Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Great Lions Have Loved to Piss

Home for the holidays and reading like books are Bacardi and I’m out to trash myself into a starry oblivion for Christmas. I’ve got three books going in parallel, I’ll chug one down for hours, come up for air sputtering and then switch to another book for a different flavor, a taste of a different world, one must have variety you understand?  Still, even two books is unsatisfactory, for a shot of inspiration, I must have a third book, and I am reading for balance, for love, for madness, and then, that too becomes too much, and I am sprawled on the floor looking hazily at the ceiling as the faint echoes of words drift through my head—a break before I begin the cycle again.

 1. Power by Jeffrey Pfeffer

Despite the good amount of time I spend plotting to escape cube-land, there’s a little owlet in me who wears a pant-suit, totes a leather briefcase and dreams of boardroom meetings.

Former consultant and current Stanford MBA professor, Jeffrey Pfeffer, knows the boardrooms backwards and forwards. Power—an examination of power within organizations, what it is, who has it, and how to get it—is the fruit of decades of observation within corporations and MBA classrooms.

Apparently, knowing the boardroom backwards and forwards turns you into Machiavelli. The biggest mistake you can make, Pfeffer says, is to assume the world is fair. It’s not.

But that’s okay, because Pfeffer is here to make the world fair. Intelligence, he says, doesn’t do much except give you an ego. With a bit of practice and a lot of hard work, anyone can acquire power.

And that’s where Pfeffer has me hook line and sinker despite his Machiavellian tendencies. Pfeffer brings it all back to the basics. Do good work. Be nice to people. Stick up for yourself. Be confident. Ultimately, how you make people feel is just as important as performing well.  

Reading Power sets off an adrenaline rush like no other. I started Power the first night I got home and I wanted to jump back on a plane so I could get back to work and test out a dozen game plans for stepping it up at work. That, ladies and gentleman, is inspirational at its best.

Pfeffer infuses his book with an addictive fast pace can-do energy that promises to make any dream attainable. Yet, post-reading Power I’m drained. Pfeffer insists the world is a competitive alpha male environment with clear-cut haves and have-nots and anyone who believes otherwise is fooling themselves. There isn’t room for other perspectives, I am a little nervous because while there is a business owlet in me, there are half a dozen other owlets, wanna be poet owlets, madcap owlets, sleepy owlets who want nothing more than to sit in a warm room watching snowflakes drift in the wind.

Rot! Pfeffer would say. It doesn’t matter whether if you like someone or if you can identify with them, what matters if what you can learn from them.

I suggest reading his book in the same spirit.

2. Death in Venice and Other Stories by Thomas Mann

The first time I heard of Thomas Mann. I assumed he was a philosopher in the style of Nietzsche. I had no idea who Nietzsche was, so I assumed both of them were pompous old men who sat in bars eating fat sausages and puffing on round cigars. I decided I was best off avoiding both of them.

Mann, it turns out is German-Brazilian, prone to crushing on pretty young boys. The joy of reading Mann is that he knows the most wonderful people. In his head, I mean, I don’t know if he knew them in real life. His stories are filled with strange and twisted men and women (well, okay, mostly strange and twisted men) who are beautiful in their twistedness. There is Tobias Mindernickel, sad and haggard, who is chased by children and sups on sorrow, Detlev Spinnell who  is a perfect humbug of a writer, and yet falls to his knees when he hears passion raging on a piano, and awkward and tortured Tonio Kroger who writes because he loves and loves and loves yet again.

Where did Mann meet these people? How did he come up with them? Mann would smile secretly and say this is the privilege of true artists. While Pfeffer says the business world is open to anyone who is willing to put in the time and effort, it is not so with Mann and art. Mann believes all artists are born with sacred mark on their forehead which sets them apart from the rest of the world for life. This is Mann’s artist, and at some level, Mann’s description of himself:

He worked, not like someone working in order to live, but like someone who, because he places no value on himself as a living person, wants only to work, someone who seeks recognition solely as a creative artist and otherwise goes around grey and anonymous, akin to an actor without make-up, who is nothing so long as he has nothing to act out. He worked in silence, isolated, invisible and contemptuous of those insignificant rivals for whom talent is a social ornament, who, whether rich or poor, whether they went about wild and disheveled or in monogrammed-tie luxury, were basically concerned with living happy, loveable, bohemian lives, not seeing that good work only arises under the strain of a miserable life, that he who lives cannot work, and that only after having undergone death can one completely become a creator.
—Tonio Kroger

On most days I suspect I am a charlatan, this wanting to write business is a light fancy that is doomed to plague me every now and then like a case of arthritis that flares up every now and then, but this passage officially confirmed my charlatan status.  

