Thursday, September 26, 2013

 

Camus and Monod Wrestled With "The Problem of Meaning"

"Everybody's looking 4 for the ladder...everybody wants to know how the story started and how it will end."--Prince, "The Ladder"

"The principle of art is to pause, not bypass. The principle of true art is not to portray, but to evoke. This requires a moment of pause--a contract with yourself through the object you look at or the page you read. In that moment of pause, I think life expands. And really the purpose of art--for me, of fiction--is to alert, to indicate to stop, to say: Make certain that when you rush through you will not miss the moment which you might have had, or might still have. That is the moment of finding something which you have not known about yourself, or your environment, about others, and about life."--Jerzy Kosinski, 1977 interview by Lisa Grunwald

Sean Carroll's new book Brave Genius: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize tells the intertwined life stories of Jacques Monod (who won the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine) and Albert Camus (who won the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature). Many so-called French intellectuals collaborated with France's Nazi occupiers during World War II but Camus and Monod participated in the Resistance Movement, though they did not meet each other face to face until 1948.

Steven Shapin's September 21-22, 2013 Wall Street Journal review of Carroll's book (titled "A Collaboration Across Two Cultures") explains that both men sought "the secrets of life":

For Camus, the secrets were about the conditions of finding meaning and value in an absurd, meaningless world; for Monod, modern science was the practice that eroded traditional notions of meaning and value and that searched for the objective mechanisms used by life to reproduce itself and to perform all its functions, including the functions associated with thought and feeling. At a fundamental level, all the phenomena of life were coded by DNA and expressed in proteins, but molecules have no meaning.

In his book Chance and Necessity, Monod declared that even though science can provide many answers and solutions, "we now realize...that the problem of meaning is the one to which no scientific answer ever could be provided." Monod's outlook greatly influenced the thinking and writing of novelist Jerzy Kosinski; Kosinski, a skilled photographer, visited the terminally ill Monod shortly before the scientist's death and--with Monod's approval--produced pictures of the Nobel laureate's final hours. Kosinski also wrote an essay for Esquire about Monod's ideas, his life and his death.

Chance and Necessity concluded with these stark words: "The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose." If you are a religious believer then you reject Monod's statement because you believe that the universe exists not because of chance but because of God's will. However, regardless of your religious and/or philosophical outlook, it is quite humbling, awe inspiring and even frightening to consider the reality that Earth is just a tiny, pale blue dot (to borrow Carl Sagan's phrase) in an incomprehensibly vast and mysterious universe; any power or energy that humanity generates on Earth is minuscule compared to the vast powers and energies pulsating through the cosmos.

Chance and Necessity has two epigraphs; one is a brief Democritus quote ("Everything existing in the Universe is the fruit of chance and of necessity"), while the other consists of two paragraphs from Camus' book The Myth of Sisyphus. Shapin's final sentences summarize Monod's larger message:

Face the facts; have courage; accept that the only meaning available is the meaning you produce for yourself. Life is the struggle to make the meaning that nature no longer has. The scientist created nature-without-meaning; the philosopher pronounced on how to live in it.

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Thursday, September 19, 2013

 

The "Great Honor" of Writing for Free


The next time a plumber fixes your sink or toilet, offer to give him exposure in lieu of payment and see how well that conversation goes--or tell the waiter at your favorite restaurant that instead of paying for your meal you intend to tell all of your friends just how great the restaurant is. That sounds ridiculous, right? If someone provides a service and/or a product to you, that person expects to be fairly compensated and you have no problem with providing fair compensation. Most businesses operate that way but, sadly, that is not how the writing business functions (or the chess teaching business, in many cases, but that is a story for another day). Writers are often expected to feel honored to have the opportunity to give away their work in exchange for nothing more than supposedly valuable exposure--but any self-respecting professional should feel insulted by such offers.

From 1998 to 2001, Steven Brill's Brill's Content provided a welcome corrective to a variety of media excesses. Brill's Content fulfilled the classic journalistic credo to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable"--which is a noble and necessary calling but not necessarily a commercially viable venture. The June 1999 issue contained an article by Josh Greenfeld, who wrote seven books, received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay Harry and Tonto and reviewed books for a variety of publications in the 1960s--including The New York Times, The Herald Tribune, Time, Life and Playboy. In 1969, Greenfeld reviewed Philip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint for The New York Times Book Review. Then, in 1996, Greenfeld received a letter from The New York Times Book Review explaining that they were putting out a special 100th anniversary edition and they would like to receive Greenfeld's permission to include all or at least part of his Portnoy's Complaint review. Greenfeld writes, "The letter makes it sound like a great honor for both me and the book and asks me to sign the bottom of the letter granting permission. I figure Portnoy and his author, Philip Roth, might want to be included in the honor roll of the most 'significant' books reviewed in the Book Review since its inception. Besides, I'm sure they'll send me a few bucks as an honorarium. Enough for a dinner. So I fax back my permission."

