Thursday, October 31, 2019

Going Golem

"Going Golem" was the title I gave to this op-ed, which was published on June 14th in the Jewish Standard under the title, Going Golem… Or Moving the Letters Around. Can you remember back that far, when the Game of Thrones series had just wrapped up in a dissatisfying manner?

In any event, here it is now here on Blog Time Passing:

The recent controversy over the final season of the HBO series Game of Thrones brings to mind the essay by Michael Weingrad published in the Spring 2010 issue of the Jewish Review of Books: “Why There is No Jewish Narnia.” 

Weingrad poses that question, noting that fantasy literature represents “an entire literary genre—perhaps the only such genre—in which Jewish practitioners are strikingly rare.” He goes on to note that he “cannot think of a single major fantasy writer who is Jewish, and there are only a handful of minor ones of any note. To no other field of modern literature have Jews contributed so little.” 

Weingard speculates on the reasons for our lack of representation in this area, which include our historical memory. While Christians retain a romantic image of the medieval period as a time of knights in shining armor following a code of chivalry, Jews were shut out from this aristocratic system and often victimized by Crusaders claiming to be on a mission from God. For our people, modernity represented the moment of emancipation and acceptance as citizens in newly formed republics, with progress in politics following progress in science and technology. No accident, then, that there have been a great many Jewish science-fiction writers, not the least of them Isaac Asimov, the most prolific writer in any genre in American history.
While the question of whether there ever will be a Jewish Chronicles of Narnia or Game of Thrones remains to be seen—I imagine that someday there will be—for now I do want to point to one Jewish legend that has enormous fantasy potential—the golem.
There are many variations of the legend. The gist of it is a story about a human being creating an artificial being. A golem’s body typically is made out of clay, following the description in the Book of Genesis of God creating Adam’s body out of clay. In the story of Creation, God breathes life into Adam’s body. In Hebrew, the words denoting breath and wind also mean spirit and soul; breath is intimately associated with life itself, and also with speech.
A golem typically is brought to life not by breath or speech, but by the written word—it may be a series of letters in the Hebrew alphabet or God’s name inserted into the body. Letters also are used to spell out the Hebrew word for truth, emet. Usually they’re on the golem’s forehead. The golem can be deactivated by erasing the first letter, the aleph, leaving the Hebrew word met, meaning death. This reflects the idea of the Hebrew alphabet as sacred, and certain inscriptions as holy, for example, the Torah and mezuzahs.
A golem is not human. In some versions it cannot speak—speech is the defining characteristic of our species—while in others eventually it turns on its creator, sometimes because it follows instructions too literally. The story of the golem, then, often is a story of hubris, of human beings trying to play God, of trying to harness power that is beyond our control. It often is a story of unintended effects.
The best known version of the story takes place in the city of Prague during a time of oppression and pogroms. The golem there is brought to life by Rabbi Judah Loew to protect the Jewish community. We can understand the wish fulfillment fantasy behind this variation. Der Goylem by H. Leivick, a Yiddish dramatic poem and play, identifies Rabbi Loew’s golem with the legend of the Messiah ben Joseph, the messiah from the House of Joseph, who will precede the messiah from the House of David, and sometimes is associated with conflict and war.
The legend of the golem in all probability influenced Mary Shelley in the creation of what often is considered to be the first science-fiction novel, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. Prague, after all, is not too far from the setting of Shelley’s story, Geneva, and the Czech connection undoubtedly influenced Karel Čapek in the writing of the play R.U.R. The initials stand for Rossumovi Univerzáln’ Roboti, translated as Rossum’s Universal Robots. This play introduced the term robot, which is a Czech word for worker, and the narrative follows the classic trajectory of a slave rebellion, with our own creations turning against us.
The golem narrative is even more resonant today, given the cutting edge of contemporary technology. On the one hand, there has been a great deal of attention paid to the development and implementation of artificial intelligence, from self-driving cars to facial recognition and surveillance to the easy generation of fake videos that appear to be utterly authentic. It’s not just about killer robots, terminators, and homicidal HAL; Google searches and Amazon recommendations also are types of AI. All these applications are brought to artificial life by a form of writing—this time not a holy word or name or sacred letters, but the zeroes and ones of computer code, which again follow instructions to the letter, entirely literally.
And when it comes to the question of emet or truth, our social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on come to mind as mechanisms that are so very effective at disseminating falsehoods, making them forms of computer code that have turned a blessing into a curse.
On the other hand, we have unlocked the code of life, DNA, and gained the ability to edit our own genes. Just recently it was revealed that a Chinese scientist engaged in gene editing to create “CRISPR babies” resistant to HIV infection had inadvertently shortened those children’s likely lifespans. DNA is in a sense the sacred script inside our bodies that animates us, and the question of whether clones have souls also could be framed as whether clones are golems. But with gene editing, we are in the process of turning our children and so ultimately ourselves into modern golems.
Admittedly, all this better fits in with science fiction than the fantasy genre, but my point is that a fantasy story featuring the concept of the golem is one that would have great relevance for the present day, just as Tolkien’s war of the ring appealed to post-World War II readers, and Game of Thrones, with its cynical view of conniving characters and political machinations, turned out to be the perfect narrative for the McConnell, Ryan, and Trump era.
Whether the golem legend can serve as the basis of the kind of grand fantasy that Tolkien or Lewis created, or even the more mediocre version written by George R.R. Martin, will depend on the inspiration and imagination of Jewish writers.
But I would suggest that the story, like the golem itself, has a life of its own, and sooner or later it just may write itself.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Talking Tom Wolfe

