The Nutmeg’s Curse

The reviews of Amitav Ghosh’s new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse, have not always been positive. Some have declared it to be anti-science. Yet others, like Roy Scranton, found that it “elegantly and audaciously reconceives modernity as a centuries-long campaign of omnicide, against the spirits of the earth, the rivers, the trees, and even the humble nutmeg, then makes an impassioned argument for the keen necessity of vitalist thought and non-human narrative.” I’m with Roy, with a few reservations.

The overall best review I found with a contemporary context is here, in The New Yorker.

Ghosh begins with a narrative of how the 17th century Dutch arrived at the Banda Islands in the Pacific to capture, enslave and kill the islanders in order to insure a monopoly on, of all things, the nutmeg, that highly treasured spice. He finds these events a paradigm for how colonialism and the “free” market have come to dominate trade by subjugation. The result is also tied inextricably to climate change and the rebellion of nature it embodies.

The U.S. has led this robust decadence through military and economic dominance. These are Ghosh’s carefully chosen words:

The job of the world’s dominant military establishments is precisely to defend the most important drivers of climate change—the carbon economy and the systems of extraction, production, and consumption that it supports. Nor can these establishments be expected to address the unseen drivers of the planetary crisis, such as inequities of class, race, and geopolitical power: their very mission is to preserve the hierarchies that favor the status quo.

And our New Yorker reviewer Olufemi O. Taiwo finds that

Ghosh sees potential in what it calls a “vitalist” politics, and in an associated ethic of protection that would extend to “rivers, mountains, animals, and the spirits of the land.” Ghosh identifies this ethos, in contrast to the world-as-resource view, with peasants and farmworkers in Asia, Africa, and Latin America—places and people long seen as peripheral to history.

So in one way the book is a history of vitalism, culminating in the Gaia concept: “that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on Earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet.”

In Ghosh’s terms:

The awareness of a Gaia-like earth did not wither away of itself because of literacy; it was systematically exterminated, through orgies of bloodletting that did not spare Europe, although its violence was directed most powerfully at the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Yet, not only has that awareness survived among the Indigenous people of the Americas; many of them also credit their perceptions of the Earth with having made their own survival possible, in the face of exterminatory violence. Never have these perceptions of the Earth mattered more than at this moment when the mechanistically ordered world of modernity is disintegrating before our very eyes.

As I said earlier, I have a few reservations about this really wonderful book. One is that vitalism can be undercut (and often is) by superstition and turgid magical thinking. Ghosh documents this but not sufficiently so.

Also, it’s hard for an old rationalist like me to accept this total spiritualizing of nature. Yet the alternatives seem to have led the world deeply astray. If you accept Ghosh’s arguments about our awful colonialist appropriation of nature, his approach to vitalism, or something like it, must follow.

The book makes you think of the many varieties of human wretchedness and, maybe, of human possibilities for redemption. More than a critique, this is an indictment of much Western thinking. In its way it is finally a religious statement.

Bites That Itch to Be Scratched

I came home from a week’s vacation to find that cockroaches, at least four or five, had taken over my kitchen. Cursing and swatting them ultimately makes no difference, since they will thrive no matter what you do. Just stay out of the kitchen at five a.m.

Similarly, despite your insistent urge to scratch mosquito bites, you know that will only make them worse. The bugs continually remind us of our powerlessness over them. And of course they will be here long after we humans are swept away by climate change or another disaster.

For me and many of you, we now live in a world that seems driven by forces we can no longer control, if we ever did. Nature responds with unmistakable signals. So does Covid; so does our politics.

Trump, the biggest cockroach of all, has created a movement that will thrive even without him. His political opponents keep trying to find new kinds of bug sprays that won’t work. It’s like those who defend growing organic food by claiming they use organic bug sprays—a ridiculous contradiction in terms.

The planetary and political disasters we face are all man-made. They are a consequence of hubris—that is, trying to be godlike, flying too near the sun and, mostly, presuming that man’s law supersedes nature’s. We see it everywhere, from the proliferation of space and plastic junk to political movements denying the will of voters.

We are now in the process of committing one of mankind’s greatest acts of hubris ever in challenging the gods of nature. Climate change may be the final act in response to man’s defiance of the natural world. The punishment is going to be severe beyond our imagining. COVID-19 is a signal warning, its spread enabled by climate change.

I have been harping on this in the blog and referring to Amitav Ghosh frequently, as he is one of the few who sees the impending danger very broadly.

