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

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?