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

wood

[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.


Apr 24 2018

Hosting the Italians: Part II of III

Western book stack

Hosting the Italians: Part II of II

(Read Part I here.)

Onto the plains [of west Texas] you issue as onto a lighted stage, and with that sudden sense of isolation and exposure. The farther behind you leave [central Texas] the now-familiar prairie, the fewer people you see, the stronger grows the sensation of being watched. The silence sharpens the ear, the emptiness the eye. An ambiguous, double sensation comes over you: you feel at once taller, a very tall man, and smaller, a very small creature….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997)

I had to work the next few days and couldn’t journey into our state’s own Big Sky Country with the gang as they headed into west Texas. But I’ve been to many (though not all) the places they went. Most of what follows was told to me upon their return. And where any gaps in the narrative happen to appear, my muse has instructed me to turn to my books about Texas and conjecture the story accordingly.

The next day, after the late supper Cosimo and Chiara had prepared for us Tuesday night, our guests drove to Houston to meet an old friend. They returned to Austin on Wednesday evening and said they had eaten some great barbecue somewhere in that city. Later that night they visited our friend fbom and worked on music.

A post shared by Scott Hebson (@outlawproducer) on


(Cosimo working on music at fbom’s studio)

Because Wednesday was the official start of the music portion of the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, after work I went to my neighborhood bar [K]nomad and saw two performances. The first was a local gal named Kat Allison, who sang solo and played an acoustic guitar; her style reminded me a lot of Jewel. She looked pretty but her music was plain.

The second act was a two-man band called Domico. They came all the way from Tokyo. I learned later that this was their first time to play in the States. They were very young, a little nervous, but didn’t seem necessarily anxious. Before they went on, one member approached the bar to order a soda. It appeared the bar had given the band a fixed number of drink tickets (not uncommon at some venues for SXSW shows), but––because the guy only wanted a soda (he looked under eighteen) and bars make their money selling alcohol, not soda––the bartender was nice enough tell him to keep his ticket and gave the guy a complementary coke. That may sound like a pretty mundane moment in the history of SXSW, but as soon as the Japanese patron learned that his soda was free, his eyes bugged out of his head in such an unexpected burst of excitement and gratitude that it was as if I were watching a hand-drawn anime from his homeland.

(Domico at Knomad, Austin, TX)

Domico’s style was very loud, rough, a lot in the vein of alternative rock from the 1990’s, but with more complexity—and that made it refreshing. After their set, I ended up purchasing one of their CDs as well as a t-shirt. Another member of the audience was at the merchandise table, and he also happened to be Japanese, though he wasn’t connected with the band. I was trying to convey to the band members what I thought about their music, but their English was very limited, so this other Japanese guy translated to them for me that I thought their music was “technically precise, but at the same time, emotionally wild”—and that this was a good combination.

The changeable winds [of west Texas] pass and repass over the dry grass with a sound like shifting sands, and running before the wind, the grass turns its nap, first this way then that way, like velvet pile when a hand is run idly back and forth over it. Flat as a marble floor, the land stretches away empty and endless as the bar boundless sky above. The eye strains ahead for a landmark, a rooftop, a spire, a tree, anything vertical, anything that thrusts above the brown level monotony….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997)

Thursday morning Cosimo, Chiara, and Scott, along with David and Dyhana all set out for Big Bend National Park, over 300 miles from Austin as the crow flies. They stopped for lunch in the old German town of Fredericksburg, at a Bavarian restaurant called Auslanders, which means “foreigners” or “outsiders” in German.

A post shared by Scott Hebson (@outlawproducer) on

(The gang at Auslanders, Fredericksburg, Texas)

After a shared appetizer of various meats, cheeses, and crackers, they ate Jagerschnitzel (breaded pork loin), bratwurst sausage and Rinderbraten sandwiches consisting of: “tender pot roast, piled high on a sweet sourdough bun with beef gravy, onion strings & roasted garlic mayo.” With their meal, they drank Altstadt beer. The name means “Old City,” and it’s made in the Altstadt brewery there in Fredericksburg.

