Thursday, May 26, 2016

Acoustic Guitar Journal #9: Performance!

First recital: May 21
A journey that began almost two years ago hit a milestone this past week. As part of a group recital, I performed three songs on a stage in front of an audience. This was the first time I had ever played guitar in front of anyone, sang in front of anyone, or shared my songs publicly. So it was a triple milestone.

As posted previously, I’ve always wanted to write and sing my own songs. And most of the skills needed were there. I could write great lyrics, put together a tune, read music, and play (or learn to play) musical instruments fairly easily. Unfortunately, one key element had always been missing: my voice. I have always been a terrible singer. Even after two stints of voice lessons with different teachers at different times of my life, I remained so awful that even people with an interest in being kind to my mistakes gently requested I not sing. No matter what I tried, the same dreadful sound would always emerge from my mouth. Repeated disappointments led me to give up on the whole idea nearly two decades ago.

Two years ago, I took up guitar as a way to reignite my creative life. Almost immediately, I began to write songs. While playing my songs, the guitar's sound box would vibrate against my chest and I found I could ‘pitch’ my voice against this vibration. Recordings suggested a tiny improvement in my singing. It wasn’t good singing, but it wasn’t as utterly dreadful as I had always sounded before. It was the first time I’d improved in any way, so I was very excited. However, I was also very much afraid of being disappointed yet again.

It seemed pointless to write songs no one would ever hear, and I had little interest in hawking them for others to sing. So, basically, I realized if I couldn’t sing my songs myself then there was no point in writing them. So, after completing six or seven songs, I had to try learning to sing again. And, because I apparently didn’t think the emotional stakes were high enough, I told myself that if I found I couldn't sing that I would immediately give up guitar and stop writing.

So less than a year ago, I had my first lesson with all that hanging over me. I told my teacher how awful I was, that she probably couldn't do much to help, and that even if she could help I would be happy if I could simply sing in tune. I was so scared that she had to urge me to sing above a low whisper. My teacher was great! She made me feel safe, but she also provided honest critique so I wouldn't feel I was being humored. I felt a thread of confidence and clung to it. This was the start of a long road and a lot of work that led to this first recital.

I performed three songs at the recital: 'Stolen Car' by Bruce Springsteen and two of my own songs, 'Far Behind' and 'If You Have No Wings'. I was nervous, and it wasn’t a perfect performance by any means. However, it was a solid performance and left me feeling extremely excited and proud. Not to mention relieved that it was over! I'm now much more confident about performing in front of people.

At the same time, it's easy to remain objective. I'm neither a brilliant singer nor a virtuoso on the guitar. I have a lot to learn. But I'm certainly able to perform publicly, and I think I write really good songs. So this first recital was a proving ground. I've already set up plans for my next performance: doing a 'set' of seven or eight songs for friends at our home. I've purchased my first non-starter guitar, an acoustic-electric Breedlove (see picture) with which I fell in love. Also picked up an amp so I have the option to perform publicly elsewhere...perhaps at a coffeehouse or something. I've also started researching home recording equipment.

What began as a seemingly futile stab at an old dream has turned into something very rewarding and alive. Not really sure what the next step is or what my ultimate goal is (or whether I even need to have one). For now, I'm just very happy and willing to take things as they come. And, of course, to keep working and grow.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The 'Mystery' of Donald Trump

caricature by DonkeyHotey
I hate to add - in any small way - to the pile of media coverage Donald Trump is receiving. However, since I have many friends who are Democrats and/or liberal, I've heard and read a lot of stunned shock over Trump's success in the Republican primary. Most recently, in response to his latest low-level stunt, a friend of mine posted several questions on Facebook:

"What is wrong with Trump? Is he two years old? Someone please explain how he is supported when he acts immature, unprofessional, and unpresidential. I just don't understand."

My friend's reaction is pretty representative of what Donald Trump has inspired from national news media and political wonks. There seems to be a general sense of "how can this be happening?" However, Trump's appeal and success are not at all mysterious. Nor is it difficult to understand or explain. In fact, I would argue that the only mystery about him is that the political machine - in this case, the GOP - did not see something like Trump coming a long time ago.

Trump's appeal is due precisely to all the things my friend cited about him in her questions. He is unprofessional. He is not presidential. He is immature. Further, he is undignified, uninterested in thoughtful discussion of key issues, proudly dismissive of facts that contradict his emotional outbursts, and more interested in appearing strong than in being just. He will do or say whatever pops into his head and not worry about the consequences. To cap it off, even though he is running as a Republican, he is clearly not one. Nor is he a Democrat. His party and his cause are his 'brand' (i.e., himself), and he is cynically using the political process to attain those ends.

cartoon by Jeff Parker
In other words, Trump is doing everything that is suicide for a mainstream political candidate. What the mystified masses seem to forget is that there are a lot of Americans who are utterly tired of and disillusioned by mainstream political candidates. By not being one - and actually spitting in their faces - Trump is tapping into a powerful reservoir of frustration Americans have with their political system. And it's paying off immensely. There's no mystery in any of this.

It's common knowledge that many Americans have lost faith in mainstream politicians and, to an extent, traditional leaders and experts. This is because, as America shifts to a different role in a rapidly changing world, many Americans interpret the shift as a sign that our country is losing its influence and power. This loss of power is seen as leading to reduced global security, a weak economy, and insufficient job opportunities. In response to these problems, many Americans see President Obama, Congress, and mainstream political powers as incapable of (or just not interested in) doing anything to fix it.

Trump is appealing in this context because he is the only fully non-mainstream choice for Republicans. It's him or the feckless mainstream machine that has failed to authoritatively address the problems many people care about. In short, Trump has presented these disillusioned voters with an alternative, something they have desperately wanted for a very long time. The fact that they have it now is why Jeb Bush was a non-starter, Rubio spluttered out, and Kasich hasn't ignited. Trump's existence relegates them all to a trash heap labelled 'More Of The Same'. Their every calculated speech and condemnatory comment glaringly reinforce Trump's 'otherness'. It also reinforces that these candidates are just part of the same machine disillusioned voters blame for sending the US on a dizzy stumble towards a cliff.

As a result, the more obnoxious Trump is and the louder the mainstream gasps in horror at him, the more his followers cling to him. Were Donald Trump ever to speak in a reasonably intelligent manner, address issues thoughtfully, or gain mainstream acceptance it's probable that many of his followers would dismiss him as a 'sell-out' and his support would evaporate. He probably couldn't change course now even if he wanted to.

Notably, Trump is not the first recent candidate to thrive on being an outsider. He's just the most extreme version. Sarah Palin cashed in on this dynamic during her run with John 'what-the-hell-was-he-thinking' McCain. In a sense, it is also part of the reason Obama was able to upset Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008 and why Sanders is able to challenge her in 2016. Now I'm not saying Obama, Sanders, and Trump are the same kinds of candidates. However, all three were not/are not traditional Presidential candidates. Each, in his own way, flouted conventional rules about what a candidate for President can be or should be. For example, Sanders has spectacularly dared to use the 'S' word (Socialism) to describe his platform. This would have been political suicide in the past. However, in today's landscape where voters want alternatives, such deviations are a badge of authenticity that draws votes and makes traditional opponents (in this case Clinton) look stale and unappealing.

One very positive thing about Sanders - as an alternative candidate - is that he proves such candidates can kick over the applecart of political complacency without resorting to racism, sexism, un-Presidential behavior, and stoking fear. Whether you agree with Sanders' views or not, one has to admit that he certainly has married a unique point of view to a serious campaign (as opposed to the slimy reality TV show that is Trump's campaign). His refusal to trash talk is an example. In fact, I'm sure that if there was a Republican alternative candidate using Sanders' approach, that they would have supplanted and crushed 'the Donald' early in the Republican primary.