The special edition is published in October 1996. Greenfeld notes that it has "page after page chock full of ads interspersed with reviews. But nary a word of thanks to the reviewers. Which annoys me. But what the hell? With the revenue coming in from all those ads, they'll surely be sending me a bigger honorarium than I'd anticipated. Maybe even enough for a dinner or two."

You can guess what happened next--or, rather, what did not happen. Greenfeld allowed a few months to pass, then he sent a short note to the publication's editor, Charles McGrath. McGrath did not bother to reply but in the summer of 1998 he had the gall to write to Greenfeld and request permission to include Greenfeld's review in an upcoming book-length version of the 100th anniversary issue. Greenfeld immediately responded and declined to grant permission, prompting a phone call from Mike Levitas, an executive from the New York Times' book division. Levitas told Greenfeld that none of the reviewers had been paid but that he would be willing to send Greenfeld $50 out of his own pocket. Greenfeld comments, "That's insulting, but I let it go and repeat my grievance. He says that the people at the Book Review say they never got my note. Nonsense, I say, that's the other side of 'The check's in the mail.'" Then Levitas tells Greenfeld that the book has already been put together and it would be too late to pull the review and that even if they could do so this might upset Roth. So Greenfeld calls Roth and Roth tells him that he is fine with whatever Greenfeld decides. Greenfeld's subsequent letter to Levitas deserves to be reprinted in full:

Dear Mike:

I've thought a great deal about the Portnoy review and decided that though I have great personal affection for you and we go back a long way together, I cannot in good conscience as a lifelong freelance writer give permission for the Times to print that review gratis again. The Times originally paid me $150 for it and three runs for that sum is just ridiculous even if two of them are recycles. After you told me that no other reviewer has asked for any payment I looked through that issue and discovered that at least half of the other reviewers were dead and a good deal of them were Times staffers and of those still among the living, many are in the danger zone of still publishing books. You said you thought Philip might have a concern if he were not included so I called him and he told me he would not care in the least if he were not.

Neither the Times nor its Book Review are charitable institutions. And neither am I. But let's all act as if we were as a matter of principle. I suggest that in order for me to grant permission for the reuse of that review the Times donate $500 in my name to a charity of my designation. If that's not possible let's just forget about it and let sleeping reviews lie.

All my best,

Josh Greenfeld


One might expect that Greenfeld's cordial and direct letter concluded this matter; the Times could elect to make the charitable donation or to leave Greenfeld's review out of the book. Instead, the Times first pressured Roth to call Greenfeld and ask him to change his mind--and, when that failed, the Times simply published Greenfeld's review without his permission! I have a theory that some people just need to be hit--feel free to interpret that metaphorically or literally (I got the idea after hearing Charles Barkley say that the one way to tone down Dennis Rodman's antics on the basketball court was to give him a stern elbow, after which Rodman would calm down and just play ball); such people do not respond to logic and they do not seem to get the message until someone grabs them by the collar and makes it quite clear that they would be well advised to change their conduct. Levitas and McGrath seem to fall into that category.

Greenfeld had no idea that his review had been published without his permission until November 1998, when he received a "Dear Contributor" form letter accompanying a complimentary copy of the book. Greenfeld replied:

Dear Book Review Editor:

My enjoyment of the holiday season was not enhanced by the arrival of a copy of your "anthology of the Book Review's greatest hits." Nor did the "thanks" in your accompanying "Dear Contributor" note make me feel any better. Because I distinctly and categorically withheld permission, both in writing and over the phone, for the inclusion of any portion of my review of Portnoy's Complaint in your hit parade. Now I don't know whether it's a policy of the New York Times descending from on high, or simply some loyal 43rd [S]treet apparatchik's idea of following a party line, but the malign neglect of a writer does not sit well with me.

McGrath responded by essentially claiming that it was all a misunderstanding and that, in any case, Greenfeld should not get so worked up about the republication of a 30 year old review. That last dig particularly offended Greenfeld, who offered this rebuttal as the coda to his Brill's Content piece:

That is exactly the point and one not to be disparaged. As a retiree receiving a pension from the Writer's Guild of America, I am, in a sense, being sustained, in addition to my residuals, by the screen work I performed on a freelance basis decades ago. The same goes for my Social Security payments. And perhaps one day when McGrath achieves the age of serenity as I have, he will receive pension checks from The New York Times for the editorial chores he once performed in some distant past as what the Japanese aptly describe as a 'salary-man.' Meanwhile, why quibble with him or the The New York Times? I feel like a gnat flying over an armadillo's nest. 

Except that I'm right.

Shame on the New York Times Book Review and all other entities that treat writers like dirt. R.I.P. Brill's Content--it is unfortunate that your voice has been stilled. Bravo to Josh Greenfeld for speaking truth to power.

