David Foster Wallace – Infinite Jest…..

I remember coming across the book, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace when helping a friend move back to the states. I had never heard of David Foster Wallace, only heard of Infinite Jest thru Hamlet, and the doomed princes comments about gambolling with Yorick.


And then, as I shifted boxes and made suggestions about storage, I saw this big blue book, clearly unread as the spine was uncracked, sitting on top of a box of books. I saw the title and the blue cover and knew I wanted to read it. I kind of stopped helping my friend at this point, pulled the book out of the box, read a few pages of it and saw it was unlike anything I had come across before. It was full of puns and cross references was filled with footnotes and end notes and self referential ironies. Once I started reading I couldn’t put it down. I think I have re read it at least three times in print form and once if not twice as a talking book. Yes, I stole that book, and I feel guilty.ob_1d8d46_forster-wallace-infinite-jest

Like all great works, I.J. deals with the big themes – life, death, and particularly about the purpose and meaning of existence in a hyper competitive capitalist culture which has lost its centre, its community, and a shared sense of meaning. Despite how funny it is, Infinite Jest gives a rather bleak picture of the society it depicts in terrifying parodic detail. It is a world of competition without purpose, knowledge in vast ocean sizes without wisdom, wit without compassion, words without connectedness, and human beings living intensely atomised lives. It’s amazing really, considering its thematic purposes that Wallace succeeded in making such a funny book. Wallace used comment that one of the great powers of the literary artist was the magic of words, that as we do not really know what actually goes on in each other minds and lives, we can, though the power of the written word in fiction; connect with the lives of others.

As Dave Eggers comments in one of the introductions to the book, the book itself is ‘drum tight’- meaning it’s a coherent whole despite is hugeness, is a mix of vast erudition and ready accessibility, and absolutely doesn’t need any kind of specialized knowledge to read it. This is more or less true, but the problem with Wallace’s thesis about our disconnectedness from others – how we are irrevocably alone and atomised and do not and cannot know the minds of others, how our languages are private and the interpretations we have of each other’s linguistic structures is at best based on a kind of complex guesswork, is based on something of a human rather than philosophical error. Wallace seems to exclude the power of love and sex to fuse people, to unite one with another. Without this highly unphilosophic and ephemeral human element, this visceral experience of the senses and sensual experience of others, we truly are alone, and to theoretically exclude this in a work of art is to somewhat undercut the human experience in the world and the power of the novel. Along with the sensual and aesthetic world, there is also the power of the imagination, the intellectual ability we have to visualise worlds and the ability we have to visualise what others are thinking or feeling. This kind of knowledge is one level the most unverifiable, but equally the most indispensable. It is the foundation for all advancement in knowledge, and something one is surprised Wallace does not assume seeing as he was both a philosopher and a logician.

As a focus for what passes as a plot (Wallace added three hundred footnotes to deliberately subvert the notion of a conventional plot in Infinite Jest, while still retaining a cohesive whole in the novel) in this monstrous book, we have the Samizdat, or the piece of art known as the Infinite Jest, a movie so deeply entertaining as to render its consumer lifeless and catatonic, has gone missing. I immediately thought of Monty Python’s killer joke sketch – the joke so funny it was employed as a weapon by British military. This Infinite Jest has gone missing and is being searched for by Canadian Terrorists who wish to undermine the entire fabric of the new American society by acquiring the master redistributable copy of the movie and releasing it. One wonders if these Quebec Separatists had considered the consequences of the Samizdat getting back home to Canada. Fighting these Quebec Separatists is the American intelligence agency, the Office for Unspecified Services, who are also trying to get their hands on the Infinite Jest.

So who made the movie Infinite Jest? How did it come into existence? In the opening sequences we have a scene where a doctor is rendered catatonic by the movie. Someone mailed the movie to him, (actually it was Orin – the Incadenzas eldest son). The name, by the way, comes from Hamlet in that oft quoted scene spoken by the melancholy prince about Horatio:
I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of Infinite Jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-fallen? (Act V Sc1)
The central concern to Infinite Jest the book is also Hamlet’s central concern. The world has fallen out of joint. Beneath the Infinite Jest is infinite sorrow, a world of endless distractions amusements and addiction, and eventual effective recovery without any real reason for going on.year if the infinite jest

But anyway, in looking for the origins of the Infinite Jest, or the Samizdat, one encounters the mind boggling array of characters that parade trough this fascinating book, and there’s no escaping either the vastness or the detail with which Wallace delightfully writes. There are dozens of characters in this novel which focuses on the notions of addiction, vision (so many references to optics lenses, vistas, precise descriptions of machineries, the human body, tools, movies, screens, the authors dextrous use of terms and colloquialisms are always a delight), family, depression, film, politics, and human isolation (the book is suffused with scenes of its characters alone in vast complexes, either taking drugs, or distracting themselves from their intense aloneness. Its size and complexity, its forensic descriptions of the absurdly unnecessary complex machinery of existence, implies and shows the infinite near inescapable matrix that is existence in the late twentieth century, the layers of competitive demands placed upon the young American to be someone, to become someone, to achieve, to become part of the world of demand and supply, to meet goals and to continue the work, the endless work of building the infinite complex of technocratic industrial economy, for the Academy and the Recovery clinic is the world writ small, and within this world there is an infinity. Wallace is obsessed with infinity, there are circles intersecting circles within the book, infinite skies and infinite tennis, infinite addictions

