Victor Hugo and the French Aesthetic

I have long admired, even loved, the French but I don’t think I ever quite understood why until I read Victor Hugo. Their commitment to liberty inspired two revolutions – America’s and their own – that created the best of the world we live in today. They are more responsible than anyone for the evolution of government from hereditary monarchy to a system that exists to serve its people, not the other way around.

Their culture, their devotion to beauty, their appreciation of romance inspires artists and lovers everywhere. Their lust is not simple desire, but desires, eternally mingled with playful affection. In addition to their reverence for fine wine, cheese, and bread, they have an appreciation for the peculiar wonders of femininity and masculinity that aren’t chained to rigid concepts of gender. Makeup, wigs, and high heels were always for men as well as women.

Love is not a rigid concept either. It flows. It mutates. It entices. It satisfies a hunger that even the finest meals cannot. In this passage from Les Miserables, Victor Hugo produces a fine reduction of the love between an old blind bishop and his adoring sister that could easily translate into the love between parent and child, or between lovers:

To have continually at your side a woman, a girl, a sister, a charming being, who is there because you need her, and because she cannot do without you, to know you are indispensable to someone necessary to you, to be able at all times to measure her affection by the degree of her presence that she gives you, and to say to yourself: She dedicates all her time to me, because I possess her whole love; to see the thought if not the face; to be sure of the fidelity of one being in a total eclipse of the world; to imagine the rustling of her dress as the rustling of wings; to hear her moving to and fro, going out, coming in, talking, singing, and to think that you are the cause of those steps, those words, that song; to show your personal attraction at every moment; to feel even more powerful as your infirmity increases; to become in darkness, and by reason of darkness, the star around which this angel gravitates; few joys can equal that. The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves – say rather, loved in spite of ourselves; this conviction the blind have. Are they deprived of anything? No. Light is not lost where love enters. And what a love! A love wholly founded in purity. There is no blindness where there is certainty. The soul gropes in search of a soul, and finds it. And that soul, found and proven, is a woman. A hand sustains you, it is hers; lips lightly touch your forehead, they are her lips; you hear breathing near you, it is she. To have her wholly, from her devotion to her pity, never to be left alone, to have that sweet shyness as your aid, to lean on that unbending reed, to touch Providence with your hands and be able to grasp it in your arms; God made palpable, what transport!


This is Not Happening to You

I was introduced to Tim Tomlinson’s writing through his poetry, which I recommend highly to those who love poetry, and even more highly to those who don’t. You might find your distaste for poems is relieved after reading a few of his. Tim’s poems often feel like fiction, so I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up This Is Not Happening To You. I did not.

cover painting by Mari Otsu

These are not easy stories to read. They are raw, pungent, and brutal, but tinged with the humor and beauty that lurk in the most unlikely places. Ranging from 2 to 30 pages long, they don’t feel like stories so much as 19 glimpses through the slats of a fence viewed from a moving train – startling and better comprehended after some digestion.

Like an expert marksman, the author draws a bead on each protagonist and does not blink until after each story’s final word. The characters are drawn with such attention to detail that the reader will almost certainly recognize some of them from their own lives. Their circumstances can be so real that they transcend truth, as in this excerpt from The Motive for Metaphor:

“Six weeks later he moved to Los Angeles where the red-haired woman belonged to a repertory company that welcomed Maris. The New York edge, they told him, is what they’d been missing. Maris told them he was from Montana, which was half true, but he didn’t remember which half. You reach an age, he told them, when the lies become the truth and the truth, it never mattered anyway, at least not as much as you thought it did.”