Since my last few posts have been on poetry and the theater, it strikes me as appropriate, or at least not altogether inappropriate, to continue with a literary theme. And yes, I know that technically there is a world of difference between the literature and performance, but they do tie together as art forms that are based, more or less, on the word. And anyway, I'm just looking for an excuse, after all, to get this post off the ground.

So, I want to take this opportunity to share another New York Society for General Semantics program that was held on June 27th of 2018. The program was devoted to discussing Tom Wolfe, who had passed away the previous month. And I want to note here that I had the opportunity to meet Tom Wolfe for the first time in 1999, when he gave a Marshall McLuhan Lecture at Fordham University, preceded the evening before by a special dinner at the Canadian Consulate. We also corresponded and spoke on the phone on several occasions, and he generously allowed us to include his poems inspired by McLuhan in the anthology I co-edited with Adeena Karasick, The Medium Is the Muse [Channeling Marshall McLuhan].

It was, therefore, sad news indeed to learn of Wolfe's passing, and it seemed altogether appropriate to organize a program paying tribute to him. The session, entitled, Tom Wolfe, Man of Letters, Man of Words, had the following write-up on the NYSGS website:

On May 14th, the world lost one of its most celebrated, talented, and accomplished authors, Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr., best known simply as Tom Wolfe. Wolfe earned his PhD in American Studies from Yale University in 1957, and worked as a newspaper reporter for a decade, writing for periodicals such as the Washington Post and the New York Herald-Tribune, as well as New York magazine and Esquire.

Wolfe pioneered the use of a personal, literary style in news reporting and feature writing that became known as the New Journalism. A best selling author, his nonfiction works include The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965); The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968); The Pump House Gang (1968); Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970); and Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine (1976). His examination and critique of the contemporary American art scene, The Painted Word (1975), proved to be extremely controversial. His history of the early space program The Right Stuff (1979), was adapted as a feature film by Phillip Kaufman in 1983.

His book, In Our Time (1980), featured his own artwork, while From Bauhaus to Our House (1981), as a follow-up to The Painted Word, took on the topic of American architecture. Wolfe turned novelist with the publication of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), which was followed by A Man in Full (1998), I Am Charlotte Simmons (2004), and Back to Blood (2012). Hooking Up (2001) collected several works of his short fiction coupled with several of his essays.

Tom Wolfe was an early promoter of media ecology scholar Marshall McLuhan, famously posing the question, "What if he's right?" in a 1965 essay published in New York magazine, and comparing McLuhan to the likes of Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov. Wolfe's last book, The Kingdom of Speech (2016), a critique of Noam Chomsky's approach to linguistics, was awarded the Institute of General Semantics's S. I. Hayakawa Book Prize at last year's [2017] annual Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture, which was co-sponsored by the NYSGS.

I am going to interrupt the quote here to state that it was truly a privilege to have Tom Wolfe with us at the 2017 Alfred Korzybski Memorial Lecture. And his brief acceptance speech upon receiving the Hayakawa Book Prize was itself quite memorable, and fortunately preserved on video:

And now, let me return to the NYSGS program description:

Wolfe is credited with coining a number of terms, including the right stuff, radical chic, the Me Decade, good ol' boy, and statusphere. As an author and journalist, he was truly a man of letters, to invoke an old fashioned phrase that fits well with the famous man in a white suit, as he was known. And as a student and scholar of language, art, media, and communication, as well as a writer, interviewer, and raconteur, he most certainly was also a man of words.

On June 27th, 2018, the New York Society for General Semantics honored his contributions, creative and intellectual, and celebrated his achievements with a special panel discussion on select aspects of his career and publications.

The participants on this program were:

Thom Gencarelli, Professor and Chair of the Communication Department at Manhattan College, member of the Board of Trustees of the Institute of General Semantics, and the Board of Directors of the NYSGS, and the new editor of ETC: A Review of General Semantics.

