Notes On Reading Caleb Crain’s “Necessary Errors”

“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” And Caleb Crain would seem to agree. His recent novel, “Necessary Errors,” is full of conversations, and he’s now providing the pictures in an electronic “extra illustrated binding” on his blog. But any resemblance to the Alice books probably stops there. One of the many surprises in “Necessary Errors” is its realistic style, the writing clear and purposeful, full of diligent detail. The sentences are often shaped to fit the action described: “He watched recede the semicircular – circular, in the water’s haphazard mirroring – portal through which they had passed” (391). Jacob, the main character, is rowing a boat under the Charles Bridge in Prague. The writing is realistic too in that the metaphors are not surreal; they also do the work of illustration. It’s as if in the land of Kafka, Kafka had never written a word – but no, precision is a characteristic of Kafka’s style. His writing is so descriptive and precise we don’t realize we’re dreaming. But metaphor to Jacob is not magic; it’s a way of realizing something unfamiliar, of carrying it home in an idea: “They had both loved the book, but Jacob must have loved it because he had recognized in it a story about his own nature (because Jacob had no brother, the idea of a brother was just a metaphor to him)” (309). Or metaphor is for Jacob a tool to sharpen the precision of a description: “She drew from her purse with one hand her cigarettes, lighter, and wallet, her fingers splayed separately open, at all angles like the blades of a Swiss army knife” (298). The hand does not become a Swiss army knife, as it might in a surrealistic description; the image of the knife provides an explanation of the work of the hand. But Jacob is not the narrator.

One settles into “Necessary Errors,” into the writing, as if on a long train ride. It’s a long book, 472 pages, and disciplined throughout, the closest to a first person narrative a third person ever came. The point of view rarely, if ever, is allowed to slip away from the main character Jacob’s indirect voice. The narrator as an independent character might have something to add here or there, but these are rare exceptions. What does Jacob want, and what is in his way of getting it? He wants to be a writer. But first he must come to understand himself, and to do that he must let go of the very moment he values as the sweetest. Only then can he reflect on its significance, and if he’s articulate and has an artistic temperament, he can put the lost experience into pictures and conversations. Is wanting to be a writer the same thing as writing? Wanting to be a writer is a value, something we desire that is not necessarily good for us; writing is a virtue, something that is both good for us and for others, assuming wanting to read is realized in reading. Are these fairly conservative values, these days, reading and writing? Why does Jacob want to be a writer? Where do his values come from? When he realizes some of the guys in Prague are selling themselves, he objects. “Prisons are built with stones of law, brothels with bricks of religion,” Blake wrote. Jacob wants to be a writer to assert his freedom, to establish an independence from institutions that would buy and sell bodies and souls, minds and lives. That we are free to sell ourselves is the great irony of capitalism, of free enterprise. We enter the prize, and are consumed by it.

The conversations take place in Prague among a group of friends unified by their age and circumstance. Communism is thawing, and the idea of being free and enterprising, of entertaining choices that won’t come again, is still a fresh breeze. The torrents of greed have not yet rushed ashore. It seems a good time to live in the moment, which won’t return. Early in the book, Jacob uses a poem by Emily Dickinson as a pronoun antecedent exercise in his English as a second language class. Dawkins quotes from this same poem in “The God Delusion,” but only the first two lines, an incomplete experiment, and gives it the same mawkish sentiment that at first it seems Jacob is suggesting, that we are lucky to be here, alive, given the odds, and as part of his argument, Dawkins gloats over the google of lives who didn’t make the trip; but how does a non-existent being fit into the equation? Dawdling Dawkins misappropriates Emily and misses the pitch. In any case, back in Prague, if it was the sweetest of times, it was the sourest of times: as it was, is now, and ever shall be. For most people, life is not sweet: not for the coal miner with lung disease, not for the mother of twelve, ten surviving, not for the children of brothels, not for the addicted, the imprisoned, the exploited, the shamed. All lives are not sweet, and the argument that they won’t come again, to those drenched in sourness, might seem something of a blessing. But “Necessary Errors” uses the Dickinson idea in a way Dawkins misses. We move away from any moment, and it is this moving, being in this movement, that carries the writing. Afterlife is irrelevant; the present takes the prize, but not because it won’t come again. One must pay attention now, listen, and observe time passing, and then, recalling the moment in a search for time past, things lost, the artist recreates the moment. “There are unhappy childhoods,” Melinda adds (196).

