Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908 - 2009)

“The world began without the human race and will certainly end without it. What else has man done except blithely break down billions of structures and reduce them to a state in which they are no longer capable of integration?”

- Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes tropiques (1955)

On the one hand it would seem that in the course of a myth anything is likely to happen. […] But on the other hand, this apparent arbitrariness is belied by the astounding similarity between myths collected in widely different regions. Therefore the problem: If the content of myth is contingent [i.e., arbitrary], how are we to explain the fact that myths throughout the world are so similar?

- Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology

Claude Lévi-Strauss was a giant of modern thought (a bit about Structuralism). He died today at the age of 100. Here's a roundup of some of the better obits I could find.

N.Y. Times


Washington Post

Le Monde (french)


Friday, October 30, 2009

The Raven (wordle)

For Halloween, Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven, in wordle format.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Count Trickster

This may be a bit early, according to the Infinite Summer spoiler line we're at the end of Chapter I, but this post will only go a few paragraphs into Chapter II. So if you haven't met the Count yet, read this tomorrow.

First, it is difficult to write about just the happenings of a specific chapter. We know so much of the mythology that surrounds Dracula, no matter what the source. I think anyone who reads this story comes into it with a certain amount of cultural baggage (possibly of the worst kind). I'm going to carry it as best I can.

I came to a simple conclusion reading the first chapter of Dracula that I'm sure other readers have as well. This Dracula — Stoker's Dracula — is a far cry from the caricatures that have been on display in the media of the past hundred years. This Dracula is not a cartoon-ish Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee, but a suave and convincing and truly dangerous and frightening creature. He is able to get his way without question or rebuke. It's said that Stoker modeled the Count after Sir Henry Irving. I don't know much about Irving, but his image surely does fit the picture I had in my mind.

"You cannot deceive me, my friend. I know too much, and my horses are swift"

- D. (as the coach driver)

The exhilarating mad rush of the first chapter, where Jonathan is being whisked to Castle Dracula by a mysterious coach driver, is an appropriate introduction to the Count. We find out early in Chapter II that the nameless driver is in fact the Count himself.

"Welcome to my house! Enter freely. Go safely, and leave something of the happiness you bring!" The strength of the handshake was so much akin to that which I had noticed in the driver, whose face I had not seen, that for a moment I doubted if it were not the same person to whom I was speaking. So to make sure, I said interrogatively, "Count Dracula?"

-J.H. journal Chap. I
Welcome to the fun-house. At this point, I started to think about what type of character Dracula really is. Stoker's description of him had already surprised me and discredited many of the preconceptions that I had of the Count. Here, I was being presented with a sly and strangely urbane character. I came to a realization.

Dracula is a trickster.

I do mean that in the Jungian sense. At first glance (and relying on collective cultural baggage and preconceptions), Count Dracula would ostensibly seem to fit the archetype of the Shadow. Lurking, hiding. A sinister foreigner. Gypsy. Thief and burglar of blood. Inchoate. There but not there. The stuff of nightmares. But, as we see in the first chapter, he doesn't actually hide in the shadows, he has no need to. He uses deceit to achieve his goals from the very first time we meet him. He's always a step ahead. He is cunning, funny, and foolish but not the fool. He is an animal master. A gypsy shaman.

"Once there appeared a strange optical effect. When he stood between me and the flame he did not obstruct it, for I could see its ghostly flicker all the same. This startled me, but as the effect was only momentary, I took it that my eyes deceived me straining through the darkness. Then for a time there were no blue flames, and we sped onwards through the gloom, with the howling of the wolves around us, as though they were following in a moving circle. "

"As he swept his long arms, as though brushing aside some impalpable obstacle, the wolves fell back and back further still."

