Magic Spell

I think you might know the story of the fox who lost his tail in the trap and who told all the other foxes how wonderful and stylish it was to be tail-free, until the old wise fox announced the fable’s moral — misery loves company?  I grew up on Rugby Road, I was satisfied with my mother’s roast chicken, with flirting with the little girl next door, with my father’s books, my grandmother’s piano, the profession they raised me to.  I should never have read the book on magic.  I should have never have looked in the City for someone who could explain the book on magic to me.  And I most shouldn’t have never ever have read the Magic Spell.

What the Magic Spell promised was precisely and precisely the opposite of what it delivered.  What it promised was a portal to new experiences and a life totally different from my mother’s chicken, my father’s books, the profession I was raised to, the flirting girl next door with the red-hair.  It was called The Never Satisfied Spell and you just had to say the words at night with no one listening to you, that was all.  I mean you did not have to wink with one eye or reflect the new moon in a bowl of silver or wear only white.  Just say the words.   And it would send you through a world to completely new experiences.  And it was from the grimoire of a genuine wizard, Isaac De Carlo who lived in Acco and sold ginger, five centuries ago.

I said it.  Rugby Road looked like a dull street in an outer borough of New York City.  My mother’s chicken was dry and she did not know how to use oregano.  The profession, the books, the little girl, let’s just say in all three I could do Better.

I took the subway train to Better and never looked back until I did.  Because the Never Satisfied spell, needless to say worked best and most upon itself.  What was so terribly satisfying about never being satisfied?

Lingering in the doorway of the New World of Magic I looked for the counter-spell which when I said it would cause me to wake up and look with normal eyes on the books, the chicken, Rugby Road and the girl next door who flirted and had red hair.  It was, don’t you know, the same solution as the fox had in the fable.  If I could get others to say the spell until everybody said it just as I had I would be back where I started.  I would have walked through the ultimate new door and gotten back to my little Rugby Road.  But everybody would live there — and if everybody lives in your house or at most down the street, who would need to take the subway to the City?  The City would be in your own living room — maybe built out of blocks but capable of overwhelming you all the same.

Here it is:

Tiffy taffy

Spiffy spuffy

Shumma dumma







“What Are We Going to Do with the People Who are Not as Smart as We Are?”

Sometimes I hang around with scientists who are much smarter than most people.  One of them recently told me that he had figured out that nothing was good or bad and the universe was just a meaningless play of forces, but that he still chose to be nice to people.  I was scared.  “What will we do with all the people who are not as smart as we are?” I asked.  “Surely when they find out nothing is good or bad they will come and hurt us, and blind us, and make us circus animals in their traveling shows.”  “Don’t worry.” he assured me.  “We will lie to them and tell them some things are good and some things are bad, and not killing us is in the former character, and torturing us and turning us into human chickens like in Freaks is in the latter.”

Sometimes I hang around with unselfish people.  “What should we do about the people who are not as good as we are?”  I said.  “Fight them.” they said.  “Love who they are but fight them, until there is nobody left who is not good.”

My smart friends thought my unselfish friends were stupid and my unselfish friends thought my smart friends were bad.  I was hoping to get my smart and good friends together to work it out.  It was just hard to make the schedule work.

Truth be told my heart wasn’t in it.  I was having some problems at home.  My family, for reasons I don’t want to get into on a public blog, had decided they didn’t like me so much any more  Also my illness had flared up and I was afraid — that my skin — but you don’t need to know about that either, and to make things worse the discomfort of the illness had me fearful and I couldn’t tell if I was afraid of the skin thing cause the medicine made me or cause it was scary.    Also my job, which is a little uncertain always had taken a turn for the worse — they wanted something slightly different than I was able to provide and they found somebody who could do what I was best at doing but better — but I don’t think that cause an employer might read this blog and I am very good at the thing I do.  Very good.  The best.

I started to draft a letter begging for help.  First I thought I would send it to my smart friends.    I read it over and the request for help was not smart.  It was stupid.  I thought I would send it then to my unselfish friends but I read it over and it was the most selfish thing on Earth.

I realized both my friends had been polite.  When my smart friend had said “We smart people” when my unselfish friend said “We unselfish people” they were including me in “we” by courtesy.  Where I belonged was somewhere else.  I was one of the people not as smart as us to be lied to.  I was one of those people not as good as us to be fought.

