Letters from the Lunar Outpost

Passages

On Easter Sunday, I wondered what would Jesus tweet about Google showing Him no love with their doodles for thirteen years running. @RosieChihuahua was kind enough to share this in reply:

Thanks for the share, Rosie. Wow, very well done, Igniter Media.

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The meaning of life – everyone has their own interpretation, I want to compare two contrasting perspectives from two great writers – Jack London and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Jack London and Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Let’s begin with Jack London’s view of existence. At the very beginning of John Barelycorn, he gives us a quick tease, mentioning the “white light of alcohol” and how that alcohol brought forth in him his concept of “White Logic.” He then goes on to share thirty-four engrossing chapters of autobiographical accounts, culminating the book with the philosophical account of White Logic in the final five chapters.

Alcohol tells truth, but its truth is not normal. What is normal is healthful. What is healthful tends toward life. Normal truth is a different order, and a lesser order, of truth. Take a dray horse. Through all the vicissitudes of its life, from first to last, somehow, in unguessably dim ways, it must believe that life is good; that the drudgery in harness is good; that death, no matter how blind-instinctively apprehended, is a dread giant; that life is beneficent and worth while . . . To the last stumble of its stumbling end this dray horse must abide by the mandates of the lesser truth that is the truth of life and that makes life possible to persist.

To man, alone among the animals, has been given the awful privilege of reason. Man, with his brain, can penetrate the intoxicating show of things and look upon the universe brazen with indifference toward him and his dreams. He can do this, but it is not well for him to do it. To live, and live abundantly, to sting with life, to be alive (which is to be what he is), it is good that man be life-blinded and sense-struck. What is good is true. And this is the order of truth, lesser though it be, that man must know and guide his actions by with unswerving certitude that it is absolute truth and that in the universe no other order of truth can obtain.

The White Logic goes on to describe the whole of humanity in this way:

“Dreamers and ghosts,” the White Logic chuckles.

“But surely the striving was not altogether vain,” I contend.

“It was based on illusion and is a lie.”

“A vital lie,” I retort.

“And pray what is a vital lie but a lie?” the White Logic challenges. “Come. Fill your glass and let us examine these vital liars who crowd your bookshelves. Let us dabble in William James a bit.”

Who hasn’t at some point wondered if all the religions are fairy tales and our reality nothing more than a cold, indifferent universe with no God to give us souls and no afterlife to dictate our morality?

If there is no God, if there is no afterlife, if all the universe is a random collection of atoms and chemical reactions and if life is nothing more than a biological extension of those random chemical reactions, we must blind ourselves to the greater truth of it all and buy into the “vital lie” that there is some meaning to our struggling against inevitable oblivion.

Now here’s Fyodor Dostoyevsky from The Brothers Karamazov, in a dialog between the wise priest Father Zossima and a lady who has lost her faith:

MADAME HOHLAKOV: “I shut my eyes and ask myself if every one has faith, where did it come from? And then they do say that it all comes from terror at the menacing phenomena of nature, and that none of it’s real. And I say to myself, ‘What if I’ve been believing all my life, and when I come to die there’s nothing but the burdocks growing on my grave?’ as I read in some author. It’s awful! How — how can I get back my faith? But I only believed when I was a little child, mechanically, without thinking of anything. How, how is one to prove it? I have come now to lay my soul before you and to ask you about it. If I let this chance slip, no one all my life will answer me. How can I prove it? How can I convince myself? Oh, how unhappy I am! I stand and look about me and see that scarcely any one else cares; no one troubles his head about it, and I’m the only one who can’t stand it. It’s deadly — deadly!”

FATHER ZOSSIMA: “No doubt. But there’s no proving it, though you can be convinced of it.”

There’s no proving it, though you can be convinced of it.

MADAME HOHLAKOV: “How?”

FATHER ZOSSIMA: “By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.”

Later in the book . . .

