Irreal Life Top 10, February 2023.
Focusing on the mundane this month, with the sublime never all that far off, as you’d maybe expect from the title of this recurring ‘feature.’ –wa.
- Kailh Copper vs Silver. In mechanical keyboard land it’s important to carefully choose your keyswitches, which determine much of the ‘hand feel’ of the board. After trying Cherry MX Browns — a little stiff for me — I picked up two sets of Kailh switches: tactile Copper (a noticeable tactile ‘bump’ between touching/actuating and bottoming out) and linear Silver (no bump, ideal for gaming etc). The nominal actuation force and key travel are the same for both, but they feel completely different: though the Coppers are noticeably lighter to the touch than the Cherry Browns, they’ve still got that chunky I’m Really Typing feeling that’s part of the core appeal of the mechanical kb; meanwhile the Silvers are so light they go off when you breathe on them. I use the Silvers at home and have the Coppers in the keyboard I bought for work (reimbursement pending). The differences are instructive and, for the kind of fetishist I’ve evidently become, weirdly exciting.
- Wallis Buddhist translations. Glenn Wallis’s translation of the short collection of sutras/suttas called the Dhammapada — subtitle: ‘Verses on the Way’ — is one among increasingly many and the best I’ve read, graceful and clear. His collection of Basic Teachings of the Buddha in translation is even better, and certain thoughtful interpretive choices (e.g. his shift in translation of dukkha from ‘pain’ to ‘unease’) open up the latter text in subtly profound ways. But better than his translations are his notes and reading guides, which together constitute a parallel Buddhism 101 that illuminates existing scholarship without ditching the practical for the esoteric. That Wallis has since left ‘straight’ Buddhism behind doesn’t in any way devalue this rigorously welcoming work; as with Robert Graves’s Greek Myths, the ‘primary’ text is the whole slightly mad thing, and I’m grateful for its weird truth-telling.
- Sigil and mandala. From my notes, which may or may not reside in a zettelkasten: “Sigil work [making a diagram from e.g. the nonrepeating lettershapes of a written statement of desire, then ‘energizing’ it by thinking hard about it while e.g. jacking off] is about intensely focused engagement with an iconic representation, not so as to ‘do magic,’ but to radically transform your attention in accordance with your intention. The outcome is the same as for any magic: an alternate [not solely post-orgasmic] form of seeing-as. … The difference between sigil magic and mandala practice is one of degree(s). Different timescale, different mode of focusing, different relationship to desire (none of the explosive expression of sigilization), but closely related, and potentially mutually reinforcing. … Crucially, both sigil and mandala work are in a certain sense ‘aesthetic’ experiences — though you might say the latter is a deliberate cultivation and the former a purgation. Earth/water and fire/air. … TODO: Think about the metaphoric role of entropy in magical purgation. Its link to emptiness/spaciousness. Well, if we weren’t hippie dipshits before…”
- 76 Patrons. One of the best-loved supplements for the early (indeed primitive) Traveller science-fiction roleplaying game is this short 1980 compendium of ready-to-run ‘patron encounters’ following a simple template: a contact, a job offer, a paycheck, some complications, and a d6 table of twists and answers to the question of What’s Really Going On. Pound for pound, one of the most useful gamebooks ever published, its plots varied and the simple prose keeping the imaginative space wide open for the Referee. The ‘lack of style’ comes to feel like a show of respect, like the book and writer Loren Wiseman know how hard it is to run an improvisatory campaign, have been there before, and know just how to help.
- The Fire Next Time. Lives up to its title and reputation right away, but in the climactic sequence — as Baldwin grows uncomfortable with his long conversation with the evil piece of shit Elijah Muhammad, acknowledging the Nation of Islam’s appeal and pull while rejecting its implied criticisms of his own urbane way of life — it surpasses the reductive identitarian reading that’s rapidly become bourgeois orthodoxy. An astonishing work.
- The Banshees of Inisherin. I’ve seen Irish viewers criticize its Oirishness, which is fair, as well Irish-British writer-director McDonagh’s weird treatment of the Irish civil war as something inexplicably distant from the seemingly bucolic life of the island. Very well — but this stagey film may as well have been set in the same nonplace as Waiting for Godot, its allegory is so broad and its story so tightly focused on darkly absurd central conflict. Banshees isn’t as good a time as cult-favourite In Bruges, too cruel, but it’s the better film and the more emotionally mature, even if its pseudoprofundity confirms McDonagh as a minor writer with a knack for dialogue. Bit of a dilettante too, maybe. Farrell and Gleeson do their beautiful double act — is Colin Farrell, seemingly a sweetly decent guy with a sound head on his shoulders, our most underappreciated great actor? — but the finest moment of Banshees is Barry Keoghan and Kerry Condon’s scene by the lake, with that one heartbreaking line. A very fine film, but not, I think, destined to become a ‘classic.’
- Brooklyn 99. OK, you win. The middle seasons of this middlebrow middleweight are so consistently enjoyable, in their way, that the collapse of the final season into pseudopolitics feels less like a shame and more like a sin. (Bonus: in the moments when they let Stephanie Beatriz do something closer to her real voice, you see how good she actually is; in the moments when they let Andy Samberg try to ‘act,’ you see how far he had to go (with the writers’ help) to be more than the Jerry Seinfeld of the cast.)
- Phil and Friends, April 1999. Phil Lesh’s first shows after a life-threatening illness and transplant were an extraordinary moment for the ‘jam band’ community: half of Phish (Trey and Page) joined stepped in to join Lesh, guitarist-ally Steve Kimock, and drummer John Molo in a supergroup for three nights at the Warfield, uniting Deadheads with younger heads and starting to build a bridge between first- and subsequent-generation improvisatory rock musics. They opened the 15 April show with a 34-minute ‘Viola Lee Blues’ that was worth the night’s ticket cost all on its own, then went deep and stayed there (with help from welcome guest and den mother Donna Jean). The final night’s setlist really does open Dark Star > It’s Up to You, Days Between > Dark Star > My Favorite Things, with a 20+ minute Terrapin > Down with Disease at the show’s center and an all-time great Morning Dew at the climax. Lesh is in fine form, Anastasio might be at his career peak, but the whole thing is Zero cofounder Steve Kimock’s coming-out party — this triumphant run introduced what Phil called Kimock’s ‘antigravity guitar’ to the national audience, his passionate melodies weaving through Anastasio’s virtuosic second-lead matrices like air and earth. It’s a shame they haven’t paired again, though Kimock’s subsequent career has been hit-and-miss. (Fans of his performances with Phil will enjoy KVHW and the perfectly named Marijuana Jazz Band.)
- Silverview. John Le Carré’s posthumous novel, largely finished at his death a couple of years ago, is a sweet slim valedictory in the mode of A Legacy of Spies, his 2017 farewell to Smiley. Silverview feels like a farewell to everything, though that’s a common theme with Le Carré. Again it’s aging cold warriors looking back on the damage they’ve caused — this time the traumatic wound is inflicted in Bosnia, evoked as distant background rather than fully imagined setting — but this minor book contents itself with personal rather than political accounting. There’s a surprise ending too, quiet and sweet and slightly clunky, as if the master didn’t quite want (or know how) to end on such a hopeful note. I loved that and the rest of this muted autumn novel, which I read in a sitting. (Somewhat against my will and expectations, I recommend reading his son’s afterword before proceeding to the story itself.)
- Condensed Chaos. Phil Hine is one of our most humane occult writers, a real model for me, which might be why I’d avoided going cover-to-cover through any of his books before last month. This work, along with recent essay collection Hine’s Varieties, marks him as a lucid, sane, and empathetic practitioner and theorist of magic — two rare things — plus funny, which might be rarest of all in the po-faced world of occult bullshit. The remarkable thing about Condensed Chaos isn’t its accessibility or breezy tone, though, but rather Hine’s excellent pedagogical approach. Beginning with DRAT (discipline, relaxation, attention, transformation) and working his way slowly toward step-by-step instructions for invoking particular ‘chaos servitors,’ he lays out a program of magical self-inquiry and -transformation which foregrounds the practical (Sorcery) but acknowledges, as responsible adults must, that it’s all fundamentally an oblique approach to self-refashioning and imaginative exploration. His candor, pragmatism, and good humour serve a method that takes the Path (but not itself) seriously. And his worked examples of ‘pathworking’ are clear as day. Well, here’s how good this book is: it made me want to do magic in a group of committed practitioners. This is of course madness, but there’s a method to that too.