Martin Levinson, author of several books on general semantics including a forthcoming new edition of Practical Fairy Tales for Everyday Living, President of the Institute of General Semantics and Treasurer of the New York Society for General Semantics.

Lance Strate, author of several books including the award-winning Media Ecology: An Approach to Understanding the Human Condition, Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, Trustee of the Institute of General Semantics, and President of the New York Society for General Semantics.

The program was moderated by Jacqueline Rudig, Treasurer of the Institute of General Semantics, and member of the Board of Directors of the New York Society for General Semantics.

It was a thoughtful and belletristic discussion!

And here now is the recording of the program:

And I have to say that, in my opinion, this was one of the best programs we've had since I've been organizing them for the society. Don't you agree?

Friday, August 9, 2019

Theatre Talk

My previous post, With the Words, featured a poetry performance of mine from April of 2018, and since we're on the subject of performance, not to mention recordings of New York Society for General Semantics events, why don't I follow up with the panel discussion that followed up our poetry program. This one took place on May 2nd, 2018, and the title was Language, Symbol, and the Theatre, and I think it was a really great discussion, if I do say so myself. And that's because of the participants, not on account of the moderator, which was yours truly, although I do take credit for bringing these folks together.

Anyway, here's the write-up:

General semantics is concerned with the ways in which language and symbols function as representations of our outer environment and our innermost feelings and thoughts. These representations function as maps of our external and internal realities. They help us to understand what we perceive and experience, they guide us in evaluating and navigating our world, and they give us tools for thought and action.

Different representations or maps may be more or less accurate or more or less useful in helping us to achieve certain ends. But different representations or maps may also help us to learn about different aspects of our reality, providing us with different perspectives, and abstracting out of external events different parts of the greater whole. What scientific modes of representation tell us about the world, for example, is quite different from what literary modes reveal, but each one provides us with knowledge that the other cannot.

The theatre is one of our oldest forms of literary expression, one that has an extraordinary influence on our use of language and symbol, from the Attic playwrights of ancient Greece and the introduction of the proscenium arch, and the unparalleled creative production of William Shakespeare in Elizabethan England, to the avant-garde experimentation of Bertolt Brecht in 20th century Germany, and Lin-Manuel Miranda's combination of hip hop and history in the Broadway hit Hamilton.

It follows that it is worth considering questions such as, what is unique to theatre as a mode of representation? What are its advantages and limitations, its problems and potentials? What are the relationships between dramatic performance and language and symbol, spoken and written word, play and script? Importantly, what role can theatre play in helping us to understand our world, in education, in social and political commentary?

Given that programs for the New York Society for General Semantics are held in the historic Players Club, founded by Edwin Booth, the greatest dramatic actor of the 19th century, as a social club "for the promotion of social intercourse between the representative members of the dramatic profession and the kindred professions of literature, painting, sculpture and music, and the patrons of the arts," a panel discussion on theatre was especially appropriate.

The participants on this program were:

Robin Beth Levenson, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, and author of Acting Chekhov in Translation: 4 Plays, 100 Ways (Peter Lang) , published in 2018. A graduate of the Media Ecology Doctoral Program at New York University, with an MFA from the University of California at Riverside, her articles have been published in journals such as Dialogues in Social Justice and Communications from the International Brecht Society. Her research explorations include how language influences thought and behavior, and the nature of performance.

Emily Lyon, a Brooklyn-based theatre director and dramaturg who recently created a theatrical piece, How We Hear, inspired by Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death. Her other directing work includes The Summoning (Best Direction, Best Production: sheNYC), Sword & the Stone/The Tempest tour (Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival), The Secret in the Wings (Hedgepig Ensemble), Women of Williams County (Best Ensemble: Manhattan International Theatre Festival), Interior: Panic (FringeNYC), Max Frisch’s The Arsonists (DCTV Firehouse), Some of the Side Effects (Best Premiere: UnitedSolo), and As You Like It (Geva Theatre Directing Fellow).

S. Brian Jones, Director of Operations for The Players, recently completed his masters in the Masters of Applied Theater program at CUNY School of Professional Studies. He has served as a Teacher in Residence and Arts Administrator with schools, regional theatre companies and social service agencies, conducted credential training workshops for teachers with Delaware Institute for Arts in Education, served as an advocate for Arts Education within the educational and government systems, and worked at Foundation Theatre, Freedom Theatre, Delaware Theatre Company, Christina Cultural Arts Center, New Castle County Parks and Recreation, La Jolla Playhouse, Horton Grand Theater, Ensemble Arts Theatre, Creative Management Group, Dorwell Productions, Vista Del Mar Child and Family Services, the 1199 Child Care Corporation, The Artist Playground Theater and Inside Broadway. Most recently, he worked as the Education Programs Manager for the award winning Off-Broadway Company, Epic Theatre Ensemble.

