See also "The Complete Angler" by Donavan Hall (@theangler)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Filmmaking for novelists?

Over weekend I was talking with Alice about “my writing career.”  Dr Pasavento, my therapist, insists that writing is just a hobby and I should just do it “for fun” rather than weighting the activity down with tedious add-ons like goals and aspirations.  “Don’t be so serious about everything,” he says.

Now that I’ve written a stack of novels, I feel like I should face the next challenge, that of finding someone willing to read what I’ve written.  Not all of it, of course, but at least some of it.  “I’m living at the wrong time in history,” I said to Alice, alluding to the trope that people aren’t reading as much as people did in the 50s and 60s.  Alice, ever connected to reality, countered with, “Nonsense.  You’re living at the best possible time to be a writer.  Publishing used to be difficult and expensive.  Now you can publish with a click of the button.”

While the problem of publication might have been solved with the Internet and the World Wide Web, the even thornier problem of cultivating an audience is now something that an artist (content creator?) has to deal with.  It’s not sufficient to post your novel on your web site and then tweet about it.

After I finished writing my first novel, Goodbye Green Day, I briefly flirted with adapting it myself into a film.  The concept was simple.  Since the action of Goodbye Green Day is set in New York City, I’d spent a day in New York recording video on the streets.  Then I’d take that video, edit it, add a voice-over soundtrack of the narrator telling his story and voila! I’d have a homemade movie of my novel.  My guess is that I could get more people to watch my film, than I would find people willing to read the book.

I was reminded of this seemingly elegant plan when I read recently an article in the Guardian.  The article is about filmmaker Mark Duplass who said (basically): if you want to make a film, just do it.

“The first step is the $3 short film,” he said. “We’re in a place now where technology is so cheap that there’s no excuse for you not to be making films on the weekends with your friends, shot on your iPhone – we had a feature film at Sundance this year that was shot entirely on iPhones and it did really well.”

So this morning I got my old digital camera out of the basement, dusted it off, and then located a tripod that had been thrust in the back corner of the closet in my studio.  I set up the camera on the tripod and I did three takes of a possible introduction to a short documentary, a “making of...” style documentary which will tell the story of how I came to write one of my novels.

Saturday, March 14, 2015


In case you missed it, here's the transcript of the interview I did for Alamo TV on my recent trip to San Antonio.  Several times during my interview I referenced an interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard which appeared in The Independent recently.

What drives you to write?

Writing is a way of thinking.  If I didn’t write then, not only would I be an irritable bastard, I wouldn’t know what I thought.  Just ask my wife.  On the days when (for some reason, and these days are rare) I can’t write, I become extremely short tempered and confused.  Even though my condition hasn’t been officially diagnosed, I’m driven to write by some sort of psychosis.  The act of writing itself isn’t an expression of the mania, but an antidote.  If I didn’t write, I’d be an insufferable wreck and would probably have to take up smoking and drinking heavily.

You’ve never submitted any of your novels for publication.  But your contemporary, the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, has become a literary rockstar.  How does that make you feel?

How do you think it makes me feel?  I’m already in therapy because I can barely deal with my feelings of overwhelming inadequacy.  Every morning when I wake up I don’t even turn on the lights because I can’t look myself in the mirror knowing what I mediocrity I am.  All those dreams I had in my youth of writing a truly great multivolume novel have come to nothing.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m happy for Karl Ove, but the fiction which consoles me is that there’s still hope that there’s a reading public out there who will be interested in the meandering drivel that I write.

What’s on your bedside table?

A book light and a package of condoms.

What’s your desert island book?

That show-off, Karl Ove, went with Finnegan’s Wake.  The bastard!  That was my answer.  But seriously, recently I was talking with my colleagues at Phaneron about the article by Stephen Marche in the Guardian about centireading, that is the act of reading the same book one hundred times.  Marche, by his own account has read Hamlet and PG Wodehouse’s The Inimitable Jeeves one hundred times.  There’s a pretty good discussion of Marche’s piece on Scott Esposito’s blog too if you are interested.

Anyway, I’m guessing that a desert island book has to be a book that would stand up to centireading.  While I don’t have any plans to read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow a hundred times, it might be a good candidate for a desert island book, and it’s in a similar vein as Finnegan’s Wake.  But on second thought, screw Pynchon and forget Joyce.  I’d pack the Mammoth Book of Erotic Photography (Volume 4) for reasons which I’ll leave you to work out for yourself.

What’s the most overrated book in the literary canon?

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.  You thought I was going to say My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, didn’t you?

Do you listen to music while writing?

No.  My ability to concentrate is so feeble that the slightest noise will derail my train of thought.

What song would you have played at your funeral?

“If You Were Here” by The Thompson Twins.

Your relationship with your father is central to your own unpublished multivolume fictional memoir.  You have a son.  How are you doing as a father?

I thought my father did a pretty good job at being a dad, but I still ended up in therapy and have had to experiment with prescription mood-altering medication for years to deal with the emotional trauma I didn’t even know I was suffering growing up.  Mostly, as a father, my motto is “do no harm.”

Are you optimistic about the world your son is growing up into?


Can you elaborate?

I could, but if you’re really interested in my answer to this question then you should read The Golden Marshmallow Dream.  In that novel I think I do a pretty good job articulating my pessimism about the world’s present course.  Nothing short of global catastrophe is going to save us.

