"I don't battle anymore! I uplift motherfuckers!" - GZA
Monday, October 30, 2006,3:35 PM
By Louis Begley

A heretical notion has taken root in the minds of many readers and book reviewers: They believe that the principal character in a novel should be a fundamentally good person. Should the author, on the contrary, endow his principal character with some of the defects of character and the vices he has observed in himself and others, they expect him to arrange, before the last page of the book is turned, a redemptive experience that turns the outrageous or despairing protagonist into a better person. Woe betide the author if he doesn't comply. It is then said that one cannot like his novel because it is unpleasant.

Gentle reader, there is no such rule. Great novels aren't required to be pleasant or to have lovable heroes and heroines. As soon as your many occupations permit, please rush to read the three masterpieces referred to below. If their deplorable protagonists find a place in your heart, there are many others with whom I will be happy to acquaint you.

Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This novel opens with a justly famous sentence: "I am a sick man ... I am a wicked man." We never learn the speaker's name, but his situation is defined with abrupt efficiency: He is 40, a distant relation left him 6,000 rubles, which is just enough to subsist somewhere at the edge of St. Petersburg in the sort of squalor that 19th century Russian novels have taught us was de rigueur for impoverished intelligentsia, separated from the crass misery of Russia's masses only by a diploma and rudimentary acquaintance with the French language. The "Notes" are written, he tells us, not for the public, since no one would want to read them, but because "on paper it will somehow come out more solemnly."

What comes out first is a brilliant tirade -- sarcastic and desperate -- against the utilitarian delusion that men, if taught to think straight, will strive for the common good. The underground man knows this is rubbish; men love suffering as much or more than their well-being. He illustrates his thesis by a confession, the recollection of events -- he has "hundreds of such recollections" -- that occurred when he was still a minor official in a government department.

At the core of the anecdote is his visit to a brothel after a drunken dinner with successful and wealthier schoolmates. He wakes up at the side of a girl and idly, to humiliate her and aggrandize himself, catechizes her about the ignominy and dangers of a prostitute's life. Or perhaps he does it in fact out of genuine compassion. Since he is a "paradoxalist," caught constantly between contradictory positions, we cannot tell. Both positions are probably true.

Before leaving, he gives the girl his address. Thereupon, he lives in terror of having been taken seriously: The girl may actually arrive at his hovel, see him in his tattered and filthy bathrobe and take measure of his nullity. When the girl does appear, he tells her hysterically the "truth" about his motives. When he again awakens in her embrace, the need to humiliate returns. He presses a banknote into her hand. In a moment, he sees that she is gone, having left his money on the table. He runs after her in the street; she is nowhere to be seen; in fact he never sees her again.

Reflecting on the act of writing the story of this encounter, the underground man comes to see it as "corrective punishment," no longer literature. He recognizes that "a novel needs a hero, and here are purposely collected all the features for an anti-hero ..." The greatness of "Notes from the Underground" lies precisely here: in Dostoevsky's ability to make wholly convincing, through the intellectual vigor and wit of his writing, the self-contradictory features of his anti-hero, to win us over to the side of a man who does not hesitate to see himself as a monster.

The Trial by Franz Kafka
Kafka thought of "Notes from the Underground" as the true source of all modern literature and a determining influence on his own work. In turn, "The Trial," the greatest of Kafka's three unfinished novels, has marked 20th century consciousness more searingly perhaps than any other novel. Because of its impact, the adjective "Kafkaesque" has currency everywhere: not just among readers of Kafka's oeuvre, but also among people who have learned, by osmosis, to use it as shorthand for the arcane and unchallengeable means through which the modern state dehumanizes us.

"The Trial" is the story of the chief clerk of a bank, Joseph K., about whom someone must have been telling lies because one morning, without having done anything wrong, he is arrested by two men in plain clothes. They offer no explanation, and yet K. accepts their authority. Thereafter, like a man lost in thick fog, he attempts to penetrate the workings of the court before which his case is pending -- an omnipotent and omnipresent court that may not even be a part of the constituted state.

K., too, is an anti-hero, his character a mixture of servile cowardice, slyness, opportunism and occasional rebellious optimism. Just like the man from the underground, he is dismally lonely, his solitude relieved only by fleeting sexual contacts. In the end, K. is executed by the court's envoys, men who look like 10th-rate old actors. In a vacant lot, one of them thrusts a knife into K.'s heart. "'Like a dog!' he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him."

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard
This Austrian author is easily the greatest novelist to have written in German in the second half of the 20th century. His special admiration for Dostoevsky and Kafka is no accident; he shares with them the inability to see any feeling or circumstance other than as a set of contradictions, either one of which should, but in fact cannot, exclude the other.

"Woodcutters" is the story of an "artistic dinner" in Vienna, at which the narrator is present, and unwilling to leave, although there is nothing that he detests more than artistic dinners. He has accepted the invitation because it was extended abruptly by a couple who 30 years earlier had been his best friends and protectors and whom now he loathes. Earlier that day, the hosts and he, and a woman who is also a guest at the dinner, had been at the funeral of another woman, once a friend and probably the narrator's lover, who had hanged herself. The guest of honor, an actor at Vienna's Burgtheater, is late. The dinner is served only after midnight, and while they wait and during the meal that drags on as the actor pontificates, the narrator, in a vitriolic and marvelously humorous monologue, dissects the lives of the dead woman, the guests and the hosts, and of course, himself. Bernhard's narrators are prodigious haters, and yet we love them; they are too brilliant for it to be otherwise.
posted by R J Noriega
Permalink ¤ 0 comments
Monday, October 23, 2006,1:39 PM
The Purpose Of Public Education School
It's no secret that the US educational system doesn't do a very good job. Like clockwork, studies show that America's schoolkids lag behind their peers in pretty much every industrialized nation. We hear shocking statistics about the percentage of high-school seniors who can't find the US on an unmarked map of the world or who don't know who Abraham Lincoln was.
Fingers are pointed at various aspects of the schooling system—overcrowded classrooms, lack of funding, teachers who can't pass competency exams in their fields, etc. But these are just secondary problems. Even if they were cleared up, schools would still suck. Why? Because they were designed to.

How can I make such a bold statement? How do I know why America's public school system was designed the way it was (age-segregated, six to eight 50-minute classes in a row announced by Pavlovian bells, emphasis on rote memorization, lorded over by unquestionable authority figures, etc.)? Because the men who designed, funded, and implemented America's formal educational system in the late 1800s and early 1900s wrote about what they were doing.

Almost all of these books, articles, and reports are out of print and hard to obtain. Luckily for us, John Taylor Gatto tracked them down. Gatto was voted the New York City Teacher of the Year three times and the New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. But he became disillusioned with schools—the way they enforce conformity, the way they kill the natural creativity, inquisitiveness, and love of learning that every little child has at the beginning. So he began to dig into terra incognita, the roots of America's educational system.

In 1888, the Senate Committee on Education was getting jittery about the localized, non-standardized, non-mandatory form of education that was actually teaching children to read at advanced levels, to comprehend history, and, egads, to think for themselves. The committee's report stated, "We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes."

By the turn of the century, America's new educrats were pushing a new form of schooling with a new mission (and it wasn't to teach). The famous philosopher and educator John Dewey wrote in 1897:

Every teacher should realize he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of the proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.

In his 1905 dissertation for Columbia Teachers College, Elwood Cubberly—the future Dean of Education at Stanford—wrote that schools should be factories "in which raw products, children, are to be shaped and formed into finished products...manufactured like nails, and the specifications for manufacturing will come from government and industry."

The next year, the Rockefeller Education Board—which funded the creation of numerous public schools—issued a statement which read in part:

In our dreams...people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [intellectual and character education] fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple...we will organize children...and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.

