Monday, June 27, 2022

Articles of Faith

Things as I see them.

There is no God.

There is no Heaven, no Hell, no Devil. There are no angels or demons or ghosts. There are no miracles.

There is no afterlife, no reincarnation. Whatever the "soul" can be said to be, it dissipates when the body dies.

There was no Original Sin, no Fall, and thus nothing to redeem. There was no Incarnation. Whatever the truth about his sayings and doings, Jesus was an ordinary human being. His mother was not "conceived without sin" any more or less than everyone else, nor was he the product of "virgin birth." He did not "die for our sins," he was not resurrected, nor will he return.

The universe is not concerned with our existence. In fact, even to say that it is "indifferent" is to engage in indefensible metaphysics. The universe is not capable of having an attitude towards our existence or its own. It simply exists. Why and how there is something instead of nothing is a question that neither theologian nor scientist is capable of illuminating.

Morality and ontology have nothing to do with each other. A godless universe is no more or less moral than a universe with a god in it. I once heard an Episcopalian priest, in the aftermath of one human-produced atrocity or another, say that if he thought for one moment that what had happened was God's punishment for our sins, he would put aside his priestly garments and walk out of the church forever. And so, in his place, would I.

The only true "sin" is cruelty, and the most fundamental virtue is compassion. There are more virtues than sins, because all sins ultimately come down to the same thing.

Religious institutions and religious leaders are susceptible of the same virtues and failings as everyone else. Many do good work, but many are corrupt and hypocritical. Much of the cruelty in the world is the outcome of religious belief, but much is not.

If religion gets you through the night, keeps you off the sauce, and maybe makes you a slightly kinder person, then more power to you, but if it serves as a cover for hatred and oppression, you'll get no respect from me.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Effingers (Coming Attractions)

One to watch out for: a promised English-language translation of Gabriele Tergit's family saga Effingers, which was originally published in Germany in 1951 but only recently "rediscovered" and reissued there to general acclaim. Robert Normen has a description on the website of The German Times:
In the best way, this epic 900-page novel resembles another historic family saga: Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. Mann’s story of four generations runs from 1835 to 1877. It may be no coincidence that Tergit’s book begins the very next year. Effingers is set against the backdrop of a changing German society steeped in the comforts of Bismarckian Prussia. Modernization and an economic boom bring affluence and changing norms, which are reflected in the contrasts between the city of Berlin and Karl’s and Paul’s small hometown in southern Germany. After World War I, anti-Semitic sentiment slowly but surely takes hold and the Effinger family must reluctantly learn that they are not the German clan they aspired to be.
NYRB Books has previously published a translation by Sophie Duvernoy of Tergit's earlier novel Käsebier Takes Berlin, and they have signed Duvernoy up for Effingers as well, though apparently no date has been announced. In the meantime, a snazzy-looking Spanish-language version has just been issued by Libros del Asteroide in Barcelona.
More information is available at The German Times.

Friday, June 03, 2022

Cardboard Box of Batteries

The death of Kelly Joe Phelps on May 31st got me thinking about my favorite Kelly Joe song, so I've dug out and updated some notes I made back in 2005. First, here are the lyrics, based on the liner notes for Tap the Red Cane Whirlwind, with a few minor changes to punctuation.
make a dent in the shovel
run the mud through a sieve

paste your hopes on a windmill blade
and plant 'em up on the hill.

a pencil sharpened with a putty knife
a pretty girl as a pretty nun
maybe you wake and think this is great
i just want somewhere to run.

oh, the walls blend into ceilings, and the faces they disappear.
never enough time to think it out only time to forget i'm here.
oh, and the bill is on the table but i've got no coins for pay
a beer half circle around her name, and what the hell did she say?

ah, the wise are playing tetherball and the ball's eyes they look like mine
rollin' around all on the end of the cord i can't make up for down
oh, i'm a streamlined engine with a cog chipped out of the wheel
i remember a dirty joke or two but i can't remember the feel.
i remember a dirty joke or two but i can't remember the feel.

too much time alone i spend, a miser with a nickel worn
starving like a mother, well, but i can't let go.
i'll spit the hours across the room and I'll kick 'em out that door
hell, you can have them. another thing i've got no use for.

well and it's funny that this comes out dark, it is not that bad
Oh, there's still a sparkle of silver in my cavity that plays music in the winter
i've a cardboard box of batteries hidden in a tire swing
a miner's hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
a miner's hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
a miner's hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
It doesn't quite "tell a story," but as a mood piece or character sketch it's about as precise as you can get. Memories, regrets, hopes — they're "all in the bag with the coins" (to quote another KJP song). I've highlighted everything that refers to prospecting, money, metal; it's a vein (so to speak) that runs through the whole thing. Some of the imagery is homely and eccentric — has anyone else used the word “tetherball” in a pop song? — other bits (“a pretty girl as a pretty nun”) just raise questions.

It's a melancholy picture, but there's that little "sparkle" at the end. The looseness in the fit between the lyrics and the tune adds something when Kelly Joe sings it, making it seem more spontaneous and conversational. And then there's the acoustic guitar, which after the intro mostly stays in the background but then bursts into extravagant arabesques at the end of some of the lines.

Kelly Joe was clearly a complicated guy, both personally and musically. He had a jazz background that shows in his playing, but his well-received first record, Lead Me On, was a collection of acoustic blues covers featuring slide guitar. He could probably have stuck to that indefinitely and made a career out of it and session work, but instead he repeatedly reinvented himself, abandoning the slide for fingerpicking (and occasionally, banjo) and becoming a gifted if sometimes frustratingly cryptic songwriter. In what turned out to be his final record, Brother Sinner & the Whale, he created a kind of unassuming Old Testament gospel music (if that's not a theological contradiction).

About ten years ago Kelly Joe said he needed a break and stopped touring and recording. At the time there was some mention of ulnar neuropathy, but as the years went on it was clear that something else was going on. His fans waited to see what new iteration of Kelly Joe Phelps might eventually emerge from the ferment, but for whatever reason it never happened. Maybe we'll know more in time, but maybe Kelly Joe just preferred his privacy.

Thursday, June 02, 2022

Kelly Joe Phelps 1959-2022

And it's funny that this comes out dark, it's not that bad
There's still a sparkle of silver in my cavity that plays music in the winter
I've got a cardboard box of batteries hidden in a tire swing
A miners hat with a light on top and a handful of wedding rings.
Word is that Kelly Joe Phelps died on Tuesday. The Guardian has an obit. A fine guitarist and singer — and eventually, songwriter as well — whose career encompassed jazz, blues, original songs, and gospel, he took a break from the music business about a decade ago and sadly never came back. Few details are available at this point.

Maybe I'll have more to say when this has sunk in for a bit. For now, here are two examples of Kelly Joe in happier days.