FATHER ZOSSIMA: Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education. Remember, too, every day, and whenever you can, repeat to yourself, “Lord, have mercy on all who appear before Thee to-day.” For every hour and every moment thousands of men leave life on this earth, and their souls appear before God. And how many of them depart in solitude, unknown, sad, dejected that no one mourns for them or even knows whether they have lived or not! And behold, from the other end of the earth perhaps, your prayer for their rest will rise up to God though you knew them not nor they you. How touching it must be to a soul standing in dread before the Lord to feel at that instant that, for him too, there is one to pray, that there is a fellow creature left on earth to love him too! And God will look on you both more graciously, for if you have had so much pity on him, how much will He have pity Who is infinitely more loving and merciful than you! And He will forgive him for your sake.

Brothers, have no fear of men’s sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.

What an incredible plea from Dostoyevsky to his fellow human beings that love can conquer all and that faith can be achieved by love – if you love, then the fruits of your love will be that the more you love, the more you will see the divine in those you love and all God’s creation around – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, but a beautiful kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

The logical argument between the nihilists and those who believe in intelligent design is an argument that will never be won, but in my heart, I’ve appreciated the beauty of too many women and too many sunsets, enjoyed the deliciousness of too many beautiful meals, been touched by the works and deeds of too many beautiful hearts and minds to imagine that beauty is a lie in a Godless universe without any meaning.

 

Both books are available as free ebooks at gutenberg.org.
Click here: John Barleycorn. Click here: The Brothers Karamazov.

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A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

As much as I love Hemingway and hold him as the gold standard for sharp, concise and yet picturesque writing in the English language, I’m a little ashamed to say that I haven’t read more of him. Back in junior high, we read The Old Man and the Sea, and subsequent to that I read Islands in the Stream, drinking steadily with the characters throughout the book, and I’ve also read The Complete Short Stories, a wonderful big, thick book that I’ve both read and then later listened to on audiobook narrated by Stacy Keach. (Brilliant!) I really loved the fact that many of those short stories from the collection didn’t even have a plot or a resolution, just sketching out a scene really, and it was like being able to thumb through the private sketch book of a masterful painter.

So I’ve resolved to dig more deeply into Hemingway’s writings and the following scene was really the first time I can remember noticing a romantic scene after those first three books I’ve mentioned. True, a lot of Hemingway’s writing is romantic in a “Men without Women” sort of way (to borrow from one of his titles) but this scene from A Farewell to arms is the first scene from Hemingway I can remember as pure lovely dovey romantic talk.

From “A Farewell to Arms” by Ernest Hemingway

“Tell me. How many people have you ever loved?”

“Nobody.”

“Not me even?”

“Yes, you.”

“How many others really?”

“None.”

“How many have you — how do you say it? — stayed with?”

“None.”

“You’re lying to me.”

“Yes.”

“It’s all right. Keep right on lying to me. That’s what I want you to do. Were they pretty?”

“I never stayed with any one.”

“That’s right. Were they very attractive?”

“I don’t know anything about it.”

“You’re just mine. That’s true and you’ve never belonged to any one else. But I don’t care if you have. I’m not afraid of them. But don’t tell me about them. When a man stays with a girl when does she say how much it costs?”

“I don’t know.”

“Of course not. Does she say she loves him? Tell me that. I want to know that.”

“Yes. If he wants her to.”

“Does he say he loves her? Tell me please. It’s important.”

“He does if he wants to.”

“But you never did? Really?”

“No.”

“Not really. Tell me the truth.”

“No,” I lied.

“You wouldn’t,” she said. “I knew you wouldn’t. Oh, I love you, darling.”

Love the back and forth in her not wanting to know, but wanting to know, the way he knows what she wants to hear and it’s only when she insists that he give up a few words of the truth. You can tell she knows the truth through most of it, but towards the end, I’m reading it as her buying the lie in the feminine way a woman can often believe what she chooses to believe.

As Hemmingway continues on, we reach a part which could make a feminist cringe (or more likely, seethe with rage) as Catherine pledges her complete subservience to Frederic, but we should remember that this was just after the turn of the 20th century and really, even a modern day “liberated woman” could express the same sort of sentiments if the feeling were mutual.