I took a bus down town trying to get my thoughts in order — maybe also my life.  At the moment I fell asleep and missed my stop I was thinking “How can I convince all of you who are smarter and better than me to stop lying to me, stop fighting me, and help a brother out?  Do I have to be so sweet and innocent and darling that they all take pity on me and love me and take care of me, all the smart ones and great ones and good ones and rich ones and my family and the lady who does the bills at the HMO?”

“Wake up you pathetic character.” said the bus driver finally.  “If you’re too sweet they will eat you up.  If you’re too bitter they will spit you out.”


Some Basic Story Ideas

The Foundling Who Turned Out to Be King

Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl

The Evil Father Who Tried to Kill His Son But the Son Escaped and Came Back to Kill Him

The Detective Who Solved the Crime

The Clever Tailor Who Convinced People He Was a Hero

The Guys Who Teamed Up to Get a Treasure and then Turned on Each Other

The Brothers Who Sold Their Brother Into Slavery and He Became King


Fantasies of Times, Places, and People

I used to have fantasies of other times.   For example, I used to read Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music”.  In it the German philosopher describes archaic Greece as a dawn time or morning world when people had a unified culture and where they understood the metaphysical role of tragic art in transmuting existence.  Later in my life I had fantasies about the Brooklyn of my father’s boyhood (the 1930s) and imagined there was an informal toughness informing the deeds of men, and an unrefined poetry to the life of the streets of New York’s youth.   When I was a (nearly) orthodox Jew I imagined in the past the lures of an overly cognitive engagement with reality had not caused human beings to fall into self-made prisons of narcissistic thought.   In that time — when was it exactly?  the Chassidic communities of the nineteenth century?  the middle ages in Safed?  Roman Palestine? biblical Judaea? — man did not need to think but dwelled in un-self-conscious dialogue with the absolute.

I had fantasies of other times and places when power, and unselfconsciousness, and spontaneity and honest emotion reigned.

Sometimes I had fantasies of other people too:  a Hindu mystic, a girlfriend, a teacher, a rabbi.  I imagined they were better, more authentic, purer, more in touch with their mojo, more rhythmic, more musical, less neurotic.

All these fantasies as it turned out were complete bullshit.  Let’s start with Nietzsche’s archaic Athens.   Archaic Athens was a society riven by class warfare, where manipulative cliques lied about what they were doing, ripped each other off and used religion mythology and art as weapons for social control.  The New York of my father’s youth was as neurotic as the New York of my youth.  Roman Palestine was a time when a society reeled under post-traumatic stress; the Judaea of the Bible an ancient kingdom as full of bloodshed and petty politics as any other.

Yet if I was able to fantasize about spontaneity, grace, emotional depth, informality, earthiness, beauty, primal mystery and honest human relationships I must have had them somewhere.  Somewhere inside me they lived as an unacknowledged fragment.  I was unable to pay the price in self-knowledge for these goodies so I saw them in magic places, magic times, and magic people.

The only magic is here.   For me that’s the best place for it, because it’s where I’m typing this.  As for other people I can do worse than quote my Grandma Do, who whatever her faults, never asked anybody else to save her.  “All the world’s queer save thee and me.  And sometimes even thou art a little queer.”

God knows whom Grandma Do was quoting.  She was born in 1894 (in Staten Island) but lived most of her 101 years in Brooklyn, playing bridge, and a thunderous piano.

literary theory, philosophy

What’s the Point of Telling Stories? Bad Fiction, Good Fiction, Lies Holy and Unholy

If you tell a story to convince people something is true then the point is to get people to believe whatever you are telling them.  If the story is not true and you know it, then you are lying.  If you don’t care about the truth of the story but are telling it anyway in order to get people to believe it you are engaging in what Harry Frankfort calls “bullsh***” — talk without caring about the truth value of what you are communicating.  If you think it’s true but it’s not you are spreading untruth.  Your moral culpability depends upon how hard you work in general to make sure that what you tell is true.  If you are equally likely to tell false stories that make your political or religious party look bad as ones that make it look good then you seem fine; if it turns out to slant in the direction of your political interests you have something to answer for.

