Archive for September, 2008

Things I Saw today (Bibliophile Art – bookstore ad)

Sunday, September 28th, 2008

From the ever-wonderful Dark Roasted Blend, an ad for the Anagram bookstore in Prague:

Quiz time – politics again

Saturday, September 27th, 2008

My results for the What Breed of Liberal Are You? quiz

My Liberal Identity:

You are a Social Justice Crusader, also known as a rights activist. You believe in equality, fairness, and preventing neo-Confederate conservative troglodytes from rolling back fifty years of civil rights gains.

Take the quiz at

Some of the questions are stupid but I’d say this is the kind of liberal I am actually.

David Foster Wallace – experience, consciousness, freedom

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

I was very sad to read of David Foster Wallace’s suicide last week. I’d enjoyed A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again and the more I read about him afterwards, the more I was moved and awed by the intelligence, consideration, sensitivity of his thinking and writing.

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being “well adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term…

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
David Foster Wallace on Life and Work

a curious thought

Monday, September 15th, 2008

“It is a curious thought, but it is only when you see people looking ridiculous that you realize just how much you love them.”
— Agatha Christie

I would only add that this happens too when playing an ongoing game of email signature tag with someone and getting one like the above. Other favorites include:

“Lord, beer me strength”
Jim [from The Office]

Reading the detectives (The Black Tower – PD James)

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

I recently re-read P.D. James’ The Black Tower and remembered again how much I like her work. Her stories are literature not the lurid voyeurism sometimes found in mystery novels. She has said: “The classical detective story is rather like the modern morality play… The classical detective story affirms our belief that we live in a rational and generally benevolent universe.” I think this is part of the great appeal of this genre (any airport book shop will show the popularity of the type).

Her work is emotionally cool, a bit distant, intelligent but never clinical; she is careful and respectful of the characters she creates. James doesn’t write mystery thrillers as much as mystery contemplatives. I like the complexity of the emotions of her characters and especially the introverted, perceptive and emotionally distant Inspector Adam Dalgliesh. Dalgliesh is intelligent, sensitive, cultured and if not exactly snobbish, rather easily repulsed – not by violence or gore but by ugliness (of buildings, clothing, sounds, or sometimes, emotion). His saving grace, what makes him fascinating and an identifiable protagonist, is the window we get behind his forbidding and distant exterior to his thoughts and the almost obsessive cataloguing of his ideas, associations and feelings. He is also, almost certainly, a depressive. He is perceptive enough to recognize his own rather cold detachment from most situations and people. He is well aware of his own short-comings and he is morally and mentally strong enough not to excuse them in himself but rather holds himself to a greater internal standard than he expects from the outer world.

In the very beginning of the book, after an illness which the doctors had mis-diagnosed as fatal, Dalgliesh thought:

…It was embarrassing now to recall with what little regret he had let slip his pleasures and preoccupations, the imminence of loss revealing them for what they were, at best only a solace, at worst a trivial squandering of time and energy. Now he had to lay hold of them again and believe that they were important, at least to himself. He doubted whether he would ever again believe them important to other people.

On his way to visit an old family friend he stops and is taken by surprising joy:

Before he turned again the to the car his eye was caught by a small clump of unknown flowers. The pale pinkish white heads rose from a mossy pad on top of the wall and trembled delicately in the light breeze. Dalgliesh walked over and stood stock still, regarding in silence their unpretentious beauty. He smelt for the first time the clean half-illusory salt tang of the sea. The air moved warm and gentle against his skin. He was suddenly suffused with happiness and, as always in these rare transitory moments, intrigued by the pure physical nature of his joy. It moved along his veins, a gentle effervescence. Even to analyse its nature was to lose hold of it. But he recognized it for what it was, the first clear intimation since his illness that life could be good.

Just a few lines later, after having been confronted with a rather ill-designed building and pausing to decide which direction to take, he has a kind of bleak foreboding. I think in some ways this functions both as a plot foreshadowing and, in Dalgliesh’s inevitable swing back from simple joy to a kind of despair, a deeper exploration of his sensitivity and psychology.

He had briefly turned off his car engine while deciding what next to do and for the first time, he heard the sea, that gentle continuous rhythmic grunt which is one of the most nostalgic and evocative of sounds. There was still no sign that his approach was observed; the headland was silent, birdless. He sensed something strange and almost sinister in its emptiness and loneliness which even the mellow afternoon light could not dispel.