Outside the sun was up over the roofs and I could see the points of the cathedral with the sunlight on them. I was clean inside and outside and waiting for the doctor.

“And that’s it?” Catherine said. “She says just what he wants her to?”

“Not always.”

“But I will. I’ll say just what you wish and I’ll do what you wish and then you will never want any other girls, will you?” She looked at me very happily. “I’ll do what you want and say what you want and then I’ll be a great success, won’t I?”

“Yes.”

“What would you like me to do now that you’re all ready?”

“Come to the bed again.”

“All right. I’ll come.”

“Oh, darling, darling, darling,” I said.

“You see,” she said. “I do anything you want.”

“You’re so lovely.”

“I’m afraid I’m not very good at it yet.”

“You’re lovely.”

Wow, good stuff, Papa. If you’ve made through to another life, I wouldn’t be surprised to find you’ve been writing for an American soap opera or a Mexican novella!

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Bret Easton Ellis - American PsychoBret Easton Ellis is such a suprisingly talented writer – surprising in the fact that you never know where his talents are going to take the reader, or what sort of hidden abilities as a writer he may reveal. Who else would come up with the insane dichotomy of a character who dispassionately narrates scenes of him performing the most gruesome torture imaginable leading straight into scattered chapters where the very same narrator shows us an unbelievable amount of passion about . . . the music of the 80s. The scattered chapters are as good as the writing of any music review you’ve ever read, and if the character of Patrick Bateman wasn’t so busy with the murder and mayham or making so much money on Wall Street, he could have his pick of writing music reviews anywhere in the nation.

With the passing of Whitney Houston today, I couldn’t help but think of how Bret, er . . . Patrick Bateman spent a chapter speaking of Whitney back when she had just two albums under her belt:

Whitney Houston burst onto the music scene in 1985 with her self-titled LP which had four number one hit singles on it, including “The Greatest Love of All,” “You Give Good Love” and “Saving All My Love for You,” plus it won a Grammy Award for best pop vocal performance by a female and two American Music Awards, one for best rhythm and blues single and another for best rhythm and blues video. She was also cited as best new artist of the year by Billboard and by Rolling Stone magazine. With all this hype one might expect the album to be an anticlimactic, lackluster affair, but the surprise is that Whitney Houston (Arista) is one of the warmest, most complex and altogether satisfying rhythm and blues records of the decade and Whitney herself has a voice that defies belief. From the elegant, beautiful photo of her on the cover of the album (in a gown by Giovanne De Maura) and its fairly sexy counterpart on the back (in a bathing suit by Norma Kamali) one knows that this isn’t going to be a blandly professional affair; the record is smooth but intense and Whitney’s voice leaps across so many boundaries and is so verssatile (though she’s mainly a jazz singer) that it’s hard to take in the album on a first listening. But you won’t want to. You’ll want to savor it over many.

It opens with “You Give Good Love” and “Thinking About You,” both produced and arranged by Kashif, and they emanate warm, lush jazz arrangements but with a contemporary synthesized beat and though they’re both really good songs, the album doesn’t get kicking until “Someone for Me” which was produced by Jermain Jackson, where Whitney sings longingly against a jazz-disco background and the difference between her longing and the sprightliness of the song is very moving. The ballad “Saving All My Love for You” is the sexiest, most romantic song on the record. It also has a killer saxophone solo by Tom Scott and one can hear the influences of sixties girl-group pop in it (it was cowritten by Gerry Goffin) but the sixties girl groups were never this emotional or sexy (or as well produced) as this song is. “Nobody Loves Me Like You Do” is a glorious duet with Jermaine Jackson (who also produced it) and just one example of how sophisticated lyrically this album is. The last thing it suffers from is a paucity of decent lyrics which is what usually happens when a singer doesn’t write her own material and has to have her producer choose it. But Whitney and company have picked well here.