Joseph Campbell describes the trickster as "a fool and a cruel, lecherous cheat, an epitome of the principle of disorder, he is nevertheless the culture bringer." Dracula is a destroyer of lives and a savior. He offers immortality, at a price. Much like Hermes, the Coyote, and other archetypal tricksters, Dracula is constantly changing form and shape and attitude. He's here and then he's over there. He will morph his own psyche in order to control yours. He is a bearer of a kind of gift, and a shepherd for those who follow him into immortality. Here's where the cultural baggage comes in. I'm assuming he is 'immortal' in the vampire tradition. In fact, I am assuming he is a vampire since it has not been explicitly stated yet in the novel, and may never.

Tricksters do not use force, they use deception. They are driven to manipulate. According to Jung, the trickster is "a collective shadow figure, an epitome of all the inferior traits of the character individuals." It's too early to tell if Dracula will indeed play the trickster throughout the novel. Its a subject I'd like to revisit. But, is it even useful to try and place an archetype on this creature? Campbell says that archetypes are expressions of the biological nature. Something built into the nature of being human. Dracula is not human. Should we conform him to human archetypes? Who knows. My theories may not pan out, but it's something to think about while reading.

Questions I'll be looking forward to answering as I read: Tricksters exhibit gender and form variability. Does Dracula specifically feed on women in the novel? Would it break Victorian conventions for him to do otherwise?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

There Will Be Blood.

I hate vampires.

They're right up there with pirates and professional wrestling on my pop-culture scale of hatred this decade. They've always just seemed a little silly to me. Immortality seems fine and all, but throw in the costumes, the infinite search for blood, the nocturnal-ism, and it's just not for me. I didn't always hate them; I'll admit that I went through an Anne Rice phase in middle school just like everyone else. But the new found cultural sensation in films and books and games and just about everything else kind of sickens me. I think people now are jumping on the vampire bandwagon for all the wrong reasons. I guess we can blame it on Stephanie Meyer and aging goths.

That being said, I'm looking forward to participating in Infinite Summer's fall project: reading Bram Stoker's Dracula.

I've read Dracula before. I actually wrote a book report on it in, like, ninth grade. I remember absolutely nothing. I do however still have the worn copy that I'm now very pleased I never returned to my school library. The only difficulty I see with reading Dracula as part of a scheduled book club is that it's kind of a page turner. That seems to be a function of the Gothic romance novel. At least I'll make it thorough this time; I'm still trying to get through to the end of Infinite Jest.

As preparation, I'm reading a bit about the role of horror in fiction, literature, and philosophy. I discovered a fantastic philosophical journal called Collapse which has dedicated their most recent edition to the subject of Concept Horror. They have an electronic version of the journal at their website. Of particular interest to Dracula readers are the essay Infinite Regress into Self-Referential Horror: The Gnosis of the Victim by George Sieg, and M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire by China Miéville. I am hoping that these essays will inform any commentary I might have on the novel, and maybe help to correct my poor attitude towards Vampires and the horror genre in general. At the very least you'll get something better than a ninth grade book report.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Zen and the art of not reading Infinite Jest.

I'm back from worshiping the dirt for the past few weeks. My vacation was glorious and rejuvenating and enlightening. Unfortunately, I didn't get much reading done, which has put me extremely far behind the spoiler line.

I'm still reading; I've decided not to write about it regularly, though. I've removed all my post-it notes, extra bookmarks, and other paraphernalia from my copy of Infinite Jest and I'm just going to read for sheer wanton pleasure. It's the only way I'm going to make it through.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"A nobler want of man is served by nature."

I am off to a well-deserved vacation. It's been two years since I've had a proper one. I will be reading and catching up on Infinite Jest; hopefully I will return all caught up to the IS spoiler line. It's going to be difficult because I usually prefer to read Emerson when I'm out in the woods. There may be a random post from vacation if I can get one through, but don't hold your breath.

This is what I hope to experience again on this trip:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration.I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough , and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, -- master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.


Back in 2 weeks.

