Posts Tagged ‘Ludwig Wittgenstein’

Kevin & Mumia

Monday, July 11th, 2016

moments that we shape twjpg

Moments That We Shape painting by Nolan Winkler 

“On a hot day in the southern desert of Africa I wanted to speak to one of my favorite Bushmen. He was sitting in the middle of a thorn bush, huddled in an attitude of the most intense concentration…but his friends would not let me get near him, saying, ‘But don’t you know, he is doing work of the utmost importance. He is making clouds.’” Laurens Van Der Post

Yesterday, the basketball player Kevin Durant signed a two-year contract with the Golden State Warriors for 55 million dollars and I read Chris Hedges’ interview with Mumia Abu Jamal, who has now served thirty-five years of a life sentence for a murder he may or may not have committed.

During the interview, Mumia, who is quite ill and not receiving adequate health care, said many troubling things. “The black political elites, including Barack Obama, are powerless. They are emblems. They are not the voice of black America. They are like a ventriloquist’s dummy. They mouth the same words the white corporate masters mouth. They do not name unpleasant truths. They never lifted their voices to denounce Bill Clinton’s decision to massively expand our system of mass incarceration. And they do not lift their voices now. They go right along with the repression. And they are well paid for it.”

He went on to say: “Black people will probably vote for Clinton, but this symbolizes the emptiness of hope. They fear Trump. They should look closely at the pictures from Trump’s third wedding. Hillary Clinton is in the front pew of the church. Hillary, Bill, Trump, and Melania are shown embracing at Trump’s estate during the reception. These people are part of the same elite circle. They represent the same financial interests. They work for the same empire. They have grown rich from the system. The words they shout back and forth during political campaigns are meaningless. Trump or Clinton will deliver the same political result. They will serve, like Obama, corporate and military power.”

“Everything that happens is at once natural and inconceivable.” E.E. Cioran

Kevin Durant is twenty-seven, seven-feet-tall, and one of best and most popular basketball players in the world. He was born in Washington D.C. where he and his sister and two brothers were raised by their mother and grandmother after their father abandoned the family. Kevin played one year of college basketball and then was drafted by the Seattle Supersonics the year before the team moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. He was named rookie of the year and then played eight years for the Thunder before deciding to sign with the Warriors.

Kevin made 17 million dollars a year playing for the Thunder, but that was a small fraction of his annual income. He has lucrative endorsement deals with Nike, Sprint, Gatorade, Panini, General Electric, and 2K Sports. His agent is the media mogul Jay-Z. Kevin pledged a million dollars to the American Red Cross for the victims of the 2013 tornado disaster in Oklahoma. In 2014, he partnered with Kind Snacks and launched StrongAndKind.com to show “being kind is not a sign of weakness.” He is also a spokesperson for the Washington D.C. branch of P’Tones Records, a nationwide non-profit after-school music program.

With Kevin joining Steph, Klay, Draymond, and Andre on the Warriors, barring injuries, they should be the best team in the game.

I wonder what Kevin Durant thinks of Mumia Abu Jamal. Kevin describes himself as a high school kid who enjoys playing video games in his spare time. A devout Christian, Kevin goes to chapel before every game and has religious tattoos on his stomach, wrist, and back. He is, apparently, apolitical.

 “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature itself, but rather nature exposed to our methods of questioning.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

Mumia told Chris Hedges, “The liberals and the Democrats are in many ways more dangerous than the right wing. Repression and neoliberalism are more effectively instituted by Democrats such as Bill and Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. They sound reasonable. But because what they do is hidden, it is more insidious and often more deadly.”

Kevin Durant met Obama on the White House basketball court and they shared a bro hug. Durant said of the meeting, “It was a good feeling to meet the president. Of course I always wanted to do that. Me being from D.C., it was pretty cool to see him. I was excited to get that opportunity. It’s something I’m always going to remember.”

Mumia has never met Obama, but in 2014 Obama nominated Debo P. Adegbile to head the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Debo, a former lawyer for the NAACP who worked on Abu-Jamal’s case, was rejected for the Justice Department job by the U.S. Senate because of his public support of Mumia.

Twenty years ago, when Mumia’s execution was drawing near, I joined thousands of other people on marches in San Francisco demanding Mumia be given a new trial. He never got a new trial, but his death sentence was eventually commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Whether he is guilty of murder or not, there is no doubt he deserves a new trial. Sadly, he will probably never get one. He is the victim of our deeply racist social and justice systems, along with millions of other men and women trapped in poverty, and now that he is no longer in danger of being executed—except through the slow death of incarceration—he is rarely mentioned in the mainstream news.

I used to be an avid basketball fan. Two of my published novels feature basketball subplots involving fictional versions of The Golden State Warriors. In a sense, I owe my success as a writer to my interest in basketball, though nowadays I hardly follow professional basketball, for today’s game little resembles the beautiful sport I fell in love with as a young man.

I wonder if Mumia watches basketball on his tablet in his cell.

Meaning of Meaning

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

“A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

I first encountered the writing of Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1967 when I was eighteen, a freshman at UC Santa Cruz. Wittgenstein’s little treatises The Blue and Brown Books were required reading for all freshmen enrolled at Stevenson College, the campus within the campus named after Adlai Stevenson and dedicated to the social sciences. I was a gung ho anthropology major, though my gung ho-ness would soon be replaced by the awareness that anthropology was a deeply conflicted realm best avoided by the already conflicted likes of me.

But in my early weeks on that lovely campus, free for the first time in my life from my parents’ incessant intrusions, the breezes eloquent and optimal for Frisbee, the bevies of braless beauties making of life an erotic potpourri, I was inspired to give academia the old college try. So I dove into my studies with youthful zeal, and things went swimmingly for a month or so, and then…Wittgenstein.

I beg the forgiveness of any Wittgenstein devotees who may read this dispatch. My sense of the man, based on a few biographical sketches and the four pages of his work I have labored through, is that he was an intimidating German charlatan for whom Oxford and the higher realms of academia were a field of clover, he a ravenous cow. But I don’t know.

In the introductory lecture on Wittgenstein given by a professor who would soon thereafter kill himself, we teenagers were told that the brilliant German transplant was initially intrigued by the meanings of meanings of words, but soon grew tired of such pedestrian mental gymnastics and was moved to pontificate for thousands of impenetrable pages about the meanings of the meanings of the meanings of words. To which my Jewish grandmother would have retorted, “From this he makes a living? Oy vey.”

Dazed and confused by the professor’s elucidation of Wittgenstein’s multi-layered inquiries into the meanings of meanings of meanings, and being mightily distracted by the nearness of so many outrageously cute and minimally clothed chicks (as we ignorant sexists called pretty girls in those days), I exited the lecture hall stuck on layer one. Woman. What is the meaning of Woman? Look! There goes one now. Okay. Wow. There she is. Woman means that. Her. And the meaning of the meaning? Hmm. What is the meaning of the word that means Her? Well, gosh, so many meanings, let me count the ways. But wait! What is the meaning of the meaning of the word that means woman? My head hurt.

We hoped, my fellow freshmen and I, that our section leaders (philosophy graduate students) would be able to shed some light on the dazzling introductory lecture so we might be able to cobble together passable papers on the subject at hand, whatever that subject turned out to be. I can see us now, a section of ten anxious neophyte scholars, gathered in a little room with a prematurely bald graduate student saying to us, “So…what comes to mind when you hear the word chair?”

To which one of my fellow scholars replied, “A chair.”

“Aha,” rejoined our section leader. “But do you think of a specific chair? Wittgenstein says you don’t. He says that when you hear the word chair, your brain accesses an abstract symbol representing the essence of chair, or what Wittgenstein calls chair-ness.”

A silence fell. I want to call the silence profound, but I’m unsure of the meaning of the meaning of the meaning of profound, but I do know that particular silence spoke volumes filled with blank pages.

“A picture is a fact.” Ludwig Wittgenstein

Despite the confusing introductory lecture and the confounding discussion with the philosophy graduate student, I clung to the hope that Wittgenstein’s actual writings might burn off the thickening fog swirling about the prolific German of Oxford. So I hunkered down with The Blue and Brown Books and deduced from their brief introduction that these tracts were to Wittgenstein what Dick and Jane and Spot and Puff were to learning to read. That is to say, The Blue and Brown Books were the equivalent of Wittgenstein for Dummies.

Reading every word, and checking them twice, I made my way into the equatorial regions of Page Four of The Blue Book. Up to that point, or perhaps it was not a point but a moment, I thought I kind of sort of maybe sort of partially understood what Wittgenstein was driving at, but then his construct, so-called, fell apart for me and I had to start over at the beginning. I amplified my concentration and focused my entire being on following the steps (or threads) of his argument, and by the time I arrived at the North Pole of Page Three I felt sure that if Wittgenstein were only still alive and I could meet him, I would try to hurt him, though I had not theretofore been prone to violence.

This was my first powerful experience of feeling wholly unsuited to the academic life, and I was bummed because of the aforementioned erotic potpourri and the eloquent breezes, etc. So I wandered despondently across the bucolic campus to the Whole Earth Café (yes, the original Whole Earth Café of Whole Earth Café fame) and ordered a mango banana strawberry and yeast smoothie to soothe my jangled psyche. And as I was paying for my drink, I asked the hippy guy manning the cash register, “You ever read any Wittgenstein?”

And without missing a beat, he said, “The meaning of the meaning of the meaning of a turd.”

“Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.” Rumi

Coleman Barks, the renowned co-translator of Rumi into English, traveled to Turkey one summer to soak up the atmosphere in the home environs of Rumi, a thirteenth-century Sufi poet who is today more popular than Rod McKuen. One very hot day Barks went into a café and using his rudimentary Turkish ordered a bottle of water. The waiter seemed startled and asked Barks to repeat his order, which Barks did. The waiter hurried away to the kitchen and returned with a chef. Barks repeated his order to the chef, and a heated discussion ensued. Barks eventually got his bottle of water, but why all the fuss? Barks had mispronounced his words. Instead of asking for a bottle of water, he had asked for the secret of the universe.

“Well, art is art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water! And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does.” Groucho Marx

Once upon a time in Turkey there was a man named Halim who was a waiter in a café. One very hot day, a foreigner, a middle-aged man with curly gray hair, entered the café, bowed politely to Halim, and asked, “May I have the secret of the universe?”

Halim was startled by the foreigner’s request because that very morning Halim had woken from a vivid dream of strolling with a beautiful woman on the shore of a lake in the moonlight. In the dream, Halim and the woman had kissed, and then the woman had said to him, “I will gladly make love with you if you will tell me the secret of the universe.”

And now this middle-aged foreigner had made the very same request. What could this mean, this confluence of identical and unanswerable questions?

Halim rushed into the kitchen and said to the chef, “Toros, help me. An English man, or possibly he is American, has asked for the secret of the universe.”

“Ey Vaay,” said Toros, shaking his head woefully. “No doubt he is another of those blasted Rumi tourists. I’ll give him what for.”

So the chef and the waiter returned to the foreigner, and the chef said in his flawless Turkish, “Why do you want the secret of the universe?”

To which the foreigner replied, “To quench my thirst.”

“Water, taken in moderation, cannot hurt anybody.” Mark Twain

In Turkey, in the very neighborhood where the famous Sufi poet Rumi lived so long ago, there stands a humble café. And on the kitchen shelf in this café there is a bottle of water among many other bottles of water that appears to be no different than the other bottles of water. But there is, indeed, a difference; for the water inside this singular bottle contains the secret of the universe.

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” Gertrude Stein

A man, having guzzled a bottle of water on a hot day, wanders onto a barren field to take a piss. His urine rains down on a tiny fig seed that has lain dormant in a little crevice for seven hundred years. A pool of urine engulfs the fig seed, which pool evaporates over the ensuing hours, but not before the hard shell of the seed dissolves, the seed germinates, and tiny tendrils grow out of the seed and delve into the earth.

Some weeks later, a man on his way home from the café where he works as a waiter, espies the fig sprout growing in the otherwise barren field. With great care, the waiter digs up the seedling and carries the baby plant home to his garden where he will water and feed her so she might one day become the mother of ten thousand figs.

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser September 2010)