The dance single “How Will I Know” (my vote for best dance song of the 1980s) is a joyous ode to a girl’s nervousness about whether another guy is interested in her. It’s got a great keyboard riff and it’s the only track on the album produced by wunderkind producer Narada Michael Walden. My own personal favorite ballad (aside from “The Greatest Love of All” – her crowning achievement) is “All at Once” which is about how a young woman realizes all at once her lover is fading away from her and it’s accompanied by a gorgeous string arrangement. Even though nothing on the album sounds like filler, the only track that might come close is “Take Good Care of My Heart,” another duet with Jermaine Jackson. The problem is that it strays from the ablum’s jazz roots and seems too influenced by 1980s dance music.

But Whitney’s talent is restored with the overwhelming “The Greatest Love of All,” one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation and dignity. From the first line (Michael Masser and Linda Creed are credited as the writers) to the last, it’s a state-of-the-art ballad about believing in yourself. It’s a powerful statement and one that Whitney sings with a grandeur that approaches the sublime. Its universal message crosses all boundaries and instills one with the hope that it’s not too late for us to better ourselves, to act kinder. Since it’s impossible in the world we live in to empathize with others, we can always empathize with ourselves. It’s an important message, crucial really, and it’s beautifully stated on this album.

Her second effort, Whitney (Arista; 1987), had four number one singles, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” “So Emotional,” “Didn’t We Almost Have It All?” and “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” and was mostly produced by Narada Michael Walden and though it’s not as serious an effort as Whitney Houston it’s hardly a victim of Sophomore Slump. It stars off with the bouncy, danceable “I wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” which is in the same vein as the last album’s irrepressible “How Will I Know.” This is followed by the sensuous “Just the Lonely Talking Again” and it reflects the serious jazz influence that permeated the first album and one can also sense a newfound artistic maturity in Whitney’s voice – she did all the vocal arrangements on this album – and this is all very evident on “Love Will Save the Day” which is the most ambitious song Whitney’s yet performed. It was produced by Jellybean Benitez and it pulsates with an uptempo intensity and like most of the songs on this album it reflects a grownup’s awareness of the world we all live in. She sings and we believe it. This is quite a change from the softer, little-girl-lost image that was so appealing on the first album.

She projects an even more adult image on the Michael Masser-produced “Didn’t We Almost Have It All,” a song about meeting up with a long-lost lover and letting him know your feelings about the past affair, and it’s Whitney at her most poetic. And as on most of the ballads there’s a gorgeous string arrangement. “So Emotional” is in the same vein as “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” but it’s even more rock-influenced and, like all the songs on Whitney, played by a terrific backup studio band with Marada on drum machine, Wolter Afanasieff on the synthesizer and synth bass, Corrado Rustici on synth guitar, and someone listed as Bongo Bob on percussion programming and drum sampling. “Where You Are” is the only song on the album produced by Kashif and it bears his indelible imprint of professionalism – it has a smooth, gleaming sound and sheen to it with a funky sax solo by Vincent Henry. It sounded like a hit single to me (but then all the songs on the album do) and I wondered why it wasn’t released as one.

“Love Is a Contact Sport” is the album’s real surprise – a big-sounding, bold, sexy number that, in terms of production, is the album’s centerpiece, and it has great lyrics along with a good beat. It’s one of my favorites. On “You’re Still My Man” you can hear how clearly Whitney’s voice is like an instrument – a flawless, warm machine that almost overpowers the sentiment of her music, but the lyrics and the melodies are too distinctive, too strong to let any singer, even one of Whitney’s caliber, overshadow them. “For the Love of You” shows off Narada’s brilliant drum programming capabilities and its jazzy modern feel harks back not only to purveyors of modern jazz like Michael Jackson and Sade but also to other artists, like Miles Davis, Paul Butterfield and Bobby McFerrin.