Is The Golden Marshmallow Dream one of your unpublished novels?


What’s your most cherished memory?

The day when I won the school spelling bee in fifth grade.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Stream of consciousness

Probably the first time I ever heard anyone use the phrase “stream of consciousness” it was in an attempt to describe the writing of James Joyce, especially Ulysses.  Since then I read (I’m unable to lay my hand on the source at the moment) somewhere that what we find in the pages of Ulysses isn’t properly “stream of consciousness”, at least not in the way that William James conceived of it in his essay, “The Stream of Thought” where he writes that “[c]onciousness from our natal day, is of a teeming multiplicity of objects and relations, and what we call simple sensations are results of discriminative attention, pushed often to a very high degree.”

Thinking that perhaps this debunking of Ulysses as “stream of consciousness” is found in the pages of Anthony Burgess’ book ReJoyce I opened that book up and flipped through the pages until I found this: “The mind naturally strays and wanders, holding to nothing very long, coming back frequently to the same point again and again but rarely staying there.  A naturalistic representation of the human mind monologuising to itself may be of scientific interest, but it has nothing to do with art.  Themes must be imposed... and these themes must move in towards each other, suggesting purposeful movement and the unity proper to a work of literature.”  [ReJoyce by Anthony Burgess, p. 85]

Let’s file that away for a future post.  Burgess’ notion of themes and unity as being necessary to a work of art will be important ideas when I come to the intended point of this ramble: which is the fictional memoir by the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard.

The term “stream of consciousness” (evidently) was first applied in 1918 to a work of literature by May Sinclair in a review published in The Egoist of the first three volumes of Dorothy Miller Richardson’s autobiographical novel, Pilgrimage.  I chanced across this tidbit of trivia in an article by Amy Shearn in Dame Magazine comparing Dorothy Miller Richardson’s novel with Knausgaard’s My Struggle.

What May Sinclair meant when describing Richardson’s Pilgrimage as stream of consciousness was that in the books “...there is no drama, no situation, no set scene. Nothing happens. It is just life going on and on…”  Which pretty much describes Knausgaard’s My Struggle doesn’t it?  What marks Knausgaard’s novel is he appears to make no choices about what to include in the narrative.  Anything goes.  Whatever comes to him, he writes it down without judging it.  William Deresiewicz called My Struggle “artless.”  But that, according to Knausgaard, was the point.  No more art.  No more tricks.  No more authorial slight of hand.  What he wants to give the reader is raw text, uncooked writing, unpretentious, and by extension, words that are pure and connect us what the real.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

We are not capitalists

One of our new brewing partners, Dave, says that capitalism doesn't exist.  Of course, it exists, I said. But it's not a system, he said.  It's not like taxes or the Islanders hockey team.

I wasn't sure where this line of reasoning would take us, but later I wondered if Dave was thinking about the "invisible hand" that guides collective human action.  Was Dave saying that the hand doesn't exist?  Did he conflate the hand with capitalism?

Early in Josep Pla's The Grey Notebook one of the characters insists that capitalism is not moral or immoral.  It's akin to a force of nature.  It is nature! the character declares at one point.  While it may seem like it sometimes, there's nothing inevitable or natural about capitalism.

So yes, Dave, there is a capitalism.

But sometimes it doesn't seem like it because what we mean when we say the word capitalism is so ill-defined.  Most people (it seems) define capitalism to be whatever it is we do to make money.  This is so broad an idea that it's not terribly useful.

Even the dictionary definition of capitalism doesn't get it right.  My dictionary defines capitalism in such as way that it is restricted to private individuals or owners who engage in trade and industry for a profit.  The problem with this definition is that it leaves out two key components, and misleadingly excludes trade and industry engaged in by a state for profit.  I've heard people label state run trade and industry as socialism.  Is that correct?  I don't think so.  Not if we are talking about gaining profit from the labor of people employed by whoever the owner might be, be it a private individual, a corporation, or a state.  The most important part of the definition of capitalism has to do with the exploitation of the labor of one person for the benefit of another person.  That, boys and girls, is the what we mean when we talk about capitalism.  Not some nebulous, vague idea about what we do to earn a living.  That's the first key component missing from the dictionary definition.  The second key part that's missing is the emphasis that the owner controls the means of production.  It's this control that makes it possible to exploit labor for a profit.

So next time I see Dave at the brewery, I'll be sure to ask him if there are private individuals, corporations, or states who control the means of production and who are profiting from the labor of others and see how he answers that question.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

My Saga

Recently, I traveled to San Antonio.  Just a short trip, two days of travel, a flight down and a flight back sandwiching two days in the birthplace of the Republic of Texas.  Even for a short trip like this, I have to decide carefully which books to bring along.  I narrowed the selection down to three books. One to read on the flight down.  One to read while in San Antonio.  And one more to read on the flight back.  But the day before I was to travel, the New York Times Magazine published the first part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Saga.

Reading Knausgaard has become a rite of spring.  For the last three years in late March or early April I’ve been reading the next volume of Knausgaard’s sprawling autobiographical novel, My Struggle.  In a few weeks, the fourth volume will be released in the United States.  It’s already available in England and I’ve been treating myself to reading the reviews about this account of Karl Ove’s sexually frustrated teenage years.

