Musashi

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The back cover says that Musashi is the Gone With the Wind of Japan.

And it is hard to disagree with that. Musashi is at once a sweeping epic a la Gone With the Wind and a quest for spiritual discipline through the Way of the Sword (with the body count that you might expect). It’s a great book, and I suspect that anyone who read Shogun by James Clavell and wanted more might find more in this book.

Musashi is interesting because it occupies a rather unique cultural place. It is based on the real historical figure of Minamoto Musashi; the story arc and numerous characters are real. Thus it historical fiction at its finest. Written in instalments for a newspaper in the 1930s, Eiji Yoshikawa is essentially the grandfather of pretty much everything we know about samurais and feudal Japan.

Let me explain. Yoshikawa’s book essentially created the modern idea of the samurai as a figure of popular culture; I suspect he even did this to a certain extent in Japan itself. I was struck by how many aspects of this book have found their way into the samurai movies of the ’50s and ’60s; even the scene in Karate Kid where the one guy snatches flies with his chopsticks is taken directly from Musashi.

Without Musashi, you would not – I repeat – would not, have Star Wars (or rather, you would not have ‘the Force’). Even the idea in Pokemon universe of different ‘trainers’ and fighting styles derives its popularisation largely from the different styles of swordsmanship and sword masters in Musashi. My point is that Yoshikawa by writing this epic at the right moment in Japanese history brought to life and to popular consciousness the “wild west” of feudal Japan. Instead of the samurai simply being an ancient warrior caste – like the way we might think about, say, the ruling aristocracy of the Roman Empire – samurais emerge in this book, yes as cowboys and/or knights, but also as figures on deep personal spiritual journeys. Each samurai is a hero.

That being said there are parts to this book which for a Western reader, tend to clunk a little bit. The central romance is inexplicable by our cultural mores; it’s so pure and chaste as to be literally unbelievable. At best it is “mythic”. The humour also falls flat. Certain characters and certain scenes are clearly meant to be humorous or offer comedic relief; I was only painfully aware of this – it’s an a sort of slapstick humour mixed with a sort of comedy of manners.

But other than that, it’s great. The figure of Musashi is very well done and very well presented. His quest feels real. His actions are powerful and believable. Even better his ascetic quest – largely unfathomable by the other more mundane characters – essentially allows Yoshikawa to embark on a series of character development story arcs which is quite artfully done.

I am deeply impressed Yoshikawa’s ability to balance spiritual, deeply Bhuddist insight with a tale of swashbuckling; romance and drama with keen interpersonal feeling. Read this book, and then go look at how deep and broad its influence has been. You can literally pick out the lines from this book where the idea of ‘the Force’ is essentially inspired from (via the Japanese samurai flicks of the ’50s and ’60s).

The debate was just as bizarre and pointless as you probably expected it to be

The vast majority of the debate seemed to circle around the ‘character’ of the candidates. Clinton’s strategy was to make Trump angry and it worked. Little of substance was said. I was struck by a tremendous sense of the impossibility of reason and coherent, factual statements. In many ways, it was a total let down. Trump was Trump: blustering buffonish-ness. Clinton was Clinton: canned, full of platitudes and pleasing pointless generalities, she won the debate through tactics aimed at Trump, not by delivering a superior argument.

The opening phase – the economic portion – was the most substantive because it came closest to being an actual debate about what is going on in this country and how to fix it. Clinton was hobbled by her “Establishment-ness”. She espoused a left-of-center economic vision which was unpersuasive and seemed to me to be insufficient. Her relationship with Wall Street, and her basic stance and background indicate to me that her economic policy would actually be a continuation of the policies of Obama and the Democratic centrist (neoliberalism lite) that we have had for the past eight years.

Trump’s economic agenda is mix of neoliberal trickle-down platitudes that go down well with the libertarian crowd, corporations, and the 1% , and protectionist, isolationist rhetoric that goes down with the lower-middle class and blue collar voters. Trump is strong here because its what he seems to be most passionate about; he is the most detailed here. Also, as a “businessman”, his election would fulfil the old Republican fantasy of a businessman in charge as opposed to a politician.

Nobody noticed, but both parties where actually offering pretty much what they always offer. Either way, you get a twist of neoliberalism – the de facto ruling ideology of our country, which came in with Reagan and reinforced by Bill Clinton’s administration. One could say that that the Republican party has been forced to the right because the Democrats have moved into a center center/right position on the ideological spectrum.