These stories cover a wide range of narrow insights, from painfully intimate first-person confessions to third-person observations of murder and rape that are told with almost clinical detachment. Two of the stories included in this collection, including the title piece, are written in the second-person. This rarely used perspective offers a unique relationship to the reader/protagonist. These two paragraphs from the title story are a perfect illustration of the book’s charms and dangers: the first one reveals the dark underbelly that hides the even darker underbellies of addiction:

“Approaching the corner of Dauphine and Touro, you discern the sickening deposits of last night’s bacchanal percolating throatwards. Clutching the sticky trunk of a banana tree, you hurl. Violently, agonizingly, remedially. Even as you discharge, you think. You are thinking, you are a thought machine. It’s a juxtaposition this time that commands your ideation, the juxtaposition “pink-green vomit and brown-black Louisiana loam.” You are not certain if “loam” is the correct term, horticulturally speaking. You are not certain if horticulture is the correct term. You are certain that you don’t give a fuck because although your gastro-intestinal distress has been somewhat alleviated by the reverse peristalsis, your head now hurts worse. A bit of a pain in the Gulliver….And there in the pink-green, brown-black gloop of yester-eve you spy the barely dissolved, barely discolored Extra-Strength Tylenol caplets, the very thing that enabled this excursion. Two conflicting impulses obtain: disgust at the puke and the objects of relief that lie therein.”

This second excerpt captures the impossible dream of every struggling artist, and of some successful ones:

“Some persons, you reflect, many even – that vast horde of unstout souls, might, at this time, experience the first stirrings of remorse, depression, self-recrimination. Not you. This is not happening to you, it is happening to the Undiscovered Genius, the character you’ve created to play you in the tragi-comic farce you know as “your life.” The talents of this Undiscovered Genius have yet to manifest in any recognizable form that might ultimately be remunerated by an institution, a governing body, a critical faculty, a network or publishing house, or rewarded by an adoring public. Its nebulosity, you understand, is part of its genius: the suspense! What form will it finally take, you imagine the public you have yet to seduce wondering? As far as forms are concerned, you have already conceded painting; painting is a form for which you demonstrated little if any aptitude. This was evidenced early on and most acutely by the F you took, and deserved, in ninth-grade Studio Art, the year you gave painting the brush. Singing, dancing, the violin…these, too, have been purged from your schema. You are practicing the process of discovery through elimination, one step at a time.”

I have reached the conclusion, after many years of pondering, that there is no such thing as “good art” or “bad art.” A work of art either speaks to you or it doesn’t. The 19 stories in This Is Not Happening To You resonate with me to a depth that is almost uncomfortable. Their unavoidable intensity should ring true to anyone with some experience of life. This is writing that will not just grab but hold the attention of any reader interested in contemporary literature. If you’re not careful, you might even find some pieces of these stories popping up in your memory, as if they had been happening to you.

Tim Tomlinson


I thought Candide was funny at first. It is an easy mistake to make in the first chapter where we meet Candide and his beloved Cunegonde:

On her way back to the castle she met Candide. She blushed, and so did he. She greeted him in a faltering voice, and he spoke to her without knowing what he was saying. The next day, as they were leaving the table after dinner, Cunegonde and Candide found themselves behind a screen. She dropped her handkerchief, he picked it up; she innocently took his hand, and he innocently kissed hers with extraordinary animation, ardor, and grace; their lips met, their eyes flashed, their knees trembled, their hands wandered. Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh happened to pass by the screen; seeing this cause and effect, he drove Candide from the castle with vigorous kicks in the backside. Cunegonde fainted. The baroness slapped her as soon as she revived, and consternation reigned in the most beautiful and agreeable of all possible castles.

I guess anything can be funny if human suffering doesn’t bother you, or if you have a good enough sense of humor, or if you can’t tell the difference between the two.

There is a lot of casual rape in Candide, and equally casual disembowelment, hanging, flogging, and castration. Voltaire must have been a pisser at parties. Not so much for the disembowelments as for being a physician who takes the pulse of a sick world and doesn’t sugar-coat his diagnosis for the sake of the patient.

As Will Durant put it:

Italy had a Renaissance, and Germany had a Reformation, but France had Voltaire; he was for his country both Renaissance and Reformation, and half the Revolution. He was first and best in his time in his conception and writing of history, in the grace of his poetry, in the charm and wit of his prose, in the range of his thought and his influence. His spirit moved like a flame over the continent and the century, and stirs a million souls in every generation.

