describe a mysterious superabundance of energy and will in some people. (My novel in its current state has been taken over, from the somewhat cipher-like titular Thesis, by not one but two vitalists, Medea and the heroically insouciant Herakles. Medea has a Biblical counterpart in Jezebel, and yet she towers over her as much as over the Wife or Dido. But I’ve yet to find a Greek tale that gives Herakles his counterpart’s cussed bastardy: Samson is one of the most unlikely heroes I’ve ever read about. He’s a willful, selfish, capricious rogue finally made poignant thorough suffering. But even he does not have Medea’s boundless gift for suffering, whether giving or receiving. But Samson was just a minor tribal hero, ultimately a curious side-story in the Hebrew epic. Herakles became a god. Perhaps Samson was a trickster god who never bothered to reveal himself.) It’s uncanny enough when we witness it in a real person, and even more mysterious when manifested by literary characters. It has no correlation with morality, and indeed can manifest as a satanic force (Milton’s Satan, Melville’s Captain Ahab, perhaps Hamlet). It has no correlation with intellectual ability: the Wife of Bath is an illiterate peasant. But her vitality lends charm to her ignorance. In villains, it adds splendor to evil. The Wife’s vitality is linked to sex, an earthy lustiness, but while sex obviously has something to do with why an adolescent Medea leaves a splendid kingdom in the city of the Sun, in which she would be Queen and a priestess of Hecate, only to follow a vainglorious Greek pirate on a journey whose ultimate import he doesn’t understand and whose efficient cause was a lost sandal, to a land where she is an alien without friend, abandoned, neglected, at a loss with what to do with her witchly inheritance– obviously lust is an insufficient way to characterize Medea’s dynamism. We all know what a woman scorned is like, and Dido is one ancient analogue for Medea. But since Medea has more of the Wife’s will to life than Dido, suicide was no option: we get a double murder instead, and hence she is the star of her own tragedy rather than a single episode in an epic. No doubt for Euripides’ audience, Medea was a clear villain, a warning to men and a reassurance to their misogynist values. And naturally she can be rebaptized today, like so many of the great slandered and oppressed whores and witches of olde books, but for me she is more than these or any other categories you might want to pin on her: a mystery, a spent passion, and one for whom the world and everything in heaven and hell can never be enough. Early on in my book, she meets with Prometheus, crucified on a high plateau, who tells her his story and lends her some of his blood, from which she makes a potion to aid the hero Jason in the tasks her father has assigned him. The meeting is prophetic and establishes her true magical lineage. The witch of the crossroads is not a grand enough heritage. She has the power of Lucifer himself, and she falls as far and as hard.

20. The Clouds by Aristophanes: A 5th-century BCE satire on Socrates ( indeed on philosophy in general) that is still funny and still disturbing. Disturbing that the play ends in a prophetic holocaust. Aristophanes’ anti-intellectual, pro-tradition message is a perennially conservative theme. But try to imagine a movie that made fun of, say, Marxist college professors, and upheld Christian morality and capitalist economics, that was full of dick and fart jokes. When you get outside your own climate of ideas, you see that liberal and conservative are modal positions that have different implications in different contexts. Also, it makes the play funnier if you imagine, as I did, Gene Wilder as Socrates and Mel Brooks as Strepsiades. Too bad Mel is too old and Gene too dead (one with the forms, dear boy) to make this a reality.

21. Symposium by Plato: Of the dialogues I’ve read, this one is second only to Republic in its literary success and its epistemological challenge. Many accounts are given on the nature of love. Which one is Plato actually arguing for?

22. The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares: This novella has everything to pique my interest, on paper (see what I did there): it’s technically science fiction but doesn’t feel like science fiction; it’s recommended by my favorite fictionist, Jorge-luis Borges, who praised its perfect plot: it’s an island story (I’ve read at least a half dozen of these: The Tempest, Robinson Crusoe, The Island of Doctor Moreau (which Casares’ titular character’s name pays homage to), Lord of the Flies, Concrete Island (may not technically count), Huxley’s Island . . . All of which coincidentally are from England, the little island that could), but I was a bit underwhelmed while reading it. It’s a good story and I do recommend it, but I think there may be something about the tone that was lost in translation.

23. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs: It’s been 20 years since I read this utterly sui generis masterpiece. Burroughs was a genius with a completely fantastical and perverse imagination, and I was a sheltered Mormon boy when I encountered his (and Nietzsche’s) work, altering my perspective permanently. Burroughs was like a rational mystic, an investigator in the Pyrrhonian and Chandleresque senses, and a living embodiment of anarchism in the American grain. I never really embraced the other beat writers, and in recent years have become somewhat disdainful of the counterculture they inaugurated, so I was prepared for my admiration of this book to diminish. Not a bit. Still shocking, still gross, still hilarious, still strangely beautiful. Of all the novels I’ve ever read, only Finnegans Wake compares as a unique literary cosmos without a conventional plot. While I was reading this, I also listened to a slightly truncated audiobook of Burroughs’ first novel, the much more straightforward Junky. I think it also holds up quite well.