Plato advocated the “pia fraus” or holy lie in order to keep his ideal republic going.  In his set-up, a few morally righteous people — The Guardians — know that their society’s castes are a human invention, but they tell a lie in order to get the lower classes to play along.  Lies that claimed to be pious ran rampant in the ancient world.  Every empire and indeed every city state had a fake tale about how it was founded by divine beings.  The pia fraus might be a good idea but impractical for several reasons.  One is that in our current pluralistic, wired globe people are more likely to be able to see through the noble lies.    This can have the opposite of the intended effect: once the sheep know the shepherd is willing to lie for their own good, they will be less likely to believe their shepherds.  Another problem is that in real life it places a huge temptation in the hands of the lying elite to misuse their power.  For an interesting discussion of a contemporary example of  the pia fraus see “Changing the Immutable: How Orthodox Judaism Rewrites Its History”.

This all applies to stories whose point is to convince people to believe things.   What about a story that is not intended to get people to believe things?  When we listen to a story (or watch a movie or play a video game) we engage some of the faculties of our soul that are engaged in real life, but our rational faculties know that they are engaged with something that is not true.  It is a bit like dreaming.  It is a rare person who eats the pillow while dreaming believing it is a marshmallow.  It is a rare person who actually falls in love with Sherlock Holmes and moves to London hoping to marry him.

When it’s working well this kind of dry run can help build up our capabilities.  We can see if we solve the puzzle before Sherlock Holmes does or if we recognize the self-deception of Emma before she does.  We can practice our wisdom or our cleverness or our courage without dealing with the consequences, or rather without feeling the full consequences.  We can actually feel shame if we sympathize with a character’s poor behavior or rationalization for example, but the shame doesn’t hurt as much as the shame we feel for misbehaving or rationalizing in real life.

At its best fiction can challenge our redoubtable capacity for self-deception.  The cunning writer can play to our hopes and fears, teach us how those hopes and fears lead us to selfish behavior, and trick us into identifying with a character who ultimately is flawed. This can teach us to watch ourselves more carefully, and to pay attention to life.  At its best fiction can also enlarge our perspective and teach us that everybody has his story, and that these stories fit together into an intricate web of cause and effect, self-justification and blame, narrowing and expanding of perspective that is beyond anybody’s ability to see in real life, unfolding as quickly as real life does.  At its worst of course it can encourage our wish to dwell in a world of egocentric fantasy, where the little guy always gets the girl, and the moral hero proves he has the right stuff by wasting those who dared disrespect him in a hail of bullets.

There is also a deeper sense in which collections of stories can be part of the founding of a certain mode of experience — call it a culture in the sense in which a code of laws may found a city..  In this sense certain archetypes, and patterns of significance may be set up within which human beings cultivate themselves.  This is rooted in a fundamental aspect of all talk which is that it makes a decision about what is worth paying attention to.  The storyteller in the deepest sense is making it that these sort of things are to be paid attention to and worth caring about.


What’s Wrong with Glurge (Uplifting Heart-Warming Stories)?

A friend of mine posted a piece of glurge on facebook.  It was a story of an unidentified baby girl whose mother died in the Holocaust, was raised by gentiles, discovered her Judaism through Chabad, became a pediatrician in Israel, and was injured in a terrorist attack whereupon her long-lost father recognized her as one of a pair of twins whom he assumed had been killed, because of a unique necklace.  I asked the poster if it were true and he responded — whether or not it’s true you know you can help people by giving to charity, and he gave me a link to a Chabad charity that helped to convert Jews to Chabad’s brand of Judaism.   When I complained in the thread that it disrespected the victims of the Holocaust to post heart-warming stories without regard to their veracity, a woman countered, in essence — what’s wrong with glurge?  Why not post your own stories that you know are true rather than criticizing the stories of others.  (I think she said “putting them down”.)

I think glurge stories are like counterfeit currency.   Like counterfeit currency they are parasitic upon our institutions of real testimony.  Like counterfeit currency they lead to a debasement of real emotional curency.

I have a real family story of the holocaust.  My grandma Gisele (Gussie) avoided the holocaust by emigrating at the age of fourteen against her parents’ wishes and by working in the garment industry in New York was able to get her family out of Europe, thereby saving them.

It is much less heart-warming than the story of the long-lost twin and the gold necklace, but it’s true.  If people believe glurge my grandma’s story has to compete with fake stories.  There is no way she can win.