No matter how interesting analysis is, there is no substitute for letting the authors words speak for themselves. In this passage, Voltaire betrays the beast that lurks behind such a well-developed sense of humor, hiding his insight within the character of Pope Urban X’s bastard daughter:

I’ve wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but I still love life. That ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most pernicious inclinations. What could be more stupid than to persist in carrying a burden that we constantly want to cast off, to hold our existence in horror, yet cling to it nonetheless, to fondle the serpent that devours us, until it has eaten our hearts.

There is a story, probably a lie, definitely a joke, that on his deathbed Voltaire was asked by a priest if he would renounce Satan.

He answered, “This is no time to be making new enemies.”

Francois-Marie Arouet (a/k/a Voltaire) by Jean-Antoine Houdon





If Beale Street Could Talk

Yesterday morning there was a man in the lobby of my office building talking into his phone at an obscene volume. As we rode up in the elevator together – four or five of us – it became obvious that he was not like the rest of us and did not want to be. He yelled into his phone, “Why don’t you make yourself useful and lock up some of the bastards running this city.” As he got off he grunted something disparaging about “civilians” and as the doors closed behind him the woman in the elevator with me could only say “Wow.” 
Maybe he was off his meds.
But on my way to work I was reading If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin and it wasn’t hard to see the loud-talking non-civilian in the elevator as the villain lurking behind a passage like this:
“The same passion which saved Fonny got him into trouble and put him in jail. For, you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn’t anybody’s nigger. And that’s a crime, in this fucking free county. You’re suppose to be somebody’s nigger. And if you’re nobody’s nigger, you’re a bad nigger: and that’s what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown.”
Some of us are sickened by the daily news reports of the takeover of our government by white supremacists but others might take it as a hopeful sign that we are finally waking up to a situation that has been festering in this country since colonial times.

“Of course, I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody – if it is, God’s days have gotto be numbered. That God these people say they serve – and do serve, in ways that they don’t know – has got a very nasty sense of humor. Like you’d beat the shit out of Him, if He was a man. Or: if you were.”
There are people – Virginia Woolf is one, so is James Joyce – whose work makes me feel like they did me a personal favor by becoming writers. James Baldwin is another.

I’m not good at retaining novels. Certain scenes and characters make an impression but most of them fade from my memory soon after I read them. I sink into the dream that is a good book and turning the last page of one is like opening my eyes after a long night’s sleep, grasping at dreams that I can’t keep from evaporating.

So I fold back the corners of pages that I want to re-read even after I’ve re-read them. So I can type up the words and let them skip across the keyboard and my fingertips, so I can feel what it’s like to write this kind of passage:

“I thought of Fonny’s touch, of Fonny, in my arms, his breath, his touch, his odor, his weight, that terrible and beautiful presence riding into me and his breath being snarled, as if by a golden thread, deeper and deeper in his throat as he rode – as he rode deeper and deeper not so much into me as into a kingdom which lay just behind his eyes. He worked on wood that way. He worked on stone that way. If I had never seen him work, I might never have known he loved me.

It’s a miracle to realize that somebody loves you.”

Mozart Scares Me

Mozart scares me. And not just because he could write a melody like this, or orchestrate it the way he did. Not just because this is one of three complete symphonies he composed in less than two months during the summer of 1788. Not just because he was 23 years younger than me when he wrote it, and only 3 years from his death. And not just because G Minor is an obviously frightening key. The thing that scares me most is that he named it Symphony Number 40 in G Minor. That’s serial killer shit. This should be called The Death of Heaven, or A Woman Scorned, or at least The Fire At Kelly’s Place. Numbers and key signatures should not be used as titles for works of art.

A silverpoint drawing by Doris Stock, made in 1789. “Wolfgang Amadè Mozart, as he usually spelled his name, was a small man with a plain, pockmarked face, whose most striking feature was a pair of intense blue-gray eyes. When he was in a convivial mood, his gaze was said to be warm, even seductive.”
—Alex Ross, “The Storm of Style,” in Listen to This

There’s a philosophical argument to be made that an infinite number of monkeys tapping an infinite number of keyboards would someday create this exact work, but we all know that’s bullshit. Nobody who ever lived or ever will live except Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart could write this.
Here’s a clip of Lenny taking the band through their paces. It’s over a half-hour long which is a length that can be intimidating but it is the first movement, about nine minutes long, that really uncorks the crazy. If you make it to the third movement you’ll be glad you did for the woodwinds alone, and the end is a deep cleansing breath.
Put it on in the background, if you think you can. It will be the foreground before you know what hit you.

