Prison Diary: Books and More Books

by Alan Carl Nicoll

Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

{11/2/08} Slogged my way through to the end of Goethe’s Faust, Part One, David Luke (tr.), Oxford University Press, 1987, pb. Although it’s likely that my knowing the story by way of Gounod, etc., didn’t help, this strikes me as one of the “Great Bores” of the “Great Books.” Although Luke’s translation is more readable and understandable than that in the GBWW, and although its poetic qualities are praised in the back-cover blurbs, the poetry is still lost in translation, with rare exceptions.

A quote from the Introduction seems relevant to my interest in the here and now and the perfect moment: “…[Faust] passionately vowing to forfeit his life at once if ever, diluted into mere enjoyment, he so far forgets his embittered disillusionment as to bless a passing moment, entreating it not to pass because it is so beautiful. The poetic substance of these two celebrated lines ([line] 1699 f., ‘Werd ich zum Augenblicke sagen:  Verweile doch, du bist so schön!’) is such, and so characteristic are they of the mature Goethe in whose work the theme of the ‘eternal moment’ so often recurs, that it is impossible to read them as seriously expressing the formula for his problematic hero’s ‘damnation.’ Faust longs, like Blake, to kiss the moment as it flies, and so live in eternity’s sunrise.”  p. xxxvii-xxxviii.  Much wool gathering follows.

Luke quotes Goethe regarding his intentions; I’ve edited to condense here: “(I intended) the Second Part to be less fragmentary than the first…the more incommensurable and elusive to the understanding a work of literature is, the better it is; [counterexample: War and Peace?] Faust is really a quite incommensurable quantity, and all attempts to make it rationally intelligible are vain [Finnegan’s Wake?]. In a work of this kind all that matters is that the individual component parts should be meaningful and clear, although it will always be incommensurable as a whole—while nevertheless for that very reason remaining, like an unsolved problem, a constant stimulus to repeated study.” p. xivi  Thoreau would likely have approved, and Walden seems a good example of this kind of style. Apparently Joyce intended Finnegan’s Wake to be a lifetime’s study for the reader.

Faust: “Those few who had some knowledge of the truth,/Whose full heart’s rashness drove them to disclose/Their passion and their vision to the mob, all those/Died nailed to crosses or consigned to flames.” Lines 590-593

“We snatch in vain at nature’s veil,/She is mysterious in broad daylight,/No screws or levers can compel her to reveal/The secrets she has hidden from our sight.” Ln 672-675. There is an image in Walden of lifting the veil of nature to gaze on the truth.

“Can you not understand how my life’s strength increases/As I walk here in these wild places?” Ln 3278-3279. In this and the previous quote it is Faust speaking.

In general the play has some interest in the Gretchen plot or when Faust and Mephistopheles are conversing alone; it drags most when many voices each get their say. All in all, it’s less interesting than Paradise Lost but more interesting than Dante’s Inferno, if that’s as dull as I remember.

Much better: Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan:  Microcosmos:  Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997, pb. Quotes:

“…microbes…are not only the building blocks of life, but occupy and are indispensable to every known living structure on the earth today. From the paramecium to the human race, all life forms are meticulously organized, sophisticated aggregates of evolving microbial life.” p. 28.

“Fully 10% of our own dry body weight consists of bacteria, some of which, although they are not a congenital part of our bodies, we can’t live without.” p. 33. In that 10% they are likely counting mitochondria and centrioles and even cilia (undulipodia), all of which were originally separate microbes. Likewise in this quote: “Our own bodies are composed of one thousand billion (1012) animal cells and another ten thousand billion (1013) bacterial cells.” p. 67.

“A bacterium never functions as a single individual in nature. Instead, in any given ecological niche, teams of several kinds of bacteria live together, responding to and reforming the environment, aiding each other with complementary enzymes…. Their life cycles interlock, the waste products of one kind becoming the food sources of the next.” p. 91. An overstatement, surely. [11/27/18:  ?]

|89B| “We are, in a very real sense, parasites of the microcosm.” p. 110. This also seems doubtful. We are, as they say, dependent, but parasites?

“Dangerous pathogens can become required organelles in less than a decade…. symbiosis leads abruptly to new species.” p. 123.

“Just what is the ‘individual’ after all? Is it the ‘single’ amoeba with its internalized bacteria, or is it the ‘single’ bacterium living in the cellular environment which is itself alive? Really the individual is something abstract, a category, a conception. And nature has a tendency to evolve that which is beyond any narrow category or conception.” p. 123.

“Once, microscopic spirochetes had to swim furiously for their lives. Now, millions of years later, packed into an organ called the brain, their nucleotide and protein remnants conceive and direct the actions of a highly complex amalgam of evolved bacterial associations called a human being.” p. 153. The occasional anthropomorphisms are troubling; swimming “furiously”? But otherwise quite interesting.

“While all this is speculative, it is clear that all species which have ever evolved have coevolved.” p. 189-190.

