Let’s agree that everything, absolutely everything, has gone wrong with 2016 so far.
It’s time, perhaps, that I ‘fessed up to something.
I broke a New Year Resolution quite early in the year. Some time at the very end of December 2015, I resolved, with hubristic Boswellian fervour, to write a heroic couplet for every day of 2016. It will be an interesting challenge – I thought to myself. I will learn something about what it takes not only to turn a couplet but to build couplets into paragraphs. I will vary my caesura placings. I will be selective with my enjambment.
Some time in February, I was forced to abandon my project, because it resulted in… abomination.
I will not present the “fruits” of my endeavours in evidence of my failure, because such blog readers as I have seem like decent people. There are certain things that decent people should not be exposed to, and my abortive couplet diary for the year of our lord 2016 was one of them. I can’t begin to describe its wretchedness and nor should I. Its sheer Vogonic awfulness was a sight (not) to behold.
If I wanted to go easy on myself (which I really shouldn’t), I might claim in self exculpation, that my couplet diary never really got over the death of David Bowie. David Bowie could not fit into rhymed iambics. Or, more accurately, he could not fit into my rhymed iambics.
I had thought initially that the individual closed couplets would be relatively easy, and the work of tying them into paragraphs would be hard. In fact, the work of creating a single closed couplet was generally beyond me. The effort of treating something authoritative and self contained with ten stressed syllables proved, for the most part, beyond me. And the stuff that I started to write suffered from too much rather than too little enjambment. In trying to look too far ahead join couplets together, I neglected to ensure the integrity of the individual couplets.
The etiology of the couplet, as traced by William Bowman Piper, should have taught me this lesson in advance. Immature mid seventeenth-century couplets are replete with enjambment and such poems become somewhat ragged and confused, with the reader unsure when or why or how they’re ever going to end. Instead of challenging Pope, I was challenging Cleveland. Actually, I was losing to Cleveland.
When I laid down my pen (metaphorically speaking – I mean of course when I deleted the file), I learned a fresh and chastening respect for the artistry of eighteenth-century verse. These people were builders, people who knew to build things of lasting value out of regular shaped bricks – while I was barely able to mix the cement.
I’ve failed at a great many things in the course of my culpably too short and too long life. This failure of mine to write a couplet a day in 2016 has at least been one of more instructive failures – a failure I will now pledge to repeat in 2017 in fulfillment of Samuel Beckett’s magnificent dictum – “Try again – Fail again – Fail better.”
Today, Donald Trump will travel to Gettysburg Pennsylvania where the mantle of Honest Abe will descend upon him and he will deliver a new, updated address, one more upbeat and suitable for the twenty-first century.
Long time ago – four score or more years ago (but who says ‘score’ any more – really?) – anyway – not important – back in the day, there were a bunch 0f guys (and they were really, really absolutely top guys – I’d have given them jobs managing any of my hotels and casinos) – and these guys had an idea. And the idea was great. It was really a great idea. The idea was America. Great.
But now we’re engaged in a great civil war with Crooked Hillary. America (which used to be great by the way) cannot survive Crooked Hillary. We are met today on some great battlefield of some great war or other. I think a bunch of people died here. Not sure how or why they died (it’s probably complicated), but hey, if you were the sort of people who sat home reading books, you wouldn’t be here listening to me, now would you?
But hey – there are bigger fish to fry than remembering war dead? And you know what? I prefer the soldiers that didn’t die. They were the winners – not the ones who got themselves killed. What’s up with all these war memorials anyway? I like the soldiers who fought in this battle and who are still alive today. Winners! These guys who died are clearly ‘low energy’ or else they wouldn’t have been shot. That’s the trouble with America today – it’s run by losers for losers.
So forget these guys. Cut to the chase. America used to be great – then it became not so great – and I’m going to make it great again. In the meantime, there’s Crooked Hillary. We need to remember that Crooked Hillary exists and walks this earth in solid form. Crooked Hillary is the most evil being ever to walk this earth since this earth first started to cool. The very fact that Crooked Hillary is allowed to exist is proof – absolute proof – that the whole system is rigged against me, and the election can only be valid if I win it.