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

 

Harlan Ellison's Pure Vision: "Art is Guerrilla Warfare."

Harlan Ellison does not care what you think. He trusts his own judgment and he speaks his mind without regard for the consequences. The July 2001 issue of Locus contains a first person account of Ellison's views on a variety of subjects. Here are some excerpts:

"Having read the Sherlock Holmes stories early on, I learned the deductive method, and decided that by employing it I could pretty much control my own life, and my destiny. I make very few dumb mistakes. I make a lot of mistakes, like everybody else, but most of them are pretty well calculated. I look at it and say, 'I'll be a real schmuck for doing it, but it's the right thing to do,' and I go ahead and do it anyway. I take full responsibility for everything I do, everything in my life, the good and the bad and the foolish."

"I've said endlessly (and probably insultingly, though I don't mean it to be) that I dismiss a lot of the academic view of my work, because it postulates at core that a total stranger reading the material just on its own is more insightful than the person who was clever enough to think it up out of dream-dust in the first place. In other words, they think I was smart enough to write this story, but I wasn't smart enough to notice the basic Appolonian/Dionysian conflict...It is my arrogant sense that about 65% of the time, nobody knows what the fuck I'm doing when I write!

I write about courage, about mortality, about ethics, about friendship, and about accountability--cautionary tales...I'm constantly astonished at the lack of personal courage, on a daily basis, of many of the people who write the most heroic kinds of fiction. They write endlessly of mightily-thewed warriors who have a code of ethics and this, that and the other thing, and yet they live their lives rationalizing and explaining away and permitting most of the injustices that most people see on a day-to-day basis, without any understanding that they are peculiarly equipped to do something about them. I find too many of my compatriots sad people because--for whatever reason they write--there doesn't seem to be a spinal imperative, their timidity, their middle-class chauvinism, their intentional naivete, blinds them to an understanding that their work can be world-changing, powerful, significant, and courageous as well as merely entertaining!"

"As a writer, you have two choices: you can either dumb down your stuff to the level of a mall rat, or you can say, 'Screw it. I will operate at the highest level of my expertise and abilities, and let them come to me.' Well, that way lies suicide, because they won't come to you!...

That's what I've been confronting and dealing with and thinking about, and worrying about, for the last 15, 20 years. And of course I've chosen the only path I can, which is to write at the peak of my own expertise, to keep learning and keep hoping I get better, and just say, 'Fuck the audience.' What I mean is disregard, pay no attention, cut them out of the loop. You cannot be your own writer and pay any attention to your audience, because if you do something well, your audience will keep you doing it forever. Look at Isaac Asimov. He was capable of incredible strokes of writing, and you can see that every once in a while when no one's looking. But most of the time, he wrote what he thought that fans would like. He was the dearest man in the world, and he loved to be stroked. I love him, and I miss him, and I lament all the kinds of a writer he might have been. As an artist, I think you've got to have an adversarial relationship with your own audience. If you don't, they're going to buy you--they're going to buy you with their love.

There is a force that leads to mediocrity, and it commands, 'Don't ripple the water. Survive at all costs, even of the Art. Keep everything quiet.' But art is supposed to do just the opposite of that. Art is guerrilla warfare."

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Sunday, September 1, 2013

 

"What Else Exists in the World Besides Chess?"

Caissa is a beautiful, wonderful, mysterious and horrible mistress; she tempts and torments you, bringing great joy followed by tremendous agony: it is almost impossible to break her addictive spells, because no matter how much you lose you always think that your next move will bring redemptive victory.

In his novel The Luzhin Defense, Vladimir Nabokov described chess' seductive vice grip on the mind/soul:

Suddenly, something occurred outside his being, a scorching pain--and he let out a loud cry, shaking his hand stung by the flame of a match, which he had lit and forgotten to apply to his cigarette. The pain immediately passed, but in the fiery gap he had seen something unbearably awesome, the full horror of the abysmal depths of chess. He glanced at the chessboard and his brain wilted from hitherto unprecedented weariness. But the chessmen were pitiless, they held and absorbed him. There was horror in this, but in this also was the sole harmony, for what else exists in the world besides chess?

Chess is intoxicating, invigorating, illuminating--it challenges your mind, it buffets your emotions, it stretches your physical capabilities to the breaking point. Chess may seem like a quiet and passive activity to the uninitiated but chess is loud and aggressive--moves played and unplayed scream inside your head and the violence that you do (or that is done unto you) creates wounds and scars.

It is not an accident that the name of Nabokov's tormented chess hero echoes the word "illusion"; in chess, as in life, it is essential to determine what is real and what is illusory. If you lose the thread then the story will unravel, as surely as a tug on a loose string can pull apart the most intricately sewn garment.

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