One of the characteristics of the conversations among the friends in Jacob’s Prague is the distinct way each character talks. They don’t all sound alike; they each have identifying mannerisms, personality, speech. When Carl shows up, we know where he’s from; we don’t need to be told. And when Annie says something, we know it’s her; we don’t need, “Annie said.” If there’s a “gah,” it’s Annie, glasses pushed up onto her head, into her hair. There are times when Carl plays a kind of Buck Mulligan to Jacob’s Stephen Dedalus. The omphalos section might make this explicit (229). And Carl’s presence alleviates the possibility of readers burning out on the pondering Jacob. When Milena gives Jacob the gift of the little plastic Christ statue, he wishes Carl was on hand. Jacob thinks, “An American child would be tempted to zoom the figurine around the room” (458). Or stick it on the dashboard of his ’56 Chevy, next to its earth mother, Carl might comment. Annie seems to be Jacob’s favorite among the women. But Beta helps Jacob out of his element and in need, his independence challenged, like a sister. Milena has children, and we see Jacob interacting with them in several very funny scenes. Kaspar is interesting among the men. The rich boy Vincent fills a need (“The very rich are different from you and me”: Hemingway – see the Toads About page). Melinda grows a bit melodramatic in her beauty and her indecision, but one can imagine her being played by Ava Gardner or Lauren Bacall. Milo becomes an excellent contrast to Lubos. By the end of the book, the reader has come to know and to recognize Jacob, his group of friends, and the other characters he comes into contact with, infused in the Prague setting.

Jacob’s understanding of what’s happening is often complicated by having to translate what he hears and says. He knows some Czech, but he can’t think in Czech yet. The dialog meant to convey other language speech is not surrounded by quote marks but introduced by a dash, creating an effective style not unlike subtitles in a foreign film. Jacob gives Lubos a clumsy hug, which is believable, but then cries, which is not. Or maybe it is. The reader can believe the young Jacob crying, but not the narrator, whose awareness seems third person omniscient but impassable. But are these crocodile tears (36)? We’ve only just met Lubos, and there’s no reason to trust him, and we’ve not known Jacob that long either. Jokes are often difficult enough to understand in one’s native language. Over time, societal values change, what people want changes, but shame has always been used as a tool to control. Sometimes, shame is so severe, a young person, in particular, or a spouse or a lover, will rebel, and walk away. The price that must be paid to enter so-called respectable society is too great, and anyway, beneath the veneer of respectability one finds crisscrossed plies of bias. Scapegoats are often created to transfer one’s shame onto another. In just this way, the anti-gay sentiment in contemporary Russia is a political ploy, a distraction meant to create a scapegoat. In Prague, Jacob has friends, but where can he place his trust? He must proceed cautiously. But he’s not playing games. He’s serious, and he wants to be taken seriously. He wants to be accepted. He is prone to recognizing differentiations. He insists on his own distinction, an ambition that fuels his quest: “He felt so lucid that he seemed to perceive not only the world but also the biases of his own mind in perceiving it” (463). Do we want a literature of want and take, or a literature of give and forgiveness?