Utopia For Realists

It is almost impossible to believe this in the age of Trump but human society, in spite of glaring setbacks, is getting better. There is a way forward that seems the logical culmination of centuries of progress toward freedom, equality, and enlightenment. Rutger Bregman’s engaging book Utopia For Realists is as a good roadmap as I’ve seen for that path.
Bregman supplements his lively prose with charts and statistics demonstrating how far we have already travelled down the road to a better world: “Where 84% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty in 1820, by 1981 that percentage had dropped to 44%, and now, just a few decades later, it is under 10%. The share of the world population that survives on fewer than 2,000 calories a day has dropped from 51% in 1965 to 3% in 2005.”

This video by Swedish academic Hans Rosling is a great visual representation of the past two centuries’ progress:

While the progress we’ve made over the last couple of centuries is impressive, it is just the foundation for a Utopia that is coming within our grasp. There are three basic concepts behind Bregman’s vision:
1. Universal Basic Income
There are any number of pernicious ideas that serve as roadblocks on the path to a better world but one of the most damaging is the one that proudly hung over the entrance to Auschwitz:

Arbeit Macht Frei
Work sets you free
As Bregman writes, “If we want this century to be one in which all of us get richer, then we’ll need to free ourselves of the dogma that all work is meaningful. And, while we’re at it, let’s also get rid of the fallacy that a higher salary is automatically a reflection of societal value. The scenario of radical inequality that is taking shape in the U.S. is not our only option. The alternative is that at some point during this century, we reject the dogma that you have to work for a living. The richer we as a society become, the less effectively the labor market will be at distributing prosperity. If we want to hold onto the blessings of technology, ultimately there’s only one choice left, and that’s redistribution. Massive redistribution.  Redistribution of money (basic income), of time (a shorter work week), of taxation (on capital instead of labor), and, of course, of robots.”

In numerous studies conducted in the past, and ones currently undertaken by Canada and the Netherlands among other nations, it is obvious that it is cheaper and more successful to give every citizen an guaranteed basic income without work requirements than to continue with our failed experiments with welfare and mass incarceration. One of the book’s most interesting stories involved Richard Nixon’s attempt to establish a universal basic income in the US.

“A small group of artists and writers (‘all those whom society despises while they are alive and honors when they are dead’ – Bertrand Russell) may actually stop doing paid work. Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence that the great majority of people, regardless of what grants they would receive, want to work. Unemployment makes us very unhappy.”

We don’t have to wait until gambling with other people’s money is no longer profitable; until sanitation workers, police agents, and nurses earn a decent wage; and until math whizzes once again start dreaming of building colonies on Mars instead of starting their own hedge fund.”

2. Fifteen-Hour Workweek
John Maynard Keynes

Every job I have ever held has been a bullshit job. The job I had that was most beneficial to society was my first: paperboy. In the days before the internet, I was able to disseminate detailed analyses of the day’s events to create a better-informed populace. After that I spent years working in factories and warehou
ses, on assembly lines and loading trucks, which felt somewhat useful but did not pay well. Since then I’ve mostly been counting beans.