On the airplane to San Antonio I read the first part of My Saga, a work commissioned by the New York Time Magazine were it will be serialized over the coming weeks (months?).  Most of this first part of My Saga is classic Knausgaard, self-effacing, self-indulgent, self-centered... it’s Knausgaard writing about what it’s like to be Knausgaard.  There was one moment (maybe it was because the flight was so bumpy and I thought this might be the last thing I ever read) when I could see why some critics think Knausgaard’s writing is crap (how incredibly dull, I thought, I could write stuff like this).  But just saying that his writing is dull and uninteresting is to miss out on an opportunity.  It’s too easy to dismiss Knausgaard, too easy to say his sentences are flat, that his subject matter is mundane and boring.  To throw out Knausgaard in this fashion would be like kicking a dog in the stomach after it’s already rolled over and put its paws in the air.  Such criticism would be a gratuitous act of cruelty.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

A story of a story of a story...

In my literary travels, I’ve found a few way stations where I can pause, rest, collect provisions, and prepare to continue on.  One of those literary way stations is The Quarterly Conversation edited by Scott Esposito.  I chanced across this online magazine a few years ago when I was searching for information about Enrique Vila-Matas and found the essay, “I am not Auster.”  I decided to write my own essay as a kind of celebration of what I sensed was a new model, a new (for me) way of writing about reading.

I try to resist the temptation to classify things or to apply labels, especially when I’m thinking about writing and what sort of books I like to read.  What I find myself reaching for when I want to read are those texts which seem to defy classification: works by Sebald and Vila-Matas and Chris Kraus for example.  When I read, I am enriched and inspired to write.  Not all readers are inspired to write.  I’d probably find more time for reading if I wrote less, but writing about what I read is a way of immersing myself more deeply into a text.  Writing about reading is an act of devotion, an act of love.  That’s why I don’t think of this sort of writing about reading as criticism.  I don’t write book reviews.  What I write are texts which spring from other texts.  I write stories about stories.

In the virtual pages of The Quarterly Conversation is an essay by J.C Hallman that’s definitely worth reading: “The Story about the Story.”  Words of a kindred spirit.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Marxist theory of brewing

A week or two ago I started reading Marx’s Capital again.  For ten years now, I’ve been picking up my copy of Capital and for a week or two I’ll diligently work my way through those opening chapters until one morning, I wake up and I think, What does all this writing about economic theory have to do with my life?  While economic conditions probably shape every aspect of my life whether I like it or not, all I want to do is read and write novels and make decent beer for people to drink.  (There’s other stuff I like to do also, but you get the idea.)

Like I said, I started reading Capital again and the wheels started turning in my head.  Marx starts off writing about commodities and labor.  The labor theory of value.  That seems pretty straight-forward. Only human labor creates value.  Machine labor doesn’t add value.  But does that mean that machine labor is bad?  No.  Even artisan brewers use pumps and burners to make beer.  Pots and pans can even be considered machines, I suppose.  Which raises a question about tools which require human labor to function and machine which replace human labor.

Alright, you should have an working idea of what sort of things were going through my mind when I started reading Capital again.  In order to give my reading of Capital some shape, some goal, some motive, why don’t I apply the ideas discussed in Capital to the operation of our small brewery?

Given that this is a blog, I’ll proceed in typical blog-fashion and declare a grand project to read Marx (and maybe not just Capital, but I’d like to dip into the Grundrisse) and view Marx’s economic theory through the lens of a small artisan brewery.

Just to start: our brewery appears to be a capitalist enterprise, but it’s too small to compete and we’re not trying to make a profit, we’re just trying to cover the bills.  We joke around and say that our brewery is a worker owned and operated collective, but maybe that’s not such a joke.  It might actually describe what we are.  While we produce a commodity, we don’t think of the beer we make as an instrument for generating profit.  We make beer because we enjoy making it and are proud of what we make.  We really are trying to make the world (our community) a better place to live in.  And to make beer on such a small scale requires lots of human labor.  We can’t rely on mass production to increase our surplus value.

That should get us started.  Feel free to read along.  Grab a growler of craft beer and crack open your copy of Marx.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Irish red

Other Mike confirmed today that our Black Vienna was on at Jimmy’s this past Friday.  What a relief. Of course, Mike pointed out that neither our Black Vienna or our Royal Brown are brewed “to a style” so... or perhaps that’s a non sequitur.

Today we kegged an English-style ale which has New York-grown malt in it.  Not 100% like the New York Saison that we debuted last week during New York City Craft Beer Week, but still we are moving towards making more beer with locally sourced ingredients.

Next up (brewed today) is an Irish red ale which will be ready in time for the annual Rocky Point St Patrick’s Day parade.  Coming up with names is an exercise in free association. Since I’ve been dipping into Ulysses again I immediately thought of Cissy Caffrey’s performance on Sandymount shore.

Friday, February 20, 2015


My intentions to chronicle the unfolding adventure of our brewery (breweries, counting Secret Engine) have been rekindled.  At the brewery today, Other Mike was explaining to us all the events and opportunities and connections…

Turns out one of our beers is the featured beer at Jimmy’s 43 in Manhattan.  We delivered a keg of Royal Brown, but Jimmy just tweeted that he put a keg of Black Vienna on.  I worry that some craft beer drinkers will be enjoying our Royal Brown thinking that it is Black Vienna.

