Here’s an essential new book by Greil Marcus, our best writer and social critic on Rock, Blues and early American music. The premise is 10 Rock songs as a way to approach the intertwined history of Rock music. He has an uncanny knack of taking a knife and opening up the heart of songs, putting you inside the music, making you wish for a compilation of the songs he illuminates. The choices are not what you’d expect – some are very obscure – leaving you wishing you had his ears and knowledge to “read” the music. Here’s an interview.
A classic, eclectic anthology on the major world religions is available now from Norton. The book includes some 4,200 pages of texts spanning roughly 3,500 years. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are presented “in their own words,” followed by critical responses, dissents, appreciations, commentaries, poems, songs, broadsides, in short a wide range of material that offers a reader one of the broadest, most comprehensive views possible of humanity’s search for the meaning of life. The overall editor, Jack Miles, discusses the book here.
The Spectator has an article here about James, his serious health problems, and the books he hopes to finish: “This month there is a new book of writing on poetry, Poetry Notebook. He still hopes to live to see a new Collected Poems out next year, perhaps finish a final volume of memoirs and write a sequel to his immense 2007 work Cultural Amnesia.”
The Sinosphere blog of The New York Times has published an interview with Bill Porter, who also publishes translations of Chinese texts under the pseudonym of Red Pine, upon the release of his Yellow River Odyssey, a travel journal written just prior to China’s emergence into the modern world. His extensive photographs of the trip capture a China that has largely disappeared. Many of Red Pine’s books are now bestsellers in China, after being translated from English into Chinese, including his translations and commentaries on Buddhist poems and sutras. The interview is by China correspondent Ian Johnson, and can be read here.
Yellow River Odyssey is published by Chin Music Press.
I’ve still not let go of reading and rereading new and old essays of Vidal. He’s fearsomely prescient and usually right in interpreting US history and forecasting where the world is heading, in some cases fully 40-50 years before recent events and popular opinion confirmed and caught up with him. Here he is in the essay “The Day the Amercan Empire Ran Out of Gas (1986)” from Imperial America: Reflections on the United States of Amnesia (2004).
“When Confucius was asked what would be the first thing he would do if he were asked to lead the state – a never-to-be-fulfilled dream – he said, ‘Rectify the language.’ This is wise. This is subtle. As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: You liberate a city by destroying it. Words are used to confuse so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their interests. Finally, words must be so twisted as to justify an empire that has now ceased to exist, much less make sense. Is rectification of our system possible for us? Henry Adams thought not. In 1910, he wrote: ‘The whole fabric of society will go to wrack if we really lay hands of reform on our rotten institutions.’ Then he added: ‘The whole system is a fraud, all of us know it, labourers and capitalists alike, and all of us are consenting parties to it.’”
Is it really too late to right the system more towards the people rather than the oligarchical class? I hope not, but certainly effort is all and it could make a difference as it has throughout America’s history. US history is nothing if not a sustained attempt by hardy souls to come closer to a more egalitarian, just society not controlled by an elite, wealthy oligarchical class. A wise Jewish saying from The Sayings of the Fathers, a compilation of the ethical teachings and maxims of the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period, offers sage advice:
“It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” – Rabbi Tarfon, Pirke Avot 2:21.
Ruben Habito, my Zen teacher for many years, who will always be a core presence in my life, continues on his path, bringing Zen to Texas, writing his many books on Zen, and opening himself and his zendo to teaching anyone who seeks a way into Zen practice or a way to experience their own religion more intimately. Over the years, his students have been agnostics, Jews, Christians, and members of other faiths, all seeking to experience life more deeply and simply. This interview, which appeared in Tricycle, is typical of Ruben, gently building bridges that can lead Christians and others into Zen practice, pointing to the connections that bind us all to each thing. I wrote a chapter on Ruben in my travel/memoir, which is sitting silently now unable to find an agent or publisher. If for no other reason, I would like the book to be published if only to spread the word about Ruben’s unique life, profound understanding of people, and his unwavering commitment to compassion. As more years pass without seeing him, I miss him more and more while at the same time feeling his presence grow even deeper.