“Clearly, our modern Land of Plenty still features plenty of badly paid, crummy jobs. And the jobs that do pay well are often viewed as not being particularly useful. Yet the object here is not to plead for the end to the workweek. Quite the reverse. It’s time that women, the poor, and seniors got the chance to do more, not less, good work. Stable and meaningful work plays a crucial part in every life well lived. By the same token, forced leisure – getting fired – is a catastrophe. Psychologists have demonstrated that protracted unemployment has a greater impact on well-being than divorce or the loss of a love one. The harsh truth is that an increasing number of people do jobs that we can do just fine without. Were they to suddenly stop working the world wouldn’t get any poorer, uglier, or in any way worse. Take the slick Wall Street traders who line their pockets at the expense of another retirement fund. If Ivy League grads once went on to jobs in science, public service, and education, these days they’re far more likely to opt for banking, law, or ad proliferators like Google and Facebook. Stop for a moment to ponder the billions of tax dollars being pumped into training society’s best brains, all so they can learn how to exploit other people as efficiently as possible, and it makes your head spin. Imagine how different things might be if our generation’s best and brightest were to double down on the greatest challenges of our times. Climate change, for example, and the aging population, and inequality.
In [anthropologist David] Graeber’s analysis, innumerable people spend their entire working lives doing jobs they consider to be pointless, jobs like telemarketer, HR manager, social media strategist, PR advisor, and a whole host of administrative positions at hospitals, universities, and government offices. “Bullshit jobs,” Graeber calls them. They’re the jobs that even the people doing them admit are, in essence, superfluous. In a survey of 12,000 professionals by the Harvard Business Review, half said they felt their job had no “meaning and significance,” and an equal number were unable to relate to their company’s mission. Another recent poll revealed that as many as 37% of British workers think they have a bullshit job. By no means are all these new service sector jobs pointless – far from it. Look at healthcare, education, fire services, and the police and you’ll find lots of people who go home every day knowing, despite their modest paychecks, they’ve made the world a better place. “It’s as if they’re being told,” Graeber writes, “You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

3. Open Borders

One of Donald Trump’s biggest issues on the campaign trail, and one of the hallmarks of his administration has been demonization of immigrants. His solution – border walls and deportations – is as counterproductive to society as it is immoral. Most of the American Southwest was settled by hunter-gatherers 11,000 years ago and was home to the Pueblo, Hohokam, and Mogollon people for thousands of years as they developed into “Indian” tribes – Apache, Navajo, Ute, and Hopi, among others. The first Europeans came from Spain and claimed the area for the Spanish Empire before it became part of Mexico. Texas became part of the United States in 1846 beginning the conquest of that land that would end with the statehood of New Mexico and Arizona in 1912. Barely a century later, Mexicans and others who come from south of the border are less entitled to live and work on that land than transplants from New Jersey or Iowa.
In Bregman’s review of border history, “On the eve of World War I, borders existed mostly as lines on paper. Passports were rare and the countries that did issue them (like Russia and the Ottoman Empire) were seen as uncivilized. Besides, that wonder of nineteenth-century technology, the train, was poised to erase borders for good. Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries.”
One of the issues Bregman touches on is the unequal distribution of power in relation to all three of his overriding issues – open borders, guaranteed income, and bullshit jobs. The roots of so many problems we face: sexual abuse, racism, stagnant wages, immigration – economic and physical brutalities – grow in soil fertilized by power that is concentrated in too few hands. 

“Today, the riches 8% earn half of all the world’s income, and the richest 1% own more than half of all wealth. The poorest billion people account for just 1% of all consumption; the richest billion, 72%.”
The Neanderthal concepts and policies pushed by the party of Trump and their comrades in Russia – denigration of a free press and immigrants, support for brutality and contempt for compassion – are the last gasps of an ideology that is one of the final obstacles holding back the human race. The generation growing up today may be the first one to taste the fruits of the better world that so many have sacrificed so much to create.
The way forward – the inevitable path to a better world – is to make power as diffuse as possible and for each individual to use their power to support the values cherished by the majority, the ones that have earned capitalization: Truth, Freedom, Justice, Equality, and the pursuit of a happiness that include them all.
Rutger Bregman by J Hiraku

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

“We are accustomed to think of ourselves as emancipated people; we say that we are democratic, liberty-loving, free of prejudices and hatred. This is the melting-pot, the seat of a great human experiment. Beautiful words, full of noble idealistic sentiment. Actually we are a vulgar, pushing mob whose passions are easily mobilized by demagogues, newspaper men, religious quacks, agitators and such like. To call this a society of free people is blasphemous. What have we to offer the world beside the superabundant loot which we recklessly plunder from the earth under the maniacal delusion that this insane activity represents progress and enlightenment?”