At the same time, William Torrey Harris, US Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906, wrote:

Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.

In that same book, The Philosophy of Education, Harris also revealed:

The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places.... It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.

Several years later, President Woodrow Wilson would echo these sentiments in a speech to businessmen:

We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.

Writes Gatto: "Another major architect of standardized testing, H.H. Goddard, said in his book Human Efficiency (1920) that government schooling was about 'the perfect organization of the hive.'"

While President of Harvard from 1933 to 1953, James Bryant Conant wrote that the change to a forced, rigid, potential-destroying educational system had been demanded by "certain industrialists and the innovative who were altering the nature of the industrial process."

In other words, the captains of industry and government explicitly wanted an educational system that would maintain social order by teaching us just enough to get by but not enough so that we could think for ourselves, question the sociopolitical order, or communicate articulately. We were to become good worker-drones, with a razor-thin slice of the population—mainly the children of the captains of industry and government—to rise to the level where they could continue running things.

This was the openly admitted blueprint for the public schooling system, a blueprint which remains unchanged to this day. Although the true reasons behind it aren't often publicly expressed, they're apparently still known within education circles. Clinical psychologist Bruce E. Levine wrote in 2001:

I once consulted with a teacher of an extremely bright eight-year-old boy labeled with oppositional defiant disorder. I suggested that perhaps the boy didn't have a disease, but was just bored. His teacher, a pleasant woman, agreed with me. However, she added, "They told us at the state conference that our job is to get them ready for the work world…that the children have to get used to not being stimulated all the time or they will lose their jobs in the real world."
posted by R J Noriega
Permalink ¤ 0 comments
Tuesday, October 03, 2006,4:26 PM
Hip Hop Honor Interview With Rakim

Authority, invention, and a definite sense of cool - the best MCs have to have all these bedrock elements in place if they want to turn heads. Rakim - in the estimation of many critics, one of the music's most riveting rappers - introduced his skills to the world with "My Melody" in 1987. It was immediately recognized as one of the most individual flows in rap, bobbing and weaving with intricate inner rhymes and sussing pockets of creative tension by surfing DJ Eric B's swinging beats. One album later the masterful Ra was telling us what it felt like to be a "microphone fiend." No question: his impact on the music is deep.


I played music. Played saxophone. Played in the bands. Just trying to stay busy trying to find my reason in life. I grew up in a musical household. My moms - she sang anything from opera to jazz, and my pops was a connoisseur, you know. I think I heard it all coming up in the house. My oldest brother Ronnie played the piano. He was in Kurtis Blow's band.


The neighborhood was buzzing before the first rap record came out. The beat-box and break dancing was fresh in the 'hood - you know, it hit us quick. I just woke up and it was like, "Yo, I want to rap." And you know, immediately, man, just picked up a pen. I grew up on Cold Crush (Brothers) tapes, Treacherous Three, Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kool Herc. Coming up a young kid, listening to this music was like standing there trying to read graffiti. It's like you can't read it, but you still going to stand there trying to figure it out. It ate us alive then and it's still eating us alive. I remember writing rhymes. Back then it was kind of funny, though, 'cause the rhymes are so simple you didn't even have to write them. But I remember making rhymes and having a couple up my sleeve and going to the park like, "Yo, can I get on the mic?" They said, "Shorty, man, back up before you trip over a wire or something." I'm standing there dead serious like, "Yo, man." I was passionate about it and I didn't understand the age difference, I just loved the craft. I had to wait a little while.


