A passage from bones

(A variant opening of my novel, Mr. Robert’s Bones)

No oaks adorned the city of the dead. Not even much grass. Just a hodgepodge collection of miniature stone houses on cement slabs divided up by cement walkways. Some of the little houses formed rows; some angled out or blocked walkways entirely, and so the rows became labyrinths.

One white stone tomb had a fresh inscription:

Robert Marigny

So fresh was this simple inscription that the burial party had not yet abandoned the little house to sink or swim among its neighbors in the labyrinth. It was, however, a hot, southern summer day, and as the priest closed with a “requiem aeternam dona eis,” they walked as quickly as was decorous from among the flora and fauna of the dead to the live oaks of City Park Avenue and the broad, neutral ground expanse of Canal Street, some to ride the streetcar home, some to imbibe a café au lait or small bourbon, to shake their heads and speak sadly of the deceased, while thinking inwardly quite other thoughts, for all we know.

Except for one teenage boy who lingered at the tomb. Unlike most teenage boys, he did not seem uncomfortable in his suit, did not seem pinched by the dress shoes, which he had used not five minutes earlier to crush a military line of ants marching from one little house to another, throwing the whole insect army into catastrophic disarray. His grief at the loss of the deceased, however, was real. He wiped his fist hard into one eye, then blew his nose into a handkerchief, and left.

When darkness fell on the Canal Cemeteries, it seemed to swallow time itself. Ten hours might have elapsed before another drench of sunlight, or ten years, or twenty. The darkness of the little houses spread out in a black tide across the neighborhoods of the city. A president shot, his brother next, and another voice, a great black voice, also shot dead. Closer to the scene, a black woman, first colored teller at the Redemption Bank on the corner of Canal and Carrollton, her white-stocking legs, shoes clip-clopping the floor as her youngest boy played behind her desk, then relieved of her duties and left to raise her two boys on nothing. And then she too was in the grave, a memory waiting to be dug up when called upon.

On another hot, southern, summer day, forty-six years after Robert Marigny was relocated to the blank stone walls of his permanent residence, Mrs. Broussard stepped onto her own screened porch, then turned back toward the house and yelled, “Come girls, Miss Ladybug brought us a peach pie.”

The porch extended across the whole front of the white, wood-frame house. Bees buzzed in the cat’s claw vines grasping insidiously through the newels of the porch balustrade. A faint odor of sweet pea hung in the air, marking the territory of the porch as if in defiance of the upstart azaleas that stood across the thick grass on the easement of St. Peter Street.

Seated on frayed wicker chairs at Mrs. Broussard’s porch table were the acclaimed maker of that peach pie, fragile and birdlike but sprightly for her eighty years, and a portly fellow whose dress and manner suggested an exaggerated attempt to play the part of the southern gentleman. His bushy brows sat above puppy-dog brown eyes, giving him a sentimental and endearing countenance that seemed oddly to complement rather than contradict his pompous manner. The fleshy lips of this grand gentleman, Mr. Claude Marigny by name, seemed pursed into an eternal pout, even when they were moving. He slowly fanned his balloon of a head with a straw hat, and with his other hand wiped his brow with a handkerchief.

“Not just a peach pie,” bellowed Mr. Claude, “but the nectar of the gods. A confectionary masterpiece.”

“Ooh-ooh, Claude Marigny,” piped in Ladybug. “Ain’t you something. I could listen to you talk all day, baby.”

“How you talk, Mr. Claude,” said Mrs. Broussard. “You ain’t even had none yet.” Mrs. Broussard was as loving a woman as woman could get, but also tended a little toward the no-nonsense end of the spectrum, which had an occasional, if not salutary, at least deflationary effect on Mr. Claude. Her small, sinewy arm brushed a strand of gray hair back toward an otherwise neat bun.

“Let the girls sample the wares,” tossed off Mr. Claude, alluding to the two granddaughters who had come to stay with Mrs. Broussard for the summer. “I’m afraid my digestion has been unsettled by my rapscallion neighbor, Mr. James.” He mopped his brow with the weary movements of a martyr.

“As if he had not enough decorative garbage, now, commingling with the decrepit appliances and indecipherable chunks of machinery, is – dear God, listen to this, Mrs. Broussard – a hot dog cart! A broken-down hot dog cart! In the front yard for all to see.”