Friday, July 10, 2009


I am quite behind. So far behind that I've had to practically drop off the Infinite Summer forums for fear of spoilers. I'm still reading diligently and loving every word; it's a time management issue that's keeping me from catching up. It also comes down to reading style. I am a very slow reader by choice. I usually imagine that I am reading the text aloud — no, I don't move my lips — to a reading circle consisting of multiple 'me's. The 'me's are different aspects of my personality and they have wonderful arguments on the text. Then, several 'me's have side conversations that I'm not privy to and only fill me in on what they've hashed out through sideways glances. It's difficult and maddening.

Oddly enough, this is how I've always read and this is the only way I seem to be able to retain anything that I have read. I enjoy reading this way, but it affords me no swiftness of pace.

There is something in Infinite Jest that I read last night; I read it over and over. There have been several of these 'Interludes' so far. Short changes of perspective that drop back into a previous scene, just for a moment, and just to let you know that the characters still exist and are still engaged. Here's one of those interludes. I hope it's not too much text to post, I'm actually going to enjoy typing this out:
The temperature had fallen with the sun. Marathe listened to the cooler evening wind roll across the incline and desert floor. Marathe could sense or feel many million floral pores begin slowly to open, hopeful of dew. The American Steeply produced small exhalations between his teeth as he examined his scratch of the arm. Only one or two remaining tips of the digitate spikes of the radial blades of the sun found crevices between the Tortolitas' peaks and probed at the roof of the sky. There were the slight and dry locationless rustlings of small living things that wish to come out at night, emerging. The sky was violet.

- DFW, IJ p. 97
It's interludal passages such as this that keep me reading. They always read as a stark poetic contrast to the preceding scene involving the same characters. The previous scene with Marathe and Steeply was odd and stuttering and dislocated. This passage is focused and beautiful. These sparse interludes are my favorite things in the book so far.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Falling behind

This weekend was totally worth falling behind.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Venus vs. Serena et cetera

et cetera:
I've decided that I need to break up the heavy Infinite Jest posts with some off-topic stuff. For my own sanity. So, you may see a few anthropology or mythology and of course tennis posts thrown in here and there. I had initially decided to post almost every day, but it's just too taxing along with reading, so look for 2-3 a week. Plus, I am trying to accomplish something a little different than maybe some of the other IS bloggers are. I'm reserving my general thoughts and discussion topics for the forums, and trying to post more substantial and polished and urbane things here. I am still working on a Dennis Gabor is the Antichrist profile — holography apparently becomes a big deal in IJ, and Gabor is just an all around interesting guy who had his hands in a lot of things (kind of like Himself). Look for that as well as Part II of the Addict's Guide to IJ next week.

Today though, I'm psyched about yet another Venus vs. Serena Wimbledon final.

They've met four times before in the finals at the All England Club, with Venus prevailing in last year's match. Between them, they've won 7 of the past 9 at Wimbledon, and Venus could become the first woman to win three in a row since Steffi Graf in '91-'93. After today's wins, Venus is 13-4 in Grand Slam semifinals with seven titles and Serena is 14-2 in Grand Slam semifinals with 10 titles.

Overall they've met 20 times with an even record of 10-10.
•Australian Open, 1998 - Venus
•Italian Open, 1998 - Venus
•Lipton Championships, 1999 - Venus
•Grand Slam Cup, 1999 - Serena
•Wimbledon, 2000 - Venus
•U.S. Open, 2001 - Venus
•Nasdaq 100 Open, 2002 - Serena
•French Open, 2002 - Serena
•Wimbledon, 2002 - Serena
•U.S. Open, 2002 - Serena
•Australian Open, 2003 - Serena
•Wimbledon, 2003 - Serena
•Nasdaq 100 Open, 2005 - Venus
•U.S. Open, 2005 - Venus
•Bangalore Open, 2008 - Serena
•Wimbledon, 2008 - Venus
•U.S. Open, 2008 - Serena
•Sony Ericsson Championships, 2008 - Venus
•Dubai Tennis Championships, 2009 - Venus
•Sony Ericsson Open, 2009 - Serena

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Illustrated Addict's Guide to Infinite Jest - Part I

or: A guide to managing your internal weathers chemically.