Looked at long enough—and once embarked upon it, you look for a long, long time—the land [in west Texas] will seem to exhibit that phenomenon called seiche,[1] to rock slowly from side to side like the wallowing of a lake. That, and the absence of objects to relate yourself to, bring on land-sickness. Even the sun gives no direction, but hangs straight overhead all day, as if uncertain of the way. Under moonlight the plain whitens like an arctic snowfield….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997)

That evening they drove to Alpine, which over 300 miles directly west of Fredericksburg, and checked into some motel rooms. After unloading their bags, the gang drove to Marfa, only 25 miles farther west, to see the Marfa lights. I saw them once as a child, and all my adult friends said they saw them that night. As I remember them, the lights were not eerie like an alleged extraterrestrial encounter might be described. No, there is something so apparent about those lights that they lack mystery. In other words, they seem naturally perplexing, not artificially ambiguous. Yes, deep in the heart of Texas, the stars at night may be big and bright—but out in rural Presidio County, the Marfa lights might be better described as “blinking and benign.”

After seeing the lights, the crew headed back to their rooms at the Value Lodge in Alpine. Along the way they saw many jackrabbits in the night but no chupacabras. The next morning, Friday, March 16, they had breakfast at Penny’s Diner in Alpine, then, drove about 80 miles southward to Big Bend. Just before they got to the park, they stopped at the ghost town of Terlingua and explored its grounds.

When you do see a man you first see him at such a distance that he is like a fly crawling on a tabletop. There is no horizon [in west Texas]. Rather, there is horizon everywhere. The horizon is created whenever something or somebody stands up somewhere in the landscape. Then where a rooftop rises, the barren eye eagerly draws all lines towards it. You see clouds underneath the belly of a cow, see the sky winking between the legs of a walking man. It is a place without perspective, and things thrust themselves up isolated, unsurrounded by any of the close familiar objects by which one judges distances and size; and so the eye, as if out of focus, cannot judge, cannot relate it: is that a child nearby or a man far off, a haystack or a hummock, an insect or a bird—or nothing at all, a mirage? ….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997)

At Big Bend they saw its splendid scenery, the Rio Grande (and Old Mexico on the other side), as well as several coyotes (the canine kind, not traffickers of human beings). It was almost dark as they were leaving the park.

A post shared by Scott Hebson (@outlawproducer) on

(Cosimo and Chiara at Big Bend National Park, Texas)

On the long journey home, they stopped at a Sonic in Fort Stockton. It was almost midnight, but they managed to get some food before the place closed for the evening. Then they got back on the road, aiming for Austin. But both the desert and the darkness were starting to drag on everyone, so they got some motel rooms in Ozona (about 100 miles east of Fort Stockton) around 2:00 a.m. There they rested for a while.

And because you haven’t any landmark or person for so long in view, nor ever lose it, or him, under a hill or behind a bend, you seem to take forever getting there, and time hangs suspended and unreal. And yet when you finally reach the place no time has elapsed, for across that unarched plain of a sky the sun inches along and it is noon all day. Across the plain west from Fort Worth the road runs straight as a line left when a woman pulls out a thread to cut a piece of cloth along….

––William Humphrey (1924–1997) [2]

The next morning they continued on their journey back, driving through the wine country, and stopping in Fredericksburg again for lunch as well as for some peach cobbler for dessert. With the Wild West at their backs, they had only the hill country of central Texas before them now:

The vastness of the southwestern landscape is emphasized by the gradualness of its transitions. As you pass from east to west across Texas, the masses of moss hanging from gigantic oaks gradually become scarce. Gradually the trees scatter, and the growing gaps between them add a sense of expansion to the sight of land and sky. Fields of maize and grain around frail-looking but primly painted lumber homes suggest happy living. Their appearance is so gradual that no traveler can find the exact point of their beginning. The land, though absolutely flat along the coast, son begins imperceptibly to roll. At first the slopes are so gentle that valleys are apparent only in the recurrence of huge, moss-hung oaks with wild grapevines draped over their foliage. Instead of blocking visibility, the low hills only lengthen it. To catch the breeze above them, windmills are built on higher towers than along the coast, yet they seem hardly larger than toothpicks in the distance. Cattle graze on miles of green forage. Though scattered as the patches of shrubbery, they can be seen by the hundreds at a glance.

Before the earth’s undulations are high enough to be called hills, you can see them cutting waves in the horizon, far enough away to share a thin, transparent slice of the sky’s blue. Giant oaks, looking like tiny spots of dark blue, dot this slightly curved horizon. Farmhouses, appearing as beadlike blocks of white, freckle the blue. Roads wind like threads of gray between them. Yet all this is on a generally level expanse of land.

––Frank Goodwyn (1911–2011)[3]

They got back to Austin early Saturday afternoon.

(Read Part III here.)

NOTES

wood

[1] seiche: “(Swiss French) a short-lived standing oscillation of a lake or other body of water (as a bay or basin of the sea), somewhat resembling a tide, which may be caused by abrupt changes in atmospheric conditions or by small earth tremors.” (Oxford English Dictionary)

[2] William Humphrey, The Ordways, (New York: Knopf, 1965) 286–87.

[3] Frank Goodwyn, Lone Star Land: Twentieth-Century Texas in Perspective, (New York: Knopf, 1955) 82–83.


Apr 24 2018

How Tolstoy Tells Story

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

How Tolstoy Tells Story

According to Count Tolstoy:

He [Borís] could not tell them simply that everyone went at a trot and that he fell off his horse and sprained his arm and then ran as hard as he could from a Frenchman into the wood. Besides, to tell everything as it really happened, it would have been necessary to make an effort of will to tell only what happened. It is very difficult to tell the truth, and young people are rarely capable of it. The hearers expected a story of how beside himself and all aflame with excitement, he had flown like a storm at the square, cut his way in, slashed right and left, how his saber had tasted flesh and he had fallen exhausted, and so on. And so he told them all that.

Война́ и миръ, Voyná i mir (War and Peace), trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude, revised by George Gibian, (New York, W. W. Norton, 1966; second edition 1996) III, vi, 210.

 


Apr 16 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 05: Nicole Cuffy’s “Steal Away”

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Midwest Mod Squad no. 05: Nicole Cuffy’s “Steal Away”

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 04 here)

Nicole Cuffy is a New York based writer with a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the New School. Her storySteal Awaytakes place in the early twentieth-century sharecropping South.

If the focus of the essence of Arp’s story “Gormley” is on an individual at an individual moment, one might say the essence of Nicole Cuffy’s story “Steal Away”[1] is much wider in scope. Instead of the individual, the essence of “Steal Away” focuses on things like political economy and multiple individuals, family dynamics and cross-cultural relations between whites and blacks, as well as between Southerners and Northerners, as we see below:

The North was a different country, one that would demand Irving’s assimilation. The North would ruin him for the South, so that on the rare occasion Irving made it down to visit his parents—and they would only very rarely get to see him, their son, their only child—he’d be a stranger, an outsider….

To hold your children down to keep them near, to hold them down because they needed a good measure of get down in them to survive, was slavery. But to send her only baby upriver knowing she’d hardly ever see him again was also slavery.[2]

Compare this to a passage from Faulkner. Compare how both Cuffy and Faulkner both use the words assimilation and slavery:

What he [Houston] did not comprehend was that until now he had not known what true slavery was—that single constant despotic undeviating will of the enslaved not only for possession, complete assimilation, but to coerce and reshape the enslaver into the seemliness of his victimization.[3]

But now to the political economy and cross-cultural relations in “Steal Away,” for that is the essence of Cuffy’s story:

And Lysee [the landlord], harangued as Reggie said he looked, must be making a profit somewhere. He must be, or else he wouldn’t let their debt go, a debt built on joint notes, on poor crops, on overpriced fertilizer and seed, on seventeen percent interest rates, on crooked mortgages. It fired Hester up. She’d counted Lysee as a good one—never spoke an impolite word to any of them, never forced them to sign anything they couldn’t read, never tried to cut in on them on how to live their lives outside their work. Yes, he overcharged for supplies in his store, set up interest rates on their advances and rations money that kept them in debt, mortgaged their animals and wagons so they couldn’t sell them, but Hester had never held any of that against him. That was just how business was done in this country.[4]

It’s as if Cuffy’s narrator is saying Hester was fine with the landlord Lysee stealing from them here in there––if the reader interprets stealing to mean skimming off the top, and fine to mean that such skimming was to be expected in that particular time and place.

But now the unexpected intrudes into Hester’s life: Lysee says the banks have stolen the land out from under him (even though the loans he took out were likely legitimate). Because Lysee has lost the land, he expects the banks to replace Hester and her people with tractors and other advances in agro-technology. In the meantime, Lysee will confiscate their cattle and chickens, constituting a new form of plunder for the sharecroppers.[5]

So first Hester’s home and food supplies are taken from her and her family, then, while they’re consoling themselves by singing some blues to one another,[6] they get interrupted by the arrival of a neighboring wealthy planter, Mr. Simon Russell and an out-of-towner named Mr. Ashbury.[7] Hester’s family and friends are then asked to perform their music for the whites instead of for themselves. Their music––that is, their art, their spirit––is appropriated under the guise of it being appreciated.

And the white men’s appetite for that appropriation is insatiable. They ask for one song after another. But when Russell and Ashbury ask for a blues song, they are denied by Hester’s people, with the excuse given that it’s inappropriate to sing blues on Sunday.[8] Yet that denial also indicates that the blues they were singing before whitey arrived were something precious, sacrosanct. Despite having many things stolen from them, over the years and at that moment, Hester and her folk will keep certain treasures to themselves. They will not submit.

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 6 here.)

NOTES

wood

[1] Nicole Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, selected by Roxane Gay, eds. Kim Winterheimer and Sadye Teiser, (Bend, OR: The Masters Review, 2017) 171–86.

[2] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 177–78.

[3] William Faulkner, The Hamlet, (New York: Random House, 1940) III, ii, 1, p. 210.

[4] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 180.

[5] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 179–80. On the use of the word “plunder,” see Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015) 9, 11–12, 20, 119.

[6] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 181.

[7] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 181–82.

[8] Cuffy, “Steal Away,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 184–85.


Apr 16 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 04: Chris Arp’s “Gormley”

pencil shavings

Midwest Mod Squad no. 04: Chris Arp’s “Gormley”

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 03 here)

Chris Arp graduated from NYUs Creative Writing Program. His storyGormley,” is set in mid-nineteenthcentury Britain.

The essence of Chris Arp’s story “Gormley”[1] comes at a moment toward the end when the narrator recognizes the newly acquired dignity[2] of his former tutor Mr. Quentin Stirk. His dignity is apparent when he gives a speech at an abolition rally in Bournemouth in the 1840’s. The narrator appears to be completely disinterested in the topic of the speech, but, now realizes a sense of a loss of possession he once felt he had over his former tutor.

But let’s first consider the narrator:

I learned to develop my taste for the more quotidian pleasures—commerce and politics, gossip and drink—the ones that, however dull, lead to family and fine company and laughter. [3]

He doesn’t quite seem “blinded by idiotic vanity”[4] the way some have complained of members of the middleclass. Is the narrator to be interpreted as a financially prudent aristocrat who could afford a private tutor, not to mention a privileged sense of owning another human being (see the quotation below)? Or do his “quotidian pleasures” betray him as merely someone “utterly middlebrow”[5] and “terribly ordinary” like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich?[6] To me, he’s ambiguous.

Yet the question of the narrator is of considerable importance when the reader encounters to the essence of this story:

Watching him [Mr. Stirk], I recalled that evening on the verandah, when the young teacher transformed before our eyes. This old man at the pulpit had captured that glimmer of dignity and cultivated it over the years, shaping and molding it, buffing it to a high polish so that now he could display his gifts before any audience, in any venue.

I do not mean that he was performative. I mean that his splendidness no longer belonged to me and Mr. Gormley Kay. It no longer belonged to the past. What I felt, watching him, was that I had lost something precious. I felt, queer as it may sound, as if I had lost a piece of myself. This was the pettiest sort of jealousy, unbecoming in the young and unthinkable in a man of my years. I strained to push this away. I strained to be more magnanimous, more mature. [7]

So the narrator seems to be older and looking back on the entire story, not just this moment within it. But also, in that moment from the past with the gathering of abolitionists, the narrator remembers being self-aware of his behavior—the self-awareness of an adolescent, not a child. Was that captured “glimmer of dignity” he speaks of akin to the line from the old sailor’s tale that mentions how “the serenity became less brilliant but more profound?”[8] I wonder.

The narrator in “Gormley” sees his own jealously in that moment as of “the pettiest sort,” as if through the jealously he might sooth the loss of perceived possession over Mr. Stirk, someone who now appears to have more dignity than he. But, as it says in the sailor’s tale, “It was not my strength that wanted nursing, it was my imagination that wanted soothing,” and perhaps the same can be said for the narrator of “Gormley” when he reflects back on that poignant moment.[9]

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 05 here)

NOTES

wood

[1] Chris Arp, “Gormley,” The Masters Review Volume VI, selected by Roxane Gay, eds. Kim Winterheimer and Sadye Teiser, (Bend, OR: The Masters Review, 2017) 95–111.

[2] Compare the definition of “dignity” given by Stephens, the butler and narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day (New York, Viking, 1989):

‘Dignity’ has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits. (pp. 36–43, quoting 42).

[3] Arp, “Gormley,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 108.

[4] Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent: a Simple Tale (1907), ch. II.

[5] On the phrase “utterly middlebrow,” see D. G. Myers, “Obama and Franzen sittin’ in a tree,” A Commonplace Blog, September 12, 2010.

[6] Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), ch. II.

[7] Arp, “Gormley,” The Masters Review Volume VI, 110.

[8] Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899), § I.

[9] Conrad, Heart of Darkness. § III.


Apr 16 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 03: What is the Essence of a Work of Fiction?

book spines

Midwest Mod Squad no. 03: What is the Essence of a Work of Fiction?

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 02 here)

The age of argument appears to be over…. (Is that what’s implied when someone says we live in an age of anxiety?) … But let’s walk away from that question and leave behind the game of Who Can Best Guess this Zeitgeist? Leave that contrivance to the book peddlers….

All I can do is read a story and see what grabs my attention. And what grabs my attention is usually the essence of the story. (I say usually, because any first appearances that grab one’s attention can of course be deceiving.) And just because the essence of a story grabs my attention doesn’t mean I’ll be able to articulate a definition of that essence.

By essence I mean the thing (moment, symbol, character, idea, etc.) that the entire work of short fiction seems to hinge on—the essential thing without which the story would have no reason to be read by the average casual, curious reader. It may or may not mean a Joycean “epiphany,” or an Aristotelian catharsis, or the thesis of a classical rhetorician. The essence may even be something “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”[1]

To find the essence of a story, a reader asks questions, like the four questions of Alfarabi, or other things like:

  • What topics does each story contain and concern?[2]
  • What of things I’ve previously read that concern and compare and contrast with those topics and subjects?
  • Who is the storyteller of each story? (Which is not the same as asking, Who is the creator of each story?)

And in asking these questions I assume the storyteller is separate from the story creator, but I don’t assume or deny any reliability in what that storyteller tells me the reader/listener. At this early stage in the investigation, I don’t even have to worry about defining the word reliability.

The next two posts in this series will examine a pair of short stories by a pair of New York writers: Chris Arp and Nicole Cuffy. And while no one ever confused the Big Apple with the Midwest, Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern (2016) does include much of Upstate New York to be, in terms of regional dialects, part of the Midwest. Keep in mind, however, that both Arp and Cuffy have written pieces of historical fiction set neither in New York or the Midwest.

(Read Midwest Mod Squad no. 04 here)

NOTESwood

[1] Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus § 7.0.

[2] An infinite number of topics might exist for any story, sure, but see Bateson on Kant:

Kant argued long ago that this piece of chalk contains a million potential facts (Tatsachen) but that only a very few of these become truly facts by affecting the behavior of entities capable of responding to facts. For Kant’s Tatsachen, I would substitute differences and point out that the number of potential differences in this chalk is infinite but that very few of them become effective differences (i.e., items of information) in the mental process of any larger entity. Information consists of differences that make a difference. (Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 81, 99.)