The Bonobo, the Potato, and the Giant


Beth at Cup-Of-Coffey has a new entry about why she loves the Internet involving a video of hundreds of inmates at a filipino prison performing Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  It’s a testament to the human spirit, sort of, but more importantly it is a testament to the peculiar character of our modern world in which wonder can be inspired simply by clicking a link.

The New Yorker has an article about Bonobo apes — also known as hippie apes due to their gentle natures, compared to humans and chimps, as well as their sexual promiscuity — in which one of the leading researchers in the field comments, regarding field work:

“You always think there’s going to be something round the next bend, but there never is.”

My experience this week on the web has been quite the opposite.  The Internet is much better than I have been led to believe, and here are a few reasons why.

Conrad H. Roth, over at Varieties of Unreligious Experience, has a film-review of the 1966 documentary Africa Addio unlike any film review I have ever read.  The film itself is a disturbing and violent portrayal of the chaos of post-colonial Africa, but Conrad’s explanation and recommendation of the film raises it to the level of a dark portrayal of the human condition.  Conrad brings up the petite-tyrant Roger Ebert’s review, summed up in the words ‘brutal, dishonest, racist’, only to convince us not only of Ebert’s smallness of character but also how this basically accurate description of Africa Addio is part of what makes the movie great.  It is all this and more.

The Polyglot Vegetarian, who hadn’t posted anything since April, has finally blogged about the Potato.  PV has picked out a special niche in the blogosphere — he blogs eruditely about veggies, giving their linguistic and social history.  He makes the lowly noble.

If you liked The Da Vinci Code, or if you happened to prefer the original version by Baigent and Leigh, then you will certainly enjoy Raminagrobis’s explanation of “the much and justly maligned” Claude-Sosthène Grasset d’Orcet’s theories about how to decode Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel through the discovery of the proper uses of punning.

Finally, the Beta 2 of Visual Studio 2008 has just be released for download, as explained on Scott Guthrie’s blog.  In certain corners of the world, this is a fairly momentous event, but falling in such an interesting week, it is a bit underwhelming for me against the backdrop of dancing prisoners, darkest Africa, the bonobo, the potato, and the giant.

My Dark Lord Can Beat Up Your Dark Lord


Voldemort vs Sauron, who would win? 

hobbitsI’ve just recently picked up my copy of the seventh Harry Potter book and secreted it beneath a stack of Playboys.  I take it out occasionally and read it in the bathroom so Mrs. Ziffer won’t know what I’m up to.  For me, reading the adventures of the boy wizard is a secret vice — as all vices should be.

In the 60’s the U.S. had the Arthurian cycle — or at least the musical version of it — to serve as the prism through which its citizens interpreted the political world.  During the American Civil War, A Thousand and One Arabian Nights served much the same purpose.  During the American Revolutionary War, political leaders were guided by the Roman historians and able to quote Thucydides.  More recently, neoconservatives have attempted to revive interest in Thucydides as a template for forming political narratives, but facts on the ground have tended to discredit this project.  And in its place, we instead have … what?

The Dark Lord Sauron commands an army of tens of thousands, including the Nazgul and their witch-king.  He manifests himself as a far-seeing eye, and the mere mention of his name by the unwary draws his attention.  He can corrupt the souls of men.  In battle he drives his enemies before him with a wave of his hand. 

The Dark Lord Voldemort commands followers who disrupt sports matches, ripping up tents and setting off fireworks.  He uses three forbidden spells, the most powerful of which is a death spell that works when he is near his victim.  It works something like a self-reloading pistol.  It is not clear whether it can penetrate decent armor like kevlar or mithril.  Chances are that it cannot, since even common furniture has been known to deflect it.  It is also not a spell peculiar to him — he just seems more willing than most to use it.

In a no-holds-barred battle between the two, I’m not sure how Voldemort stands any chance.


Examining their respective nemeses only seems to muddy the waters further.  Frodo is armed with a magic dagger that detects the proximity of goblins and orcs.  With his short reach, however, it is only effective in close-quarters fighting, and Harry prefers to cast spells at a distance.  Frodo is also protected by a mithril coat of mail, an elven cloak, and the vial of Galadrial, which may grant him enough protection to close the distance between himself and Harry and put his dagger to use.  He prefers to use these defenses to flee from enemies, however, and appears to lack the martial skills to use his powerful defensive weapons effectively to overcome young Harry.  Again, the odds seem overwhelmingly to favor one combatant over the other.  A Patronum, Expelliarmus and Rictusempra spell should quickly bring Frodo to his knees.

Despite the fact that Frodo can be easily defeated by Harry, who is presented as a close match for Voldemort, who in turn is clearly out of the Dark Lord Sauron’s league, Sauron is ultimately defeated by the halfling, who by the transitive principle should be the weakest of them all.  How is this possible?

According to Jean-Francois Lyotard, this is an instance of a differend:

As distinguished from a litigation, a differend would be a case of conflict, between (at least) two parties, that cannot be equitably resolved for lack of a rule of judgment applicable to both arguments.  One side’s legitimacy does not imply the other’s lack of legitimacy.  However applying a single rule of judgment to both in order to settle their differend as though it were merely a litigation would wrong (at least) one of them (and both of them if neither side admits this rule).

While on their surface, both Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings belong to the same narrative genre, the paradox above reveals that they in fact belong to different genres.  The regimens which determine the outcome of conflicts in these two series are incompatible, even though they co-exist and confirm a similar theme — good must overcome evil.  To apply the narrative rules of one to the other would confound this theme, and cause evil to overcome good.  In Harry’s world, Frodo would quickly be destroyed by the Avada Kadavra (he has neither magic nor the charm of a mother’s love, as far as we know), while in Frodo’s world, Harry would succumb to the power of the ring or simply be overcome by hordes of uruk-hai.

yoda The rules by which Harry is able to overcome Voldemort (I don’t mean to give away the ending — let us assume that this is where the story is clearly headed), and Frodo to defeat Sauron, are derived from two very ancient narratives about the nature of the conflict between Good and Evil.

According to one, good and evil are cosmic forces in conflict.  They are equal in power.  Ultimately good is intended to triumph, though this also entails many victories for the forces of evil along the way.  How goodness can triumph, when it is a power equal to the power of evil, is an open question.

According to the other, as enunciated by Plato, evil is a privation.  There is only The Good, while evil is simply a way of talking about distance from this Ideal.  Evil is nothing in itself; evil is the absence of goodness.

Christianity, while having officially adopted the latter cosmology, has in fact always vacillated between these two notions.  During times of little struggle, the Platonic viewpoint has tended to hold sway.  In times of trouble, however, the tendency to reify evil predominates, and in its wake Manichean cosmology holds sway.

The peculiarity of The Lord of the Rings lies in the placement of a Platonic regime within a Manichean narrative, and that the confirmation of this does not reveal itself until the end.  The struggle between  good and evil in Middle-Earth is stark.  The good are so very good, while the bad are so clearly evil.  The corruption of men, when it occurs with Lord Denethor and Saruman, is rarely subtle.  The redemption of King Theoden and Baromir, and the near-redemption of Gollum, are central moments in the story, and in each case is caused by the forces of light — by Gandalf, Merry and Pippin, and Frodo, respectively — as if redemption were a force which these characters emanated from their very being. 

The progress of the novel involves the Fellowship of the Ring moving through Middle-Earth and recruiting allies to a cause that is sure to fail.  The overwhelming power of the Dark Lord Sauron is always clear, so in what lies their hope?  How does a hobbit resist and defeat such an evil will?  This is only possible if the rules of conflict are Platonic rather than Manichean.  Sauron is everything that Frodo is not.  More accurately, Frodo is everything that Sauron is not, and he proves this by resisting the lure of the ring.  In the Lord of the Rings, all it takes to defeat evil is to deny evil any power. 

matrix In the Harry Potter novels, the reverse is the case.  What is required to defeat evil, in this narrative regime, is to recognize that Evil exists and to apply a more powerful force against it.  Harry recruits allies not to deny those allies to the Dark Lord.  Rather, he recruits allies in order to gather power — good power of course — that will be sufficient to overcome Voldemort’s reserves of evil force.  Moreover, unlike in Tolkien’s work, the powers involved are not based on disproportion, but rather on the similarlity in power between Voldemort and Harry, who carries part of Voldemort’s power in his famous scar.  The series builds, surely and inevitably, toward a final showdown (again, I don’t mean to give away the ending — let us merely agree that we understand the narrative rules upon which Harry Potter is built, the same rules upon which Star Wars is built, in fact, and go on from there) in which Harry must use this stolen power to defeat the powers of darkness — so unlike the burden of Frodo, who must carry Sauron’s power and refuse to use it.

We might go so far as to say that Harry Potter is a Manichean struggle in a Platonic world.  We are given glimpses of the family background that makes Voldemort the Dark Lord he is, as if to demonstrate that there are no evil people in the world, just misunderstood people.  We are given glimpses into the life of Snape, and the not always exemplary school career of Harry’s wizard father, demonstrating that the line between good and evil is not so clear as we would like to think.  Good people have their faults, while bad people (all the former dark-wizards who have changed their ways) have their virtues. 

