If you live nearabouts the great city of Chicago, be sure to visit  Bucket O' Blood Books and Records on Thursday, November 3rd, when Nine-Banded Books author Ann Sterzinger will read from her novel NVSQVAM (nowhere). The book party begins at 7:30 pm, so get there early and stay late. There might even be wine and cheese.

Bucket O' Blood (which sounds like a very cool shop) is located in the Logan Square neighborhood at 2307 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Also, this happened.

Memento mori.

Rod McKuen: War Criminal

Did you know that Rod McKuen was a psychological warfare script writer during the Korean War?

Wait. Let me back up.

In high school I was in a "creative writing" class that was taught by a new-agey once-upon-a-hippie stereotype of a woman who somehow passed as a kind of low-rent cult figure, at least in the minds of the frailest set of sensitive artist youths to sulk their way in. Most days, you'd sit in a circle, read your crap aloud, and wait for the others to read theirs. Then there would be a round of critiques until teacher would cut in with one of her semester-rehearsed life-lesson monologues where she might go on about regrettable groupie adventures or some cherished acid trip epiphany. In course, teacher made sure we knew that she was bisexual, that she was a lapsed Catholic, that her ex husband left bruises, and that she had lost touch with her family (or maybe it was just her father — I can't recall). She extolled the virtues of psychic group encounters, dream interpretation, and hundredth monkey nonsense. After teacher had sized up the room well enough to pick favorites, I remember how she would steer the class discussion in cruel and manipulative ways, prodding tearful confessions from her most captive fans. A year after I graduated, I learned that teacher had had been fucking a school friend of mine. One of her favorites. A few years after that, I heard from another friend that she was dead. Eaten by a tumor.

While I'll grant that teacher may have known a thing or two about writerly craft, she had terrible taste. She was a big fan of those Leo Buscaglia love therapy books and would sometimes read from them in class, presumably for our edification. She had given way too much thought to Judy Blume's Wifey. She made us read Janis Ian lyrics. She insisted that we watch The Breakfast Club … and discuss.

And then there was Rod McKuen, who might still be the best-selling poet in human history. Teacher was, without a trace of irony, a McKuen enthusiast. On certain days when we weren't compelled to sit in the circle reading and critiquing and sharing too much, she would play decade-old spoken-word albums of McKuen reading his free-verse over soft music. I still remember his raspy voice. Still remember the one about the cat.

I made fun of Rod McKuen back then. The jokes came easily enough, and it would be just as easy now to dump his camp reputation on teacher's corpse. But the truth is, I don't know that he's such a bad poet. If he is — or was — a bad poet, the fact remains that millions of sincere people once thought otherwise. Over the years, I've picked up a few McKuen chapbooks at rummage stores and library booksales. They have soft-focus paisley covers with garish 1970s title fonts. They have titles like Listen to the Warm and Lonesome Cities. The poems between the covers fairly ooze with first-draft sentimentality, to be sure, but only a sneering critic would describe McKuen's verse as treacly. Melancholy is more accurate. The language is warm and intimate, unencumbered, distinctive, and peppered with precious free-associative singsong metaphors that go down like milk and honey — even when inspiration is drawn, as it often is, from the shallow well of commonplace sorrow. I'll read one at random and my first thought is usually: yeah, I can see why people were drawn to this. Alienation, loneliness and spiraling self-pity are catnip themes for troubled souls, and McKuen served them up in cozily familiar snapshot narratives that tempted hope, or at least made for good company. Tastemakers of the day scoffed over McKuen's popular appeal, just as critics scoffed at the first Black Sabbath album. But that's so much distant noise. Open the time capsule and open your eyes and it's clear that the world's "most understood poet" was dispensing pre-Prosac. Probably better than placebo, and I wouldn't call it kitsch. I might even be a fan. Teachers really do change lives. 