Speaking of tweets, Other Mike explained that Instagram was even more important than Facebook.  How is Instagram different that Twitter? I asked.  Twitter is for writers; Instagram is for everybody else, he said.  Go to know that Twitter is a literary medium.  At least I know which one to prefer.

Still, at Other Mike’s insistence, I created an Instagram account for RPAB: rockypointbeer.

I am becoming more one-dimensional.  As technology demands more and more of me.  Now I must photograph my glass of beer and… what?  instagram it?  Is there a verb for instagramming?  I asked Patrick (he’s 9) what Instagram was all about.  Nothing, he said.   That’s cleared it up.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Unexpected marxist connections

Yesterday, one of the hosts of the Marxism Today Podcast mentioned a blog written by Eugene Hirschfeld called “Marxist Theory of Art”.  They spoke of Hirschfeld’s blog so highly that decided to look it up.  After a bit of digging and reading back through Hirschfeld’s archive, I wondered if I hadn’t found a kindred spirit.  All of the posts in 2014 on “Marxist Theory of Art” had to do with a thoughtful and detailed commentary on the Bible, beginning with the Torah and the Nevi’im.  The final post of 2014 is titled “David and Solomon” and ends with this:

The label of ‘anointed one’ or Messiah, previously a comment on the legitimate succession of the Davidic line to the throne in Judah, now changed its meaning. From an imminent historical event, the coming of the Messiah was put off until a vague time in the future: one day, a leader would appear who would realise the divine mission to create a kingdom of the Israelites. This myth became one of the bedrocks of Judaism. 
The Jews are still waiting for their Messiah. Another world religion thinks he has already come: the myth survived into the Roman age and helped to define Jesus of Nazareth. 

Hirschfeld’s 2014 posts amount to the contents of a short book on biblical commentary and criticism.  (I look forward to reading the whole thing.)

The conclusion (quoted above) connects seamlessly with the direction my own reading has taken of late: reading Daniel Bensaïd and his reference to “weak messianism” in Marxism which led me back to Walter Benjamin, specifically his Theses “On the Concept of History” and then Michael Löwy’s Fire Alarm, a commentary on Benjamin’s Theses.  My reading and study of the idea of the Messiah in the context of Marxism is just beginning.  Also, this path of study has reawakened my interest in a project I started twenty years ago which began in a creative reading of the book of Exodus and an extended series of conversations with a friend of mine who was the priest of the little Episcopal church I attended at the time.  (More on this Exodus project later and how the Christian concept of the Kingdom of God fits with a future communist society.)

The real

Reading some of “Marxist Theory of Art” led me to question the definition of the term “blog.”  Eugene Hirschfeld has used a blogging platform to publish what is essentially a book.  Last year, I started an ambitious project which I called Without Observers.  That project was to be a blog about physics.  The subtitle I chose was “notes on quantum theory and condensed matter.”  I wrote a few posts in February 2014 and then realized that blogging about physics while trying to write novels (I finished writing two novels and a novella last spring) didn’t leave much time for sleep or for coaching a soccer team or for running a small craft brewery.  Something had to go.  So I axed the physics blog.

In October, I began modifying my web site to explicitly include a connection to physics.  My plan was to continue the project I’d started in February 2014, but in a slightly different form, this time Without Observers would be a book, but one written in public and posted online in installments.  The starting point for Without Observers is the life and ideas of physicist David Bohm.  For a time, Bohm was a Marxist (though he later distanced himself from Marx) and Bohm fled from the United States because he was subjected to the investigation of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.  Much of this history is covered in Olival Freire Jr’s article, “Science and exile: David Bohm, the hot times of the Cold War, and his struggle for a new interpretation of quantum mechanics” available on the arXiv.  Bohm’s causal interpretation of quantum mechanics became connected with Marxist thinking (in France, of course), though I don’t see any reason to think that Bohm’s theory has any necessary connection to political theory, Marxist or otherwise.

For my purposes, it is sufficient that both J Robert Oppenheimer and David Bohm (one of Oppenheimer’s students) were connected in some way to pre-World War 2 communist movements and were both familiar with Marxism.  I don’t expect to make any strong claims about these historical associations.  What does interest me is that David Bohm’s ideas about how the world is put together are fundamentally realist and materialist.  Put another way, the universe doesn’t need an observer for it to be real.

Monday, February 09, 2015

The task of the translator

Leon Wieseltier wrote the preface to the two volume collection of essays by Walter Benjamin published by Schocken, Illuminations and Reflections.  My entry point into the works of Walter Benjamin was “The Storyteller”, which appears in the Illuminations volume.  The essay just before that one is called, “The Task of the Translator.”

I didn’t make note of when I first read “The Task of the Translator” but my markings and underlinings are all over the essay in my copy of the book.  Just how much do I remember from that earlier reading?  Some of the essential points must have been absorbed into my thinking.

Most of the books I read are translated books; books that have been rewritten in English by writer other than the original.  Not all books worth reading are translated.  For example, most of the oeuvre of Daniel Bensaïd remains untranslated (into English, at least).  I want to read Bensaïd’s book on Walter Benjamin, Walter Benjamin Sentinelle Messianique.  So I’ll have to read the French original.  Reading itself is an act of translation.  Reading in a “foreign” language only exposes this fact in a palpable way.  (A text in French resists my reading it; it pushes back.  Reading becomes an effort which produces fatigue.)