Note: I'm excluding Schedule I drugs such as marijuana, heroin, cocaine, X, and crystal meth. Those probably deserve — and will probably get — independent guides all to themselves.


Cylert (Pemoline) Abbott Laboratories.
Usage: Treats ADHD.
Most interesting side effects
: Depression, hallucinations, hepatitis and other liver problems, increased irritability, involuntary, fragmented movements of the face, eyes, lips, tongue, arms, and legs, suppressed growth, uncontrolled vocal outbursts such as grunts, shouts, and obscene language.
Notes: No longer available in the U.S. due to association w/ life threatening hepatic failure (but probably still available at IJ’s time of writing). Although, Abbott maintains that falling sales were the reason for discontinuation.
Schedule IV

Tenuate (diethylpropion hydrochloride) Multiple distributors. Structural analogue of Wellbutrin.
Usage: Prescription weight-loss. Anorectic CNS rattler.
Most interesting side effects: breast development in males, bruising, changes in sex drive, tremors, unpleasant taste, feelings of discomfort, feelings of elation, feeling of illness, hair loss.
: Habit forming. Favorite of Michael Pemulis and Jim Troeltsch.
Schedule IV

Fastin (phentermine hydrochloride) GSK Pharm
Usage: Appetite suppression. Weight loss.
Most interesting side effects: periods of mania followed by period of depression, feeling like you might pass out, unusual thoughts or behavior, feeling restless or confused, dangerously high blood pressure.
Notes: Don't be fooled by the crunchy herbal version.
Schedule IV

Preludin (Phenmetrazine) a.k.a Sweeties. Discontinued.
Usage: appetite suppressant, stimulates satiety center in hypothalamic and limbic regions.
Most interesting side effects: psychosis similar to that of amphetamine with long term use.
Notes: Favored by Bridget Boone, Swedes, Germans, and The Beatles. Eric Clapton wrote a song called 'Preludin Fugue'. High potential for abuse and creative songwriting.
Schedule II

Ritalin (methylphenidate) a.k.a. Vitamin R, R-Ball, Smart Drug. Novartis, previously CIBA pharmaceutical.
Usage: Treatment of ADHD, narcolepsy, methamphetamine addiction, developmental disorders, cramming for finals.
Most interesting side effects: hearing voices, visual hallucinations, urges to harm oneself, severe anxiety, euphoria, grandiosity, paranoid delusions, confusion.
Notes: High potential for abuse similar to cocaine.
Schedule III

Seldane (Terfenadine) a.k.a. the tactical nuclear weapon of nondrowsy antihistamines and mucoidal desiccators. Aventis Pharm
Usage: allergic conditions, antihistamine, mucoidal desiccator.
Most interesting side effects: ventricular tachycardia, torsades de pointes.
Notes: Toxicity is possible when mixed with grapefruit. Favored by Jim Troeltsch. Would have helped Guillaume DuPlessis more than the codeineless NyQuil.
Banned by FDA.

Look for Part II covering tranqs sometime in the future. Oral narcotics and antidepressants also coming later.
Also, I am constraining this to the Infinite Summer Spoiler Line, so this section may expand later.

Monday, June 29, 2009

"the sacred grass of Wimbledon"

How appropriate is it that Infinite Summer kicked off one day before Wimbledon?