But did you know that Rod McKuen was a psychological warfare script writer during the Korean War? It's an odd  bit of trivia that comes up often enough in the old dustjacket squibs. I had forgotten until the other day when I picked up a few pocket editions at the local book festival. Now I'm half tempted to send off a FOIA request to see if any declassified texts are available. Maybe collect them for a book.

If you Google "Rod McKuen" and "Psychological Warfare," one of the top results is an eleven-year-old archived page from McKuen's website where, in response to a question posed in a fan letter form someone named "Dixie," the people's poet provides a bit of fascinating context:

Dear Dixie,

As a GI before leaving for Korea I was stationed in Tokyo for awhile where I worked writing propaganda scripts that were translated and beamed behind the bamboo curtain to North Korea..

One of my creations was "Moran" a sort of Korean Tokyo Rose who spoke quietly and played sentimental music. In other words all I did was adapt my old Oakland radio show "Rendezvous with Rod" for a smooth talking and sexy voiced Korean girl to speak from a female point of view. The idea was to make each North Korean soldier think she was speaking only to him. Defection to the South was the plan.

A typical script might begin "Hello, My Midnight Companion, It's S0 romantic and warm in Seoul tonight, I wish you were here to share this autumn night with me." 

I know, it sounds pretty corny, but it worked so well that there were major defections and I was named by Communist Korea (along with "Moran" and others connected with the show) as an official war criminal. For all I know I'm still on the list. Wonder how that will play out when I play concerts in Korea next year?

It's a nice autumn here in California here too, Dixie, but without the famous, colorful fall foliage that Colorado can boast. I had some beautiful autumn leaves sent to me from Wisconsin recently.



Memento mori              

What is a Hoax?

Was "Sybil" a hoax?

It appears that we are faced with contemporaneous evidence, no? A clear-cut confession in black and white. Case closed. The once-thriving cottage industry of MPS (now DID) quack therapies, the academic and sub-academic literature that captivated millions, the made-for-TV movies and talk show triggers … the lamentable lot of it may now be regarded as so much epiphenomenal scratch-and-sniff; a rippling divagation of the hive-mind primed by the event of an opportunistic and closely guarded "hoax." Nothing else to see here, folks. The verdict is in. 

In completely unrelated news, Arthur Butz takes polite issue with Samuel Crowell's contradistinctive thesis.

Memento mori.

The Owl and the Ostrich

David Benatar has drafted a sharp rebuttal to Sami Pihlström's meretricious essay, “Ethical Unthinkabilities and Philosophical Seriousness” (gated reference to the latter here). For those of you who don't follow this stuff closely, Pihlström's essay was noteworthy in that it argued not against Benatar's antinatalist reasoning per se, but against the mere and open consideration of ideas that, for whatever shifting reasons, may be deemed to fall ouside the bounds of "serious" philosophical discourse. "There are ideas," according to Pihlström, "that are dangerous enough not to deserve serious argumentative attention." Allowing arguendo that such preemtively intolerable ideas may somewhere exist, the weight of Benatar's rejoinder is rightly devoted to rescuing philanthropic antinatalism from the blanket indictment.

Where the philosophical merits of antinatalism are concerned, I think Benatar's response is entirely persuasive. This is no surprise since, despite the pretense of intellectual "seriousness," Pihlström's critique  amounts to little more than an exasperated and clumsily strewn harumph and sneer that doesn't stop short of implying that antinatalists are as dangerous as Nazis. So yeah, fuck that record-skipping noise; we can discern more substance in YouTube comments (where it usually takes longer for Godwin's Law to disrupt the festivities). Philanthropic antinatalism is chiefly concerned with the problem of suffering and so long as people have the capacity to choose whether or not to make new people (who will suffer), the position merits serious philosophical — and practical — consideration. Done and done.