Full of fascinating facts, this is one of the more exciting science books I’ve read. Changed my thinking about the importance of symbiosis, symbiosis as an evolutionary mechanism in particular, the importance of bacteria, what multicellular organisms are, indeed, biology as a whole. Only the last chapter was rather dull. Definitely demands to be read again, or perhaps there more scientific treatment, e.g., L. Margulis, Symbiosis in Cell Evolution, 2nd Ed., W. H. Freeman, New York, 1993.  Well, perhaps not…

Saw most of the movie Gigi today. Quite a charming musical along with an interesting look at 1900 Paris rich people. Seemed often similar to My Fair Lady in many ways, also Lerner and Lowe, I believe. A sly sense of humor, gorgeous Vincente Minelli production (direction?)—I thought it would be good for Oliver to see, given its decadent view of male-female relations.

Technology maybe our Irish elk antlers, our peacock’s tail. [It enables us to feed on unborn generations.]

{11/5/08} Why is grass green? What is magnetism? Heisenberg: “The chemical and other properties of the atoms could be accounted for by applying the mathematical scheme of quantum theory to the electronic shells.” p. 437.

Read in a hurry Greg Palast’s Armed Madhouse:  From Baghdad to New Orleans—Sordid Secrets & Strange Tales of a White House Gone Wild.  It prompted this note: No Child Left Behind is an artillery barrage in the class war—or an ICBM. But yesterday’s entry, I now see, is more to the point. Quotes (Plume, published by Penguin Group, New York, 2007, PB):

“Against the crimes of religious fanatics or skinhead berserkers, foreign or domestic, we are less prepared than under the Clinton Administration. The entire USA PATRIOT [sic] act was written, let’s not forget, before the September 11 attack. It was aimed at slicing a hole in civil liberties and filling the pockets of connected hucksters and database magnates while budgets for simple police work, the guts of real protection, bleed away.” p. 36. This kind of shit gets repeated again and again by Bush Admin. and Congress: legislation or spending are sold as fixes, but instead enrich the rich while making the problems worse that were to be solved. Education (NCLB), “Help America Vote Act,” military spending, and—presumably—the current Wall Street bailout: the first three are documented in Palast’s book, the last is too recent and all too likely. Put a spin on this latest grab from the Treasury, sell it to the yokel public, Congress approves, the media swallow it without question, and we have a new law. If the yokels don’t believe the lies, so what? What’re they gonna do about it? A few will march in the streets, a few will write letters, many will grumble, and fifty million will still vote for the devil they know. The war in Iraq is the worst example. But back to the quotes:

“Thirty years ago, in greenlighting the assassination of Chile’s elected president, Henry Kissinger said, ‘The issues are too important to be left for the voters.’” p. 69.

“Governments don’t keep secrets to protect the public, but to deceive the public.” p. 98.

“An international industry policy of suppressing Iraqi oil production has been in place since 1927.” p. 115. He basically says that this was the true purpose of the Iraq invasion—to take the power of oil away from Hussein—though the neocons wanted to use Iraq’s oil to destroy OPEC.

“India’s wealth, Europe’s wealth, China’s wealth, the entire planet’s wealth, with precious few exceptions, is flowing from those who have a little to those who have a lot.” p. 157.

“The Danes in particular have made sloth a policy. Blithely unaware that Indians are working 35 hours a day [sic], the Danes average 22 hours a week. partly that’s the result of the ‘laziness’ written into law: employers must provide a minimum of 5 weeks paid vacation. The official week is 37 hours, but non-vacation weeks average 28. Worse, there’s paid maternity leave! The Danish minimum wage is $10 and health care is free…. Danes earned an average $26 an hour in 2001, a solid 61% more than Americans.” p. 158-159.

“The nasty little secret of American democracy is that, in every national election, ballots cast are simply thrown in the garbage—millions of them. Most are called ‘spoiled,’ supposedly unreadable, damaged, invalid. They just don’t get counted.” p. 188-189. He says these are mostly ballots from poor districts.

“The trick of class war is not to let the victims know they are under attack.” p. 278.

“What’s at stake here is the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 program that guaranteed what he called ‘Freedom from Fear and Freedom from Want.’ It was not, as misrepresented today, a program just for pulling America out of an economic depression, but a vision of government that takes ultimate responsibility for protecting its citizens’ lives and livelihoods from misfortune and injustice…. Before Roosevelt, if you got old and starved, well, tough luck. If you lost your job or your home blew down in a hurricane, too bad, Jack. If the power company charged you half your wages for your light bill; or the grain monopoly refused to buy your crop for more than the price of dirt; or if you worked 60 hours in the steel mill with no overtime pay; or if you joined the union and got busted over the head, well, that’s business, buddy.

“In his first one hundred days in office, Roosevelt tried to break the back of the that’s business, buddy monopolists, passing through Congress a firestorm of legislation including the Wage and Hour Law, Social Security and the National Reconstruction Act.

“…This chapter, indeed this book, is all about how they are taking these American rights away…. you’ll miss them when they’re gone.” p. 284

“You could call ‘deregulation’ the ‘Third Worlding’ of America.” p. 297.

