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 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 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.)


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 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.)


Jan 30 2018

Community and the Lack of Originality

porticos in Bologna, Italia

COMMUNITY AND THE LACK OF ORIGINALITY
Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part III of III

(Read Part I here, and Part II here)

If we can’t think without others, if we can’t conceive of reality without community, then it follows that there is often no such thing as originality, as Goethe once observed (via Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980)):

Goethe voiced the same insight in his own, characteristically more positive manner: “All that is clever has already been thought; one must only try to think it once more.”[1]

Director Stanley Kubrick (1928–1999) used to say the same thing about each camera shot for each scene in a movie: every shot has already been done. The goal, therefore, is to make the shot a little better than what has been done before. Or, as Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) once put it: “Without the random, there can be no new thing.”[2]

And after we communed with the community, we should step away and contemplate what that communion accomplished. As Plutarch puts it:

[The student,] In making his examination and forming his judgement of the lecture he should begin with himself and his own state of mind, endeavouring to estimate whether any one of his emotions has become less intense, whether any one of his troubles weighs less heavily upon him, whether his confidence and his high purpose have become firmly rooted, whether he has acquired enthusiasm for virtue and goodness. As a matter of course, when he rises to leave the barber’s shop, he stands by the mirror and feels his head, examining the cut of his hair and the difference made by its trimming; so on his way home from a lecture or an academic exercise, it would be a shame not to direct his gaze forthwith upon himself and to note carefully his own spirit, whether it has put from it any of its encumbrances and superfluities, and has become lighter and more cheerful.[3]

And Tolstoy adds:

When you are in company, do not forget what you have found out when you were thinking in solitude; and when you are meditating in solitude, think about what you found out by communicating with other people. [4]

Beautiful wall of old books…📚📚📚#reading #igreads #dustyatticrarebooks

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NOTES

wood

[1] Walter Kaufmann, “Goethe and the History of Ideas,” Journal of the History of Ideas 10 (October, 1949): 503–16 at 503–04 quoting Goethe’s Maximen und Reflexionen.

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

[3] Plutarch, Morales. Vol. I, trans. Frank Cole Babbitt, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP; London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1927) “On Listening to Lectures” 8, p. 227.

[4] Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, trans. Peter Sekirin, (New York, NY: Scribner, 1997) 100.


Jan 30 2018

“We” Think; Therefore, “I” Am

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

“WE” THINK; THEREFORE, “I” AM:
Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part II of III

We have an interesting linguistic trap here, one created by centuries of human self-regard. By using a different pronoun to enquire about the identity of people rather than of things—who, instead of what—we introduce an imaginary metaphysical difference.
Why not ask “What are we? What am I
?”–Riccardo Manzotti

According to Count Tolstoy (1828–1910), we live for ourselves only when we live for others. We only learn when we serve to teach others.[1] Compare Hannah Arendt (1906–1975), who follows Peirce:

Reality in a world of appearances is first of all characterized by “standing still and remaining” the same long enough to become an object for acknowledgement and recognition by a subject. Husserl’s basic and greatest discovery takes up in exhaustive detail the intentionality of all acts of consciousness, that is, the fact that no subjective act is ever without an object: though the seen tree may be an illusion, for the act of seeing it is an object nevertheless; though the dreamt-of landscape is visible only to the dreamer, it is the object of his dream. Objectivity is built into the very subjectivity of consciousness by virtue of intentionality. Conversely and with the same justness, one may speak of the intentionality of appearances and their built-in subjectivity. All objects because they appear indicate a subject, and, just as every subjective act has its intentional object, so every appearing object has its intentional subject. In Portmann’s words, every appearance is a “conveyance for receivers” (a Sendung für Empfangsapparate). Whatever appears is meant for a perceiver, a potential subject no less inherent in all objectivity than a potential object is inherent in the subjectivity of every intentional act.

That appearance always demands spectators and thus implies an at least potential recognition and acknowledgement has far-reaching consequences for what we, appearing beings in a world of appearances, understand by reality, our own as well as that of the world. In both cases, our “perceptual faith,” as Merleau-Ponty has called it, our certainty that what we perceive has an existence independent of the act of perceiving, depends entirely on the object’s also appearing as such to others and being acknowledged by them. Without this tacit acknowledgment by others we would not even be able to put faith in the way we appear to ourselves.[2]

Compare Arendt’s line: “That appearance always demands spectators” to a pair of observations from the Elizabethan playwrights:

“For though the most be players, some must be spectators.”

––Ben Jonson

“All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players….”

––Will Shakespeare

More recently, Charles Taylor has observed:

To transform society according to a new principle of legitimacy, we have to have a repertory that includes ways of meeting this principle. This requirement can be broken down into two facets: (1) the actors have to know what to do, have to have practices in their repertory that put the new order into effect; and (2) the ensemble of actors have to agree on what these practices are. [3]

Tolstoy, meanwhile, goes so far to say that if the community cannot easily understand a work of creation, then it doesn’t count as a work of art:

It cannot be said that the majority of people lack the taste to appreciate the highest works of art. The majority understand and have always understood what we, too, consider the highest art: the artistically simple narratives of the Bible, the Gospel parables, folk legends, fairy tales, folk songs are understood by everyone. Why is it that the majority suddenly lost the ability to understand the highest of our art?[4]

(Read Part I here  and Part III here)

Erddig Hall Library….📚📚📚#reading #igreads #dustyatticrarebooks

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NOTES

wood

[1] Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom, trans. Peter Sekirin, (New York, NY: Scribner, 1997) 123.

[2] Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971) (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 45–46.

[3] Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, SC: Duke University Press, 2004) 115.

[4] Tolstoy, Что такое искусство?/Chto takoye iskusstvo? What is Art? (1897), trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, (New York, NY: Penguin, 1995) X, 80.


Jan 30 2018

Lean on Me (When You’re Not Wrong)

LEAN ON ME (WHEN YOU’RE NOT WRONG):
Relying on Others to Define Reality for Ourselves – Part I of III

It’s a dangerous business to try and impose one’s view of things on others.

Padma: if you’re a little uncertain of my reliability, well, a little uncertainty is no bad thing. Cocksure men do terrible deeds. Women, too. ––Salman Rushdie, Midnights Children (1981)[1]

As I’ve previously written, one of the key themes running through Professor Alan Jacobs’s book How to Think (2017) is how we must come to grips that our individuality is paradoxically based on how those around us end up defining each of us as individuals.

For C. S. Peirce (1839–1914), all reality, including our thoughts on reality, begins with our reliance on others:

As what anything really is, is what it may finally come to be known to be in the ideal state of complete information, so that reality depends on the ultimate decision of the community; so thought is what it is, only by virtue of its addressing a future thought which is in its value as thought identical with it, though more developed. In this way, the existence of thought now depends on what is to be hereafter; so that it has only a potential existence, dependent on the future thought of the community….

For Peirce, the individual is but a negation—and when two individuals negate each other’s individuality, they affirm community:

The individual man, since his separate existence is manifested only by ignorance and error, so far as he is anything apart from his fellows, and from what he and they are to be, is only a negation. This is man….”[2]

A century before the phrase “imagined communities” was popularized by Benedict Anderson (1936–2015) as a useful way to describe nationalism, Peirce recognized:

The care that men have for what is to happen after they are dead, cannot be selfish. And finally and chiefly, the constant use of the word “we”––as when we speak of our possessions on the Pacific––our destiny as a republic––in cases in which no personal interests at all are involved, show conclusively that men do not make their personal interests their only ones, and therefore may, at least, subordinate them to the interests of the community.

But just the revelation of the possibility of this complete self-sacrifice in man, and the belief in its saving power, will serve to redeem the logicality of all men. For he who recognizes the logical necessity of complete self-identification of one’s own interests with those of the community, and its potential existence in man, even if he has it not himself, will perceive that only the inferences of that man who has it are logical, and so views his own inferences as being valid only so far as they would be accepted by that man. But so far as he has this belief, he becomes identified with that man. And that ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted must thus belong to a community in which this identification is complete…. [3]

This “ideal perfection of knowledge by which we have seen that reality is constituted” is also, for Peirce, the method of science:

Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those Reals affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as are our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really and truly are; and any man, if he have sufficient experience and he reason enough about it, will be led to the one True conclusion. The new conception here involved is that of Reality….[4]

Even if the community renders something other communities think to be immoral (such as separate public drinking fountains for separate ethnicities), it is nonetheless part of reality, at least until a majority in the community agree to something different. Community creates the facts of reality by agreeing with what they are:

The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real. That is the way I would explain reality….[5]

(Read Part II here, and Part III here)

NOTES

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[1] Salman Rushdie, Midnights Children, (New York, NY: Knopf, 1981. Random House Paperbacks, 2006) II, “Alpha and Omega” 243.

[2] Peirce, “Some Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2 (1868): 140–57.

[3] Peirce, “Ground of Validity of the Laws of Logic: Further Consequences of Four Incapacities,” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 2 (1869): 193–208.

[4] Peirce, “The Fixation of Belief,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (November 1877): 1–15.

[5] Peirce, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Popular Science Monthly 12 (January 1878): 286–302.