“Different people keep their houses different, Mr. Claude,” rejoined Mrs. Broussard. “Some people say Mr. Robert’s house” – and her francophone pronunciation of Robert as Ro-bear was no affectation but the common parlance of the place – “your own brother’s house, oughta be torn down, it being empty so long and full of bad memories.”

Mr. Claude bristled but kept himself in check. “You tell them to never mind my brother. Robert’s house is a monument to an older order. Mr. James’s house is a monument to disorder and chaos. The camel’s nose under the tent, Mrs. Broussard.”

Delivery of this fine homily must have miraculously restored Mr. Claude’s digestion, as he shoveled a huge bite of pie into his maw and chewed thoughtfully, watching a squirrel dart along a power cable crossing St. Peter St. It paused halfway to the far side of the street, apparently seized with panic or wonder at how it had gotten there.

Gun Control

As with many hot-button issues, the problem with U.S. gun policy debates is that each side has a point (and therefore fallaciously concludes that the other side must be completely wrong). The first step toward resolution is acknowledging valid points on both sides. Gun rights advocates are right that a good guy with a gun at the right place can save lives, and wanting a gun to protect one’s family is not unreasonable.  When a deranged shooter opens fire in a mall or movie theater, I agree with my conservative friends that an armed bystander can make the difference between a rapid end and an escalating tragedy. But gun control advocates are right that a populace saturated with weaponry is a more dangerous place overall. It’s hard to believe that the discrepancy of 11,000 gun homicides a year in the U.S., compared to 90 in Spain or 70 in the UK, is completely unrelated to a plentiful access to guns (and handguns in particular).  Put 5000 guns into one city and 50,000 guns into another city of the same size, and you will have more gun violence in the second city.

The second step toward resolution is weighing those valid points to see which side carries the most weight in terms of personal freedom and public safety. For example, of those 11,000 homicides, how many were “justifiable”? The number that can be assigned to the scenario my conservative friends rightly tout – where a good guy stops a major tragedy in a public place – is a very small number, but lump them in with self-defense and all other “justified” killings and you get about 5% of the total (FBI numbers for 2012). That still leaves about 10,450 criminal gun homicides, a number far disproportionate to those numbers from the UK or Spain. (And this doesn’t count suicides and accidents, which bring gun deaths in the U.S. to a steady 31,000 per year.)

From a public safety standpoint, this leads me to conclude that the valid argument against extensive gun ownership statistically carries more weight than the valid argument in favor of extensive gun ownership. Assuming that public safety is a compelling state interest, I think this is a starting point for discussion. At least some regulation is necessary. Then finer distinctions can be drawn.  Traditional hunting rifles have a valid recreational use and let’s assume are less prone to criminal use than handguns, assault weapons, etc. In any event, there is little or no interest on any side to ban hunting rifles. Different weapons – handguns, assault weapons, etc., each may warrant different treatment.  Another consideration might be jurisdiction. Is it true, as Obama said in the 2008 campaign, that there are two different gun cultures – a (primarily rural) sportsman culture and an inner city culture – and that the same approach might not work for both (i.e., different jurisdictions might reasonably want to enact different policies)? And it is reasonable to have background checks to weed out felons, mentally ill applicants, etc. Resistance to all compromise is not a solution. Witness the National Rifle Association’s hard lobbying against a bill that would bar people on terrorist watch lists from purchasing guns. As a staggering tribute to the gun lobby’s power, Senator Lindsey Graham and other Republican leaders spoke out against the bill and it failed. Thus, “Membership in a terrorist organization does not prohibit a person from possessing firearms or explosives under current federal law” (GAO government report, 2010).

In any event, step one is acknowledging that just because you favor one approach (and I obviously lean to one side), it doesn’t mean that one side is 100% right and the other 100% wrong. Indeed the binary framework is itself misleading. It’s more like a scatter graph with “all guns should be banned” at one end and “access should be unrestricted to all guns in all places for all people” at the other end. Almost no one is at either extreme. It would be best if we could all resist the false binary of “us versus them” and negotiate our way through the many sensible compromise points along the gradient.

Suspension of Ethics

The recent beheadings and crucifixions in Syria and Iraq in the name of religion is atrocious in its own right, but raises a larger philosophical comparison between secular ethics and religion-based ethics, to the advantage of the secular. Of course, most religious people are horrified by ISIS’s actions and consider them to have no basis in religion whatsoever. I will grant the justice of that position, but it leaves open the question of whether a religion-based ethics is more risky in principle than a secular ethics.

