Jack Kerouac, The Vanity of Duluoz
Started reading this recently - picked it up basically because I’m running out of Kerouac to read (or re-read, in the case of a few) but it is really rather good - a more explicitly autobiographical than usual account of Kerouac’s youth playing college football and joining the Merchant Marine in WWII (though at the same time the very explicitness of the autobiography - aside from ‘Kerouac’ becoming ‘Duluoz’ - makes me more suspicious of its total veracity). There are more affectations of his later style (he wrote it in 1967*) and diversionary passages - including a juvenile copy of the opening scene of Ulysses, transferred into his life and dialect - but quite a few standout parts like the above. Which, again, jumps back to this. The final line also brings to mind this picture by Durer. It’s pessimistic but in a very Kerouac kind of way, a tortured humanist. Of course, you could write an essay on his use of the term ‘penetrate’, and the phrase ‘rapish’ definitely jars, but that’s kinda what you get when reading dead guys from the 60s (or live ones from the 00s, frequently). In fact, I think the recent On The Road movie did a good job of putting some flesh on the Kerouac story, and elucidating the character relationships that are in many ways subservient to the prose of the book itself.
*complete with frequent conversational references to “wifey” and a fantastic grumpy-old-man passage at the start which I had been thinking of posting up as well, where he complains of no-one telling the truth any more and blaming this, in large part, on ‘Marxian Dialectal propaganda’ (cf.).
“this is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in egypt”
it’s a symbol
not a cracker
it is supposed to remind us of being enslaved, of the long jewish memory and our resultant commitment to resist poverty and injustice everywhere
it ties us to our ancestors, the whole point is we are eating what they are said to have eaten. “they fled in haste and their bread was but an unleavened cake” and we eat the unleavened cake like thousands of years of jews before us and remember their story
i don’t go around noshing on communion wafers
i think i am a bad jew because i legit like matzo and eat it year round.
it’s just so frigging good with cheese of all kinds.
also, fully legit when mixed into eggs and cream.
Communion wafers are slightly different in that when they’re consecrated they’re considered to be the body of Christ.
I’ve never eaten a Catholic communion wafer (cos, well, I can’t) but by all accounts they’re not very appetising.
The Communion bread in the (Anglican) Church of Ireland is just sliced white pan cut up into little bits, however. So technically you’d also eat it in an everyday sandwich, only it won’t have been blessed.
Religion and food are an odd mix.
I finished reading the excerpts from Kierkegaard’s ‘Fear and Trembling’ in Basic Writings of Existentialism, so I was happy to recognise the phrase here (it’s a biblical reference, naturally). The first part of this quote seems to echo what Kierkegaard was saying about Abraham and Isaac, although missing the point (as I understood it). The absurd is always absurd, although walking out onto water is different to sacrificing your own son (less Old Testament-y, and significantly less in contradiction to any universal set of ethics) - it doesn’t become any more reasonable, in the eyes of others, just because ‘Jesus said to’.
It remains a paradox: in the phrase of Kierkegaard’s (which he is fond of repeating), there is the paradox of faith “or else faith has never existed simply because it has always existed, or else Abraham is lost”. There’s a wonderful Germanic ring to the last option, but I’d rather take the middle one. I have no faith, in the personal sense, nor do I wish to take the leap towards it; but since even the Archbishop of Canterbury fails to recognise the paradox of the absurd in faith, the church remains as inauthentic as it ever was, and I’m still an Anglican.
I kinda want to say “give the pope a chance” (and not just cos it’s a mediocre pun) in response to some of the more cynical commentary, but there’s something about a lot of the optimism that I find false as well. I’m not a Catholic, never have been, but I watched the saturation coverage on the Irish news with some interest - mostly because it’s spectacle, of course, although an anachronistic one what with the chemically-enhanced smoke - and I could share some of the feelings of hope at the announcement of a new Pope with the name of Francis.