“Where Do Broken Hearts Go” is the album’s most powerful emotional statement of innocence lost and trying to regain the safety of childhood. Her voice is as lovely and controlled as it ever has been and it leads up to “I Know Him So Well,” the most moving moment on the record because it’s first and foremost a duet with her mother, Cissy. It’s a ballad about . . . who? – a lover shared? a long-lost father? – with a combination of longing, regret, determination and beauty that ends the album on a graceful, perfect note. We can expect new things from Whitney (she made a stunning gift to the 1988 Olympics with the ballad “One Moment in Time”) but even if we didn’t she would remain the most exciting and original black jazz voice of her generation.

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Watching Cosmos as a young adolescent, Dr. Carl Sagan may have inspired more wonder and amazement in my mind than any one person has ever done before or since. When I hear Dr. Sagan’s voice, it brings me back to the unique way he was able to share concepts of astronomical size, the pure intellectual astonishment he brought home as you tried, really tried for the very first time, to grasp the incomprehensible size of the universe, a universe in which we are nothing more than microscopic travelers. Even now, hearing the theme music, then his opening monologue to Cosmos, it gets me every time.

In his book, Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan makes the case for humanity to continue it’s push to venture ever farther in our exploration of space. The passage that follows comes from the beginning of the book, where Sagan recounts man’s history of ever-expanding exploration and habitation of this world, how terrestrial exploration was imperative for the species then, just as the expansion out even further to other words is also imperative for the future of the species.

Like most every book I absorb now, I enjoyed this one in audiobook form, and I’m so glad that I did, because a good 60% of the book is read to us by Dr. Sagan himself. There is a bittersweet quality in hearing Dr. Sagan’s voice here and there with other sections finished by another narrator as it provides yet another reminder of how this brilliant man was taken from us all too soon. You also get a sense that as Sagan skipped around, reading different parts first, leaving other parts unfinished, that the parts he did get to were the parts of the book most important to him, certainly this part, where you can hear Sagan choke up as he recounts the tale of his immigrant roots:

Late in the nineteenth century, Leib Gruber was growing up in Central Europe, in an obscure town in the immense, polyglot, ancient Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father sold fish when he could. But times were often hard. As a young man, the only honest employment Leib could find was carrying people across the nearby river Bug. The customer, male or female, would mount Leib’s back; in his prized boots, the tools of his trade, he would wade out in a shallow stretch of the river and deliver his passenger to the opposite bank. Sometimes the water reached his waist. There were no bridges here, no ferryboats. Horses might have served the purpose, but they had other uses. That left Leib and a few other young men like him. They had no other uses. No other work was available. They would lounge about the riverbank, calling out their prices, boasting to potential customers about the superiority of their drayage. They hired themselves out like four-footed animals. My grandfather was a beast of burden.

I don’t think that in all his young manhood Leib had ventured more than a hundred kilometers from his little hometown of Sassow. But then, in 1904, he suddenly ran away to the New World – to avoid a murder rap, according to one family legend. He left his young wife behind. How different from his tiny backwater hamlet the great German port cities must have seemed, how vast the ocean, how strange the lofty skyscrapers and endless hub-bub of his new land. We know nothing of his crossing, but have found the ship’s manifest for the journey undertaken later by his wife, Chaiya – joining Leib after he had saved enough to bring her over. She traveled in the cheapest class on the Batavia, a vessel of Hamburg registry. There’s something heartbreakingly terse about the document: Can she read or write? No. Can she speak English? No. How much money does she have? I can imagine her vulnerability and her shame as she replies, “One dollar.”

She disembarked in New York, was reunited with Leib, lived just long enough to give birth to my mother and her sister, and then died from “complications” of childbirth. In those few years in America, her name had sometimes been anglicized to Clara. A quarter century later, my mother named her own first-born, a son, after the mother she never knew.

Wow . . . from such humble beginnings, eh?

Now for something totally different, an artist called melodysheep and a selection from his “Symphony of Science” Auto-Tune tribute to Dr. Carl Sagan:

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Currently Listening To:

Team of Rivals
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Doris Kearns Goodwin