But I digress somewhat. The Samizdat was made by James Orin Incandenza Jnr, optics expert and film maker, and founder of the Enfield Tennis Academy during a brief period of sobriety before he microwaved his head thus committing suicide. Leadership of the Academy passed on to his wife, the tall domineering perverse sexually voracious beautiful Avril Mondragon Incandenza. Her son, the one who most reminds one of the author, is Hal Incandenza, the pot smoking prodigiously gifted tennis player who has memorized the Oxford dictionary, has a love for all things intellectual, and is deeply unsure of his own gifts, and later of his own sanity. He winds up later on in the second of the two main institutions in the novel: The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, founded by Don Gateley, murderer, former Demerol addict, and thief, also (because of his size) at one stage an excellent football player. Another deep connection between the Academy and the clinic is the fascinating character of Madame Psychosis, or Joelle van Dyne, Lead character in the Infinite Jest movie, she who resides at the clinic and was the main protagonist in the movie made by the founder of the ETA, J. O Incandenza. Hal, as his brilliant mind fails him and his addictions subsume him, winds up in the clinic.

The fact that the book takes place at a time set in the future where even the measure of time is a corporate advertisement after President Limbaugh was recently assassinated and the calendar sold to the highest bidder (Year of Glad, Year of the whopper, Year of the depend Adult Undergarment), gives one a queasy feeling of hysterical disturbance. Add to this that much of the North East of the former United States and parts of Canada is a kind of wasteland (called the Great Concavity or Great Convexity – depending on whether you are geographically, and its getting positively bizarre. Finally imagine you are living in the former USA and it is now a part of the new super state known as ONAN (Organization of North American Nations) or Canada, and one is getting into the nether regions of absurdity, rather like our present time. It also means that this is both a novel based on the present and extended into the future, as well as being a damning condemnation of the society that the author lives in. Like all powerful novelists, Wallace avoids propaganda and diatribes, and though one is touched by the horror of the emptiness his literary double, Hal Incandenza experiences throughout the book, an emptiness one is tempted to postulate as a reflection a certain absence of any kind of emotional or cultural core in the world in general, but this is never explicitly stated, one is never in the world of self pitying self indulgence, no sentimentality, and the humour is raw clear and is both funny and intelligent.

Central to his concern are the nature and purpose of competition and excellence, the experience of addiction, family relationships, human isolation, and the meaning of suffering, but more than anything Infinite Jest is about a father James Orin Incandenza, trying to help his son, who feels nothing inside, no sense of any kind of interiority. Again we have the parallels with Father and Son, the dynamic of a ghostly father seeing his son as a wraith, and trying to communicate something powerful and healing to him.

As a set of intersecting descriptions of lives that have neither a classic depiction of an opening drama, a series of unfolding plotlines, a compelling third act, or a cathartic moment at the end, the novel draws to a close with the ghost of the father seeking to heal the son, Hal, through the Infinite Jest. The movie was mad for and it’s meant to work only on Hal, to make them feel something inside, akin to the electroshock treatment that Wallace himself received to try to get him out of the horrific depressions he suffered which eventually led to his suicide. If one does not have Hal’s psychology, ones reaction to the movie is counter therapeutic. Instead of kick-starting one, it renders one catatonic. The movie thus fails to move Hal as he never sees it. So things get worse, and he winds up in the clinic. As he devolves into mute non communication, Madame Psychosis, or Joelle van Dyne comes to see him and tells him of the furore around the movie, and Hal has nothing left except his tennis. His father’s ghost possesses Ortho “the darkness” Stice ( a close friend of Hal who, chucklingly, is also known as the Wraithster, also known as ‘the guy with the trusty huge head’) – so we have a bizarre scene of dead father possessing his son’s opponent in the Whataburger tennis finals, a weird connection between father and son through a beloved sport, a kind of meaning and language and interface emerging in the balletic movement of racket and ball and players across a court in the game of tennis. So something true and lasting is achieved beyond the cold logic of winning or losing. Let’s hope Hal felt it.



A Tiny Jot on the Horizon



Aside from being a huge fan of the Alien franchise, over the last months I have started stargazing. Despite the endless rain we have in Kerry in South of Ireland, the night sky down here is mainly free of light pollution, that is when those clouds finally clear. Given  a fairly clear night, an hour or two without rain, a warm coat, some gloves and a bit of hot whiskey, fun can be had (sadly Im on a diet – so no whiskey). Also, and most happily, my landlord has a pretty cool telescope. We spend hours looking at the moon and Saturn and occasionally a tiny Mars appears. There are countless stars out there and just staring into a telescope gives one and incredible rush of transcendence. There before one’s eyes are actual proof of other galaxies and other planets and other constellations. Call it a Galileo (remember what happened to him?) moment but we humans sometimes forget how small we are and how vast it all is out there. I find I love to look out through a telescope as opposed to looking into a computer screen. I find it wonderful to sit out on a clear night and allow my eyes to become accustomed to the dark after countless hours of artificial light. After a while the clouds disappear and I look up.



So many stars. Satellites come out at night. It’s fantastic. It’s literally a trip. Try it. Bring the kids. Bring your friends. Go up a hill at night and look at the sky. If you have a telescope all the better. But even with the naked eye looking at huge boiling stars lighting up the night sky millions or billions of light years away, is the most fun you can ever have without spending a cent. For me it’s a consciousness expanding exercise. One theory postulates that we occupy only one of multiple universes, how many we just don’t know. In this particular  universe some say there are a hundred billion galaxies. Others say its two hundred billion. Others again say there are five hundred billion galaxies. (I got these figures from a google search, so many results emerging I don’t see how I can provide links to same). When you take the difference between one and five billion, it becomes clear just how much about the universe we just dont know.  Also, I think that even if we don’t agree on the number of galaxies in the known universe we can say this. There are almost an uncountable number of them and as such there must therefore be an uncountable number of stars in the each of those galaxies. Right now its an unknown, but a immense number.


If there are a vast number of stars, then there has to be even more planets. Planets form usually from the leftover parts of stars (how planets form), so for every star, there are usually a number of planets rotating around them. Then notion then that we are alone in this incredibly vast, impossibly complex universe, that humanity and the dolphins and the great apes and so on are the only sentient creatures, well anywhere, is so vastly improbable as to be at this stage funny. Its an extension of the junk science isolationism and anthropocentrism we see pervading our culture at present, to think this universe is especially for us and we are alone in it. Though without an ET we got no proof, its also equally true its a mighty vast universe with just one planet that supports life. To me the geeks and conspiracy theorists will be proven right in time, the tinfoil hat wearing brigade talking about other worlds and alien visitations, however hilarious and at times, and, well a bit deranged, have a valid point. Its most theories that fit way outside the accepted agreed pool of belief systalien_kittyems are treated as a bit crazy, but the more one looks out on a vast canopy of stars the more one sees, well more stars. How is it possible we are alone in all of this? Furthermore if we are alone (unlikely), why are we killing each other for real estate or belief systems? We have unlimited places out there to make a home and live in peace. If anything the wisest course of action is to recognize how limited resources are here, treat this beautiful planet with love, and set about recognizing the dangers of overpopulation, and finding new homes elsewhere rather than killing other people simply because they dont have the same god or their ideology doesn’t match yours. The truth is maybe out there?



Robert Oppenheimer’s Game of Thrones


War and Other Zero Sum Games


George’s Vision
There is little doubt that George R. R. Martin is a superb writer of fiction. His characters are deeply human and deeply flawed. They are engaging, sympathetic, well rounded, with complex pasts and contradictory aspirations, as well as being very well-written. To say his novels are epic in character and plot does not do them justice. The stories Martin tell are not simply epic. They are timeless and they explore deep truths about human nature, especially our propensities towards violence, domination and cruelty. There are of course many parts of The Game of Thrones that are beautiful and memorable. There are however far more that are disturbing. The pages are replete with casual violence of all kinds: rape, torture, incest, infanticide, and fratricide, not to mention battles of such levels of horror to render one disturbed for years afterwards, perhaps a lifetime, that is, if one were unfortunate enough to actually experience them first hand. Reading about them or watching them on the big screen is upsetting enough. More than anything it is a tribute to the level of writing both onscreen and on the page that this vision, which is in so many ways so terribly dark, actually reaches our screens and eyes undiluted of realism and thus impacts us so deeply. Beauty and horror and magic and philosophy co-exist with thuggery and torture and chicanery and power obsession. In Martin’s world the meek do not inherit the earth, and by ‘earth’ I do not mean the planet – rather the imaginary ground that the Game of Thrones takes place on. The meek and the weak are killed off unceremoniously. Sometimes the not-so-weak get killed off too. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of morality or good planning or anything within human control whether one lives or dies. It’s a matter of wit and luck and good timing and spontaneity whether or not one lives. But one thing is absolutely certain, whether it be brawn or brain or a blend of both, if you cannot protect that which is yours, if you do not have a weapon, then you will probably get killed off by a band of wandering hunter killers, a passing platoon of sociopathic soldiers, or a very hungry homeless person who needs food and supplies just to get by. Life goes on according to the uncertainty principle, so one girds ones lions and develops lethal skillsets, either that or one does everything possible to stay out of trouble, which only very occasionally works. I think everyone wants to know who will win The Game of Thrones, for that is what it is: a power play where the stakes are so high that hundreds of thousands are killed at a go, where lives are ruined at a King or Queens whim, where spirits are crushed by indifferent sneering hordes of people – and all for the sake of absolute control of an area of land which is but a tiny fraction of the size of the planet this Game of Thrones is carried out on.


The thing is it doesn’t matter who wins The Game of Thrones. It seems inevitable that unless the winner of the throne of swords, the Iron Throne, kills literally every enemy and potential enemy, it is inevitable that someone will rise up and lead a revolution. There is something deeply pessimistic and Sisyphean in the striving for the Iron Throne. It reminds me very much of Wagner’s ring of power, a prize that gives its wearer absolute power, yet renders love impossible. Or like Tolkien’s ring, which also gives absolute power yet consumes the soul of the wearer. Power, according to George Martin, is an addiction, an addiction that destroys everything in its wake.

The Oppenheimer Effect


When I saw Game of Thrones, I immediately thought of Robert Oppenheimer. In the early 1940’s Oppenheimer had a horrible realization, rather like the vision unpacked by Game of Thrones, which is based on the Wars of the Roses and Ivanhoe by Walter Scott. Oppenheimer and other rather visionary thinkers realized something truly awful. It was this: If they didn’t do the unthinkable, the unimaginable would happen. Let me unpack this: He and some colleagues realized that the technology existed in embryonic form to create what was to become nuclear weapons. A paper on nuclear fission fission was published in 1939 in Nature Magazine. It was all there. You now could conceivably make a super bomb. This was a difficult situation. The West was facing an implacable foe: Adolph Hitler. Furthermore what if Adolph Hitler got access to that kind of technology? Einstein had already written to Roosevelt saying this. Hitler going nuclear would mean the war was lost, no matter how conventional warfare was progressing. Worse, in the hands of someone as clearly insane as Hitler, it might mean some kind of Apocalypse. Fascism plus nuclear weapons undoubtedly could mean the end of civilization as we knew it. Something had to be done. So they, the USA built the bomb.


Then they detonated it over civilian cities. Oppenheimer was horrified to the core when this happened. Why was it necessary to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians like that? He told Truman he felt he had blood on his hands. Truman was furious. Oppenheimer was a liberal intellectual with a long history of left wing sympathies. The cold war was heating up. The Soviet Union was operating spy networks among the scientific community in a bid to get as much information as possible on the new technology. The FBI was watching and amassing a vast dossier on Oppenheimer’s complex left wing ties which would eventually lead to his security clearance being revoked and his being cast into the outer darkness politically. Oppenheimer was up to this point a formidable operator with enormous influence, politically, ideologically as well as scientifically, and he had many implacable enemies, especially in the right wing scientific community. Though he was later rehabilitated, things were never the same for him and a culture of conformity was established in the scientific community that to a greater or lesser extent remains to this day.

einstein-albert-and-oppenheimer-sized.jpgFor Oppie (as he was known) nobody could win a nuclear war. Moreover he was unafraid to say so. The one moment more than any other that gave a clear picture of Oppies view of the unwinnable nature of nuclear war was a talk he gave to the New Eisenhower Administration Elite Council on Foreign Relations on Feb 17 1953 called Atomic Weapons and Foreign Policy. He spoke as he always did with the eloquence of a poet, the vision of a mystic, and the mind of the brilliant scientist that he was. He simply had no peer when it came to debate. Oppie was a brilliant, but he was a man who made enemies because of his hubris, his depressive temperament, and his tendency to miss the point politically at crucial moments. But he gave his talk and he was as ever mesmerising. There was, he said, a sense of inevitability now about the development of nuclear technology. Soon there will be well developed nuclear intercept capability, and from that point there is conceivably no limit to how far the development of nuclear weapons could go. It was, he said, like two scorpions in a bottle. Both had absolutely lethal stings. It was a zero sum game. War by definition meant escalation. He was of course, absolutely correct, and it was inevitable that nuclear arms agreements and disarmament was the reason why we did not have a nuclear war during what we call the Cold War and afterwards. Oppie’s vision foresaw that. Oppie’s speech was also the final nail in his political coffin. After that his enemies had everything they needed to destroy him. And they did. To read more about Oppie, I suggest the mind blowing book by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin called American Prometheus.

The End of The Game
But there is something more to Oppenheimer’s and Martin’s realizations. This is a weird moment where history and fiction come together to uncannily give the same powerful message of peace. Oppenheimer and Martin both had a vision of conflict that not only embraces the horrors of the nuclear option, but of all conflict. War has no limits, only peace can bring limits. War means escalation. All weapons lead to greater weapons. All escalation eventually leads to genocide. The nuclear option is one weapon of mass destruction. There were others, and there will be even greater ones. Even in the Game of Thrones we had dragon fire and fleets of ships and huge temples being detonated by liquid fire. If we have an enemy we are determined to destroy we will do everything in our power to destroy them. If we engage in the Game of thrones our enemies will be defeated, that is until they rise up against us some time in the future. There is thus no real winner to The Game of Thrones. It sounds trite, but this is a game that both Robert Oppenheimer and George R R Martin is telling us there is no and can be no winner to the Game of thrones. The Game of Thrones is a game of death, on every level.

A Miscavige of Justice

Or What in Heavens Name Happened to Louis Theroux’s “My Scientology Movie”?

Louis Looks Quizzically at the Church of Scientology As a decades long fan of just about everything Louis Theroux has ever put out on the BBC, I was completely thrilled to hear he was going to embark upon a documentary about a subject that had long fascinated and intrigued me: Scientology.

L Ron and Me

dianeticsI remember around the age of sixteen picking up a copy of the delightful Dianetics in a second hand bookshop in Dublin and reading it through and saying to myself Is this for me?  Then I heard that L. Ron Hubbard was a bit dodgy as a person, not at all like Jesus or Buddha. Apparently he had kidnapped his wife in 1951 and that his doctrines had been condemned by the American Psychological Association. That interested me even more. After all L Ron wrote so many science fiction novels. I thought – well a little crazy can be good for creativity. But then there are limits. I mean take this as an interesting story : this is Scientology Dogma: Scientology teaches, as a core element of its belief system, that one of the fundamental incidents of human history (and indeed our Destiny) refers to an intergalactic overlord Xenu or Xemu. Around 75 million years ago, Xenu as a ruler of a galactic confederacy, killed billions of his people. He did it as an act of population control. Xenu captured, froze and paralyzed billions of citizens of his planets and brought them to the mouths of volcanoes on Earth. Next, he blew the mouths of these volcanoes using nuclear weapons, thus releasing millions of alien spirits onto the Earth. Afterwards, he recaptured these spirits and subjected them to a massive personality deprived indoctrination program (watching lengthy movies apparently) that inadvertently contributed to the development of all those other misguided religions – other than Scientology. Apparently all these spirits, for all eternity, cling to our misguided and unclear human souls. This, if you like, is Scientology’s doctrine of Original Sin – or in other words- L Ron’s Story of where it all went wrong for humanity. Humanity is doomed – unless we adhere to the tenets of Scientology . To me now that is really interesting.

Science Fiction and Belief Systems

forbidden-planetI mean  its not that absurd really. Its in our natures to tell ourselves stories to explain everything. That being the case, I have been a fan of science fiction ever since I was seven and saw  Forbidden Planet, and read the wonders of the Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. People scoff at the belief systems of Scientology. When I hear such scoffing, I scoff back, mostly at myself. I mean, I believed in Transubstantiation and the Virgin Birth, the Trinity and the Miraculous Medal. One can be made to believe literally anything, given the right conditioning. And such doctrines, that I have thumbnail sketched above, are revealed to Scientologists only after a long period of very expensive and very exhaustive conditioning. In other words, unless we adhere to an open philosophy of life (in other words a notion of truth that’s testable and refutable by experience), we get into trouble.

Louis’ Scientology Movie

Louis Theroux took a very interesting and unique approach to the issue of plumbing the depths of Scientology. He took, as his starting point, the arrival of David Miscavige after L Ron Hubbard’s death in 1987. Miscavige reigns as the new Pope of Scientology, or  “Chairman of the Board of the Religious Technology Center (RTC), a corporation that controls the trademarks and copyrights of Dianetics and Scientology.” (Wiki Page on Miscavige), has not been a popular one. His absolutism has made for him many enemies, countless critical books and a few super Documentaries (Going Clear is a gem). One in particular is Theroux’s use of the testimonies and remembrances of former members of the Religion such as: Mark Rathbun, Andrew Perez, Rob Alter, Jeff Hawkins, Tom De Vocht, Marc Headley and Steve Mango.

Its clear that these people feel this faith is a lie and a terribly destructive force in modern life. Theroux questions them in a half humorous – half teasing way, while maintaining a professional distance from whether what is being told him is actually the truth. Moreover, one of the more delightful aspects of the movie is that Theroux actually uses actors to re-enact critical aspects of the church’s history, some speeches by Miscavige himself, and some of the more controversial scenes where Miscavige goes somewhat medieval on the Scientology’s top brass, in a place called ‘the hole’ (at the Gold base in Helmet California). We have a few actors playing Tom Cruise, David Miscavige, and others. Then things get strange. As Theroux is making the movie, it becomes increasingly clear that the church is making a movie about him. They send him countless legal letters, harass former members – particularly  Mark Rathbun.

Rathbun and Theroux

And this is where I have a problem with the movie. Mark Rathbun is a former head of Inspector General of the Religious Technology Center (a kind of head of Scientology’s thought police), investigating and correcting any ideological or doctrinal deviations. This he did for over twenty years, until he resigned in 2004. He tried for a while to form an independent Scientology religion and now declares himself not a believer. Rathburn, like anyone with a complex past, when he was the ‘go to guy’, the ‘fixer’, appears to have done things which he is willing (only in part) to talk about, but also appears to be keeping a lot to himself. Theroux continually prods him and tries to get him to open up. However Rathbun is a complex and highly sophisticated man with complex feelings of guilt, anger and regret over his involvement in Scientology, and after so many years, a lot of unprocessed feelings over his own past. In other words not someone you needle or try to provoke. Unfortunately instead of trying to generate some type of congenial relationship, Theroux does the opposite and antagonizes the one person who had the power to make or break the film. As Jefferson Hawkins said in the movie “Marty knows where all the bodies are buried.”