I think that Trump’s position here will get him the most votes; his rhetoric here fits with his own image among Americans as “a rich successful businessman” as well as traditional conservative economic ideas that where peddled during the Cold War. The Baby-Boomers have been exposed to the rhetoric of neoliberalism for so long, they can’t seem to understand how badly it has failed bot for this country and for the world. Protectionism is largely incompatible and inconsistant with neoliberal/trickle down economics, but goes down well among certain demographics.

The rest of the debate seemed regress to the level of a youtube comment section debate: pure bickering without any hope of factual verification. What was on display last night was the ignorance of the American voter, seemingly unable to think critically, much less focus on what is being said or remember what has come before. Apparently, most Americans have already forgotten Iraq and Afghanistan and who took us there; or what action or inaction our government takes, regardless. The lies and distortions live on despite the evidence and facts being out there and easily accessable. It’s a shambles.

Usually in a typical American presidential election cycle, the cry goes up at about this time: “Who is still undecided in this election? Just who exactly is an undecided voter anyway?” I have mixed feelings about the traditional Undecided voter; I always imagined someone who could not form a basis of an opinion (i.e. both candidates talk pretty; and some people can’t sort through critically what is being said), or they are torn between conflicting chains of logic (I imagine here a young woman, with no college degree, with an Ammo-sexual boyfriend who should be liberal/progressive). But in this election, I find myself – oddly enough – a undecided voter myself. When Trump says stuff like “The problem is Establishment politicians like Hilary” (or something to that effect), it’s hard for me to disagree. Trump’s right-wing populism would be as disaster, but it does have the appeal of throwing a wrench in the tone-deaf political establishment.

I’m not saying that I might vote for Trump. No, never. But – like a good Millennial – I am planning on voting independent for Jill Stein (libertarians are people who are still buying into the shameless falsehood that taxes and government regulation are the problem in our society). I am dying to send a message to ‘The Establishment’ (I hate the term, but am forced to use it) that I am sick of business as usual – we cannot have another decade of neoliberalism lite. Another decade of inexplicable inaction on climate change, militarism, extreme money in politics, and economic inequality reaching the point where our democracy is pretty much over. I am disgusted that Clinton – very much the candidate of ‘the Establishment’ – can only win because of underhanded stacking-of-the-deck in the primary and because she is running against a troglodyte-baboon of a Republican candidate – the worst they’ve ever had (and that is saying something). The ‘lesser of two-evils’ logic is killing us.

We seem to forget that Trump isn’t an outsider. He’s a total insider. He’s just as much “Establishment” as we perceive Hilary to be. When Trump rails against how politicians are to blame for how things are, we forget that it was these rich oligarchs chasing after ever more money that brought about such a corruption in our system. We forget that it is special interests – weather corporate, individual, or non-profit organisation – that derail our democracy, not the professional politician or government official. We mistake his sincere stupidity for being sincere. Hilary’s perceived dishonesty is made worse because of her gender and the fact that we all read her as smart.

I will admit that I will never quite be able to forgive the Democrats for doing their upmost to stop Bernie Sanders. It wasn’t just stupid of them to alienate Millennials; it was corrupt. It was a cynical political calculation on their part, and it’s hurting them now because Millennials will either not show up at the polls, or vote third party.

I watched the debate last night as an undecided voter. Not between Trump and Clinton, but between Clinton and Jill Stein. Clinton did not win my vote.

If anything was learned form last night, it was that the third-party candidates  -Johnson and Stein – need to be included in these presidential debates. We need to insist on this.

 

 

Blame Baby-Boomers for President Trump

I have just finished reading an article entitled “Blame Millennials for President Trump” by James Kirchick of The Daily Beast. Link here: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/09/16/if-america-elects-a-president-donald-j-trump-blame-millennials.html?source=TDB&via=FB_Page. This article seems to be another instalment in the ridiculous “blame/threaten Millennials for not supporting Hilary” schtick, which really got cranking when Sanders seemed a real threat, and keeps cropping back up every time Trump starts breaking even with Hilary in the polls.

“Bite the bullet and vote for Clinton” Kirchick urges his fellow Millennials – joining the club  of tinny, misunderstanding apologisers that includes Sarah Silverman, Bill Mayer et al. Here’s the basic argument: basically a third of Americans want to vote third party – mostly Millennials – and if they all voted for Hilary, they would smash Trump (only about another third). Thus, If Hilary looses, it will be the third-party favouring Millennials to blame for President Trump.

