Another Week Ends

1. One of the many things to adore about David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun […]

David Zahl / 2.10.12

1. One of the many things to adore about David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is the cover (of the US edition). The collage manages to capture the torrential intellect at the heart of that wonderful collection without losing the humor. But it wasn’t until this past week that I knew anything about its designer, photographer/artist/pumpkin farmer Joseph Mills. The Washington City Paper did a feature on him back in 2003 in conjunction with an exhibit at the Corcoran, and Joseph’s words–and personal history with psychosis and depression–pack quite a punch, ht SJ:

When asked about the almost religious intensity of some of these works, Mills says, “They’re Christian to the extent that Christianity is one of the few religions that really contends with pain. That’s what attached me to Christianity: that it addresses intense degrees of pain instead of trying to turn it into something that—” He falters. “Let’s just say that I don’t know of another religion that focuses on an impaled human/deity as a centerpiece.”

“Pumpkin-growing is a tremendous metaphor for art-making,” Mills says. “In pumpkin-growing, you have to tend to the plant tenderly and methodically without asking much of it, and without seeing much change from day to day. Faith is all you have to go on. You don’t really know what’s coming, and you don’t know if it’s coming at all. It’s so like art, where you develop a body of artwork over decades but nothing happens for a long, long time.”

2. The Freakonomics guys put out a podcast this week on commitment devices entitled “Save Me From Myself.” A commitment device is essentially “a clever means to help you commit to a course of action that you know will be hard,” such as losing weight or quitting smoking. As you might imagine, it’s quite a goldmine of material, addiction and willpower-wise. Oprah Winfrey even makes a hilarious appearance, ht JD:

Sometimes it’s the case that people know that their future version of themselves will want to follow a behavior that their current version of themselves is not comfortable with…. So I’m on a diet and I would like to stick to that diet. But I know that when someone puts a chocolate cake in front of me I will lose my willpower and I will eat that chocolate cake. A commitment device is an attempt on the part of a person to set up constraints so that the future self isn’t able to take advantage of the situation and do what the future self wants, but instead requires the future self to behave in a way that the current self would like the future self to behave.

[Tony] Balandran knew he did not have the will to stop himself [from gambling]. So he decided to do something drastic. Missouri, like many states with casinos, offers what’s called a “self-exclusion” plan. You sign yourself up for a registry that effectively bans you, for life, from all casinos in the state. If you ever do come back, you can be arrested for trespassing. It’s like signing a contract with yourself, against yourself. For a while, it worked. Balandran stayed out of the casinos. Until he started going back. He discovered a loophole. He found he didn’t have to show his I.D. to get into the casino, or even to play the table games. In fact, he wouldn’t have to show his I.D. at all unless he won a certain amount of money — at which point the IRS would have to be notified. And that brings us back to Tony Balandran’s seven-card straight flush.

3. Over at BigThink, Peter Lawler makes a convincing and sympathetic case for liberal education, namely that the value of something cannot always be boiled down to its usefulness or the results it may produce. In the process, he expertly invokes Walker Percy, a fitting follow-up to Ethan’s post from yesterday, ht KW:

The truth remains that liberal education does deserve a whole lifetime, and anyone who doesn’t have it is missing out. A good clue at what you miss is described by the philosopher-novelist Walker Percy. He contrasts the old method of conversational psychiatry (often Freudian), which involved a huge number of expensive, talky sessions and got unreliable results, with the new drug-based psychiatry which often gets fast and reliable results. The alleviation of symptoms, however, isn’t the same as really knowing what’s wrong with you. That’s why Percy said you have a right to your anxiety as an indispensable clue to who you are. Anxiety, of course, can be prelude to wonder and the joy of shared discovery. You have the right not to be diverted in one way or another from knowing the truth about who you are.

4. A pretty radical instance of grace made ABC News this past week, “Woman Uses Bible Verse To Ward Off Attacker.” She even invites him to her church, ht JAZ:

5. By now, you’ve probably heard something about Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. It’s a sobering read, some might even say alarming, one which uses research galore to lay bare the deep divides that plague our society at the moment. And while I’m sure there are other possible interpretations of the data he references, it’s still pretty bracing. The findings about religion may surprise you. Murray put together a lengthy preview for The Wall Street Journal, and David Brooks commented here.

6. A fascinating look at Imposter Syndrome on Athene Donald’s blog, entitled “What Am I Doing Here?,” rife with examples from the highest echelons of the academy.

7. Christopher Hitchens’ final essay for The Atlantic, “The Reactionary” happens to tackle the subject of his esteemed forebearer, G.K. Chesterton. In fact, it’s ostensibly a review of two recent volumes on GKC by Ian Ker. While Hitchens’ presuppositions are on full display throughout (particularly as he fumbles the first of the ‘paradoxes’), the discussion of the Catholic-Protestant divide is pretty interesting, as is the relationship of religion to humor.

8. A beautiful little gem about legendary film composer/conductor Elmer Bernstein (responsible for the scores of To Kill a Mockingbird and The Magnificent Seven plus a million others) appears in the liner notes of his soundtrack to the adaptation of Cozzens’ By Love Possessed, ht PZ:

“Near the end of his long career, (Elmer) Bernstein frequently found himself explaining the mindset behind both his film-scoring methodology and his stylistic choices, ‘When I start working on a film I begin by looking for the grace of God! I’ll take any way to get it.”

9. In TV, NPR connected the dots for all of us who’ve been wondering what has happened to the 30 Rock we knew and loved in their article, “The Incredible Shrinking Liz Lemon: From Woman to Little Girl.” A choice quote:

It’s a common problem in comedy series that relationships and characters gradually have their funniest qualities exaggerated to the point where, ironically, they’re no longer funny. There was always a strong element of bizarro mentoring in Jack’s relationship with Liz — a twisted version of Lou Grant and Mary Richards. It led to some of the show’s strongest moments. But as they stand now, Liz is as clueless and lost as Tracy and Jenna, and her once-grounded friendship with Pete (Scott Adsit), who was her one nominally sane ally, is essentially gone.

This is, as a friend of mine recently noted, the opposite of what Parks And Recreation did with Leslie Knope. She’s been fleshed out from a cartoonishly goofy boss to a warmly devoted — but still funny and skewed — public servant. Her relationship with Ron Swanson has become more equal, more respectful, with more give-and-take, and that’s all made the show funnier and better.

10. Finally, in music, Slate took a quick look at the increasingly popular phenomenon known as covering a Leonard Cohen song. The Bill Callahan version of “So Long, Marianne” they provide is pretty stunning. And for the record, IMHO the best version of “Hallelujah” is not Jeff Buckley’s – it’s John Cale’s, who did the honors long before Cohen hilariously called for a moratorium on recording that song.




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