How to Live Happily to 106: Happy Bloomsday, Mr. Leopold Bloom

Articles celebrating victims of extreme old age usually ask about diet, so let’s get that out of the way first:

“Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencod’s roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.”

The time is morning, the scene the house, the organ the kidney, the art economics, the symbol the nymph, the title Calypso, the technique mature narrative (Gilbert, 1930). The day was June 16, the year 1904, the place Dublin, the book James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Speaking of mature narrative, Jonah Lehrer, over at the Frontal Cortex, has put up a post titled “Old Writers” in which he dispels the myth that writers do their best work when very young, that older writers can’t match the quality or creativity of their younger work, as if writer’s ink were a kind of dark blue testosterone that fades and weakens in potency with age. Lehrer concludes his post with “…different circumstances call for different kinds of creativity…The most successful artists aren’t slaves to their chronological age. Instead, they succeed by speaking to the age in which they live.”

Works want readers, listeners, viewers, and they always want new readers, new listeners, new viewers, and when they don’t get them, they feel old and weak, remaindered and marked down, bagged for the garage sale: Books Penyeach.

Pomes Penyeach was first published in 1927, when James Joyce was 45 years old. Joyce’s works are remarkable for their consistent creative originality that insists on new forms to communicate the events that parallel the writer’s age and the age of the writer. And they have not weakened over time, but have grown stronger with age. Perhaps it was those nutty gizzards. Almost certainly it must have been the burgundy, as Bloom suggests (although Joyce preferred white wines). In any case, the example of Joyce’s works expresses Lehrer’s definition of the successful artist, that the work has nothing to do with the age of the artist, but everything to do with the age at which the work is experienced.

Theo Jansen and Advanced “Avatar”

Caleb Crain, we learned yesterday, prefers movies that are true to nature, acoustic. He’s more interested in the Carny than the ride, while David Denby prefers the roller coaster, ignoring the Carny, and if he doesn’t have to leave the theatre for the ride, even better. Johnny Meah’s act wouldn’t make much of a movie for Denby. Yet it may not matter what the professional critics think because as their ranks dwindle thanks to the disappearance of newspapers we may find the neuroscientists filling the gap.

Jonah Lehrer, who writes from a neuroscience perspective and explains things like why we stop at red and go at green and why some of us slam the brakes at yellow while others hit the gas, suggests in his Avatar review that there might be something wrong with the prefrontal cortex that prefers the acoustic; for some reason, the brain responds negatively to the film drug. Not to worry, though, whatever your brain seems to prefer, for Jonah’s commenter number eleven, David Dobbs, also a scientist, rebuts Jonah’s scientific argument and calls Avatar “impoverished.” As it turns out, the neuroscientists, like the critics Crain and Denby, also find different values in the film and the brain.

I remember when the first Star Wars movie was released; I finally saw it a decade later. I’m sure there must be something wrong with my prefrontal cortex, judging from my taste in movies. In Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, television technology has evolved from the little toads sitting front and center of the mid-twentieth century living room to screens that fill entire walls, and the best TV for one’s home fills all four walls, and the viewer literally interacts with the TV characters, becomes part of the show. Avatar encourages viewers to imagine a time when the film technology of Avatar seems as dated as the first Star Wars movie, and to imagine that that time is now – the fix must be for increased immersion, guaranteeing a string of sequels.

In the 1960’s, during the height of the psychedelic craze, someone asked Salvador Dali if he took drugs when he painted. No, he said. Why would I take the drug; I am the drug. And when the scare was that rockers were putting secret messages in their recordings, some of which could be understood by playing the record backwards, someone asked Alice Cooper if he spiked his records with secret messages. No, he said, I don’t know how to do that, but if I did, the message would be to buy more records.

If we are to be controlled by technology, what’s the point? We still have to contend with nature, our nature, the nature of others, and mother nature. Jonah, in his “review,” argues “why the Avatar plot is so effective: it’s really a metaphor for the act of movie-watching.” Exactly, it’s consumerism about consuming, about being eaten alive by technology, and it’s yummy.

And what of acoustic technology? Is there anyone out there creating creatures more fantastic than those virtually real ones we see via 3D in Avatar? There is. Check out this video. It’s Dutch artist Theo Jansen with his creatures, and they are more fascinating than anything you will experience in Avatar because while they are virtually non-tech, they are real; they have become part of nature, and you don’t need special glasses to view them.

Theodore Dreiser and Flannery O’Connor were Neuroscientists, too

Over at The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer has posted his Wall Street Journal article in which he takes the pow out of will power, arguing the busy brain is to blame for human frailties. It’s a classic defense of the human condition (Dreiser used it in An American Tragedy), and a blow to the motivational-speaker market.