To judge the risk requires pinpointing the essential difference between a religion-based and a secular ethics. The Christian theologian and proto-existentialist, Kierkegaard, is most helpful here. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard sees ethics as fundamentally as secular issue, a derivative of universal rational principles. Religious persons can follow those principles but that is not essentially a function of their religious nature. It simply means that they are following a set of rational principles in addition to being a religious person. The key difference is centered on Kierkegaard’s pointed question: “Can there be a teleological suspension of the ethical?” I.e., can the inscrutable commandments of God overrule “normal” ethical principles?

The paradigmatic case for Kierkegaard is when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. “The ethical expression for what Abraham did is that he meant to murder Isaac; the religious expression is that he meant to sacrifice Isaac.” So Abraham is forced to choose between the universal principles of ethics (against murdering your son) or accepting the “teleological suspension of ethics,” in which he suspends the rules of ethics to satisfy a higher end.

This to me is the fundamental difference between a secular ethics and an ethics based on religion (at least on the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Religion allows for the possibility that we might suspend normal ethics in light of a higher commandment from an inscrutable God. Otherwise, it is no different from a secular ethics based on rational principles alone (holding God himself subordinate to the laws of ethics).

Although the acts of ISIS are condemned by people of all faiths, the dangers of a “teleological suspension of ethics” can be generalized to some extent, as a risk inherent in religion-based models. In pre-modern Europe, under the hegemonic rule of the Church, we saw the widespread development of those implements that today fill the torture museums of Europe, implements ingeniously designed to create more and more exquisite pain for the ill-fated heretic.  Then we had the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition, brazenly carried on in the name of Church and the states under its authority.

With the 18th century Enlightenment, that largely changed. From the explicitly anti-Church philosophes to Kant, the hegemonic control of the Church gave way to a more humanist ethics grounded in rational principles. The ethics of Western culture today is primarily secular, a product of the Enlightenment. And although far from perfect, it has shaken off the worst abuses of the pre-Enlightenment theocratic ethic. At least now, one cannot break out the torture devices and flaunt them publicly as a general strategy of subjection. At least now, one cannot publicly suspend the normal rules of ethics because an inscrutable God has commanded it.

Now back to Kierkegaard, and to Abraham and Isaac. Although Kierkegaard is a Christian and I am unambiguous in my preference for a secular ethics, Kierkegaard may agree with me up to a point. He himself is almost Kantian in his emphasis that ethics is based on rational principles (unrelated to faith) and is therefore universal. The “ethical” and the “religious” are simply incommensurate categories for Kierkegaard. The ethical has to do with social relations and universal principles. The religious concerns only the individual in relation to the absolute. For Kierkegaard, the “religious moment” occurs when an individual, perhaps like Abraham, lives out his or her life among others, bound by the universal principles of ethics, and then one day something ruptures the plane of that living, and the individual’s identity shoots out in a perpendicular line to the absolute. His relation to the absolute (religious) and his relation to others (ethical) “cannot be mediated,” says Kierkegaard, in a jibe at Hegel and his understudies. Abraham cannot be justified on the ethical plane. He is up against an either/or crisis of the sort that most interested Kierkegaard. There is no gray area. Either you do something completely unethical in honor of God, or you reject God.

Kierkegaard may also agree with me that any social order would do best with a secular ethics based on rational principles. He certainly had no patience for state religion, and often disparaged the Christian state of Denmark and “Christendom” in general for their deployments of Christianity into the political or social arena. But he leaves room for Abraham, the “knight of faith” – not as a model of good citizenship or social order, but as a model of the individual wrenched away from his social identity by a connection to the absolute.

