James Fenton’s Paean to Mexico

Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton, Martin Amis, Paris 1979

Christopher Hitchens, James Fenton, Martin Amis, Paris 1979

Here is a beautiful prose poem by James Fenton on Mexico that celebrates attention to place, while also offering a primer on how to ignite creativity – always a solitary exercise. A friend reminds me of the story of Fenton riding on the top of a North Vietnamese army tank that breached the gates of the Presidential Palace during the fall of Saigon in 1975. Has any great poet had such a  send-off story to mark the eve of their career? His experience in Vietnam and Cambodia from summer 1973 form sections of All the Wrong Places (1988), a collection of essays.

Ajahn Chah On Meditation



When sitting in meditation, say, “That’s not my business” with every thought that appears. – From No Ajahn Chah

David Carr: RIP




David Carr, 58,  died on the job at The New York Times on Thursday. He was one of the great ones: no pretence, accurate, compassionate, humble. He knew his job as a journalist was not to be part of the story, but to serve the story through facts, from which a truth might be born in and of itself, or as part of a larger story pieced together from multiple sources. I haven’t read his autobiography, The Night of the Gun, which chronicled his drug addiction during the 1980s, but I’m sure it’s him, and it’s good. Here’s a link to media bistro with Carr talking about his first big break in journalism. Also see the other videos featuring Carr at this site.

A Manifesto For The Future

imagesThe former critic of the old New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, has written a beautify essay in the current New York Book Review. It’s a cogent assessment of the force of technology on culture and the human soul. More significantly, it’s a prescription for a response and a plea for understanding, patience and perseverance, and most importantly a continued allegiance to humanism, which offers the only hope to counteract the negative implications of a neutral technology that’s open to misuse (think calls to perpetuate physical violence). I was optimistic, looking at the long view, after I read this. Wieseltier, who I talked with briefly one day in Larry McMurtry’s bookstore in Archer City, Texas, (I told him how much I admired his New Republic work; reply: “Thanks…you’re too kind,”) wrote an enduring masterpiece, Kaddish, which sprang from the death of his father in the 60s. Among other things, it’s a plea for reading and continued study, a searching out for a way to lead a sustained, rich, meaningful life. He continues to offer a way through troubled times. Take your time reading this. It will steady troubled and despairing souls.

Here’s the essay.


Robert Stone Dies; Our moral Existentialist

imagesTo: The Committee of Responsibility

The first sentences in Dog Soldiers:

“There was only one bench in the shade and Converse went for it, although it was already occupied. He inspected the surface for unpleasant substances, found none, and sat down. Beside him he placed the oversize briefcase he’d been carrying; it’s handle shone with the sweat of his palm. He sat facing Tu Do Street, resting one hand across the case and raising the other to check the progress of his fever. It was Converse’s nature to worry about his health.”

Robert Stone, the award-winning novelist known for “A Flag for Sunrise” and “Dog Soldiers,” has died. He was 77. Stone’s literary agent said Stone died Saturday at his home in Key West, Florida. The cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

More Bedside Books

41JmQXC9CuL._UY250_Thomas McGuane has never received anything less than the highest praise as a novelist, short story writer and essayist. I’ve read him since his first novel, picked up at a remainder bin. For me, his essays shine brightest. With an essay, you can’t leave the writer’s side. In a novel or story, you trail along with the characters with an ear cocked for the pyrotechnics of the writer’s voice. The essays spotlight McGuane’s unique voice, his sensibility, in a way fiction cannot allow. A Sporting Chance, his first collection, and his other nonfiction books The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing and Some Horses are examples of the most personal art. My hand reaches out for them often.

 An essay in Some Horses, titled On The Road Again, takes on one of the most anti-intuitive subjects imaginable for a first-class writer who has been called an heir to Hemingway. The topic? A long drive with his wife in a pickup truck, pulling a just-bought 38-foot horse trailer with special built-in, mini-living quarters, around a great circle of the West. In this quintessential American home-on-wheels, christened a “Horseabago,” he writes, “We simply pictured ourselves at one end, and Delta, Sassy, Zip and Lena, in the other, and wheels underneath.” After a few pages, you’re assured of his mastery to take on this tale, and carry it to sublime heights. His sensibility, or whatever it is that frees words to rise above themselves into something approximating quotidian reality, is on full display.

UnknownA Girl In Winter is British poet Philip Larkin’s second novel. The book is the story of a 16-year-old European girl, her country is never named, who is prematurely mature and intellectual. She accepts an invitation to visit a young English boy and his family. She falls in love with the boy, but they lose touch. Six years later, she returns to Britain as a war refugee.