The danger in American politics is not that nuts like Donald Trump run for President. The danger arises if the mainstream political parties in the United States become so rigid that they are incapable of producing alternative candidates that also make good choices for President. If Republicans fail to deliver such candidates in 2020, then such candidates will be forced on them the same way Donald Trump was. The difference will be that the nuts in 2020 will have the benefit of the Trump candidacy as a playbook. That means that they will be much crazier than Trump, much worse for America than Trump, and - barring reasonable alternatives for frustrated American voters to rally around - much harder to beat than Trump.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Illusion Of Security

In a previous post on the difference between happiness and contentment, I noted that chasing after 'happiness' can lead to a deluded mindstate that creates suffering rather than happiness. This is because the human condition includes suffering. As a result, happiness cannot be maintained as a permanent state of being. We should appreciate happiness when we have it, but clinging to happiness is doomed to failure.

Permanent happiness is not the only illusion which can ensnare us into deluded thinking. Another is the mirage of 'security'. As with happiness, the desire for security is essentially natural and healthy. The problem occurs when we attempt to maintain security as a permanent condition. In other words, when we try to pretend that suffering and uncertainty are not as natural to the human condition as are happiness and security.

While clinging to happiness leads us to chase our tails and stress out, grasping after security leads us to become pawns of fear. We will fear losing security due to not having enough money, terrorist attacks, being lonely, or any number of threats. A deluded mindset driven by fear takes hold. Fear drives how we look at life, prioritize, and make decisions. By clinging to security, we permanently lose it. We end up in a paranoid state of mind, looking for and fending off every potential threat. We are reduced to a basket case always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

As you can guess the ultimate root of this suffering we create arises from no longer being in the moment. Instead of engaging with what is happening right now (good or bad), we focus on some idealized state of security in our imagination and then we compulsively compare our present situation against it. We spend our energy making plans and taking actions to avoid losing our sense of security. This often involves worrying about things that are not true threats or are unlikely to happen. We live in a world of what might be as opposed to what it.

This is an absurd mindset because, in truth, we never are truly safe and secure. No matter what we do, our lives can always be derailed by the suffering innate to human existence. We contract diseases, people we love die, friends move away, we lose jobs, etc. Even at the most fundamental level, we cannot be truly secure. No one ever expects to be in a car accident, a plane crash, or struck by lightning. However, in an instant, any one of these events could disrupt, irrevocably change, or even end our lives.

This may seem like a very depressing way to view the world! But it isn't. It is depressing only if we have a mindset that clings to security. In contrast, if we accept that we are vulnerable to suffering, then we can exist in the present moment and not fear potential threats. Yes, I could be hit by a car tomorrow...but I could also win the lottery. I could contract and die of cancer by Spring...or I could live to be 120. I might walk into work tomorrow and be fired...or I may be offered a promotion. Since anything is possible, it is foolish to spend time worrying about (or celebrating) any of these possibilities. The present moment is all that is real.

Of course, this outlook doesn't mean we should not work towards our own security, pass measures to fight terrorism, drive safely to avoid accidents, etc. It only means that we accept there are limitations to how much we can do to fend off these threats. This enables us to exist in a dangerous world and act in sensible ways to protect ourselves and those we love. Most importantly, it allows us to draw lines we should not cross or set aside things we should not sacrifice in order to provide an illusion of security.

The benefit of such in the moment thinking is that when uncertainty or insecurity inevitably come our way we will react to them calmly, from a place of sense and strength. This will allow us the possibility of remaining content even while we suffer and, in some cases, make our suffering of a shorter duration. We also will have the ability to be happy in life, rather than constantly looking over our shoulder for threats and problems that might happen. In other words, serenity.

Monday, February 29, 2016

A Disciplined Mindstate in Everyday Life

One of the biggest challenges many Zen Buddhists face is to maintain the disciplined mindstate we achieve during zazen in everyday life. Despite our best intentions, life’s barrage of deadlines, multitasking, pet peeves, fire drills, curve balls, petty conflicts, and bottlenecks seem calculated to drag us into a reactive, deluded mentality. This, despite the fact that we know such a mentality leads to our own suffering.

Everyday life can seem like a minefield to our centered state of mind. The cat vomits all over the carpet when I’m already late for work. The idiot ahead of me is driving at ten miles per hour under the speed limit. It’s raining, and I forgot my umbrella. And the typical office environment? Wall-to-wall bear traps! The distance between how we act in everyday life and the centered mindstate we achieve in zazen can make a trip to Pluto look inconsequential!

It’s so difficult to carry a disciplined mindstate into day-to-day life that some people believe the only way to reach one’s full potential as a Zen Buddhist is to abandon everyday life and take up a monastic existence. While this is probably true to at least some extent, it’s also true that everyday life cannot be completely hostile to a centered mindstate. If it were, then Zen Buddhism would have no practical value.

Therefore, no matter how annoying our day has been, we need to accept that the problem in bringing a proper mindstate into everyday life is not what we encounter in everyday life. The problem is that we tend to ignore our training during day-to-day living and, by deactivating the wisdom we need to discipline our minds, doom ourselves to unnecessary suffering.

"Zen Logo" by vargux
So how do we activate - or perhaps more accurately - hold onto the wisdom we gain from Zen Buddhism so as to benefit from it during daily life? I’ve found that doing so requires: 1) developing an instinctive sense of when we’re slipping from a disciplined mindstate, and 2) the ability to instantly reactivate a centered mindstate. While this is not as easy as it sounds, everything we need to develop these two skills is available to us via zazen.

Of course, the rest of this post assumes you engage in zazen on a regular basis and have done so for a relatively long period of time. A few sessions of sitting or visiting a zendo once a month is not going to give you a command of these skills to most effectively resist the undertows of everyday life. In addition, my thoughts here are only what I have personally found to be true. This is not a how-to guide, because there are few (if any) how-to guides in Zen Buddhism. It may not even be right for you. So with these disclaimers made...

First, how can one develop an instinctive sense of when we’re slipping from a disciplined mindstate? Through regular zazen practice. During zazen, we slowly learn what a centered mentality ‘feels’ like. Let me clarify. In early stages of training, we associate the ‘feel’ of right-mindedness with actual feelings: relaxation, serenity, compassion, etc. However, in Zen Buddhism, these feelings are only side effects of a disciplined mindstate, not indications of the actual state itself.

A disciplined mindstate involves letting go. It’s devoid of expectations, value judgements, attachments, and desires. We’re completely in the moment. We’re not thinking about how we got here, how we feel about it, what it will lead to, what we’re trying to accomplish, etc. This is mindstate often conflicts with everyday life because so much of everyday life involves goal-oriented activities and/or making value judgements. However, once we have trained ourselves to know what a disciplined mindstate ‘feels’ like, then we will know when we’re drifting away from it. We just have to pay attention and be focused.

The other part is how - when we sense we’re drifting - to bring ourselves back to center in an instant. Again, everyday life doesn't give us any breaks. It doesn’t allow us to chant mantras during a tense conversations, close our eyes while driving, or not own any goals. So the challenge is to find a way to - literally within seconds and without stopping what we’re doing - shepherd our mind back to center.

image taken from
Again, the answer lies in our experiences during zazen. During samadhi, we are acutely aware. We can feel when a stray breeze touches our skin, study dust in sunlight, be aware of soft ambient sounds, etc. This focus occurs when we have cleaned our minds of chatter and exist only in the moment. To center ourselves in everyday life, we can find such details in any given moment and use them as anchors to stand firm against the currents of what is happening around us. Then we can quickly reassert control.