In my household the immediate discussion was over whether the name was from St. Francis of Assisi (officially and understandably so) or St. Francis Xavier, the co-founder of the Jesuits (which as Bergoglio is one, also makes sense). There’s no obvious contradiction, but perhaps it’s an initial sign that double rhetoric - in a certain Jesuitical sense - will be a hallmark of his papacy. Humble and smart, is the given profile, and many expectations go along with it - so much so that I’ve already heard the cautionary Obama comparison made (again, the coverage echoed a lot of that election, only with less democracy and more pomp).
It has an extra resonance in that this guy is also more conservative in his political principles - or doctrine - than liberals or progressives might like. Yet that really falls under the ‘is the Pope a Catholic?’ category: of course he espouses ideas that are homophobic and misogynist, that goes with the territory - best to hope that this pope is sensible enough not to air them too dogmatically (unless they really are dogma, in which case he’s just being honest). No, what worries me is that the whole ‘friend of the poor’ image might be - as seen above - rather too acceptable to the secular, capitalist world.
The irony is that Benedict - representing a long-established theological tradition, it must be said, and as was is wont - also opposed capitalism (and by name), but wrapped it up with opposition to materialism in general and modernity and ‘relativism’ in particular; so that the perspective wasn’t of much use to anyone not deeply involved in the kind of religiosity without much relevance or connection to the modern world. It’d be nice if, in this age of crisis, a Pope Francis led the charge against economic inequality, ascendant neoliberalism and unsustainable consumerism: but as an effective route it’s a political impossibility, not least because we rightly don’t allow popes to direct crusades any more.
It’s also not going to happen because any central Catholic critique of economic society is either premised on such an abstract, disconnected morality that it is as insubstantial as smoke, or - as I fear is the case with Francis - constructed so that it is non-threatening to the material and political bases of capitalism. It’s quasi-liberation theology that obviously survived the centralised repression of Catholic conservatism (and more problematically, survived and potentially colluded with the repression of a South American right-wing dictatorship) and projects an image of humbleness which, while challenging the sated aristocracy of (clerical) Rome, hardly does anything to threaten the power and political justification of our secular Rome. Hasn’t that long been the grand bargain between spiritual and temporal power in the Christian West; that for a certain degree of influence in moral matters the former allows the latter to pursue its economic freedoms?
In his first mass, the new Pope is already stated as saying:
"If we do not confess to Christ, what would we be?
"We would end up a compassionate NGO. What would happen would be like when children make sand castles and then it all falls down."
The clear point is that the Church is primarily a religious organisation, not a social one. Obviously so, but it’s easy to forget that Christianity and Catholicism is increasingly built on an all-consuming fear of secularism. As an atheist, I’m not really supposed to have a problem with people having religious beliefs (and as a bona fide secularist, that’s not even an issue, as long as there’s a distinction between private and public spheres) but philosophically speaking, I do. As much as religions declare that spirituality is a fundamental and necessary part of human life, I’d like the space to state that belief in an immaterial world is superfluous to human existence and discourse. So I object to spirituality as a starting point for ethical discussion, although as a pluralist I have to admit that many genuinely disagree and it’s not an objection or condition that can be imposed on them.
I have some qualified respect for the Habermasian idea that religion in its ‘semantic potentials’ can play a part in liberal and humanistic politics, and that somehow it should be squared with (or separated from) its theologically-derived morality that is repugnant to liberal freedoms. In its popular form this tends to take the form of a liberal optimism, as in this recent interview with former Irish President Mary Robinson:
”[…] And I said: I don’t need to go to mass every Sunday and feel guilty if I don’t. I don’t feel compelled to do it every Sunday or in a sort of strictly paid-up way, because I disagree with so much of what the church stands for, particularly in reproductive health.
HEADLEE: So does that mean that you don’t follow the trial and tribulation of the Catholic Church, that you don’t have any emotional investment in who might be the next pope or what’s been going on?
ROBINSON: I think I’m more interested in the religions of the world giving us a kind of global, ethical standard, you know? And I like the work of Hans Kung who’s being - looking at a global ethic. And I know him, and we’ve talked about this quite a bit. And I think we do need the spirituality of the great religions of the world. And it is important for human rights and human dignity.”