The reason why Millennials are voting third party – muses Kirchick – is because they are ignorant of the dangers of Trump and strongman/dictator Populism, via our distance from WWII, the Cold War, and the Greatest Generation (Who can do no Wrong, Blessed is Their Name; may our Future be always Manipulated by Reference to Perceptions about what they Would have or Would Not Have Done). Also, Millennials are bitter about Sanders not winning the Democratic primary (remember: Millennials are spoiled and moody, unlike Baby Boomers). The key line that both confuses the issue and ignores the value of the pro-Sanders point of view is this: “a left-wing anti-imperialism that considers her to be a war-monger”. This line encapsulates the whole misunderstanding.

Digging deeper into this line, I find that it both completely misrepresents how I think about Hilary and the Democrats, and it points to a misunderstanding of the entire progressive, third party Millennial conception of contemporary politics, to the point where I think it’s almost a deliberate attempt to confuse the issue and change the subject. It’s a line that both straw-man’s my argument (destroying a weaker parody of my opinion), and attributes my reasoning to something very different to what I’m thinking. Kirchick and the Democrats have saddled me with an opinion that I do not have, and then have dismissed it.

And then Democrats like Kirchick wonder why Millennials are voting for third-party candidates.

Because I do not think Clinton is a war-monger. I am not an “anti-imperialist” because such language is comically out of date and doesn’t apply because it’s not 1848  or 1919 anymore. Any attempt to have a discussion about “imperialism” or “capitalism” or “socialism” or “communism” can only be an attempt to change the subject away from a real discussion of about economics and what we value as a society. That is how outdates these words and concepts are.

Next, Kirchick ascribes a ‘darker’ motivation: “a mix of moral relativism, historical ignorance, and narcissism.” Interestingly, this is how I feel about Baby Boomers (add a line about being spoiled and never really growing up and having everything handed to them on a silver platter and it would be a perfect match). I wonder if this inexplicable and ongoing criticism of Millennials is a sort of meta-criticism of Baby Boomers; one can never criticise one’s self, but when something is painfully close, it makes it a lot easier to criticise; a sort of Lacanian communication. But leaving that aside for the moment, I simply want to point out that Millennials are the most highly educated generation ever; arguments to our historical ignorance because we where not born during the Cold War is both dumbly wrong and again misses the point. Millennials obviously have a different perspective, and it would not kill you – in fact it would really, really be beneficial for everyone – if Baby Boomers, Democrats, the Media, etc, would acknowledge that Millennials necessarily have a different perspective and it is completely valid and valuable.

In a nutshell, the powers that be seem resentful that Millennials are not accepting the received wisdom of the Baby Boomer generation – what a surprise. It’s almost as if things are not going well in the world and in the nation and the Millennials want a change from failed policies that we have received from the Baby Boomers.

As to the narcissism, you can say that about everybody and everything. It’s false because its never not true. The same goes for the line about moral relativism; if there is one thing that is true it is that people will do what they want, regardless of ‘morality’. I think I detect a pungent whiff of a sort of neoconservativism in Kirchick’s argument: a sense that all that is ‘moral’ has already been discovered and proscribed, and all that is left is for Millennials to do is to get in line and follow it. It’s a case of the kettle calling the pot black, to say the least.

Kirchick goes on to list a series of traits about Millennials which he seems to think is bad like: “millennials “perceive the world as significantly less threatening than their elders,” “are more supportive of international cooperation than previous generations,” and “are also far less supportive of the use of military force.” Millennials are also deeply skeptical—like Trump—of American exceptionalism.” I hardly know what to add other then: is this not a good thing? Is this not the way forward? And even if you disagree, you have to acknowledge that it’s a valid point of view to have. As to the line about Trump and American excpetionalism – I hardly know where to start. It simply seems like a clumsy and desperate attempt to link Millennials (which have no interest in Trump and are not voting for him) to Trump himself. It’s a rhetorical trick, and a poor one at that.

Maybe that is the issue. Most pundits and opinion makers simply don’t understand the Millennial perspective: Trump is too much of a gargoyle to take seriously. Millennials are entertained and therefore not afraid. We see Clinton as an extension of the very policies that got us here in the first place. Trump is a product of the very neoliberal ideology that Clinton represents. The failure of the Democrats to get Millennials on board represents not “moral relativism, historical ignorance, and narcissism” but the abject failure of Baby Boomer governmental paradigms and the failure of the Democrats to actual create real and genuine change. Hilary represents more of the same and that is why Millennials are not voting for her.