The hubris embodied in our myth of perpetual progress and growth has led modern capitalism to this state. Our myopic focus on extraction, deforestation, paving, overfishing, carbonizing (the list goes on) has made us blind to what we are doing to nature and what this disrespect will lead to. One who does understand this is Amitav Ghosh, whose book The Great Derangement I reviewed here last year.

Ghosh has a new one out, called The Nutmeg’s Curse, to be reviewed here when I finish it. Basically he argues that western colonialism through centuries of “omnicide” (murderous conquest and exploitation) has now brought us to a crisis not only of the environment but of our culture.

The same thing is true with the crisis in our politics and geopolitics. The recent ills that have come to beset us have a deep and complex history. The many racial, ethnic and religious conflicts, the flaws of capitalism—all comprehended in climate change—are confounded by the predilections of many who believe in lies, rumors and fantasies, and the propensity of tech and media to intensify them.

It would be nice to find a grand solution to all this confusion, but that doesn’t appear likely. Are the cockroaches really going to take over?

Comments on the Rittenhouse Verdict

I said I would eschew politics in this blog but events always confound our best intentions. By now most of you know that a jury exonerated Kyle Rittenhouse of all charges. House libertarian Megan McArdle of the Washington Post wrote a disgraceful pseudo-defense of that verdict with a number of preposterous claims.

 I’ll give you a few of the comments outraged readers made (8,000 and counting) about her piece instead of writing mine. Readers sometimes have more sense than writers.

    •  An almost all white jury picked in a day by a judge who insisted that the dead men could be called “rioters” and “looters” but not “victims.” That’s your benefit of the doubt, extended almost unilaterally to white men with guns, and no one else.
    • This is the sort of grandiose self deception that always leads to tragedy. Just like George Zimmerman playing cop killed Trayvon Martin, in the same way Rittenhouse wanted to play militiaman, and when it turned out that he was not invincible, as soon as he felt threatened, he panicked and shot over and over. Privelged White boys with deadly toys.
    • Bottom line: open carry vigilantism is now the law of the land.
    • What a delusional piece of garbage. This gives license to all the little Nazis out there to declare open season on protests.
    • Let’s not candy coat this. He should not have been there at all. He should not been allowed by police to roam around armed. When it looked like he might be in over his head he chose to use that weapon and shot to death two people severely injuring another. Why isn’t he accountable for at least something, anything? What a travesty.
    • McArdle really should have waited awhile before penning this post trial assessment. What this trial reveals is a clear example of white privilege, that’s what the article writer refers to as the “benefit of the doubt.” . . . The minute the foolish young man decided to grab his gun before leaving home for a protest out of state was the moment his fate and his victim’s fate were sealed.
    • Left or right, it doesn’t matter. The fact is two people died, and one was injured. The fact that these people couldn’t defend themselves, (they didn’t have a gun, Rittenhouse did) , they never made it to court, because a 17 year old boy decided to take a gun into a dangerous situation and decided to shoot. I didn’t buy his display of tears, all good defense attorneys coach such performances. Make him look like a choir boy, and the jury will forgive him. They did. But what message does that send to other 17 year old boys, who think carrying a loaded AR-15 rifle is “cool,” and are not trained to handle intense situations. Where were this boy’s parents? Who in their right mind would allow their kid to carry a loaded weapon into an inflammatory situation? If Rittenhouse wanted to give aid and put out fires, why did he bring the gun with him? Guns are only used for one reason, to kill. This verdict doesn’t surprise me, considering the behavior of the judge, who bent over backwards to help the defendant. Juries are keenly aware of when a judge consistently dresses down a lawyer, justified or not. Justice was not served today.

Alcoholics Synonymous

Who could be surprised to learn that the pandemic has produced more heavy drinking? Recent studies tell us the obvious. The history of drinking in America has been fraught with ups and downs and ambivalence about booze, though for centuries drinking has been part of family life. It certainly was so in mine.

My parents seemed tacitly to approve of my drinking from about age fifteen—or at least were easy and permissive about it. Here’s how some of that culture came about.

One of my early memories is of my father mixing drinks at his opulent built-in bar, all stainless steel, mirrors and glasses, with a wet sink of course. I recall seeing in the cabinets below many fifths of Dewar’s White Label Scotch, a brand which I still like to this day. Dad used to take me to Bears football games in the dead of winter, and I learned the virtues of drinking out of a flask.

Scotch and gin were family staples, and my father had a six o’clock ritual of alternating Scotch on the rocks one night with Seagram’s yellow gin martinis the next. I once asked him what would happen if he drank martinis two nights in a row—a remark not wholly appreciated.

After my parents retired to Miami, that same alternating ritual continued. On a visit there which hadn’t gone too smoothly I poured myself a double Scotch one evening. Dad said, “John, you seem to be drinking a lot these days.” I got up and poured the drink out in the bar sink and he responded, “Well, you didn’t have to do that.”

But we also had our jolly times with booze. One such was the Boodles Gin incident, recounted in my book Jive-Colored Glasses (pp. 88-89). My mother and father had come to New York to celebrate the birth of my second son Ethan, and we celebrated, bombed out and jovial, with an afternoon of Boodles martinis.

My mother had her own preferences for drinking, which usually involved vodka and water with a squeeze of lime. She admitted that this was owing to vodka’s propensity to have no giveaway smell. After she died, her maid discovered a plain bottle labeled “DOUCHE” in the medicine cabinet. It contained you-know-what.

Heavy drinking seems to be as American as apple pie. Kate Julian notes this in her valuable piece on the subject:

By 1830, the average American adult was consuming about three times the amount we drink today. An obsession with alcohol’s harms understandably followed, starting the country on the long road to Prohibition.

What’s distinctly American about this story is not alcohol’s prominent place in our history (that’s true of many societies), but the zeal with which we’ve swung between extremes.

After noting that close to 25 percent of Americans admit to drinking more in the pandemic, she wonders how bad this excessive drinking really is. It depends, she says, “not only on how much you drink, but on how and where and with whom you do it.” We drink “because it is fun” and most of us avoid the “dark side” of drinking alcohol.

Yet drinking has lately become less social and more solitary, a typically American propensity. Julian notes that anxious women have become the new class of sometime drunks:

A growing class of merchandise now helps women carry concealed alcohol: There are purses with secret pockets, and chunky bracelets that double as flasks, and—perhaps least likely of all to invite close investigation—flasks designed to look like tampons.

She adds to these “the Poland Spring bottle secretly filled with vodka.” Some things never change.

Coltrane the Cultural Icon

I’m moved to write about the Great Jazz Messiah after reading what Ben Ratliff wrote in the Washington Post the other day. Ben, a good critic now somewhat retired from journalism, pokes and probes around the cultural goings-on of the early ‘60s to explain Coltrane’s evolution, from 1961 to be exact.

It’s a kind of “rambling, unfocused piece,” as one commenter put it. And it makes the usual generalizations about the era that can ring false to those who lived through it, as I did. His piece also testifies to why I don’t write jazz criticism anymore.

Ratliff focuses on 1961 because it was the time of Coltrane’s pathbreaking Live at the Village Vanguard recordings. Here’s part of his negative take on the culture of that time:

From my standpoint—I wasn’t born until seven years later—the culture of that period seems marked by tension, diffusion, doubt, repetition, foreboding, lengthiness, savviness, taut aggression, wary knowledge, inspired dread, disciplined joy. The music sounds post-heroic and pre-cynical; interestingly free from grandiosity; full of room for the listener to find a place within it and make up their own mind. I want to live in it—not necessarily in its material evidence (I am looking forward to the next Playboi Carti record, just like you), but in its sensitivity, its skepticism and refusals. I think I can.

(Whew! Some tortured language here. Just like you, I had to Google “Playboi Carti.”) Ben finds all this as a cornerstone to Coltrane’s music of the period. I heard it rather differently. As a college kid I had spent an evening hearing Coltrane live with the first Miles Davis Quintet, as recounted in Jive-Colored Glasses. In 1956-57 that marked a whole new sound from the hard bop noises we were used to.

When I came to New York in 1965 to teach at NYU I also found a quasi-career as a jazz writer. Coltrane’s music by then had moved on to its final phase, a sound of total feeling—formless, powerful, and to a degree ineffable. Ben Ratliff, it turns out, wrote one of the best critical books about this development—in Coltrane: The Story of a Sound).

If you came at the later Coltrane from a more analytical (and less cultural) point of view as I did, you’d find the music hard to get into, hard to move you musically. After A Love Supreme he just lost me. Ben’s book quotes trumpeter Don Ellis’s criticisms (p. 163). Here are a couple of things Ellis points up that also bothered me. One is Coltrane’s sense of time:

That is, he never really gets “inside” the pulse, but rather plays over it. He now has his whole group playing with this same feeling! This is a good device, but it would be even more effective if balanced by strong “inside time” sections. In fact contrast in general is one of the weaknesses of this group.

 . . . In the great bulk of Coltrane’s work we get a good deal of filigree or decoration (in the form of continuous scales and arpeggios performed at a rapid velocity) but very little “meat” or positive strong statements or ideas. It is like he is playing chorus after chorus, solo after solo on only one idea—that of continually varying scale patterns and arpeggios.

That is valid technical criticism, but it really got under the skin of all those who wanted to find echoes of Africa in all that Coltrane did, to the exclusion of other influences. A kind of reverse racism, it seemed to me, and I wrote a piece about it that generated some commentary.

There has been so much written about the ‘60s, the white-black polarizations, the push for new Black Art, the musical cries of cultural pain. Coltrane’s late music, especially in Meditations and after, values feeling over form and rapidly became part of how American culture came to view jazz as a whole.

In that sense Saint John was certainly a revolutionary. But, like so much in our cultural life, his late music was not really open to replication. For all its angry devotional power, I think its closed, hermetic appeal was one reason why jazz lost its way and became a music only for the committed few.

The Mad Craziness

Ralph Steadman, Police Convention 1971

To honor the memory of Hunter S. Thompson we’ve assembled some factoids regarding the mental health of the U.S. population. As one who follows such things, I’ll note that it has gotten considerably more hopeless since Hunter’s time.

    • Thirty-nine percent of them believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. Forty percent trust far-right news.
    • “In the hours following the Arizona call [for Biden], a paranoid conspiracy theory spread rapidly on Parler and in other right-wing online forums: Voters in conservative counties had been given felt-tip pens that supposedly made vote-counting machines reject the ballots that they marked for Trump.”
    • “It was at a Turning Point USA event at Boise State University Monday that a member of the audience asked organizer Charlie Kirk, ‘How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?’”
    • A US senator [Ted Cruz] loudly defended a man who gave a Nazi salute as a protest at a school board meeting.
    • The unconstitutional Texas law that effectively bans all abortions is now being heard by the Supreme Court. The Court has agreed to duck the constitutional issue and to decide only procedural questions.
  • And we could go on—about Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and the other loonies—but you get the drift, and it’s all historical, of course. Hunter Thompson was our political harbinger, and what he had to say about Nixon goes double for Trump:

Writing about the final days as president of his nemesis Richard Nixon, Mr. Thompson observed, “The slow-rising central horror of ‘Watergate’ is not that it might grind down to the reluctant impeachment of a vengeful thug of a president whose entire political career has been a monument to the same kind of cheap shots and treachery he finally got nailed for, but that we might somehow fail to learn something from it.”

By the Time I Retrieved My Fly Swatter,
the Fly Had Flown Off

Our concept of time constrains, to one degree or another, everything we do. Delay frustrates the best-laid plans, stresses every outcome, and makes for bad decisions. Look at the climate crisis. We still can’t comprehend the magnitude of its unfolding. The remedies proposed are insufficient and politically impossible, even if we had the time and will to impose them.

Democrats keep struggling to agree on their social spending plan, and the results look worse and worse. Biden wants an agreement before he goes to the Glasgow conference to avoid looking like a climate blowhard. But the pressure of time won’t make for a better deal. To link an event like Glasgow to drafting major legislation is typical of how we lock ourselves into political and social deceptions.

And yet I think we all function better with deadlines. Channeling the pressure of time to an agreed-upon outcome produces results, especially when dodging the deadline has serious consequences. But this only works on the mundane level of things to do. How does Nancy Pelosi enforce her legislative deadlines? Out of necessity she fudges them.

Political impotence is the result and has been for years. Anything short of major political reform won’t change things, and so we’ll keep trying to swat flies like Sinema and Manchin because we’re not going to see major political reform, are we?

My outlook is gloomy because real political reform seems more than ever a pipedream, and the world is enmeshed in a capitalistic system with deep historical and social roots. Amitav Ghosh has written a new book about this which I’ll be reviewing shortly.

Our concept of time has led to the great divorce from nature that has finally resulted in massive climate change. We still see time as something linear, progressing, moving always forward. But in fact, as I’ve said before, “progress is the spurious idea behind modernity, which fostered the separation of mankind from nature.”

The way we perceive time is basically an illusion. So says physicist Carlo Rovelli in a wonderful book, The Order of Time, which I’ve read. “Perhaps, therefore, the flow of time is not a characteristic of the universe: like the rotation of the heavens, it is due to the particular perspective that we have from our corner of it.”

Still, our awareness of time passing “contains all the ambrosia and all the gall of life.”

Travel Broadens the Mind?