“Necessary Errors” is a masterpiece in the ordinary sense of the word, even if it’s not (maybe because it’s not) the masterpiece we might have been looking for. The novel is divided into three main sections and around 100 smaller sections separated by white space (not numbered). Each of the three main sections begins with a Czech name and a literary reference. To what audience is the work aimed? A common reader probably can’t speak to the whole work without taking up some additional reading, Stendhal, for example, which I probably won’t get around to. The story takes place in 1990 and ’91: there are no cell phones, no laptops, no computers, no Twitter or Facebook, no blogs. One possible audience for the book might include anyone weary of all that stuff and wanting a break to reflect – it’s been a busy couple of decades. One of my favorite sections in the novel is the one in which Jacob finds the clumsy Czech-made clothes washing machine in his apartment. This and a few other sections contain Roddy Doyle-like laugh out loud moments. But the washing machine segment recalls another, in which Jacob sits in a bar with some blue collar workers – alienated, and I’m not sure his [or the narrator’s?] economic analysis makes any sense, today, anyway, but at the time maybe it did. Still, the distance between Jacob and the laborers is so huge. There are any number of writers living in Brooklyn, but I’m guessing few of them earn as much as the Brooklyn plumbers. In any case, that scene, in which Jacob reflects on distinctions, the working class, what one might do to earn a living, and beyond, feels incomplete. One wishes for a Blakean marriage of heaven and hell there, where writers might find work and workers might find time to read. But I’ve left the text at this point, so to come back to it: almost no reference is left hanging, and the laborers are recalled, later, but one omission, possibly, is the loose end of Meredeth’s suicide. Maybe it was impractical to draw together all the threads at the end, but Meredith’s omission at the very end is notable. But there are no ghosts in a Garden. At the time the book takes place, the floor of the last two decades is still clean, and one can’t see the litter of the morning after. If one is to live in the moment, one doesn’t worry about epilogues.

“Necessary Errors” is not a roller coaster ride; I imagined myself reading it on a Coast Starlight running from Vancouver to San Diego, stopping frequently to let a few riders disembark, and to let a few new riders board, conversations along the way, taking a break to join a group playing cards in the dining car, every moment sliding gradually behind, page after page. I took that ride a few times, moments long gone. One should read a book as one takes a long train ride toward a distant destination. You can take breaks, and even get off and walk around the station landing for a spell, but once the train starts moving again, you can’t get off. Something like that. Anyway, “Necessary Errors” was published early August 2013 by Penguin in a solid paperback with thick, rough cut pages and extra shoulder, fold in covers (not sure what the technical term is for that type of cover, but it gives the paperback a more substantial feel), and it’s a substantial novel.

Writing and its Discontents: Lady Gaga to Replace McChrystal

I read with interest Caleb Crain’s recent post, about Freud, which begins with a doubt about blogging. Doubts about blogging can quickly reduce to an absurdity: why write at all? I’m beginning to suspect there are more readers than are being counted in the polls. The question is, what are we reading. Attendance at baseball games is down this year, but I still hear the hollow pop of the Whiffle ball in the street.

When Eric’s new Rolling Stone arrived in the mail earlier this week I again shied away from the hardball cover. I glanced at the contents, made note of the McChrystal article, thumbed through the Lady Gaga interview. I missed the scoop, for suddenly Rolling Stone and McChrystal were big news. A post headline occurred to me: Lady Gaga to Replace McChrystal. According to the cover, she appears to have the qualifying equipment.

I sometimes get the feeling professional writers would rather not have to blog. Hendrik Hertzberg’s post on the McChrystal story, at the New Yorker site, for example, argues that the McChrystal story is really about the fragmentation of journalism, the co-opting of stories by anyone with a laptop, and presentations carefully staged for a VIP audience, all of which creates a morale hazard for troops, a hazard which didn’t exist in previous wars. Hertzberg suggests that Rolling Stone and McChrystal conspired to pose the general and his cohort “…as really cool macho dudes.” Hertzberg says that “frontline troops nowadays are also online troops.” He thinks this is good, but how can it be good if at the same time, as Hertzberg suggests, we should still censor their mail? And why does Hertzberg conclude that McChrystal and his gang of on-line blogging-warriors “understood none of this”?

Why should we keep from the troops the true character of their leaders, even if part of that character is a desire to fictionalize and present itself as something it’s not? But I didn’t read the Rolling Stone McChrystal article as fiction. (The Lady Gaga interview – now that’s fiction.) Do we think we can protect the troops from knowing what war is really like?

Freud concludes his Civilization and Its Discontents with a discussion of ethics as a product of the super-ego to control “the constitutional inclination of human beings to be aggressive towards one another; and for that reason we are especially interested in what is probably the most recent of the cultural commands of the super-ego, the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself.”

It may have been a fictional account carefully orchestrated, but I liked the profile of McChrystal in the Rolling Stone. I liked that he’s always been a discontent, that he wrote fiction, that, in fact, he may not be a very likable guy.