Yeats and Sex Robots


A famous poem by Yeats — “Fragments” — consists of two stanzas.  The first one goes:

LOCKE sank into a swoon;
The Garden died;
God took the spinning-jenny
Out of his side.

I misread this poem for many years because for some reason I got stuck in the mis-reading that Locke sank into the swoon because the spinning-jenny was taken out of his side.  I misinterpreted the poem as saying that Locke the materialistic philosopher somehow turned himself into a mechanism.

This morning it clicked into place.  Locke is like Adam, but his garden dies.  When Adam fell into a swoon God took Eve out of his side to help him.  But Locke, the materialist philosopher and symbol of modern man sinks into a swoon and God takes a machine out of his side.  Yeats is saying that modern man is unable to stand being helped by a woman — presumably because she is equally valuable to him, capable of blaming him requiring things from him, a mystery as deep as he is — and prefers to be helped by a robot — a slave he can understand.  Needless to say this is nothing new, as pre-modern man often tried to turn woman into a slave — Robot in Czech.

Yeats is a good poet so he picks a machine with a female name; a spinning jenny.  You can google it — it was important for the industrial revolution.


How did I figure it out?  It clicked into place for me this morning.   But how do I know it’s correct?  Does the subjective feeling of clicking into place prove anything?  Is it just “fancy”?  Not really because it had been bugging me unconsciously for years — what does that mean exactly that he took a spininng jenny out of his side?  What was a spinning jenny anyway — I had been too lazy to look it up.  And for some reason I never made the obvious connection that what is taken out of Adam’s side is not the mechanism that makes him work, it is woman.

Now it’s so obvious — Yeats is re-telling the creation of woman but telling it as the story of the creation of the first robot.

Locke of course would say I could have gotten this truth in two ways — through a sense impression or through an innate idea.  My ideas are true if the outside world is making me think them by plinking my sense organs, or because it is part of the factory presets of my operating system.

Yeats gives us a different epistemology of poetic creation and poetic interpretation.

Where got I that truth?
Out of a medium’s mouth.
Out of nothing it came,
Out of the forest loam,
Out of dark night where lay
The crowns of Nineveh.

What is this medium’s mouth, nothing, forest loam, dark night where Yeats got his poem and I got my interpretation — which serves to crown us as god-kings of Nineveh?

What is it? It’s unknown but by moving forward into it we can cultivate the known.  As the medium also says somewhere “there is a budding morn in midnight.”

Not a sense impression and not an innate idea, Locke.  Nothing, loam, night and the medium’s mouth.

Needless to say the mediums for men were all women.  I would guess if a woman wrote the poem the medium might be a man.


Would a True Friend Help His Friend Do Something Bad?

Cicero says no:

It must, therefore, be enjoined upon good men that if by any chance they should inadvisedly fall into friendships of this kind, they must not think themselves so bound that they cannot withdraw from friends who are sinning in some important matter of public concern; for wicked men, on the other hand, a penalty must be enacted, and assuredly it will not be lighter for the followers than for the leaders in treason. Who was more eminent in Greece than Themistocles, who more powerful? But he, after having saved Greece from slavery by his leadership in the war with Persia, and after having been banished because of his unpopularity, would not submit to the injustice of an ungrateful country, as he was in duty bound to do: he did the same thing that Coriolanus had done among our people twenty years before. Not one single supporter could be found to aid these men against their country; therefore, each took his own life.Hence such alliances of wicked men not only should not be protected by a plea of friendship, but rather they should be visited with summary punishment of the severest kind, so that no one may think it permissible to follow even a friend when waging war against his country. And yet this very thing, considering the course affairs have begun to take, will probably happen at some future time; as for me, I am no less concerned for what the condition of the commonwealth will be after my death, than I am for its condition to‑day.

Therefore let this be ordained as the first law of friendship: Ask of friends only what is honourable; do for friends only what is honourable and without even waiting to be asked; let zeal be ever present, but hesitation absent; dare to give true advice with all frankness; in friendship let the influence of friends who are wise counsellors be paramount, and let that influence be employed in advising, not only with frankness, but, if the occasion demands, even with sternness, and let the advice be followed when given.