 It’s a remarkable psychological portrait, in the vein of Larkin’s poetry, which is nihilistic, in almost stoic celebration of the ordinary, unexceptional, ultimately disappointing bits that give life its bitter taste.

 What’s most interesting to me is Larkin’s very deep minutia describing the meeting of Katherine and Robin, in which he uses the sort of details that belie someone – meaning Larkin – who runs away from life, from the desire to understand others’ in hope to better understand themselves. Larkin’s austere poetry, even in its most gorgeous sensibility, keeps life at bay, at a safe distance that cannot disappoint, while this novel shows Katherine as a person who is probing and open to understanding, or trying to understand, the complexities of other souls. That she and Robin are ultimately unable to capture any of the romantic shavings that surround all lives, even if ungrasped, is all the more tragic. Larkin’s poems couldn’t display such depth of tragedy because he wrapped them in a polished shell of art, singular gems that, no matter their content, bespoke excellence even in the face of tragedy. The novel shows whereof the poems arose.

UnknownBangkok Days by Lawrence Osborne is the best novel about Bangkok ever written. But, for clarification, it’s written and marketed as a nonfiction account of the author’s life in the city. The book reeks of novelization with the first-person author surrounded by a cast of fiction-like foils (and at least one real person) who capture the spirit and ambiance of the most sensuous, textured, layered city in the world.

 Osborn, the author of the recent Ballad of a Small Player, which is set in the casinos of Macau, excels at romantic, slightly desperate characters and settings full of people who recognize each other for their individual élan in the face of life’s fragility. They are people who are unwilling to give up the fight for life and feeling. That such people in unusual numbers are drawn to Bangkok is no accident. Osborn’s tale of living in Bangkok displays a colorful subset of people of the city who refuse to forsake the quixotic in return for sleek, cosmetic urban wallpaper. The book serves equally well as a novel or one man’s guide to Bangkok, suggesting how to absorb and live within its refreshing disparities.

The Buddhist Conquest of China: The Spread and Early Adaptation of Buddhism in Early Medieval China by E. Zurcher.

 This work of high scholarship looks at the social and cultural factors that led to the eventual adoption of Buddhist principles and practice in Chinese culture. It brilliantly captures the chaotic nature of how Buddhist principles were scattered piecemeal over two centuries by Buddhist monks and lay parties that included foreigners, the Chinese gentry, the court, and the intelligentsia. The beauty is the thousands of details it shares about monks and others from late 300AD through the fourth century. It was a perilous time of ferment, and it would be 200 years, in the Tang Dynasty, before Buddhism took on a more recognisable, coherent form eventually leading to the distinct Chinese Buddhist doctrine that we know today. It underscores the cultural fragmentation and difficulties a foreign doctrine of religion has in finding a place in a totally separate and distinct culture, with a different language and already established theories of religion, cosmology and metaphysics. Not surprisingly, the difficulty of transplanting a “foreign” religion, even one with obvious parallels in Chinese religious writings, is manifest throughout this work. It helps put in context the subsequent official elimination of Buddhist temples and practice in revolutionary China, when viewed from the rocky path that Buddhism walked in medieval times.

 For a PDF copy of Zurcher’s book, go here.

Wittgenstein’s riddle of life



The magnificent ending of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico Philosophicus:

…The solution of the riddle of life in space

and time lies outside space and time.

(It is not problems of natural science which have to be


6.432 How the world is, is completely indifferent for what is higher.

God does not reveal himself in the world.

6.4321 The facts all belong only to the task and not to its performance.

6.44 Not how the world is, is the mystical, but that it is.

6.45 The contemplation of the world sub specie aeterni is its contemplation

as a limited whole.

The feeling of the world as a limited whole is the mystical


6.5 For an answer which cannot be expressed the question too cannot

be expressed.

The riddle does not exist.

If a question can be put at all, then it can also be answered.

6.51 Scepticism is not irrefutable, but palpably senseless, if it would

doubt where a question cannot be asked.

For doubt can only exist where there is a question; a question

only where there is an answer, and this only where something

can be said.

6.52 We feel that even if all possible scientific questions are answered,

the problems of life have still not been touched at all. Of course

there is then no question left, and just this is the answer.

6.521 The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of

this problem.

(Is not this the reason why men to whom after long doubting the sense

of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?)

6.522 There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the


6.53 The right method of philosophy would be this. To say nothing

except what can be said, i.e. the propositions of natural science,

i.e. something that has nothing to do with philosophy: and then

always, when someone else wished to say something metaphysical,

to demonstrate to him that he had given no meaning to

certain signs in his propositions. This method would be unsatisfying

to the other—he would not have the feeling that we

were teaching him philosophy—but it would be the only strictly

correct method.

6.54 My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands

me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out

through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw

away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)

He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world


7 Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.


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