Freud concludes: “One thing only do I know for certain and that is that man’s judgements of value follow directly his wishes for happiness – that, accordingly, they are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments.” Freud thought our capacity for destruction, and particularly for self-destruction, a bad thing, and worth thinking about. No doubt, but deconstruction is not the same thing as destruction. We may have lost a general (through his own tendency toward self-destruction) willing and able to deconstruct the war in Afghanistan. Now we’re left with more Lady Gaga.

Update, June 26: New Yorker editor Amy Davidson weighs in on her blog, Close Read, discussing the General of all bad comments, Patton. The comparison was inevitable. But Amy might have compared McChrystal to another WWII general, Omar Bradley (Patton’s nemesis and in many ways the archetypal opposite of McCrystal and Patton types) . The Google timeline (follow link) omits my famous meeting with General Bradley in front of the LA International Hotel, where I held a job parking cars at the front door, circa late 1960’s. The General came out in his dress uniform, having just addressed some dinner group. I’m sorry now that I don’t remember the exact date or the purpose of his appearance. But he stood at the curb in a waning Los Angeles beach evening (the hotel only a couple of miles from the water, at the east end of the airport), tall and stately in his dress uniform, alone, and so I walked up to him and introduced myself, and shook his hand. “General Bradley,” I said, “just wondering if I might say hello and shake your hand.” He shook my hand, and said, “of course.” “How are you, sir?” I asked. “I’m fine, thank you. It’s a lovely evening.” “Yes, sir.” His car (a small, chauffeured limo) by then had arrived at the curb and I opened the door for him and the car drove off. Not quite enough for a Rolling Stone article. Still, I was about to be drafted, but neither the prospect of my being drafted nor potential visceral evenings in Vietnam seemed to preclude a lovely evening in Los Angeles, then or since. Generals will always know more, and less, than their troops; reporters will always be most interested in what the generals knew they did not know.

Books on Tee-Shirts: More on the Reading Crisis

In Ken Auletta’s “Publish or Perish,” about the sale of books in print copy versus electronic format (New Yorker, April 26), Steve Jobs is shown unwrapping the iPad as a reversal of Apple’s stated position two years earlier, when Jobs said, according to Auletta, that “It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore” (p. 24). It’s an interesting claim, one that might be supported by comparing movie products to audience viewing habits, for it doesn’t seem to matter how good or bad a movie is, people will still go to see it. Case in point, I travelled through “Hot Tub Time Machine” the other night, the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It reminded me of a martial arts film I was invited to view years ago in Hollywood. The film was in the editing stage and a number of prospective investors had been invited to view it. After the viewing there was a discussion, and asked what he thought of the film, one viewer said, “Maybe we could cut it up and sell guitar picks.” The comment suggests an advantage of print books over electronic books; paper can be recycled for a variety of uses, but what to you do with a disaster in electronic format? You can hit the delete key, but your $9.99 evaporates like cotton candy without the stickiness.

Jobs had gone on to say, in support of his claim that people don’t read anymore, again, according to Auletta, that “Forty per cent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year” (p. 24). It’s interesting evidence. What does it mean to read less than a book? And even if we knew, since what Jobs is really talking about isn’t reading books but the sales of books, what difference does it make if the reader finished the book purchased? Too, if sixty percent of people in the U.S. read two or more books in a year, does the evidence support that “people don’t read anymore”? Reading statistics supporting evidence of a decline in reading can be found in the CQ Researcher report of Feb. 22, 2008, “Reading Crisis,” and in Caleb Crain’s December 24, 2007 New Yorker article “Twilight of the Books: What will life be like if people stop reading?” Crain’s article is listed in the CQR bibliography. Discussion regarding the decline in reading, drops in book sales, newspapers eliminating book reviews, and, indeed, the disappearance of newspapers (which we had some fun with in our post “What we will miss when newspapers disappear”), has since grown and continues to grow, but much of the discussion is about revenue as much as it is about reading. Increasingly the discussion focuses on price point and price elasticity of demand. At the same time, it may be that newspapers had simply grown too fat, ignored their audience, and that the decline in book sales may be the evidence of another bubble, for the price of new, hardback books may have reached a tipping point of price absurdity. And Auletta’s article suggests that electronic format is about price at least as much as it is about reading. For the general interest reader, and particularly for the beginning or returning reader, the decision to read or not may also be about anti-trust, for deciding what to read is as important as deciding what it’s worth.