Maybe so, when you’re younger. Travel did that for me long ago in trips to Europe and South America, later to the Caribbean and Mexico. Living in France for a summer I think changed my outlook more radically than my years growing up in Chicago. One reason is that you are compelled to adapt to new values and lifestyles.

The appeal of travel has waned as I’ve aged. The world has become a lot less engaging as its problems have escalated. Better communications have brought distant peoples (and their predicaments) closer. The hassles with air travel, Covid, and crowds of tourists don’t seem worth it.

Becoming an expat has forced me to look at travel differently from how my fellow expats view it. They have ties and needs that I do not. My family is small, dispersed, and I feel somewhat dislocated from them.

One friend is now on a trip to the East Coast, nominally to get her Covid shots but also to visit an old school friend, family, and rediscover the U.S. after an 11-year absence. A couple just returned from a hectic trip to Philadelphia, seeing doctors and friends and rushing to three other cities. Another couple flew to Minneapolis for a week to finalize the purchase of a condo.

I view these activities with a sense of wonderment. There but for the grace of God don’t go I. Studying French literature years ago I encountered a wonderful decadent novel, À rebours (Against Nature, 1884) by J.K. Huysmans, which contains a remarkable interlude with its hero, Des Esseintes. This reinforced the notion that travel is, of course, a mental as well as a physical act.

In another episode, he decides to visit London after reading the novels of Charles Dickens. He dines at an English restaurant in Paris while waiting for his train and is delighted by the resemblance of the people to his notions derived from literature. He then cancels his trip and returns home, convinced that only disillusion would await him if he were to follow through with his plans.

I’m not an aesthetic recluse, at least not yet, and I surely don’t reject nature and normal life in favor of artifice, as Des Esseintes did. But I’ve discovered that by not having to resort to travel I can keep alive some of the illusions and discoveries that it brought to me long ago.

Now celebrities and people like Bezos are going into space—in search of new sensations perhaps. For me, travel is just a short circuit for living extensively in another place. A typical article on the benefits of travel finds seven:

      1. Travel Makes You Happier
      2. Travel Lets You Disconnect & Recharge
      3. Traveling Relieves Stress and Anxiety
      4. Travel Exposes You to New Things
      5. Travel Exposes Others to New Things
      6. Travel Makes You Physically Healthier
      7. Traveling Can Boost Your Creativity.

I submit that none of these are really true. They may happen or they may not.

In a way, becoming an expat is the ultimate travel experience because it implies committing to a place rather than just sampling it. Your perspective changes totally, and you see the follies of your home country, for instance, more clearly when you’re detached from them.

The Obsession with Sinema

Well, to put it simply, she violates a lot of norms.

She will not negotiate on Biden’s most important legislation. She jets off to Paris while her party experiences a legislative crisis. She fundraises and runs marathons when she should be working. She upholds the filibuster. She won’t talk with her supporters. She dresses like a tart, offending effete Washington standards. She wears a ring that says “Fuck off.”

One could go on, but the media have covered all of this. Let me offer some cheap analysis.

Sinema seems drunk with the power of her position. She has the pride of a person with no fixed values, like a character out of Dostoevsky. This can only end badly. Republicans like McConnell profess to love her, while progressives are organizing against her. Politically she has burned her bridges.

She and Joe Manchin, another egotist, may well torpedo the Biden agenda approved by a majority of the public. That might just end their political careers. Party loyalty has now been transformed into partisanship, and partisans brook no apostasy. A Yale study “found that just 3.5% of respondents would vote against their partisan interests to protect democratic principles.” Biden’s unforced errors won’t torpedo his program, but partisanship surely could.

If she continues to offend Democratic (and indeed democratic) values, Sinema will either have to become an Independent or find a new career as a lobbyist. She seems to be positioning for the latter. In 2003 she ran a campaign against the hawkish and waspish Joe Lieberman. Now she’s become a Lieberman and he defends her.

Sinema appears to have become a product of her own periodic whims, which is maybe why she refuses to explain herself. She’s in danger of becoming a rebel without a cause.

Old Jazz Posts Never Die

Some of you will remember jazzinsideandout.com, my old blogging hangout and the ancestor of Goodmanspeaks.com. I’m now reposting several of JI&O’s better pieces on All About Jazz, one of the longest lasting and most comprehensive jazz websites. This, courtesy of AAJ founder/publisher Michael Ricci.

The posts cover everything from a Louis Armstrong party to Miguel Zenón and can be read here. I hope you jazz lovers will check them out and, if the spirit moves you, leave a comment or two.