In this way, by working to apply what we learn and experience during zazen, we can train ourselves to identify when our mind is undisciplined and then correct ourselves so as to retain the centered mindstate we cherish. I’ve been able to successfully apply this process many times...although I have a long way to go before I will probably be able to do it consistently.

In the end, applying these skills has allowed me to view everyday living as a kind of practice. Much the way zazen is practice.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Zen Humor

This strip is not focused on Zen as a rule, but the humor of this one is a bulls-eye if you practice. Laughed out loud when I read it, and thought I'd share.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Emile Zola - 'Doctor Pascal'

translated by Mary J. Serrano
After just over five years, I have come to the end of my project of reading the entire Rougon-Macquart Cycle by Emile Zola!

The Rougon-Macquart is a series of twenty novels set in Second Empire France which purport, by way of demonstrating the effects of heredity on individuals, to provide a complete history of a single family over five generations and the society in which they lived. They are often bleak novels, but it's been a worthwhile effort. After reading all twenty novels, I'm convinced Zola's Cycle is one of the greatest achievements in post-industrial literature. Any serious reader of literature should have at least two or three of these novels under their belt, especially if they are interested in late 19th Century fiction, social justice, or realism.

For those who wish to go further and tackle the entire Cycle, there are two ways to do so: in the order Zola published the novels or in the order in which he preferred them to be read. I would strongly recommend the latter as it provides much better insight into Zola's overall structure. Whichever way you choose to go, however, no one should read Doctor Pascal first. It should always be read last, whether you take on the whole Cycle or just a few of the best entries.

There are two reasons for this. First, Doctor Pascal doesn't work all that well as a stand-alone novel. The characters are well-drawn, but the plot is not as engaging or hard-hitting compared to many of Zola's other works. Second, Doctor Pascal's true purpose is to function as a thematic capstone. As a result, a good deal of exposition is dedicated towards Zola's themes of heredity and the engines of society. This material is only loosely integrated into the plot by way of being presented as the life's work of Doctor Pascal in maintaining a well-researched Rougon-Macquart family tree. This means that long stretches of several chapters will, frankly, be of little interest to anyone who doesn't have a high level of familiarity with the Rougon-Macquart family.

The plot primarily concerns the titular character and his niece Clotilde Rougon, who form a romantic relationship (with surprisingly minor repercussions). Sub-plots involve a relatively large number of other family members, much like the Cycle's introductory novel The Fortune of the Rougons (which also should be read only if you plan to get a deeper feeling for Zola's overall accomplishment). The sub-plots update us on the lives of Felicite Rougon (as shrewdly obsessed with appearances as ever), Adelaide 'Dide' Foques, Maxime Rougon, his illegitimate son Charles, and the reliably white-trashy Antoine Macquart. I won't spend much of my post discussing the specific plot and sub-plots because my interest in Doctor Pascal was entirely wrapped up in its role as a thematic capstone.

Zola's Rougon-Macquart family tree
While The Fortune of the Rougons provided the initial stories and background of most members of the family, Doctor Pascal ties up loose ends. Of course, many Rougon-Macquart family members died or had their fates clearly resolved within their specific novels. For those who did not, Doctor Pascal contains a series of 'epilogues'. Again, much of this material has little or nothing to do with the plot of this novel, so it's hard to imagine anyone without a lot of background in the Cycle being interested in these epilogues.

From my standpoint, however, I loved it! The epilogues relate the ultimate fates of Eugene Rougon, Sidonie Rougon, Octave Mouret and his wife Denise, Helene Mouret Grandjean, Jean Macquart, and Etienne Lantier. Some of the characters have died, while others are still making their way in life and having children. Elsewhere we receive updates: Aristide Saccard is still a greedy slime preying on the weak, Victor Saccard has vanished into the shadowy underworld of Paris, Serge and Desiree Mouret still enjoy their marginal existence, and Pauline Quenu is thriving at the heart of the dysfunctional Chanteau family.

Pascal's work in researching and maintaining the family tree serves a couple purposes Zola has on his agenda. First, it allows him to put his themes and viewpoints into Pascal's mouth as dialogue. While Zola handles this quite well, that doesn't excuse his usage of such a ham-fisted means of conveying ideas. To someone coming to Doctor Pascal without much background from the Cycle, this material (and there's a lot of it) will seem pedantic, preachy, and boring. As an example of this content, in Chapter 2 Pascal voices Zola's philosophy on life in opposition to the religious views promoted by Clotilde:
"I believe that the future of humanity is in the progress of reason through science. I believe that the pursuit of truth, though science, is the divine ideal which man should propose to himself. I believe that all is an illusion and vanity outside the treasure of truths slowly accumulated, and which will never again be lost. I believe that the sum of these truths, always increasing, will at last confer on man incalculable power and peace, if not happiness. Yes, I believe in the final triumph of life."
Zola could be Doctor Pascal at his desk
As you can tell, this 'dialogue' is really a very thinly disguised manifesto. Pascal - and, thus, Zola - go on to explain that Life is "God, the grand motor, the soul of the universe. And life has no other instrument than heredity." Zola is not a narrow determinist, however, as he later acknowledges that heredity is "an effort towards resemblance thwarted by circumstances and environment." So he allows that we are more than our genes. Whether he believes humans possess any true free will or that we are merely actors driven by a blend of genetic and environmental influences is something that I could not guess at without reading a biography about him. Getting back to the Cycle, one of Zola's objectives in writing it is to use the analysis of the family as a metaphor for Second Empire France. For this reason, Zola goes into great detail about how he believes heredity works via Pascal's character-by-character synopsis of the entire family.

Pascal's family tree project also provides Zola with a platform from which to defend - or perhaps justify - the reason for his magnum opus to even exist. For example, towards the end of Chapter 5, Clotilde finally forms an "understanding of him [Pascal] at last, and confessing to herself that he was attempting in this an immense work. In spite of everything, it was a cry of health, of hope for the future." After reading some of Zola's 'light-hearted romps', it's not surprising the author felt a need to defend his decision to write at length about so many depraved and vice-ridden characters. This need was likely increased by the genuine shock and outrage several of his novels incited upon publication. Even in today's context of cynical post-modern angst, many of Zola's characters are pretty appalling. But Zola claims to "preserve the impersonal and correct attitude of the demonstrator." In other words: I'm showing you reality; don't blame me if you don't like it! Again Zola uses one of his characters - Clotilde - to voice his ideas, in this case to recognize the 'immensity' and honorable motivation behind his work. That Zola also scripts the religious Clotilde yielding to the judgment of the agnostic or atheistic Pascal provides Zola a vicarious means of accomplishing a victory of reason over religion. These are all questionable literary tactics, but one can kind of forgive Zola given that he was writing Doctor Pascal as a thematic capstone rather than a traditional novel.

Despite the often unsavory - or in some cases non-existent - morality of his characters, Zola's view of life is stated as: "One must live for the effort of living, for the stone to be carried to the distant and unknown work, and the only possible peace in the world is in the joy of making this effort." In essence, Zola views individuals as cogs in the wheel of a much larger human action. This is not a view that will sit well with anyone who espouses the ascendancy of the individual, but it's hardly surprising coming from Zola since it's questionable whether he credits any of us with true free will. This position is problematic, however, because one could argue that Zola has merely replaced religious faith in a deity exercising a divine plan (which he rejects) with society propagating itself as a force beyond any one person. I'm not sure the functioning of humans or society would be much different under the two viewpoints. Only the 'window dressing' would be radically altered.

