Bob Dylan’s Nobel Speech

Posted in art, pop culture, writers-poetry on June 10th, 2017 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Bob Dylan’s Nobel Speech

There’s been discussion about the Nobel Prize being given to Bob Dylan as not being appropriate. That Dylan does not achieve the heights of great writers and poets. It’s a conservative argument about standards. I don’t reject those arguments as conserving what is great from the past separates us from animals. But having standards doesn’t mean rejecting anything new out of hand.

Dylan himself questions the validity of his receiving the award. This more than anything, more even than his humility in laying out so many others as influential in his development, giving them credit at the table, shows the man’s character and seriousness. It is said, “We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.”

It is true that Dylan grew out of the pop/folk culture. But he aspired, was influenced by the fine arts; he absorbed some of the lessons of the spectacular achievements of the west.

He mentions as strong influences Moby Dick, John Donne, All Quiet on the Western Front, Homer – his influences are numerous, various and unassailable. There is something modest and touchingly forthright about his references to all those to whom he feels in debt. 

But Dylan doesn’t just refer to high art, but to pop culture as well, because at this period, pop culture has such a huge impact on people as they develop. Buddy Holly, Robert Johnson (the great blues singer), New Lost City Ramblers, Leadbelly.

Dylan says “ I wanted to know all about it and play that kind of music. I still had a feeling for music I’d grown up with, but for right now, I forgot about it…They were different than the radio songs I’d been listening to all along. They were more vibrant and truthful to life. With radio songs, a performer might get a hit with a roll of the dice or a fall of the cards, but that didn’t matter in the folk world.”

Dylan internalized it. “You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea chanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points and you learn the details.”

Some have questioned whether the obscurity of some of Dylan’s lyric references are meaningless patter. They quote Dylan as saying that, “I don’t know what they [the lyrics] mean.” Of course, Nobel laureate Milosz said the same thing. People would come to Milosz and ask what his poems meant and he would say that is not how it works. That he did not know what they meant. You aren’t illustrating ideas. You are opening a portal of feeling and spirit.

We may not really understand why Van Gogh painted with such crude haste, such un-nuanced explosive images. But the reason Van Gogh persists is that anyone looking at his images without prejudice can see the intensity of feeling, the spirit in struggle. That isn’t a meaning, it is a direct expression sensed from one person to another. It is the bridge between souls which art enables.

The Examined Life

Posted in ideas, writers-poetry on January 31st, 2016 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on The Examined Life

If the unexamined life is not worth living then Stephen Grosz’s “The Examined Life” might imply a template.

Grosz is a psychiatrist whose book received acclaim and awards. He presents case study / fables with a coda worthy of a fable. That is, they are neat rather than nuanced. The stories themselves are gnomic and remind me of John Cage’s one paragraph journal entries about the  circumstances of living; except Cage was writing about the randomness of events with an irony that was entertaining and amusing, pointing out the amazing quality of human experience and consciousness.

Grosz doesn’t offer analysis nor insight – other  than the codas – nor any depth. These are just stories taken from people’s lives; people who trusted him, now with their stories in the public  domain. Grosz no doubt checked with them first, at least I hope so, but still, it seems an exploitation to me, even if pseudonyms are used. Their brevity might suggest to Grosz the Checkhov he admires, but they have none of the resonance of true art.

I like books whose center is analysis and psychology so I looked forward to the journey. This book doesn’t satisfy in that sense, but Grosz’s general attitude warrants credit. Grosz feels people have stories that are untold – the stories of their lives. From fear or confusion or doubt they don’t piece together their own narrative, for many reasons – overdetermined, as analysis would have it – people don’t embrace or know who they are. Know thyself is the truth expressed – an old truth.

Grosz’s template is that he helps people in constructing their personal story. There were books written in the hippy days like that. “Telling Your Story,” was one excellent example. What Grosz says earlier in the book is probably more pertinent: he says that when he first meets a patient he tries to fully attend to them – so they leave feeling that they have been heard. That’s the crux, isn’t it. The most therapeutic thing, the most moral and decent thing we can do for each other – fully pay attention. I-Thou, not I-It, as Martin Buber would say.

That is the truth about therapy or confession or any human interaction that is beneveloent; the interlocutor feels they have been seen. not condescended to, nor even praised, but simply that their slim existence in the long narrative of our planet, was heard, if only for a brief moment, by a single individual.

Pride and Prejudice: Feh!

Posted in pop culture, writers-poetry on January 28th, 2014 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Pride and Prejudice: Feh!

[via Poisoned Pens: Literary Invective from Amis to Zola and mentalfloss.com]

The Downton Abbey of its time, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, has evoked a good bit of enmity for its precious lives decorously parsed:

DH Lawrence, “In the old England, the curious blood-connection held the classes together. The squires might be arrogant, violent, bullying and unjust, yet in some ways, they were at one with the people, part of the same blood-stream. We feel it in Defoe or Fielding. And then, in the mean Jane Austen, it is gone. Already this old maid typifies ‘personality’ instead of character, the sharp knowing in apartness instead of togetherness, and she is, to my feeling, English in the bad, mean snobbish sense of the word, just as Fielding is English in the good generous sense.”

In our age you could substitute celebrity for personality. The media is a celebrity manufacturing machine, divisive in its oligarchic enterprise. It’s not much interested in character either.

Mark Twain, “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone!”

Auden: Doubt

Posted in quotes, writers-poetry on December 29th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Auden: Doubt

“The basic stimulus to the intelligence is doubt, a feeling that the meaning of an experience is not self-evident.”
― W.H. Auden, Selected Essays

Lee Child: A Wanted Man: Jack Reacher

Posted in pop culture, writers-poetry on December 20th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Lee Child: A Wanted Man: Jack Reacher

Just finished A Wanted Man, another in Lee Child’s enjoyable series of Jack Reacher novels. I started reading interviews with Child. One of the many great things about the internet – you can easily explore the context and background of things which interest you. (I know, this is a revelation.) Child has a helpful site, listing interviews, if you are so inclined.

Child worked in TV, was summarily fired, which seems to still simmer as a resentment, and began writing at 40. A fantastic success, his novels are #1 bestsellers. He tells a good story. Child hated the folks in TV, when he was a producer, but loves the publishing folks. He doesn’t realize he was just a media bureaucrat and treated as such in TV, but now he is a big money producer in publishing. He should ask “mid-list” writers what they think of publishers. Might not be that different from his attitude towards TV. It’s a corporate thing, not located in venue – generate bucks and they love you and treat you well.

It is the Reacher character which carries the books forward. Reacher is a Clint Eastwood force of nature. Strong, big, a man of few words, given to appropriate action (or, what the hey, inappropriate action), he’ll do anything necessary; Reacher is a martial craftsman, a technician of violence. He is the good guy we want to right the wrongs. Someone who manages to stay on the outside, dipping in to fix what needs fixin’. He makes reality seem simple, without ambiguity, and subject to clear victory. The audience becomes a youngster, trusting all powerful daddy will make things right.

There was disappointment from the fans when Tom Cruise was cast, who isn’t 6 foot 5 and 250 pounds, in a Reacher movie. Child was sanguine about the choice. I think he should be. Cruise is a fine action movie performer. Cruise’s eager sincerity might be a bit to the edge of Reacher’s laid back, hair trigger persona. But it should work fine.

Wikipedia says that A Wanted Man was interpreted as a liberal criticism of the CIA; although Child is a fan of the FBI. The CIA is an easy target – it’s made some ghastly mistakes. But it is there to protect a country that has many trying to bring it down, hurt its citizens, cause havoc. Because that is what psychopaths do. We just don’t hear about it, about what the president must hear daily. Apparently Child, like everyone else, is not aware of the successes of the CIA, which have to be many, done at great risk, but are not published, as a default of their existence. A successful operation is one of which you never hear. The CIA is an easy target for a pop novelist.

Martin Amis About Meaning

Posted in quotes, writers-poetry on September 22nd, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Martin Amis About Meaning

Again, it must be stressed that you don’t have your themes tacked up on the wall like a target, or like a dartboard. When people ask, What did you mean to say with this novel? The answer to the question is, of course, The novel, all four hundred and seventy pages of it. Not any catchphrase that you could print on a badge or a T-shirt. It’s a human failing to reduce things either to a slogan or a personality, but I seem to have laid myself open to this—the personality getting in the way of the novel.

—Martin Amis

Love’s Labour’s Lost and Salter’s All That Is

Posted in writers-poetry on September 1st, 2013 by admin – Comments Off on Love’s Labour’s Lost and Salter’s All That Is

Just finished James Salter’s All That Is.

Salter’s lapidary stream of consciousness holds your attention. Salter sketches, suggestively (he refers to JS Sargent in one interview), brilliantly. The language is hard yet resonant – like Hemingway. He writes about the erotic journey of his main character. A Seinfeld reference is inevitable: A Young Man’s Erotic Journey From Milan to Minsk. Philip Bowman’s erotic journey is from Japan to New York and London.

The book leaves you with a cold admiration. He writes of passion, but without passion. Salter does love women – their physical and psychical presence fill him with awe. Now 88, All That Is would be an admirable performance by any novelist, no matter their age.


I’m in the middle of Branagh’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Branagh turned Shakespeare’s first comedy into a 1930s musical. Purists will, (and did), hate it – they didn’t think it worked. But the movie is filled with joy and cleverness. The play itself is a dance of language with plot an afterthought. When you have Shakespeare playing with language, well, then you’ve got something.

Seamus Heaney Quotes

Posted in writers-poetry on August 30th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Seamus Heaney Quotes

“Getting started, keeping going, getting started again – in art and in life, it seems to me this is the essential rhythm not only of achievement but of survival, the ground of convinced action, the basis of self-esteem and the guarantee of credibility in your lives, credibility to yourselves as well as to others.”

“It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir; that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power.”

“Even if the hopes you started out with are dashed, hope has to be maintained.”

“Yet there are times when a deeper need enters, when we want the poem to be not only pleasurably right but compellingly wise, not only a surprising variation played upon the world, but a re-tuning of the world itself.”

“Even if the last move did not succeed, the inner command says move again.”

“Without needing to be theoretically instructed, consciousness quickly realizes that it is the site of variously contending discourses.”

Success: Banville and Nietzsche

Posted in pop culture, quotes, writers-poetry on August 27th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Success: Banville and Nietzsche

John Banville, in his Paris Review interview:

“One of my favorite Nietzsche aphorisms is-I always trot this out when people ask about some other writer who’s having a huge sucess for some cheap thing…”

You will never get the crowd to cry hosanna until you ride into town on an ass.

Janet Malcolm, Truth Telling, Privacy

Posted in pop culture, writers-poetry on June 26th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Janet Malcolm, Truth Telling, Privacy

Janet Malcolm’s clarity and honesty are exceptional in journalism, or any field for that matter. Malcolm writes unafraid, telling the truth about what she sees. For a journalist, this would not seem that unusual. But it is. About the now worldwide gossip-celebrity pop culture, she writes:

The organs of publicity that have proliferated in our time are only an extension and a magnification of society’s fundamental and incorrigible nosiness. Our business is everybody’s business, should anybody wish to make it so. The concept of privacy is a sort of screen to hide the fact that almost none is possible in a social universe. In any struggle between the public’s inviolable right to be diverted and an individual’s wish to be left alone, the public almost always prevails. After we are dead, the pretense that we may somehow be protected against the world’s careless malice is abandoned. The branch of the law that putatively protects our good name against libel and slander withdraws from us indifferently. The dead cannot be libeled or slandered. They are without legal recourse.”

The truly strange evolution of this observation is the development of a class of people who feed off self-revelation as a career, or see public self-disclosure (absorption) as a useful avenue for career advancement. And the media, at the ready, laps it up. Famous for being famous.

The other oddity is that the government itself is, without circumspection, joining in with alacrity, insinuating itself into public discourse as a looming unseen presence, adding itself to the crowd of commercial interests that see the public as a predator sees its prey. Collecting information they call it.

About journalism Malcolm writes:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”

There is truly a courageous spirit inhabiting Janet Malcolm.

Mailer On The Spiritual and Writing

Posted in ideas, writers-poetry on May 30th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Mailer On The Spiritual and Writing

Another quote from Norman Mailer, this time describing the foundationalist struggles we all have in understanding our existence:

It’s very hard to describe the complexities of human nature having emerged ex nihilo. If you have God as a creator doing the best that he or she can do there’s a perfect explanation for why we’re here. We’re God’s creation, and God has great respect for us, the way a father, a good father, has respect for children because the father wants the children to be more interesting than himself. And ditto for the mother. And in that sense we are, you might say, the avant-garde for God. The notion of heaven as Club Med or hell as an overheated boiler room makes no sense to me.

[from the second Paris Review Interview]