The reduction of will power also suggests the neuroscientists may be close to removing the free from free will. No wonder a good man is hard to find. There might be some will left, but not enough to satisfy being saved as a one-shot deal. Flannery O’Connor explains in her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find”: The Misfit, having provided the grandmother with her final jolt of grace, says, “She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” This is Flannery’s depiction of the Catholic view of will and grace, and it explains the Catholic necessity of being saved every moment of one’s life, of the necessity of being reborn daily, not just once, for one could live, in the Catholic tradition, a good life for 80 years, but a single hanging curve ball that goes against the signs and you’re yanked and sent down the tunnel, for in Catholicism, as in baseball, it’s not about what you did for me yesterday; it’s what you can do for me today that counts.

Motivation depends on the quote, a bite of sugar; motivation is entertainment – motivetainment, ads directed at the brittle brain. Quotes are empty calories. If losing weight is a resolution for 2010, skip the motivation; instead, read Theodore Dreiser, go for long walks, and eat bananas. Bananas are funny and literary – you’ll need both after reading Dreiser.

In Twosome Twiminds: News from the Stroke Club – “Who Are We?”

During our stroke, we picked up the Takemine to test our left hand, self-diagnosing our condition. We noticed our left hand with interest; it formed the shape of the chord we had asked for, but not on the frets and strings we wanted. The result was discord, the guitar sounding badly out of tune. We moved to the Telecaster. The sound was distorted, the guitar either badly out of tune, the amplifier’s speaker blown, or our hand forming some new nonsense chord. Yet, “It sounds fine,” Susan said. “It sounds like it always does.”

In Finnegans Wake, Joyce recreates the experience of a stroke: “…and now, forsooth, you have become of twosome twiminds…” (188).

From 12-1-09 Open Culture: “Jill Bolte Taylor’s ‘Stroke of Insight’ talk reaches the top of many lists. What happens when a neuroanatomist experiences a massive stroke and feels all the brain functions she has studied (speech, movement, understanding, etc) suddenly start to slip away? And how do these losses fundamentally change who we are? You’ll find out in a crisp (and at times emotional) 18 minutes and 40 seconds. You can also read her book that elaborates on her life-altering experience. See My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.”

Join the Stoke Club by finding a quiet 20 minutes to watch Taylor’s talk on  video.

Rap Phonics Rhapsody: Eating the Alphabet and Spitting it Out

If the vowels decide to strike, we can probably keep the machines running, but if we lose the consonants, we’ll have to shut down.

How should we learn to read? The beginning reader, trying to make soundsense from the smell of ink of the “…miseffectual whyacinthinous riot of blots and blurs and bars and balls and hoops an wriggles and justaposed jottings linked by spurts of speed” (Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake, 118) soon understands that “When a part so ptee does duty for the holos we soon grow to use of an allforabit” (19).

Today’s beginning reader (and teacher) sit at the bottom of a tower of babble constructed of politics made necessary by how education is funded and a grant industry, partisan learning theories (in which the neuroscientists are now investing a huge down payment), and good, old-fashioned my way is better than your way faculty room argument.

“It is told in sounds in utter that, in signs so adds to, in universal, in polygluttural, in each auxiliary neutral idiom, sordomutics, florilingua, sheltafocal, flayflutter, a con’s cubane, a pro’s tutute, strassarab, ereperse and anythongue athall” (117).

Over at The Frontal Cortex, the reading discussion was lively but short, and our hungry mind wanted more. So once again we picked up Joyce and reread a few favorite passages (aloud, the better to taste and hear the words, to slurp and listen as the vowels (like Alice’s EAT ME cake) made us bigger and the consonants smaller), and then we perused a few articles.

Nicholas Lehman reported in a 1997 Atlantic article that “The dispute operates at three levels, which is one reason why it is so pervasive. It concerns how people learn, what schools should be for, and the essential nature of a good society.” This came three years after Art Levine reported in an Atlantic article that “In education no question has produced so much bitter debate for so long as this one: What is the best way to teach children to read?”

The debate continues worldwide, with no sign of abatement, and the political influences continue, as shown in a 2006 Guardian article featuring Oxford’s Kathy Sylva, in which she discusses legislative interests. Also in 2006, Sylva brought attention to the issue of learning reading in a teaching expertise interview; here we find her discussing neurons, signaling that as debate continues, it is now infused with new ethos borrowed from neuroscience.

Should the words go from the page directly into the brain through the eyes, or should the words be eaten first (eat your p’s), rolled around on the tongue, felt, then spat out into the ears to worm their way into the brain? 

We don’t value fast food reading; we want the old-fashioned, sit down meal. Words have substance: they are smooth or rough, loud or quiet, ticklish or jolting. Words leave bruises that other words salve.  Words rap and rip their way into our consciousness as we tear them apart with our teeth. Syllables slide like bumpy water. We want to eat the alphabet and spit out the seeds – now that’s reading.