Despite all this, Pascal/Zola have hope related to their work and to mankind overall. At the very end of Chapter 5 after Pascal has revealed everything to Clotilde about his beliefs and his research, he "remained alone, and he asked himself suddenly, seized by infinite discouragement and sadness, if he had done right in speaking, if the truth would germinate in this dear and adored creature, and bear one day a harvest of happiness." The novel seems to suggest that this is indeed possible through the constant hope expressed that one of the newly born progeny of the Rougon-Macquart family - perhaps even the child Pascal and Clotilde have - may represent a new and better direction for the future. In Zola's case, the fact that his works have lasted suggests there is indeed hope that ideas can bear a harvest one day.
Visiting Zola's grave in Montmartre Cemetery

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Acoustic Guitar Journal #8: Progress!

I've switched guitar teachers, and my new teacher has focused me on several areas that have added new dimension to what I can do on a guitar. First, we're doing a lot of work with a lot rhythm patterns. He's given me 12-15 different patterns with different chords in each one. So it's not only about learning rhythm but also continuing to keep my chord changing sharp. I really enjoy this part of practicing, and it's also made me rethink how I play my own songs.

Another new aspect to my lessons is using a pick. My new teacher pretty much assumed from the start that this is how we would work, so I've gone along. I like strumming with my fingers, but the pick creates a much louder, stronger sound and I can do a lot more with it rhythmically. With this focus on rhythm and using a pick, we've worked through the rhythm guitar patterns on a bunch of songs: "Southern Cross" by Crosby Stills & Nash, "Let It Be" by the Beatles, and "Vienna" by Billy Joel. In most cases I quickly get to a place where I can play the rhythm part, and he can solo over it. I like playing rhythm; you just start to ride a wave within the song and that feels sweet! I've also begun learning some songs on my own: old country standard "Silver Threads & Golden Needles" and k.d. lang's "Constant Craving".

Latest push is barre chords. I'd been faking them so far (e.g., playing F by using finger one on only the two highest strings and such), but it's pretty clear to me that if I really want to play some of the more interesting songs out there that I have to learn how to do barre chords. "Vienna" has several, and I'm trying to force myself to play F and other chords like it as barres. It's difficult and doesn't come naturally to me at all. So sometimes I end up just changing chords over and over between regular and barre chords. The more I do it, the better I should get at it.

I also started taking voice lessons a few months ago. It just got to a point where I had to try again. I don't know if the sinus surgery I had changed how things resonate, I have a better teacher, or possess more confidence (or all three), but I have improved dramatically in just a short time. I'm hitting my notes, so my fear that I was tone deaf to my voice was utterly unfounded. I have a vibrato going, and when I playback recordings of myself it sounds reasonable! My teacher even asked me to perform at a recital the studio is doing. I held off on that; I need to feel a bit more confident.

I've also performed some of my songs for my voice teacher, accompanying myself on guitar. My self-accompaniment is pretty poor but it serves its purpose. Singing in correct style and in front of someone is reshaping how I sing my songs. With several, I've stopped practicing them altogether so I can focus on a few songs, improve my melody lines and polish my technique.

Sometimes I have to pinch myself. Deep down, I fully expected to take a few months of voice lessons and learn once again that I simply lack vocal talent and cannot be made to improve. To finally be on my way to singing, something I have dreamed about all my life is an incredible feeling.

It's never over until it's over.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Emile Zola - 'The Debacle'

The Battle of Sedan
In the second to last book of his Rougon-Macquart Cycle, Zola continues the story of Jean Macquart. Very little time has elapsed between The Earth and The Debacle, in which we find Jean has joined the army to fight in the Franco-Prussian war (the titular 'debacle').

In a brief span of time - and without hitting us over the head - Zola illustrates for the reader the incompetence of the French army's leadership. This incompetence ends in a series of truly humiliating defeats for the French, in which thousands of soldiers are massacred. As the plot takes us through the inevitable disaster, Zola does an amazing job painting the horrors of the battlefield, prison camps, and an insurrection in Paris which leads to the city being set on fire. In the midst of these historic events, Zola creates a touching friendship between his two main characters: Jean and the somewhat aristocratic Maurice. Initially at odds, the relationship between them slowly develops until they are like brothers. They bring humanity to this historical novel and render the tragedy much more affecting as a result, as Zola weaves his plot and historical elements together brilliantly. He creates a panorama of characters, including the Emperor himself, that allows us to be in the middle of the action at all times. The Debacle is a powerful novel about the folly of war.

At the same time, The Debacle works brilliantly as a product of Zola's Naturalistic school of writing. On the one hand, it is yet another portal back into time allowing us to view an aspect of Second Empire France in tremendous detail: the military and war. The Debacle also figuratively and very literally closes the curtain on Second Empire France, as the French defeat cascades into a sort of anarchist civil war within the confines of Paris. While the section between the end of the war and the beginning of the insurrection of the Communards is way too heavy on exposition and starved of plot details, the novel does return to full power for the burning of Paris. Part of the reason this part of the novel is so impactful is that - throughout his Cycle - Zola has made us so well acquainted with the Second Empire Paris of which he pens the destruction.

I remember watching an featurette about the making of Brian De Palma's movie Carrie. In it, De Palma (or someone talking about his direction of the movie, I can't remember which), discusses the power of the prom scene. The person speaking pointed out that De Palma starts the prom scene with a long pan showing us the entire gym and all the characters in it, the stage, the rock band, the decorations...everything. The comment was - and I'm paraphrasing - that the scene worked so well because De Palma spent that pan (and in truth the entirely of the movie leading up to that moment) displaying the world he was about to destroy. By making us aware of the people and the setting, it was much more dramatic when Carrie unleashes her rage.

The same thing is true about Zola and the burning of Paris. Throughout the Cycle, Zola has illustrated every nuance and shade of Paris: the mansions of the rich in The Kill, the middle class neighborhoods of Pot-Bouille, and the hovels of the poor in L'Assommoir. The retail paradise of The Ladies' Paradise, the food markets of Les Halles, and the squalid 'store' operated by Sidonie Rougon. The artistic circles, theaters, massive gentrification projects, the Bourse, the railroads, the Salon, and the streets of the city itself. Through all of this, we have walked with Zola's characters in Paris, lived with them, watched them work, build their fortunes, face defeat, and/or sink into oblivion. After experiencing all of this, it is truly and monumentally disastrous to read about Paris burning...especially in the hellish way Zola writes about it.

Zola uses the burning of Paris to once more extol his theme about the need for destruction to occur in order for new life or growth to take place. The only odd thing about Zola's treatment of this theme in The Debacle is that he positions the peasant Jean as the sort of honest stock that can be trusted to rebuild France from the ruins. This sentiment is a little hard to swallow after Zola spent 500+ pages depicting peasants as depraved, grasping bottom feeders in The Earth.

Along this theme - and as I hinted in my entry about The Earth - I noticed that Jean is one of the few Rougon-Macquart family members to be a principle character in two novels. After thinking about the structure of the entire Cycle, this fact led me to some interesting analysis because while Nana Coupeau and Claude Lantier have notable roles in books beyond the on in which they 'star' (L'Assommoir and The Belly of Paris, respectively), there are actually only three characters who are truly the focus of more than one novel. Interestingly, these three characters each come from one of the three families in the Cycle. Jean Macquart (The EarthThe Debacle) is from the lower class Macquart family, Octave Mouret (Pot-BouilleThe Ladies' Paradise) is from the middle class Mouret family, and Aristide Saccard (The KillMoney) is a member of the wealthy/privileged Rougon family. What these three characters have in common and what their two novel vehicles share is very interesting.