At the same time, there is a thread running throughout the novel — more Manichean in nature — of a struggle between a wizarding aristocracy and a proletarian wizarding class, the muggle-lovers, which belies this therapeutic message.  Both Snape and Sirius Black are class-traitors not fully trusted by either side.  These issues of class resolve themselves into the more fundamental issue of whose side you will stand on when it is time to fight.  Are you with the forces of Evil?  Or are you with Us?

Harry Potter is a secret pleasure because, though I don’t like to admit it, I find Manichean struggles much more engaging than Platonic philosophizing.  Asking ‘What is the Good?’ is all good and well, but at the end of the day, I like a Hegelian Master-Servant struggle in which victory confirms the rightness of my cause and my self-worth.  In a Platonic world, the rightness of my cause is a separate matter from my success, and the only proper course of action, at the moment of true struggle, is to fulfill an obligation to Asclepius. 

It would be salutary to believe that world-affairs are guided by more high-brow narrative regimes than I am, but I am not so sure.  In the West we struggle against Islamo-fascists in our attempts to make the world a better place.  In Russia, Chechnyan separatists and their ilk in the Caucuses are the enemies of choice.  In China, they crush dissidents.  In the Middle East and other Islamic regions, they resist the modernizers and … well … us.  I sometimes wonder if the jihadis watch Star Wars and see their own aspirations and hopes acted out by Luke Skywalker.

In a similar vein, do young jihadis read Harry Potter as I do, in secret, in order to avoid public humiliation and, in their case, possible bodily violence?  If so, then perhaps we can overcome our differences through the recognition that we all have this one thing in common, an innate desire for Manichean struggles of self-affirmation.  And isn’t this how the first-steps toward peace are always made: by understanding what unites us, rather than what makes us different?

The Decemberists In Atlanta


I once heard the Yiddish storyteller and Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer describe his first experience with a cafeteria in New York City.  He was initially frustrated by the lack of help he received from the servers at the strange restaurant.  As he waited politely for a table, he saw scores upon scores of waiters and waitresses carrying trays of food around but they all ignored him when he requested their assistance.  ‘What a devilish restaurant,’ he thought, ‘with more staff than customers, and yet the service is still horrible.’

Something similar may have gone through Colin Meloy’s mind when he and his band, The Decemberists, performed at Chastain Park this past Friday.  Whereas at many venues the audience is there to listen to the performers, at Chastain the band is very much there to entertain the audience.  People typically arrive half-an-hour after the show has started.  They bring in their own food and spirits; they dine and converse throughout the show.  The fifty or so tables set up in the area immediately before the stage reinforce this casual atmosphere, since some of the audience can even turn their backs to the band in order to better carry out their convivial discussions.

My hope is that The Decemberists were not offended by this or took it for a lack of appreciation.  At a certain point Meloy even walked through the diners in the pit and sampled some brie from one of the tables.  He seemed to be in a good mood, and the only reason to think otherwise is the brevity of the main set, which lasted only a little over 70 minutes.  This may have been due, however, to the fact that there was no opening act and the show had to be coordinated with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which performed backup on many of the songs.

The Decemberists are an Indie band (a term often used to describe something non-mainstream — I’m not sure what else it is meant to encapsulate since they are currently on a major label.  They are also said to be a folk band, though I am not sure in what way, other than that in some songs an acoustic guitar predominates (for instance in Red Right Ankle, which I’m listening to, now) and that most songs involve esoteric narratives sung from the point of view of street urchins, nineteenth century soldiers and dissolute aristocrats.

My mother was a Chinese trapeze artist
In pre-war Paris
Smuggling bombs for the underground.
And she met my father
At a fete in Aix-en-Provence.
He was disguised as a Russian cadet
in the employ of the Axis.

My Mother Was A Chinese Trapeze Artist

I don’t follow rock reviews well enough to describe the music, itself, which is beautifully melodic and filled with complex and occasionally obscure instrumentation.  I think coming up with terms to describe rock sub-genres must be a bit like inventing terms to describe wines.  To my palate, The Decemberists taste like summer fruit, with overtones of oak casks and tobacco, as well as a hint of wet dog.  What strikes me most about the songs is the beauty of the lyrics, which typically are imbued with a nineteenth century romanticism and filled with a similarly stylized diction, as well as surprising inversions and exotic, near-hysterical rhyming schemes.

