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.)


Apr 13 2018

Hosting the Italians: Part I of III

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

Hosting the Italians: Part I of III

It’s been two years since Scott and I traveled to Italy to meet Cosimo and Chiara, and now, they were coming to meet us in Austin. We expected them to arrive sometime Saturday, March 10, 2018. So that afternoon I went over to Scott’s house in Pflugerville. We were a little anxious and a lot excited: anxious because we’d been so well-hosted in Bologna and Rome that we felt obligated to return the generosity; excited because we were enjoying good springtime weather and we’d taken off from work for the next several days. In other words, this would be a vacation for both of us, but one with responsibilities.

Cosimo and Chiara flew directly from Rome to Los Angeles. They said it took about fifteen hours. For a couple of days they toured L.A. and Vegas, then began working their way east from the Grand Canyon through New Mexico and eventually to Amarillo. There they saw the Cadillac Ranch (I think) and ate slabs of steak from the world-famous Big Texan Steak Ranch restaurant.

They texted us once they left Amarillo on their journey to Austin. But by that time the weariness of road travel had become burdensome. For not only did Cosimo and Chiara have (quite expected) jetlag from Italy to California, but as they began their trek across the Great American West, they had forgotten to account for the time zone changes occurring across the continent. In addition, they were unaware that that particular Saturday night was the Day Light Savings change-over. Talk about a triple-whammy.

A post shared by Scott Hebson (@outlawproducer) on

As Saturday afternoon turned into evening, Scott and I decided to watch The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), which is an Italian-made film starring American actors and shot in rural Spain. Before we knew it, we were approaching the end of this three-hour flick but were still awaiting the arrival of our guests. I told Scott that I expected “time had caught up with them,” and just before I left to go home for the evening, we received a text message saying they had driven from Amarillo to Brownwood but were going to stay there for the night. Having traveled half-way across the continent, followed by driving half-way across Texas––and all in the last 48 hours––we were not surprised.

 

So the next day we met them at Baby Acapulco’s in Pflugerville for a Tex-Mex lunch, one that lasted a few hours as we all conversed and caught up together. Scott’s friend Ciera also came and met everyone. Then we all went to Scott’s and helped them unpack and unwind.

That evening Scott said something to our guests like: “There’s lots of good food and restaurants here I want to show you, but there’s also good fast food,” so we went and picked up fried chicken from Raising Cain’s.

Later that night we went downtown to the intersection of Fifth St. and Congress Ave. where at the Ethics Lounge was an electronic music show, an event that was part of kicking off the South by Southwest 2018 music festival. Here we saw DJ-producers 6Blocc of Los Angeles and Von D of France, both of whom Scott and Cosimo were familiar with. Other than the elevator at the club not working, it was a great night.

A post shared by Scott Hebson (@outlawproducer) on

(Cosimo, Scott, Von D, and our friend Adam B)

Bologna is considered the food capital of Italy, and when we were their guests, Cosimo and Chiara treated Scott and me to some of the best food to be found in both Bologna and Rome. We therefore wanted them to try some of the best in Texas cuisine. Part of that meant taking them, along with Ciera, and my extended family David and Dyhana Landrum, to Storm’s Drive-in Restaurant in Lampasas, my hometown. A place with food so good that, back in the 1950’s, Elvis used to frequent it when he was an army draftee stationed at nearby Fort Hood. Today it remains just as much a culinary pilgrimage as it was back then for the King.

A post shared by Scott Hebson (@outlawproducer) on

(Dyhana, Chiara, Scott, David, Cosimo at Storm’s)

After lunch we went to the Landrum family farm, now called Finca de la Luna, where under sunny skies we inspected the vineyard, played with the dogs, drank some wine and Topo Chico mineral water, and listened to guineas meep and beep in the farmyard. At one point some homemade wine was brought out. It was negroamaro, a couple of years old. Cosimo was quite impressed. For though he is not a heavy wine drinker, he really enjoyed his glass, said it reminded him of Salento, his hometown in southern Italy—in the region where negroamaro originates. It was as if our two hometowns were united with this wine, for recalling this memory and writing about it now reminds me of a passage by the Southern writer Harry Crews (1935–2012):

I come from people who believe the home place is as vital and necessary as the beating of your own heart. It is that single house where you were born, where you lived out your childhood, where you grew into young manhood. It is your anchor in the world, that place, along with the memory of your kinsmen at the long supper table every night and the knowledge that it would always exist, if nowhere but in memory.
(A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York: Harper & Row, 1978) 13–14.)