Aristide, Octave, and Jean are each introduced in novels that present them within a panorama of characters used to dissect their class. In The Kill, Aristide takes a backseat to his second wife Renee amid the decadence and out of control acquisitiveness of the upper class who graft and spend their way through millions. Octave is introduced in Pot-Bouille among a vast cast of characters representing the hypocritical and social climbing middle class. In The Earth, Jean is presented as part of the peasant class, who are replete with animalistic vice and depravity. All three of these Rougon-Macquart characters are assertive and lack the laziness, inertia, or mental instabilities that undermine most other members of the family.

The second book each character appears in uses the character to speak to Zola's theme of the need for destruction and death to allow progress. For example, in Money Aristide takes center stage and his predatory nature - well-established in The Kill - achieves its fullest expression as he foments a ponzi scheme that leads to a financial meltdown. People's lives are destroyed and the economy is harmed on a large scale. Octave's lusting ambition is clearly delineated in Pot-Bouille. In The Ladies' Paradise, we see the apotheosis of this trait in his creation of a voracious department store that destroys all his competitors.

Jean's story is a bit more sympathetically presented in that he is never really part of the morass of slime Zola paints in The Earth. He comes off as a decent, hard-working man who leaves the farming community partially out of disgust. In The Debacle, this steadfastness serves him well as he survives the events of the war. Unlike the other two characters, Jean does not create the predatory or destructive forces the unfold around him. This makes sense given his low social position; he simply doesn't have the power, money, or influence to wield such force. Instead, after everything collapses, Zola presents him and his honesty and diligence as part of the growth and progress that will come after destruction has burned away corruption.

I have to believe this two-novel device was intentional, as it is far too structurally sound to have occurred by chance. These sorts of pan-Cycle analyses - of which I've laid out several examples in my posts about the Cycle - are one of the reasons Zola's magnum opus is so impressive as a work of literary genius. The Cycle is not just a set of twenty loosely connected novels; they form a whole of which different parts resonate with others and hold together to create a structure that has emergent qualities in theme and social commentary that are not as powerfully or comprehensively spoken to within a single novel. The point of Zola's Cycle, therefore, is in the cross-referencing of characters, classes, heredity, and social institutions in understanding human society as a whole.

On a final note, another recurring characteristic of the Cycle novels is how often they speak to modern society. This is something I've noted in posts on several of the novels. The overall theme of destruction leading to progress can be applied to today's world in some disturbing ways. The culture of the United States today is in pretty bad shape: political dysfunction, yawning gaps between haves and have-nots, willful ignorance waved as a patriotic banner, and arrogant corruption flagrantly oozing out of businesses and institutions all around us. One wonders what form of destruction lies ahead for the United States in order to make room for the inevitable progress of a renewed path forward.

Zola would suggest we should not only expect such upheaval, but that we should not shed too many tears over the lives trampled as human society evolves and pushes for progress. It's not at all an idealistic or compassionate way to view human beings, but then Zola wasn't much interested in ideals. He preferred reality, uncompromised by sentiment.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Emile Zola - 'The Earth'

Jean-Francois Millet Man With a Hoe 1862
Oil on canvas, 80 x 99 cm
The eighteenth novel of Zola's twenty novel cycle about France's Second Empire period, The Earth focuses on the final member of the Macquart family: Jean Macquart. In The Fortune of the Rougons, Jean was introduced as a hard worker and a slow learner. His diligence eventually allows him to earn a trade in carpentry, but Zola makes it clear he'll never be more than a 'worker bee'. His father forces Jean to toil away, only to gamble and drink away his pay. He also flirts with any girl Jean shows an interest in, humiliating his son. One day, Jean gets his pay and runs away from home.

In The Earth, we pick up Jean's story after a good deal of time has passed. He is now twenty-nine, with a job as a farm laborer in the small town of Beauce. Since most of the townspeople grew up in Beauce, Jean is something of an outsider. The locals seem to have accepted him and nick-name him 'Corporal', referring to the fact that Jean spent a good deal of time in the army before turning to farming. He remains hard-working and raw, a true 'peasant' (which is how he comes across to the more polished and educated Maurice in Zola's next novel The Debacle).

The Earth is very well-written, with a broad scope both in terms of characters and subject matter. The cast includes all levels of the agricultural field: large landowners (Hourdequin), family farmers (the Fouan clan), subsistence farmers, even laborers and migrants. Zola spends a great deal of time painting the inter-relationships and social mores of the farming community, using the extended Fouan clan as a centerpiece. The family dynamics are - as expected - front and center. However, Zola also explores the economic issues and changing agricultural technology of the times. These, as well as the shadow of the Franco-Prussian war, influence life in Beauce but do not really alter it. Zola repeatedly links his characters to the earth itself, and it is the unending toil on the land that defines their existence. Everything else seems very far away, and characters that return to the town after going to live in Paris are almost treated like aliens from another planet.

A scene from La Terre, directed by André Antoine (1921)
Zola's massive scope allows him to successfully accomplish his obvious goal of painting a naturalistic portrait of the peasant or agricultural class (of which most of the characters belong, regardless of the internal hierarchies or pretensions some create amongst themselves). Despite this, The Earth is not as fully satisfying a novel when compared to other entries in the Cycle.

There are several reasons for this. First, there's little character development. The characters get older, marry, have children, pursue ownership of land, and (some) die. Through all of this, however, they are fundamentally unchanged. There is no growth or trajectory to their repetitive lives. They are like ants, working the land as if chained to it. This was certainly Zola's intent, as he wished to paint the drudgery of their work and poverty. However, it's a lot harder to stay interested as a reader.

In addition to the lack of character development, virtually all the characters are unsympathetic...and stay that way. The vast majority are depraved, greedy, miserly, and/or petty. They turn insignificant squabbles into multi-generational vendettas. They viciously betray and claw at each other - even the closest members of their own family - with very little prodding and usually for little (or no) gain. Finally, there is little at stake in this viper pit of a family. Zola paints his picture of Beauce implying that the depraved drama of the Fouans and the other families of the town will continue to play out year after year, generation after generation. The earth will always be there, while the people inhabiting and working on it are born and die. Even this is not a progression; it is simply bodies replacing bodies. And these new people will stir up new versions of the same depravity and jealousies as the prior generation did. So there is also no true resolution to the stories Zola tells in The Earth. His setting is a purgatory with no beginning or end. Jean's departure is one of the few true character-driven decisions in the entire novel (which is not short).

Structurally, The Earth performs a critical role in Zola's Cycle, as it completes a triad of social class analysis. The Earth shows the blackness of character among the poor of the Second Empire. Pot-Bouille and A Love Episode did the same thing for the middle class, while The Kill and - to some extent - His Excellency, Eugene Rougon did so for the wealthy class. Of course, almost all the books in the Cycle make bleak commentary about one class of society or another, usually with a member of the Rougon-Macquart family at the heart of everything. Given this role of the novel, I thought it was an odd choice for Zola to place Jean at the periphery of the cast of characters. It is the Fouan family, not Jean or any member of the Rougon-Macquart, that comprise the center of The Earth's plot and family dynamics. Jean plays a minor role in the novel until he contemplates marrying into the family. As I started reading the next novel The Debacle, which also features Jean Macquart as a main character, I formed a theory as to why Zola did this...but more on that in the post for The Debacle.

As well-written and well-conceived as The Earth is, I would not recommend it as a starting point for reading Zola or the Cycle. It's not that the story doesn't move or that Zola doesn't have a great deal to say within its confines. Rather, it's display of petty cruelties and corruption isn't a satisfying enough focus, aside from the shock value from the vileness of the characters. Some of their dysfunction is truly awful, and at times the work came off like an exploitation novel pandering to the prejudices and fears of the middle class. Zola is just as shocking and naturalistic in other books about the lower classes (e.g., L'Assommoir, Germinal, Nana) and yet he also delivers more of the trappings of a traditional story.