As a non-Catholic Irish person, I still detest much of the Catholic Church’s ideology, teaching and areas of historical influence; but I don’t have the bitterness or resentment of the lapsed or former Catholic (I was never schooled through the faith, either) while I do respect those intelligent people I do know who remain within the faith, either by birth or choice. If there’s something Pope Francis can do - other than saving the poor or overturning the Catholic Church’s institutional sexism - it’s to show through his purported humility and intellectual acuity what exactly the value of Catholic spirituality is to the modern world. (At least that kind of public reform seems potentially politically achievable, even if I remain philosophically dubious.)
Ma Jian, Red Dust
This book (a semi-fictional autobiography, from what I gather) about a dissident Chinese artist who absconds from Beijing to travel in western China is very interesting, and reminds me of Kerouac in more than one way. Here, he has taken lay Buddhist vows and journeyed to the Mogao caves to see the murals and statues. Unlike Kerouac, he is doing so in a genuinely totalitarian country. But there’s a similar kind of wide-eyed idealism, a bit more philosophical wisdom (at least of the kind sharpened against real oppression), tempered against practical failure (he doesn’t get to see the statues, after entering on a Chinese tourist ticket).
The religious critique, while perhaps unfair to Christianity, reminds me of the criticism of The Fountain and its quasi-Buddhist attitude to death. Death is never trivial, but perhaps human conceptions around it are? It also reminds me of a distinction I’ve long had in my mind, probably cribbed and distorted from some other writers’ bon mots, between Catholicism and Protestantism (of the Anglican/Episcopalian form I grew up with, not the Evangelical or Presbyterian kind): the former condemns much of the pleasure of life as sin, but tacitly encourages as long as people are suitably repentant (or ‘guilty’ in the common psychological parlance) and fear its consequences in death; whereas the latter draws a practical line between responsible living (the famed ‘work ethic’) and sinful behaviour (which can be nearly every bit as socially oppressive in its promulgation, but not quite as totalising) in which death doesn’t seem to enter so prominently.
Certainly the first is used to explain general Irish attitudes to sex and alcohol - sex of course being far more sinful, but the lengths that were gone to in repressing it belay the fear that life will out - while my absence from the usual structures of confession, repentance through repeated prayer, and so on, have left me a little mystified about that part of Irish moral life. The broad cultural popularity of Lenten fasting - by way of giving something up for a month, that is probably both bad for you and pleasurable for the other 11 months of the year - is another continuing legacy of Irish Catholicism; not that it’s actually absent from Protestantism, but it seems a lot more sensible to live in moderation for 12 months of the year. Which is where I part company with upwards of 85% of my compatriots, unfortunately.
(with apologies to all good Catholics - and Protestants)
Even though blasphemy is illegal in Ireland, I’m going to use what Jurgen Habermas calls the semantic potential of religion to construct a hermeneutics of the new My Bloody Valentine album, based on its square of trinities. Enjoy this novena of shoegaze:
m - The Father
'she found you' - 'only tomorrow' - 'who sees you'
These three songs are the Abrahamic heritage of Loveless, the result of 22 years wandering in the desert. The towering and majestic rhythms of ‘only tomorrow’, the enveloping haze of ‘who sees you’, the clanging genesis of ‘she found you’ are the achievement of the Creator, Kevin Shields.
b - The Son (or The Daughter, perhaps)
'is this and yes' - 'if i am' - 'new you'
It pays to switch from speakers to headphones for this part of the album, which is an abrupt change from the monumental to the minimal. Find the almost imperceptible pulse of percussion behind ‘is this and yes’, before slipping into the almost heady sensuality (and funky wah-wah guitar) of ‘if i am’ - the Word made Flesh. A brief pause, and then the resurrection of ‘new you’ with its contemporary-for-the-90s drums.
v - The Holy Ghost
'in another way' - 'nothing is' - 'wonder 2'
Here’s where it gets a little weird. Are those strings or just transcendent guitar on ‘in another way’? Yet ‘nothing is’ is pure pneuma, pumping away vitally. Meanwhile the eternal mystery of MBV remains in the swirling, booming roar of ‘wonder 2’, “a sound from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind”.