Empty Days

Saturday, December 06, 2003



Why is it that when I read biographies of authors I like, it always feels like some giant calumny against the actual individual as he was?

Perhaps because it can hardly be otherwise. I certainly do realize when I try to define (describe to myself) people I know that what I can see and imagine of them is very (and I mean *very*) far from how this person really is, with all the stuff that's going on on the inside and that nobody can quite grasp. And this concerns people I've known for ages, members of the family etc.

Opinions and appreciations we have of each other are always relational, limited by our particular relation to the person, so when you do a biography you pile up together a number of such opinions and appreciations from various sources, and you try to find a juste milieu - which is basically something vague and depends on hunches more than anything else.

But because biographies are narratives with certain laws, you also have to "explain" the individual - and this of course is just way too much to ask. The only individuals that can be so "explained" are literary characters created and shaped by an author - who is their God and maker, so to speak. You can't really do that to real people. And yet you have to do it, as a biographer. And so you engage on a giant calumny - and what else can you do.

So each time I just have to take it easy and forgive whatever outrageous "explanations" I get to read through.

There is one good reason why so many biographies are usually written of some prominent figures - because it never comes close, so there's always some new approach to try, as long as the public is interested in the guy, and also depending on the changing "use" of that personality (I don't know how many biographies of Nietzsche there are - a pile, that's for sure). So we're talking "historical characters" here - characters, yes.

***

Blood ties. It suddenly occurred to me. If you take a family unit, without the extended family context, what do you get in terms of "blood-ties": the two parents are not related to each other, they're independant and perhaps incidental individuals as far as family ties are concerned. The "blood" runs through the children - siblings are tied to each other in the way parents are not.

Thus, strangely enough, the full burden of family ties lies with the children and not the parents.

(I was thinking about how much genetics actually impact on personality etc)

***

In the intense years of my first youth my dearest wish was to be left alone - to find myself on a desert island and there happily engage in my then cherished studies, undisturbed by the question of their significance.

In later life this wish has been fully realized - without the studies, since by the time I had finally found my way to the desert island, I have also entirely lost any belief in myself and things I once loved. You look for gold but the road is so arduous you forget gold and wish only for water.

Something like that.

***

More on genius. I think of those "autist" movies (like the "Rainman"). Why is it so important that we are made to marvel at their "special talents" (calculating like a super-computer)? In a way this is the very essence of what genius represents: an uncommon ability that means nothing to the individual possessed of it. But seen from the outside it is remarkable - and the only thing that justifies our attention to the rest of him as well.

What if Rainman was simply a difficult vegetable without any uncanny gifts? Would we still have a movie? Perhaps not.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Intelligence and Genius

Intelligence and genius. In-depth biographies are written of people whom we call great or geniuses. But they themselves do not know who they are - "genius" is a meaningless word when seen from the inside.

Biographies however are a unique entreprise - we are all permanently at odds with what our life represents, who we are, why we do what we do. When a man merits the prodigious efforts of a biographer, by the same token we all get a rare opportunity to peek into another person's inner workings - and maybe find out that some of the obscure things thus discovered are akin to the messy happenings of our own unclear lives.

You cannot judge your own intelligence or even value. For to be labeled "genius" sets a value from the outside - like the sacred white cow as opposed to mere cattle cows, but the holy cow itself is unaware of the difference. And perhaps this is the only way to use the measurement of value - it has meaning only from the outside, to others. It really doesn't help otherwise.

***

At the public library today took out Wittgenstein's biography and while waiting for the book, saw Vygotsky's "Thought and Language" among books requested by others. Somebody is going down the same line as I am.

***

What will you do with your own life and who is your judge? So far it is as if I am trying to survive by walking along a very narrow ridge and may fall off any moment - fall into a world I can't get myself to understand.

Why it is that everybody seems to take for granted the very things I don't know what to make of? Who made me so stupid? If it is of my own making, I'd like to know how I even got the idea to become so dumb. And I can see no way of wisening up - I don't know how, or maybe why I should need to.

***

Trying to save teeth from anihilation. Maybe I should quit worrying - let them rot and do my best, and if not come what may. It's more a question of money and how to finance dental disasters. Every time I manage to earn some cash it invariable goes to the dentist.

Recently sold a good chunk of my library (painfully collected during the preceding decade) only to see all the proceedings evaporate into a root-canal. It was not why i sold the books. It was an attempt to get rid of some bits of my past I still can't really get over - in fact I now regret I sold those books, but it was to be expected.

And then I earned some cash by doing a drug study - which is probably the most common means to get extra money when you're on welfare (at least most of the other participants were). And that too is going to go to the dentist. It seems I will need to do another study like that for the same purpose.
Doing this stuff is kind of unpleasant, it's a bit like spending some time in prison, and I had some worrysome side-effects after the pills they made me swallow the first time. So every time it's really taking a chance on your body - they say it's safe but the truth is, they don't really care. So I am not sure one should trust the drug-industry too much. In the legal documents they made us sign they said they will not be responsible for the long lasting after-effects on my health - which means, if something in the machine gets really ruined, you're on your own. And they can't know in advance what might happen because the selection tests they do are just pathetic.

Well anyway - my point is, doing drug studies to get some quick cash is a risky business. Which is especially absurd if you're risking your long-term health to pay for some rotten tooth. I mean....


Stream of consciousness

I think this is a pretty good take on "idealism" seen from an unlikely perspective. But since L.W. is investigating language and thought he was bound to bump into it head on ("Philo.Investigations I"):
426. A picture is conjured up which seems to fix the sense *unambiguously*. The actual use, compared with that suggested by the picture, seems like something muddied. Here again we get the same thing as in set theory: the form of expression we use seems to have been designed for a god, who knows what we cannot know; he sees the whole of each of those infinite series and he sees into human consciousness. For us, of course, these forms of expression are like pontificals which we may put on, but cannot do much with, since we lack the effective power that would give these vestments meaning and purpose.
In the actual use of expressions we make detours, we go by side-roads. We see the straight highway before us, but of course we cannot use it, because it is permanently closed.


422. What am I believing in when I believe that men have souls? What am I believing in, when I believe that this substance contains two carbon rings? In both cases there is a picture in the foreground, but the sense lies far in the background; that is, the application of the picture is not easy to survey.
The fact that I didn't feel the need to put these two quips in their appointed order is pretty indicative of the whole thing - L.W.'s does not arrange his ideas, he just lumps them down in clusters, so basically you can go from one to another almost in any order - they're all interconnected, as if springing from some fundamental vision which, I think, is why he is doing what he's doing. It takes that kind of single-mindedness to burrow into a problem that is perhaps bigger than one can handle.

To see a glaring question where everybody sees nothing but the obvious is a mark of a true philosopher. When you're dealing with fundamentals you shouldn't know where to begin and certainly not where to end (unless... yes, unless you're convinced you know enough).

***

You can see by the style of a philosopher *why* and *whence* he speaks - what motivates him. L.W. has adopted a childish manner - asking "stupid" questions with an air of innocence. That's what it takes to ask against all odds, to say "the king is naked" in the most unexpected places and not be shamed and silenced (in one's own mind first and foremost).

In the preface to this book (which, by the way, was published posthumously, so we're not talking vainglory here) he admits that he had tried many a time to arrange his remarks in the most logical way but was unable to do so. Why do you think a writer wouldn't be able to "arrange ideas" for a book? That's the whole point. That if you "arrange" it too much you lose touch with your insight. Style is not incidental, it is at the heart of how you think - and "conventional" style will and does pervert your thought, blinds you, forces you into a sort of straight-jacket which you can't even see since you believe this is just the way your thought "naturally" moves. It takes away your *voice* - does not permit you to even have one. And why would you need a voice anyway?

I think there is a big problem with fiction writers in this sense: there is this obsessive idea that a writer got to be original, find his own style etc. But I don't think people realize that this is not only a matter of some mysterious literary talent (and who knows what that is) - it is a matter of how and why you live, how and why you think, it's really quite beyond getting your books published and enjoying playing with words. Interestingly enough both great Russian writers, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, were actually something like homegrown philosophers - they really couldn't care less that "philosophy" is supposed to be a scholastic exercise in logical thinking, and can't be mixed up with love-affairs, murders and personal wonderings.

***

I remember I started this whole blog business with some ideas about mimicry. There is this interesting phenomenon: people who get particularly taken with some writer (and I was one of those when younger, and still am today to some extent) tend to adopt his style - it robs on you for some reason, you start imitating that voice especially when it's very powerful and distinctive.

What does it mean, really? That you are impressed? Of course. But I'd say there is quite a bit more to this. You are impressed because a writer's voice (style) makes you *see* things you never saw before, and what lures you to imitate that voice is the illusion of having a new pair of eyes - you think it will transform you, give you the same power of vision as that writer has (and it's very much like imitating adults who've impressed you when you were a kid).
We adopt forms of expressions because they're powerful and because most of us are too weak and subdued to develop our own. For centuries there was what is called scholastic philosophy: which is a conventional mode of thinking and countless generations spoke in that one language and it took a very long time before other ways of speaking/thinking were even attempted (could there have been a Wittgenstein without, say, Nietzsche? maybe not).

Actually when I started on this particular bit here I was thinking about Salinger and some unconscious imitations of his later-day convoluted style that I found with some of his fans online. And when I lived in Paris I very quickly adopted a perfectly Parisian manner of speaking (it's not just accent, it's a whole deportment) which was a clear case of unadulterated mimicry.
And so on.

In the end it's still the tiger's heart mentality - if I eat the heart of the tiger I shall be courageous and swift as he. Are we savages still? Yes, we are - and it is just as glaring when we get into the high regions of culture. Always chasing the tiger, indeed.

***

To illustrate my idea about how style reveals the sources of thought I wanted to put side-by-side some passages from L.W., and some academic article (or part of it) which discusses his ideas. And then look at both passages with the question: "why is this person writing this?" You might have had such a question when reading some of the stuff being written out there - I certainly have. And among famous philosophers there are quite a few who are really hard to digest - and to them this question applies too. Of course, this whole idea comes down to another question: "why am I reading this?"

With Wittgenstein (and I still can't believe I found this guy despite the opaque screen he seems to be hidden behind - fame and notoriety do that, just as Nietzsche was long hidden behind the Nazi flag etc), with L.W. I found my questions that I've asked myself for years in a casual helpless way - not answered, no, but tremendously discussed and brought to new depths. Like I said, lots of what he says I haven't thought about or even suspected, but with some of the other things it is like finding a long-lost brother. Which is probably why I can't stop raving about this guy.

I am currently inclined to believe that the breaking down of my computer which lead me to take up Wittgenstein (it's absurd but that's exactly how this happened) was providential - when all inner and outer pieces suddenly fall into place to create a significant event, that's what you call it. I've read a lot of smart books in my life but only a handful have stayed and made an impact. And those were not just books but authors - people who spoke and whom I heard and still hear, they are part of my inner biography: voices in my head.

To find somebody I can hear is enough of a significant event for me, it does not happen very often.

***

I don't know if I really distinguish actual people I've met in a close-up way and people whose books I've read. I don't think I make a difference. It's not a matter who is famous and known, and who is unknown and unfamous - when I meet people I hear them or I don't, and that's what counts and what stays. That's the way I measure intelligence, even with very inarticulate individuals who can't really say it but whom I hear (or guess) regardless. Perhaps this also goes for those who are exceedingly articulate - for their fluency may equally hide nothing much at all or something worth hearing and that they don't let out or even speak against in their open speech.

All in all, discovering intelligence takes a lot of guessing because the whole person is concerned - a lot of cases remain open and confusing in my memory because I couldn't guess enough or right. I still don't know what to think of most people in my life - I can't settle on a verdict, can't define persons. Those I've defined I've forgotten. To keep a voice alive in your head you have to leave it undecided, it seems, otherwise it whithers away and dies. Perhaps passing final judgement kills life - you can't really know something that is alive and has a will of its own. Does L.W. has a will of his own in my eyes since I only know his books? Yes, most definitely. So there is no real difference.
(Upon re-reading this sounds somewhat arcane but since it's my notes to myself it's no use taking it out now - once I've wanted to say something I will keep referring to it as if I've actually written it. A recurrent deja-vu.).

***

Kierkegaard's attacks on christians-against-christianity: why was it so important to him to cry out, to accuse, to preach? Or why did Nietzsche set out to demolish Wagner? And so on.

***

Of course it's all just "life of the mind", right. But at least it's something. Sometimes there is nothing at all - I'd rather have something.

***

All my jeans are in rags and I am not presentable (going to the dentist tomorrow, as is). I have to buy a new pair of pants, there is no escaping that. These are deemed unimportant things but they are important - in a temporary and fogettable way.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003



This actually means that since I am inputing text in one straight unending line I shall be making a lot of spelling mistakes and not looking back (when it gets too long it's really hard to find where things are), so I guess at this point it will bloggin at its purest: instantaneous stuff straight from mind to the screen. Maybe it's something like blogging from your cell-phone - don't know, haven't got one, but it should be just as primitive. Perhaps I should have stayed with Macintosh ever since - instead of messing with these PC machines that keep burning down and causing havoc. Maybe indeed :-0




I can't believe it - I am blogging from my 1986 Mac box with a 9600 connection... Well, this is only possible because the university server is really antiquated (thank god) and they have a Lynx text-only browser on it... Wow.

Monday, December 01, 2003

The case of the talking pot

While reading L.W., I found I was constantly reminded of some ideas I once glanced in Swedenborg, the big mystic. Wittgenstein's view of meaning as predicated on use is not just a matter of linguistics. Here's how :
One of the most central concepts of Swedenborg’s theology is the notion of use. Use—or usefulness, as we might say in contemporary parlance—is joined with love and wisdom as the essential tri-partite formulation of existence. Swedenborg believed that the divine itself consists of love and wisdom. Divine love and divine wisdom are in constant, co-creative interplay with each other, but the way in which they come into being in the world is through uses. Uses are essentially actions that are good, and Swedenborg believed that the entire created universe is made of and for uses. In other words, love and wisdom are actualized in this world through the actions of human beings. The way we bring God into existence is through our words, our speech, our actions—and indeed, through our occupations.

There are two main points that I would like to convey about usefulness. Usefulness, first of all, means that we are meant to live out our spiritual values in the real world. It means that true piety and devotion are not to be undertaken only in church, but all over the place right in the middle of our ordinary lives. Secondly, usefulness also means that part of the essential responsibility we inherit as God’s creatures is that we offer ourselves in service to creation. We use our lives to give back a little bit of the awesome beauty and wonder that we have each been given ourselves.
...
The second aspect of uses that I noted can be more elusive, and more challenging. It is the idea that with our very lives, we can be useful to God’s creation. For some, this can translate into finding one’s mission in life, and for others, it can speak to the need to live in harmony with one’s passions and values. One of the most helpful expressions of how to go about being useful in this way comes from Frederick Buechner. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s great hunger meet.” This is a succinct expression of usefulness; we become useful when we use our gifts and abilities in a way that is both needed by the world and expresses God’s eternal love.
The fact that the above is entirely religious in content and purpose should not be too scary, the fact that it's only an extrapollation of Swedenborg's work is. As Wittgenstein remarks of some empirical argument: "because it appears convincing to us". Which raises the question why certain discourses are viewed as convincing while others are not... But I won't get into it right now. So let's say I was just trying to point out where i see the connection between L.W. and Swedenborg. And for all purposes this is a good enough overview of the latter's idea.
Richard Rose, another mystic and a backwoods heretic, once discovered that when Jesus talked about "becoming truth" he actually meant it - that you can't *know* truth, you can only become it (I think R.R. actually meant: becoming God). And while all this seems terrifically outside of anything L.W. ever attemted to talk about, I still think he did reach far enough to bring to (my) mind such very unlikely associations.

And the reading continues...

(the "talking pot" is from "Philosophical Investigations" where it is asked: and why on earth do we deem this impossible? hoho indeed.)

Sunday, November 30, 2003



My body my enemy (Cancer blog). Rotting teeth, coming pain, and no money to stave it off. Unacknowledged fear. Social aspect - losing teeth would be a blow to my image and my parents will suffer from this, and I will suffer for them far more than for the damn teeth. The body is not just my body - it's also the image others are attached to, I have to keep it presentable for that reason too and foremost.

***

Ludwig Wittgenstein. Side-reading while on the net - about and around. Cult figure, it seems, in various circles and it shouldn't matter but it does. There is this whole thing called Zeitgeist and some figures just push some of those zeitgeistische buttons - clearly, L.W. would be one of them. Not just in what he said but the sources of his thinking are terrifically consonant with this whole mental set prevailing in my world. It's still (and more still) the same confusion and destruction of the ways of the world and how you're supposed to survive as an individual in such a place since this is pretty much the only "form of life" (what a fateful expression) naturally available at this stage of history. "Modernity" is almost a curse word in that sense - that modernity is a curse. You can't wake up from it since there is no place to wake up to - it's all been wiped out, you see.

That's the kind of vibes I am getting from that L.W. cloud.

I may be completely wrong and going on some wild tangent here but in general i do trust my hunches - since i am pretty ignorant, not very burdened with knowledge, and i basically just intuite things i know very little about - and do not hold myself accountable.

It's really crucial to ask yourself why it is a person (an author, yes) needs to do the kind of thinking he does - you can't help to constantly try and guess what it is that's driving this person's effort. Because the direction and the tenor of the whole philosophy is implied in those semi-obscure reasons, too personal to state, and maybe too indistinct to grasp. Basically, you gotta get personal about the author - otherwise it won't matter very much what he says and why (and it will be a hollow culture-exploration where all the big names are just names, and you just leaf through them and accumulate useless information which you may worship, or joggle around, but what will it really do for you then?).

In fact, what it is about L.W. - if I take what he says at face value, I don't go very far. Language-games. And what are the implications? Postmodernist language-play or maths? Surely not. If I substract Wittgenstein-the-person from his ideas I am missing something central - I am missing the sources of a certain way of thinking. Perhaps that is how ideas are used here and there (my friend who is doing philosophy in academia likes to think that "ideas are in public domain" - and so they are, and who knows what they become) but for some reason i can't look at it that way. "L.W. said that" doesn't mean that it's an authority argument; but it means that no one else has said it just this way and for just those reasons.

It's a hopeless affair to try and "develop" Nietzsche, let's say. Or to imitate him (though many have tried once upon a time). And it's not because Nietzsche is such an incredible unique genius. It's because he's a personal philosopher - somebody who thinks in a certain way for his own reasons. The question of style (which is the imitator's bait) is never incidental. Exactly the same thing goes for L.W.

So what does it mean to understand a philosopher? That's a very tricky question. First you have to agree with him - enter his thinking by the front-door, as a guest, and go with the flow. Basically you first have to learn his language (and that's not a wittgensteinian idea here), why he thinks the way he does and what he's trying to say. And then, maybe, you'll get to the understanding part - when you can finally say: oh, but i thought of that too! but here i didn't go that way, and here i might disagree. When you can disagree in the full view of the thought at hand, you've gained the level of understanding because you can think along or against.

And how do you manage the transition from learning to understanding? The trickiest part is that you don't always manage that very well (hehe). One big reason: you've never thought that way (as opposed to "that far") yourself, so you're totally smitten and carried away, subdued and petrified etc. Powerful thought is predicated on powerful will - so in philosophical matters it is very possible that your will is simply not strong enough to deal with certain big thinking trips. Yup, you don't really measure those things in IQ points - it's the will, the will to think further that matters.
So - either you go to bed with that philosopher (learning his way, you bet) or you struggle with him, and that's understanding. Otherwise known as critical thinking. And again it's not IQ points - it's why you're there, messing with those ideas in the first place.

Consider Lev Shestov, a philosopher I've been "smitten" with for a long time now. And I have to admit it - I've never been able to really stand up to him. And because I'm well past the learning stage in this case, I do feel I need to stand up to him - which is what's keeping me around, actually. The little I have succeeded in this is the little I have *really* understood. In the end it's a strange relationship from philosopher to reader - love and hate sort of thing. I don't believe this has anything to do with personal ambition. It has to do with the meaning of life and why the hell i even need to think about it. In a way I wish I never had to - and never had to be interested in philosophy at all. Sounds specious, maybe. But it is a long-standing observation of mine that once you start worrying about the meaning of life it sure means you've lost your bearings. Philosophy is a bad thing for life (not at all surprised that L.W. says that too) but you can't get away from it - which is maybe why philosophy is something like struggling your way out of a box six feet underground.

Philosophy is a trap. A beautiful, wonderful, glorious trap - but a trap nonetheless. Perhaps a desperate attempt to regain faith, when it's been lost (faith - in the most general sense - like faith in life). Philosophy, otherwise known as thinking about life.

All this has been an attempt to answer the question: why Wittgenstein-the-person tried to escape philosophy. In which he is not unique, though in his case the whole thing turned out pretty dramatic. With other thinkers it's less obvious - and those people are the ones who claim that philosophy is "beautiful, wonderful, glorious" etc. They are legions. And what are they escaping? Maybe the world, or life, or themselves - life of the intellect as a parallel realm etc. I don't wish to draw swipping conclusions here. Perhaps philosophy is really a form of art (and not of life, haha). And what is art? Also escaping? Swipping conclusions.

***

Wasn't it Plato who suggested poets should be banned from The Republic? It sounds outrageous but I can see how a philosopher would think that way - and what kind of Republic he would build.

***

The adventure is only beginning. And I am sitting here, stuck in time, and there is no frame to this moment - it's lasted for years, this particular modus vivendi, and there's been very little "vivendi" in it.

***

I've read somewhere (in internet forums) that some people are just "tone deaf" to religion. Whatever that means, I am constantly wondering how the pettiness of my life as I see it can ever correlate with anything beyond and above. Here I am sitting in front of this screen and what has been before and what will come (most certainly: death some time down the road - and even that certainty I can't grasp) are already way outside of what I am aware of or will be aware of next morning, let's say.

How can I get to see my existence as a cosmic drama when all I can see is some unnecessary and very tiny process happening in time?

I am not sure that seeing yourself as the tiniest insect is the ultimate in humility. Though it may be. Animals do not reflect on their role in the world - why they're around. And maybe that's the most one can aspire to despite consciousness.

A religious vision of life requires drama. A dramatic vision, some mighty imagination and a mighty sense of oneself. I am not sure it can be invented. I can't *invent* a mighty sense of myself.

Politics do that too. Maybe that's why I don't feel I have much to do with politics.

But what's lacking is artistic sense. Seeing the beauty and participating in it. Feeling life and world. All this is lacking. So indeed my inner life is reduced to pettiness (intellectual stuff). And I miss terribly that sense of beauty - I do lack awe.

So it's still that box six-feet underground, scrambling out, ineffectual.

***

Groundhog Day, the film. Ok, so the guy finds solace in "helping others and living for the community". So he finally got over himself. And? It doesn't look good.
He looks good but in fact, on the inside, he's still totally empty, and maybe more than before. You can't sit at somebody's sick-bed very long if you are empty that way - just because sitting at someone's sick-bed is such a glorified action.

There must be something else - performing good-actions leads to ultimate emptiness. Love? That's the whole point - when the salt loses its saltiness nothing ever will make it salty. So where does love come from - and why is it lost.





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