Taking the time to write down a translation of Bensaïd’s book is a whole order of magnitude more effort than just reading the text.  I’m reminded of something that Benjamin wrote in One-Way Street, selections from which are collected in Reflections: “Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it…” [p. 66]  The text that I would produce from Bensaïd’s original is merely a copy with English words substituted for the French words.

Benjamin insists that a “real translation is transparent; it does not cover the original, does not block its light, but allows the pure language, as though reinforced by its own medium, to shine upon the original more fully.  This may be achieved, above all, by a literal rendering of the syntax which prove words rather than sentences to be the primary element of the translator.  For if the sentence is the wall before the language of the original, literalness is the arcade.” [“The Task of the Translator, Illuminations, p. 79]  (The metaphor that Benjamin employs here is perhaps a key, or the doorway itself, given that arcades served as a principle organizing idea for his masterwork, The Arcades Project.)

Perhaps there is some utility in my translation exercise, of making a literal rendering of Bensaïd’s French original of Walter Benjamin Sentinelle Messianique into English.  The resulting English is peculiar and foreign-sounding.  As a reader of the text, though, I aim at grasping the meaning which drives me (at certain points) to rework a sentence, to transform the stilted literal form into something that sounds like native English.  In a sense, at that point, I’ve scaled the wall of language.

I mentioned Leon Wieseltier to start off this post.  The reason is that I’ve returned again and again to the words of Matthew Kassel in his short piece in the New York Observer which describe Wieseltier’s essay, “Among the Disrupted”, as “seemingly incomprehensible.”  Of course, I realize that when a person cannot come up with a reasoned response to some written text (in time for their deadline), the easiest way of disposing of the text is by disparaging it, by tossing it aside.  But let’s take Kassel at his word and assume that he made an effort to comprehend Wieseltier’s words, but was unable to translate those words into something that he could understand.  This makes me think that Wieseltier’s essay could benefit from translation.

Reading Benjamin’s essay on translation prompted in me a number of thoughts.  One being that even works in English would benefit from translation into English (again).  What does it mean to translate a work already written in English into English again?  The idea here is that because English is not a static language, it’s changing, the meanings of certain words are shifting — an English text written a generation ago might not work for the present generation.  Translation and adaptation are necessary activities if a text is to remain alive.

Critics and commentators, often maligned by the artist, serve an important function in the Republic of Letters.  A critic is a kind of translator, someone who task it is to look at a text and through careful reading reveal the meaning of the text and to write down what that meaning is.  Of course, getting at the meaning of the original isn’t necessarily the highest aim of the translator, but it’s one aspect.  A commentator is perhaps more faithful to the original text inasmuch as he wishes to expand on the original, to make it intelligible by revealing explicitly the multiple intentions of the original.

So, while it might not make sense to translate James Joyce’s Ulysses into English, it does make perfect sense to comment on it, to carefully read each line, each word, and write down another word, or a whole list of words that make explicit the connotations for that generation of readers.  Certainly, my own reading of Ulysses is enriched and deepened through the reading of commentaries, critiques, and annotations.

The original moment of creation, the act that brings a work into existence, might appear to be singular act, but the published work is merely a snapshot, a flash, an instance preserved in some rigid form.  (The rendering of a living growing thing into a rigid commodity.)  The original becomes encased, bound in a straightjacket.  I am drawn to texts where multiple versions are available, to texts that spill beyond the borders of their published, crystalline forms.  How can we tell where the borders are that separate one work from another?

Near the end of Wieseltier’s essay he writes about the digitization and electronic dissemination of texts.  Assuming that these texts will be available to all (not a guaranteed assumption since the capitalist model doesn’t usually involve giving anything away for free without some promise of future profit at the expense of the user) we will need people who are skilled readers, experienced translators, insightful critics, and hard-working commentators, to keep these texts alive.  Preservation of a text in a certain form doesn’t guarantee the life of a text.  Texts must be written and rewritten in each generation.  This is the work of the humanities that Wieseltier is talking about in “Among the Disrupted.”  Our task as translators of our literary life is to get at the substance of a text, to transform it, to restate it.  And that task is an active one, one that requires ongoing labor, the labor of reading and writing and, most importantly, thinking.  Thinking, as Mallarmé says (quoted in Benjamin’s essay, “The Task of the Translator”), is writing, but without the apparatus.  Our writing machines demand from us but one thing: thought.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The beautiful struggle

I haven’t written about soccer in quite a while, not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I didn’t want to just be a “first responder.”  (Have you read Leon Wieseltier’s essay yet?)  Given that I am a net receiver of news about the soccer world, the best I could do is just add my instinctive-Marxist overlay, a peculiar reading of events grounded in localism and a critique of capitalist greed.  What is modern soccer if it’s not a product of the culture industry?  We spectators are being sold an entertainment product.  How can we resist?

Really, I’ve been wanting to write some long form essays on soccer.  Back in December I went through all my notes on soccer from the last three years (“Footnotes”) and assembled them in to a single document.  These notes were supposed to form the basis for three possible books on soccer: (1) a guide to soccer in America, (2) an introduction to the New York Cosmos for the modern fan, and (3) a first hand account of the life and experiences of a youth soccer coach.  Which, if any of these books, need to be written?