Reading The Earth is probably best done after getting the classics of the Cycle under your belt. By the way, I read the Douglas Parmee translation published by Penguin Classics and found it to be excellent.

On a related point. I only have two more Rougon-Macquart novels to go!!!!! What on Earth I'm going to do with all the extra time I'll have on my hands after I finish this challenge of reading the Rougon-Macquart Cycle is entirely beyond me!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Form and Ritual in Zen

Many forms and rituals can be used in Zen
The latest issue of Bodhidharma magazine is dedicated to exploring form versus practice, that is, the way we practice versus the practice itself. All religions wrestle with this, and the magazine provides some great thought around the questions entailed. How important is form/ritual? What should it consist of? What do you do to practice your faith? Is there a better or best way? Are there certain things you should not do? Practice usually leads to many such questions about form. My belief is that - in Zen Buddhism - form is irrelevant. In other words, any form you choose is acceptable as long as it doesn't become an impediment to practice.

What does this mean? Let's take zazen as an example. Some Zen Buddhists practice with their eyes open and others prefer to close their eyes. Some emphasize breathing while others ignore it. Some people practice zazen while seated in a specific place, while others do so while walking down a street, working out, or in any place they feel like. None of these forms are better or worse than the others. We're free to practice zazen standing on our heads with clown hats on our feet if we want, so long as we successfully discipline our minds and enter samadhi.

However, form encompasses more than just how we meditate. It also includes ritual and 'things' that go with ritual. Do we tap a gong to start and stop zazen? Do we light candles? Are there certain clothes we must wear? Do we play music? Do we chant mantras? Are all of these things to be avoided? Just as with the form of zazen, the accouterments of its ritual (or lack thereof) is neither good nor bad, so long as we successfully discipline our minds and enter samadhi.

Given these points, it is clear that form is irrelevant to zazen and - by extension - to Zen Buddhism more generally. Some may balk at this, but the fact is that it would be silly to say no one can effectively sit in zazen while playing music (or not playing music). That one must be in a group (or alone). That one must chant, or light candles, or have a 'special Zen spot' (or that any of these things absolutely preclude successful zazen). Bottom-line: Disciplining the mind does not have anything to do with details of ritual or form, so we can never designate a particular form as a requirement.

That doesn't mean ritual and form are useless. In fact, they are often extremely positive aspects of practice. Some Zen Buddhists find some or all of the items mentioned above very useful in practicing zazen and reaching samadhi. As such, they are helpful and should not be categorically rejected. Form and ritual are never a problem unless they become an impediment to zazen practice or if we endow them with intrinsic importance. In other words, if we view a form or ritual as anything other than a tool or a means to an end, then it will become a barrier to effective practice and are detrimental. We cannot forget that practice only requires what is inside us; it never demands a ritual or an object outside of us.

When we assign intrinsic importance to ritual and form, then they are naturally used to assess the quality of practice rather than focusing on the actual practice itself. We will find ourselves thinking things like: "I can't sit in zazen today because I ran out of candles" or "I can't reach samadhi today because group meditation was cancelled" or "until my iPod is fixed, I won't be able to play the music that quiets my mind enough to practice." When put in this way, we see how negative the reliance on any form or ritual can be. It distracts us from the fact that we can achieve samadhi at any time and in any place.

So while form and ritual can be very helpful, we must always keep them in their proper - and non-essential - role. A person who cannot achieve samadhi or quiet their mind without the right ambiance or the proper ritual possesses a questionable level of mental discipline. Such is person is unlikely to bring the mind state they achieve in zazen into day-to-day life and, as a result, will reap minimal benefit from their studies. And if we are unable to apply what we learn or the wisdom we gain, then it is it questionable whether we have learned anything or possess wisdom.

So how do we navigate ritual and form with other practitioners? Must we set up rules or dogma about what is and is not correct? Should we debate these rules with others? Should we discourage what we judge as ineffective practices when we encounter them? The answer is a resounding "NO!"

Since form and ritual possess no intrinsic value, there is never any justification for debating about them with other practitioners or concerning ourselves with them beyond what we like to do in our own practice. For example, if I enter a zendo where practitioners chant mantras and that is something that I see little purpose in, then my proper action is to "go with the flow". The forms may help those around me, and I should be disciplined enough so that engaging in them will have no negative impact on my practice. If the fact someone lights a candle or engages in a ritual prevents you from sitting in zazen with them, it is not their fault. It is yours! Work harder to discipline your mind.

Of course, following this line of thinking is hard (perhaps impossible) to those who are just getting started. Quieting the mind during zazen and achieving samadhi takes much practice, and if we find that certain rituals or forms help us get the hang of it, then we should most certainly use those rituals or forms. If we find ourselves in a challenging environment, we should look at it as an opportunity to see how disciplined we have become.

All practitioners, new or old, must always guard against any ritual or form hardening into dogma or being mistaken for the discipline we are developing. The latter - not a lit candle or a successfully followed ritual - is the true measure of the effectiveness (or lack of effectiveness) in our practice.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Gay Marriage Legal in the US!

In the early nineties, I came out while living in a college dorm. People in the community were surprised at the guts it took to do so (back then it was a big deal). Also at that time, there was no thought of being able to marry or adopt children. Furthermore, plenty of people still referred to AIDS as a 'gay cancer', people could be fired and kicked out of housing for being gay, and families sometimes swore off children who came out or kicked them out leaving them homeless. I personally was discriminated against when I was outed to one of my first post-college employers. Back then, being gay was something you had to keep hidden, and that secretiveness allowed bigots to call us pedophiles, perverts, and deviants - anything they liked - and get away with it.

Yet, despite all of that negativity, I knew then and believe now that coming out was one of the best things I ever did. A person simply can't function in a healthy manner when they hide their 'truth' and, after coming out, I quickly learned that the feelings I had hidden for so many years were nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, there were millions of people just like me all over the world and in all walks of life. My feelings were natural and good and denying them was unnatural and self-destructive.

As recently as even a few years ago, I had no notion that we'd reach this point and that - in my lifetime - I would see the LGBT community allowed to have the same rights as other Americans. But this week I am so happy to see that I was wrong and that change can happen, though it takes time and work to move the minds of decent, fair-minded people and to trounce the hate of bigots.

What was so amazing about this Supreme Court process was that the coverage of the testimony before the Court revealed just how hollow the arguments of the bigots rang. They truly lacked any credible position once they actually had to defend their bigotry against a vocal opposition. That vocal opposition was made possible by the hard work of committed activists, but it was also made possible over decades by the quiet efforts of the varied members of the LGBT community who stopped keeping their truth hidden. As more and more of us came out and spoke out, the ranks of our straight allies expanded. The more they saw that gay people - while different - were in all important ways - exactly the same as themselves, the more impossible it became for bigots to scare anyone into continued discrimination.

To me this fact and the ruling shows the truth of a slogan that originally arose in the LGBT community during the fight against HIV/AIDS. Later it became something of a rallying cry for coming out, speaking out, standing up for oneself, and being proud of who you are in order to affect change: Silence = Death.

While the United States is not perfect and we do make mistakes...this is one day and one act that I can point to as proof that what we try to be as a country is good and just. It's also an example of us embodying our principles in a positive way, and by that example leading the world. It reaffirms my pride in being an American.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Proud to Run 5K

With the Supreme Court coming down in favor of gay marriage, I don't think it's exaggerating to say this year's Gay Pride takes on a special significance. So it was wonderful to be a part of things by joining in the Proud to Run event, my second 5K since I started jogging in December.