At some point later in the evening we were discussing burlesque dancing while Cosimo played piano. Despite everyone keeping their clothes on, it was still a fun night.

(At Finca de la Luna)

On the way back to Austin, Cosimo played a CD my father had given him of his punk rock band, Skull Shaker. The album had just been released during the South by Southwest music festival. Scott said they listened to it several times, so I assume they enjoyed it (we were in separate cars).

The next day I had to return to work, so what follows was told to me, though I did not experience it: that is, on Tuesday, March 13 Scott took Cosimo and Chiara to Lockhart. Scott’s mother Corally as well as David and Dyhana, also came along. After driving for about an hour south of Austin they arrived at the house of Scott’s grandmother. Scott’s grandmother, a.k.a. “Mom-maw” Ridge, proceeded to give everyone a short lesson on the history of Texas. Afterwards everyone ate lunch at Smitty’s Market, considered one of the best barbeque joints in Texas (and the world for that matter). They ate brisket, sausage, and pork chops, with Big Red soda to wash it down.

That afternoon they went to visit Scott’s uncle, who has a nearby ranch. There they explored the land on ATVs. Upon returning to Austin, they stopped by Whole Foods and grabbed a bunch of things to prepare a meal at home. After five hours of preparation and cooking, everyone was treated to some authentic Bolognese style pasta with sauce, a soufflé, and cauliflower cheese casserole. It was a terrific meal, but one that could not eaten and enjoyed until about 1:30 in the morning.

(Read Part II here.)

A post shared by Scott Hebson (@outlawproducer) on


(Big Red at Smitty’s Market, Lockhart, Texas)


Apr 5 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 02: Materials for Investigation

Mark Twain in Athens

Midwest Mod Squad no. 02: Materials for Investigation

(Read no. 01 in this series here.)

Let’s now see who the subjects of investigation are:

New Pop Lit is a publishing organization putting out contemporary short fiction. As a publishing group it appears to be placeless and ageless, for there’s nothing on their About Page to indicate otherwise. Incidentally (or as the investigation proceeds we may say, not so incidentally) three of the six stories I read from here all took place within a school setting. New Pop Lit appears to want plot-driven stories over style evangelists and politics disguised as fiction. The first six writers I read were:

  • Jon Berger of Saginaw, Michigan and his story “Eighty Pounds.”
  • Kathleen M. Crane, a contributing editor at New Pop Lit, and her story “Red Panties and a Guitar.”
  • Tianna Grosch from the woodlands of Pennsylvania and her story “Unraveling.”
  • Clint Margrave of Los Angeles and his story “The Fetus.”
  • A. K. Riddle of “in the Middle of Nowhere, Illinois” and her story “The Professor.”
  • Don Waitt of Tampa and his story “Raquetball.”

*****

Five on the Fifth is also an ageless, placeless publication putting out contemporary short fiction. One recent story I read was a horror (?) tale “Jonah and the Frog,” set mostly in a (New Orleans?)  bar by James Wade. I’ve read at least half-a-dozen stories of his over the last few years, and he happens to be someone I know personally. I know he’s from Texas and is currently engaged in a cross-continental drift across America. And this reminds me of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s memoir, A Life … Well, Lived (2015) where he reflects on how, sometime between the 1990’s and the Aughts, it became better to be called an American songwriter, rather than just a Texas songwriter. Therefore, I don’t know if I would call James Wade (or if he would call himself) a Texas writer.[1]

*****

The Masters Review is a publishing house out of Bend, Oregon. Its sixth volume of contemporary short fiction contains ten stories selected by Roxane Gay, two of which stood out well in front of the others. Coincidently (or not), not only do these two stories both fall under the genre of historical fiction, but both writers are from New York:

Chris Arp is a rather unknown quantity (much like Pop Lit and Five on Five), but he does disclose graduating from NYU’s Creative Writing Program. His story “Gormley,” is set somewhere in the mid-nineteenth-century British Empire. Nicole Cuffy is a New York based writer with a BA from Columbia University and an MFA from the New School. Her story “Steal Away” takes place in the early twentieth-century sharecropping South.