24. Phaedo by Plato: Nobody ever really dies, nerd.

25. The Essential Iliad by Homer (Stanley Lombardo translation): When my reading of the full, Fagles-translated epic foundered on the seemingly endless “catalog of ships,” I settled on this highlight reel instead. It’s quite hard to love the callow, self-absorbed manchild Achilles, who causes pointless deaths with his prolonged pouting, next to the family-man Ajax. Then there’s the problem of the two Odysseuses, one of which has a minor role here, but is the hero of the sequel. It’s not his brutality in the Iliad: both versions are violent. It’s the ends to which force is put. The latter Odysseus mainly uses his wits, but can go overboard when violence is called for (the extended slaughter of suitors and servants at the end). We forgive him, because we have journeyed with him so long, and because he goes berserk for personal reasons. The Iliad’s Odysseus gives a man probable brain damage on a matter of protocol. I suppose to Homer’s contemporaries both events were issues of honor, and perhaps they were moved more by Achilles’ lust for glory than by Ajax’s defense of hearth and home. Finley is particularly good for the social background here: this was an aristocratic tribal society, and spoils of war weren’t trifles. They were what reputations were founded on. Consider how sympathetic we are to the plight of Jay Gatsby: his mansion and millions are hollow, since he’s new money and of foreign (indeed enemy, a German just after WWI stock. But that’s because we live in a liberal society, and a man should be honored for what he earns, not where he came from. The Greeks were almost entirely opposite. It was better to have plundered than peddled. Odysseus prefers to be taken for a pirate than a merchant.)  Whatever the clash between their values and ours, it’s remarkable that the Trojans are as deeply drawn as the Greeks. Erich Auerbach famously contrasted the styles of representation in Homer and the Bible. The former offers a replete social world, a seemingly faithful mirror of reality. The latter is a clumsy miscellany in terms of the facts it offers, but the situations of its characters have an infinite resonance, since they are situated by the infinite. Whole systems of theology are born out of the Bible’s lacunae. We could call this a lateral representation versus a vertical one. Going Auerbach one further, we could also compare the representation of the enemy in the two traditions. Non-Israelites, as worshippers of false gods, rarely get a treatment that rises above slander. Trojans, on the other hand, have half of heaven on their side.

26. Man and Technics by Oswald Spengler: A minor work, I guess, but it influenced Lewis Mumford, who also became a very neglected 20th-century intellectual.

27. The Book of the Law by Aleister Crowley: Either a deliberately obscure attempt to found a religion, or a channeled message from the stars. With Crowley, you’d better expect both.

28. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut: Vonnegut was the 20th-century Twain, only better because he wrote science fiction (Oh wait, Connecticut Yankee). If, like me, you haven’t read this since High School, I assure you that it holds up. I never really count Vonnegut as one of my favorite writers, but maybe part of that is knee-jerk elitism. He’s often the favorite of people who don’t read that much. Whenever a writer is mentioned on t.v. or in a movie, it’s always Vonnegut. Want to show that somebody has a surprising sensitive side? Give him a tattered paperback of Cat’s Cradle. Anyway, I just want to say that I appreciate what he did, at least in the first two decades of his career. His art is hard; it reads easy. Vonnegut took all of his bitterness and his terror and his angst, and he made entertainment. He took his ability to entertain and he used it to ask questions we don’t want to know the answers to. He gave us his life and his fantasies in a kaleidoscope of true lies, with flying saucers. Blake wrote, “excess of sorrow laughs, excess of joy weeps.” Reading Slaughterhouse-Five is just like that, if you live on Earth. On Tralfalmidore, they just say, “So it goes.”

29. The Decline of the West, Vol. 1: Form and Actuality by Oswald Spengler: This is, unfortunately, a book that is mainly treasured by Right-wingers. They misread it, in my opinion. They’d rather die beautifully for a lost cause than cast a cold eye on a world in decay which nurses a strange flower in its breast. The gyre widens, the falcon does not respond. Spengler’s audience now is the isolated, brave intellectual. John David Ebert is one neo-Spenglerian who, as far as I can tell resists the dogmas of Left and Right (Nothing, nothing is more important now than avoiding political correctness and neoreaction at once).  Spengler needs to be defended as much from his fans as his foes: day I’m going to write such a defense. But first I have to read the other major cycle-theorist among modern historians. Oh no, not Toynbee: Vico.

30. The Crisis of the Modern World by Rene Guenon: More or less my first dip into the waters of “Traditionalism.” Something kind of awesome in somebody who rejects modernity in its entirety, and thinks philosophy was already going downhill with the Greeks. Heidegger was also on this track, so in a way this might be a mainstream opinion. I dunno, I’m a little out of my depth with this one. Suffice it to say that I am not sure the Tradition is being discovered or invented. Did Kabbalah start with Moses or the Middle Ages? Does it matter? Suffice it to say that aspects of the modern world aren’t going away and hence, Archeofuturism. And what is that? Well, it’s not tradition, and it kinda looks like Dune. 

31. The Turn of the Screw by Henry James: Ugh, I hated this. New Critics loved it for its ambiguity, much as postmodernists may fawn over intertextuality and metafiction. There’s ambiguity and then there’s just being vague and confusing. I can’t really add to what Camille Paglia wrote about James, since she pretty much nailed it:

The prose is self-interrupted by hedging clauses, endless qualifications of Decadent precision, a pedantry numbing by overabstraction. James has a baffling style. That is, he sets the prose as a baffle or barrier between the reader and the thing described

People who dislike James are not simpletons impatient with complexity, His claim to explore every mental nuance is false.  There is good reason to be repelled by James’ duplicity and guile, for line by line we are being deflected from what we really want to know. His web of qualification is a ruse. 

Yes, he records internal events, but his psychological insights are not particularly abundant. [And yet, his brother founded modern psychology.] His characters’ inner lives are poorly personalized. There is only one consciousness, his own.

And so on. And please, please do not trust any list that includes this as a great horror story.

32. The Republic by Plato: Somehow the greatness of this book transcends its completely bogus pretense to “dialectic” form, and the insidiously totalitarian nature of many of its ideas. The questions it asks may not be eternal, but neither are they dated. What is justice? Why should we be good? Is political order founded merely on force? What is the point, end or aim of politics? For a book that is famous for its theory of the State, a surprising amount of it is devoted to an anatomy of the soul. The myth of Er is an unexpected, radiant end.

33. An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology by Frieda Fordham: Somewhat dry and dated, but overall a good introduction. Don’t expect to be introduced to the weird, occult side of Jung, the one who spent a lifetime studying and writing about alchemy, who spent 15 years composing a visionary prophetic book in a trance (the “Red Book”), who wrote one of the first books about UFOs, who had a sadomasochistic affair with a patient, and who supposedly dabbled in Hitler admiration. It’s not like the esoteric side of Jung is irrelevant to Jung the psychologist, like the alchemical works of Isaac Newton are irrelevant to his physics: Jung’s ideas about the mind, and especially the unconscious, are directly influenced by alchemy, Kabbalah, and gnosticism.

34. Lake Effect Poetry: Poems by A.R. Ammons: Reading this Ammons volume gives that feeling of waking up very early in winter before work, a broke-ass Adam early in the morning, before anyone else is awake, watching the snow through a frosted window. Ammons always recalls a great tradition of American romantics, form William Carlos Williams back through Stevens, Emerson and Whitman. He gets away with a higher and more sustained degree of abstraction than almost anyone I’ve read. His line breaks and syntax are structured like an obstacle course, compelling a careful parse, close to what linguists call a “garden path sentence.” This is perfect, because Ammons is most famous for a poem about walking, “Corsons Inlet.” He describes those quiet moments you’ve never been able to explain, even to yourself. He’s not a barrel of laughs.

35. Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle by Carl Jung: I’ll probably have a lot more to say about this book and its idea at a later time. I don’t think I understood Jung’s astrological experiment very well, probably because I lack the background in astrology and statistics. The rest was fairly accessible. I did some research regarding J.B. Rhine’s experiments with ESP (If you’ve seen Ghostbusters, it’s pretty much the same test Peter Venkman is giving at the beginning of the film, except without the electrical shocks; if you haven’t seen Ghostbusters, go see Ghostbusters) that Jung relies on, and it seems they were methodologically flawed at the least, and probably fraudulent. I think Jung might be mistaken in trying to justify synchronicity in scientific terms. In fact, at one point he seems about to critique the scientific method in general. He makes the point that science depends on repeatable results, and therefore excludes, a priori, singular events. This is one of the many dogmas of science. (My favorite is that of “causal closure,” which is as unprovable by science’s own standards as the Logical Positivists’ verification principle was unverifiable by theirs.)

36. The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti: If Jung’s work invites us to reify our inclination to imagine that everything we encounter in the world is meaningful, and that likewise we are meaningful for it, Ligotti insists on the opposite. The position isn’t so much argued for as evoked (Schopenhauer’s Studies in Pessimism, which I read last year, was better). Ligotti’s dayjob is as a neo-Lovecraftian fiction writer, so that isn’t a surprise. I’m not convinced of pessimism, still less of antinatalism, but they’re very much part of the zeitgeist. (See Matthew McConaughey’s character from True Detective: pretty much everything he says was cribbed from this book.) Points to Ligotti though for seeing that Buddhism and scientism come to the same nihilistic conclusions. But, as I am continually discovering, Spengler saw it first.