“Damage” and Obsession

Louis Malle’s film “Damage” is a dark and magnetic meditation on love and obsession. How desire leaves us powerless. How love can destroy. The following video is the final scene.

“It takes a remarkably short time to withdraw from the world. I travelled until I arrived at a life of my own. What really makes us is beyond grasping. It is way beyond knowing. We give in to love because it gives us some sense of what is unknowable. Nothing else matters. Not at the end.

I saw her once more only. I saw her by accident at an airport changing planes. She didn’t see me. She was with Peter. She was holding a child. She was no different from anyone else.”

When I first saw this film I thought about it for days. I went and got the book it was based on (Damage by Josephine Hart) and read it in one marathon session. Propped up on my bed, unwilling to detach. Like the film, the dialogue is spare and not frivolous. No word is wasted. This focuses the emotional force of each expression. Ideas and feelings are suggested in the spaces between lines and between moments.

In the film, the characters convey a complex melange of feeling with each look they share. By observing the characters on screen we get some sense of the emotional intensity between them. At turns stricken or overcome. Restrained or unbound. And in our turn it resonates with the force of our own bodily memory. As people who have felt something powerful and intoxicating.

Love is not a trifling thing. It creates and destroys. In the words of Kierkegaard, “Love is all, it gives all, and it takes all.” Very few films seem equipped to show us the dual aspects of love. To love means ceding control of your life to something other than yourself.

The last few lines of the final scene are ambiguous. And this ambiguity is what leaves you thinking.

“I saw her once more only. I saw her by accident at an airport changing planes. She didn’t see me. She was with Peter. She was holding a child. She was no different from anyone else.”

She was no different than anyone else. That is a compelling statement. There are multiple interpretations for what he means. While under its spell does the object of love take on significance that is unrelated to reality? Do we somehow transform our own reality through desire so that individuals become intensely meaningful to us in a way that is beyond reason? What separates the man or woman we desire from any other in the world? Perhaps only the focus of our desire. Once desire has withered or become focused elsewhere we see them as what they were the whole time: another person. But, desire transforms a mere person into an object of religious devotion.

Another way to interpret that line is as a realization of the momentary nature of desire. Romantic love breaks out like a wildfire and enraptures each person. But, if the passion between two people is destroyed, no trace remains other than the memory of feeling. What do we find when we discover that things we once felt are no longer true? How do we reconcile the intensity of the dead past with the deadness of the living present?

Google Book Search a joy for antiquarians

Google Book Search is a project that exemplifies Google’s vision for information. For the past few years they’ve worked with various libraries and universities to digitize books, periodicals, and journals that might otherwise have remained untouched in their collections. Each resource is scanned by hand and rendered into indexable text. For older works whose copyrights have lapsed, you may read the entire thing online. Even for books under copyright, Google Book Search is a good way to search the contents of published works and is a great supplement to the usual search engine results for many research topics. Over the past few months, I’ve come across several books I might have paid for available online via Google Book Search. For any older books, this is now the first place I check. Here are a couple good books you may read online. They’re mostly aphorisms or concise wisdom, so it should be good for casual reading:

  1. The Maxims of Cháṇákya: The Maxims of Cháṇákya are an interesting record of thought by an early Indian statesman.
  2. The Maxims of Francis Guicciardini by Francesco Guicciardini. Practical and political philosophy by a contemporary of Machiavelli, the historian Guicciardini.
  3. The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus, a Roman Slave: From the Latin
  4. Maxims and Moral Reflections by François La Rochefoucauld

At a Long Enough Time Horizon

Yesterday I had an itch to set my thoughts careening by reading some good science-fiction. I went down to the library and picked up Vernor Vinge’s “Marooned in Real Time“. It did not disappoint. It was interesting enough that I ended up finishing it in one day. It has the perfect mix of intrigue and ideas that set your imagination afire. The basic plot is a murder mystery with the twist that it takes place as the cast of characters travels through time using bobble technology. Bobbles are basically stasis spheres, so you don’t really travel through time as much as everything remains in suspended animation while the world goes on without you. The characters in the book end up bobbling through millions of years of real time and are able to observe changes to earth geography and evolution in progress.

Far future earth evolution is exactly the kind of thing that’s fun to speculate about. How will life change? What new animals will arise from current forms? Will any creatures achieve sapience? Likewise, if we could travel through time for millions of years, how far could we go? What would happen to the universe? What would we see if we could stick around until the end of the universe?

The pleasant side effect of reading about the flow of millions of years is that it makes all of your problems shrink to insignificance. At a long enough time horizon, nothing really matters. When the going gets tough, this idea can provide relief and perspective. One of the humbling facts about existence is the knowledge that everything you do, everything you have, everything you know, is temporary… even humanity, even this world. If everything is temporary what is the proper attitude of life? How should this inform our conduct?

Selections from Moby Dick

Last winter I finished reading Moby Dick. When you read a book that is justly revered you cross a line into understanding what all the fuss is about, though maybe even further from understanding. Moby Dick is the kind of book you could never imagine writing yourself.