Louis Theroux and Marty Rathbun
And the end of the movie we are greeted with a somewhat anti-climatic and simultaneously disturbing vibe. After a scene from ‘the hole’ re – enacted by actors, Rathbun is tormented by Scientology members outside the movie studio and is visibly upset. This is when Theroux goes for the jugular against Rathbun. Theroux reminds Rathbun that he too tormented ‘suppressive persons’. ‘SP’ or Suppressive Persons are what Scientologists refer to as unbelievers, skeptics and former embittered anti-Scientology members. But this is bad timing. Rathbun’s tormentors have just hit him with hurtful remarks about his adoptive child and Rathbun is devastated. He tells Theroux to go fuck himself. Things get ugly and the film never recovers to fulfill its earlier extraordinary promise. This is one of the few times I have ever seen Theroux meet his match intellectually and psychologically and the one unfortunate aspect is that he, Theroux, did not treat Rathbun as an equal or see Rathbun as the complex intelligent vastly experienced person he is. Theroux toyed with him and needled him, but never really befriended him and things went awry. A great pity and a poor ending to a movie with so much promise.
*With Thanks to Ishka for her many comments and editorial work

No Belief Systems Remain Unharmed by These Blogs

Raif-Badawi--008I believe in blogging. I am often shocked what other bloggers endure in order to keep on blogging, in a forum wherein one supposedly can engage in some kind of free expression. The most obvious one is that of the Saudi Blogger Raif Badawi who was recently sentenced to 1000 lashes in Saudi Arabia for ‘cybercrime’ and ‘insulting Islam’. Word has it Raif Badawi will now be tried for apostasy, which carries the death penalty. I did not realize Islam was so sensitive to criticism. In point of fact, I do not think it is, that is, normally speaking. Generally speaking any belief system that inflicts this type of extreme punishment against its dissidents is somewhat doomed. History is littered with examples of failed purges.  Anyhow Islam is a rather fascinating and magnificent system. Personally I don’t believe a word of it, but some of the finest cultural artistic and scientific advances have occurred within the context of Isalm, including the glorious invention of beer (which came not from Saudi Arabia which is our topic right now, but Iraq 4000 years ago, and developed there from through Islam) But to return to Saudi Arabia, it is not a country a secular atheist writer might feel the warmest of welcomes, seeing as it thinks little or nothing of administering rather brutal punishments on those whose views it violently disagrees with. There are other examples of Islam doing such things on unbelievers, many others like this. According to Sarah Anne Hughes (communications assistant for the American Humanist Association.) She writes “Recently in Bangladesh, the government removed hundreds of online posts by seven atheist and secular bloggers who “defamed Islam and the Prophet Mohammed,” according to the AFP. The country’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina pledged to punish the bloggers who spoke against Islam. So far, four bloggers – including one who openly identifies as a “militant atheist” — have been arrested and now face up to ten years in jail if convicted of violating cyber laws.” (read the article in full here : http://americanhumanist.org/HNN/details/2013-04-atheist-discrimination-the-weird-and-serious-ways-no )
I of course have no personal or spiritual interest in Islam, nor any faith, aside from enjoying the Koran the few times I read it. Faiths have been rooted out and destroyed and recreated in numerous indeed hundreds of forms throughout history. But that is another issue. Its also true in my experience that not one of the Muslims I interact with have ever espoused such extremist views as what one reads about. In ways it seems almost like an exercise in Islamophobia to read so many negative stories about the faith of Islam so often in the press. That being said, it’s outrageous to see fellow writers, or indeed anyone persecuted for their basic human right to free expression as freedom is freedom to express the self without harm to another. Given the crooked and labyrinthine world of the internet, it’s inevitable too that divergent views of all kinds will emerge in even the most narrow and repressive of regimes given the rise of blogging, a medium extremely difficult to control, and largely out of the reach of governmental control. Think of how easy it is to respond to, or write about the contents of another blog or post, for good or ill.

Torture, imprisonment, lashes, and religious or political police who take your ideological and doctrinal temperature and make of you a spy upon your neighbour or family is one way of controlling the minds of a population. It is quite effective, and the more bloody and brutal and spiritually inspired, its more justified. During the middle ages, for example, the justification for such torments inflicted upon Christian schismatics and unbelievers was the blessings of confession and forgiveness and as a consequence, the glories of heaven and the joys of God’s presence in eternity. But you can’t have that in the West. Firstly that’s just not legal, unless one whisks a suspect off to a black site injected with some kind of anesthetic and hooded where he or she can be tortured far from the inconveniences of the Geneva Convention, tormented and broken in peace, that is, until they confess their sins. Outside of purely political ‘terror’ suspects you just can’t do that to the general public. People ask questions. If you have them by their minds, their hearts and wallets will inevitably follow. Anyway by an large torture doesn’t work. Torture is an instrument of power. It doesn’t change your mind. Secondly we have the problem of the internet. It doesn’t matter how many people one questions, word spreads at the speed of light. For instance this picture was posted on Facebook and received seventeen thousand views and forty nine thousand shares. Facebook, like the NSA and MI5 and all the other governments involve in the intelligence community, keep count of everything.