So here I stand in this swing state of Pennsylvania to say that America can be great again… one nation, under Trump… and that Trump willing Government of the Trump, by the Trump and for the Trump shall not perish from the earth.
Trump bless America (which is gonna be great again, by the way).
Mr Trump will then travel to the Pennsylvania State House where he will rewrite the Declaration of Independence so that it contains the word “Trump” rather more times than it does at present.
This is the only bit people will remember… the bit where Trump refused to say if he’ll accept the election result if it goes against him.
His refusal is, of course, based on the fact that Trump cannot accept that anything in this universe is more important than him winning things. The idea that those who wield power should acknowledge a culture and a process that is bigger than they are is antithetical to every instinct in Trump’s body. This is why Trump should never wield supreme power. Someone who doesn’t think they’re serving something bigger than they are is unfit for any kind of office.
Of course, whether or not Trump “concedes” – those 270+ votes will still be cast and Hillary Clinton will still become President. Trump cannot just invalidate an election by sulking. The only thing he can decide to do – and the most important thing he can still do – is try to do (ever so ever so ever so late in the day) is reconcile his supporters to the democratic process. I retain a belief in the concept of repentance. Against all the evidence, I have to believe that it is somehow possible for even Donald Trump to do this.
Simply by uttering the words “I concede this election to Hillary Clinton”, he can save lives. If he wants to.
Because right now there are (at the very least) tens of thousands of angry people with guns who believe, because Trump has encouraged them to believe, that Clinton can only become President if the whole system is “rigged”. Someone with a shred of human empathy would betray some symptoms of anxieties about the casualties likely to be provoked by this sort of scenario. Trump is dead to shame (which means that he is also dead to all sorts of other human experiences).
The Trump campaign is not interested in reported detailed and specific so-called democratic abuses. Somehow it’s “everything” that is to be blame. And this nebulous “everything” will be evidenced by the mere fact of Hillary Clinton winning.
Trump has now whittled his actual campaign agenda down to a single item – the demonization of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Many of his supporters believe that a “not in jail” Clinton is the most serious problem in America right now. When these thousands of angry men with guns will wake up and find that Clinton is not in jail but is instead POTUS as a result of an election they believe to have been rigged – how are they going to react? How will they react to a woman, furthermore, whom they’ve been told plans to somehow unilaterally overturn the second amendment of the constitution and castrate them by taking their guns away and turning the USA into a Canadian or European style slave state?
“Suspense” might be great in the context of a reality show, but when it comes to peacefully transferring the executive branch of the world’s dominant super-power, it’s altogether less desirable. People, real people (not Donald Trump) can get hurt in the middle of such suspense.
Donald Trump will lose the election. The only remaining “suspense” concerns how he loses.
Following the second presidential debate tonight, #TrumpWon will again go viral and a bunch of “polls” will show a massive boost for the Trump campaign.
Of course, open online polls are not polls at all, in any recognised sense. Any poll that can be “swamped” by a campaign cannot be described as anything resembling a representative sample. Furthermore, there is much evidence of social media manipulation of open online polls, whereby votes can be replicated and spread by determined hackers – see below.
None of this so called “reality” will impact on Trump’s dedicated supporters, whose abject prostration in front of their disgusting demagogue means that they will continue to insist that “their” online polls reflect a massive groundswell of “real” voters – something that Clinton cannot match.
For such people, of course, Trump has already won, because “winning” is what Trump does. Whatever Trump does…
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I am a sucker for American Civil War histories. Each year I make sure I read either a full length study of some aspect of the American Civil War or a book about the the ante-bellum tensions leading up to the Civil War or about Reconstruction.
James L. Huston’s contribution to Civil War causation theory is stubbornly economic in its focus. It is concerned neither with “States Rights” nor with the vagaries of Southern cultural distinctiveness. His book is concerned, rather, with property and the meaning of property and the defense of property. It reinforces the familiar point that “States Rights” was hardly the dominant register of pr0-slavery discourse before the War and that slaving interests were concerned not with being “left alone” by the Federal government but aimed rather at controlling it.
The billions (yes billions) of dollars tied up in slave ownership in the 1850s encouraged many in the North (who were unabashedly racist and who evidenced not an atom of sympathy for the sufferings of plantation slaves) that this economic power threatened to become the dominant political power within the Union. The defense of “free labour” and economies based on “free labour” suggested a real sense of risk from a southern aristocracy that would inevitably legislate in its own interests. Huston, with the aid of painstaking statistics, demonstrates that the idea that the South was “impoverished” relative to the North withstands no real analysis. He is at odds, therefore, with a rather crude Marxian orthodoxy which dictates that slavery was a feudal throwback destined to wither on the vine as the inevitable, dialectically determined march of capitalism rendered it obsolete. He is even receptive to the thesis that slave labour might have been adapted for use in factories and other industrial concerns. In any case, his assessment of the sheer scale of the fortune tied up in slave ownership renders it plausible that slave owners were hardly likely to tamely give up their slaves when confronted with speculative macro-economic projections.
The most fascinating section of Huston’s book concerns the centrality of “property rights”. “Property rights” absorbed theoreticians of the American experiment since colonial times. There was a general and well founded fear among those leisured enough to design constitutions that majoritarian democracy offered a clear and present danger to property. Naturally, there was difference of opinion as to whether or not “slaves” constituted property, or at least property as unambiguous as any other kind of property. Pro-slavery apologists declared loudly that they were, of course, but the practical (let along ethical) problems with declaring human beings to be property created legal as well as political minefields. While northern Free-Soilers always admitted that property needed protection, they did not give “property” the absolute and foundational significance that it was given on the streets of Charleston. Philosophically, the conflict between representative government and property rights is fascinating, leading to the paradox that property is undeniably private, yet the legal framework that defines such privacy is undeniably public and political.
Huston makes a superb point about railroads central to Northern victory in the war, central to their ability to organise superior numbers and direct them across vast distances in a timely fashion. But Huston makes a different point about the spread of railroads in the 1850s. Railroads, like any revolution in transportation technology, have the effect of diminishing transportation costs as a percentage of the cost of manufactured goods. As these transportation costs diminish, then the cost of labour becomes relatively more important. This is as true in the twenty first century as it was in the mid nineteenth. Massive container ports and whopping big ships travelling between these ports mean that Capital will seek out and employ the world’s cheapest possible source of manufacturing labour. Needless to say, no form of labour is cheaper than slave labour.
Rational self interest, therefore, dictated that the transportational cost savings and efficiencies generated by railroads were likely to ensure that the products of “free labour” would find it difficult to compete with the products of slave labour.
In short, this is a careful, eloquent and persuasive book. I am reminded of the important anthology Why the South Lost the Civil War by Hattaway, Beringer et al. If, as Huston is correct, economic interests and the defense of those interests were paramount among pro-slavery southerners, the decision to surrender in 1865 becomes all the more plausible. A bushwacking campaign of resistance was entirely plausible in 1865, and armed bands could have turned vast stretches of the old South into bleeding Kansases and Missouris. But such a strategy, justifiable if abstract claims of freedom and sovereignty were paramount, becomes utterly unjustifiable if the utter impoverishment of the region is the result, with no cash crop farming being possible. The South, therefore, initiated secession and provoked the war because slaves generated immense wealth, and stopped fighting when fighting could no longer protect that wealth.
Trump’s chief cheerleader, the increasingly contemptible Rudy Giuliani, has suggested that voter fraud is rife in big cities – places where the dead vote – where unreal people subvert the will of real people.
There are various things going on here. Quite apart from this being a cynical attempt to discredit an election they are losing, Trump and Giuliani (New Yorkers both), are re-activating a version of reactionary pastoralism – a pastoralism that is not only (though obviously) racist, but which is tied to a deep suspicion of cities and what goes on there. As New Yorkers, Trump and Giuliani are either to be regarded as transparent and brazen hypocrites or else fired up with the zeal of belated converts to the cause of anti-urban “real” Americanism.
The USA has always worried about cities. The Senate itself is constitutional body purposely designed to offset urban majoritarianism. In the Senate, Wyoming has two representatives – the same as California – despite having only a fraction of California’s population. The influence of cities has always been something that somehow needs to be checked and restrained. It is wrong, apparently for the votes of city folk to have undue influence over the lives of small town folk. It is fine, however, for the votes of small town folk to have undue influence over the lives of city folk.
Here is one of the best works of Trumpology I’ve read in recent weeks… from Vox…
The American press is overwhelmingly made up of left-of-center white people who live in large cities and have internalized very strong anti-racist norms. As a result, it tends to be composed of people who think of racism as a very, very serious character defect, and who are riddled with anxiety about being perceived as out of touch with “real America.” “Real America” being, per decades of racially charged tropes in our culture, white, non-urban America.
Coincidentally (no, come to think of it, not coincidentally at all) Theresa May in the UK has made it clear that the half of the population that voted for Brexit is far more “real” than the half who didn’t. The point being made here is that liberal urbanites, pretty much by definition, do not regard themselves as the only “real” people in the world. They (we) are anxious all the time about how out of touch they (we) are. In contrast, small town conservative white people (who are by no means especially likely to be economically disadvantaged) experience no such concerns. They do not toss and turn at night worrying that they are out of touch with the “real” experience of New York Puerto Ricans. This is because small town conservatives assert a right to always be more “real” than those urban populations.
Right wing middle aged men from small towns claim to be oppressed and marginalised, but what they really object to is the prospect of having to share “reality” with others. In a sense it’s not just the statistically negligible phenomenon of voter fraud in big cities that worries them – it’s the prospect of the sort of people who live in big cities claiming to be as “real” as they are that enrages them. All city folk are “dead” in the sense of being less “real” than small town folk. And these unreal people not only include people who have dark skin and/or unfamiliar food preferences and/or the ability to speak more than one language. Unreal city folk includes those monolingual white people who live cheerfully cheek by jowl with such “unreal” Americans, compromising their own reality in the process.
The votes of city folk ought not to count the same as the votes of “real” Americans, in other words.
The more obviously terrifying thing that is going on is that Giuliani helping Trump in his successful effort to persuade tens of thousands of angry well-armed people that a Clinton victory can only be the result of fraud. There is insurrectionary rhetoric in the air. It may peter out, given that the angriest people are late middle aged and often overweight, but it would be naive and irresponsible to suggest that nobody will get hurt. There is craziness. There are guns, lots of guns. Giuliani used to be famous not only for being Mayor of New York but as a symbol of resistance to terrorism. He’s now busying himself vilifying cities like New York and fanning the flames of terrorism.
Tim Stanley did this a few days ago in The Telegraph entitled “A World that gives Bob Dylan a Nobel Prize for Literature is a World that nominates Trump for President”. Here’s the piece.
Now in a narrow technical sense, he is of course quite right. These two events have in fact taken place on the same planet – a place called Earth. It’s true in the same sense that Paul McCartney and Adolf Hitler are two examples of vegetarians. It’s true in the same sense that a butterfly flaps its wings in Indonesia while share prices crash on Wall Street. Yes, the nomination of Donald Trump as US President and the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan are two events involving Earthlings.
Stanley is suggesting, of course, that a degree of synchronicity (though only a degree – Trump’s nomination was last year, not this horrible year) implies something symptomatic, something illustrative of a Popean cultural malaise. His is a Dunciadic pronouncement (only without Pope’s sense of fun).
Now who actually nominated Bob Dylan for the prize? I am pleased to say I know at least one of the people who did it, and I can tell you that nothing on earth could have compelled this individual to nominate Donald Trump for US president (even if he was a US citizen rather than a Scandinavian academic). I feel very certain that if the GOP were comprised exclusively of the sort of people who nominated Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize for Literature, there is no way Donald Trump would be the nominee.
Of course, this is not Stanley’s point. He’s making a far more pervasive, subtler and absolutely impossible to prove either way point about “dumbing down” and populism. As someone who has actually tried to teach Bob Dylan to predominantly young people, I can tell you, Stanley is severely over-stating Dylan’s “low brow” popularity. When Tim Stanley has actually tried playing “Highlands”, in its entirety to around 500 bewildered nineteen year olds (as I have), he may reconsider his assumption that celebrating Bob Dylan is a fail-safe short cut to easy popularity. I would have made life a lot simpler for myself and been far more “down with the kids”, had I confined my lecture time to just reading out a few more of the earlier and more familiar short poems of Seamus Heaney (who won the Nobel Prize round about the same time).
“Dumbing Down” suggests a surrender to something that is “easy”. Stanley reels of a list of great writers who have won the Nobel Prize (Yeats, Gide, O’Neill, Solzhenitsyn) as a way of validating the supposed degradation of the Prize now it’s in the grubby paws of this Minnesota minstrel. But each of these writers could be praised (at least on occasion) for their clarity and the spareness of their lyricism. Each of them was capable of startling “directness” of expression . There is far greater descriptive variety (or wilful obscurantism) in “Desolation Row” or “Gates of Eden” that there is in The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, a book whose determined and haunting simplicity secured its author the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Putting Dylan and Trump in the same sentence means putting a man who actually likes adjectives, who likes description for its own sake, in the company of a man who is so deliberately and wilfully imaginatively deprived and who hates adjectives so much that he only has one adjective – the non-descriptive “great”.
The definitional case for not giving Dylan the prize is of course the best one. And this argument has been productive of some very interesting conversations, which are still ongoing. There’s nothing “low brow” (whatever that means) about consequent debates about the meaning of poetry, its phonocentric origins, about the relative cultural capital attached to poems versus songs, and the meaning of authorship, composition and performance in a world of mass cultural reproduction. These arguments are not “dumb”. Even if the award was misplaced, the controversy over whether or not it was not misplaced is not an argument that Donald Trump is intellectually equipped to contribute to.
Certain key people who are intellectually equipped to join in this conversation – Benjamin, Brecht and Adorno – are no longer with us. Adorno did of course condemn Joan Baez thus
Adorno’s condemnation of popular music, however, might have made him more sympathetic to Dylan’s re-allocation to the sphere of literature. This is teachable moment. I will use it next week. To teach. Unlike Stanley, of course, Adorno yoked high-minded formalist critiques of popular (or at least prevalent) music forms with a structural analysis of the workings of capitalism. And anything that forces people to read more Adorno is not going to make the world a dumber place. Whether or not this award is “right” or “wrong”, its implications are intellectually productive.
Of course, far more disturbing than Tim Stanley’s assertions about Dylan is his attempt to blame Trump on some nebulous slipping of “standards”. Apparently Trump is where he is today, in part because lazy liberal academics have been sneaking Bob Dylan into literary curricula. Yes, it’s my fault. (Frankly, I think the Indonesian butterfly is more culpable.) Stanley prefers a patrician account of the rise of Trump in terms of the falling of certain aesthetic “standards” to an account that looks at racism, sexism, poverty and violence not as pervasive cultural phenomena but as real things that are hurting real people.
So right now, I’m going to continue chairing arguments about the meaning of literature and song and what gives “culture” its capital “C”. You’ll also find me listening to Dylan, reading W.B. Yeats and Thomas Pynchon while planning my trip to Indonesia to tear the wings off a butterfly.
This has been debated for a long long time. I used to insert the issue into one of my lectures, ten years ago and more (more). “Should Bob Dylan get the Nobel Prize for Literature?”
I didn’t really answer the question then and I won’t know. (What sort of worthwhile question gets “answered”?) As far as Dylan is concerned, I am a fan and I’m biased. His songs mean more to me than most poems and the poetry inside his songs means more to me than most poems. His songs are full of poetry and he has distributed playful and expressive rhymes far and wide. At the same time, I’ve always been worried by the condescension and structural snobbery implied by the idea of elevating Bob to the pantheon of “Literature”. It’s as though the stuffed shirts are thinking “you know, this unkempt mumbling minstrel does some rather nice things with words. But because he’s scratched his words on vinyl rather than print them inside a neat little Faber and Faber paperback, he can’t be “Art”. But we will rescue him. We will listen carefully to his mumblings, print them inside and neat little Faber and Faber paperback and then he can be Art.”
Are those who acclaim Bob Dylan as a poet showing disdain for the medium in which he as chosen to work? Why is “Literature” somehow “higher” than songwriting? Why is “Literature” a promotion?
And yet, there’s a different way of looking at the issue. Poetry is, after all, older than literacy. The first poets were performance poets. Silent reading is (in the context of the human story), a comparatively recent phenomenon, and verses were not verses, not real, until a voice brought them into being. That’s what being a “bard” was all about, before about 1500. The distinction between the creation of verses and the voice chanting those verses had not yet been born.
Many people don’t like Bob Dylan’s voice. No, really, it’s true. Honest. Really. I’ve actually met these people. They say he has a voice like a clinically depressed vacuum cleaner and his voice gets in the way of appreciating what it is he’s saying. Can you believe that? For what it’s worth, I’ve heard a recording of T.S. Eliot reciting “Hollow Men” and he sounds terrible – slow, dull, ponderous – Eliot manages to suck all the life out of his own verses.
Many Renaissance lyrics were of course set to music – music which has since been lost. Such poems were (are) actually called “lyrics” and “songs”. When we enjoy lyrics without the original and structuring music, are we betraying some sacred principle of intentionality (clue – it’s not sacred at all)? Are song lyrics without music “found poems”? Are we getting half a work of art or a completely different work of art?
Are songs “literature”? Well once upon a time novels weren’t. We recall that Winston Churchill (ludicrously) was given the Nobel Prize for Literature for his histories. Bertrand Russell was given the Nobel Prize for Literature for his prose essays – a laudable award because Russell wrote some of the best prose of the twentieth century. Form does not define “literature”. “Literature” is defined by a set of expectations – a particular kind of receptive state of mine.
Bob Dylan himself does not need this prize. This will not make Bob Dylan appreciatively more famous than he already is. The definitional controversy provoke by giving it to Bob Dylan will, however, make the Nobel Prize for Literature more famous than it already is.
Usually, this prize is about making literature famous.
This year it’s been about making fame literary.
Most years, I’ll be honest, I need to look up whoever has won this prize. And that’s good for me. Most years I find myself thinking… “I don’t know her – come to think of it I don’t know anything about Paraguayan crime fiction” and then I look her up and start to get interested and realise (yet again) the sheer height, breadth and depth of my own literary ignorance. I recognise, with a sense of chastened awe, that there are oceans of literary experiences dashing at my feet, as yet unexplored.
If this award is about “elevating” someone to the status of a literary giant, then it’s a regressive piece of structural snobbery and A Bad Thing. When Dylan called himself a “song and dance man” – he deserved to be taken seriously. The world needs more song and dance. But if the award leads to a long and loud and complicated argument about the meaning of literature and the meaning of language and the relationship between how imagery is developed on a page rather than by the human voice – then this award is a wonderful thing. Especially for me.
In the meantime, here are all the words to “Desolation Row”. Philip Larkin loved these words, and the order they were put in.
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors, the circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner, they’ve got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker, the other is in his pants
And the riot squad they’re restless, they need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight, from Desolation Row
And puts her hands in her back pockets Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he’s moaning. “You Belong to Me I Believe”
And someone says, “You’re in the wrong place, my friend, you’d better leave”
And the only sound that’s left after the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up on Desolation Row
The fortune telling lady has even taken all her things inside
All except for Cain and Abel and the hunchback of Notre Dame
And the Good Samaritan, he’s dressing, he’s getting ready for the show
He’s going to the carnival tonight on Desolation Row
On her twenty-second birthday she already is an old maid
To her, death is quite romantic she wears an iron vest
Her profession’s her religion, her sin is her lifelessness
And though her eyes are fixed upon Noah’s great rainbow
She spends her time peeking into Desolation Row
Passed this way an hour ago with his friend, a jealous monk
Now he looked so immaculately frightful as he bummed a cigarette
And he when off sniffing drainpipes and reciting the alphabet
You would not think to look at him, but he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin on Desolation Row
But all his sexless patients, they’re trying to blow it up
Now his nurse, some local loser, she’s in charge of the cyanide hole
And she also keeps the cards that read, “Have Mercy on His Soul”
They all play on the penny whistles, you can hear them blow
If you lean your head out far enough from Desolation Row
The Phantom of the Opera in a perfect image of a priest
They are spoon feeding Casanova to get him to feel more assured
Then they’ll kill him with self-confidence after poisoning him with words
And the Phantom’s shouting to skinny girls, “Get outta here if you don’t know”
Casanova is just being punished for going to Desolation Row”
Come out and round up everyone that knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders and then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles by insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping to Desolation Row
Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?!”
And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them and fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much about Desolation Row
When you asked me how I was doing, was that some kind of joke
All these people that you mention, yes, I know them, they’re quite lame
I had to rearrange their faces and give them all another name
Right now, I can’t read too good, don’t send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them from Desolation Row
While visiting my mother’s house, I found a copy of this, which I must have purchased as a teenager. Co-edited by established music writer Michael Gray and dedicated Dylan obsessive John Bauldie, this is a deliciously eclectic collection of minutiae and serious scholarship. It sports misheard lyrics, off the cuff quotes, sleeve notes together with Allen Ginsberg and Christopher Ricks.
John Bauldie, I’ve since discovered, was a fascinating character who ran his Dylan Fanzine, The Telegraph, out of his house in Romford, persistently claiming that Bob Dylan read it himself on a regular basis. Bauldie died young, following the crash of an ill advised and ill piloted visit to his other great obsession in life – Bolton Wanderers.
The book gives a fair sense of the flavour of The Telegraph, and when I am old friendless, I will devote myself perhaps to collecting every issue of this, or…
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So yesterday, Obama channeled the spirit of JFK and issued a call to plan to have human beings walking around on Mars within a reasonable time-frame.
Now of course there are lots of things that the USA could spend money on instead of going to Mars. But the truth is that going to Mars is just cool. You may hear talk about the transferable technologies that will be developed along the way in the course of a Mars mission, and the practical applications drawn from the necessary research. But that’s not why people should go to Mars. You don’t do the cool things to solve practical problems. You solve practical problems to do the cool things.
Going to Mars will make us all feel more upbeat about the potential of the human animal. We will all of us walk a bit taller as a consequence. Going to Mars will be exciting – a dangerous project to quicken the pulse and make all of us feel a bit more alive. In short – going to Mars will inspire.
Some people might argue that going to Mars ought to be an international project rather than something undertaken unilaterally by NASA. As a defiant “Citizen of the World”, I’m naturally sympathetic to whatever project makes sympathy larger. When collective European technological wizardry managed to plant a probe on a comet, I felt proud to be European, a precious addition to my self esteem I’m shortly to be stripped of.
But at the same time, if NASA just wants to go to Mars on its own, then that’s fine too, in part because it showcases a wholly admirable notion of competitive patriotism. Instead of the competitive patriotism of hatred and stupidity that is so popular nowadays, a space race is a competition to see who can do something imaginative, difficult, and unprecedented. If an American citizen plants a flag on Mars, I will cheer because the vision of citizenship promoted by such an image will have a global resonance. I don’t have a citizenship at the moment, being currently stained and shamed by a passport denoting a failed state that decided this year that it hated itself (and others) too much be able to live any more. At a time like this, I will cheer any patriotic endeavour from any nation that does not involve insulting and killing other people.
The cost of the Martian shindig will be large. The 1960s space race was funded at a time when it was still believed that rich people had some of the same civic obligations as poor people and should pay for the public services they themselves used with taxation. The offshored trillions, taxed at a modest 25%, would fund quite an ambitious Martian programme.
This will not happen within the piratical global economy we live in – but it’s still something to think about.
And what will we do when we (by “we” I mean emphatically not me), get to Mars? Will we start to terraform? Will we make plans for further colonisation? Will we look back on Earth and realise the pettiness of our tribal divisions?
I don’t know. All I know is that it will be cool. And the aesthetic argument is always adequate and sufficient all on its own.