Melville has this ability to capture and convey existential feeling so that it is beautiful and tangible. In Moby Dick, he does it better than the best philosopher.

  • Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish, Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.
  • There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.
  • To enjoy bodily warmth,some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.
  • There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause:–through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling’s father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.

Related notes on life and death

I’m looking forward to seeing “No country for old men“. Tried to see it last night, but there was a fire alarm at the theatre and they made everyone leave, which, as you can imagine, was very frustrating. As someone who loves both the novel “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy and most films by the Coen brothers, I am looking forward to seeing this adaption of Cormac McCarthy’s book by the same name. Friday evening I read an interview with McCarthy where he threw down a few nuggets:

  1. “McCarthy’s style owes much to Faulkner’s — in its recondite vocabulary, punctuation, portentous rhetoric, use of dialect and concrete sense of the world — a debt McCarthy doesn’t dispute. “The ugly fact is books are made out of books,” he says. “The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.” His list of those whom he calls the “good writers” — Melville, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner — precludes anyone who doesn’t “deal with issues of life and death.” Proust and Henry James don’t make the cut. “I don’t understand them,” he says. “To me, that’s not literature. A lot of writers who are considered good I consider strange.”
  2. “There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed,” McCarthy says philosophically. “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”
  3. “Having saved enough money to leave El Paso, McCarthy may take off again soon, probably for several years in Spain. His son, with whom he has lately re-established a strong bond, is to be married there this year. “Three moves is as good as a fire,” he says in praise of homelessness.”

You’re dead to me

I’ve always enjoyed going to used book stores. Back in San Antonio where I grew up there was a Half Price Books on Broadway that was built into an old two-story house. With every wall covered in shelves, the hallways and rooms were a tight fit to go in and out of. It was the perfect shopping experience for a teenage reader: row upon row of musty paperbacks piled to the ceiling; creaking floorboards and hidden treasure for pennies.

Fast forward fifteen years. I still love books, but the world has changed. These days, professional eBayers pounce on rare treasures they can sell at auction to the world, which removes some of the treasure hunting aspect, and many specialty book sellers have closed shop and now sell almost exclusively online.

None of these reasons are why I stopped shopping at my once beloved used bookstores. I had to be pushed, kicking and screaming, into buying books online for one reason: I could never find what I was looking for. I didn’t know if what I wanted was in the store somewhere or not and I found this completely frustrating. Just tell me if you have it or not. Please.

Any book published in the last thirty years has either an ISBN number, a UPC barcode, or both. If used bookstores tracked their inventory it wouldn’t just please their customers (me). They could also then start offering books online, track what’s selling well, see which stores have the worst theft, and use this data to discover all sorts of other interesting information.

I shop on Amazon, for now. But, if I can search my local used book store for a book I want, I will gladly return to your musty stacks.

Plano, Texas Library Lookup via Amazon

A while back I recommended a cool Greasemonkey script to check the library for the books you are browsing at It has saved me a ton of money (sorry Amazon) and has turned me into a regular library patron. Now when I click a link to Amazon, the script checks to see if my libraries have the book. Then I can click through and put the book on hold and grab it when I get to the library.

I was talking to this guy I work with about good books and I told him about this script and found out which library he goes to. Then I just edited the script to support his library. So, if you get your books at the Plano library, you can now use this script. (Remember to install Greasemonkey for Firefox first.)

While we’re at it, if you have a library and can’t find a similar script on, let me know what library you go to and I can whip one up for you.

For more on Greasemonkey, you can read Mark Pilgrim’s Greasemonkey Hacks in its entirety online.

Are you human?

birds_in_tree.jpgRight now juvenile birds all over the northern hemisphere are fledging, growing their flight feathers and learning to fly. You may have noticed some birds looking particularly clumsy, patchy, loud, and awkward. These are likely fledglings, the bird equivalent of a human teenager. Just like teenagers, they are testing their wings, preparing to leave their parents for the world beyond. Also like teenagers, they are obnoxiously dependent, ungainly, and even ugly in a half-baked sort of way.

You will often see fledglings chasing their parents around begging for food. Most young birds make distinct “feed me” calls their parents find impossible to ignore. In a study involving the cagey wild turkey (I can’t remember where I read about this), scientists created a decoy polecat with a tape recorder inside that would play the cheep-cheep call of the wild turkey chicks. As the polecat is one of the turkey’s mortal enemies, the turkey would predictably attack the polecat decoy on sight unless the decoy played the cheep-cheep call. In this case the turkey would hover protectively over the polecat as if it were part of its brood rather than a potential predator. The fact that this behavior is automatic and triggered solely by the cheep-cheep call shows how nature uses instinct as an effective mental shortcut to produce good parenting behavior. From the parent bird’s perspective, they probably don’t realize that their need to feed their offspring is triggered by a particular sound and behavior. In their tiny bird brain, they are probably thinking something like, “Gotta find food now and give it to the baby.” Repeat.

It makes you wonder how much of our own behavior and thoughts are dictated by instincts undetectable to our conscious minds. Why do we really feel and think the things that we do? Do we overestimate the power and control of our own consciousness? What behaviors and feelings do we indulge because of some hidden, instinctual motive? I think about this on the highway where it seems like everyone is talking on a cellphone as they return to their homes. Many people feel this strong desire to stay in constant contact. There has to be some reason we feel the need to socialize in this way.

Maybe depression and anxiety are caused, in large part, by behaving against instinct. Maybe happiness itself is the emotional payoff from acting in accord with Nature. If that is the case, are there any cases where nature/happiness is suspect? In other words, are there times when we should act against Nature to achieve a better long-term dividend of happiness? I think this conflict between what we want and what we think we want is ever present and is responsible for many problems like crime, poverty, violence, and addiction.

It is possible that to achieve larger ends we must act against instinct even to the point of suffering.

From a scene in Frank Hebert’s Dune:

“What’s in the box?”
He felt increased tingling in his hand, pressed his lips tightly together.
How could this be a test? he wondered. The tingling became an itch.
The old woman said; “You’ve heard of animals chewing off a leg to escape a
trap? There’s an animal kind of trick. A human would remain in the trap, endure
the pain, feigning death that he might kill the trapper and remove a threat to
his kind.”
The itch became the faintest burning. “Why are you doing this?” he demanded.
“To determine if you’re human. Be silent.”

LBJ: The Path to Power

Lyndon JohnsonI have been reading the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of President Lyndon Johnson, The Path to Power, and it is fascinating. I don’t normally read biographies, but I had heard good things about this one. It hasn’t disappointed.

Caro takes his time and paints a complex portrait of LBJ, the man and political genius, rooted in the Texas hill country, but always straining against his own limitations and the limits of his circumstances for more. At times one wonders whether Caro holds a grudge against Johnson since his narrative seems to focus on Johnson’s cynical ambitions for power and prestige, however, by dispensing with sympathy, Caro has created a sense of drama and mystery around the man.

From the story of Lyndon Johnson, you learn a lot about the power of will and the power of dreams and goals. From an early age, LBJ possessed an ambition to be important. While many children have wanted to grow up to be president, how many approached their goals with a single-minded determination? How many have done everything they could to achieve what they wanted out of life? In LBJ, you see a man of extraordinary political genius who, while deeply flawed, worked tirelessly to achieve what he wanted. In that energy and will, there is a compelling example: you can accomplish great things through work and desire.

Good Melville passages from Billy Budd

terence stamp as billy buddI started reading Billy Budd last night. It is Herman Melville’s last book, published posthumously 40 years after Moby Dick. One thing I like about reading Melville is that I have to read carefully and decypher because he loads so much meaning and metaphor into it. I liked the following passage, a description of the aloof intelligence of Captain Vere:

In this line of reading he found confirmation of his own more reasoned thoughts- confirmation which he had vainly sought in social converse, so that as touching most fundamental topics, there had got to be established in him some positive convictions, which he forefelt would abide in him essentially unmodified so long as his intelligent part remained unimpaired. In view of the troubled period in which his lot was cast this was well for him. His settled convictions were as a dyke against those invading waters of novel opinion, social, political and otherwise, which carried away as in a torrent no few minds in those days, minds by nature not inferior to his own. While other members of that aristocracy to which by birth he belonged were incensed at the innovators mainly because their theories were inimical to the privileged classes, not alone Captain Vere disinterestedly opposed them because they seemed to him incapable of embodiment in lasting institutions, but at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind.

With minds less stored than his and less earnest, some officers of his rank, with whom at times he would necessarily consort, found him lacking in the companionable quality, a dry and bookish gentleman, as they deemed. Upon any chance withdrawal from their company one would be apt to say to another, something like this: “Vere is a noble fellow, Starry Vere. Spite the gazettes, Sir Horatio” (meaning him with the Lord title) “is at bottom scarce a better seaman or fighter. But between you and me now, don’t you think there is a queer streak of the pedantic running thro’ him? Yes, like the King’s yarn in a coil of navy-rope?”

Some apparent ground there was for this sort of confidential criticism; since not only did the Captain’s discourse never fall into the jocosely familiar, but in illustrating of any point touching the stirring personages and events of the time he would be as apt to cite some historic character or incident of antiquity as that he would cite from the moderns. He seemed unmindful of the circumstance that to his bluff company such remote allusions, however pertinent they might really be, were altogether alien to men whose reading was mainly confined to the journals. But considerateness in such matters is not easy to natures constituted like Captain Vere’s. Their honesty prescribes to them directness, sometimes far-reaching like that of a migratory fowl that in its flight never heeds when it crosses a frontier.

Due to the wonder of the Internet, you can read Billy Budd in its entirety online.