Henry Miller’s first book after returning from Greece where he wrote his favorite book, The Colossus of Maroussi, was 1945’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. He wrote the book in 1939 but held off publication until after the war as he was worried about being too critical of his country while it was engaged in a World War against something even worse. But his evisceration of American culture is depressingly relevant. In particular, his view that America, unlike the nations of Europe, does not appreciate the artist. In America art is just another commodity like cars, food, and sex, to be packaged and sold to the highest bidder. It’s a mentality that leads to the creation of people like our president: losers who think they are winners.
Some of America’s greatest art was created after The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, including literary works inspired by the risks Miller took and the breathtaking artistry of his prose. Our latest Nobel laureate, Bob Dylan, said in a 1966 interview that he considered Miller the greatest American writer.
“As to whether I have been deceived, disillusioned…The answer is yes, I suppose. I had the misfortune to be nourished by the dreams and visions of great Americans – the poets and seers. Some other breed of man has won out. This world which is in the making fills me with dread. I have seen it germinate; I can read it like a blueprint. It is not a world I want to live in. It is a world suited for monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress – but a false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful. The dreamer whose dreams are non-utilitarian has no place in this world. Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist an escapist, the man of vision a criminal.”

“The young man who shows signs of becoming an artist is looked upon as a crackpot, or else as a lazy, worthless encumbrance. He has to follow his inspiration at the cost of starvation, humiliation and ridicule. He can earn a living at his calling only by producing the kind of art which he despises. If he is a painter the surest way for him to survive is to make stupid portraits of even more stupid people, or sell his services to the advertising monarchs who, in my opinion, have done more to ruin art than any other single factor I know of.”
In one scene from the book a French artist and friend of Miller’s comes to America to avoid the war brewing in Europe but decides to go back. “’At first it was wonderful,’ he said. ‘I thought I was in Paradise. But after six months of it I began to be bored. It was like living with children – but viciouschildren. What good does it due to have money in your pocket if you can’t enjoy yourself? What good is fame if nobody understands what you’re doing? You know what my life is like here. I’m a man without a country. If there’s a war I’ll either be put in a concentration camp or asked to fight for the French. I could have escaped that in America. I could have become a citizen and made a good living. But I’d rather take my chances here. Even if there’s only a few years left those few years are worth more here than a lifetime in America. There’s no real life for an artist in America – only a living death. Buy the way, have you got a few francs to lend me? I’m broke again. But I’m happy.’”

In addition to his views on the artist in America, the other great theme of The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is the worldwide unraveling that was taking place at the time of its writing. A diseased mentality of racial superiority, of blood and soil, of Jews will not replace us, was infecting communities and nati
“A great change had come over America, no doubt about that. There were greater ones coming, I felt certain. We were only witnessing the prelude to something unimaginable. Everything was cock-eyed, and getting more and more so. Maybe we would end up on all fours, gibbering like baboons. Something disastrous was in store – everybody felt it. Yes, America had changed. The lack of resilience, the feeling of hopelessness, the resignation, the skepticism, the defeatism – I could scarcely believe my ears at first. And over it all that same veneer of fatuous optimism – only now decidedly cracked.”

American Nazis, 2017

The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is a book torn between revulsion at America’s materialism and hope in the abiding truth of equality that lives in the hearts of all people. All we need to do is stay woke and to trust the best in ourselves and each other. To Miller, it is the artist who will wake us.

Yesterday, after the President of the United States signaled his sympathy to the Nazi cause, the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities resigned en masse in a letter in which the first letter of each paragraph spelled R-E-S-I-S-T. Today President Trump announced he will not be attending the annual Kennedy Center Honors. These artists, like those that came before them, are performing the delicate balancing act of simultaneously dreaming and staying woke.

“If you have a dream of the future know that it will be realized one day. Dreams come true. Dreams are the very substance of reality. Reality is not protected or defended by laws, proclamations, ukases, cannons, and armadas. Reality is that which is sprouting all the time out of death and disintegration. You can’t do anything to it; you can’t add or subtract, you can only become more and more aware. Those who are partly aware are the creators; those who are fully aware are the gods and they move among us silent and unknown. The function of the artist, who is only one type of creator, is to wake us up.”