*****

Belt Publishing of Cleveland, Ohio is an outfit that caters to readers and writers of all things Midwest. I’ve recently read two chapbooks that they’ve put out, but don’t let their small size fool you. The contents of both Edward McClelland’s How to Speak Midwestern (2016) and Mark Athitakis’s The New Midwest (2016) are quite concentrated and deserve multiple readings.

McClelland is based in Chicago, and his is a book of regional language and dialects. Athitakis lives in Phoenix but is a native Midwesterner. His book surveys the literature from that region from about the last 100 years with a focus on works since 1960.

Like Alfarabi’s four questions, mentioned in no. 01 of this series, I will mostly be using these two books as tools to analyze and understand the stories under consideration.

*****

The next post in this series will begin to analyze all of what’s mentioned above.


NOTES

wood

[1] Ray Wylie Hubbard with Thom Jurek, A Life Well, Lived, (Wimberly, TX: Bordello Records, 2015).


Apr 5 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 01: Method of Investigation

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Midwest Mod Squad no. 01:
Method of Investigation

I don’t believe all art is political, just as I don’t believe all political activity is artistic.

Alfarabi (872–950 CE) was a medieval philosopher from Persia. In The Attainment of Happiness, he asks four questions that political science seeks to answer––a particular kind of political science meant to be understood in terms of the ancient city (polis), not the modern nation-state.[1]

The modern global Anglophone culture contains within it a North Atlantic culture,[2] and within that North Atlantic culture is a regional culture called the American Midwest. The Midwest is certainly neither a single city nor an entire nation-state (it even includes parts of Southern Canada), but the recent short fiction coming from this region reflects some of the culture of the American heartland that I think are worth writing about and reflecting on.

Following Biblioklept’s hybrid of meditation and manifesto toward writing a better book blog, I will begin an investigation of writers and books concerning the Midwest using Alfarabi’s four questions as an initial guide. For each work of short fiction under consideration, my investigation will ask:

  1. What is the work? What is the essence of each story, each book?
  2. How does it work? How does each particular publisher and author contribute to what that essence is (however it may be defined)? How is each story told? How was it published?
  3. From what did the work come from? Author’s origins, regional influences (or lack thereof)?
  4. For what purpose was each work written?

I expect this investigation to be a series of an undetermined number of blog posts. Applying what Alfarabi asks to what I’ve read does not mean I will engage in any political criticism of contemporary fiction.

Here and there will be mention of outliers, that is, writers and their work (usually contemporary short fiction) not from the Midwest. It may seem that I mention more outliers than insiders, and that may even be true in the beginning. But once momentum is attained, I expect the investigation to narrow its focus.

Lastly, I am not an expert on anything of or about the Midwest, just a curious observer and occasional visitor, nothing more.

(Looks for the Wendigo in the woods  of Michigan)

Continue to “Midwest Mod Squad no. 02

NOTES

wood

[1] As Alfarabi puts it:

[The political philosopher] should make known what and how every one of them is, and from what and for what it is, until all of them become known, intelligible, and distinguished from each other. This is political science. It consists of knowing the things by which the citizens of cities attain happiness through political association in the measure that innate disposition equips each of them for it….

This happiness is virtuous, and what is virtuous, continues Alfarabi, is useful:

There is a certain deliberative virtue that enables one to excel in the discovery of what is most useful for a virtuous end common to many nations, to a whole nation, or to a whole city, at a time when an event occurs that affects them in common. (There is no difference between saying most useful for a virtuous end and most useful and most noble, because what is both most useful and most noble necessarily serves a virtuous end, and what is most useful for a virtuous end is indeed the most noble with respect to that end.) This is political deliberative virtue. The events that affect them in common may persist over a long period or vary within short periods. (Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, trans. Muhsin Mahdi, (Chicago: Agora Books, 1969), “The Attainment of Happiness,” p. 24, i, ¶ 20; pp. 28–29, ii, ¶ 28.)

[2] See Charles Taylor’s definition of North Atlantic culture in A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007) 1, 15.


Mar 30 2018

Two Quotations on the Language of Leadership

London - Georgian Apartments

Two Quotations on the Language of Leadership

Just two quotations today, two to compare and comport and contrast within everything else that has been read and seen and consumed online. The first is from Eric Hoffer (1902-1983)’s The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951):

Charlatanism of some degree is indispensable to effective leadership. There can be no mass movement without some deliberate misrepresentation of facts. No solid, tangible advantage can hold a following and make it zealous and loyal unto death. The leader has to be practical and a realist, yet must talk the language of the visionary and the idealist. [1]

But compare the “shrewd realism” of George Woodcock (1912-1995)’s Mohandas Gandhi (1971):

Most Indians (whatever their caste or religious background) agree on Gandhi’s shrewd realism….

As Gandhi once remarked, in this life the ideal is never achieved. And those who seek to realize the ideal die either in the loneliness of unfulfillment or in the solitude of having betrayed the ideal of grand illusion of fulfillment. The latter fate was Lenin’s and Nehru’s; it awaits Mao Tsetung and Castro. The other fate, of dying alone, unfulfilled but essentially uncorrupted, was that of Kropotkin and Che Guevara and Zapata; it was also, despite all this triumphs, that of Gandhi. His successes were immense if one judges them by the goals of the majority of men; judged by his aspirations, he failed, yet his failure was a sign of the magnitude of his vision.[2]

 

wood

[1] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §91, p. 107.

[2] George Woodcock, Mohandas Gandhi, (New York: Viking, 1971) 9, 49.


Mar 22 2018

Hiding Out In the Open

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Hiding Out In the Open

From the always wonderful Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980):

“Does one not write books precisely to conceal what one harbors? …. Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy.”

–Discovering the Mind Vol. IINietzsche, Heidegger, Buber,
(New York: McGraw Hill, 1981) 153–54, 161

Ero: all pornography conceals sexuality.

A post shared by @chang.li.nao on


Mar 18 2018

What I Intend to Read Today: March 18, 2018

Western book stack

What I Intend to Read Today: March 18, 2018.

Today’s reads have to do with Russia, information theory and warfare, democracy, racism, and religion:

wood

By the way, SXSW 2018, that is, the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, has been one wild, crazy week:


Feb 27 2018

Nobility and Novelty

pencil shavings

Nobility and Novelty

I’m very happy to have another essay published in The Fortnightly Review.

In “A Charming Sense of Novelty,” I discuss nobility and novelty via Prince William’s new haircut, cognitive types, and Samuel Johnson’s knack for ferocious argumentation.

A post shared by Booknaticos10 (@booknaticos10) on


Feb 24 2018

What Germans Thought of American Football Coaches 100 Years Ago

la casaWhat Germans Thought of American Football Coaches 100 Years Ago:
(At Least According to Max Weber):

Written in about 1917:

The American boy learns unspeakably less than the German boy.

In spite of an incredible number of examinations, his school life has not had the significance of turning him into an absolute creature of examinations, such as the German.

For in America, bureaucracy, which presupposes the examination diploma as a ticket of admission to the realm of office prebends, is only in its beginnings.

The young American has no respect for anything or anybody, for tradition or for public office—unless it is for the personal achievement of individual men.

This is what the American calls “democracy.” This is the meaning of democracy, however distorted its intent may in reality be, and this intent is what matters here.

The American’s conception of the teacher who faces him is: he sells me his knowledge and his methods for my father’s money, just as the greengrocer sells my mother cabbage. And that is all.

To be sure, if the teacher happens to be a football coach, then, in this field, he is a leader. But if he is not this (or something similar in a different field of sports), he is simply a teacher and nothing more. And no young American would think of having the teacher sell him a Weltanschauung or a code of conduct.

Now, when formulated in this manner, we should reject this. But the question is whether there is not a grain of salt contained in this feeling, which I have deliberately stated in extreme with some exaggeration. ––Max Weber (1864–1920)[1]

 

wood

[1] Max Weber, “Science and Politics,” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, translated by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1958) 149–50.