The True Nature of Evil

“To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good . . . Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race, and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.”
— Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago.

Advantage: Kindle

One thing no one seems to have mentioned among the advantages of the Kindle: it lays flat. How many times have I tried to eat a sandwich while reading a paperback, and had to put the book down to take up the sandwich? Or pizza? Or any meal involving a knife and fork? Holding books open is often annoying. And newspapers – all the folding, spine snapping and the inky fingers. Deliver us from the third dimension, oh Kindle! Guide us home!

Mini-Rant: The New Yorker

The New Yorker‘s website Table of Contents is really painful to scan because they put the various authors’ names before the titles of the articles. Writers’ names should never be more important than the content of their articles. Am I supposed to scan down the page and only read articles by authors I know and like? It’s maddening and it makes me feel like I’m supposed to know these peoples’ names, which in turn makes me feel like a Philistine.[1]

Just look at this mess. Click the link and scroll down about halfway to the Table of Contents.

1.) This is something at which The New Yorker excels. I suspect I am not alone.

David Foster Wallace

The writer David Foster Wallace died recently, and Philip Martin at the Democrat-Gazette posted on his blog this commencement speech Wallace once gave. It’s lengthy, but very much worth the read. I’ve actually edited it down considerably. The full text is available on Martin’s blog.

Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

Continue reading David Foster Wallace

The High Country of the Mind

I’m returning to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the first time in over 10 years. Here is a great sample passage:

In the high country of the mind one has to become adjusted to the thinner air of uncertainty, and to the enormous magnitude of questions asked, and to the answers proposed to these questions. The sweep goes on and on and on so obviously much further than the mind can grasp one hesitates even to go near for fear of getting lost in them and never finding one’s way out.

Many trails through these high ranges have been made and forgotten since the beginning of time, and although the answers brought back from these trails have claimed permanence and universality for themselves, civilizations have varied in the trails they have chosen and we have many different answers to the same question, all of which can be thought of as true within their own context. Even within a single civilization old trails are constantly closed and new ones opened up.

I’m going to do something I’ve yet to try on this blog: use the More feature! Continue reading The High Country of the Mind

Book Recommendation

I recently finished The View from the Seventh Layer The View from the Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier and thought I’d post a brief review over at, which I’m slowly starting to use. It’s a great idea for a site – a place to talk about books you’ve read.

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
With this collection of short fables, Brockmeier has found a voice uniquely his. His sensitivity to detail and awareness of the fine movements of life are unparalleled, at least in my literary experience.

Diagnosis for the Modern Man, 1962

I’ve been reading Stand Still Like the Hummingbird by Henry Miller. It is a compilation of essays, many of which have a unique philosophical and almost motivational flare; so much so that I wish he had started a religion instead of L. Ron Hubbard. Here’s an example of what he was on about way back in 1962:

…the American is incapable even of enjoying the little which is permitted him…I mean, his physical wealth. His car may take him wherever he wishes to go, but what is he met with on arriving at his destination? If it is a restaurant, the food is usually unpalatable; if it is a theater, the spectacle bores him; if it is a resort, there is nothing to do but drink. If he remains home with his friends, the conversation soon degenerates into a ridiculous argument, such as schoolboys enjoy, or peters out. The art of living alone, or with one’s neighbors, is unknown. The American is an unsocial being who seems to find enjoyment only in the bottle or with his machines. He worships success, but on attaining it he is more miserable than ever.

The remedy? Well I’m not even halfway through the book, but I’ll let you know when I find out. Based on the earlier pieces, I’d wager that the answer is something he declares on page 13:

No, happiness is desirable, but it is a by-product, the result of a way of life, not a goal which is forever beyond one’s grasp. Happiness is achieved en route. And if it be ephemeral, as most men believe, it can also give way, not to anxiety or despair, but to a joyousness which is serene and lasting. To make happiness the goal is to kill it in advance.

By the way, you can read the whole thing at Google Books.

Wisdom Via Wolrab

I’m almost done digging through all of Atticus’s images on Flickr. Sometimes his image titles are more revealing than their pictures. This one sent me to Google and I found this excerpt from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams:

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

It’s good to be reminded of what is Real.