The other night, in a discussion about literature, we talked about movies. Why, someone asked, do we so readily go to see a movie, that, after all, begins, presumably, with a written script, while we avoid going to read a book? It’s a great question, for we don’t ask our spouse or date, “Hey, you want to read a book with me tonight?” A movie is an experience most viewers share, and the experience of viewing a movie in a packed house is different from watching the same film with a few folks spread out in an otherwise empty theatre. Movies are viewed in the dark, books in the light. Movie going is a social event; reading is a solitary affair – reading on-line seems to blur the distinction. Imagine a world where a television commercial is a trailer for an upcoming book: “In book stores this summer!” Then imagine long lines of book purchasers waiting to get their hardback copy signed by the travelling star; but did they all read the book? Or did they walk out half way thru. What 40% made the purchase? They may have already been non-readers, purchasing not a book to read, but a tee-shirt to prove they’d been to the concert and touched the star. And Jobs may have been interested in electronic book publishing all along, but why play his hand too soon? Why not catch Amazon and Google by surprise? It’s about the scoop, the hype, the cover. Hold still; I’m trying to read your shirt.

Solving the Texas Textbook Massacre, Scandal, and Mystery

Textbooks are like disposable diapers, fodder for landfills, their obsolescence planned and forced new editions programmed with regularity. When I was a kid we couldn’t write in our textbooks. The nuns used them year after year – textbooks must not have been programmed to self-destruct quite so quickly in those days. We had to cover our textbooks with brown paper grocery bags, cut cleanly according to obsessive instructions, so the covers fit smartly around the edges, taped carefully so no tape touched the textbook. In spite of this care, or perhaps because of it, I don’t remember the title nor the author’s name of a single textbook I used in my twelve years of regular school.

A few summers ago I started noticing very old textbooks, from the early 1900’s, showing up in local garage sales. I started collecting them. One day I took a bagful down to the local used book store to see what I might get for them, but the owner was chagrined. “I don’t buy books like that,” she said, and wouldn’t even look down into the bag. Yet Powell’s “City of Books,” in Portland, does a brisk business filling newer-used US textbook orders from overseas, and textbooks, new and used, constitute an enormous, bizarrely regulated industry.

But the mystery of the Texas textbook scandal is why anyone cares, for who supposes students actually read the textbooks? And even if they wanted to, where are the school districts whose funding is deep enough to afford them? Schools that could have afforded new textbooks no doubt spend their money in other, more productive ways: building multi-million dollar sport complexes, for example. And if they have the textbooks, were they distributed? Or are they sitting in a warehouse, as Michelle Rhee discovered when she took over in DC? In any case, given the unaffordable prices and now the tampering with the credibility and reliability of textbooks, Texas teachers should forgo any of the changes forced by their state board of education and ignore textbooks altogether, avoiding their exorbitant costs, forced new editions, inflated purpose, and questionable educational effectiveness; and the rest of the country should follow their example.

Will the Education debate go the way of the Health Care debate? In the April 5, 2010 issue of the New Yorker, Dr. Atul Gawande said, “But the reform package [Health Care] emerged with a clear recognition of what is driving costs up: a system that pays for the quantity of care rather than the value of it. This can’t continue.” Neither can Education’s reliance on the textbook system, which is also too expensive and values quantity over quality. No one doubts this, but, as Gawande says, “the threat comes from party politics.” So too with Education. There is, Gawande says, “…one truly scary thing about health reform: far from being a government takeover, it counts on local communities and clinicians for success. We are the ones to determine whether costs are controlled and health care improves.” The same might be said for Education: it will count on local communities and local teachers for success, not state boards of education who confuse textbooks, editing, and censoring with teaching, and who would use a textbook to narrow the entrance to knowledge rather than opening the door to full and open access – access that is alive and growing on the Web, and that should be given more support to be leveraged by schools to lower the costs of education while improving the quality of instruction.

