Dec 24 2020

Random Readings from 2020 no. 3: Gore Vidal

bookshelf

It is always easy to disagree with Gore Vidal–but in his prime, he was difficult to spar with. First, from 1961:

Any citizen can be usefully engaged. He can also be useful in social and moral legislation, where there is much work to be done. As for civil liberties, anyone who is not vigilant may one day find himself living, if not in a police state, at least in a police city.

(“Police Brutality,” Esquire, August 1961 in Vidal’s United States: Essays 19521992, (New York: Random House, 1993) p. 555.)

Then from 1981:

Our therapists, journalists, and clergy are seldom very learned. They seem not to realize that most military societies on the rise tend to encourage same-sex activities for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has not grown up ass-backward, as most Americans have. In the centuries of Rome’s great military and political success, there was no differentiation between same-sexers and other-sexers; there was also a lot of crossing back and forth of the sort that those Americans who do enjoy inhabiting category-gay or category-straight find hard to deal with. Of the first twelve Roman emperors, only one was exclusively heterosexual. Since these twelve men were pretty tough cookies, rigorously trained as warriors, perhaps our sexual categories and stereotypes are—can it really be?––false. It was not until the sixth century of the empire that same-sex sex was proscribed by church and state. By then, of course, the barbarians were within the gates and the glory had fled.

Today, American evangelical Christians are busy trying to impose on the population at large their superstitions about sex and the sexes and the creation of the world. Given enough turbulence in the land, these natural fascists can be counted on to assist some sort of authoritarian—but never, never totalitarian—political movement. Divines from Santa Clara to Falls Church are particularly fearful of what they describe as the gay liberation movement’s attempt to gain “special rights and privileges” when all that the same-sexers want is to be included, which they are not by law and custom, within the framework of the Fourteenth Amendment. The divine in Santa Clara believes that same-sexers should be killed. The divine in Falls Church believes that they should be denied equal rights under the law. Meanwhile, the redneck divines have been joined by a group of New York Jewish publicists who belong to what they proudly call “the new class” (né arrivistes), and these lively hucksters have now managed to raise fag-baiting to a level undreamed of in Falls Church—or even in Moscow.

(“Pink Triangle and Yellow Star,” The Nation, November 14, 1981 in Vidal’s United States: Essays 19521992, pp. 596–97.)


Dec 24 2020

Random Readings from 2020: no.2 The Gordon Riots

Western book stack

Before this riotous year, I was unaware of the Gordon Riots of London:

By the late spring of 1780 the reform movement was already disintegrating. The final discouragement came with the terrible Gordon Riots of June 1780. Sir George Savile and the Rockingham whigs had carried in 1778 a Roman Catholic Relief Act. Religious intolerance was easily whipped up by agitators in the eighteenth century, and in 1779 a Protestant Association was formed with the half-witted Lord George Gordon as President. On June 2nd, 1780, a huge crowd of 60,000 people gathered in St George’s Fiends, Southwark, to present a monster petition against the Catholic Relief Act. The petition was presented to Parliament, and some of the crowd went off to burn Roman Catholic chapels. During the next few days there was more violence, the prisons were attacked and the prisoners freed. The house of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Mansfield, was destroyed, together with his precious library. Next day, “Black Wednesday” saw the climax of the violence and destruction. An attack on the Bank of England was repulsed with heavy casualties. By the 9th the military were in full control. Four hundred and fifty people were arrested and twenty-five people were hanged. Gordon was tried for high treason, but acquitted after a brilliant defence by his counsel, Thomas Erskine.

What did it all mean? There is no evidence that it was planned by the Protestant Association, or the Opposition, or indeed by anyone. Religious feeling against Roman Catholics was strong; there was much social unrest in London, and there was an obvious absence of any adequate police force. There was widespread disillusionment at the war failures, heavy taxation and trade recession. All these factors seem sufficient to explain the Gordon Riots.

The results were far-reaching. The riots went far to destroy the reform movement. The rift between the whigs and the radicals widened. The governing classes became deeply suspicious of popular movements. Professor Butterfield comments:

The memory of these days had a great part in that fear of popular demonstrations which seized upon both the ministry and the governing classes of England at the time of the French Revolution.

(R. W. Harris, A Short History of 18th Century England: 1689–1793, (New York: Mentor Books, 1963) pp. 200-01.)