Not exactly a political view an establishment superstructure would want propagated through the online community. Of course this is easily dismissible as merely a witty meme filled with politically apt language, giving something of a left of center conspiracy theory on the operations of a worldwide governmental military industrially manufactured control structure, a worldwide governmental conspiracy to spy on our every online move, that and just about every aspect of our lives, generate wars, and manufacture our consent to the status quo, whatever that status quo might be at any given historical juncture. Yes I expect one could dismiss it, if it hadn’t been proven by Edward Snowden’s revelations. If we don’t believe that Big Brother is really watching us, if we don’t believe that enemies are manufactured for the purposes of waging war to increase governments market share, if we don’t believe that we are given just enough education to be controllable, then we are simply ignoring the evidence that has been presented to us. We simply have not been paying attention and the lessons of history are lost unto us.

But surely bad people should go to jail? Yes. But only after a fair publicly accountable trial, not a mafia style hit by Special Forces in the dead of night.

Which brings me back to the importance of us all keeping talking to each other. Blogs help. Online communications help. The idea is that ideas matter. We need something to change our minds, and each of us has a unique perspective and that unique perspective has the ability to open other people’s minds. The best communication of all is face to face, physical meetings and physical confrontations, not that the gift of the internet has not been a good thing. So belief systems should be harmed by these blogs. And the more the merrier. Lets keep talking.




ALEXANDER GERSHENKRON  (1904-1978) was a Harvard Professor of Economics from the late 1940’s to the 1970’s. He was known particularly as a historian of economics and among other things postulated the ‘Backwardness Theory’. His paper Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (1962) was and is to the best of my knowledge, unsurpassed in its clarity of argument and groundbreaking perspective. The essay, which is grand tour of European History, Culture, and Economics (among other things), postulated that the more backward an economy the more it will pass through certain marked stages of development, in other words that there would be a heavy reliance of banks and state funding and that general consumption in such an economy would be restricted because of the necessity to invest in capital projects.

Gershenkron was a man of letters. His writings and essays were lauded as masterpieces of erudition and powerfully concise writing, and his lectures were simply legendary in terms of scope, breadth of learning and entertainment value. He actually rewrote them from scratch year ofter year as his knowledge increased and sheer memory for detail and statistics required revisiting the substance and essence of what he had been teaching (primarily economic history)

I started reading about Gershenkron, when I came across Nicholas Davidoff’s memoir of his Grandfather (who was Gershenkron)  – called THE FLY SWATTER which is beautifully written, and though a memoir of a beloved family member and someone who profoundly influenced him, does not stint to give a complete picture of  a complex and profoundly fascinating character.


An emigre from the Russian Communist and the Nazi regimes, and truly world class intellect who, because of history was deprived of an early academic fulfillment, he found a home for himself in the US, strongly identified as an American, and with his family made a life for himself as a Harvard man.

Gershenkron, known as ‘Shura’ to his family, was a polyglot’s polyglot. He spoke 20 languages, read hundreds upon hundreds of books a year (he had for instance devoured Charles Dickens in five different languages)  and filled his days and for that matter nights with the pursuit of knowledge. His light was invariably on, and when he did sleep, he rose extremely early to resume his work. In THE FLY SWATTER, Davidoff talks about Shura’s attempts (p.193) with Erica his wife, to find about 100 different translations of Hamlets quatrain to Ophelia ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire’.

Everything fascinated him. He was an intellectual butterfly, flitting from one subject to another as he devoured facts, figures, novels, poems, and articles. So wide ranging was his knowledge that he was offered chairs in three different departments at Harvard, something that probably caused a bit of a shock in the departments concerned despite the fact he turned the job offers down. This is because Gershenkron was a difficult person. He was an intimidating, overwhelming, exacting uncompromising personality. He was capable of using his abilities to dismantle an argument or a thesis from the root and leave his debating partner flattened, the ground taken from under them. And this he did – a lot. To put it mildly he did not suffer fools – at all.

For Shura (Gershenkron) the pursuit of academic and intellectual truth was the ultimate ideal and nothing came in the way of that. Those who were shoddy with their facts or bad with their statistics or did not work as hard as they should received from him a verbal spanking they would never forget.

But this pursuit was flawed. Shura was excessively competitive. He had to know more. He had to have read more than you, be more accurate, more dedicated. His work was peppered with obscure quotes in obscure languages because no one would have that range of knowledge at their fingertips. And he knew that.

The double experience of exile, from Russia, then Austria, and particularly the loss of his exceptionally brilliant little brother, had damaged him – perhaps more than he or others even realized. He became excessively defensive and insecure, a kind of prisoner of his own need for exactitude but his capacity for competitiveness actually inhibited his development. His books were collections of essays. This was  a form he preferred to a full length work for a few reasons. Shura feared death because of his bad heart – in fact he had been told by his doctor once he had only a year or two to live. Nevertheless its also true that lots of thinkers and writers have worked on large tomes despite death beckoning. Anthony Burgess wrote three novels the year after being told he had an inoperable brain tumor. Looking at the essay form it is easy to see it is more controllable. It has a definite end in sight and holds none of the pitfalls of a lengthy work’s capacities for bad avenues of argument and wrong conclusions and pedestrian styles of prose hidden inside lengthy chapters. This would be something unthinkable for Alex Gershenkron, the consummate defensive perfectionist.