I finally disagree with Kierkegaard and reject the “teleological suspension of ethics” in all of its forms; however, I find Kierkegaard well worth reading and I myself have only scratched the surface of his thought. Moreover, no sound reading of Kierkegaard can ever use the “teleological suspension of ethics” to justify the behavior of ISIS or the Spanish Inquisition. In Kierkegaard, that suspension can never be applied as a public practice, but can only occur as a relation between the individual and the absolute. The problem is that so many groups at so many times and places have used a variant of the idea (God’s commandment allows me to overrule ethics) to vicious ends. In the case of the Middle East, this is further complicated by a historical trajectory quite different from Europe. Whereas the Enlightenment – the rise of secular ethics and secular democracies – in Europe can be seen as a liberation from the hegemonic oppression of the Church, in the Middle East of the past half-century, religion (in the form of a resurgent Islam) is often seen as the liberating force that can throw off the shackles of oppressive Western democracies. This inversion of the role of religion is historically explicable, but the ethical dangers are apparent when we see how easily ethical norms can be discarded when religious zeal is in full cry. Better to have a secular ethics based on rational principles. If you want to layer a religious faith on top of that ethics, fine, but don’t start believing that your faith trumps ethics or you become a danger to yourself and others.

Yosemite in pieces

ice cream cliffs
an element of fear
two plums and a pair of chopsticks
a trip to mosquito town
hot cold chinese coasters
a dance in the river
a watercolor wordbook

trees reclaim the cabin window
a sudden smell of sage
miracle birth at the witching hour
a mistake

a priceless

The Case for Impeachment

Ronald Reagan famously asked in his 1980 presidential campaign, “Are you better off now than you were” when the incumbent, Jimmy Carter, took office. Sometimes the comparison is so stark that you simply need to impeach. Consider how things have changed between January 2009 when Obama took office and today:

  1. The economy was shrinking at an alarming 5.4%; now it’s growing at about 4%.
  2. The stock market had lost 40% of its value and was free-falling; now it has regained all of its value and gone on to record highs.
  3. We were losing 800,000 jobs per month; now we’re gaining 200,000 per month.
  4. The housing market was in crisis; now it’s stabilized.
  5. The auto industry was about to go bankrupt and crater the economy; now it’s running healthy profits.
  6. Young Americans were regularly coming home in body bags from foreign wars; now our combat units are out.
  7. We’ve eliminated Osama bin Laden, the Somali pirates who kidnapped Americans, the head of al-Shabaab (per Kenyan mall attack), and captured the guy behind the Benghazi attacks.
  8. After five presidents tried and failed at health care reform, the ACA (Obamacare) puts us one step closer to the affordable, universal health care that the rest of the West enjoys.
  9. Big banks had free reign; Obama pushed through Wall St regulations and credit card reforms mandating transparency in fees and rate increases.
  10. Pushed for a market-based cap on carbon and increased renewables such that wind capacity has tripled and solar capacity increased 16-fold.

We need to impeach the integrity of the media outlets that continually scream a false narrative about how this president had led us in the wrong direction.

Abbey Road’s Dead Space

I was talking the other day with a young Ukrainian physicist and all-round intellectual type about the 10-minute dead space (hidden track) on An Awesome Wave, the excellent 2012 debut album by the English indie-rock band, Alt-J. I thought the album brilliant, strong and subtle in its aesthetic, but I don’t like dead space. It is conceptually an interesting design idea, but it loses its novelty value after a few iterations and becomes gratuitous. The dead space at the end of Abbey Road, on the other hand, not only had the full novelty value, as the Beatles were the first to deploy the technique, but the entire structure of the album bends toward and justifies that 15-second hiatus, the dead space, the black sign of mortality, between “The End” and “Her Majesty.” (“Her Majesty” was not listed on the original cover or record.) Bear with me as I try to execute this analysis without reference to the “Paul Is Dead” conspiracy theory that swept across pop culture during the month that Abbey Road was released (September 1969).

Back when you had LPs with 2 sides, Side 1 of Abbey Road (songs 1-6 on the CD)* gave us an almost archaeological journey through genres, from cool, edgy “Come Together,” to the reflective love song (“Something”), to the bouncy, pub-sing-along sound of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” to the 50s-ish, doo-wop “Oh Darling,” to the child-friendly “Octopus’s Garden,” to the heavier, hypnotic rock and jazz counterpoints of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”  We also get a panoramic landscape of the Beatles’ sensibilities on this side, with songs by John, George, Paul, Paul, Ringo, and John, respectively.