Things do become a bit more interesting as the lens widens to bring the deeper question (which Pihlström posits as resolved and about which Benatar remains skeptical) into relief. Do some ideas legitimately try intellectual tolerence?  Is the inherent — or perceived — "danger" of some ideas sufficient to countermand ordinary philosophical engagement and inquiry? To entertain the affirmative proposition is to tempt a swarm of paradoxical implications. Can the question even be phrased in safely meta-philosophical terms, or do we summon demons merely by asking? Don't think of an elephant, merry pranksters. And whatever you do, don't make a list. The knot tightens to a snare when you consider that, as Benatar points out, the notion that potentially dangerous ideas should be withheld  from examination is "itself a dangerous idea."

Benatar tempers his support for open intellectual engagement with a conservative stance toward praxis. "I think that dangerous arguments should be engaged," he writes, "even if we do not always act on them." This much is at least consistent with the soft-to-absent policy prescriptions on offer in Better Never to Have Been, where, having advanced the strong case against the moral beneficence (or mere neutrality) of procreation, Benatar stops short of advocating legal remedies that would limit reproductive freedom. Guided by democratic caution, the purveyor of hetorodoxy recognizes that, despite all reason and evidence to the contrary, he may yet be proven wrong. The Stoic view of death, Benatar instructively reminds us, remains perenially problematic for those who contend that death is a harm to the individual. Yet tens of centuries after Epicurus and Lucretius met the reaper, their cogitations on the harmlessness of death are perpended in the light of day, and no one worries that the penal code will be substantially revised.

Fair enough. The distinction between thought and action may be crucial in the scheme of philosophical discourse. But I fear it is also, at least potentially, a dodge.  I think it is noteworthy, if slightly tangential, that the most interesting criticisms of philanthropic antinatalism to date have been levelled not by those who would upend the structure of Benatar's hedonic assymetry, but by critics who express concern that the tacit emphasis on negative utility inherent — or at least strongly implicit — in an extra-mortal accounting of pain and pleasure may be logically extrapolated to justify conclusions, and potentially actions, that are almost universally believed to be, in Pihlström's phrase, "ethically intolerable." In most textbook accounts, variations of the "pinprick argument" are entertained to suggest the folly of an ethical system that seeks, at all turns, to minimize and finally abolish all manifestations of pain, but  in the face of our reflexive repugnance, the math looks back. Lay two time-tables side by side: one in which the progress of life marches on toward natural extinction; the other in which a Negative Utilitarian Demiurge calls off the parade well before the final storm has gathered. Then add up the pain chips, vast against Vast. I am absolutely confident it won't even be close. We can hedge our bets as matter of prudence and form (and perhaps it's well that we should), but confidence isn't so elusive, even if it takes a demonic supercomputer overlord to put the period at the end of the sentence.

What if Benatar had concluded his original antinatalist argument without such face-saving, if earnest, humility? What if he had claimed — as others have claimed in marginal forums and as yet others will surely claim with greater authority in time — that the force of antinatalist reasoning is presently sufficient to countenance the sort of proactive policy-based interventions that critics probably have in mind when they thrum on about "dangerous" slopes of ethical inquiry? In the counterfactual where Benatar comes out in favor of forced sterilization or other policies that stand in contravention of widely shared and cherished values about reproductive freedom, should the underlying argument that coming into existence is always a harm suffer by the addition of such far-flung policy proposals, however imprudent?

I don't think it should. When the distinction between thought and action is blurred, and even when the distinction gives way to legislation or its prospect, the argument against open engagement is not strengthened; it is merely complicated, ironically, by the seriousness of the proposed intervention. In whatever case, thought binds us to look closely and let the chips fall. Whether it is dressed as a tentative moral conclusion or as a more confident proposition, "No one should ever have children" is an assertion  backed by entirely "thinkable" reasons that in less radical contexts operate to justify uncontroversial laws that penalize harmful actions. Perhaps it is well for now to play it safe and wait for the smoke to clear, but don't be surprised — and don't bury your head in the sand — when some twice-as-clever killjoy rummages for a blunt instrument.

Memento mori.