Cowboys and Englishmen

Ray Davies wrote many of the songs I love best, but he wrote nearly all of them prior to 1972. That was the year Everybody’s In Show-Biz -- the last really good Kinks album or, for some, the first not-so-good one -- came out. Although the band enjoyed a commercial resurgence at the end of the seventies, Davies’s songwriting generally lacked the sustained inspiration that distinguished the Kinks’ “golden era,” and often enough he simply pandered to arena-rock crowds and cashed the checks.

The Kinks broke up in the 1990s. Davies’s solo albums did not mark a return to form; rather, they tended to sound like later Kinks songs, but with session men instead of a band. After the disappointments (mostly) of Other People’s Lives and Workingman’s Cafe, I didn’t greet news of his latest release, Americana, with overly high expectations.

Americana follows Ray’s book of the same name, and develops some of the material found therein. For this outing, he decided to ditch the session men and go with a well-regarded indie band, The Jayhawks, as his backup. They deliver a warm, country-rock sound and keyboardist/vocalist Karen Grotberg takes the lead on two tracks, to evocative effect. Subject-wise, the songs draw their inspiration from American mythology somewhat in the way Davies did in the early seventies, with his tribute to Hollywood, “Celluloid Heroes.” This time his subjects include cowboys, roaming buffalo and spacious landscapes. If these topics sound fusty and out-of-date -- well, at times Americana is exactly that. At its worst (“The Great Highway”) it serves up cliches: jukeboxes in smoky bars, malted milkshakes, the soda-sipping, shades-sporting girl in denim who “might be a dreamer.”

In the album's best moments, though, Davies puts in the imaginative effort needed to turn this material into something vibrant and meaningful. The high point for me is “Rock 'n' Roll Cowboys,” where the obsolescent metaphor is appropriate because the subject is, in fact, obsolescence: that of Ray himself and that of his genre, rock songwriting. The title song of the album also works: it situates its Wild West within the mind of an English boy growing in the fifties, and also in that of a man in his seventies remembering how he once was that boy.

Ray’s singing is wistful and tender, without the hammy, hard-rock pretensions of the Kinks’ later period. Best of all, his melodic gift -- unrivaled by anyone in rock music, yet disappointingly absent during the last decades -- is in evidence again: for instance in “Message From the Road,” a Davies-Grotberg duet that channels heartbreak through double lenses of time and distance. I’d be wrong to say the entire Davies post-1973 catalog is without its redeeming moments; as utilitarian as they often are, the later Kinks albums -- and Ray’s solo efforts -- have almost always contained one or two gems. But Americana marks the first time in decades that Ray  the genius songwriter -- the one who gave us “Autumn Almanac” and “Waterloo Sunset” -- is present for more than half of an album. He’s let it be known that many more new songs are forthcoming, that the current album is just a small part of his recent output. Perhaps something better is indeed beginning.


Ulysses With Smartphone

For more than a quarter century, Joyce's Ulysses has been at or near the top of my literary bucket list.

I gave it a half-hearted shot during a hitchhike across Ireland during my twenties. Inspired by seeing the Martello Tower -- the outside of it, at least; the Joyce Museum was closed -- I managed about five or six pages. The tome mostly served to add extra weight to the backpack.

Over the last couple years, I've felt that maybe I'm now focused enough to succeed where my younger self failed. (My younger self was more interested in crawling Irish pubs). Also, my brother-in-law read it and has spoken to me on several occasions of his love for this book.  And he isn't even a current or former English major. I have a graduate degree in English but have not read Ulysses, one of the defining literary works of the modern era. There's less Someday available than there used to be. It's time.

In late May, I bought a copy of the Vintage paperback edition and set a goal of 10 pages a day, which I've been able to keep (and sometimes exceed). So far, it's lived up to its reputation for being worth the trouble: it has the linguistic virtuosity that I love in Shakespeare, and the eye for human ridiculousness that I love in Monty Python. It's by turns earthy, cerebral, satirical and compassionate; high points for me include the "Hades" episode, which details Leopold Bloom's journey to the funeral of one Paddy Dingnam, and the "Wandering Rocks" episode, a tour-de-force involving multiple points of view.

And yes, it's difficult -- although it presents varying kinds of difficulty. Often it's a matter of Joyce's methodology; he ditches a lot of conventional narrative glue in favor of jump-cuts, sudden shifts between interior monologue and exterior happening, free-associating banter among the characters, and so on. This requires more attention of me as a reader. In return for that closer attention, there's a sense of immediacy and direct access to the characters' experience of the world.

Another kind of difficulty in Ulysses arises from references and allusions, of which there are many -- particularly in the episodes centered on Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's fictional alter ego. If someone were to conduct a survey of readers who gave up on Ulysses, I wouldn't be surprised if the majority said they threw in the towel somewhere around page 36 or 37. This is the "Proteus" episode, which follows Stephen's trains of thought as he walks along Sandymount Strand. It's one philosophical, literary, cultural or political allusion after another, and making any sense out of the episode depends on understanding these allusions.  Without being a Jesuit-educated, early 20th-century Irish intellectual, that's not so likely.

UlyssesLuckily, we have Google. And not only do we have Google, we have browser-equipped smartphones.  For me, then, the experience of reading Ulysses has often involved alternating between a bulky, printed book and a considerably lighter electronic device that serves as a dictionary/encyclopedia/study guide. Thanks to mobile technology, I now know that Mananaan is the Irish god of the sea, and that some accounts have the Virgin Mary claiming she was impregnated by a pigeon.

Google's also a help in navigating the novel's vocabulary, which includes numerous visitors from the hinterlands of English. Do you own a gamp?  Are those birds over there rufous? How does one learn to walk in chopines? Not knowing these words makes me feel like a bosthoon

Sometimes I get the sense that Joyce had in mind an ideal reader, one who understands Irish history, Catholic theology, Greek and Gaelic mythologies, and the landmarks of Dublin well enough to get all the references.  With Google at hand, I can be that reader.


Tweenhood With Zombies

During my late childhood and tween years I often puzzled over a difficult Question. It was an especially perplexing one because I couldn't figure out how to articulate it correctly. I'm aware now that this hard-to-define Question was actually a combination of questions, and that the central one had to do with what philosophers of mind term qualia.

If I'd had the right terminology at hand, I might have asked: why is there a sense of subjective, conscious experience?  And why do have such a sense; why is it something that is instantiated in the form of an Self? Does everyone else have it too? This third question bothered me especially. It's difficult to prove that anyone else is having a subjective experience, because such experience is, well, subjective. Making statements about it requires knowledge of what's going on inside another person's head.

And even observing the contents of someone's head isn't enough: one could subject another person to an MRI and still be unable to detect whether any qualia were happening in there.

What if I'd been born into a world of zombies? Or suppose this was a world that is partly inhabited by zombies, and partly inhabited by sentient beings who experience qualia? How could we distinguish one from the other? There seems to be no way to logically rule out the possibility that zombies are moving among us. Indeed, a now-famous thought experiment by David Chalmers invites us to conceive of zombie twin: "someone or something physically identical to me (or to any the conscious being, but lacking conscious experiences altogether."

The creature is molecule for molecule identical to me, and identical in all the low-level properties postulated by a completed physics, but he lacks conscious experience entirely....he will be awake, able to report the contents of his internal states, able to focus attention in various places, and so on. It's just that none of this functioning will be accompanied by any real conscious experience. There will be no phenomenal feel. There is nothing it is like to be a zombie. (The Conscious Mind, 94-95)

Chalmers's purpose wasn't to suggest the existence of a zombie population, but to show the difficulty of explaining qualia in physical terms. If we can conceive of a zombie world, though, what's to prevent our actual world from being populated, to some degree, by zombies? How can we know?

Empathy is one way of establishing the reality of other people's subjective experience; humans generally have the capacity to "understand another person's condition from their perspective," to use Psychology Today's definition of the term. The possibility of zombies probably bothered me more at a younger age because younger people are still building their capacity for empathy, some more quickly than others (I was a slow learner). Very small children don't have the capacity at all; they are unabashedly narcissistic.

It's true that empathy is not always reliable; some people know how to fake and manipulate. In theory, a robot could mimic human body language, facial expressions, and vocal inflections so closely that we'd begin to empathize with it. We sometimes respond to the wrong cues: a dolphin, for example, is not really smiling. Its jaws are just shaped that way.

All that aside, though, empathy is reliable at least some of the time. That gives us enough to work with. We can recognize what others are going through; we can relate their experiences to ours. And empathy is not merely a process by which psychological functions in one person trigger a psychological response in another; a non-empathetic psychopath is capable of responding in this way. Rather, empathy involves the recognition that others are conscious beings. We can infer that not only are they having experiences, but that they have the experience of subjectivity -- we're all pinging the network: "here I am, here I am."

Another clue to the prevalence of qualia is the fact that people have philosophical discussions about the topic. If they weren't common to humans, we would have no reason to engage in such conversations. It would be like having late night talks on the subject of zzkvgt or brgrwatsq. (That can happen, after enough booze).

So, for  me, the clincher is that the question has been defined and asked. It means others have wondered about it, intensely enough to figure out how to express it precisely. Whatever qualia actually are -- epiphenomena of the brain, the result of "psychophysical laws," or some kind of non-material property -- we can be sure others have them. Most of us, anyhow. I think.