Lastly, the logic that blames Millennials and third party voters for Trump is fundamentally fallacious. The “lesser of two evils/hold your nose and vote for the Democrat” logic is the problem. It has presented the American voter with a false choice for decades now. And it has got to stop. Blame people that voted for Trump for Trump; blame the Democrats corruption and blatant hypocrisy for not getting voters on board. I am voting for who I actually want to be president in this election – and every election from here forward. And it’s going to be Jill Stein and the Green Party. Maybe a simplistic metaphor might illustrate how Millennials – well, its how I feel anyway. Hilary is like a Honda Civic. Trump is like a Hummer. I want a bicycle; I feel that the choice between a Honda and Hummer is not as different as they appear on the surface. I want real change; something new that neither candidate comes even close to offering. Stop telling me that the Civic is the best and only choice. Because it is not.

I agree with Kirchick on one point: if Trump wins, we will have deserved it. But it won’t be because Millennials only understand Pokemon Go and are ambivalent about democracy. If anything, the Millennial interest in the third parties point that the Millennials understand what is going on only too well; and very much are engaged in the democratic process. The ‘dismissal’ of Trump as a threat is conceived by Kirchick as naive; a sort of digital disconnect from a reality. But the flip side is that Millennials are not buying into the “lesser of two evils” logic which has enabled both of the major political parties to become some hopelessly corrupt in the first place. Trump is too much of a buffoon to take seriously; it’s not that Millennials can’t tell the difference between a reality tv show and Reality (again, this is exactly how I feel about the ageing Baby Boomers) it is that we are all too aware of the actual scam being perpetuated in this election cycle.

 

 

The Metaphysical Club

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In many ways, this is a unique book. It’s not just a work on American history, it’s a detailed, biography driven book about – of all things – American philosophy. And it’s very fascinating because it follows four major thinkers of the generation that actually fought in the Civil War. Thus, this book is about ultimately about American being itself; it’s about the thinkers that have really come to define American and our understanding of the world.

Following the lives of Oliver Wendell Holmes (the long-lasting and extremely influential Supreme Court Justice), and the philosophers William James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey, Menand takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of ideas in 19th century America. It’s very interesting to think in terms of generations here. Because there is the generation of the Revolutionary War, then you have a successive generation (of the Second Great Awakening, John Brown, etc) which raised the generation we are mainly concerned with here, the generation that actually fought in the Civil War and steered the country into the Gilded Age.

It’s a intellectual coming-of-age book about America truely becoming American (as opposed to simply a English colony). As you might expect, the causes of the Civil War and the war itself are the fundamental fact of the book (well, along with Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution) which profoundly shapes each figure. While each of our four heroes followed a different intellectual path, they all found themselves formulating the same solution to the same problem, albeit it in different ways.

Very roughly, Pragmatism was the core tenant of their thinking. Pragmatism sees ideas as tools of the mind that each person uses to make sense of and live their lives. Taken cumulatively, these tools of the mind seem to formulate our culture and society. Thus, a cultural motif that is dying out signals that it is no longer “working”; it no longer seems ‘true’. New ideas might be risky – a gamble – but they are also necessary because they will inevitably form the basis for a healthy society in the future (change being inevitable and inexorable). New ideas or ways of thinking might eventually be seen to be ‘right’ or ‘true’ based on their success out in the real world.

It is this conception which forms some of the more sophisticated reasoning behind our current freedoms. Our Bill of Rights is based on easier experiences with religious wars of the Early Modern period; the original conceptions of freedom of speech is linked with religious freedom. It is Pragmatism that updates this conception to the industrial era and the birth of mass society.

As a student of intellectual history; I am more immediately familiar with Marx’s economic and materialistic conception of ideas, culture and society. Pragmatism is fundamentally a mental or psychological conception which (especially in William James’ hands) plays a tight-rope walk with metaphysics; it leaves the door open to metaphysical connections. In contrast, Marx’s theories see ideas as “superstructure” which results from elites exploiting the labor process. You can see how both conceptions point away from a Platonic conception that ideas are a sort of eternal, fixed set of fundamental truths.

In this we observe the massive effect Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution had on 19th century thought. It had a wide variety of effects and people sought to understand – or not understand – the idea of evolution. You see, evolution was interpreted in a social sense; it seemed to cut at the ideological and religious underpinnings of Victorian society. This trigged an explosion of misinterpretation of Darwin, most famously the idea of “Social Darwinism” – i.e., only the strong survive (a shallow reading of the theory of evolution seems to lend a sort of moral authority to this). Increasingly, human behaviour was seen not to be the actions of an individual tempted by evil on one side and his ‘better angles’ on the other, but as a statistically predictable series of responses underlying a fundamental randomness in nature. Thinkers scrambled to retain God – and the dignity of human choice – in this new universe of chance. Pragmatism can be seen as a response to this new intellectual climate.