It's already been a landmark year for tennis with Roger Federer (SUI) equaling Pete Sampras (USA) in overall Grand Slam titles with fucking fourteen, including five consecutive at Wimbledon and five consecutive at the U.S. Open. It's honestly something I never thought I would see, and I'm a little out-of-sorts about it. My own formidable tennis years — if you can call being top-seed at a extremely low-ranked high school formidable — were played during the rise of Pete Sampras. Pete was a clinician, an unbelievably economical player whose personality was anathema to his monster serve (his Wikipedia article only has about five lines under the personal life section). Pete wasn't flashy; Pete was as smart and pure a player as there ever has been and his rivalry with Andre Agassi did wonders for the sport.

Now, we have Roger Federer. He's devastating and dominating in every way. He's flashy and pulls off these balletic feats of athleticism not often seen in tennis. David Foster Wallace was a huge fan of these "Federer Moments" as he described in his essay "Federer as Religious Experience" for the NY Times.

"The Moments are more intense if you’ve played enough tennis to understand the impossibility of what you just saw him do."

He describes one particular Moment:

"...given Agassi’s position and world-class quickness, Federer had to send that ball down a two-inch pipe of space in order to pass him, which he did, moving backwards, with no setup time and none of his weight behind the shot. It was impossible. It was like something out of “The Matrix.” I don’t know what-all sounds were involved, but my spouse says she hurried in and there was popcorn all over the couch and I was down on one knee and my eyeballs looked like novelty-shop eyeballs."

I think DFW would be a content television-tennis-viewer this year. Although, as he himself put it "the truth is that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love." That aside, this weekend I thoroughly enjoyed reading the section on the topography of E.T.A. while listening to the gentle pock, pock, and the rhythmic banshee wail of Venus Williams dismantling Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro 6-0, 6-4.

UPDATE: From an interview posted on the Official Wimbledon site:

Q. There were times during your match today when I was reminded of an essay by the late American author, David Foster Wallace. It's called, Roger Federer as Religious Experience. I'm wondering if you have heard of this essay, read it, or what you think of it?

ROGER FEDERER: Sure, I remember his piece. I remember doing the interview here on the grounds up on the grass. I had a funny feeling walking out of the interview. I wasn't sure what was going to come out of it, because I didn't know exactly what direction he was going to go.

The piece was obviously fantastic. You know, yeah, it's completely different to what I've read in the past about me anyway.

Friday, June 26, 2009

"the howling fantods."

A short passage from p. 45 which really blew me away:

Roaches give him the howling fantods. The parishes around N.O. had been having a spate or outbreak of a certain Latin-origin breed of sinister tropical flying roaches, that were small and timid but could fucking fly, and that kept being found swarming on New Orleans infants, at night, in their cribs, especially infants in like tenements or squalor, and that reportedly fed on the mucus in the babies' eyes, some special sort of optical-mucus--the stuff of fucking nightmares, mobile flying roaches that wanted to get at your eyes, as an infant--and were reportedly blinding them; parents'd come in in the ghastly A.M.-tenement light and find their infants blind, like a dozen blinded infants that last summer...

Not much to say about it right now. I just love it. Still slightly behind (p. 50), and I'll probably be even more behind after a weekend kayaking trip which I am NOT lugging the book along for.

Incidentally, Blogger's spellcheck doesn't recognize fantod. So here you go, from the O.E.D. of course:


A crotchety way of acting; a fad.

1839 C. F. BRIGGS Adv. H. Franco I. 249 You have got strong symptoms of the fantods. 1867 SMYTH Sailor's Word-bk., Fantods, a name given to the fidgets of officers. 1880 MRS. PARR Adam & Eve xxxii. 440 I'd do the trick, if I was she, 'fore I'd put up with such fantads from you. 1881 Leicestersh. Gloss., Fantodds, ‘megrims’, ‘mulligrubs’, a stomach-ache; a fit of the sulks or other slight indisposition, mental or bodily. 1884 ‘MARK TWAIN’ Huck. Finn xvii, These was all nice pictures,..but I didn't somehow seem to take to them, because..they always give me the fan-tods. 1886 BARNES Dorset Dial. 63 Fantod, a fuss, fidget. ‘She's always in a fantod about Meary’. 1910 Sat. Westm. Gaz. 1 Jan. 6/1 Sundays inside of a house gives you the fan-tods. 1920 GALSWORTHY In Chancery I. v, You mustn't get into a fantod, it'll never do. 1935 J. MASEFIELD Box of Delights viii. 220 ‘I say,’ Kay said, ‘what a place!’ ‘It gives me the fantods,’ Peter answered. ‘I don't like the place.’