[Marcus Tullius Cicero, On Friendship (De Amicitia) Loeb Classics Library pp.156-7]


Is Secularism Thin?

I just read Michael Walzer’s “The Paradox of Liberation”.  The paradox of the title is that national liberation movements that were secular in character found themselves challenged and subverted by fundamentalist religious movements in three instances Walzer discusses: Algeria, Israel and India.  In each case the European-educated elite who threw off colonialism were motivated by secular ideals of justice, equal rights, and emancipation but thirty years into the project they found themselves threatened by tribal, orthodox religious parties: the ultra-orthodox in Israel, the Islamists in Algeria and the BJP in India.

Walzer is himself a man of the enlightenment left so he is troubled and thinks that the issue may be that secularism is too thin, so the fundamentalists step into the breach.  You can imagine what he means: that secularism ducks the big questions, that it doesn’t sacralize fundamental relationships, that nobody is willing to die for it.  In a fight between a movement whose members are willing to die for it and one whose members are not willing to die for it, you would be wise to put your money on the former. (Unless the latter have much, much more money in which case it’s anybody’s game.)


On the other hand do we really know what a religion is?   Sure we all have a sense of the family resemblance of the big Abrahamic faiths — if there’s a man in a beard or an unusual hat talking about a creator deity and giving rules for how to keep that deity happy and promising a reward after death for making him happy, and it is all linked to books purporting to tell amazing stories of the ancient middle east, then it’s a religion.  But surely that’s a shallow and essentialist way of looking at things — especially the hat part.   Essentialist because it assumes what’s worth arguing about, which is whether you can motivate people without appeal to forged ancient books and anthropomorphic creators.  Shallow because it avoids the personal question.  If religion is anything it is how each of us answers the question “How should I live?”  “Given that I must die what is important?”  “What do I owe to my fellow?”  If religion is whatever answers these questions, then it’s at least an open question whether the Abrahamic faiths as they currently stand are even religions, much less whether they are the only religions (compare Marxism, nationalism, consumerism, progress, art, the family etc. etc.)

If that is the case then how do we understand Walzer’s paradox — a thin secularism unable to do battle with a robust orthodoxy?

A step towards understanding the paradox is imagining how it would be to solve it.  One attempt to solve it would be to deck out secularism with its substitute for religious culture.  Have ceremonies of commitment to reason perhaps or gather in the Temple of Understanding to celebrate the birthday of Charles Darwin.  Whenever people try this it seems to fail though and to feel (Walzer’s apt word) like kitsch.

What does the failure teach us?  There is something wrong with reifying “culture”.  Secularists look at the vibrant faith of the orthodox and want to know what they have to fight it. It looks like — nothing.  It looks like secularists have no culture, at least not the kind that enchants the heart and draws people together into a communal embrace.  It looks like there is no reformed Jewish substitute for the Hasidic rebbe’s table, and no story from secular India as captivating as the Ramayana.

But this is a mistake.

Culture is easy to spot far away and long ago — but the culture we are making right now is invisible.  Every decision we make, every thing we say in an effort to be memorable, or persuasive, or beautiful — the way we make love to our lovers and kiss our children — that is our culture.

Is it thin?  God forbid that it should be thin.  Every second we are are enacting our culture.   If our children love us, if our fellow citizens trust us, if anything we say is worth listening to or worth repeating then we have a culture.

Is it secular?

Walzer says memorably that the only thing it makes sense to call “secular” is a government.  If it doesn’t make sense to call an individual or a marriage or a family or a corporation secular it doesn’t make sense to call it religious either.  Surely each of these institutions that we secrete by living — much as a caterpillar builds its cocoon — is a mixture of an axis of faith and an axis of reason.  Yet “faith” and “reason” are loaded terms.  To be even clearer we could say: there are things we are in a position to explain to our fellows, things we are in a position to explain to ourselves, and things we are not (yet) in a position to explain to anybody, but we live by them all the same.

The enlightenment fantasy may be said then to be that there is nothing about us we cannot explain to everybody.  This is clearly false.  Yet the idea that there is a shadow side to ourselves and our relationships — call if faith or myth — can be frightening.  It can make us feel vulnerable.

If secularism — whatever that is — is able to look at its own vulnerability squarely there is nothing thin about it.

The only thing thin about it is its fear of being thin.