Instead of the traditional use of textbooks, teachers can use primary sources via the Internet. For in depth analysis, including background and extensive researched reports of current events, school libraries should subscribe to the Congressional Quarterly Researcher (the blog is free; access to the full reports requires a subscription – which most libraries provide). Extensive reports include credible pro-con discussion and annotated and linked bibliographies for further reading. Open Culture is another site that includes free resources, including language, culture, and math and science material – including links to podcasts from reputable universities. Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy is another site that features free and open access to the work of professional scholars (a current fund raising campaign seeks to establish a more permanent and viable funding source – so no, these sites are not free, though they offer free access).

Students are already using the Internet, and teachers can do more to leverage its resources. Google Books, for all the controversy surrounding the copyright issue, is getting better and students access the site without charge (apart from Internet service) for direct access to both primary sources and critical analysis. Credible and reputable periodicals are on-line, some with full access, others with limited access without a subscription. Scholarly journals are following suit and taking down their wall that limits direct access and frustrates students attempting to learn scholarship and research. And individual blogs such as the Becker-Posner Blog (Becker a University of Chicago Nobel economist, and Posner a federal judge), Caleb Crain’s blog, which augments his professional publications, and the World Wide Woodard blog, the blog of author and journalist Colin Woodard, just to mention a few – there are obviously many more – all provide direct, free, and open access to professional criticism, informed opinion, and scholarly research. Still other sites, like FQXi (Foundational Questions Institute – a physics site), provide forums for professionals to share papers and research, while giving students the opportunity to participate by reading and following the studies and discussion. It was on FQXi that I first saw Garrett Lisi’s recent physics paper, “An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything.”

What we need is an exceptionally simple theory of education. Hopefully it will include open access to primary source documents that might nudge textbooks away from the center of the student’s desk, where the drool is soaking into the garbage bag cover.

Update: 5-27-2010…It was announced this week that Portland Public High School District has posted just over a 50% graduation rate. I don’t think the problem is textbooks. Meantime, here’s a blog post that touches on a similar crisis in higher ed. Some appear to be worried about the adulteration of their disciplines as ethos moves online. Yet their ships are sinking – see the post referenced below and then read the top post (we agree with Levi): Larval Subjects.

Theo Jansen and Advanced “Avatar”

Caleb Crain, we learned yesterday, prefers movies that are true to nature, acoustic. He’s more interested in the Carny than the ride, while David Denby prefers the roller coaster, ignoring the Carny, and if he doesn’t have to leave the theatre for the ride, even better. Johnny Meah’s act wouldn’t make much of a movie for Denby. Yet it may not matter what the professional critics think because as their ranks dwindle thanks to the disappearance of newspapers we may find the neuroscientists filling the gap.

Jonah Lehrer, who writes from a neuroscience perspective and explains things like why we stop at red and go at green and why some of us slam the brakes at yellow while others hit the gas, suggests in his Avatar review that there might be something wrong with the prefrontal cortex that prefers the acoustic; for some reason, the brain responds negatively to the film drug. Not to worry, though, whatever your brain seems to prefer, for Jonah’s commenter number eleven, David Dobbs, also a scientist, rebuts Jonah’s scientific argument and calls Avatar “impoverished.” As it turns out, the neuroscientists, like the critics Crain and Denby, also find different values in the film and the brain.

I remember when the first Star Wars movie was released; I finally saw it a decade later. I’m sure there must be something wrong with my prefrontal cortex, judging from my taste in movies. In Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, television technology has evolved from the little toads sitting front and center of the mid-twentieth century living room to screens that fill entire walls, and the best TV for one’s home fills all four walls, and the viewer literally interacts with the TV characters, becomes part of the show. Avatar encourages viewers to imagine a time when the film technology of Avatar seems as dated as the first Star Wars movie, and to imagine that that time is now – the fix must be for increased immersion, guaranteeing a string of sequels.

In the 1960’s, during the height of the psychedelic craze, someone asked Salvador Dali if he took drugs when he painted. No, he said. Why would I take the drug; I am the drug. And when the scare was that rockers were putting secret messages in their recordings, some of which could be understood by playing the record backwards, someone asked Alice Cooper if he spiked his records with secret messages. No, he said, I don’t know how to do that, but if I did, the message would be to buy more records.