Hence fantod a., Fidgetty, restless.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Is Infinite Jest science fiction?

I'm enjoying the science fiction overtones so far in Infinite Jest (I'm on p. 36, slightly behind the Infinite Summer schedule).

References to teleputers, entertainment cartridges, the InterLace Subscription Pulse Matrix, the "Texaco Oil Company-sponsored opera" nature of entertainment, entertainment cartridges themselves (video cassette tapes?), spontaneous pulses (on-demand tv?), and InterLace TelEntertainment (essentially Blockbuster and Directv and Comcast and maybe all-other-companies-in-one), all feel reminiscent of Asimov's predictive short stories. Unlike Asimov though, it seems DFW had no intention of actually describing what a near future world could be like for any other reason than comic effect. So maybe in that respect he's more like Philip K. Dick.

I'm still unsure (again, I'm on p. 36) if DFW is trying to express something truly dystopian in the manner that PKD would. Passages in Infinite Jest concerning a certain medical attaché's search for entertainment which involved a "Mr. Bouncety-Bounce" reminded me of PKD's Buster Friendly character in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? -- a ubiquitous character who's the ultimate product of a single-corporate-entertainment-source world.

PKD is one of my absolute favorites, and even if his prose seems a polar opposite to DFW's prescriptive grammar, I would love to hear the conversation those two would be having right now.

I'm sure I'll revisit this subject frequently during the summer.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

"Sweet mother of Christ"

I'm already so happy I decided to be a part of Infinite Summer. I'm finding Infinite Jest to be just as challenging and twice as funny as everyone had said it would be. I had some difficulty right up front with there being so many characters in a room all at once, and I'm reading and trying to figure out who they all are and where they stand at the same time Hal is. It made my mind spin. I'm sure that's just what DFW intended; to throw you into the fray with Hal, to understand his anxieties. I laughed out loud after Hal's rant on Kierkegaard and Camus and Dennis Gabor being the Antichrist. And when the director exclaimed "Sweet mother of Christ" shortly after, even without yet understanding why, I was ecstatic.

The section on waiting for "the woman who said she'd come" is a fantastically hyperbolic example of the ritual of smoking weed. At least from what I remember (cough, cough) everyone had their little things they did before they sat down to smoke. Make iced tea, clean the coffee table, take off your shoes, feed the dog; all the things you wanted to be sure you didn't have to do after you smoked. This section just took it to an extreme multi-day nihilistic affair, and it was spot on. I've never known anyone that 'addicted' to pot, but I'm sure the anxiety and paranoia and mind games you play with yourself while waiting for your next (and always last) fix applies to other drugs as well. Again, I laughed out loud several time in this section.

I'm still catching up, and my mind is racing every day in a good way (in they way David Eggers alluded to in the foreword), but it's going well.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

An Inauspicious Start to the Infinite Summer

I had highly anticipated the first day of Infinite Summer since I heard of the project a month or so ago. The monolithic slab of a book has been sitting on my bedroom coffee table for a few weeks, beckoning me to open it. Finally, Sunday June 21st -- the first day of summer, and the official 'start reading' day -- arrived, and I spent the whole day in the bathroom. I haven't had the flu in over 10 years, and I won't describe in graphic detail how hard this one hit me, but I do believe I was speaking in tongues at some point, and I somehow got in touch with my animal spirit while huddled on the cold tiles in a pool of my own sweat.

So, I'm already behind. Yesterday was also a blur. Today, I play catch-up.