M*** S******* is a New York based actor, director and writer. As a performer, he has appeared on Broadway in the 39 Steps and off Broadway in Small World at 59east59, Checkers at the Vineyard Theatre, Tryst at the Irish Repertory Theatre, As Bees In Honey Drown at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. His directorial work has been seen at The Alley Theatre, the Fulton Opera House, Virginia Stage, the Westport Country Playhouse, Arkansas Repertory Theatre, George Street Playhouse and many others. His play, The Dingdong: or How The French Kiss, an adaptation of Feydau’s Le Dindon, premiered Off Broadway and has played around the country. His adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which he will also direct, premieres this December [2018] at Florida Repertory Theatre. He is a graduate of Brown University and received his MA in Communication and Media Studies from Fordham University, where he teaches film courses. *Name withheld by request.

The discussion was moderated by Lance Strate, Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, President of the New York Society for General Semantics, member of the Board of Trustees of the Institute of General Semantics.

It was a lively and dramatic discussion!

And now, without much further ado, here is the recording:

And what more can I say? It was a class act, don't you think?


Saturday, August 3, 2019

With the Words

In my previous post, Without the Words, I filled you in about the poetry reading I took part in, and organized, at last month's Media Ecology Association convention. But all there was to share from it was a bunch of photographs, as no recording was made of the event.

Fortunately, though, I can share a reading from last year, which was part of an event sponsored by the New York Society for General Semantics. The poems are not the same ones I read last month in Toronto, I do have quite a lot of them after all, but hey, it's better than nothing, right?

The title of the program was The Language of Poetry 2, and here's how it's introduced on the NYSGS website:

Alfred Korzybski, founder of general semantics, wrote that, "poetry often conveys in a few sentences more of lasting values than a whole volume of scientific analysis" (Science and Sanity, p. 437). He understood that poetic language provides us with a set of tools for understanding, evaluating, and relating to our environment in ways that are different from and complementary to scientific language. Not surprisingly, then, since the start of its publication 75 years ago, the general semantics journal ETC has often featured poetry along with articles on language, perception, communication, and consciousness of abstracting.

On September 28, 2016, the New York Society for General Semantics held its first Language of Poetry session, and we were happy to host our second such program on April 4th, 2018. The program was moderated by Teresa Manzella, a member of the Board of Directors of the NYSGS.

I provided an introduction at the start of the event, and then turned it over to Terry Manzella, who introduced the participants, Patricia Carragon, Adeena Karasick, Marty Levinson, and me. If you want to listen to the other readings, you can do so over on the NYSGS website's Language of Poetry 2 page. I won't mind. I'm there too for that matter. But as a service to my faithful followers, I'll share my reading here on Blog Time Passing:

And while I'm at it, I might as well share the introduction I did at the start of the program:

And wait, there's more! We had a question and answer session after the readings that I might as well throw into the mix on this post:

And there you have it, words and all!

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Without the Words

In my previous post, The Road Untaken, I shared my unused poetic statement for the poetry reading and performance held at last month's annual Media Ecology Association meeting at the University of Toronto. And I also included all of my unused Wordle word clouds that I had provided to go along with it.

So now, to be totally fair, let me share what was used instead for the poetry event. The illustration was by Marshall Soules, and the blurb was excerpted and altered from what I wrote:

So, this is the poster version, there were also postcards with the image on one side and the text on the other. And as you can tell, there were ten of us participating, which made for a great deal of variety, coupled with brevity, that the audience appeared to really appreciate.

Unfortunately, there was no video camera set up, so there's not record of the readings and performance, but there was, you might say ironically, a photographer taking pictures of us, so we have a record of the poetry event, just without the words.

They shared the pictures with us, and since there were so many, I am just going to share the pictures form my turn at bat. And I hasten to add that I do not find the photos particularly flattering, no, not at all, but I include them here in the interests of documentation, as Blog Time Passing is my official blog of record. So here goes:

Now, you may notice that all that I have in front of me is a music stand and a microphone, and I should also add that there was a small stage, just a couple of steps up, so slightly elevated. And there were very bright stage lights, so bright that I could not see the audience at all. Anyway, back to the photos, which include a couple of audience shots:

At this point, I'd just like to note that for a couple of the poems that I read, I used hand gestures, which the photographer captured here and there:

 Whew! I know that was a lot, and I wouldn't exactly call it poetry in motion, or in still life, but there you have it. And since this is something of a photo essay, let me add one more:

That's a snapshot of me with Paolo Granata, the convention organizer and MEA Vice-President. No words necessary here.