Re NCLB: “This is educational eugenics: identify the nation’s loser class early on. Trap them, then train them cheap. Someone has to care for the privileged.” p. 319.

An old man at a pharmacy was stricken at the $1,200.00 cost of his prescriptions. “And I was thinking, ‘I wonder if he voted for Bush.’

“I mean, did he vote for the man who would stop boys from kissing boys, who would allow big stone icons of the Ten Commandments in the Southold courthouse, who would get Saddam before he got us? In other words, was he a blind soldier in Karl Rove’s army of the angry who would rather vote against themselves, for deadly high drug prices dictated by Big Pharma, for no national health insurance, in return for a promise from George Bush that he will be the malicious defender of their prejudices?

“The polls tell us that Americans are in an ugly mood: too many jobs leaving for China, too many body bags returning from Iraq, and a bad feeling about a president grabbing for grandma’s Social Security check.

“America is hurting, but what really hurts is that the wounds are self-inflicted.” p. 320

He talks as though the Democrats wouldn’t have done these things. In part, he’s right.

“Ignore the fey university hideouts of Europe. Go to Vietnam or to Brazil or to Morocco or to Tibet and you’ll find the same thing: America’s music, America’s freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of spirit and the heartfelt friendship of Americans for others have made the USA truly ‘the light unto the nations.’ Americans are not liked worldwide, but loved—sometimes I find that weird, but it’s true—and that drives Osama to bombs and madness.

“We are a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the cause that all men and women are created equal. It’s silly and precious to point out that these ideals have been mangled, abused, ignored and monstered by those with plans to make us an empire. We know that. Now, what are you going to do about it?” p. 329.

[W]rite books and, occasionally, talk to people about it, until I’m out of prison. This book is mostly an education in what’s gone wrong in the American political scene, laying most of the blame on the Bush Administration, rightly, but not addressing, at least not adequately, the failures of media and the enabling and worse of Congress. It’s mostly a very gloomy book, but occasional counterexamples are stunning, notably, Hugo Chavez—who we tried to assassinate—and FDR.

{11/7/08} Heisenberg: “In natural science we try to derive the particular from the general, to understand the particular phenomenon as caused by simple general laws. The general laws when formulated in the language can contain only a few simple concepts—else the law would not be simple and general. From these concepts are derived an infinite variety of possible phenomena, not only qualitatively but with complete precision with respect to every detail. It is obvious that the concepts of ordinary language, inaccurate and only vaguely defined as they are, could never allow such derivations. When a chain of conclusions follows from given premises, the number of possible links in the chain depends on the precision of the premises. Therefore, the concepts of the general laws must in natural science be defined with complete precision, and this can be achieved only by means of mathematical abstraction.” p. 443-444.

“…one may say that the human ability to understand maybe in a certain sense unlimited. But the existing scientific concepts cover always only a very limited part of reality, and the other part that has not yet been understood is infinite. Whenever we Proceed from the known into the unknown we may hope to understand, but we may have to learn at the same time a new meaning of the word ‘understanding.’” p. 454.

Finished with Heisenberg, a surprisingly worthwhile thing to read; of more than merely historical interest, but perhaps not worth rereading.

{11/11/08} Read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, watching someone else get shitfaced is a total bore, and much of this book is like that. Fortunately, there are passages of graceful prose and moments of touching sentiment that kept me reading. Doubtless in 1957 it was a thunderclap, but now the excesses of the characters—drugs, sex, music, crime—seem commonplace and sordid rather than liberating. The character of Dean Moriarty is a Dostoyevskian maniac—or six of them rolled into one. The author tries to present him as an “angel” but the only way this was made real for me was his attractiveness to most of the characters. Really, he is a devil. As I read I was often mindful of Bukowski, and Clyde Rice’s Night Freight, and to tell the truth, |92| I’d have enjoyed either of those more than I did Kerouac. Quote(s) (Penguin Books, New York, 1959-2003, pb): “Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.” p. 8. This image is not made explicit that I’m aware of. It comes at an important place, it is the last paragraph of the short first chapter.

“Isn’t it true that you start out your life a sweet child believing in everything under your father’s roof? Then comes the day of the Laodiceans, when you know you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, and with the visage of a gruesome grieving ghost you go shuddering through nightmare life.” p. 106. I’ve often thought of the process I’ve gone through from innocent boy, full of promise, to irrevocably soiled adult, full of regrets, and wondered how much of this is just my personal failure and how much of it is a universal portrait of the human condition.

“But why think about [foreseen troubles] when all the golden lands ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait looking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?” p. 135.

“The American police are involved in psychological warfare against those Americans who don’t frighten them with imposing papers and threats. It’s a Victorian police force; it peers out of musty windows and wants to inquire about everything, and can make crimes if crimes don’t exist to its satisfaction.” p 137.

“…the road is life.” p. 212. Well, Kerouac ain’t Shakespeare, but who is?

Copyright 2018 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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