Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Message from Kafka

I reprint here without permission a new translation by Mark Harman of a short piece written around 1919 by Franz Kafka, called "A Message from the Emperor". This was published in the September 29, 2011 issue of the New York Review of Books.

Why do I reprint this? Because I find it the clearest statement I've found of how incapable we are, as humans, of communicating with one another. Of how intellect blocks insight; of how our society of mind, as Minsky calls it, barks up so much noise and confusion and layers of misdirection, that a single idea, a single thought, has little prospect of successfully forging to the front of consciousness. Especially when mandated into existence by intention.

Yet thoughts and ideas do surface for us, floating into view just as on occassion a leaf, waterlogged and wilted and fraught with crawling life, sometimes floats to the surface of a pond, there to display itself to the glory of sun and air.

Is Kafka wrong? Not when we consider the source of the message he describes. Not when we understand the futility and hubris of its mandate. The message of the emperor may fail where the message of the leaf, modest, serindipidous, seemingly accidental, prevails.


"The emperor--it is said--has sent to you, the one apart, the wretched subject, the tiny shadow that fled far, far from the imperial sun, precisely to you has he sent a message from his deathbed. He bade the messenger kneel by his bed, and whispered the message in his ear. So greatly did he cherish it that he had him repeat it into his ear. With a nod of his head he confirmed the accuracy of the messenger's words. And before the entire spectatorship of his death--all obstructing walls having been torn down and the great figures of the empire stand in a ring upon the broad, soaring exterior stairways--before all these he dispatched the messenger.

"The messenger set out at once; a strong, an indefatigable man; thrusting forward now this arm, now the other, he cleared a path through the crowd; every time he meets resistance he points to his breast, which bears the sign of the sun; and he moves forward easily, like no other. But the crowds are so vast; their dwellings know no bounds. If open country stretched before him, how he would fly, and indeed you might soon hear the magnificent knocking of his fists on your door.

"But instead, how uselessly he toils; he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years; and if he were to burst out at last through the outermost gate--but it can never, never happen--before him still lies the royal capital, the middle of the world, piled high in its sediment. Nobody reaches through here, least of all with a message from one who is dead.

"You, however, sit at your window and dream of the message when evening comes."

Sunday, September 11, 2011

All Things are Sacred

It's comforting and reassuring to find intelligent thinkers who share my perspective, and better, who have positive visions for humanity. Here's an excerpt from one of my favorite authors, Kim Stanley Robinson.

From The Years of Rice and Salt:

“Tell me more about what the Buddha said,” Ibrahim would say in the evenings on the verandah. “I have the impression it is all very primitive and self-concerned. You know: things are the way they are, one adapts to that, focuses on oneself. All is well. But obviously things in this world are not well. Can Buddhism speak to that? Is there an 'ought to' in it, as well as an 'is'?”

“ 'If you want to help others, practice compassion. If you want to help yourself, practice compassion.' This the Tibetans' Dalai Lama said [answered Kang, his wife]. And the Buddha himself said to Sigala, who worshiped the six directions, teachers, spouse and children, friends, servants and employees, and religious people. All these should be worshiped, he said. Worshiped, do you understand? As holy things. The people in your life! Thus daily life becomes a form of worship, do you see? It's not a matter of praying on Friday and then the rest of the week terrorizing the world.”

“This is not what Allah calls for, I assure you.”

“No. But you have your jihads, yes? And now it seems the whole of Dar al-Islam is at war, conquering each other or strangers. Buddhists never conquer anything. In the Buddha's ten directives to the Good King, non-violence, compassion, and kindness are the matter of more than half of them. Asokawas laying waste to India when he was young, and then he became Buddhist, and never killed another man. He was the good king personified.”

“But not often imitated.”

“No. But we live in barbarous times. Buddhism spreads by people converting out of their own wish for peace and right action. But power condenses around those willing to use force. Islam will use force, the emperor will use force. They will rule the world. Or fight over it, until it is all destroyed.”

Another time she said, “What I find interesting is that of all these religious figures of ancient times, only the Buddha did not claim to be a god, or to be talking to God. The others all claim to be God, or God's son, or to be taking dictation from God. Whereas the Buddha simply said, there is no God. The universe itself is holy, human beings are sacred, all the sentient beings are sacred and can work to be enlightened, and one must only pay attention to daily life, the middle way, and give thanks and worship in daily action. It is the most unassuming of religions. Not even a religion, but more a way to live.”

“What about these statues of Buddha I see everywhere, and the worship in the Buddhist temples? You yourself spend a great deal of time at prayer.”

“Partly the Buddha is revered as the exemplary man. Simple minds might have it otherwise, no doubt. But these are mostly people who worship everything that moves, and a Buddha is just one god among many others. They miss the point. In India they made him an avatar of Vishnu, an avatar who is deliberately trying to mislead people away from the proper worship of Brahman, isn't that right? No, many people miss the point. But it is there for all to see, if they would.”

“And your prayers?”

“I pray to see things better.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Remembering Stones

(An old post from an old blog, recycled)

Consider this:

That all of your knowledge is like stones lying in a field. Where did they come from?

You didn't put them there. They erupted -- are continually erupting -- from the earth's bowels, from the soil itself, which is a fine matrix of crushed stones, old knowledge, edges worn away by endless exposure to the light of the sun, the pressures of water and wind, and the ceaseless, restless shifting of the earth itself.

Pick them up and build with them. Build a castle. Build walls, build mills and line wells, build your homes. Live in them, raise your children and animals in them. Line your gardens with them and shape your tools from them. They are endless and they are yours.

In time they will crumble back to the earth and with the help of the sun and moon, they will feed you. Know that they are the substance that protects you and sustains you. Know that they are the substance of which you are composed and to which you return.

Lay no store in knowledge. It is nothing. Like the stones, it is only earth and sun and moon. It is only the all of everything and only emptyness. You may value knowledge, but only for a moment. More than that disallows it, prevents it, subverts it into something other than its origins. Knowledge is only consciousness. It is the field itself in which you lay. Cultivate it, then forget about it.

As the poet says, "Work without doing."

The Up Side of the Apocolypse

It's 2011, going fast on 2012, and the now-inescapable meme of End-Of-The-World (as we know it) is upon us all. Every other movie, too many books to count, computer games. Rise of Zombies, or of vampires, or vampires that fight zombies; asteroids that shatter the Earth, unstoppable infections of one kind or another. It's all about death and destruction and wiping humans from the face of the earth.

Not that we don't deserve it. It's just tiresome that we invoke it so slavishly and even longingly.

There is an up side to all the Apocoplyse-think. I think that more than anything else, it's a manifestation of humanty's weariness with our own poor showing. Our limitations. I think we collectively wish we could be a better species, more compassionate, more balanced, friendlier to ourselves and the planet: in short, more humane.

So maybe instead of using words like "end of the world" or even "apocalypse" or "Armageddon", what we're visualizing, for we're certainly visualizing something, some fix for our malaise, is a transition or transformation. I like to think of it as a spontaneous rise in global intelligence, the result of which is our ability, as a species, to understand the ways we're undermining ourselves, and initiate effective, practical changes to give ourselves a future. Not easy stuff, this, and I think even thinking about it, much less talking about it openly, requires considerable courage. But if there's any group of humans capable of displaying courage, it is the group we call BURNERS.

What is Electronic Dance Music?

This was written in response to a question asked me by a local journalism student. I think she thought it a toss-off question to which I could provide a brief sound-bite answer. I couldn't.

I think you have no idea how BIG that question is. Fact is, the origins of what we now call electronic music go at least as far back as 1903 and the birth of the Italian Futurists movement. Especially Luigi Russolo and the 1912 manifesto titled “The Art of Noise”. Eric Satie and other French composers of that era picked up the theme and began to celebrate industrialism in sound and other art forms. So where does it begin? John Cage picks up the gauntlet in America in the 20’s, along with Stravinsky, the choreographer Diaghilev and the dancer Nijinsky, cubism and Surrealism and Dadaism in art, and much much more.

But you're probably asking about the birth of electronic dance music, right?

There are many places to start. 1982 is the birth date of MIDI, the language of machine music which made it possible to orchestrate and synchronize electronic instruments. The development of affordable electronic music machines, especially the Roland’s 303 synth and 808 drum machine. The creation of electronic video games and arcades along with the amazing futuristic repetitive hammering sounds that come from those machines. Youth became acclimated to these sounds and began tinkering with the new sound toys. All of a sudden the sounds around us began to sound more and more like music itself: the repetitive pounding of factories and vehicles; the exposure from birth of silly commercial music on TV repeating itself endlessly until all meaning and content disappears.

Where does electronic music come from? It is such an inescapable part of the fabric of urban culture that it’s hardly noticeable until it's abstracted by artists and musicians and made into "tracks." Then into vinyl, then selected and played by DJ's to accompany their relentless simpleminded drum machines (the 808 and many others).

Or maybe it was 1970, when Bob Moog put together his first commercial, affordable analog synth. Or in ’61 when he built his first synthesizer, the size of a room. Or to 1949, when Werner Meyer Eppler wrote his essay on 20th century music: “Electronic Tone Generation, Electronic Music and Synthetic Speech,” outlining the new direction that popular music was about to take.

Or was it the 1930’s and ’40’s when Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry began tinkering in a lab in the back of a radio station to make odd noises from various tube-based receivers, and laid the result to a new device called a tape recorder  and performed it in art houses, calling it ‘music concrete.’

Or 1929, when the first actual keyboard synthesizer was built by Edouard Coupleux and Armand Givelet, calling it the “Givelet Electric Organ.” Or 1917 when Leon Theramin invented the strange sci-fi device known by his name.

Sorry, again it's electronic dance music you're after, isn't it. Okay, think about Caribbean music and its varied rhythms, especially reggae, which spawned Dancehall, which spawned a recording industry in Jamaica, which spawned Dub Reggae (the B-sides of all those reggae hits with instrumental-only versions with heavy reverb and added effects). All of which migrated north to collide with jazz in the Midwestern US, especially in Chicago and Detroit. In New York it morphed into Rap which became instantly popular. Enter people like Lee “Scratch” Perry, and other DJs in the clubs of towns like Detroit. Reggae also hits Europe where it finds homes in art houses and jazz clubs and stimulates the Beats, the Dadaists and Surrealists, and especially to Germany where Krautrock is gaining a foothold — the fragile and sometimes dangerous reaction of Germany's young and disenfranchised. From this emerges a seminal band called Krafwerk with its studied, minimalist repetitive odes to computers and automobiles and industrial noises. In the UK, Factory Records is born, electrified by shock-rock, especially the Sex Pistols. And Manchester becomes another of the earliest scenes for warehouse-scale DJ-driven dance music — at the same time it's happening in Chicago and Detroit and then New York.

There is no one Cause. No one person or element or influence. Electronic Dance Music is one of the most powerful scenes in history precisely because it's nobody's marketing invention. It came out of the woodwork around us all, as inevitable as cockroaches and sex and asbestos and sugar-pops and i-pods.

It's who we are. It's what we do. It can barely be understood and it can't be judged. It's a manifestation of the urge to create and to celebrate and to move and change and procreate. It's fascinating and beautiful and ugly and it gives hope and shelters the despairing all at once. It is the thrust of animus, of the Creative Force as it finds its union with anima, the Receptive. It is the force which makes us more human. It is Dance.

Forgive me. I've loved music all my life, since I was a child. But when I discovered electronic dance music in all it's many forms, it was like I had been living my life powered by a 12-volt battery, and someone finally threw the main switch and upped it to 220. I'm lucky I wasn't young when it happened or I probably would have died long ago from ecstatic shock.


Notes about myself:

I consider myself an “elder raver”, an unrepentant utopian idealist, and a champion of all things young and brave. I am an active musician, composer, graphic artist, audio engineer and recording studio executive running an occasionally active boutique record label specializing in ambient electronic music. I am also a writer of fiction, poetry and the occasional blog. I enjoyed limited publication in college literary magazines in my youth, wrote plays, one of which was staged by my college drama department, and have written film reviews for a daily newspaper, contributed technical articles to national magazines and chapters to books on computing technology. I currently focus my energy on writing fiction, practicing the art of composition, and propagating the concept that we must all accept responsibility for our thoughts and visions - that the reality we live is the reality we create with our minds. I am also working on at least one novel. I have managed businesses and non-profits and worked in more bands than I can count as a bassist. When possible I escape it all and appear, dazed and moderately confused, at outdoor dance parties. (2007, for Vox Magazine)