Rain threatened to ruin the day all week long and, even as late as the night before, the weather was pretty awful. In the end, aside from a cold wind in the early morning before the race, the sun and the weather cooperated and we had a great race day.

This time I ran the entire 5K course, without walking. I also felt as if I recovered very quickly. Within a few minutes, I'd caught my breath and didn't feel wiped out at all. Despite all these successes, I unfortunately did not improve on my time. I completed the course in 32 minutes, about a minute slower than my last 5K. Nevertheless, it was great fun!

Given how quickly I recovered, I'm thinking that my next race should be a 10K!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Emile Zola - 'Nana'

I believe Nana was my introduction to Zola roughly two decades ago, but I just read the Douglas Parmee translation (pictured). I'd initially read Nana all those years ago because Ayn Rand repeatedly referenced Zola in her book The Romantic Manifesto. I sampled a lot of authors based on references Rand made in that book. It was clear she reviled Zola on every level, meanwhile she had heavy criticisms to make of Tolstoy's philosophy while praising Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Henryk Sienkiewicz. I ended up reading and enjoying all of them.

My interest in reading Zola arose from how Rand appeared to consider him and Naturalism as the antithesis of Romanticism (and everything decent in the world). Whenever she needed a polar opposite of an "exalted sense of life" or the "larger than life" hero, Zola - or a reference to him - seemed to pop up. For example:
"The choice of subject declares what aspects of existence the artist regards as important - as worthy of being re-created and contemplated. He may choose to present heroic figures, as exponents of man's nature - or he may choose statistical composites of the average, the undistinguished, the mediocre - or he may choose crawling specimens of depravity. He may present the triumph of heroes, in fact or in spirit (Victor Hugo), or their struggle (Michelangelo), or their defeat (Shakespeare). He may present the folks next door: next door to palaces (Tolstoy), or to drugstores (Sinclair Lewis), or to kitchens (Vermeer), or to sewers (Zola)..."
One certainly cannot argue with Rand's analysis; Zola's novels are not about palaces or heroic triumph. At bottom, her rejection of Zola is an intellectual version of the reaction many readers likely have: "Yuck!" Rand saw no valid purpose for an author to focus on this kind of subject matter.

Nana is definitely one of Zola's 'yuckier' books in the Cycle. In fact, I'm astonished he was able to publish it in 1880 at all (especially Chapter 13) without ending up in jail for lewdness or some such crime. Unlike many 'shocking' books from the period that have lost their edge over time, the frankness of Nana would shock a good number of people even today. In fact, by doing nothing more than updating the carriages, gas lights, and other 19th Century accouterments, Nana would be just as relevant today - as social satire if nothing else.

For example, it is easy to see Nana as a Anna Nicole Smith or some other similar 'non-celebrity' of recent years. Beyond the anagram of their first names, there are an amazing number of similarities between the two women:
  • A girl of questionable background making a fortune off wealthy (and foolish) men
  • Massive celebrity despite minimal - or no - talent
  • Considerable 'star power' activated by others 
  • An entourage that includes a: sickly son who dies young, lesbian, and little lap-dog
  • Smith's agent/boyfriend could be Fauchery or Labordette (or perhaps even Fontan)
Of course, one could draw parallels between Nana and any infamous/famous female personality of the present, because Nana is ultimately about a directionless bimbo whose crass sexuality casually conquers and destroy everything she touches. I'm sure a weighty academic paper could be written pairing a literary analysis of Nana and today's reality-TV-based popular culture.

But I digress. Taking a more literary view of things, a parallel Zola purposefully drew within the confines of his Cycle was between Nana and Renee Saccard, the second wife of Aristide Rougon Saccard in The Kill. Both women are kept in opulence by men who need them. Both amuse themselves by driving carriages around the Bois de Boulogne. I can't recall Zola mentioning that locale or past-time in any other book in the Cycle. The Bois may have simply been where wealthy female socialites with nothing better to do went in the afternoon, but I find it hard to believe he placed these two characters in the same milieu without intending that we would pick up the parallel. The parallels between the two characters go much deeper, too. Both women are what Zola would consider sexually deviant. Renee has an adulterous affair with her stepson, while Nana is a high-priced and promiscuous prostitute who engages in sadism, bisexuality, and masochism. Both also have affairs with young, effeminate men (Renee with Maxime, Nana with Georges). These parallels cannot all be coincidence.

However, it is the one key difference between the characters than makes the parallels worth noting. Renee - and her fortune - are consumed by her husband Saccard without any particular concern by her lover, Maxime. In fact, the two seem to take a 'bro's before ho's' attitude about Renee's adultery after it becomes known. Nana, in contrast, is victimized by none of her wealthy admirers. In fact, it is she destroys them financially, socially, and/or psychologically. Two even die as a result of her. She "gobbles them up" as Zola phrases it.

Edouard Manet Nana 1877
Her public image is the title character of the musical play that makes her famous: the blond Venus. More accurate is the image of the 'golden fly' that her on-again off-again journalist friend Fauchery creates, describing her as:
"...a tart, the offspring of four or five generations of alcoholics, her blood tainted by a long heredity of deep poverty and drink, which in her case had taken the form of unhinging the nervous balance of her sexuality...a tall and lovely girl with a magnificently sensual body, like a plant flourishing on a dung-heap, she was avenging the poor, underprivileged wretches from whom she'd sprung...She would carry this pollution upwards to contaminate the aristocracy. She was turning into a force of nature and, without any intention on her part, a ferment of destruction; between her plump white thighs, Paris was being corrupted and thrown into chaos..."
The gold of the fly described is not the color of precious metal, but the color of dung. She rises from the squalor of the lower classes, covered in corruption and despoiling everything she touches.

To start: it's extremely rare to find a female character of this kind in period literature that is not a victim. Nana is never depicted as a good girl tragically making her way in a world set against her (e.g., Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Nancy from Great Expectations). She is a morally bankrupt, acquisitive conqueror, who controls everyone around her by means of her sexuality. Zola makes this clear in graphic language throughout the novel, but also in his scene setting. At the horse race in Chapter 11, the Empress is present but it is Nana who rules the scene. At a formal ball thrown by the Muffats, she exerts influence over everyone without being present. The guests even 'dance to her tune' at one point when a song from "The Blond Venus" is played.

The Varietes theatre, where much action in Nana takes place
Despite the power of the titular character, Nana is not a feminist novel nor the titillating history of a man-eating bitch. Zola does describe Nana as a man-eater, but he always makes it clear her course of destruction is unintended. She has no thought of hurting people any more than she has a concern about them once they are hurt. In fact, Zola's tone as a narrator drips with contempt for Nana. He constantly calls out her stupidity, lack of taste, non-existent talent, and social ineptitude, all while insisting that she is a "good sort of girl". Cruel and destructive, shallow and self-centered, Zola nevertheless doesn't give Nana the psychological depth to be a villain.

As another brick in the wall of the Rougon-Macquart Cycle depicting a family in Second Empire France, Nana was first brought forward by Zola in L'Assommoir. There Zola gives an ample view of the dung pile from which Nana rises. By the end of the book, she is a promiscuous teenage girl well on her way to being the young woman we meet in Nana. In a bit of foreshadowing, Nana unknowingly causes her father to have a tragic accident that leads to the disintegration and destruction of her entire family. Even here, Nana is as deadly as Typhoid Mary and as unaware of what she does.