Medicating in the sun
pinched doses of laudanum
longing for the old fecundity of my homeland
Curses to this mirage!
A bottle of ancient Shiraz
a smattering of distant applause
is ringing in my poor ears

On the old left bank
my baby in a charabanc
riding up the width and length
of the Champs Elysees

If only summer rain would fall
on the houses and the boulevard
and the side walk bagatelles it’s like a dream
with the roar of cars
and the lulling of the cafe bars
the sweetly sleeping sweeping of the Seine
Lord I don’t know if I’ll ever be back again

The Legionnaire’s Lament

The lyrics are also overflowing with words one needs to look up.  What is a charabanc, or a bagatelle, or an infanta, palanquin, gingham, corncrake or taffeta?  The esoteric character of the lyrics, far from making the songs remote, make them more accessible since all one has to do to enjoy them is to agree to play along.  The experience is a bit like a graduate seminar in which one at first feels unqualified to participate — after a while, one realizes that no one is really qualified to participate and that all that is necessary to play is to learn a few technical terms and be willing to follow the conversation wherever it goes.  As an added bonus, a conversation with The Decemberists takes you across a field of Dickensian fancies, spy novels, turn of the century adventure tales, and on occasion, in such songs as Los Angeles, I’m Yours and Sixteen Military Wives, even the contemporary world.

Finally, unlike many popular bands where memorable refrains are the most salient aspect of the songs, for me the most memorable aspect of The Decemberists are the wonderful images their songs evoke.  For instance, from Los Angeles:

There is a city by the sea
A gentle company
I don’t suppose you want to
And as it tells its sorry tale
In harrowing detail
Its hollowness will haunt you
Its streets and boulevards
Orphans and oligarchs it hears
A plaintive melody
Truncated symphony
An ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore,
Los Angeles, I’m yours.

… from California One:

And the road a-winding goes
From golden gate to roaring cliff-side
And the light is softly low as our hearts Become sweetly untied
Beneath the sun of California one.

Take a long drown with me of California Wine…

… and from Summersong:

My girl, Lenin in curls
Lips parting like a flag unfurled
She’s grand, the bend of her hand
Digging deep into the sweep of the sand

Despite a forecast of summer rains, the weather was fair throughout the evening at Chastain, and as the sun set we watched bats flitting overhead.  The band opened with The Crane Wife 1 & 2 and followed this with Los Angeles, I’m Yours.  At the same time, my wife and I opened with some Barefoot California Chardonnay (perhaps the same wine The Decemberists sing about in California One?), accompanied by salami, butter and asiago sandwiches on homemade bread.  Next we had a not-so-ancient shiraz paired with a greek salad made with rotini, cherry tomatoes, grilled chicken cubes, feta and a balsamic vinaigrette.  I think The Decemberists were playing Perfect Crime #2 and The Bagman’s Gambit while we were eating our salad, but I can’t be sure.  The band continued with The Infanta and We Both Go Down Together, while Mrs. Z and I continued with a double bock from Munich (we had both recently read Tim Powers’s The Drawing of the Dark in which this brew plays a central role in the survival of Western Civilization)The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra had made the earlier pieces interesting, but with the two following arrangements for Odalisque and The Tain, the audience had the opportunity to hear something transcendent.  Following I Was Meant For The Stage, the ASO left the stage, as did The Decemberists.

The audience was a bit surprised at this.  The sun had only just gone down.  Perhaps we had done or said something wrong?  Or perhaps the orchestra simply had to get home early.  The crowd, previously demure and appearing uninterested, finally woke up and cheered the band to the degree it deserved for such a fine, if somewhat brief, show.  The Decemberists generously came out again and performed what I think is one of their best songs, Sixteen Military Wives.

Fifteen celebrity mimes
Leaving their fifteen sordid wretched checkered lives
Will they find the solution in time
Using their fifteen pristine moderate liberal minds?

Eighteen academy chairs
Out of which only seven really even care
Doling out a garment to five
Celebrity mimes, they’re humbly taken by surprise
Cheer them on to their rivals

Cause America can; and America can’t say no
And America does, if America says it’s so,
It’s so …

A clearer expression of American exceptionalism I have never heard.  The night ended with a furious and participatory rendition of The Mariner’s Revenge Song in which we had an opportunity to hear the sweetness of Jenny Conlee’s singing as she stepped out from behind the organ to strap on an accordion.  

The Decemberists departed the stage for the second time that evening and as the audience began chanting, once again, for more, the stage hands were abruptly sent out to send a clear message that the evening was over.  It reminded me of something my grandfather used to say when guests had overstayed their welcome.  “Come on, honey.  We ought to go to bed.  These people obviously want to go home.”

You can hear some of The Decemberists at their myspace site here. In addition, they did a recording for Austin City Limits a few days ago, which should air fairly soon.