The white noise that encroaches upon “I Want You” at the end of Side 1 might in some way foreshadow the black space at the end of Side 2, but it is really not until Side 2 proper that transitional spaces become blurred. The first song on this side (#7) is a beautiful acoustic with clear edges and clean finish. The transition from #8 to #9 is normal, except that #8 ends in the middle, not the end, of a musical motive, so we’re “waiting” for #9 in that miniscule gap between them. The move from #9 to #10 is a tiny bit more porous, as the edges are bridged only by the continuing sound of crickets. Then the medley begins in earnest, and remaining songs are really movements within a single whole.

Thematically, with “Golden Slumbers” (#14), the clouds begin gathering at this, the final moments of the final album recorded by the Beatles (although Let It Be was released later). The final sequence of “Golden Slumbers – Carry That Weight – The End” sounds like a Beatles’ farewell, comparable to Prospero’s epilogue in Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest. The voice in “Golden Slumbers” raises two possibilities: either it is a soothing lullaby to a small child (go to sleep now and you’ll wake up to smiles) or the last rites to someone dying (let yourself drift into sleep and the angels will greet you when you rise). In context, the second interpretation makes better sense, since the song is drenched in melancholia and pitched to one who might share in the lament that “once there was a way to get back home,” who might recognize that closed path as a weight to be carried across the next passage, the weight of all that loss, the weight of mortality. This is, after all, the dying moment of the Beatles, the cracks of the breakup filling in with nostalgia for the heady days when as teenagers they changed the trajectory of cultural history, relief to get away from it all, hoping that some smile will greet them when they wake up. “Carry That Weight” weaves back in musical motives from earlier songs — most notably, “You Never Give Me Your Money” — and we can now look back and see that beneath the surface strand of Beatles “celebrations” and “negotiations,” there is a hidden strand of “breakdown[s]” and missed connections.

With “Carry That Weight” behind us, we get an exuberant guitar interlude, a burst of life, a sense of relief and liberation from the heaviness – we are witnessing not just a death but an archetypal death-and-rebirth pattern, a sonic anticipation of breaking the shell of those golden slumbers, breaking from death to rebirth. Then the guitar burst mellows into a mystical conclusion, a final couplet (a perfect iambic tetrameter couplet if you read it as it would be read from a poetry book) that summarizes the 8-year dream of the Beatles, with a few potent words and a sudden orchestral gravitas.

After this powerful farewell, we get the 15-second hiatus, the dead space before the “hidden track” – and “well-hidden” in its day because 15 seconds was a very long dead space in 1969 and because the album had increasingly melted songs together rather than using the hiatus at all. So if we’re startled when “Her Majesty” begins playing, the shake-up is not gratuitous. In the moments after death, even symbolic death, any fluttering back to life in the blackness must be startling. In this case, after the grand summation of the Beatles phenomenon in that couplet, from out of the black hole of the Beatles’ mortality, inexplicably, we get a return glimpse of the simple, playful, beautiful acoustic roots from the brainstem of the early Beatles, before they had all that weight to carry. (I’m not sure because I have no real musical training, but “Her Majesty” begins with what sounds like a recapitulation of “the most famous chord in rock history,” the one that opened “A Hard Day’s Night.”)

As reflections on one’s deathbed must enable one to see the values of life more keenly, so we can, from the perspective of Abbey Road’s ending, go back and read earlier details with more meaning filled in. The following lines from “You Never Give Me Your Money,” for example, must surely be on one level the bittersweet last words John and Paul, lifelong friends feeling the weight of estrangement, would have for each other as Beatles:

Pick up the bags and get in the limousine
Soon we’ll be away from here
Step on the gas and wipe that tear away
One sweet dream came true today

Finally, it’s hard to listen to Abbey Road and not ponder that sometime between 1962 (when Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender” was the #1 song of the year) and 1969, an enormous paradigm shift had taken place and the era of music we now live in had begun. The Beatles not only mark the beginning of this era but, to a larger extent than anyone else, invented it.

(Related Beatles commentary in Led Zeppelin and Dr Freud and Morrison’s Women)


*Side One

  1. Come Together
  2. Something
  3. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
  4. Oh! Darling
  5. Octopus’s Garden
  6. I Want You (She’s So Heavy)

Side Two (original numbering)

  1. Here Comes the Sun
  2. Because
  3. You Never Give Me Your Money
  4. Sun King
  5. Mean Mr. Mustard
  6. Polythene Pam
  7. She Came in through the Bathroom Window
  8. Golden Slumbers
  9. Carry That Weight
  10. The End
  11. [Her Majesty]