I am fat with happiness, at loath to trade in the easiness of my life for ‘undergoing death to become a creator.’ In fact, I found that whole passage so traumatizing, after copying it out, I stopped writing and played Spider Solitaire for a good half hour.

Traumatizing, I say, but with great envy. Perhaps if I chucked my cellphone out the window, retired to an isolated cave in Northern Alaska equipped with nothing more than a pen and paper…?

No. It will not happen. Once I finish writing I will call a friend, make plans for tomorrow, and I will be very very happy. I will not write, but then, very seldomly am I moved to write.

Perhaps it is this guilt that makes me want to say rather meanly, Mann might have been an even greater artist if he wasn’t so hung up on his own artistry.

3. The Gift: Poems by Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky

If Pfeffer is the democratic MBA professor who is hounding you to do a better job, and Mann is the elitist artist who frowns at you for being too bourgeois to appreciate art (unwise Mann! Do not intimidate your audience!) Hafiz is God’s messenger.

Reading Hafiz is like having God reaching out of the sky to hold your hand and smile down at you, saying, it’s alright, darling, I love you.

I write this as a committed atheist who has no conception of God and a severe dislike of religious sentimentalism. The man was a Persian, a Sufi mystic who died in 1390. He should be completely inaccessible.

His poems dance on the page.   

Pay attention. This is Hafiz:

Is the
Root of all these
One thing: love.
But a love so deep and sweet
It needed to express itself
With scents, sounds, colors
That never before

Hafiz is funny. Did you know that? You can write love songs to God, they can strike a chord with atheists, and you can do this while being hilarious. That’s what it means to love other people, to see them as a reflection of God.

A royal temple has been built
In a scared forest

On the exact spot
Where for thousands of years
Great lions have loved to piss

God does not like this:

His cherished beasts
No longer have the ability to leave
Their holy scent in the jungle
Near a favorite resting spot of God’s
Left toe.

Daniel Ladinsky wept as he translated Hafiz, and it shows, each line of poetry is infused with intimacy and tenderness. Sometimes Ladinsky gets carried away and adds a few touches of modernity that are jarring:

Let’s turn loose our golden falcons
So that they can meet in the sky
Where our spirits belong—
Necking like two
Hot kids.

Falcons to necking? But Ladinsky must be forgiven because he brought Hafiz out of the grave and across the ocean to us.

Read Hafiz, read him when people have been shouting at you, read him when you have been throwing yourself against the bitter brick walls of expectations and are bruised and battered beyond repair, read him when you want to laugh, when you want to feel that all is right in the world, because all is right in the world, Hafiz will make it so.

Poor Thomas Mann. Poor Jeffrey Pfeffer. They know nothing of joy.

Entrepreneur? Artist? Whirling Dervish? Bum? Bum.


  1. Pfeffer will probably die alone and will be forgotten in maybe ten years, twenty at the most. I want to kick Mann in uncomfortable places, because his writing seems like it has the presumptuous arrogance of the naturally talented without humility (which, I believe, is often simply a form of respect for one's fellow people.) I've never read him, and I might, because I do love beautiful, twisted people, but I believe that the idea that one must suffer to write is absolute and complete bullshit. For god's sake, we have this thing called imagination, which some of us can use, and also this thing commonly called "empathy", which enables us to learn about and gain some measure of understanding of what other people are going through. For fuck's sake!

    I am going to have to track down and read Hafiz! I like people who have a sense of humor about their gods... I guess I think that god/the gods are totally loving and chill with it, or they don't give a damn what we do, or they're capricious and horrible, in which case all we really *can* do is laugh at them. Thanks for listing who did the translation you read as well! A shit translation can really kill an otherwise-fantastic poem.

  2. Yep, I'd say it's Hafiz I want to read most, based on this :D I like the way you've pulled all three together and connected them, even though they're such vastly different types of literature.

    Pfeffer strikes me as being slightly "To a hammer everything looks like a nail" in his approach. Though, that exhilarating, empowering feeling he gives you can't be bad.

  3. @Miss Felis
    It's pretty interesting to think about which authors will survive and which won't. I've lost a great deal of patience with contemporary books because well...sometimes it's easier to read something that's been around for at least a century. You know there's got to be a reason why it's still around at least.
    And this esp. applies to self-help books. While you're reading one it's pretty difficult to remember, oh wait, ultimately I'm just reading some dude's opinion of the world. Which uh, carried over to Mann. It was such a relief to read Hafiz after both Mann and Pfeffer. Ah. Here's someone without an ounce of pretension. Lovely.
    (Read Hafiz! I recommend taking him slowly. I read him a little too quickly and got a little blase, which is sad because his poems are worth savoring. (Except when Ladinsky loses himself and starts talking about necking or jazz bars.) Queen Victoria used to consult Hafiz like an oracle. Anytime she had a question she'd grab his book and flip open a page.)

  4. Bacardi is rum, and rum is terrible, and only pirates and frat boys chug rum. An interesting metaphor, though.

    The third book here is the one I'm most interested in reading; it looks like good poetry. But there's been some debate over how much of it comes from Hafiz, and how much from Ladinsky:

    I think I'm okay with reading Ladinsky's poetry, though, if it's all as good as what you posted here. Have you ever read Black Elk Speaks?

  5. @Alex
    I'm a pirate! Woo! Okay, I admit I know nothing about Bacardi or rum due to my teetotaler tenancies but you already know that. I choose "Bacardi" because it sounded like. Like Garibaldi.


    Okay, I def. had my suspicions because there are moments where Ladinsky just loses it on the page. Ex:

    and I'm all like, wtf, was that necessary? Or he ends a poem with "hey baby," and I'm pretty sure Hafiz never "hey baby-ed" in his life. But the poetry is delicious regardless of its fidelity to Hafiz.

    That said, having read the links you posted, I'm wondering where I can get my hands on some actual Hafiz.

    ((Translations are a dangerous business. I was trying to read Bly's rendition of Kabir and my dad was like...No. This is just Bly. And he got really upset because he read Kabir in Hindi and it's a totally different animal.

    Black Elk Speaks? No, never heard of it. Poetry?

  6. My friend is a scholar of things Persian and Iranian - she might be able to recommend a translation of Hafiz. I'll ask her.

  7. @Camilla
    That's amazing! I'd love it if you could ask her. I've always loved the Persians. They set my imagination on fire.

  8. Black Elk Speaks is sort of an autobiography by a Sioux shaman who traveled through Europe with Buffalo Bill and lived through battles with Custer and the rise and fall of the Ghost Dance movement. I say, "sort of," because the story was transmitted through one John G. Neihardt, a Nebraskan poet. There's some suspicion that Neihardt fixed the text to read more "mystical" than what Black Elk gave him, and reading about the Hafiz-Ladinsky authorship controversy reminded me of what I'd read about Black Elk Speaks. Good book, though, regardless of who wrote it, and even if Neihardt did change the voice for publication, he didn't make up anything.

    I've never heard of Kabir. Anything by him you'd recommend?

  9. @Alex
    A shaman? Excellent. I've just been mourning how most of the literature I read is European (and by that I mean three countries in Europe) or American (excluding Native Americans). How did you come across it?

    I actually didn't read any Kabir so I can't give recs.

  10. Sorry this took so long, but here's what my friend recommends for translations of Persian poets:

    - definitely the translation of Fitzgerald for Omar Khayyam
    - and Coleman Barks for Rumi

    Her colleague recommends the following translation of Hafiz: http://www.amazon.com/Collected-Lyrics-Hafiz-Shiraz/dp/1901383091


  11. @Camilla
    Super excited! Thank you, thank you! I have a second hand version of the Fitzgerald that someone's dad has annotated with the sweetheartiest notes ever.

    I've also heard that Omar Khayyam was respected more as an astronomer than a poet and Fitzgerald's translation catapulted him into fame.

  12. I did a paper on it in high school. It was on a list that our teacher gave us to choose titles from; otherwise, I would never have heard of it. There are a couple other books that Black Elk co-authored too, that I haven't read yet, and Neihardt wrote a whole cycle of epic poems about the West that might interest you. I haven't read them yet either.