Instead of the big books he produced brilliant essays replete with facts figures and obscure quotes and references sometimes in a dozen languages.

Gershenkron never produced the ‘great work’, the summation of his career. This big book was something friends, colleagues, and rivals were always looking for. He was one of those few minds well capable of producing groundbreaking ideas, a Marx, a Keynes, producing world shifting theses. But no one outside rarefied academic circles ever heard of him. Underneath that towering ego, that ruthless frankness, those cutting critiques, that devastating capacity for thought and recollection of facts, figures, and whole tomes, was an enormous intellectual timidity.

It is a truism that the more one knows the more one longs to really know. Or to put it another more conventional way, the more one knows the more one knows one does not know. In other words as knowledge accrues, there is an increasing consciousness of all the gaps in what one knows, all the suppositions that fill the holes where truth and certainty lies. Truth, if it can be defined, if it exists, is an infinity multiplied by an infinity. We are constantly operating on the edge of the unknown, trying with our little knowledge and our enormous capacity for error. all our knowledge is marked by a great horizon of finitude. Its marked by the edge of our lives and the fact that we will never really know everything, and we are going to die.

Gershenkron, through the many losses, disappointments and bereavements he suffered knew all too much about human finitude. This led him to a kind of writers block from which he never escaped. It was almost like the novelist who never finishes his or her novel. He was the thinker who never knew enough to start or even finish his great book.

A kind of humility is needed to really work at creating something new, whether in the field of economics or history or poetry or physics. Uncertainty and ignorance and groping in the twilight between ignorance and knowledge one tries to work and make something anew from what we know, and more to the point, what we know we don’t know.

The implication from this is a kind of negative judgement on what Gershenkron achieved in his life. Not at all. He was known as ‘The Great Gershenkron’ for a reason. Revered, feared, and honored, he was as I said, the polyglot’s polyglot. Everybody learned from him. And everybody should have known his name.



Its probably due to just how complex and increasing complex a society it is, but very year in the United States, thousands of new laws are added to the statute books. There are so many of then no one could really know them all. Actually it would require such an exotically savant- like level of  understanding of the law that either one becomes a kind of barrack room lawyer or remain forever at the mercy of an un navigable matrix of rulings and amendments that goes into the hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of pages, a kind of unknown the likes of Google might be able to consume.  Speaking of Google and many Google like search engines consider, if you like, the legal implications of the fact that the entire digital world is currently being rebuilt simulacra like inside computing systems, which help run search engines. Every person, place, and thing—and all the relationships in between—are being catalogued. According to Stefan Weitz (the director of Bing – Microsoft’s  search engine) in his very badly titled book Search: How the Data Explosion Makes Us Smarter (Green House Collection) Hardcover – November 4, 2014. It’s nearly 4 Zetabytes this year alone. That’s enough to fill 130 billion 32GB iPads. So if everything is being catalogued, virtually and reliably, then it is a matter of time before everything pertaining to you becomes potential evidence.

Thus the experience of being stopped or questioned by a policeman (who can now legally search your ‘smart’ phone) puts any average or indeed not so average person in a vulnerable position. (Its a staple of so many cop shows that the panic stricken citizen is stopped by the hardass cop and intimidated into some kind of admission of guilt.) Legally speaking, it seems that the citizen is always at a disadvantage saying anything to a police officer. For example: given that though anything you say may be taken down in evidence against you, equally anything you say may not be taken down to exonerate you, a very strange and seemingly unjust thing. Furthermore if you do say something and it is misrecorded, the fact that you may later deny what you said has no validity – it apparently is what is referred to as hearsay. That is but one example. There are so many others.

Despite its endless complexities, the USA is a country whose laws and justice system fascinate us. Millions of books are written about it and every night hundreds of cop shows demonstrate the dynamics of American law. Its also equally true that whatever one might think of the justice system in the United States, no one on the planet remains unaffected by it. I came across this interesting video which talks about the dangers of overcriminalization of American society how, when too many laws begin to detract from justice (where one can, for another example, be arrested for importing a lobster that is too small or to eating a French fry in a subway), the best course of action is to never ever speak to a police officer. For myself I have had lengthy conversations with police. I talk endlessly and ask too many questions. Also I have on many occasions naively  answered all questions that were put to me and never for a moment felt I was in any way shape or form incriminating myself. But I live in Ireland and have a rather unadventurous lifestyle.

Anyway, this is a highly entertaining, well presented, funny, informative, and thought provoking video. It also paints a foreboding picture of the relationship that possibly exists between regular citizens and the police. I regret to say I have not been able to find out the name of the law Professor who gave it. But still, a great lecture.