Eric B. - kid named Alvin brought him to the crib. Alvin knocked on the door. He's like, "Yo, Ra - yo, I want to introduce you to this kid. He made records. He knows Marley Marl, too." It was at the point where I wanted to go to college and I had this tape that I made. The cassette was loaded, man. I had a little bit of everything on the cassette. So I brought him in, let him hear the tape and he was like, "Yo, I want to take it to Marley Marl." I was like, "I'm trying to go to school, man. I love football." I thought I was going to be a quarterback, but you know, whatever - if you want to let him hear the joint, I'll make you a copy and you
can let him check it out. So a couple days later my man came back, knocked at the door, he was like, "Do you want to do a record? I got a way we can do it where you can still go to college and we can do the record." So now I'm like, "Okay, now you talking." He said he'd get the thing done and all I had to do was sign as a featured artist. That's why the first record was Eric B. featuring Rakim. But I had no idea that it was going to do what it did, and it just stopped my whole world, which was for a reason. 'Cause I probably would have broke my leg the first year in football. Things happen for a reason and I understood that, and when opportunity knock - you know, it's like, "The door's open. Go in, man." So I went in. You always want to make sure you making the right choice. I can always listen to music, but you don't always have a chance to go to college and play football. I thought that that would be the wiser thing to do, but looking back right now - I think this is what I was supposed to do, this is what I was here for. It was funny the way things panned out. But it was a blessing. I got a chance to talk to the world. I got a chance to talk to different 'hoods around the world and relate with them and work with them.


I still am a member of the Five Percent Nation of Islam and it affected me in a big way. Getting knowledge of self and starting to learn the world, starting to learn others, it helped me write much easier, 'cause I was writing from your point of view, his point of view, her point of view. I wanted people to feel like, "All right, I go through that, too. I've been through that, too. My pop said something like that to me. That happened to my brother." It's a little harder when you're trying to - I don't want to say preach, I don't want to say teach, but when you're trying to bring awareness through music. So you got to try to tap into something where you can get their attention and not make them feel like you're trying to shove information down their throat. So I just try to stay relevant, talk about some things that they may have been through or witnessed.


After learning how to write, I started trying to learn different ways to write. The norm was you write the rhyme and you rhyme at the end of the bar - kind of got tired of doing that. So I started rhyming at the beginning of the rhyme, then at the middle of the rhyme, then at the end of the bar. So I started to get intricate with it - learn different styles and bring new things to the table. And than I tried to triple up my metaphors. In the beginning it was like, "I wanna say something where they can take it both ways, like it could mean two things." Then after a while it was, "Well now I want to see if I can make it mean three things." And then after a while it's like, "Wow, if I say this like this, they will have to play with the phrase until they figure it out, then at the same time no two people will get the same understanding." I think my style reflected myself. I was always kind of a laid-back person. I just try to bring me to the table as much as I could. At that time rap was making its transition from the streets and then it went to a stage where Melle Mel and them was making it look like rappers were stars. And then when I came it was kind of going back down to the street image. I spoke to people on the streets, the way I felt a cool person should speak, you know what I mean? And it just kind fell into my notebook, man. Word up.


"I could take a phrase that's rarely heard, flip it, and that's a daily word." That was one of my missions when I wrote, and you say it to yourself subconsciously like, "Wow - now I need something that nobody said. I need a little phrase or word that nobody heard of." And sometimes when you thinking for something, what you're thinking becomes the something. Meaning, "Wow, Ra - say that, man. You know, that's what you doing." You keep digging for the far-out materials, and reel them in and give it to the world.


It's funny, man, because that's what you reach for. You wanna be one of the best but at the same time I couldn't really think about it too much because I wanted to stay focused, stay grounded, and not let it affect me. I acknowledge it, and it's a blessing to get put in a category like that. But for the most part I try not to think about that. I stay true to myself. Stay true to the game, stay true to the hood. I think that's why people respect Ra to this day.


You can't get away from rap no more. It's eating us alive, man. And it's like the windows to the world, because it's a lot of information being passed through the streams, a lot of controversy as well. But it's the heartbeat of the neighborhood. Hip-hop is becoming the dictionary of the hood. I think we gotta watch what we say because you got a lot of powerful words now, but hip-hop is like the Bible to the 'hood, man.
posted by R J Noriega
Permalink ¤ 0 comments
Oriental Trading Company