In terms of the heredity that Zola seeks to explore, Nana possesses several of the Rougon-Macquart traits which, mixed in her, provide yet another permutation of the disease of the family. Her love of luxury matches that of Pierre and Felicite Rougon, Antoine Macquart, or Aristide Saccard. She has an insatiable desire for material possessions, but she draws no particular pleasure from them. As soon as she acquires one thing, she loses interest in it and wants something else. One could also say that Nana has her mother and grandmother's work ethic as she labors for what she wants, albeit not in a way usually credited as honest work.

During the middle portion of the book, Nana even comes close to following in the footsteps of her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother in supporting a deadbeat and/or abusive husband/lover. She sells herself on the street to make money to support the rogue actor Fontan, who beats her. However, this doesn't last long. Nana eventually upends this cycle of women supporting worthless men. For most of the novel, the men support Nana without getting much more than abuse in return. I'm curious whether Zola realized this role-reversal had occurred in his novel. Part of me believes that, in his zeal to portray Nana's corruption, he didn't realize he had Nana acting against her heredity!

More broadly, Nana also continues a pattern to be found in several of the novels about Gervaise's children: foreshadowing of the fall of the Empire. As in La Bete Humaine and Germinal, the novel ends with omens of disaster. In this case, the wake of a prostitute is juxtaposed with the declaration of war against the Prussia, a war that will hasten the end of the Empire. As a novel, Nana is showing us the corruption of the aristocracy of the late Empire: the fecklessness of monied aristocrats such as la Faloise and Vandeuvres, the recklessness of financier Steiner, the Muffat's veneer of respectability, and the cynical grasping of the Mignon's. Even the thrills of the horse race in chapter 11 sit atop a deep undercurrent of fraud and graft.

Part of this foreshadowing is that, unlike many of the novels in the Cycle, Nana follows an upward arc. This is similar to Germinal, only more pronounced. In Germinal, Etienne ends up better off than he was at the start; a joyous conclusion given the usual fates of Zola's main characters. Nana's success is total. The comet of her celebrity is astounding and lifts her so high that she leaves the confines of Paris (and the novel). While her physical end is hideous, one can hardly see her story as tragic (at least as far as she herself is concerned). For the aristocracy she pollutes, she is a disaster.

Another pattern from the Cycle brought to the fore in Nana is the near inability for the Rougon-Macquart family to propagate itself in the final generation. Aristide gives birth to the effete Maxime and the violent Victor. Sidonie Rougon has an illegitimate child who dies young in The Dream. In Abbe Mouret's Transgression, there are the dead-ends of Desiree Mouret and Serge's stillborn child. Claude Lantier's son is deformed and dies young in The Masterpiece. Similarly, Nana's illegitimate, mentally backwards, and sickly son Louis dies young. She also has a miscarriage. The poisons of the family heredity seem to be burning out its ability to continue the line, much as the corruption of the Empire itself brings about its demise.

Nana is an incredible read, a story where a vast cast of characters is given over the the documenting of decay, a society of privilege and aristocracy rotting from the inside out. Douglas Parmee's translation is wonderfully readable, and I have to admit I chuckled wondering what was going through his mind while translating something like Chapter 13 ("For this, I studied French and became a translator?"). This is one of the very best novels in the Cycle, a great place to get a feel for Zola as a writer, and one of the novels in the Cycle that has definite relevance today. Highly recommended.

But wear boots while reading it.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Islamophobia (A Five-Part Post)

Part 5: Implications for the United States

To conclude this five-part post, those who are concerned about combating terrorism should not allow themselves to be led into Islamophobic beliefs. Islamophobia is the dead end of bigotry. In the case of terrorism, such bigotry is a form of self-sedation that gives a person permission to sit on the sidelines and demonize a group of people rather than tackling terrorism.

Bigotry and racism are appealing to some because they provide a way to express fear without admitting one is afraid. However, the history of civilization shows that bigotry and racism have never once solved a challenge faced by mankind or led to anything positive. In fact, such thinking usually makes things worse by muddying the water with a cloud of hate, injustice, and emotionalism.

So to effectively defeat terrorism, we must resist Islamophobia. We must remember that terrorists have varied backgrounds and agendas. While it is true that most of today’s high profile terrorism is committed by Muslims, it is also true that most of it is committed by men and by heterosexuals. It makes no sense to attempt fighting terrorism by vilifying Muslims, men, or heterosexuals.

In terms of implications for the United States, if we need to be on our guard against anything related to terrorism, it is the poison of theocracy. Theocracy can encourage terrorism, because it allows:
Fundamentalist thought to move from the fringe into a position of power
Religious intolerance to drive national policy
Violence to become an acceptable means of influence

The US has a theocratic Christian fringe. While it is a long way from having the power of the extreme Islam that plagues the Middle East, the insistence of evangelical Christians and the far right that the United States is a ‘Christian country’ is a step in the direction of theocracy. There is ultimately little difference between a country that holds one religion in esteem over others so that that religion influences policy for all citizens, regardless of their faith, and a theocracy.

The Founding Fathers were not as devout as today’s evangelicals. However, even if they were, that devotion had little influence on their thinking related to the founding of the United States. While they made theological references (e.g., referring to a ‘Creator’, etc.), in action they built a massive wall between religion and government through the policy of separation of church and state. Even if the United States was founded on Christian morals, it was founded in such a way as to prevent Christian faith from influencing our country’s development. Despite their beliefs, the Founding Fathers chose to set up the United States as a rational and secular country based on laws, not faith.

As such, the United States never was a ‘Christian country’ and it can never become one without perverting the principles upon which our nation was built. We should be happy about this, because the sharp clarity in separating church and state is what has kept the United States free of the toxic extremist influences and religious wars that have plagued other countries.

To preserve that separation, the law of the land must prevail in any question between law and faith. Disagreeing with a law on religious grounds is not justification for flouting it or being exempted from it, because this places religion above law. That can never be allowed in a country that values freedom of religion and, more importantly, freedom from religion. Americans are citizens first and religious entities second. However, the increased desire of evangelicals and far right thinkers to place their religion above the law is opening a Pandora’s box that could turn the wall between church and state into a tattered scrim.

All Americans must decide which they value more: American liberal democracy or their religious precepts. And the decision most have reached is clear: Americans repeatedly reject using one religion as the sole foundation for legislation and candidates who run for national offices on such platforms invariably do poorly.

However, extremists do not have a history of allowing free will to stand in their way. Continued failures at the ballot box and harsh responses from society to wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing ‘religious freedom laws’ could eventually lead some extremists to use fear, intimidation, and violence as a way to break down the wall between church and state and enforce their religious views on others. In short, theocratic beliefs and mindsets can open the door to terrorism in the United States just as they can elsewhere.

In this context, abortion clinic bombings and repellent protests at the funerals of soldiers could be either the stench of a fading orthodoxy or the first sparks of a new breed of homegrown terrorist activity. Hopefully it is not the latter, but we can only avoid such an outcome if we hold true to our principles as Americans.

To bring the theme of these posts full circle, let’s suppose that the terrorist movement described above does in fact arise. It would be incorrect and bigoted to refer to such people as ‘evangelical terrorists’ or ‘Christian terrorists’, even if the majority of those who are part of the movement are Christian evangelicals. We would have to recognize that not all Christian evangelicals are prone to such violence. To combat such terrorism, we must avoid losing focus by demonizing a group of people. Vilifying Christians in this example would be pointless, just as Islamophobia is a waste of time in dealing with the terrorism of the world today.

Hopefully, as the world grows more interconnected through trade pacts, the Internet, porous borders, reduced racial tribalism, and a shrugging off of nationalism, we will see Islamophobia – and all forms of bigotry and racism - disappear. However, as writers like those in The New Criterion make clear, the lessons of history are not easily learned and we have a long way to go.