I found a clean copy of a Modern Library edition of The Complete Works of Tacitus at the Lost Bookstore, picked it up, and put it on top of Gore Vidal’s last three essay collections. In his snappy, trenchant prose, Vidal tells us how the US methodically cast itself as savior and circus-master of the world, while neatly positioning itself to dominate the world economy and thereby emerge as an empire far surpassing Rome but sharing many of the same traits. Our empire truly began in 1949 with the end of WWII. Unfortunately, our course has led to a state of perpetual war, overt and covert, around the world and weakened us morally and economically.
Vidal, citing stats from the American Federation of Scientists, lists more than 200 overt or covert military operations around the world from 1949 until the 2000s, and we’re still at it. The number of US military bases in foreign lands stands somewhere around 730. And now the US and China are in danger of reheating the Cold War.
Empire translates to control of resources in order to sustain itself: read oil, gas, key minerals, water, basic food sources, etc. The thought-processes involved in creating an empire can be benign and enlightened (bringing better days to some client states) but also entail darker deeds (reversing or thwarting the legitimate will of a client state) which build up the very things that lead to an empire’s collapse. The myth sustains the doing, but the darker deeds belie the myth and lead to dysfunction when the citizenry tires, sees through the myth and set out for themselves to go their own way, or to try to change the system through legitimate or illegitimate means.
What I like about Vidal is his Man of Letters approach. His essay collections, spanning 60 years, focus on literature, people, history and politics. He is America’s truest popular historian, constantly debunking myths and pretensions. His historical fiction chronicles key decades and figures in American history. The most bracing wit since Oscar Wilde, his ice-like prose glides over the surface of key events and figures, throwing off dazzling phrases and insights that light up serious, core issues.
On the issue of empire, even deeper and more rigorous – but equally clear and compelling – is the work of Chalmers Johnson of the University of California at San Diego, whose final books in the 2000s established the case for an American foreign policy which has been based too often on means that would not be countenanced by the American people: political assassinations, derailing liberal movements in foreign countries, supporting brutal regimes and on and on…the approach has been patriarchal and condescending, assuming we know better than the people themselves in foreign countries. Doing less would have saved the US from many disgraceful acts and led to more respect in the world, but that has not been the way of the US in this century or the last.
“Summarizing the series in “Dismantling the Empire,” Dr. Johnson said that “blowback” means more than a negative, sometimes violent reaction to United States policy. “It refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public,” he wrote.
“This means that when the retaliation comes, as it did so spectacularly on Sept. 11, 2001, the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback.”
“To maintain its empire, he said, the United States “will inevitably undercut domestic democracy.”
In a review of “The Sorrows of Empire” in The New York Times, Ronald Asmus, a deputy assistant secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, wrote that the book was “a cry from the heart of an intelligent person who fears that the basic values of our republic are in danger.” He added that it “conveys a sense of impending doom rooted in a belief that the United States has entered a perpetual state of war that will drain our economy and destroy our constitutional freedoms.”
Here are the last books each for Johnson and Vidal, which taken together spell out how the US sank to the current pitiful state of affairs, and, by implication, point to the way out – how things can be reversed and the people can regain control of the political system, taking it away from the wishes of the few – corporate America and secret bureaucracies – who are accountable only to lax, Congressional overseers who essentially ignore the values and conscience of the American people.
Now, I’m ready to return to Tacitus, who, in telling us how the Roman Empire fell, tells our own story. Character and conscience are all. I’ll give Vidal the last word:
“Those Americans who refuse to plunge blindly into the maelstrom of European and Asiatic politics are not defeatist or neurotic,” he wrote. “They are giving evidence of sanity, not cowardice, of adult thinking as distinguished from infantilism. They intend to preserve and defend the Republic. America is not to be Rome or Britain. It is to be America.”