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.)


May 17 2017

Christopher Landrum: the Pretend Priest

Christopher Landrum: the Pretend Priest

Part I: Confessions

I have a confession to make: I am no priest, but I receive confessions from others.

I hear confessions from Dale Dudley (a socially liberal, economically conservative radio talk show host in Austin who broadcasts over 30 hours a week on KLBJ fm and KLBJ am). I also daily read confessions from Rod Dreher (a socially conservative, economically liberal (?) writer from Baton Rouge who blogs at least 10 posts a week at The American Conservative).

Like me, they are Southern white men. Unlike me, Dudley is a victim of sexual abuse and religious shame who grew up in east Texas; Dreher is a victim of a bureaucratic resistance to the sexual abuse scandal of the late twentieth-century Catholic Church and grew up in southern Louisiana. But they talk/write about every anxiety/excitement/crisis/joy in their lives on a daily basis. They cannot help but confess.

Although, I recently pretended to be a priest at a Renaissance festival, I generally hate the fake. I don’t want to be an actual priest. I don’t want to be a monk. I want to drink the beer, not brew it as a friar might.

Name of heroes.

A post shared by @outlawproducer on

Me pretending to be a priest/monk

It seems like there’s something sick about wanting to pretend to be a priest but not wanting to be an actual one. Perhaps it’s similar to Rod Dreher’s latest book The Benedict Option (2017) whereby he advocates establishing not “literal” Benedictine monasteries but analogic ones. Then what’s the difference between pretend and analogy when both actions strive to not be too literal? On this point, I feel perplexed.

Similarly, I take pretty pictures in cemeteries but I don’t pray for the dead. But also I don’t deny acknowledging the majority in the graveyard while remembering a few outliers who happen to catch my eye. Some ask only to be remembered, and not prayed for:

A unique specimen #cemetery #Dublin #catholic

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on

Read the Tale of Edward Duffy #Dublin #Ireland

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on


Part II: Citations

The nineteenth chapter of Oliver Goldsmith’s (1728–1774) Vicar of Wakefield (1766) is entitled: “The description of a person discontented with the present government, and apprehensive of the loss of our liberties,” and involves a butler pretending to be the master of the house who wants to argue with his guests about politics. This chapter has the wonderful phrase “apprehensions of my own absurdity,” which may aptly describe my anxieties about pretending to be a priest.

250 years after Goldsmith, George Costanza just wanted to pretend to be an architect:

Aristotle points out in the fourth chapter of the Poetics, humans are imitative creatures, but Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) (who is almost always right) says: “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.  What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.”

After readings some bits by Alasdair MacIntyre, I wonder: is such pretending part of the lost art and effectiveness of argument? Do we pretend because we can no longer argue with anyone about anything? Or perhaps we have lost only affirmative arguments; because negative arguments still hold strong. Modern moral philosophy, according to MacIntyre, defines itself for what it is not, not for anything it might be.[1]

Is my pretending to be a priest an example of seeking the sacred?––a search for some lost community as mentioned in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age? Do I seek to understand the abstract concept of “community” because I feel like most tangible examples of it have been lost? Or is it something along the lines of what Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs wrote the other day about how part of being in a world that doesn’t feel human is to pretend to be human—and what is more human than being religious?

Anthropocene describes what we are doing to our environment, while posthuman is largely phenomenological, a condensed articulation of what it’s like to live in a world where we are constantly making and remaking ourselves, especially via biotechnology. And surely there is some truth in these points, but I want to suggest that the apparent disjunction obscures a deeper unity. A world in which we remake our environment and ourselves is a world that does not feel human to us. We do not know how to play the role of gods, and on some level perceive that to act as gods is to betray our nature.

NOTES

[1] MacIntyre Alasdair. “Why is the Search for the Foundations of Ethics So Frustrating?” The Hastings Center Report. Vol. 9. No. 4 (August 1978.) 16–22 at 17.


Sep 10 2010

“The Philosophers Song” (Monty Python)

Mark Twain in Athens

Monty Python’s  “The Philosophers Song”: