Aug 19 2020

The Brave New World of Chris Arnade’s “Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America” (2019)

pencil shavings

I’m very excited to have The Fortnightly Review publish my essay review of Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (2019).

It covers not only Arnade but has plenty of Thoreau, Frederick Law Olmsted, James Agee and Walker Evans, William Least Heat-Moon, Samuel Johnson, Wesley Yang, Yuval Levin, Martin Buber, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Aug 14 2020

This Monotony of Literature

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

In light of having recently finished Václav Benda (1946-1999)’s essays, with its theories of a parallel polis, and amid my preparing to soon read some published works from NewPopLit and Screamin’ Skull Press–both recent and independent publishing endeavors which seem in line with at least some of Benda’s thinking regarding such a parallel polis and culture–I came across this poignant passage from Benjamin Jowett (1817–1893):

After about a hundred, or at most two hundred years if we exclude Homer, the genius of Hellas had ceased to flower or blossom. The dreary waste which follows, beginning with the Alexandrian writers and even before them in the platitudes of Isocrates and his school, spreads over much more than a thousand years. And from this decline the Greek language and literature, unlike the Latin, which has come to life in new forms and been developed into the great European languages, never recovered.

This monotony of literature, without merit, without genius and without character, is a phenomenon which deserves more attention than it has hitherto received; it is a phenomenon unique in the literary history of the world. How could there have been so much cultivation, so much diligence in writing, and so little mind or real creative power? Why did a thousand years invent nothing better than Sibylline books, Orphic poems, Byzantine imitations of classical histories, Christian reproductions of Greek plays, novels like the silly and obscene romances of Longus and Heliodorus, innumerable forged epistles, a great many epigrams, biographies of the meanest and most meagre description, a sham philosophy which was the bastard progeny of the union between Hellas and the East? Only in Plutarch, in Lucian, in Longinus, in the Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius and Julian, in some of the Christian fathers are there any traces of good sense or originality, or any power of arousing the interest of later ages. And when new books ceased to be written, why did hosts of grammarians and interpreters flock in, who never attain to any sound notion either of grammar or interpretation? Why did the physical sciences never arrive at any true knowledge or make any real progress? Why did poetry droop and languish? Why did history degenerate into fable? Why did words lose their power of expression? Why were ages of external greatness and magnificence attended by all the signs of decay in the human mind which are possible?

Benjamin Jowett, “Introduction to Phaedrus,” The Dialogues of Plato in Five Volumes, Vol. I, trans. Jowett, (Oxford University Press, 1892; third edition revised and corrected) pp. 425–26.


Jul 30 2020

Remembering John Lewis

I recently returned to this; the author James Farmer (1920-1999) grew up in Austin, Texas, where I live:


Jul 19 2020

Short Story Review: “Coven Covets Boy” (2018) by John Elizabeth Stintzi

Mark Twain in Athens

In short, John Elizabeth Stintzi’s short story “Coven Covets Boy” (Puritan Magazine, March 2018) is an amazing piece of contemporary short fiction.

My amazement at such a work makes it difficult to write about it with sobriety. Compounding that difficulty is the sheer difficulty of the text itself. For, like Allen Dulles’s description of counterintelligence as a hallway of mirrors [sorry, I can’t find the citation]—or perhaps more readers are familiar with the climax of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973)–Stinzi’s text contains stories inside other stories. Here readers will find refractions of narratives running on multi-vector trajectories.

In “Coven Covets Boy” readers encounter characters (mis)interpreting and retelling facts and acts from daily, various high-school scenes, scenarios involving notebooks, diaries, “fieldbooks”–– scraps of stories overlapping and interwoven within one another, much in the tradition of Borges, Calvino, Derrida, Eco, and even Tokarczuk—all this, and Stintzi still manages to have a coherent, linear pulse beating underneath.

There are in this story people who forget they are characters in these scraps of micro-stories, while others are unaware—still others are willfully (sometimes manipulatively) aware of the many, sedimentary layers of narrative they and their peers are involved in.

This story merits multiple rereadings and offers much to working artists as well as casual readers.

Huzzah!

https://www.instagram.com/p/CCzZNvhFrl1/

Jun 30 2020

Short Story Review: “Animation” by Chris Dangle

pencil shavings

I once knew a writer in the mid-80s, one of nondenominational Christian songs, and about the only lyric I can now remember (for I was then but a child) is “my life’s a vapor.”

This writer was in his twenties then; he later died in his forties (some kind of cancer, I heard about it third- or fourth-handed years later). So, like some poets, his lyrics (or at least the one I remember) ended up being prophetic.

So, when part of your childhood mindset is “life’s a vapor,” carpe diem and all that, it is quite natural to be suspicious of something that calls itself “flash fiction.”

I used to think flash fiction was just a gimmick to lure Gen-Z readers and writers into the ever nonlucrative world of modern publishing.

And there is Hamlet’s remark that “brevity is the soul of wit,” but he may be mad when he says it, and besides, not all brief texts, whether fiction or otherwise, are witty.

All that being said, I’m willing to reconsider things after reading Chris Drangle’s “Animation” (Chattahoochee Review Spring 2018), for here one finds intense, interesting brevity.

Here is a barest-of-bones narrative told seamlessly (or perhaps one should say “without fracture”)—like James Thurber’s (1894–1961) “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” (1939), the Ficciones of Jorge Borges (1899–1986), and some of Kafka’s (1883–1924) parables.

I shall now be more receptive to this genre (and may sometimes admit that even I make mistakes.)


May 10 2020

Five Books With Old, Interesting Covers That I’ve Recently Read

porticos in Bologna, Italia
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Recently read (c. 1964)

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1. There was a passage in the appendix to this book that reminded me, that while Nietzsche wrote The Birth of Tragedy, he also wrote a book titled Daybreak:

At what time of day did the plays begin?

At dawn. The dramatic poet for the day furnished a tetralogy of three tragedies and a satyr play. Finally the day ended with the performance of a comedy by one of the competing comic poets.

(Paul Rouche, “Appendix,” Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, trans. Roche (New York: Mentor Classics, 1964) p. 114.)

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Recently read (c. 1955)

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2. One thing that stuck out from reading this book was Ian Watt (1917–1999) explaining how the Elizabethans read differently than we do:

This contrast brings us to our final general comparison between modern and Elizabethan ‘light reading[’]. Even the word ‘reading’ suggests similarities which are misleading.

‘Able to read’ or ‘literate’ meant knowledge of Latin to most people until the eighteenth century. And even if ‘English’ were specified, ‘reading’ would still have denoted to an Elizabethan a process different from that commonly practised today. Most Elizabethan literature then received and still requires reading aloud, or at the very least pronouncing the words internally or sub-vocally. Even their prose novels and their sensational journalism were meant to be ‘interpreted’ into sound; that was the meaning they gave to the word ‘interpretation’. To some extent, at least, all their literature of entertainment was designed to embody the shame rhetorical and stylistic, as well as moral, values which are found in their lyrical and dramatic poetry. The modern habit of fast silent reading, combined with the development of matter which can be easily and swiftly absorbed by the eye alone, is perhaps the greatest obstacle between us and an enjoyment of Elizabethan light reading. Certainly it requires, as much as Spenser or Shakespeare, an alert attention to pauses and stresses, and to the pattern of sound and meaning, an attention which the Elizabethan unconsciously accorded. Only with this break from our present reading habits can we today recapture some of the qualities which the ordinary sixteenth-century reader expected to find as part of his pleasure and entertainment.

(“Elizabethan Light Reading,” The Age of Shakespeare, ed. Boris Ford, (Aylesbury and Slough: Penguin, 1955, 1960) 120.)

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Recently read (c. 1934, 1953)

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3. This was my second time to read this book, and I will return to again, because it covers a lot of ideas and times frames that overlap with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007). One thing that stood out on this reading was Willey making a triumvirate of Milton, Newton, and Locke:

The supremacy which Milton held in heroic poetry, and Newton in physics, belonged in philosophy to Locke. Moreover, his authority was not confined to this one sphere; indeed, the prestige of his philosophical work was itself acribable to the wide acceptance of his views on political liberty and religious toleration.

(Basil Willey, The Seventeenth Century Background: the Thought of the Age in Relation to Religion and Poetry, New York: Columbia UP, 1935; Anchor Books Reprint, 1953) 264.)

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Recently read (c. 1964)

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4. While I’ve read various short stories by Chekov over the years, I’d never gotten around to reading his plays until now. And this moment from the first act of The Sea Gull (1896) was quite poignant on an initial reading:

ARKADINA: Now it appears he [Trigorin] has written a great work! Oh, really! Evidently he got up this performance and fumigated us with sulfur, not as a joke butt as a demonstration….  He wanted to teach us how one ought to write, and what one ought to act in. After all, this is getting tiresome! These continual sallies at my expense, these gibes, if you please, would try anyone’s patience! He’s a conceited, capricious boy!

SORIN: He meant to give you pleasure.

ARKADINA: Yes? Then why didn’t he choose the usual sort of play instead of forcing us to listen to these decadent ravings? I don’t mind listening even to raving if it’s a joke, but here we have pretensions to new forms, a new era in art. To my way of thinking this has nothing at all to do with new forms, it’s simply bad temper.

TRIGORIN: Everyone writes as he likes and as he can.

ARKADINA: Let him write as he likes and as he can, so long as he leaves me in peace.

(Anton Chekov, The Sea Gull in Chekhov: The Major Plays, trans. Ann Dunnigan (New York: Signet Classics, 1964) p. 117.)

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Recently read (c. 1954)

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5. Finally, I have yet to find much information about the author of The King’s Vixen (1954) Pamela Hill, though apparently she has written a few dozen novels. This one, her second, was pretty much a boring (but not bad) romance novel. There was, however, an amusing part about how speaking in allegory had become fashionable in early Tutor England:

“I came here to pay my respects to the farmer’s wife, and I find the goddess Aphrodite, risen from the waves and sojourning here, so that Phoebus shines the more brightly for her company,” [said Walter Kennedy]….

She [Jan] found his conversation amusing, being of a kind to which she had been hitherto unused. In France, and Italy where he had lately been, she understood that they talked thus in allegory, so that every woman was a nymph or a goddess and every action initiated by some virtue or vice.

(The King’s Vixen, (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1954) p. 39.)


May 7 2020

Short Story Review: “A Morning Swim” by Robert Garner McBrearty

bookshelf

Robert Garner McBrearty’s short story “A Morning Swim” (Missouri Review, Winter 2017) is an example of master craftsmanship of a prose storyteller:

(1) its opening paragraph immediately sets up one of the story’s two principle conflicts;

(2) there is careful handling of tone and the emotions that run from suspense, to euphoria, to anxiety, to rude humor (a cringe-worthy, Larry David-esque moment), to dark emotions of melodrama;

(3) the plot morphs from being one that involves an individual versus nature (shark, water) to one that invovles a conflict between two individuals (husband and wife). It then changes again into a (sub)plot of the individual versus their self (the swimmer).

With regard to themes, McBrearty’s story seems to oscillate from Wordsworth’s poem “The World is Too Much With Us” (1807) and how––

Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away,

––to then shift to the attitude, à la Marcus Aurelius, of advocating that one should cultivate an intimacy with Nature (III, ii). In doing so, according to Aurelius, one must reject one’s sense of injury—though that doesn’t mean laugh it off (IV, vii), but by rejecting it one carries out Nature’s bidding (V, i; see also V, iii). To quarrel is to go against Nature (II, xvi), for Nature is not evil (II, xvii). To live with nature means to live with others, which is a part of what “A Morning Swim is about.”

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Another short story review from Bookbread:

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Apr 30 2020

5 Short Stories to Occupy Your Attention

Western book stack

Here are five short stories I’ve recently reviewed:

The Bayside Blonde” by GD Dess, New Pop Lit.
(psychological thriller, dreamlike)

Earning Disapproval” by Shashi Bhat, The Puritan
(coming-of-age, teenage anxiety)

The Disappearance” by James Hatton, Popshot Quarterly
(science-fiction horror/thriller, dystopian)

Hunger” by Susan Neville, Missouri Review
(psychological thriller, dreamlike)

Plastics Factory” by Zheng Xiaoqiong, Sydney Review of Books
(job stress, isolation, futility of work)


Apr 27 2020

Pity for Poverty

typewriter

[The following was a major cut made to a book review I’ve submitted for publication. But I find the cut interesting enough.]

Even if we approve of a person who, from a sense of duty in charity, is sorry for a wretch, yet he who manifests fraternal compassion would prefer that there be no cause for sorrow. It is only if there could be a malicious good will (which is impossible) that someone who truly and sincerely felt compassion would wish wretches to exist so as to be objects of compassion. Therefore some kind of suffering is commendable, but none is loveable.

––Augustine, Confessions (3.3.3)[i]

BOSWELL. ‘Sir, I have not so much feeling for the distress of others, as some people have, or pretend to have: but I know this, that I would do all in my power to relieve them.’ JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is affectation to pretend to feel the distress of others, as much as they do themselves. It is equally so, as if one should pretend to feel as much pain while a friend’s leg is cutting off, as he does. No, Sir; you have expressed the rational and just nature of sympathy.’

––Boswell, Life of Johnson, March 25, 1776

After reading, among other things, Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (2019), I find myself often wavering between the sympathies of Bishop Augustine, Dr. Johnson, and James Boswell above and the considerations below from longshoreman-turned-philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983):

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless.

––The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)[ii]

I waver because for the past twenty years I have ridden the city bus to either school or work in Austin, Texas. As a straight white male alumnus of the University of Texas I have had on that bus the privilege to witness and encounter the less-privileged laugh, converse, fight, beg, pontificate, flirt, and sleep on buses and at bus stops. I’ve seen addicts, the unlucky, and the mentally ill ask strangers for directions to navigate the city, money for bus fares, cigarettes and lights, and even request prayer from strangers who—judging by the perplexions on their faces––seemed never to have prayed before. (But pray they all did!)

Yes, within this city I’ve stepped over a live body sprawled on the sidewalk, stiff and oblivious in a trance induced by the synthetic pseudo-cannabis called K2. I’ve handed my doggy bag full of fresh leftovers from lunch to the passerby beggar asking for something to eat. Very rarely (but not quite never) have I given a downtrodden individual a small amount of cash and a strong hug.

Occasionally I’ve traveled abroad and (again) witnessed and encountered les míserables in larger cities such as London, Paris, Dublin, and Berlin as well as smaller ones like Belfast, Oxford, Seville, and Bologna. Though I don’t recall any encounters with homelessness in Stratford, throughout my travels on the local bus and overseas I have, as Jacques says in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “gained my experience.”[iii] But the price for the “rich eyes” of a traveler means that, also like Jacques, I now possess the “poor hands” and empty pockets that so unimpressed fair Lady Rosalind. Such has been the life of writer Chris Landrum. Thus:

“We may have uneasy sensations from seeing a creature in distress, without pity; for we have not pity unless we wish to relieve them.”

––Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)[iv]

“Pity is one form of being convinced that someone else is in pain.”

––Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951)[v]

“The name of this intense, pure, disinterested, gratuitous, generous attention” is love.”

––Simone Weil (1909–1943)[vi]

NOTES

wood

[i] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick, (New York: Oxford UP, 1992) (III, iii, 1), p. 37.

[ii] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §11, p. 23.

[iii] William Shakespeare, As You Like It IV, i.

[iv] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, 18 July 1763.

[v] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1953, 1958, 2001; revised Fourth Edition eds. Hacker and Schulte, 2009) I. no. 287.

[vi] Simone Weil, “Human Personality,” (1943), Simone Weil: an Anthology, ed. Siân Miles, (London: Virago Press, 1986) 92.


Apr 21 2020

Short Story Review: “Plastics Factory” by Zheng Xiaoqiong

pencil shavings

Short Story Review: “Plastics Factory” by Zheng Xiaoqiong
Translated by Isabelle Li

Zheng Xiaoqiong’s short story “Plastics Factory” (Sydney Review of Books, February 2019) is a strange work of fiction I keep returning to and rereading. I don’t “get” some of it; but all of it intrigues me.

There is, for example, a timelessness to this story. It was just as absorbing reading it before the pandemic as it has been during it. Or it could be read in the 1950s or the 2050s, before or after a great economic war, and still make sense.

Much like the ancient Psalms (such as 61), throughout “Plastics Factory” there is a voice that sometimes cries out in desperation but expects no response. It’s not always a loud cry; sometimes just a murmuring chant, quiet as the waters of a clear, thin stream:

… plastic beads melting, disintegrating, flowing into moulds, solidifying, being pushed out by mechanical arms, picked by us, placed in basins, on shelves, into tubes, sent to the fourth floor, assembled by us, and packed, before being taken away by container trucks, year after year, one piece after another. We are the same, our youth melted and dissolved, flowing into every finished product, packed up and taken away.

There is also a kind of culturelessness to the story: it could be set anywhere Seoul, Minsk, or Mexico City—there is a placelessness to it and there’s something pure about that. Reading Xiaoqiong’s story doesn’t feel foreign or translated. It doesn’t feel strictly like a “Chinese” story. It feels familiar, as when the narrator remarks:

In this place, I can’t find any room to accommodate a quiet, imaginative heart. Labour has crowded out all imagination and any superfluous thoughts or dreams.

And:

I believe the taste of labour is sourness. In my mind, toiling is tiring, and tiredness is sour. ‘Sour-tired, sour-tired,’ my mother, who toiled the field, had often said. Such sour-tiredness wafts from the loaders, surrounding their bodies.

I have a sour tongue: that I as a reader am not getting the author’s full intentions. But it’s my fault, not hers. Alas, I’m an unfair reader who wants to be pleased and pampered. Signs of a struggle betray my weaknesses. But the sourness is sharp, acute, memorable. I want another taste.