If we are to be controlled by technology, what’s the point? We still have to contend with nature, our nature, the nature of others, and mother nature. Jonah, in his “review,” argues “why the Avatar plot is so effective: it’s really a metaphor for the act of movie-watching.” Exactly, it’s consumerism about consuming, about being eaten alive by technology, and it’s yummy.

And what of acoustic technology? Is there anyone out there creating creatures more fantastic than those virtually real ones we see via 3D in Avatar? There is. Check out this video. It’s Dutch artist Theo Jansen with his creatures, and they are more fascinating than anything you will experience in Avatar because while they are virtually non-tech, they are real; they have become part of nature, and you don’t need special glasses to view them.

Crain, Denby, Dylan and the Avatar of Health Care

“Now there’s nothing wrong with technology per se, and there’s nothing wrong with fantasy, either,” Caleb Crain offers at the end of his Avatar movie review (posted both on his blog and at n+1). And there’s nothing wrong with corporations, per se, either, he might have added, for, in any case, are not many of the “smug anti-corporate” critics, plotted or plotless, plugged in via their 401K’s, or their public employee pension funds? Caleb more than disliked Avatar; it gave him a migraine, attributed to “the movie’s moral corruptness.”

While Caleb was nursing his headache, over at the New Yorker David Denby must have seen a different Avatar. For Denby, “James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ is the most beautiful film I’ve seen in years.”

It’s a classic case of compare and contrast.

Crain: “The audacity of Cameron’s movie is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own. The compromised, damaged world we live in—the one with wars, wounds, and price-benefit calculations—can and should be abandoned. All you need is a big heart, like Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the movie’s war-veteran hero, and the luck of being given a chance to fall in love.”

Sounds like vintage Hollywood.

Denby: “Amid the hoopla over the new power of 3-D as a narrative form, and the excitement about the complicated mix of digital animation and live action that made the movie possible, no one should ignore how lovely ‘Avatar’ looks, how luscious yet freewheeling, bounteous yet strange.”

Sounds like vintage Hollywood.

Avatar cost, according to Denby, “nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars to produce,” but he advises that “there’s not much point in lingering over the irony,” for “the movie is striking enough to make [claims of alternative values] irrelevant.”

Movie making has become like health care: hypercosts, waste, unnecessary tricks, and expensive tickets – but no one’s any healthier, but one’s health is irrelevant; the show must go on.

Crain: “Once you upload yourself, you don’t really have to worry about crashing your hard drive. Your soul is safe in Google Docs. In a climactic scene, rings of natives chant and sway, ecstatically connected, while the protagonists in the center plug into the glowing tree, and I muttered silently to myself, The church of Facebook. You too can be reborn there.”

Last night we were watching “Inglorious Bastards” at home on DVD and there was a brief power outage. A power outage is when the city suffers a stroke. We’ve made doctors and directors our new gods, but like the old gods, they make mistakes. Nothing like a power outage to remind us that, as Bob Dylan said, “You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you” (“Like A Rolling Stone,” Highway 61 Revisited, 1965).

caMels, whEN to caPITalize, & concrEte POEMS

Over at Steamboats, Caleb Crain has lately expressed a concern over the use of camel case letters.

We are not opposed to the use of camel case in a corporate logo, particularly where Concrete poetry might find a place in commerce.

We went to An Anthology of Concrete Poetry (Emmett Williams, ed., 1967, Something Else Press), remembering some camel casing there, but spacing is a more prevalent tool. Remember that most of the old Concrete poems were chiseled out on manual typewriters.

The John J. Sharkey poem, “Schoenberg” (1963), is shown in the Anthology in two versions. The first (left) was rejected “…because the publisher does not use upper-case letters in his graphic production style.”

The second version was “interpreted typographically by Simon Lord…,” and Sharkey apparently liked it less than his original.

There’s often a reason for things like spacing, capitalization, reading silently – and then the reason becomes the rule, and remains the rule, even after we’ve forgotten the reason; then we might invent a new reason to support what we now don’t want to change.

Note: The title to this post is a Concrete poem, created with camels: