Wise Guys, B-S Artists or Sophists? It’s Your Call

Immoral truth-benders or imparters of wisdom? I've been thinking about the word "sophist." I’m sure anti-Hillary-ites don't mean "imparter of wisdom" when they accuse our potential first female president of being a sophist. Likewise, when my hero Henry Quantum bemoans the fact that he himself has become a sophist, he certainly intends it to have the same negative connotation.  

The standard definition of a sophist is “a paid teacher of rhetoric and philosophy in ancient Greece, associated in popular thought with moral skepticism and specious reasoning,” or – definition #2 in the Oxford English Dictionary and the one typically applied to Mrs. Clinton – “a person who reasons with clever but fallacious arguments.” Both these definitions were used by Socrates when he taught the difference between philosophy (seeking truth) and sophistry (winning an argument). 

In other words, when it comes to Mrs. Clinton (or just about any politician), the name-callers are often just as much, or more, sophistic than the object of their derision. I only have to mention the name Trump for you to get my point ...

But let's leave politics to the politicians, and turn our attention to how sophism relates to a parallel topic – desire. Which is what drives all of us all the time and accounts for the gazzillions of dollars spent on Henry Quantum's chosen occupation: advertising. (If you think you're immune, guess again!)

“All my brainpower," Henry laments, "all my persuasive talents, all of me, in the service of a laxative!” In a moment of clarity he realizes that he’s a sophist. And that, in fact, all of us may be sophists! Playing fast and loose with the truth.  Arguing for argument's sake. Proving a point. Being the smartest one in the room.

 But let us do a bit word archaeology before we cut out our own tongues. 

Back in the day – we're talking, like, back in the 5th century B.C.E. – sophists were really just wise guys. Not the Goodfellas-type of wise guys, but wise men – poets like Homer were called sophists, thinkers like Pythagorus and Zeno, teachers and even prophets. Maybe these real wise guys should be showcased at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas (yes, this is a real place) right next to Meyer Lansky and Al Capone!

These sophists of yore would likely have had a plethora of justifications as to why their way of life was honorable and legitimate (kind of like the mafia men and their honor-based killings in The Godfather, to continue with my mobster theme). But they started getting a bad rap in the 4th century BC because they began accepting payment for their skills. In exchange for a fee, early sophists would offer an education to young, wealthy Greek men seeking the rhetorical ability to influence others through their speech.

According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – yes, there is such a thing! – “Due in large part to the influence of Plato and Aristotle, the term sophistry has come to signify the deliberate use of fallacious reasoning, intellectual charlatanism and moral unscrupulousness." However it's an oversimplification to think of the historical sophists in these terms because they made genuine and original contributions to Western thought. Plato and Aristotle (who, by the way, also got paid for their services) distinguished their own activity – and that of Socrates – from the sophists by calling it "philosophy." A brilliant marketing ploy if ever there was one. Sophistic? You decide.

Of course Plato and Aristotle were brilliant and their quest for truth was sincere and has rightly influenced all of Western Civilization -- I still love to read and learn from them. (You'll even find bits and pieces in Henry's musings).  

As for modern sophists and Hillary haters, or any haters, look at their objectives. Are they after truth or self-aggrandizement or just want to win? With my character Henry, he is only accusing himself as he struggles with the contradictions and ironies of being a human being. 

So to get to the heart of the matter: Is the philosopher all that different from the sophist?

I think this scene from Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part 1, which came out in 1981, might give us a clue:

Dole Office Clerk: Occupation?

Comicus: Stand-up philosopher.

Dole Office Clerk: What?

Comicus: Stand-up philosopher. I coalesce the vapors of human experience into a viable and meaningful comprehension.

Dole Office Clerk: Oh, a bullshit artist!

Indeed, philosophy can come from any corner. Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mobster film “Goodfellas,” features philosophers who just happen to be wielding weapons while doling out useful tidbits such as “never bust a wise guy’s balls.”

Actually, there is a bit of synergy between my book and Goodfellas. Both star a fellow named Henry!  The film was adapted from a 1986 non-fiction book called Wiseguy, written by Nicolas Pileggi, and both are told from the point of view Henry Hill, a real-life mobster who ended up ratting out his friends. Mobster Henry ended up being an author himself many years later – after getting booted out of the witness protection program. It was titled -- no lie or sophist twist here - The Wiseguy Cookbook: My Favorite Recipes From My Life As A Goodfella To Cooking On The Run.

You might want to put the two Henry books on your reading list … The Heart of Henry Quantum and the cookbook. Hill writes that his last meal on the day he was busted for drugs included rolled veal cutlets, a sauce with pork butt, veal shanks, ziti, and green beans with olive oil and garlic. Who could eat so much? A sophist’s embellishment, or a truthful account?

Alas ... in the world of sophistry in which we currently live, only the teller knows the tale.



Looking For Love in a 'Swiping’ Culture

Say the word “love” and immediately you think of Romeo and Juliet or Dr. Zhivago or Brokeback Mountain – and everyone seems to know what you are talking about, and yet to live through love is to know nothing at all. – The Heart of Henry Quantum by Pepper Harding

True or false?  It used to be a joke for couples to meet online.

Apparently it was OK for tech nerds and 35-year-olds guys who lived in their parents’ basements. But not for anyone else.

Well, no more.

My hero, Henry, is a bit past the “dating” game in his life … he’s more into the what-do-I-get-my-wife-for-Christmas? and the oh-dear-I-ran-into-an-ex-girlfriend phase of life. But he’s still dealing with that old demonic question: How do I not only find love, but how do I recognize it when it’s right in front of me?

My novel, “The Heart of Henry Quantum,” might help you wrestle with these questions. But out in the real world, what is it really like these days ... say, in San Francisco? I mean, how DO you meet the love of your life in these all-eyes-on-your-iPhone days?

At work? Well, it’s typically officially taboo to date a co-worker, isn’t it? At a bar, drunk, looking desperate? That’s a winner. At the grocery store? Lame, especially if you have three kids in tow. At the local cineplex? Uh, you’re sitting in the dark munching popcorn trying to pretend you love going to movies alone. (Full disclosure: I kinda do.) Or … the more likely scenario … macking on one of your buddies’ spouses or spousettes at a dinner party when you’ve had just one too many glasses of Kamen cab? Finding a true-love fembot (or studbot) on Ashley Madison?

Will anyone admit to trolling around on Plenty of Fish aka Yeah, that’s an exercise in futility and self-torture. Log in for one night, I dare you. 50,000 new singles per day – please.

The local CBS station in San Francisco kindly compiled a list of the five best dating website, but I don’t trust their findings because POF is listed. (Obviously everyone at KPIX is married or dead or both.) They also list – which is great if you want to be bombarded with pictures of naked hairy parts. Hey, you get what you pay for.

So, it’s on to Tinder! Swipe right, swipe left, swipe right …  I try to envision how my hero Henry Quantum would use Tinder. His internal dialogue would be painfully humorous, but to write it I’d have to go on Tinder myself. Oh wait! I have. I know it’s designed for uber-superficial, snap-judgments based on looks alone, but hey, this is the 21st century.  And research is so important to good writing.

As for Henry Quantum, I think he’d be so overwhelmed by the fact that Tinder registers about one billion swipes per day, that he’d just have to go take a nap.

Gold Rush Sophistication & the Shaken Sexiness of a Martini

It’s impossible to be a great writer and not like a good one. Or a dry one. Maybe even one that’s a little dirty. I’m talking about martinis.

We all know what Ian Fleming thought of martinis – drawing infinite attention to whether Bond’s should be shaken or stirred. Ernest Hemingway’s favorite drink was allegedly a very dry martini. And NPR reported in a feature about martinis, highlighting their sophistication and sexiness, the fact that H.L. Mencken is said to have called the martini “the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet.”

According to the folks orchestrating National Martini Day, the first recipe for a martini (known then as a “Martinez”) appeared in print in 1887 in, of course, San Francisco. Why a Martinez? Well, there’s a lovely little burg on the outskirts of San Francisco that I’ve been to … by the name of Martinez; and this adorable little town – and supporting folklore – claims that the martini was invented here by a Gold Rush miner; or rather, a bartender creatively trying to provide good customer service when he was out of champagne.

What’s in a martini? You don’t want to ask that embarrassing question in public, so I’ll tell you here. Thankfully the Huffington Post posted an article titled “How To Order A Martini Like A Pro,” in which it’s explained quite simply that a martini is a cocktail made of gin and vermouth, “with a general proportion of one part dry vermouth to four parts gin, depending on the type you’re making; it’s usually garnished with a green olive or a lemon peel.” If you’ve ever seen the Hitchcock classic North by Northwest, you may recall Cary Grant tended to order a drink called a “Gibson,” which is a variation on the martini with an onion as garnish. Hmmm. I think only Cary Grant could get away with that one.

If you want a complete run-down on the etiquette, form and function of ordering martinis to impress ladies, you could check out the less-politely-titled “Stop Ordering Your Martini Like An Asshole.” Might be worth 5 minutes to check out. Who wants to sound like an asshole when ordering a martini? Not me.

And, not to upset my friends in Martinez, there are some who claim the name of our sophisticated drink comes directly from Martini & Rossi vermouth.

Regardless of its founding, martinis came into their own during Prohibition. The Flapper Era. There's a mystique about that time – 1920 to 1933 – that is so distinctly American, yet probably more fun as nostalgia than the reality itself. Sneaking around trying to suck down a spot o’ homemade and illegally obtained liquor in hidden closets behind funeral homes probably wasn’t really that glamorous. Yet the image of forbidden booze, hot jazz, smokes and flappers is just so appealing. It makes me feel like throwing some Count Basie on the phonograph and lighting up a Chesterfield.

Since I can’t do that – since (the original, at least) Count Basie is no longer with us and Chesterfields are unfiltered, awful things – I go back in time by frequenting my favorite establishments in San Francisco.

My main character in my upcoming novel, Henry Quantum, thinks the best martini in San Francisco is at Bix, which claims to have re-instigated the cool factor of a martini in the 1980s. I would have to agree with Henry, although I may beg to differ with Bix in that I can’t imagine the martini ever wasn’t cool.

Just walk in the door to Bix, and you’ve re-entered the Prohibition era, where there’s a bowl full of stemware chilling on crushed ice right there on the bar. I don’t think I’ve ever word-for-word quoted a business’ marketing-speak, but just take in this description of Bix from their website: “On an enticing alley in San Francisco's historic Jackson Square, a lone neon sign leads into a soaring room of fluted columns, mahogany paneling, plush banquettes and distinguished artwork. White jacketed bartenders hold forth behind a gently curved bar, mixing what many have called the city’s best classic cocktails. Variously described as a civilized speakeasy, a supper club and an elegant saloon, BIX offers modern American cuisine served in a soaring two-story dining room to the strains of live jazz nightly.”

So who’s in? Henry and I might stop in one of these days – maybe with our friends Humphrey Bogart and James Bond – and pony up for a little sophistication, with a splash of vermouth.

Kerouac & The Streets of San Francisco

What first comes to your mind when you hear the words “the streets of San Francisco?" Maybe it just makes you want to take a walk - uphill. Or if you’re a 1970s crime drama fan, surely you will conjure up images of Michael Douglas as the rookie cop with gloriously feathered hair rising so high it almost blocks out the Golden Gate Bridge behind him in the stock promo shots.

But the real streets of San Francisco – for me – are those streets leading to hep bars and crazed jazz clubs inhabited by my beloved Beat Poets. Their ghosts, anyway. You might notice my protagonist, Henry Quantum, kind of channels the spontaneous prose of Jack Kerouac, via a circuitous literary route backward that ends (begins?) with the influence of James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom. Henry’s tale is told very much in the language of how he thinks, or how I imagine he thinks, or how he imagines I imagine how he thinks.

Henry wanders the streets of San Francisco in The Heart of Henry Quantum – searching for something – and part of that something just might be what was left at the bottom of the glass by the Beat Generation in the 1950s - a certain undefinable spirit - you can feel it if you just say their names: Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and my personal favorite, Neal Cassady ... not to mention the women, jazz musicians, struggling artists, writers, philosophers and drug dealers they befriended.

I do love the Beat Poets, and totally fell for their schtick hook, line and sinker in my college days. But then, what 18-year-old wouldn't want to throw caution to the wind and hit the road, hang out, deconstruct the meaning of life ad nauseum and just … be? The Beat Poets were all about spontaneity and thrusting off the trappings of materialism and modern life. They were the initial flame of what became the 1960s counterculture movement.

Not surprisingly, a number of the Beat Poets really got into Zen Buddhism. Kerouac shares his brand of spirituality most famously in the great work Dharma Bums, one of my favorite Beat novels and one in which Kerouac’s characters seek transcendence through simplicity. Which isn't always easy, even in the 1950s.

And like the Beat Poets, my hero Henry seems to have some leanings toward Buddhist philosophy, whether he knows it or not. He does profess a love of Zen koans, puzzling with the tiniest and biggest of life’s problems. Realizing in flashes of Zen enlightenment that “if you look, you miss seeing.”

Taking my character’s advice, I stopped thinking about how cheesy I thought that ‘70s cop drama The Streets of San Francisco might have been and had a flash of recognition of the connection between these moments in our cultural history.

Streets star Michael Douglas became famous in his own right, besides just being the son of classic film star Kirk Douglas, by acting in this series, and in 1975 used his success to produce author Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Ken Kesey considered himself – and was considered by others – as a link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. This link was literally personified in the person of Neal Cassady, who was the inspiration for the main character of Jack Kerouac’s iconic work On The Road and drove the infamous Ken Kesey psychedelic Merry Pranksters bus decades later. And so the streets intersect and the ghosts meet … with far less than six degrees of separation.

If you doubt the influence of the Beat Poets on San Francisco, know that there is actually a MUSEUM dedicated just to them. The Beat Museum is open daily from 10 am to 7 pm – pretty tame hours for beatniks! But they were savvy enough to snag the domain name, and museum staff offer scheduled walking tours on Saturdays at 2 p.m., during which you can walk in the footsteps of the Beat Generation – hitting the bars they frequented, the landmark City Lights Books, the famous street corners they reference in their writings – and maybe crossing over a few of Henry Quantum’s footsteps while you’re at it?


*The Streets of San Francisco image credit: By Source, Fair use.