As a book, it does a very solid job of explaining complex intellectual histories (like the influence of ‘continental’ thought like Hegel on say John Dewey via the Vermont Transcendentalists). It portrays the experience of a generation and it’s influence admirably. All in all, this is a great book – one that you need to read to understand our own thinking and way of seeing the world. I do have some fussy little complaints though: Menand doesn’t stick to the narrative of the four central characters very well. He seems to loose the thread – and his readers – after the Civil War. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ early life is clear as a day, but when we move on to William James, all becomes muddled. I grant Menand the complexity of the story he is trying to tell (four biographies, multiple intellectual histories and philosophy and an over-arching history of a generation), but I sense that he and his editor where at logger heads about the length and depth of the book.

This is important work; the kind of book that kids in high school should be reading.

Man and his Symbols

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Carl Jung was a student of Freud; but this, I think, is definitely a case of the student surpassing the master. Freud ‘discovered’ the unconscious mind; yet he feared it and essentially sees it as a ‘subterranean’ center of repressed emotions and ideas. Jung believed that this ‘unconscious mind’ was an active and powerful friend and ally to the conscious part of our minds. Thus with Jung, our unconsciousness becomes a place to explore and seek ourselves. Where Freud sees a flooded crypt, Jung sees a deep ocean and seeks it in a Jacques Cousteau style.

Published in the early ’60s, this book is a collaborative synthesis of Jung’s ideas meant for the general public. This was stressed, not just in the introduction, but in literally every chapter and by every single author, who made frequent comments to the effect of “we have much more technical jargon – that you wouldn’t understand – in our ‘real’ writings”. You see, the Jungians have a bit of an inferiority complex; this is a book, after all, about dream interpretation. It’s also a way of seeing the world that comes from the Platonic traditions of philosophy that have their engine in central Europe (Germany). This means that in a world of ‘hard’ sciences where positivism has sway, Jung’s ideas are, at best, to be taken with a grain of salt.

Jung is more than simply a guide to what your dreams mean. His basic conception implies that to be happy, healthy, and live a fulfilled life, one must work with the unconscious mind; it’s essentially your own Freudian therapist. Interestingly, Jung stresses the study of ancient cultures, myths, and symbols as aids to studying dreams; the idea is that most of ancient mythology and most of our own personal ideas come essentially from the unconscious mind. This is my favourite part of Jung; your dreams are one with mythology. The mythology of the ancients is made to make luminous sense. It’s fascinating to see common threads to our thinking across the globe. For example, the idea of a cosmic or original man – ‘Adam’- in our case, is mirrored by similar figures in most other cultures.

Jung is also a huge figure in ’60s academia; his work seems to blend anthropology with human psychology, and sociology. His influence on our culture is very broad, though we might not ever really notice. I’m thinking of Joseph Campbell’s books and their influence on George Lukas; simply for example.

As to the actual book, it was interesting but I felt unconvinced. Jung propounds too much of a system. I do think that dreams are trying to tell you something; I do think that dreams are, on some level “meaningful”, but Jung insists that they bear a consistent and deeply meaningful message, with the ultimate goal for your conscious and your unconscious to be perfectly in tune with one anther.

Even though numerous dreams were recounted and analysed in the book; it left me ever so slightly cold. Nothing “rang true” for me; I felt that the dream symbolism might only be relevant to a certain culture and a certain time and place in history. For example, a familiar dream figure is that of the ‘animus’: a male’s inner feminine element. Another is the ‘shadow’; this is the side of yourself that you dislike or do your best to ignore. In dream after dream, these elements appear in the book. But for me, in searching my own dreams, I can’t identify a single one.

Another example is that certain numbers or shapes are imputed with deep psychological meaning. A circle or mandala seems to imply the cosmic whole of humanity; a square or anything about the number 4 also deep ‘atomic’ center of your psyche. Again, my own dreams seem sadly empty of this penetrating symbolism. I could not help but wonder if part of the Jungian therapy is essentially coaching the unconscious to display this sort of symbolism.

Here’s another take: this is about the time that people start seeing and being “abducted” by flying saucers. Here’s the Jungian interpretation: because it’s a saucer, that’s a circle, and because it’s a circle, it’s a mandala-esque reference to personal and cosmic wholeness. Therefore, a dream about being abducted by aliens is interpreted as your unconscious attempting to get you to be more in tune with your society; it’s scary, but it mist be done. This is a rough interpretation, but it’s close enough for you to understand my hesitations.

The book has a great message about personal wholeness in our day and age, which I think hold true regardless of the actual accuracy of Jungian thought. It’s a great book for anyone interested in dreams or symbolism or mythology.