Today, both the US men’s and women’s national teams play friendly matches.  I’ll watch both later, after my coaching duties are complete.  My boys team plays an indoor match at one o’clock.  Then we have practice later in the afternoon.  I’ll be ready to settle in for an evening of diversion after that.

My boys team hasn’t been very successful, if you measure success by increments in the win column.  But, as Doctor Pasavento says, there’s value in learning how to lose with dignity.  Losing is more interesting than winning.  For the spectator who is engaged in the struggle, all we ask for is the best effort of the players on the field.  The fan who supports a team that wins doesn’t get to experience the full meaning of being a supporter.

Recently, I read an essay by Tom McCarthy in the London Review of Books where he examines the meaning of the terms reality, realism, and the real in the context of writing fiction.  Something he wrote made me think about the ball in a soccer match.  The players on the pitch are like dancers, the characters in a 90 minute improvised drama.  But what is the ball?  This round object is that which gives meaning and intention to the coordinated movements of the players.  The ball is the real; it’s reality’s proxy in the drama.  The moment at which the ball penetrates(!) the goal is the moment of catharsis, of ecstasy or of anguish.  Remove the ball from the pitch and what are we left with?  Just the dance, the movement of the human body.  Insert the ball and the struggle begins.  That’s when the struggle becomes beautiful.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Brewing up a revolution

The word “drafts” in the title for this blog refers not only to the various versions or revisions of a text, but to a writer / thinker’s favorite pass time: drinking.  The connection between writing and drinking has been well-documented.  Many writers have been as famous for their drinking habits as for what they’ve written (F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway come immediately to mind — and Kerouac of course who managed to kill himself off at the ripe old age of 47 from the complications of over-indulging).

Another enthusiastic drinker was none other than Karl Marx.

As it happened, Marx was no stranger to alehouses either. He was a co-president of the Trier Tavern Club, a society of about thirty university students from his home town whose main ambition was to get drunk as frequently and riotously as possible: it was after one of their revels that young Karl found himself detained for twenty-four hours, though the imprisonment did not prevent his chums from bringing him yet more booze and packs of playing cards to ease his sentence.

This is from the first chapter of Francis Wheen’s Karl Marx: A Life.

Last Saturday, our brewery hosted its Sixth Annual Long Island Nano(brewery) Cask Festival.  It’s a small craft beer festival that feels more like a gathering of friends.  Because our brewery and other nanobreweries are small, we tend not to be in competition with each other.  And most of us brew because we love good beer and want to share that goodness with others.  Our focus is more certainly not on following the capitalist model.  Our small businesses are mostly run like worker-owned cooperatives.

This year we had the fine folks from The Brewer’s Collective at the festival.  Their logo communicates exactly what they are about.  From their table at the festival I took a couple of their stickers and put one on one of my notebooks.  (I have another notebook with a “Read.  Write.   Revolt.” sticker.)

Brewing your own beer is simple and fun.  But it’s even more fun to brew with a friend.  And more fun to brew with nine friends.  Mike and I started brewing together more than ten years ago and we continued to bring more and more of our friends in to lend a hand on brew day.  Everyone would get to take a keg home.  Today, now that we are licensed and selling beer to the public, we make a lot more beer, but we still try to operate in a collective fashion.  Our on-going collaboration with Secret Engine Brewing Company is just one example of how we are trying to build a communal culture.  The lonely capitalist might wish to crush all competition and subjugate and alienate an army of underpaid workers to accomplish that antisocial goal, but not us!  We aren’t capitalists.  We are artists.  We are artisans.  We are the collective.  We’re in this life to do good, to respect our fellows, to make the world a better place.

If you want to be part of the revolution, brew your own beer.  And while you’re at it.  Teach your neighbor to brew.  Brew together.

Friday, February 06, 2015


My friend Johan sent me a copy of Leon Wieseltier’s essay which appeared in the 7 January 2015 New York Times Book Review titled “Among the Disrupted”.  Yesterday morning, I finally got around to opening the attachment.  A ten minute read, it said at the top.  Half-an-hour later I was tempted to fire up the word processor and write an essay of my own.  No, don’t do it, I thought.  Not yet.  Slow down.  Think first, write later.  What’s the hurry?  Why the rush to blog?  I don’t work in a “silent sweatshop” where “words cannot wait for thoughts.”  If I’m going to give my best response to Wieseltier’s essay, then I shouldn’t give my first response.  In the writing life, there is no extra credit for being a first responder.

While I’m sure I’ve seen Leon Wieseltier’s name before — I’ve probably even read some of his work in the past — I’ll admit that his is not a name I carry around in my head, so I had to Google him just to see who it was that I was agreeing with.  Immediately, I discovered that Wieseltier is the former literary editor of The New Republic, a periodical I haven’t thought about in more than ten years.  The “news” was that Wieseltier had recently resigned the editorship he’d held for thirtyish years over “managerial disagreements.”  I suppose I could dig a little deeper and find out what the story is, but I am more interested in the content of Wieseltier’s recent essay, than his recent career moves (though perhaps there is some connection between the two).  Scanning the list of “hits” I saw a link to an article in the New York Observer, a periodical that I used to read regularly, from the 1990s up until about 2005.  It was in the pages of the Observer that I learned about the launch of n+1, which has become my “go-to” journal covering the literary and intellectual scene.  What did the Observer have to say about Wieseltier’s essay?

