Jul 19 2018

Thursdays with Hobos

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Thursdays with Hobos

My great-grandfather’s autobiography mentions that he was a hobo in North Texas during the early 1920’s. While researching some of his claims, I came across some wonderful illustrations by Gregory Orloff in Thomas Minehan’s Lonesome Road (1941), a kid’s book about the dangers of hoboing:

*****

*****

*****

*****


Jul 8 2018

A Sociology of Texas, 1978-2018

Western book stack

A Sociology of Texas, 1978-2018

I’m very excited to have my review of Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas: a Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State (2018) published in the Berlin Review of Books!

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National Austrian Library


Jun 29 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 08: Comedy and Calamity

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Midwest Mod Squad no. 08: Comedy and Calamity

I.

What is my method for reviewing short fiction in this series? Basically, I’m just comparing things I’ve recently read (or reread) to the texts and topics at hand. I read quite randomly, so the comparisons and contrasts I make follow my reading habits. But as the great anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) once put it: “Without the random, there can be no new thing.” [1]

What do I mean by the “essence of a story” (besides this and this)? I mean when the reader of a story asks (or determines) at what point do the most essential components of that story intersect. This is the essence. For in that hub––“aye––there’s the rub….”

II.

The essence of “Racquetball,” a very short story by Don Waitt[2] of Tampa, Florida, told by a never-named narrator in the first-person perspective, may simply be the death of the father in the backstory. This single, simple incident (occurring in some nameless America locus) reminded me somewhat of the essence of Paul Yoon’s 2016 short story “Vladivostok Station,” where the essence occurs immediately in the opening line as the narrator reunites with his friend Kostya, and everything that follows in the story is a result of this temporary reunion.[3]

As Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) once put it: “precision and brevity—these are the two virtues of prose.”[4] And, under that Russian rubric, Waitt’s story is certainly virtuous in terms of length and exactness; but, considering the length of Yoon’s narrative, I find the latter to be a bit underwhelming. To complicate matters, James Gallant’s short story “The Adjunct” (discussed below in part III. of this review) mocks the concept of “flash fiction” but not so literally that it ends up being a “long” short story.

The dad in “Racquetball” died from an ambush with a heart attack while playing ball; the narrator of “Vladivostok Station,” however, is concerned with his ambush (or intersection) with an old acquaintance. Both deal with interruptions: via death for one and friendship for the other. For both stories, I am reminded of a line from a recent novel by Stephen King when the alcoholic protagonist realizes: “he had come to believe that life was a series of ironic ambushes.”[5]

“Racquetball” deals with a dead dad who, in terms of the narrator’s memory, is still somewhat part of the narrator’s community. And this reminded me of a passage from Alfarabi (872–950 CE) on how the dead nonetheless remain a part of a living community:

“City” and “household” do not mean merely the dwelling for the Ancients. But they do mean those whom the dwelling surrounds, whatever the dwellings, of whatever thing they are, and whether they are beneath the earth or above it—being wood, clay, wool and hair, or any of the other things of which the dwellings that surround people are made. [6]

Or as sociologist Thomas Laqueur has most recently put it:

It is still common; there are cultures today in which the living regularly speak to the dead. We endlessly invest the dead body with meaning because, through it, the human past somehow speaks to us. [7]

In other words, everything above and below and surrounding a living individual should be consider a part of the individual’s community, both the living and the dead. And in “Racquetball” the death of the dad still lingers––as when the narrator-son has to make an annoying trip to the airport to pick up his dead dad’s wallet. Whether the sports projectile that ended his life was launched with violent intent or was merely accidental, I recall the sentiments from Dune: “There is no escape—we pay for the violence of our ancestors.”[8]

In ‘Racquetball,” this idea of the dead still being a part of a living community is made apparent to readers through the storyline of the narrator’s mother becoming emotionally apoplectic from the horror/grief of her husband dying in the prime of life at age forty-eight. As Seneca once put it: “Nothing makes itself more unpopular quite so quickly as a person’s grief,” which is why the narrator of “Racquetball” has given up on overly comforting his widowed mother, though he hates himself for doing so.[9]

III.

The essence of “The Adjunct” by James Gallant[10] (who has written books about Atlanta and Ohio) seems to occur when the main character Aurora Magnusson decides to start a literary magazine at a college in the Ozarks, a college that hasn’t quite decided to hire her, that is, until she pitches her plans for a publication with the college’s name in the title. While her scheme turns out (at least temporarily) to be self-sustaining, it also appears to be something of a racket of the humanities. For in this story would-be writers pay “entry fees” to have their work published, and Magnusson, meanwhile, pockets the fees without disclosing this revenue stream to her college employers.

Gallant’s story (told in the third-person perspective limited to Aurora’s point of view) seems to silently mock grad-student lingo, particularly phrases like “self-sustaining” and “job security,” which aren’t even mentioned in the story proper but seem apparent (at least to this reader).

Magnusson’s self-sustaining scam to publish a literary magazine is divorced from any ideals of quality in the literature it publishes, as evidenced in her speculation as to how she will operate the publication: “The editing probably wouldn’t take that long once the magazine was up and running.”

It’s also not even clear if Aurora Magnusson wants to be a full-time professor, much less an adjunct one. She is (like a good middleclass American) only interested in paying her bills (particularly her rent). In a grander sense, she seems to be going through the motions in order to maintain the appearances of having graduating from graduate school.

IV.

For both narrators of these stories, there is a kind of defiant smiling in the face of utter hopelessness, which isn’t (I think) quite the same as whistling in the dark through a graveyard. Magnusson certainly gains power over the writers whom she now edits; but it remains unclear what power (if any) she wields over her readers. The narrator in “Racquetball,” meanwhile, seems similar to the powerless tenant farmers described in Georgian writer Harry Crew’s (1935–2012) memoirs:

They spoke for a while about the weather, mostly rain, and about other things that men who live off the land speak of when they meet, seriously, but with that resigned tone in their voice that makes you know they know they’re speaking only to pass the time because they have utterly no control over what they’re talking about: weevils in cotton, screwworms in stock, the government allotment of tobacco acreage, the fierce price of commercial fertilizer. [11]

Both Waitt and Gallant’s stories deal with kinds of powerlessness: “Racquetball” about death; “The Adjunct” about job drought, that is, a writing/teaching career thwarted by economic desperation. Both stories remind me of a remark by social philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983): “The powerful can be as timid as the weak. What seems to count more than possession of instruments of power is faith in the future.”[12]

And both stories might be about what Crews once realized: “The only way to deal with the real world was to challenge it with one of your own making.”[13] In “Racquetball” the narrator has to make his own life better by ignoring the undue, continuous grief of his mother. In “The Adjunct” the main character Magnusson literally creates a literary enterprise to “deal with the real world.”

Both stories are by “expert” readers, that is, “established” writers. They know what they’re doing whatever the reader knows, agree with or not. And this brings me back to Pushkin:

In a draft letter to Ryleev of June–August 1825 Pushkin contrasts Western writers who all wrote for money with the situation of poets in Russia where ‘(except for me) they write from vanity … There if you have nothing to eat, you write a book; here if you have nothing to eat you enter government service and dont write.’ [14]

Finally, it needs to be pointed out that both stories are very funny. But when one analyzes humor, she or he too often ends up like those who stare at the countenance of Medusa: silently frozen in perplexity.

NOTES

wood

[1] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 147.

[2] Don Waitt, “Racquetball,” NewPopReview.com.

[3] Paul Yoon, “Vladivostok Station,” Harpers, July 2016.

[4] Elaine Feinstein, Pushkin: a Biography, (Ecco Press/Harper Collins, 2000) 80.

[5] Stephen King, Doctor Sleep, (New York: Scribner, 2013) 64.

[6] Alfarabi, The Political Writings, trans. Charles E. Butterworth. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2004), “Selected Aphorisms” p. 22, no. 22.

[7] Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: a Cultural History of Mortal Remains, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2015) 6.

[8] Frank Herbert, Dune (1965), (New York: Ace Books – Premium Edition, 2010) “I. Dune,” 237 (from “Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan).

[9] Seneca, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Letters from a Stoic), trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin, 1969) Letter LXIII, p. 116.

[10] James Gallant, “The Adjunct,” Fortnightly Review, May 28, 2018.

[11] Harry Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) 16–17.

[12] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §4, p. 18.

[13] Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place 126.

[14] Feinstein, Pushkin: a Biography 125.


Jun 9 2018

The Written Word is Not the Spoken Word in Any Language

Western book stack

The Written Word is Not the Spoken Word in Any Language

From Kenneth Jackson’s (1909–1991), Language and History in Early Britain, (Edinburgh: University Press, 1953):

In the Lowland Zone [of Britain] all education and writing, and such Roman literature as was composed, would be in Latin. But here a caution is necessary. As already remarked, Haverfield[1] made much of the fact that graffiti scratched by tilemakers in the process of their work were written in Latin…. He concluded from this that the urban lower classes spoke Latin and not British. This may or may not have been the case, but the evidence in question will not prove it. It should always be borne in mind that British was not a written language, and that the only language of writing was Latin; it would not occur to anyone to write in British, nor would they know how to do so. One tends to forget that to write down in an alphabet the sounds of a speech (even though it is one’s own) which one has never been taught to write is a very considerable intellectual feat. In Roman Britain those who had enough education to know the alphabet had enough to know some Latin, and those who had none did not write at all. We, who learn to write almost as soon as we learn to speak, are so much penetrated with the idea of writing our spoken language that we cannot easily dissociate the two; and are usually not aware of the fact that it is quite possible for one and the same man to speak a language which he cannot write and (when he as to) write a language which he cannot easily, or does not habitually, speak. (pp. 99–100)

[1] That is Francis Haverfield (1860–1919), The Romanization of Roman Britain (Oxford University Press, 1906).

UPDATE: Just saw this and thought it semi-relevant:

Photo by @JimRichardsonNG The Stones of Stenness in Orkney, Scotland are 700 years older than Stonehenge, perhaps the very first stone circle in Great Britain. This ancient sacred site anchors the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes the Ring of Brodgar and Maeshowe passage grave. And just a few hundred yards down the road at the Ness of Brodgar, a huge Neolithic temple site is being revealed as, year by year, archeologist uncover its secrets. This wonder was discovered under just a couple of feet of soil in the pasture behind a farmhouse by the Orkney Research Centre for Archeology (ORCA) . Their annual dig will begin again in July with updates from @nessofbrodgar. Five thousand years ago people here were abandoning their hunter/gatherer ways and settling into a new way of life that led directly to the modern world. #orkney #worldheritage #unesco #scotland #nessofbrodgar #megalithic #prehistoric #archeology #heartofneolithicorkney

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Jun 7 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 07 When Memory Melts into Water

Midwest Mod Squad no. 07 When Memory Melts into Water

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 06 here.)

I.

These actions [of remembrance] are inward, in the vast hall of my memory. There sky, land, and sea are available to me together with all the sensations I have been able to experience in them, except for those which I have forgotten. There also I meet myself and recall what I am, what I have done, and when and where and how I was affected when I did it….

––St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE)[1]

One of my motives for starting this series is to get to know contemporary fiction better. For recently I’ve had more luck getting my non-fiction writing published.[2] But I haven’t quite given up on fiction, though I think I need more practice. So I won’t deny that I study the stories in this series in hopes of one day becoming a better fiction writer.

Again, the essence of a story is its center of gravity—the thing holding together what would otherwise be a chaotic mass of random thoughts. The essence of a story doesn’t necessarily confine that story to a particular “form.” No, the essence of the story doesn’t necessarily formalize its story. Why? Because the essence may organize that chaotic mass of random thoughts into something only slightly less random than it would be without an essence. Just a few steps away from oblivion might be all it takes for something Dadaist to arrive at definition.

In other words, something out of the chaos of the page suddenly renders itself in the mind of the reader; something in-and-of the story is realized to be significant, weighty, and indeed, grave. Whatever appears grave gathers the attention of onlookers, which is why we rubberneck at the residue of fatal car collisions as we continue to contribute to rush-hour traffic. So too does the reader’s attention become centered on such gravity. Thus the essence is indeed a story’s center of gravity.

II.

Memory’s huge cavern, with its mysterious, secret, and indescribable nooks and crannies, receives all these perceptions, to be recalled when needed and reconsidered. Every one of them enters into memory, each by its own gate, and is put on deposit there….

––Augustine [3]

The essence of “The Unraveling,” (via New Pop Lit) a short story by Tianna Grosch of the woodlands of Pennsylvania, occurs when Dex, a card shark conman, somehow witnesses his wife-girlfriend Elizabeth being fatally thrown out a six-story window. Yes “somehow,” because either Dex, or someone coming to collect Dex’s debt, threw her through the glass. Or perhaps she threw herself out. In Elizabeth’s last moments she mentions having been pregnant, so maybe she aborted her pregnancy, and once Dex found out he pushed her in a fit of rage. Or perhaps she felt so guilty about the abortion that she jumped herself (again, it’s never fully explained to readers; and that’s okay).

But regardless of what really happened to Elizabeth, Dex feels guilty. The narrator is unknown, unnamed, and tells the story almost completely from Dex’s point of view. There is, however, an extended flashback from the point of view of the doctors of Lethe who perform the memory-removing procedure on Dex, and there are indications that it may have been a botched operation.

Grosch leaves lots of possibilities up to her readers, but most of the story’s underlying concern is about Dex seeking a way to forget his horrible memory. So the essence might be about a guy presently wanting to forget his past fuck-ups. Philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983), although he was discussing group behavior rather than that of individuals, once remarked:

A glorification of the past can serve as a means to belittle the present. But unless joined with sanguine expectations of the future, an exaggerated view of the past results in an attitude of caution and not in … reckless strivings.[4]

Dex certainly doesn’t glorify his past; but, being human-all-too-human, he probably has an exaggerated view of that past. Thus it might be said that “The Unraveling” is a story of his reckless strivings.

“The Unraveling” takes place in an unnamed city, one in which about the only details a reader can gather are that this city has gamblers, violence, and a subway. But throughout most of the story Dex is trying to get to the town on the outskirts of the city called Lethe. It seems like a place almost impossible to get to, not unlike the impossible journey to get beyond the city limits in Alex Proya’s film Dark City (1998), a film whose tone and mood reminded me much of “The Unraveling.”

III.

How then can [memory] fail to grasp [itself]? This question moves me to great astonishment.…

––Augustine [5]

Like Grosch’s narrator, the narrator of the story “Jonah and the Frog” (via Five on the Fifth) by Texas writer James Wade is also unknown, unnamed, and tells the story completely from Jonah’s point of view. The essence of this story occurs when the character of Jonah vomits up a living frog––a frog which seems to represent Jonah’s struggle to excrete a painful memory, but one never fully explained to readers. It is clear, however, that Jonah seeks to purge some unknown guilt.

In literature, a frog is usually something between vermin and varmint––not quite a bug, not quite a beast––but in her novel Barren Ground (1925) Ellen Glasgow (1873–1945) once compared painful memories to a beast:

Recollection. Association. It was morbid, she told herself sternly, to cherish such fancies; and yet she had never been able entirely to rid her memory of the fears and dreads of her childhood. Worse than this even was the haunting thought that the solitude was alive, that it skulked there in the distance, like a beast that is waiting for the right moment to spring and devour.[6]

Based on mentions throughout the story of “the docks,” “the water”––as well as “The Quarter” being a place where one can publically drink all night––I suspect “Jonah and the Frog” takes place in New Orleans. And in this story, Jonah spits out a frog; somewhat of an inverse of the biblical whale/fish spitting out Jonah the Prophet, though I admit connecting modern New Orleans (surrounded by swamps) to ancient Nineveh (modern Mosul, surrounded by desert) seems too weak for a strong reader to seriously contemplate.

IV.

The affections of my mind are also contained in the same memory. They are not there in the same way in which the mind itself holds them when it experiences them, but in another very different way such as that in which the memory’s power holds memory itself. So I can be far from glad in remembering myself to have been glad, and far from sad when I recall my past sadness.

––Augustine[7]

Both stories of “The Unraveling” and “Joshua and the Frog” focus on their aquatic environments. Both leading characters want to purge memories of guilt and regret. In this sense they remind me of the premise to a movie I’ve never seen, Michel Gondry’s The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) starring Jim Carrey, for in that flick Carrey’s character tries to forget an ex-girlfriend via a surgical procedure:

 

Moreover, the theme that memories can never be completely forgotten runs through both stories. I believe that if Dex or Joshua were able to (somehow, paradoxically) convince themselves that their painful memories had left them, it would only be temporary. Eventually the memories, or fragments of them, would return. And when those memories did return, they would feel anamnesis: that is, they would remember something which they thought was unknown but was in fact something they already knew.

Anamnesis is one of the primary lessons Plato tries to teach in his dialogue Meno:

Socrates: ‘one thing I would fight for to the end, both in word and deed if I were able—that if we believed that we must try to find out what is not known, we should be better and braver and less idle than if we believed that what we do not know it is impossible to find out and that we need not even try.’[8]

Compare also Augustine, writing about 800 years after Plato:

The answer must be that they were already in the memory, but so remote and pushed into the background, as if in most secret caverns, that unless they were dug out by someone drawing attention to them, perhaps I could not have thought of them.[9]

And finally, consider Robert Graves (1895–1985):

It is not too much to say that all original discoveries and inventions and musical and poetical compositions are the result of proleptic thought—the anticipation, by means of a suspension of time, of a result that could not have been arrived at by inductive reasoning—and of what may be called analeptic thought, the recovery of lost events by the same suspension…. This explains why the first Muse of the Greek triad was named Mnemosyne, ‘Memory’: one can have memory of the future as well as of the past. Memory of the future is usually called instinct in animals, intuition in human beings.[10]

Both Dex and Joshua seem too close to their memories—both believe they need some “personal space” from certain mental pictures of their pasts. For Georgian writer Harry Crews (1935–2012): “Nothing is allowed to die,” including memory, “in a society of storytelling people.” Yet, paradoxically, “the only way to deal with the real world was to challenge it with one of your own making.”[11] In other words, memory is a kind of storytelling to oneself, and apparently, neither Joshua nor Dex are capable of coping with their own tales.

And, as Dick Hallorann (a reoccurring character in Stephen King’s oeuvre) knows, memories cannot be completely banished: “Not memories. Never those. They’re the real ghosts,” warns Hallorann in Doctor Sleep (2013), which is the sequel to King’s The Shining (1977).[12] Both novels deal with alcoholism, that is, they deal with people addicted to a substance that allegedly helps them forget unpleasant memories.

Both Dex and Joshua, to their (or their authors’) credit, seek to transcend their memories, not simply destroy them. But by (mostly) destroying them, they prevent themselves from transcending them, as the hero Paul is able to do in Frank Herbert’s (1920–1986) Dune (1965):

He realized suddenly that it was one thing to see the past occupying the present, but the true test of prescience was to see the past in the future…. Things persisted in not being what they seemed…. He felt carnival excitement in the air. He knew what would happen if he drank this spice drug with its quintessence of the substance that brought the change onto him. He would return to the vision of pure time, of time-become-space. It would perch him on the dizzying summit and defy him to understand.[13]

NOTESwood

[1] Augustine, Confessiones in Saint Augustine: Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) X, viii (§14), p. 186.

[2] On language, religion, tradition: “Custom Versus Culture: A Modest Distinction,” Real Clear News, (Chicago), August 14, 2017. On recent Confederate statue removal at UT: “Between history and myth in Austin, Texas,” Fortnightly Review, (London), November 2017. On comparing Prince William’s recent haircut to Donald Trump’s: “A charming sense of novelty,” Fortnightly Review, (London), February 2018.

[3] Augustine, Confessiones, X, viii (§13), p. 186.

[4] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §50, p. 68.

[5] Augustine, Confessiones, X, viii (§15), p. 187.

[6] Ellen Glasgow, Barren Ground. 1925, (New York, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co. – Old Dominion Edition, 1945) I, v, 58.

[7] Augustine, Confessiones, X, xiv (§21), p. 191.

[8] Plato, Meno (85C–86E) in Rouse, W. H. D. Great Dialogues of Plato, ed. Eric H. Warmington & Philip G. Rouse, trans. W. H. D. Rouse, (New York: Mentor Books, 1956, Twelfth printing) p. 51.

[9] Augustine, Confessiones X, x (§17), p. 189. See also (X, viii (§12), p. 185) where the translator Chadwick notes:

Memoria for Augustine is a deeper and wider term than our ‘memory’. In the background lies the Platonic doctrine of anamnesis, explaining the experience of learning as bringing to consciousness what, from an earlier existence, the soul already knows. But Augustine develops the notion of memory by associating it with the unconscious (‘the mind knows things it does not know it knows’), with self-awareness, and so with the human yearning for true happiness found only in knowing God.

[10] Robert Graves, The White Goddess: a historical grammar of poetic myth, (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1948; Second Edition, 1975) 343.

[11] Harry Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) 4, 126.

[12] Stephen King, Doctor Sleep, (New York: Scribner, 2013) 45.

[13] Frank Herbert, Dune (1965), (New York: Ace Books Premium Edition, 2010), “II. Muad’Dib,” 583.


May 24 2018

Hosting the Italians: Part III of III

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Hosting the Italians: Part III of III

(Read Part II here.)

I.

So the gang got back to Austin early Saturday afternoon, their bellies full of eclairs and kolaches and peach cobbler from die gut Volk aus (“the good folks of”) Fredericksburg. Once everything was unloaded, David and Dyhana went back to their place to rest for the afternoon, while Cosimo, Chiara, and Scott did the same at the home of the latter.

Later that evening I went to Scott’s to see everyone. Our friend Calvin (a.k.a. DJ Cal Cutta) had also stopped by. Cal was instrumental in originally introducing Cosimo to Scott––some five years ago on an internet radio show that he hosted and both Scott and Cosimo performed on. I hadn’t seen Calvin in several years, so it was an interesting reunion all around. For our entire relationship with our Italian acquaintances originated in the celebration and composition of music.

Later that night, which was both St. Patrick’s Day and the penultimate night of SXSW 2018, all of us (Cosimo and Chiara, David and Dyhana, and Scott and Ciera) went downtown for the Holodeck records show at Central Presbyterian Church at the corner of Eighth St. and Brazos. This was a somewhat unusual venue, but the church has been hosting SXSW events for the last several years. No alcohol was served, though I saw some vitamin-fortified water and granola bars available at the concession stand near the church’s portico.

At about 10:00 that night we sat in the sanctuary on crimson cushioned pews and, though we were too late to see our friend VVV’s show, we got to see a performance by another friend, Dylan Cameron. I’d seen him deejay aplenty––and, incidentally, both he and I have fathers who are musicians––but this was my first time seeing him exclusively play his own produced work.

Just before the show began social media addiction triggered me to tag my location. Next thing I knew, an old acquaintance from a disbanded book club I used to attend seated himself nearby. He said he saw my post, that he was already downtown and was “looking for something to do for South-by.”


II.

Alas, it’s impossible to not be abstract when writing about music.[1] Overall Dylan’s performance of (what I would call) electronic impressionism was technically precise, but not so exacting as to sacrifice organic emotion. Regardless of whether the electronic instrumentation was analog or digital, the mood his music conveyed was authentic, not artificial. Psychologically, the tone proved utterly true, not just a dim clang of mere “truthiness.”

The acoustics in the church were outstanding, probably due to the woodwork on the walls where laser beams flickered, flashed, and burst against the shadows of the sanctuary. This was accompanied by a mellow aurora seeping in through the stained-glass windows that surrounded us—windows illuminated that evening from outside the church walls by Austin’s downtown nightlife.

It all reminded me of the great German writer Goethe (1749–1832) who once recalled that both music and architecture can charm in the same way.[2] Thinking along similar lines as Goethe, the socialite Madame de Staël (1766–1817) once remarked that “architecture reminds me of frozen music.”[3] Or, to bring the conversation closer to home, one could compare a line from the novel The Big Road (1931) by Texas writer Ruth Cross (1887–1981), when her character of David realizes that “music was a sort of cathedral.”[4]

III.

After the show we talked to Dylan (and his companion, the voluptuous Vi) for a few minutes. But it was approaching midnight, and with the inebriated city crowds participating in both St. Paddy’s Day and SXSW, we all knew we needed to get out of the downtown area as soon as possible. Traffic was beginning to clog near Congress Avenue. The crowd was beginning to roar, approaching full climax. Recalling that moment, I’m again reminded of Goethe:

I don’t pretend to be a great actor or a great singer. But this I do know: when music accompanies bodily movements, enlivening and at the same time controlling them, and the manner of delivery and the expression needed are indicated to me by the musical composer, then I am a totally different person from when I have to create these for myself, as I have to in a spoken drama, inventing my own tempo, my own manner of speaking, and always liable to be disturbed in this by my fellow actors.[5]


We were all muttering to one another about where we should go next to get a drink and some food when I was suddenly put on the spot:

“Christopher Landrum, you know this town better than anybody—why don’t you tell us where to go?” says Scott in a tone that was both asking and assertive.

So I shrugged my shoulders, did my best “awe shucks” gesture, and suggested going to Mr. Tramps––a self-described “sports pub and café” in our old neighborhood (that is, Scott, David, Dyhana, and my old neighborhood) in north Austin. A place well away from the chaos of the final hours of the music festival that was unfolding downtown.

At Mr. Tramps we had pizza and drinks. We also saw our mutual friend James, who is also a musician in a couple of bands who play things in the key of classical punk.

IV.

The next day, Sunday March 18, Cosimo and Chiara shopped around Austin (including the novel experiences of strolling down the aisles of Walmart and Ross). Then we all said our temporary goodbyes as they prepared for their drive to New York. By March 22 they would be on their way home to Italy.

Yes, temporary, because we all intend to see them again someday soon. And when we do, we shall share even more stories and music with one another.

NOTES

wood

[1] Perhaps similar to a passage from by Texas writer Ruth Cross:

These stories possessed her by night…. Sometimes the people in the story did one thing, sometimes another. But a few basic scenes persisted, and these she told over and over to herself, like variations on a beautiful theme in music. Only she didn’t know much about music, except that it was supreme—even over books. It could say what it wanted, straight and sure, without getting itself blunted and deflected and lost in words. (The Golden Cocoon, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1924) II, 10.)

[2] Goethe writes: “A heavenly music which issued from the building charmed me still more than this pattern of architecture,” in Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth from My Own Life) (1811–1830), trans. R. O. Moon, (Washington, D. C.: Public Affairs Press, 1949). II, p. 43.

[3] Quoted from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, eds. William H. Gilman et al, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960–82).  Vol. IV (1832–1834), Journal Q, September 14, 1832, [p. 55], p. 40. Emerson is quoting Corinne, ou lItalie, (1807) Bk. IV, ch. 3… [Editor’s note:] “In 1834 Emerson traced the origins of this phrase much further. See p. 337, n. 250 below [ibid].”

[4] Cross, The Big Road, (New York: Longmans, Green & Co, 1931) I, xvi, 66.

[5] Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship) (1795–96) ed. and trans. Eric A. Blackall, (New York: Suhrkamp Publishers, 1983) II, xii, 74.


May 23 2018

What a Polish Social Scientist Thought of Immigration in the U.S. (c. 1934)

London - Georgian Apartments

What a Polish Social Scientist Thought of Immigration in the U.S. (c. 1934)

From Florian Znaniecki’s (1882-1958The Methodology of Sociology (1934):

Even real active participation in foreign social life does not always insure against them [immigrants], for the individual participant may only grasp superficially certain significant foreign values, while their deeper meaning eludes him.*

*I have often been struck, for instance, by the stunted and superficial conception American-born citizens of foreign-born parents have of the most important standards of American social and even political life, particularly when their parents belonged to the working-class and lived in an immigrant community. Active participation there is, but reduced to secondary-group contacts, since immigrants are not admitted into intimate relationships with natives; and since secondary-group norms have grown, and still remain in some measure founded on primary-group relations, it is impossible to understand the former without knowing the matter.

(The Methodology of Sociology, (New York: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1934) p. 181.)

 


May 4 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 6: Stories of Drugs and Bullies

pencil shavings

Midwest Mod Squad no. 6: Stories of Drugs and Bullies

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 5 here.)

As done previously in this series, in this post I will describe the essences of four short stories I’ve recently read. Then I’ll compare and contrast those essences, as well as the settings and narrators to each story. Three of the following stories were published by New Pop Lit and one by The Masters Review.

I.

The essence of the story “The Fetus” by Clint Margrave (of Los Angeles) might be found in the words of the teacher of the story, Mr. Schlosser, when he says, “Sometimes in order to study life, we also have to study death.” It seems as if the narrator is reflecting back on a past episode of his own life, that  he is studying a part of his “life” that is now “dead”––way back in 1980’s Anaheim––a time when, apparently, fetuses could be found in jars in the science classrooms of American middle schools.

The unnamed narrator––in a story where nearly a dozen student characters are named––speculates, near the story’s end, on the fate of the fetus in the jar. Was it forgotten about but never “disposed of,” was it buried, lost in the bureaucracy of the school district, “like a bad memory. An uncomfortable truth?”

This story isn’t just about bullying between a single dominator and a single victim. Margrave rather digs into the complexity of the social hierarchy of students in public schools. The narrator is a bully who targets victim Christian Wojtynek, but there are several indications that the unnamed bully is himself bullied by others. The narrator in “The Fetus” takes out his frustrations of being bullied by picking on Christian, who then, in the plot’s climax, throws the jar with the fetus at the narrator.

II.

The essence of the story “Eighty Pounds” by Jon Berger (of Saginaw, Michigan) seems to occur when the narrator Teague, a ne’er-do-well high school age kid, finds out that a friend of his, Kaleigh, was raped by the school’s top jock Will at a weekend party. The story also reveals Will is someone who has a history of bullying Teague.

With: (a) Teague’s father in prison; (b) Teague’s behavior scrutinized with zero-tolerance at school––he will be permanently suspended if he gets into another fight; (c) his struggle with a learning disability never fully articulated to readers; (d) his drug peddling that seems to only pay for his own supply; and (e) the fact that the drug peddling is encouraged by his incarcerated father, the nonromantic friendship with Kaleigh appears to have been the only thing good going on in his life. And now that too is probably ruined.

For Teague’s reaction to hearing about Kaleigh is to therefore beat up Will. Teague then gets permanently banned from his school, and Will’s future as a college athlete gets quashed.

This story takes place near a town called Merrill, possibly Merrill, Wisconsin, in the central part of that state. Teague shuffles back and forth between various institutions in Merrill: school, prison, juvenile hall. The story is told as a confessional, told in the past tense. By telling the story in the past tense, it seems obvious Teague is narrating from the future, looking back on previous events. Perhaps in the future he’s been arrested, and, under interrogation, was asked “how did this all start?” and Teague begins to remember this particular episode from his childhood.

But bullying is only a part of Berger’s story. Most of “Eighty Pounds” focuses on a kid trapped between the biology of his learning disability, weed farming, and drug usage on one end; and on the other, he is confined by the various institutions of the society that surround him––a society in which he seems only peripherally a part of.

III.

Both Margrave’s story “The Fetus” and Berger’s “Eighty Pounds” involve bullying among peers in an educational environment. They should be compared, therefore, to “A Man Stands Tall,” a story by Gabriel Moseley in The Masters Review Volume VI––a story about a reality TV show trying to capture 19th-century self-reliance by hiring a family to live in the wilderness. A line from Moseley’s story: “all bullies have sob stories” really stands out when comparing all three stories, because it probably applies to all of them.[1]

In “A Man Stands Tall” Moseley’s detached narrator mentions previous bullying incidents where the family’s son Ajay was the victim. Like “The Fetus” and “Eighty Pounds,” these incidents occurred in a school environment.[2] Through an unnamed narrator Moseley (a freelance writer from Seattle) reveals that the school institutionally punished Ajay’s bullies by making them write essays about why bullying is wrong.[3] Indeed, the essence of Moseley’s story appears to be the question: how do victims and the parents of victims deal with bullies? It’s a question everyone in a true community asks themselves as they watch their neighbors deal with violence among children, whether those neighbors exist physically across the street in real life or merely narratively (and digitally) on so-called reality TV.

IV.

The essence of “The Professor,” a story by A. K. Riddle (a seventeen-year-old writer from Illinois) appears to come when the professor of a prep school in the fictitious (?) town of Hayport, Wisconsin is informed by his physician that the professor-patient is descending into retro-immaturity. Much like a moment in Michael Chabon’s novel (but not the movie based upon it) Wonder Boys (1995), which is also about a professor, Riddle’s protagonist is warned that “You’re not a teenager anymore. You’re forty-seven.” In Wonder Boys the character Grady is a professor at a liberal arts college in Pittsburgh and is known for writing one great novel. But Grady’s ability to improve his behavior––overcoming both substance abuse and procrastinating finishing his long-overdue second novel––gets him out of the social ditch in which he’s dug himself. So Grady is unlike the unnamed title character in Riddle’s story “The Professor,” someone who only further accelerates his own decline.

Riddle’s professor is a fan of Eric Clapton’s song “Layla,” which, as a song, starts off heavy and strong, then moves to a long declension in tempo, tone, and mood. The loud and rough guitar gets replaced by smooth, soothing piano. The bright calm of the C major scale comes in to overtake the bluesy A minor scale that came before. But the professor’s actions tend to do the opposite; he is running away from his role model of the old Englishman who learned to play American blues, running away from his dreams, and thereby, accelerating toward a waking life nightmare. Life gets rougher the more he goes along.

“The Professor” also represents a significant contrast to the three previously discussed stories in this post in that while Riddle’s story is grammatically told in the past tense, it essentially unfolds for the reader in present time––in the sense that the reader witnesses the professor’s downfall as the narrator relates the actions and consequences of the professor in “real time.”

I’m still trying to determine the significance of the repeated motif: “All rust and gasoline, chewed up dog toys”––for this is not only the literal image of a car that belonged to the professor’s friend back when he was in high school, but it’s also used to describe the professor’s own old car in the present.

Yet the line can also be interpreted as a metaphorical image of what the professor’s life has become at this point: just an old chewed up dog toy. He is certainly abusing himself, but I’m a little hesitant to go all the way and argue that the professor bullies himself, for unlike the first-person narrators in “The Fetus” and “Eighty Pounds,” the inner monologue of the professor is never revealed to the reader. But the professor’s antisocial behavior certainly suggests to readers he is trying to avoid facing some similar “uncomfortable truth” as mentioned in Margrave’s story “The Fetus.”

V.

As stories, both Berger’s “Eighty Pounds” and Riddle’s “The Professor” focus on decline in the Midwest;[4] the former on the decline of a society where an individual tries to survive the downfall, while the latter follows the nosedive of an individual, and it remains unknown whether the society he lived in contributed to his collapse.

With regard to the Midwest, it isn’t so important that “The Fetus” takes place in Anaheim so much as it takes place in the 1980’s. It’s also important (and evident) that it occurs somewhere in a middle-class American suburbia, no matter the sub-region. But all of these stories, “The Fetus,” “Eighty Pounds,” “A Man Stands Tall,” and “The Professor,” try to diagnose two particular sociological sicknesses of our time, what the Germans call Zeitkrankheit. Those two being: substance abuse and bullying, and both stem out of public school environments.

UPDATE:

From my father, who turned 55 yesterday:

NOTES

wood

[1] Gabriel Moseley, “A Man Stands Tall,” The Masters Review Volume VI, selected by Roxane Gay, eds. Kim Winterheimer & Sadye Teiser, (Bend, OR: The Masters Review, 2017) 9.

[2] Moseley, “A Man Stands Tall,” 4, 6.

[3] Moseley, “A Man Stands Tall,” 8–9.

[4] The Midwest is not declining per se. There are places of decline and places that are thriving quite nicely. Joel Kotkin explains some of this very complicated situation:

It would be wonderful if this resurgence covered the entire Midwest, restoring the regions standing a century ago, when, as author Jon Lauck writes, “the Midwest stood tall as the republic’s ascendant and triumphant region.” Yet today many of the premier Midwest industrial hotbeds have not yet recovered their dynamism. Almost all the comeback Midwestern cities were never strictly manufacturing burgs, but rather state capitals, university towns, and trade and distribution centers. Places like Kansas City, Columbus, and Des Moines may have been hit hard by de-industrialization but not as thoroughly as places like Detroit, Cleveland, and even Pittsburgh. (“The Midwest is Booming—Just Not Where You Think,” NewGeography.com, April 30, 2018.)

Yet also consider Jason Segedy (director of planning and urban development for the City of Akron, Ohio) and his recent take on the prospects of the Midwest in general and Akron in particular:

This is the type of place that is routinely ignored by urbanists and pundits. It is a community that is already racially diverse, and where many residents may be poor, but are also employed, and also own their home. This is the type of place where the binary, coastal gentrification narrative of rich versus poor, or white versus black, simply does not apply. (“Rust Belt Cities Need Investment, Not Gentrification Worries,” The American Conservative, April 6, 2018.)


May 1 2018

Book Treasures from Germany

typewriter

Book Treasures from Germany

This translation of Dickens’s Oliver Twist comes from 1927, printed in Stuttgart, contains some beautiful illustrations by H. Grobet. It was a gift, and I believe it was purchased at Historica Antiquariat Bertz Wawrzinek on Heinrichstraße in Dresden.

wood

wood

 


Apr 26 2018

That “Religion” does not Equal “Culture”

typewriter

That “Religion” does not Equal “Culture”

I don’t quite understand Rod Dreher today when he writes:

In 1966, Philip Rieff [(1922–2006)] observed [in Triumph of the Therapeutic]:

The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.[1]

By this standard, Christianity in the US is dying. Rieff saw this happening in the mid-1960s; it is much, much farther along today. Christian churches and Christian schools have plainly failed to meet the challenges of aggressive secularism.

It seems as if Dreher is taking Rieff’s use of the word “culture” and applying it to “Christianity in the US” as a whole, but a culture is not quite the same thing as a religion. A Hindu religious culture is not the same thing as the practice of Hinduism. An individual living in a Hindu culture is not the same as “being Hindu.”

In fact, “culture,” as a word, is pretty darn arbitrary––if we follow Leo Strauss’s (1899–1973) interpretation of Nietzsche’s (1844–1900) understanding of that word:

Nietzsche has a deeper reverence than any other beholder for the sacred tables of the Hebrews as well as of the other nations in question. Yet since he is only a beholder of these tables, since what one table commends or commands is incompatible with what the others command, he is not subject to the commandments of any. This is true also and especially of the tables, or “values” of modern Western culture. But according to him, all scientific concepts, and hence in particular the concept of culture, are culture-bound; the concept of cultures is an outgrowth of 19th century Western culture; its application to “cultures” of other ages and climates is an act stemming from the spiritual imperialism of that particular culture. There is then a glaring contradiction between the claimed objectivity of the science of cultures and the radical subjectivity of that science. Differently stated, one cannot behold, i.e., truly understand, any culture unless one is firmly rooted in one’s own culture or unless one belongs in one’s capacity as a beholder to some culture. But if the universality of the beholding of all cultures is to be preserved, the culture to which the beholder of all cultures belongs, must be the universal culture, the culture of mankind, the world culture; the universality of beholding presupposes, if only by anticipating it, the universal culture which is no longer one culture among many. The variety of cultures that have hitherto emerged contradicts the oneness of truth. Truth is not a woman so that each man can have his own truth as he can have his own wife. Nietzsche sought therefore for a culture that would no longer be particular and hence in the last analysis arbitrary.[2]

And when Dreher writes:

 It is troubling, from a believer’s point of view, that not everyone in Christendom actually held the faith, and that not all lived up to its tenets. But at least the values of Christianity were what we collectively professed. That was something.

I agree that one should not make the perfect the enemy of the good, which is something I think Dreher is getting at, nor could any concept of a “perfect Christianity” be achieved by human means alone. But in this passage, Dreher also seems to be saying that words speak louder than actions, that whatever was “collectively professed” once made for a sufficient Christianity despite many (laity and clergy) who did not live “up to its tenants.” But, as Goethe (1749–1832), the last true pagan (and hence someone who can never truly be followed by disciplines born in our age of disenchantment), words are not enough. One must turn words into actions:

Words are good, but they are not the best. The best is not made clear by words. The spirit in which we act, is what is highest. Action can only be grasped by spirit and portrayed by spirit. No one knows what he is doing when he acts rightly, but we are always conscious of what is wrong. He who works only with signs, is pedant, a hypocrite or a botcher. There are many such, and they get on well together. Their gossiping impedes the student, and their persistent mediocrity alarms those who are best. The teaching of a real artist opens up sense; for where words are lacking, action speaks. A true pupil learns how to unravel the unknown from the known, and thereby develops toward mastery.[3]

And as far as the “cultural elites” go (mentioned in Rieff’s quotation by Dreher), I don’t know if Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was quite right (or serious) when he said: “It is to do nothing that the elect exist.”[4] I do understand LBJ’s observation that “the greatest bigots in the world are the Democrats on the East Side New York.” As a “true vulgarian,” I’m not interested in following East Coast elites, and my uninterest has very little to do with whether or not I’m a Christian (the way Dreher’s quotation of Rieff regarding “cultural elites” seems to imply).

Alfarabi (872–950 AD), following Plato and Aristotle, held that the elect can do very little for the vulgar:

The vulgar confine themselves, or should be confined, to theoretical cognitions that are in conformity with examined common opinion. The elect do not confine themselves to any of their theoretical cognitions to what is in conformity with examined common opinion but reach their conviction and knowledge on the basis of premises subjected to thorough scrutiny. Therefore whoever thinks that he is not confined to what is in conformity with unexamined common opinion in his inquiries, believes that in them he is of the “elect” and that everybody else is vulgar….

Whoever has a more perfect mastery of the art that qualifies him for assuming an office is more appropriate for inclusion among the elect. Therefore it follows that the most elect of the elect is the supreme ruler. It would appear that this is so because he is the one who does not confine himself in anything. He must hold the office of the supreme ruler and be the most elect of the elect because of his state of character and skill. As for the one who assumes a political office with the intention of accomplishing the purpose of the supreme ruler, he adheres to thoroughly scrutinized opinions. However, the opinions that caused him to become an adherent or because of which he was convinced that he should use his art to serve the supreme ruler were based on mere conformity to unexamined opinions; he conforms to unexamined common opinion in his theoretical cognitions as well. The result is that the supreme ruler and he who possesses the science that encompasses the intelligibles with certain demonstrations belong to the elect. The rest are the vulgar and the multitude. Thus the methods of persuasion and imaginative representation are employed only in the instruction of the vulgar and the multitude of the nations and the cities, while the certain demonstrative methods, by which the beings themselves are made intelligible, are employed in the instruction of those who belong to the elect.[5]

NOTES

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[1] Dreher, “Goodbye Jehovah,” The American Conservative, April 26, 2018.

[2] Strauss, “Jerusalem and Athens: Some Preliminary Reflections” Studies in Platonic Political Philosophy, (University of Chicago Press, 1983) 148–49.

[3] Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meisters Apprenticeship) (1795–96), ed. and trans. by Eric A. Blackall, (New York: Suhrkamp Publishers, 1983) VII, ix, 303–04.

[4] Wilde, “The Critic as Artist – II.” (1891).

[5] Alfarabi, “The Attainment of Happiness,” Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, trans. Muhsin Mahdi, (Chicago, IL: Agora Books, 1969) pp. 41–42, iv, ¶ 50–51.