On the Road

I arrived a little early for my appointment today with the recruiter, so I thought I would kill some time by checking out the New York Public Library. They just so happened to have an exhibit of Jack Kerouac’s personal notebooks, papers, artwork, and his original typewritten scroll of On the Road. The scroll is 120 feet long, and 60 feet of it were on display. The contents of the scroll were recently published in book form, but seeing them firsthand was awe-inspiring, even for someone whose exposure to Kerouac is limited to an episode of Quantum Leap.

Yes, I’ve never read On the Road. Despite having just completed my own massively long road trip, I didn’t want to read about someone else’s. And Kerouac specifically always bothered me. I’ve never liked the self-destructive madman school of writing. Bukowski, Burroughs, Thompson and Kerouac all strike me as writers whose appeal is largely vicarious and voyeuristic. The people who get most excited about their works are the people who are very often the least likely to experience that peculiar world of kicks-joy-darkness. And I’ve always disliked beatniks, real or imitated, because they so seldom smile.

Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe it took way-out cats like that to break the rest of us out of the antiseptic numbness of the 1950’s. Maybe I should read On the Road when I’m done with Gangs of New York. It seems a sensible enough transition.

Writing About Music Is Like Two-Stepping About Flying Buttresses

Since I started writing about music for Arkansas Times, people have told me I should more actively pursue it as a vocation. Apparently it’s something I do well.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I think it has something to do with the fact that I take my writing ability for granted. It’s not a skill I recall spending a lot of time developing (as I’m sure this blog’s more meandering and malformed entries will attest), at least not after high school. I remember turning in my first essay to Mrs. Lewis in 10th grade and her comments about how horribly lame my writing was; I took it to heart and became determined to write effectively from then on, which lasted until senior year. After that it was the only real marketable skill I had, which led me to become an English major.

Music has always been the thing I’ve spent the most time developing, yet I’ve never wanted it to become my career. To do that, music would have to become work, and I don’t think I could stomach that. Plus the music I love most has proven time and again to be the least commercially successful.

My tastes in music tend to revolve almost exclusively around pure music and not lyrics. I think I distrust words as interlopers into music. I don’t need words in music; I’d be just fine without them, for the most part[1]. All they really do for me is give me something to sing, a way to participate. Music has the power to make crummy words sound great (just as truly great words have the power to improve crummy music). Rhythm and harmony are so powerful that songs of complete gibberish can become classics (“Wooly Bully,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Louie Louie,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). SO many songwriters compose tunes with decent lyrics but boring chords and arrangements; my perspective is: if you’re not going to step up to the plate musically, then go be a poet and see how well your words do by themselves. Don’t sail by with music to pick up the slack. Anyway, all of this ties into the fact that I approach music from my own little peculiar musician-oriented vantage point, so I’m probably not qualified to write about music for regular folk.

So I had lunch with Ted Ludwig on Friday and he told me that I’m probably more qualified to write about music because my background as a musician helps me to understand music on a deeper level. Maybe he’s right. Maybe it’s a great idea, since I don’t mind writing becoming work. It hardly seems like work, actually. Of course, the downside is that if I were to devote more time to writing about music, I’d probably get assigned to write about some trendy band that everyone’s excited about but me. And these bands are legion. I can’t begin to count the number of times the entire world goes ga-ga over some band that just strikes me as horribly bland. Even most indie rock strikes me as irritatingly boring.

So I doubt I’d be of much use to the world of rock journalism. I have a hard time writing about things that don’t excite me. Maybe my niche is writing about the stuff no one else wants to. So far at the Times I’ve covered old school hip-hop, jazz, and eccentric indie rock. Maybe there’s enough on the fringes for me to stay occupied.

1.) And I would also be just fine without musicals, which allow for the possibility of combining crummy music, insipid lyrics, poor acting and lame dancing into one reasonably nifty package that impresses only those people who don’t particularly care about those four constituent art forms. Don’t get me wrong, though, when it’s done right it’s transcendent (West Side Story, Oliver!). But I’m rarely impressed by musicals in general.