The piece in the New York Observer is by Matthew Kassel (who?) and bears the provocative title “What was Leon Wieseltier thinking?”.  Kassel describes Wieseltier’s essay as a “seemingly incomprehensible rant against technology.”  Kassel suggests that Wieseltier’s essay is just “the point of view of a bookish old man feeling threatened by the prospect of technological change.”  Scratching my head, I wondered if Kassel and I had read the same essay.

Reading Kassel’s short article I couldn’t help but recall Wieseltier’s words about “journalistic institutions” transformed into “silent sweatshops.”  Perhaps Kassel was writing under a deadline and he just didn’t have time for thought to catch up with his words.  (The poor boy.)

What is valuable about Kassel’s piece is that it reports Mark Grief’s reaction to Wieseltier’s essay — a reaction more nuanced than Kassel’s.  (Mark Grief of a founding and contributing editor at n+1.  Grief’s recently published book, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, is briefly mentioned by Wieseltier in his essay.  And I believe that Wieseltier’s reaction to Grief might be worth deeper consideration.  Perhaps I’ll return to this later, in a future post.)  But more importantly, Kassel’s chirping cynicism shook me out of my quiet confidence.  Had I read Wieseltier’s essay carefully enough?  Did I miss something?  Had I imposed my own peculiar reading on a flawed text?  Kassel found Wieseltier’s essay “seemingly incomprehensible.”  How was it possible then, that it seem so comprehensible to me?  An image of a naked emperor came to mind.

If I’d been led down the primrose path by Wieseltier, I certainly wanted to find out how he’d managed the trick.  Time to roll up the sleeves and dig back into the essay.  Get the hands dirty.  Read it again, I said to myself.  Look for the flaws, the inherent incoherence, the wooly thinking.

I’ve spent the whole morning going through Wieseltier’s essay again and reading the various (first) responses I could find online.  (See for example the “Letters” section of the New York Times.)  What I’ve discovered is that it doesn’t seem like anyone has actually read Wieseltier’s essay.  They might have looked at the words, but have then really read them?  To read with a view to understand?  Reading these responses leaves me with the impression that the essay was just an excuse for the first-responder to say whatever they felt like saying whether it had any relevance to Wieseltier’s thesis or not.  The critics appear to have willingly reached for the wrong end of the stick.  Even the people who supported Wieseltier’s words appeared to defend him because his thesis resonated with a pet view of their own.  The exchanges I saw on Twitter were truly incomprehensible.  But perhaps that is because I too am a bookish old man who feels threatened by the prospect of technological change.

Alright.  What have I (we?) learned from this rereading and the wider reading of the first-responders?  I’ve said nothing about the content of Wieseltier’s essay.  If we are going to dig more deeply, then we must engage in a little, old fashioned commentary.  Are you up for that?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

New York local

While I read that many were underwhelmed by Juno, the blizzard of 2015, its leavings occupied my attention for most of yesterday.  Our house must be the point where all the snow in the neighborhood collects.

Having shoveled out yesterday, this morning, I woke early and went down to the brewery, crunching through the foot-thick layer of white till my feet were numb with cold.  Mike and Other Mike were already hard at work on our new New York Saison, a beer brewed from locally grown and sourced ingredients.  Everything in this beer is 100% New York.

While the Mikes worked on that, I busied myself with kegging Sixty-Seven, a Saison Brune, which Secret Engine will be releasing in craft beer establishments across Brooklyn and Manhattan.  The beer is named after the address where Mike Mare developed the recipe.

Coming up this weekend is our annual (fifth? sixth?) Long Island Nano Cask Fest.  We will start pouring at 1 pm.  “Nano” here refers to nanobrewery.  We are trying to limit participation in this festival to true Long Island nanobreweries and there’s quite a few now.  Given the number of breweries we are able to be more selective this year and hopefully in years to come there will be some kind of friendly, but heated competition to get a beer selected for inclusion in this small festival.

Our focus has always been on the small and the local.  Which is why we are trying to brew with mostly New York grown and sourced ingredients.  Still, the economic incentive is small since locally grown grain and hops are way more expensive than the industrially produced variety.  You could say that we are subsidizing these all-local beers (taking a loss), but our collective brewing project isn’t (and never has been) a capitalist venture.  People and the joy of living are more important than any amount of money.

We hope you are able to join us this Saturday for a wonderful little festival.  Details are on our web site.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Löwy on Bensaïd

A few months ago I started reading Daniel Bensaïd’s memoir, An Impatient Life.  Rasan recommended the book and teased me by pointing out that Bensaïd makes reference to Éric Rohmer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguarite Duras, Marcel Proust (of course), and many other figures.

Excited to be adding to my knowledge of the modern French Left, I started reading An Impatient Life but I really struggled to find some kind of handhold.  This is not a beginner text for someone curious about radical politics in twentieth century France.  Instead, it’s an account for those who already know the history well, but desire to take stock, or reassess the path of the journey.  Rasan kept telling me to stick with it and I would soon get to parts of the book that I could sink my teeth into.

I changed my approach to the book.  I read it like a novel.  That was good for another couple of chapters.  Rasan, who was by now hundreds of pages ahead of me, told me about Bensaïd’s view of Walter Benjamin and that led us both to Michael Löwy’s Fire Alarm, a talmudic-style commentary on Walter Benjamin’s Theses “On the Concept of History”.  Reading and discussing Fire Alarm has preoccupied Rasan and me for the last couple of weeks.

Last night, I was looking for a copy of Bensaïd’s Walter Benjamin, sentinelle messianique: À la gauche du possible.  I don’t think it’s been translated into English, so I’ve ordered the French original (which shipped today).  During my search, I turned up a few interesting articles on Bensaïd including the obituary that Michael Löwy wrote for Against the Current.  The short article is worth reading and provides an essential overview of Bensaïd’s intellectual career.  Near the conclusion Löwy writes:
Among all of Bensaïd’s contributions to the renewal of Marxism, the most important, in my eyes, is his radical break with the positivist, determinist and fatalist ideology of inevitable Progress that so heavily weighed on “orthodox” Marxism, particularly in France. His re-reading of Marx, with the help of the 19th-century revolutionary Auguste Blanqui and 20th-century philosopher Walter Benjamin, led him to understand history as a series of crossroads and bifurcations; a field of possibilities whose issue is unpredictable. Class struggle is central in the historical process, but its result is uncertain, and implies a part of contingency.

Of course, this contingency is a central message in Löwy’s Fire Alarm and his reading of Benjamin’s Theses.  The future utopia, the Kingdom of God, is not guaranteed or inevitable.  Marxists and people of faith (Christians, Jews, and Muslims) should not sit around and wait for the intervention of History or God to bring about the Kingdom.  If there is to be a Second Coming, then it’s up to us to make it happen.
The revolutionary is therefore a human being who doubts, an individual who puts an absolute energy at the service of relative certainties — in other terms, someone who tries, obstinately, to practice that imperative requirement called for by Walter Benjamin in his last writing, the Theses “On the concept of history” (1940): to brush history against the grain.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Angel of History

Walter Benjamin’s vision of the Angel of History was inspired by a painting by Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus.”

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

This quotation is from Thesis IX in Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” (the full text is available on various web sites).

While researching Cy Twombly's Treatise on the Veil (Second Version) I chanced across a quotation from Paul Klee which I used as the title for my first “scribble drawing”: Writing and drawing are fundamentally the same.

Through Twombly, I made the connection between my writing / drawing act, Klee’s angel, and Benjamin’s vision of history.

For my first drawing I made use of only charcoal black.  Because Klee’s angel painting is color, I decided to experiment with a few of my colored pencils.  Yellow did not produce the desired effect.  At the end of the drawing process I still felt like I needed some charcoal black to lend a degree of seriousness to the painting that a fully colored rendering seemed to lack.

Obviously, Klee wasn’t thinking about Benjamin’s vision of the Angel of History, so my drawing expresses an expanded context and possibly an explicit rendering of the storm of progress in the form of the charcoal black that seems to hover above each of the angel’s wings.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Writing & drawing

On Saturday, I went by the Morgan Library to see Cy Twombly’s Treatise on the Veil (Second Version), together with twelve of his “drawings” which are related to the Treatise.

Cy Twombly’s work has stuck (like gum on the bottom of my shoe, I keep noticing it) with me ever since I saw The Italians at MoMA back in 2001.  For more than ten years (off and on) I’ve written about Twombly’s drawings and paintings — not in the way that an art critic would write about art, but the way a man with a piece of food stuck between his teeth tries to dislodge the speck of food with his tongue (but it won’t dislodge).

I spent about 45 minutes at the Morgan Library with Twombly’s Treatise on the Veil (Second Version) and took down several pages of notes which I plan on expanding in the coming days for a writing project I started (restarted?) last month.

Today, I was reading Richard Leeman’s book on Cy Twombly and found a quote by Paul Klee:

Writing and drawing are fundamentally the same.

I heard that said about handwriting (something I do regularly, into bound notebooks, onto lined paper with an ink pen), but Paul Klee’s statement could be understood more broadly.  I’m a writer; therefore, I am a drawer.  I decided to test the hypothesis.

In the space about fifteen minutes I made three drawings inspired by Twombly’s scribble phase and by Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus.

Patrick asked me what I was doing:  Pop, why are you scribbling into a notebook with your eyes closed?

Good question.

As I justified my experiment, the thought came to me that this is actually an interesting project: to draw in this way and to record my thoughts along the way.  I took a photograph of the first drawing.

I’d read that in the 1950s when Twombly was in the Army, he would draw at night, in the dark, so that he couldn’t see what he was doing.  So the eye was useless to him.  The drawing was the function of the hand.  To make this drawing, I closed my eyes and used my right hand.  I opened my eyes a few times just to check my progress.  Then stopped when I thought the drawing was done.

The whole process took just under a minute.  I realized immediately that I could fill an entire notebook with such scribbling in an afternoon.  Good or bad?  (Art in the age of mechanical reproduction?)  Will it be necessary to impose limits on my production of such drawings?

Patrick had a good question.  Pop, why is that when you draw in your notebook it looks like a five year old did it, but they hang Cy Twombly’s scribble-drawings in a museum?

Good question.

This is just the beginning of that inquiry.