Dec 24 2020

Random Readings from 2020 no 1: Mark Twain

London - Georgian Apartments

From Mark Twain’s The Innocent’s Abroad (1867):

At eleven o’clock at night, when most of the ship’s company were abed, four of us stole softly ashore in a small boat, a clouded moon favoring the enterprise, and started two and two, and far apart, over a low hill, intending to go clear around the Piraeus, out of the range of its police. Picking our way so stealthily over that rocky, nettle-grown eminence, made me feel a good deal as if I were on my way somewhere to steal something. My immediate comrade and I talked in an undertone about quarantine laws and their penalties, but we found nothing cheering in the subject. I was posted. Only a few days before, I was talking with our captain, and he mentioned the case of a man who swam ashore from a quarantined ship somewhere, and got imprisoned six months for it; and when he was in Genoa a few years ago, a captain of a quarantined ship went in his boat to a departing ship, which was already outside of the harbor, and put a letter on board to be taken to his family, and the authorities imprisoned him three months for it, and then conducted him and his ship fairly to sea, and warned him never to show himself in that port again while he lived. (chapter XXXII)


Nov 3 2020

5 Short Stories Reviewed in Short Length

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Here are 5 short stories written in the last 3 years that I have reviewed in the last 6 months. (You know you have nothing better to do than read fiction on election day!)

  1. Robert Garner McBrearty’s “A Morning Swim” (Missouri Review, Winter 2017) reviewed by Bookbread here.
  2. Chris Drangle’s “Animation” (Chattahoochee Review Spring 2018) reviewed by Bookbread here.
  3. John Elizabeth Stintzi’s “Coven Covets Boy” (Puritan Magazine, March 2018) reviewed by Bookbread here.
  4. Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s “The Goddess of Beauty Goes Bowling” (Chattahoochee Review, Spring 2018) reviewed by Bookbread here.
  5. Jim Bosiljeavac’s “There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away,” (Craft Literary, March 2019) reviewed by Bookbread here.

Oct 28 2020

Short Story Review: “There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away” (2019) by Jim Bosiljevac

typewriter

I don’t know what you call this style of narrative, but I’ve met it (or at least cousins of it) before. Of course, style is and isn’t substance. And all styles have their precursors, unchosen genealogies harkening back to nameless literary ancestors of yore.

What I see, as far as style goes, in Jim Bosiljeavac’s short story “There Is in This Dirty Night a Running Chase Off and Away,” (Craft Literary, March 2019) can only be called the pulsing hyperpresent of the narrative—a rugged intensity emitting, radiating through each pseudo-sentence of the story. (Bosiljeavac’s piece contains no commas.)

I first encountered this style, as many of us do, in the grade-school classic “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890) by Ambrose Bierce. Later I saw in Conrad, particularly in “Heart of Darkness” (1899) and grew weary of it in Faulkner, even at his best:

It was as if the boy had already divined what his senses and intellect had not encompassed yet: that doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with plows and axes who feared it because it was wilderness, men myriad and nameless even to one another in the land where the old bear had earned a name, and through which ran not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old, dead time, a phantom, epitome, and apotheosis of the old, wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear, like pygmies about ankles of a drowsing elephant;––the old bear, solitary, indomitable, and alone; widowered, childless, and absolved of mortality—old Priam reft of his old wife and outlived all his sons. (William Faulkner, Go Down Moses. (New York: Random House, 1947) “V. The Bear.” § I)

You can find this style in Ellison’s The Invisible Man (1947):

Around me the students move with faces frozen in solemn masks, and I seem to hear already the voices mechanically raised in the songs the visitors loved. (Loved? Demanded. Sung? An ultimatum accepted and ritualized, an allegiance recited for the peace it imparted, and for that perhaps loved. Loved as the defeated come to love the symbols of their conquerors. A gesture of acceptance, of terms laid down and reluctantly approved.) And here, sitting rigid, I remember the evenings spent before the sweeping platform in awe and in pleasure, and in the pleasure of a we; remember the short formal sermons intoned from the pulpit there, rendered in smooth articulate tones, with calm assurance purged of that wild emotion of the crude preachers most of us knew in our home towns and of whom we were deeply ashamed, these logical appeals which reached us more like the thrust of a firm and formal design requiring nothing more than the lucidity of uncluttered periods, the lulling movement of multisyllabic words to thrill and console us. And I remember, too, the talks of visiting speakers, all eager to inform us of how fortunate we were to be a part of the “vast” and formal ritual. How fortunate to belong to this family sheltered from those lost in ignorance and darkness. (The Invisible Man (New York: Random House, 1953) V, 86.)

Sometimes the pulsing hyperpresent style pops up in Jack London, sometimes in Camus (as in the 1957 short story “Le renégat”), and certainly in John Gardner’s Grendel (1971):

A severed leg swells up and bursts, then an arm, then another, and the red fire turns on the blackening flesh and makes it sizzle, and it reaches higher, up and up into greasy smoke, turning, turning, like the falcons at warplay, rushing like circling wolves up into the swallowing, indifferent sky. (Grendel, (New York: Knopf, 1971) I, 14)

This style that emphasizes an intensity of immediacy can even be found in Michael Punke’s The Revenant (2002). But when it comes to Bosiljevac’s story, I think one of the key paragraphs is toward the end, where—much like in Conrad’s Darkness and Bierce’s Occurrence, dream and reality, conscious and subconscious have folded over one another (perhaps bleeding into the metafictions of Stephen Dixon). Bosiljevac writes:

Owen! he shouts but it comes out Own! but he shouts it over and over and chases the sound down toward the white eagle and in his mind he begins to see things that are like memories but he knows he never experienced these things. He sees a man with a feather in his hair and blood smeared all about his face riding on a black horse and the man is slumped over with a spear run clear through him and he sees two bears wrestling in a muddy street and he sees a woman in a small farmhouse out in the country and she is telling a story to her child son about the young boy who was awakened in the night by a noise and runs out not knowing if he is in a dream or in real life but believing that his younger brother has been stolen by the devil. And in this story the boy chases the devil into the woods and across fields and through rivers and over mountains and he is carried forward by the rope that hitches his heart to his brother’s and because he doesn’t know if it’s real that a devil has stolen his brother in the night or if he has just been sent off by a dream.

Whatever you want to call that style, Bosiljevac has written an interesting, strong piece of short fiction. It is not completely perfect. I thought the naming of the children, in all their biblically onomastic glory, was a little too corny, too much like The Waltons going to bed. But other than that, what readers get is a potent, probing tale of night and sweat, suspense and silence. This is a writer (who apparently also spends some of his time in Austin) to watch out for.

The Waltons Say Goodnight


Oct 23 2020

Is There Any Wisdom in Laughter? One Last Crumb from a What was Once a Work in Progress

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Here is a final crumb removed from what was once a work in progress, but is now a work needing but a final polish before being ready to be submitted. Just one more darling killed and culled and cut from the final draft:

Common sense says it’s often wise to remain silent, but is there any wisdom in laughter? Augustine of Africa mocked the legend of how, instead of crying, the infant Zoroaster of Persia laughed at the moment of his own birth (Confessions 21:16). “It is taught,” moreover, says the Talmud (Kethuboth 103b), that “if one dies laughing, it is a good sign for him.”* Socrates, before drinking deadly hemlock, made some around him cry, others laugh––though Socrates himself refrained from doing either. And though the Talmudic and Socratic approaches seem more akin to Chad’s style, one does suspect he too was the kind of child who would’ve laughed at the moment of his own birth.

*Quoting Walter Kaufmann, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1958; 1978) p. 281.


Oct 17 2020

Another Crumb Removed from a Work in Progress

Mortadella in Bologna, Italia

Here is another crumb removed from a work in progress, but one perhaps worth sharing nonetheless. Long-distance relationships don’t always work, but long-distance perspectives are often useful for art and science:

Besides, “we are better able,” says Aristotle, “to contemplate our neighbors than ourselves, and their actions than our own,” (Nico. Ethics 09.09). This might even be one reason why Plato chose to write the final words of Socrates within the context of a conversation between two people outside of Athens rather than two members of the jury who sentenced him.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1934) (IX, ix) p. 559; Plato, Phaedo 57a in The Last Days of Socrates, trans. Hugh Tredennick and Harold Tarrant, (New York: Penguin, 1993) p. 109.


Oct 14 2020

Currently Reading: October 2020

London - Georgian Apartments
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Currently reading

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What I’m currently reading for October 2020:

  • Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus Colonus, Antigone
  • Suzanne Butler, Vale of Tyranny (1954)
  • R. W. Harris, A Short History of 18th Century England: 1689-1793 (1963)
  • Michael Erard, Babel No More (2012)

Oct 9 2020

Crumbs Cut from Work in Progress

Here is a crumb I cut from a current work in progress:

It was also immediately evident upon my arrival that this was one of those “high time” moments for local mythology studied by the Romanian polymath Mircea Eliade and mentioned throughout Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s erudite tome A Secular Age (2007): “high” not only in any (and probably every) pharmacological-Dionysian sense, but one of those moments of keeping Austin weird in its original sense: a “high” once in a blue moon moment, where all the stars align so that both the making and retelling of myths are most potent, as in Christian liturgies that, during the holidays, retell the coming of the Messiah, or the secular “high time” moments felt at things like Willie Nelson’s first Fourth of July Picnic concert in 1973 in Austin.

Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004) 97–98; Taylor, A Secular Age, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007) 713.


Oct 8 2020

Ghost Riders of Manor Road, Austin, TX

Yes, everyone likes to complain how big the city has grown, but it’s still small enough to ride your pony to the store.

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Ghost riders of Manor Road

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