Monday, October 27, 2014

Obscenity: Danger by any other name.

Before I read this book, all I knew about the history of censorship and obscenity I learned from the trials of Allen Ginsberg and his poem “Howl”, published by Lawrence Ferlingetti in San Francisco in 1956. That, and of course, Lenny Bruce, until he died in 1966 at the decline of his career. I was familiar with the title “Ulysses” and aware of James Joyce. I knew he had something to do with “sexually explicit” material, so I bought the unabridged copy, put it on my Kindle and started at the beginning. There’s something tragically ironic in how easy it is to acquire “Ulysses” in the Internet-age, and less than 100 years ago people went to jail for reading it out loud with a woman present! If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend reading “The Battle…..” along with “Ulysses” at the same time, if for no other reason than to see what all the fuss is about.

“The Battle for Ulysses” is the story of a conversation about injustice, vigilantes and censorship. It's a conversation spanning several decades, a world war and a great depression. Indeed, it continues to this very day. Ultimately, Birmingham’s book is about Joyce’s relationships with people -- his lovers, his excesses and conflicts between his supporters, his detractors, his muse and between James Joyce and himself. It’s about “indecency”, but more importantly, it examines what offends people in the context of post-world-war-one modernism, radicalism and the construction and deconstruction of public morals. Birmingham shows the reader the world as it was for James Joyce, a world that believed it had a duty to protect "innocence" (especially female virtue) from promiscuity, rebellion, blasphemy and the absence of meaning.

As Birmingham tells it, “Ulysses” was a book written by an author confronting the fear of thinking and the dangers of thought itself. His society was in denial about homophobia, for example, long before anyone identified what it was. Sexual taboos, anarchy and the politics of search and seizure were just as conflicted for people living in Paris or New York in 1920 as they are today. The story of how “Ulysses” came to be written in the first place, and then printed, published, smuggled and eventually legalized is the story of James Joyce, the writer. But it’s also the story of a community of artists and writers, social activists and revolutionaries meeting in bars, sidewalk cafés and coffee houses inciting provocative new ideas. The descriptions of bookstores in the East Bank, for example, are so vivid I could almost smell the paper in stacks of books, I could almost hear conversations between Ezra Pound and Hemingway, between T.S. Eliot and Virginia Wolf.

What impressed me the most with “the Battle for Ulysses” is how relevant it is. Birmingham didn’t write a dry history book meant to gather dust. On the contrary, “the Battle for Ulysses” describes a struggle for the right to dissent by encouraging critically engaged readers to think the unthinkable, whatever that is. What was at stake for James Joyce when he wrote “Ulysses”, and what’s at stake for readers today, is the push-back against the idea that thinking is somehow unsafe. Censorship, confiscation and burning of “objectionable” material, was, in the world of James Joyce and in our world, all about trying to enforce political, religious and ideological conformity. This is what makes Birmingham’s arguments so convincing: assaults against “Ulysses”, James Joyce and others of his generation, up to, including and beyond the beatniks of San Francisco, show opposition and obstruction to ideas of inclusion, tolerance and transparency. These concepts, and others, were as “dangerous” to the neoconservative members of the Society for the Suppression of Vice in New York in 1920 as they are to the neoliberal policy-makers of 2014.

Monday, October 20, 2014

BREAKING NEWS: Tennessee Titans Scandal

BREAKING NEWS! An anonymous source close to NFL Titans (2-5) head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, has leaked an email (dated Oct. 20, 2014) which apparently is a laundry list of talking points to be used after losing next week’s game with the Houston Texans (to be played at home in LP Field, Oct. 26). The words “disappointed”, “opportunities”, “good practice”, “mistakes”, “turn-overs” and “injuries” were underlined and highlighted in yellow magic-marker. Whisenhunt did not return calls for comments on why this statement was prepared one week before the game with the Texans. Sources familiar with Whisenhunt and the team's lackluster production this season speculate that the head coach simply wanted to get a jump on his vacation plans at the start of the Bye week, not wanting to hang around on Sunday after the game in Nashville any longer than necessary, the Associated Depression reports.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

It's interesting to me how cigarette companies and advertisers were able to associate nicotine addiction with sexuality, sensuality and having a good time. If I would've been an ad man back in the day, I would have sold it like this.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

"You be Hide and I play Seek!" To its end.

If you're like me, the only thing I knew about "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" came from Hollywood, especially the movie starring Fredric March in 1931, and the remake with Spencer Tracy in 1941. I never read the book, I just saw movies; I really knew nothing at all -- not until I read this book. This is one of the few books I've read that I was sorry when it was over. The biggest disappointment was that there wasn't another four-hundred pages! To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart: I can't define it, but I know a masterpiece when I see it, and "Hyde" is a masterpiece! Someday it'll be a classic, required reading by college lit majors. This is Daniel Levine's first novel, and it describes a nightmare of terror. It's also a perfect introduction, albeit unintentional, to the subject of mysticism and transcendental psychology as precursors to the formation of secret societies of leading artists, psychologists and scientists of the 19th and 20th centuries who were visionaries and perhaps even prophets, beyond good and evil.

"Hyde" is so well-written that I started believing it was a true-crime novel about real people with a real history, almost like a documentary. For example, it was a serious character flaw that Dr. Jekyll completely underestimated or willfully ignored (because of his egomania) the importance of the protective friendship, one might even say "brotherly affection", that the lawyer, Mr. Utterson, had for him. Jekyll never anticipated the consequences of disturbing Utterson's life-long confidence in his friend; he overlooked it entirely and considered it of no consequence, presuming that Utterson would simply execute his Will as instructed, never questioning it or refusing Jekyll's demands. This was naïve and foolish, a fatal mistake on Dr. Jekyll's part, because Utterson was anything but obedient. Dr. Jekyll's safety was more important to Utterson than making good on a promise he thought was part of a blackmail scheme!

As conscientious as he was in his professional life, Jekyll's failure to predict Utterson's fears over his deteriorating mental and physical health would prove to be the ruin of his personal life. Jekyll's insistence, prematurely, on rewriting his Last Will forced Utterson to promise to faithfully execute it, a promise he couldn't keep, obviously. Jekyll's judgment, in this case at least, was reckless and arrogant. Unlike Mr. Hyde, Dr. Jekyll was not menacing enough to be aware of the blind spots in his own mind. He wasn't careful like Hyde, nor did he "look out for and protect" Mr. Hyde, not the way Hyde protected Jekyll. This is an important distinction between the two personalities: one careless but fair, one homicidal but thorough - not good qualities to find at home in the same man. Stevenson's original had Jekyll blaming Hyde for everything: "It was Hyde after all, and Hyde alone that was guilty." In reality, however, the man was "both an angel and a fiend."

The book fills in gaps between Jekyll's meeting with Utterson and Carew's murder a year later. "Hyde" gives us the backstory of what happened. "The details were few and startling", Stevenson writes, but "Hyde" scares us with the facts. If you put the two together, the books balance each other, giving us a profile of mystic-turned-addict, or addict-turned-mystic, the habit merely an attempt to escape by "disappearing and vanishing into some nightmare version of hide and seek in which everyone is hiding and no one seeking", except Mr. Hyde. (Note: the full-length original story by Robert Louis Stevenson is included at the back of the book.)