09 April, 2014

Nostalgia and Music

A post dedicated to Devin G., who prompted this inquiry into nostalgia & music.

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"Nostalgia is immediate, and tends to be localized. As often as not, it is triggered by an experiential short-circuit; our awareness of the present is suddenly interrupted by an image, a feeling, or a sensation from the past. A song on the radio, an old photograph discovered in the pages of a book. The past catches us by surprise and we are filled with longing: for that thing, that person, that place, but more for the selves that we were then."

- Sven Birkerts, from his book The Gutenberg Elegies

In Morrissey's Autobiography, which I have not read and only opened up to a brief paragraph in a bookstore, he describes his experience hearing David Bowie's 1972 song "Starman" from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His description includes a trace of criticism, in that he noticed the chorus ("There's a Starman waiting in the sky...") has a melody that almost exactly duplicates, if not completely lifts, the melody of the opening line to the chorus of "Over the Rainbow" written by Harold Arlen with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg for Judy Garland to sing in 1939's The Wizard of Oz. The embedded links are provided to confirm for your own ears what a young Morrissey experienced right away, having in all likelihood acquainted himself with the film over and over again during his childhood in the company of his mother.

There was something that caught my attention about Morrissey's observation. I knew he was right immediately, and I began to think about the phenomenon of that sly chameleon Bowie and his own impact on me as a listener of popular music and after, understandably, about my own young adulthood. I received a double-disc copy of Best of Bowie (US) on my 18th birthday, along with a pink feather boa, paper crown and a plastic scepter filled with glitter suspended, but not obstructed from floating around, in water. It was a fun day of high school and my friends, who were all young women, thought it was a gas to play this image-flipping trick on the birthday boy that they found so nice, so harmless and closer to them than the burgeoning brutishness of the male sex at our campus. 

I was not and am not now an overly effeminate heterosexual or a closeted homosexual. However, I knew while listening to Bowie after school that day in my bright accoutrements that the lines of sexual orientation can be cleverly blurred and in doing so you confuse viewers, inflame curiosity and even beget a little fame from either the love of androgyny or the hate of its vagary. For Bowie, with "Starman" and a number of other hits, sexual preference and outward gender confusion was always codependent upon that strange sensation of remembering who you once were (the older Morrissey in his Autobiography), who that person thought they were then (a young Morrissey watching tele with mum) and who they related that self to (seeing Judy sing in the first five minutes of The Wizard of Oz). As the teacher of dance G.I. Gurdjieff taught by his own words and in the records of his pupils, there are many little "i"s in us, but not one whole unity known as "I".

The word nostalgia itself was coined by Johannes Hofer, a medical writer in 1668 looking for a description of a disease, at times deadly, experienced by those displaced or in exile from their homeland. I thank Helmut Illbruck for bringing this interesting origin story of the term to my attention through his book Nostalgia: Origins and Ends of an Unenlightened Disease (Northwestern University Press, 2012). Hofer created the neologism from the Greek 'nostos' ("return home") and 'algia' ("pain"). Illbruck notes as well the masterful work of Richard Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), in which Burton seems to describe this state or one similar to it as "banishment" and deems it to be an almost adolescent feeling, one that has its root in the unhealthy attachment to a place and the denial that variety in itself has some principle of unity, i.e. the sun shines the same everywhere. However, by the time Hofer published his Dissertatio Medica de Nostalgia, Burton's book was falling out of print and wouldn't appear again until the 1800s. It would become a notable book once more, for example in the libraries of Walter Pater and the Aesthetic movement. Perhaps Burton's definition of "banishment" as nostalgia describes much about the interior scene of the dandies and decadents of the 19th century's fin de siecle - whose top literary celebrity Oscar Wilde was and is a primary influence upon Morrissey's lyricism and, let us say, his own particular panache

Today, we switch on the radio and find the popular hits fulfilling their function: hitting our ears with catchy but unoriginal phrases, inserted samples with co-opted melodies and our own memory proves not to be a solid vinyl record with an adamantine needle - but a fluid, dentritic and complicit partner of our experience of nostalgia. The aim and development of major advertising for consumable media in the latter half of the 20th century has been directed towards the young. But I hear not 30 years of time between, as with Garland and Bowie, to press "replay" with references and rehashing - now there's only a decade. There is a parallel to Hollywood genre films and the "rebooting" of whole franchises (ex. Spider-Man, Superman, Godzilla, Robocop, etc.) where the target is as always a younger generation, but in this case it's those who might have been playing with the action figures of the earlier ('80s or '90s) franchise attempts, who are now able to get into the new and improved version without parental consent. Nostalgia as a dependable source of suggestive advertising!

I think Birkerts has it right in the quotation I've included above, especially with the phrase "experiential short-circuit." Nostalgia happens in a flash, is an association without formal cause. We experienced something in the past and identified with it. "I" am not a unity, and so the song is heard and my awareness is without, unbound by my current place and time, and lost, homeless to the present...We can imagine a man or woman of the 17th century in a carriage or on foot, leaving behind home, no, a whole world that they won't ever see again, and then years later they meet a person who sings the same bardic tune that their wet nurse sang to them, herself remembering the far away village she would never step foot in again, then the man or woman completely struck with fatigue, longing and the rootless wasting away of their energy. In actuality, it is because there isn't that breastmilk, or that mother, or that feather boa around our necks anymore. We aren't that "i" and we aren't the "i" who writes this article or posts that comment. The real question becomes:


16 March, 2014

(Never) A Final Word Part 3

For Matt R. and Thomas D.

This final post on active (re)watchings of LOST has less to say and demonstrate than the previous posts, which were recently edited with minor changes and contain a few new links to short video clips. Reflecting on what has already been written, my treatment has been in the spirit of comparative literature and ancient religion. This isn't everyone's cup of tea.When my eye takes notice of a detail, phrase or word, I am often connecting or associating it with what has come before to me - either from my university coursework, independent studies, or lifelong empirical impressions. Is this tendency to reflect an inborn ability or learned? Does it alter what I perceive, changing one thing into another? Is it necessary to interpret what one sees to "understand" LOST?

There are no keys or rather, there are many a key to many a door. Entertainment is behind most doors and it is found to be cheap, high gloss, quick and easy to obtain. Pornography is the ultimate modern entertainment because it exemplifies all of these attributes to the highest degree. The Internet is its ultimate vehicle, and any book or article on the future of global connectivity rates increasing in the next few decades ought to point this fact out and devote a meager section to addressing it. Pornography however does not lend itself to multiple readings. Its function is to illicit a physical response of sexual stimulation for the viewer and no matter how well-crafted or "artistic" it is shot or produced, one is never brought beyond the boundary drawn by its closed narrative. See the failure of the vision of pornographer Jack Horner played by Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights by filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Vision is occluded by the visual (Locke/Man-in-Black appearing as Locke). 

The above isn't critical interpretation, so much as common sense. If a piece of literature, film or television show instead of invoking a pleasure principle tries to address issues about the nature of knowing, the activity of human will in the world and our capability to love one another, then reading these pieces of art will be - couldn't be - otherwise than multiple and varied. I repeat, not in defense of my writing, but in supplication to the creators of all forms of art, that a closed reading is possible only if and when a form of entertainment is directly addressing the physical appetite alone. If there seems to be more, if there are passages, scenes, moments that cause you to feel or think otherwise, you are not watching from the realm of your body by itself. Your heart and your mind are also recognized, and that recognition must be responded to by an action that comes from you. I can at least say this essential thing and perhaps not much more about the division of the fandom over LOST.

I may have fallen prey to the three cardinal mistakes one can make when offering "help" to someone: Helping when help's not needed; Helping when it's just for one's own ends; Helping when you want good for another. Even if I have been given to all three or one, here however, is the final part of my soapbox stylings. One of my feet is already on the ground.

XLII. LOST as an unwieldy creation but merited achievement in its medium for our time & space

From my computer screen there is an article about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. In light of the writing of these posts, already more than a few remarks have been made to me about the circumstances of the disappearance of this plane and the initial setup for LOST . I put aside the resemblance because it's only a joke. My piece has been to say "Some folk just had to go back." With kinder hearts placed before our words we'd express concern for the 239 passengers whose lives have temporarily vanished off the radar screens of our world. But the words of the news are taken almost just as literally as the details of an invented story for us. Making it into the butt of our jokes is an ample way of avoiding real conversation about the event or to cover the fact that one hasn't anything thoughtful to say about it. "Those people are really lost" is all one can truly say.

On another tab, I have an article written by Damon Lindelof for The Hollywood Reporter about the ending of Breaking Bad written in October of last year. He does something sincere in admitting that while he was sitting down to talk about his reaction to the end of the show, the end of his own show remained with him. Lindelof talks about an "unhealthy obsession" with his finale. He indicates that he can't help but mention the feeling he had while involved in the writing process, says he felt "alive." Writing LOST was an experience for him as much as it was for the viewers. The necessary distance he wants to give between the show he wrote and Vince Gilligan's series is impossible because of an unavoidable association between them. The comments below his article are as long of a meandering shallow stream of praising, bickering and everything in-between as any other example of "dialogue."

Here, in an interview with Lindelof conducted a year later by John Lagomarsino for "On The Verge" on his co-writing  of Ridley Scott's Alien prequel Prometheus, the focus shifts subtly. It becomes an honest and revealing conversation about his legacy of LOST, the finale, the fan reactions, all with references and examples given by Lindelof for the benefit of any viewers. Take a moment to view the 24-minute, 39-second clip if you haven't already.


The central point Lindelof makes is about impact. "Did you love The X-Files?" he asks John. John loved the show. "What did you think about the ending?" John cannot remember because "it was so long ago." Lindelof shows that he doesn't remember not because the ending was good or bad, but because it was not impactful. Lindelof reiterates a revealing statement he has made elsewhere about the arc of his show up until season 3. From that season's end forward, when there was a finite amount of episodes contractually agreed upon and the story lines were drawn out, all interviews and publications containing his and Cuse's answers to questions about the end of the show being solvency for the series mysteries would be, as predicted, sure to disappoint.

What is hard to say as a writer is that the most assured way of satisfying your audience is by touching them viscerally, in the body. Mind games have a short-lived appreciation once figured out and overly sympathetic or melodramatic performance is hard to bear. How you go about striking balance between the head, heart and hand is where interesting and compelling things are situated and where there lives some quality of a thing that all creators receive from since time immemorial. It makes them feel alive and it answers the ringing call of life by life's own voice. It's about the nature of being (ontology), and we aught to take up caution in our thoughts and actions to seriously consider what Geoffrey Hill's lament that "the greatest tragedy of the last 60 years has been the extinction of the ontological reader" means for us all, not just for poetry in English.

My lady and I watched the finale, and my last viewing of LOST has been completed.

Asked later what she thought, she said "I thought they'd take it in a different direction."





IV, VIII, XV, XVI, XXIII, XLII

09 March, 2014

(Never) A Final Word Part 2

Hello again. My last post took into consideration the circumstantial factors that went into bringing LOST to light. It also considered the personal experience of watching the show by this writer, who shared it with other viewers over the last 3 seasons. I continue my main proposal that by re-watching the series actively, one gains a new layer of interpretation and earns a critical re-appraisal of the show's structure, form and even fashions a skeleton key of sorts for all it's unanswered questions! Well, perhaps it won't go that far...

This post is dedicated to Alex K., who is looking for answers.

XVI. LOST as a novel-film that approaches/attempts to walk the seam between literature and the cinematic arts in the early 21st century

I began to compose notes once I started my second viewing of the series. I was motivated by the intensity of the reactions to the ending, because it was big. That was the question I needed to answer - why these equal extremes of disdainful hate and passionate praise? I was not so much left with a feeling of being cheated or having had been lead into a corner with Cuse and Lindelof's writing - indeed, as a student of literature I saw themes and familiar story lines that have graced pages under the nose of humanity for centuries. This was what was so perplexing: with decades of television at our fingertips and centuries of texts with recurrent relationships and forms of stories from numerous cultures available, what kept fans from seeing LOST in a disinterested way? It would certainly help lower one's blood pressure and give oneself an opportunity to develop some objectivity in hindsight.


This is when I made some lists. Being a fan of lists, I had no trouble utilizing one for the books. Every season there was a finite amount of books shown on the show. When a book appeared it was framed, the camera lingered, or a character even directly spoke about it and/or touched it. Our first example is Kate picking up a copy of Watership Down by Richard Adams on the beach among clothes. Sawyer emerges from his morning dip in the nude and proclaims "It's about bunnies!" I rather like his exclamation, because it's deceptive. Sawyer's still a hick, a character self-conscious of the appearance he has to the other survivors (as a way of keeping advantage & distance) but he's a reader too. This appearance of Book #1 is in the first episode we get of his flashbacks, episode 8, "Confidence Man," the title itself which can be taken as a literary reference to Herman Melville's novel of the same name. On the other hand, Sawyer's "commentary" on Watership Down could be a young man or woman's take on the entire book after it was assigned to read in school and they hadn't even opened the cover page by the time the book report was due. A different person, an attentive viewer, might ask about connections between the episode and the novel, that is, if one had indeed read the book or is in fact reading the book alongside the show. Very demanding, yes?

Books insinuate themselves throughout the series. Some books are only the titles of episodes, such as above, as with "Exodus","A Tale of Two Cities" and "The Little Prince." My list however was not comprised of those books, but of books handled by characters in frame. Some correspondences stood out: Dostoevsky is the only author on the list twice with The Brothers Karamazov and Notes from Underground; Joseph Heller's Catch 22 is the only book to have appeared in an episode in which the book is also the episode's title; and Watership Down, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle and Lancelot by Walker Percy are the only books to reappear together and with the original person who handled them: our reader, Sawyer.

There's something more to a facile list of books appearing on LOST. Each book has its own theme, narrative and many other structures which comprise its form. Each episode, each season and the whole series also has these very same things but to a higher degree of complexity and inter-relation. Plenty of shows don't even bother with displaying the reader and his relationship with books, but this is central to all literate human activity, and essential even to watching television. With television or screen narratives usurping a greater part of the attention that was once placed on the page, LOST's goal or moral modus operandi seems to be in hindsight to strike a visual balance between page/screen. One could argue further that the entire series is nothing more than an attempt at pushing viewers back upon themselves in some honest self-reflection. No wonder Sawyer's favorite television show is Little House on the Prairie.

LOST's writing was very successful in combining multiple genres to the delight and dismay of the public. It encompasses and pursues plot lines as a murder mystery, a science/fiction story, a tale of horror & suspense, an adventure, a psychological drama, even includes a buddy cop scenario, a hospital soap, a comedy, multiple romances and a few drug trips for good measure. All common forms of narrative over the past several hundred years of public reading since Gutenberg's printing press are covered. This range and multitude is staggering. The writers paced it out among characters for six seasons and that's quite an accomplishment with relatively few new inclusions. In doing so LOST becomes thinned out, strained and stretched too far on many occasions, and the ratings history reflect these changes. But I cannot find an example in television (perhaps only in Chris Carter's The X-Files or Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek: The Next Generation) that approaches and attempts to walk this seam of literature and the cinematic arts in our present time as LOST does. To put it plainly, nothing on TV has tried to sum up our collective story making history as the web spun by LOST. In order to avoid any network or fandom disappointment, we might not see one again for awhile. The most successful television shows are formulaic, predictable, take few risks, make few changes in cast and character, depicting a continuity of setting, situation and style. Mutable forms are shunned or end up surrounded by "cult" followings, as this show has with those fans it hasn't lost and most likely will with new viewers in decades to come.



XXIII. LOST as a mythic-religious epic made of the eternally repeating archetypes that have been with humanity since before art, history or literature

I paused again after seeing the series a third time. I was caught up in taking notes and found myself needing to put them down to immerse myself in the feelings displayed by characters and my feelings of their inter-relationships. There was so much struggle, such stubbornness, a lot of humor, sadness beyond sadness, joys shot out of cannons like fireworks, injustice and cruelty - and those unanswered questions. To be sincere, my utmost unresolved mystery is the nature of the Horace/Jacob cabin. But when I just stayed with the show, really tried to put myself in the position of the characters, I had experiences that were transcendent of my own subjectivity. Great literature does this and the greatest stories have remained with us in the form of epic narratives. But to be one's own witness to this process with audial and visual stimuli is something one does not receive from pages, but from film and television. It is more likened to rituals and dances of older cultures. The imagination cannot paint the picture which words suggest, because that relationship is not present. On the screen before our eyes, it's all provided for. The imagination is thereby rendered inactive or non-participant in forming an impression. The responsibility of the creators becomes fundamentally important again.

Jerry Mander is correct in stating that the rigidity of television does not allow for it to be a democratic instrument in his Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. The bandwidth is very narrow, and the Internet is really not much broader. Mander's concern is from a socially determined point of view. He believes that the content is a reduction and the constant slogans, advertising and programs have liquified any quality down to a nearly innutritious pulp. This then informs the way a person acts and behaves in the world. Can television provide something directly to and for a human being that does not make them more susceptible to such autocratic control? These concerns are still valid because the medium has not changed much at all (just picture quality, which is a factor of quantity, of pixels) and we're seemingly none the wiser despite Mad Men and any insight that show offers on the mechanics of advertising.

What could be valuable today is a television show which is self-referential about this potentially harmful influence. If it were to do this, the writers would need to cast a much wider net over their source material and likewise expose their viewers to a higher degree of philosophical and ethical problems which would also be present in the show. Locke, Rousseau, Hume, Berkeley, Bentham - the names are there and the true owners of these signifiers were writers and thinkers orbiting the social transformation of the Enlightenment. It was one of the first things I picked up on when I began the show and if any freshman in a liberal arts college was also watching the first season, she would too.

So what do we do with this? It's a cud to chew on for the first few seasons and then we start getting this Jacob character, Richard Alpert, Hawking, Faraday, Lewis, Dogen. More names and more associations - now spiritual, now scientific. The names do two things for us: they give us a real world anchor in whatever region the show's narrative structure has moved into and paradoxically pushes us out of the show and into discussion when the show's episode has ended. This works on the viewer much like the literary references. Even before literature was written down and disseminated by symbols, the issues which are brought up because of the names and the ideas surrounding them were passed down in oral traditions which graced or continue to grace all cultures the world over as mythology. As a commentary on how our society continues to think about and act out the results of our current linear events, LOST succeeds in isolating the main arguments: fate, destiny, free will, determinism, sacrifice, forgiveness, remembrance of the dead, and self-awareness. The last is distinctly Eastern in its origins, and ever since we see a bagua with the word "DHARMA" inside of it at the Swan Station, the correlations and differences between our world's two dominant hemispheres of civilization are also brought together.

The stories are always the same: the lovers whose love is unrequited; the genius whose downfall is his own ingenuity; the outcast whose true place is in the center of all activity - these archetypes play out the philosophical and ethical quandaries which have plagued and continue to plague the whole of history. Reconciliation of the opposites and establishing growth instead of degradation are the oldest narratives these archetypes play/live within. Jacob and his brother's roles are that of the narrative maker (the tapestry) and the game player (the Senet board). All the initial problems are shown as clear as that island light in "Across the Sea." At the end of the series LOST makes room for the utmost expression: that of the principal of renewal (or grace) which responds to the causes (or gravity) of the creation of the universe. Renewal and return to the source lies in the seedbed of all religious and mythic teachings. Giving of one's Self without seeking reward is the surest path toward this renewal (Jack) and doing so until one's physical death means putting your Self in the shoes of the Other (Hurley). Transcendence is the only true end which justifies the means of one's experience - all else is folly, as Joseph Campbell and the early 20th century mythologists taught (who do not go unaccounted for as an influence upon the writers c.f. the special features of S6 on DVD or Blu-ray). Take particular notice how many times the word "experience" is uttered in Season 6 and by whom. The game only ends once, but it is played by and through many.

What a massive undertaking of a storyline crafted in a post-9/11, war-plagued and severely dialogue-deprived world at the end of the first decade of the 21st century! What happens when we take into our hearts and cogitate with our minds the implications of such a narrative with such a deep focus? The way we live our lives may even be impacted by such force and resonance with this strange substance LOST leaves behind. It might even be the kind of television that need not be eliminated. Wait - can such a story be eliminated? Rituals, dances and rites of initiation tell the story of origins and actually inscribe these on flesh or in the memory - as if one inhabits but for a moment, that real space where all live eternally.

End of Part II

04 March, 2014

(Never) A Final Word Part I

To post a brief interlude from my current train of thought on education and the question of reading our Western tradition in light of the present, I give you Part 1 of an article bridging quite a unique gap between today and March of 2011. It was then that I wrote this article highlighting the differences and strange similarities between the forms in the narrative structure of Rene Daumal's Mount Analogue and the television show created by J.J. Abrams, Jeffrey Lieber, and Damon Lindelof (the latter who then continued to spearhead the show's direction with Carlton Cuse). This new post culminates after years of study and note-taking during re-watches of LOST that concerned friends & loved ones who sat down with me have witnessed. May their care for my mental well-being be either rightfully justified or pleasantly relieved by my writing below.

IV. The numbers

I'm finishing up my fourth time watching LOST in toto. The number four is a number of beginning. 4 lines create a square, 4 appendages of the human being, and 4 is the first numeral in the sequence synonymous with the series, which I've discovered is painted in white on a shutter off 2nd Avenue and 14th St last night in the East Village. It was strange, amusing and also telling, "pushing" me on in a way to write this article. Here is a photo of the sequence:




As viewers we come to know each candidate for Jacob's position was allotted a number. Four is John Locke's number. As the episodes of the final season become increasingly intense, full of steadily rising risks, attacks & counter-attacks, revealing plot advances made both on the island and in "the City of Angels," one simultaneously comes to the end and the beginning. As Jin states to Sawyer in Season 6, "that thing is not John Locke," and one character's end has dovetailed into another's (re)birth when Ajira Flight 316 doesn't make it to Guam. 

Locke is number 4. A square without one of its lines is a triangle, or 3. Flight 815 and Flight 316 are uniquely different. Eloise Hawking said to Jack in Season 5 that if the conditions weren't exactly reproduced for their return to the island, the outcome would be "unpredictable." We see that only one number of the sequence is represented in the flight designation - it is off or lopsided. 3 is not 4, and "the Man in Black" is not Locke. The above is an example of critical interpretation which shows through the writing Locke's replacement before the MiB's masquerade is revealed at the end of the season.

Not every answer which is given by the writers either outright, subtly with "easter eggs" or in the minute details of dialogue, can be divined this way. Much was discovered by the writers themselves as they wrote. This completely disagrees with what some might call a binding contract between the creators and the viewers to be omniscient in their roles, but there it is in the link from an interview with Cuse and Lindelof in 2008. A lot more has to be reasoned and turned over on one's own or with others in open discussion, as one would in a college course or in a voluntary book club. The record of the enjoyment fans took away with them while they spoke to each other as the show was airing remains on The Fuselage, on the special features of the DVDs & Blu-Ray copies, and on assorted pages of the Internet.

However, when our own experience shows that there is a lie in the statement that democratic conversation over the Internet is one of its inherent virtues, we cannot be fooled. As I mention in my post from 2011, the dividing line between fans as to the resolution of the series is a wide and deep gulf. My proposal below suggests a different avenue to understanding what happened (or happens) in the experience of watching this landmark television series. If you have left those discussion boards far behind, know that I don't intend on sending you back to them - they are almost totally inactive anyhow!

VIII. Active watching

I propose here that to appreciate the structure and form of LOST, one must at least make it through 4 active watchings. If it is of any merit to devote the 348 hours (or two solid weeks of one's life) by watching the series four times over, it can't be done passively, or, without one's attention upon the way the show is over the way the show could have been. This is not to say that it can always be watched actively. Viewing the series 4 times ensures that the character arcs and plots are known in detail, key dialogue exchanges are known word for word and the function of each season which displays the form of the series is known to the intellect itself, i.e. without having to refer to Lostpedia via Google, etc.

Some details can and will be forgotten - these details are where we take into consideration the lack of a finer energy or power of the story to impress itself upon us. These are places where we can make a critical statement about the quality of the writing. However, each watching can and would ideally give a person enough time and opportunity to enjoy the series, give the series its proper attention, work through their own subjective biases and allow for finer points of focus to come to light, so that what is valuable about the show can shine for itself. One watches and listens and changes one's own faculty of those senses - each time, a new paradigm in a sound that went unnoticed or a scene that finally made some sense in its relationship to the whole. 

The nature of the construction of the series, with its discontinuous narrative and abrupt sea changes, demands that one must pay attention. Otherwise, you're bemused, confused, frustrated and rationalizing your own feelings upon the construction. Why this and not this!?!? LOST wasn't farted out of one person - it was breathed into life from the mouths and minds of a writing staff that pulled from a myriad of sources and influences, both autobiographical (i.e. experiential) and via their own critical readings of other texts, shows, histories, etc. The strong fan base that grew and changed also spoke directly to the writers and influenced the very shape of the show. Even if you didn't participate in that collective voice, you can still benefit from creating your own inner commentary on LOST. An outline of each proposed viewing with a possible focus for your active watching could look like this:

XV. LOST as an ABC television series airing from 2004-2010 in a primetime slot

Taken into consideration, LOST came onto television during a tough time for its network and in a changing landscape for shows running on regular networks. The success of HBO, Showtime and other cable networks to raise unprecedented viewer ratings and collect many a statue at award ceremonies had ABC (the number 4 network at the time) pining for renewal. The unlikely story seems to be covered recently by another more succinct writer than myself, Alan Sepinwall, in his new book The Revolution Was Televised. An excerpt from his book on LOST's inception and first season can be read here. Damon Lindelof's mental and emotional instability as he took on the brunt of the responsibility for the show should be noted, as the title of the article suggests.

As for my own approach to the show, the first three seasons on DVD were brought before me by Matthew Thomas Ross of Portland, Oregon's Neighborhood Films in 2007. The fourth season was about to premiere and I had just entered a period of concentrated, intentional absence from university. I was reading books I wanted to read, writing poetry rather than papers, walking in the forest, enjoying every sip of tea, and letting what came to me attain my acceptance. And so, having not been involved in watching a television show regularly in quite some time, I was interested by Matt's description of the show and tentatively took up my first viewing. I have Matt to thank for every time I watch, feel, think or write about LOST. After the end of Season 1, I was completely engaged and wished to commit to the other two seasons before the first episode of Season 4. It was a marathon: 3 seasons in 2 weeks.

Thenceforward, having avoided the hoopla of time-slot changes by ABC (but not the Writer's Strike to come) I took a seat with Matt and other fellow Losties each night a new episode was aired. We all nursed theories over the "mysteries" of the show. I followed the details and thin threads as close as anyone could, and read much more into them than was probably there. What shined brightest though were the characterizations and the evolutions of the exercise (or withholding) of emotions, thoughts and will power on the island. Even unto this day where the last episode awaits my lady and I, who has yet to see "The End" either to her satisfaction or disappointment, it's the characters and their relationships that cause stirrings from my heart to well-up and out of me in the form of laughter, anger - or tears. Imagining, empathizing with, or responding to their situations of love, fear, betrayal, surprise, are all activities that require no critical acumen or learned insight to appreciate. This is the basis of all further appreciation, and I return to it comfortably after either championing the series or voicing my misgivings.

End of Part I

07 February, 2014

Through the River of History's Reads

Making a move soon from the Long Island borough of Brooklyn to Manhattan, East Village. The rent is high, the space small, but the accommodations are pretense for the ease with which we'll get to places of work, leisure, food, cultural centers and friends just outside of the double-doored apartment building. The fifth-floor view of Lower Manhattan is especially worth the price tag. When Spring comes, which every softened transplant to New York City wishes for being so unused to snow, ice and temperatures hanging just above or below freezing, we'll have a pleasure with access to a small planked rooftop via the steel black twisting staircase at one end of the apartment. This will be our home until the shores of Scandinavia call us in for summertime travels, working farm-to-farm.


Meanwhile, shifting small piles of books, changing their locations in the store, adjusting prices and tracking sales - these are my daytime duties. Increase the sales, add a small amount of ingenuity - an idea for a gift bundle of book, tarot card deck and magnet. Perhaps the managers will credit your suggestion, or forget you mentioned anything. Keep to ones's responsibilities to the customers and tasks; don't tread on those which are not yours. Co-worker and I, there is a central question about our "duties" to ask: Does a nearby reader reach out for an experience, or does she reach out for an item of consumption? Consumption - both etymological sickness and contemporary necessity. The charity of lessening ones burden materially inclines more towards the conscientious head but shies from leading in the direction of the heart's outpouring. Trickling maybe, drop-by-precious-drop of charitable liquid, like a Lincoln penny one doesn't pick up from pulling out one's hand from the tight fitting denim pocket. One of us at the bookstore owns no books - he leaves them where he may finish them, even on the seat of the subway as he rides home. Close this circle of thought around your own wrist. Do you reach for an experience, or do you leave one absence for another?


A number of writers and their books on the activity of reading grace a large table's worth of space in the basement of my bookstore. A few writers in particular come to mind with their titles, some of which are quite numerous and reflect on the reading/writing dichotomy. Italo Calvino's Why Read the Classics?, Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading, Orhan Pamuk's The Naive and Sentimental Novelist, Milan Kundera's Encounters, and some other assorted folk of scribbles on the how-and-why of the very activity which the place the customer is standing in has been erected for consuming such "novelties." Manguel has an essay on the homepage of his website which carries the line serving as the inspiration for this post. It reads:

Our actions must be justified by our literature and our literature must bear witness to our actions. Therefore to act as citizens, in times of peace as in times of war, is in some sense an extension of our reading, since our books hold the possibility of guiding us through the experience and knowledge of others, allowing us the intuition of the uncertain future and the lesson of an  immutable past

My current book of choice is E.H. Gombrich's A Little History of the World. It's form and content are justifiably shortened (it was written with the young in mind) but he has an astonishing way of stitching together the vast ages that at already half-past the middle mark of the book I'm engaged, can easily recall the previous twenty chapters, and have filled in gaps of centuries I had until recently been ignorant about. History is at times, as Gombrich states, "not a pretty poem," but this is the reality of it which nonetheless moves in the sinuous shape of lines in verse and is the story which we tell ourselves about ourselves. What shall we say about today? Every emergence from a subway station in the morning, breaking news for the breaking day: New Yorkers sick of snow, Deadly streets to cross, Philip Seymour Hoffman? Dead, but drugs not taxicabs. Little or none of this will be history in years to come, but it is demanding and succeeds in dividing our attention to listen to that very intuitive feeling between "the uncertain future and the lesson of an immutable past," as M. Manguel states on his Home Page.

It is on the train that most, if not all of my reading currently, is accomplished. Cramped against my fellow commuters and the stainless steel bars or rubber jawed doors, or if I'm lucky on the stiff but foot-relieving and pre-warmed subway seat. With hardback two-handed or paperback one-handed, I read. Of course standing with the hardback in hand and inside a jolting car I cannot use both - it's a hand cramp I pay for while grasping the bar above my head. Riding the Northeast Regional Amtrak train last week to Lancaster, Pennsylvania to see one of my dearest and oldest friends, I had the luxury of easing back in a comfortable seat in an uncrowded space with a wintry landscape before my face lifting up from my pages. Those pages were bound in a landmark book which is the utmost compliment to every post I've made in the last month. It is one that is challenging my mind and my heart on the most important occupation of my life, and which speaks through this question, one which Manguel and Gombrich address in their own way: Is education possible?

The posts to follow shall reveal this book, it's content, form, considerations in light of previous readings and shall culminate (or be complimented in adjoining posts, I have not decided just yet) in the public presentation of the core activities conducted by a group known as The Institute of General Inquiry, which was founded in Portland, Oregon in 2011 and existed for little more than 3 years. Keep abreast of this upcoming event, as participation and thoughtful commentary is heartily welcomed, in fact, needed. The Internet has no blood but our own.


08 January, 2014

Value as Treasure In Itself

Being employed at a retailer of books, any given customer enters our store from out of the winter's cold with a title scribbled on a piece of paper or pulled up on their smartphone. I am shown these titles or provided clues for their discovery, often out of reach of the customer's own memory. The numerous tables in the store that we must navigate through as we head off are full of newer books with covers designed so successfully that one may judge and be in the right to have judged its content by the affixed label. Tote bags and novelties are grabbed on the way to or back from the title we find, and brought to the registers. I have little doubt that sidelined merchandise sales are just at or greater than what we sell in paper.

A little more than half the time, their book lies on one of these tables of - a "best of","recently arrived" or "featured in." We have a table for nearly every section in the bookstore. And yet, there is a corner with little of this effulgence, a number of shelves left to leather-bound tomes with gilted edges and dusty mass market paperbacks, Library of America hardbacks and the unassuming Modern Library & Everyman's Library editions. It is a corner I look toward when my eyes have been all abuzz and ablaze with the maddening colors, graphics and blurb-ridden outsides of the books that may, or may not, make the cut this season for gift-able "readers." I print out a gift receipt if there is any hesitancy that they (or the gifted) will not.

I would direct every customer to that "Classics Corner" if each one were so inclined to choose something overlooked in their elementary, high school, or college days. Perhaps even discarding their bias over Silas Marner or their old, sick feeling looking at the size of Moby Dick - they'd discover the lasting joy and critical interest of a previous century of reading. If I am asked what I'd recommend, it's usually something that has been out for a decade or several decades - that's my own bias. Whether a bookstore employee has personally reviewed the book themselves at times holds little empirical importance over whether or not it is placed in hand and kept there, warm, until the checkout line. Rather, it needs to be available now, so being desired by a loved one; or it's a prize winner, perhaps being just been heard about "on the wind," i.e. The New York Times. What shines of a newer veneer sells better than what age has deemed of a stronger, lasting quality. 

So why not repackage and redesign? In fact, the NYRB is doing a good job of bringing us back to the sense of a book as having some value in itself, or a value that outlasts its current praise or past praise with a minimum of dressing. Even their editions could reign in design choices, keeping closer to solid colors, a welfare of detail, and few to no words of recommend. This bookseller-by-day handles hundreds of transactions and harbors just as many experiences of customer service to prove a hypothesis like the above to the most seasoned distributor, editor, or author. You learn to recognize the difference in selling a book and having sold someone a product.

In prefacing the discussion of my third book in hand, Jane Langton's The Diamond in the Window, with this experience of holiday book selling (with more than a little undertone of frustration) I wanted to highlight the difference between books as objects to be read or admired and books that provide reading experiences. The reading experience is central to Langton's novel for the young-in-spirit, and half-way through this novel there is enough indication that the immediate desire to have an item of worth is not half as valuable as the experience of searching for value in itself.

Set in Concord, Massachusetts, a hundred or so years after Thoreau, Emerson and Alcott's days, two young persons of Walden Street begin an adventure. Eleanor and Edward live with their Uncle Freddy and Aunt Lily. The former is an eccentric home dweller who speaks to his busts of the ancients Henry and Waldo, while the latter is a spinster who cannot make enough in piano lessons for her family to pay back taxes on their house. The children find this out without their guardians knowing so, and a small fear that their unsightly home will be torn down is born in their minds and hearts. Soon after, as they play across from their dank home, they notice that their attic must support an even higher room, when they spy a window they've never looked through. They discover the former room of their Aunt Lily's brother and sister Ned & Nora (psycho-spiritual doubles), who vanished along with a childhood friend from the East, Prince Krishna. Already, we find references to the 19th century Transcendentalists and their literary/religious sources.

As the search for treasure consumes their thoughts and guides their hands to turn over everything in the attic room, they decide to sleep there in the light of the diamond-shaped window. The window, which holds a poem whose stanzas are clues, gathers a different light each evening. Their dreams take on a different form, each night existing within and without the former belongings of their forgotten aunt, uncle, and family friend. Langton does an amazing job of creating a universe of connection over space and time that links the adventures of the dreaming children with the disappearance of the 3 persons dear to the Hall family. It is this compass of proportions as a guide and the dichotomy of dream/waking, past/present, west/east, that creates an inviting tension that the reader can't help but see through to resolve - especially with the impending date of their eviction from their own home.


The most interesting character in the novel is Uncle Freddy, the eccentric who is later re-instated as Professor Frederick T. Hall - after nearly being sent to the madhouse. He transitions from quotation to realization, from an obliviousness to the reality of their town to playing a key role in the celebration of Concord's historic past in the Revolutionary War. The thin line between what is sane and insane is tipped in the affirming direction, not because that's how he is able to fit into the society that would deny him, but because his mind is in-firmed by the teachings of men that would be his freedom. Even the Transcendentalists are transcended. Penultimately, a school is founded and a book to be written collaborated on between Professor Hall and Prince Krishna is begun (title unknown: perhaps something on the Bhagavad Gita's concept of liberation and its place in American thought after Thoreau?). Knowledge is pursued, not money, and what was lost, retrieved.


This book was cherished by both myself and to whom I read it aloud. Her mother loaned us the book and now that it is finished, I have an obligation to return it. But as we finished it and knew we had to send it back through the mail, I had this horrible feeling of anger at not having been gifted the book. It was acute and sharp, directed at her mother, and I thought about how I couldn't keep the object. Not until I could step back and observe my feelings did it occur how little I was able to take into my consciousness the teachings of The Diamond in the Window, every innocent, wise and loving word. Thinking myself no better experiencing this than anyone feeling an inclination towards one text or another at the bookstore, whatever the condition, I felt a deeper remorse-of-conscience for our kind in general. I caught my selfish attitude only upon self-reflection, though this brought me to the central teaching of Langton's book, which occurs in the chapter titled "The Chambered Nautilus." Seek out this book from your library, your local bookstore or a loved one, to find this jewel of Truth.

18 December, 2013

The Celestial Event of W.G. Sebald

Book 2 of 3, which I shall finish any day now on my subway rides to The Strand (my new place of work), is the debut novel of W.G. Sebald (1944-2001) entitled Vertigo. This novel was released first in the writer's preferred language of German as Schwindel in 1990, but the English-language translation by Michael Hulse did not appear until 1999. Much like the sense which James Stewart's character has in Hitchcock's film of the same name, the first-person narrator of Sebald's novel is "afflicted." By what? One could just as easily say anxiety or PTSD or something of that ilk as one could say melancholy, madness, or the musings of a lonely soul.

All great works contain in them a seed in their first chapter or first few pages or lines, that the remaining work grows out from upon the frame of the narrative. Much like a grapevine and the process of its eventual yield as a vintage. Vertigo is a work akin to this process. I began my reading of Sebald's work with his last and most refined novel, Austerlitz. Afterwards, I moved further back with Rings of Saturn. Vertigo as a work upon which the other novels rest extends the metaphor of the grapevine's seed across the breadth of his work. For as the title of Sebald's final work is named after a battlefield of the Napoleonic Wars, Vertigo itself begins with a short life of a soldier and diarist from that Corsican's army - Marie Henri Beyle (1783-1842), best known to posterity as the writer Stendhal.

From Stendhal's youth we are taken through his maturation and his mistakes, his realization about one's memory of images and the power of the image as subsuming the other, as well as the "crystallization" effect, which you may read about at the above link. The narrator of the rest of the novel brings everything in his own life unto the greying light of Monsieur Beyle's realizations on love, memory and history. While traveling from England to Germany to Austria then on toward one Italian city and another, we are entangled in the warp and woof of 7 years that pass between one impulsive visit of the narrator and his following one which tries to grasp at the several moments of afflictions he suffered under strange and myopic circumstances. The probable cause? Living itself.

His last journey is by foot, through that dark, wooded ravine that Dante tread himself. Only for Sebald, this leads not toward a transcendent journey, but to 'W.' which is the place of his birth and early childhood. A month at the same exact inn which housed his family, memory and the reality at hand seemed not to meet one another in an atemporal handshake. Rather the opposite occured: the understanding of what happened in the past and how the present moment could be its result, were utterly despondent. One did not seem related to the other, but for an image here, an object there, their only commonality in the lingering of their impressions in the mind. Kafka-esque in its unequivocal silences, Vertigo ends with Sebald's return to London, and he leaves us with words of another diarist, Samuel Pepys, as he watched his city burn, in the Great Fire of 1666.


I put down my copy of the novel, and I encouraged you to pick one up. There is a long length of human shadow cast by these works, these epitaphs of Mr. Sebald. I do not believe we will see much sun out from under it - unless we come out of the eclipse from our own degree of affliction - in memory and in history.

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Portland, OR, United States
For the Observatory's Grand Opening