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.


Apr 7 2020

Short Story Review: “Hunger” by Susan Neville

book spines

I don’t want to go too much into summary and specifics of plot when discussing Susan Neville’s short story “Hunger,” (Missouri Review, Winter 2017). The title speaks enough for itself in that regard.

Instead I will note some moments and lines that stood out and elaborate on why they did for me.

wood

At one point the unnamed narrator tells readers:

Maybe it was choice itself I wanted to rid myself of. Left or right? This way or that? Day in and day out, year after year, I drive in my little rat’s maze. Grocery store. Drugstore. Work. Home. But in what order? And what if I wanted to break out of that maze, as I sometimes do? (p. 31)

Readers learn only that this narrator lacks a sense of freedom, but not why. This idea that she’s stuck in a rat’s maze, either entrapped in vacuity or restrained by oppressive hegemony—she never tells readers, but it really stood out when I read it.

And this mention of the maze has both reminded me of what New Pop Lit editor Karl Wenclas has been getting at as a literary theorist and editor as well as led me to suspect that Neville is also trying to get at something similar as a writer (through the character of her narrator in this story): the need to break out of the maze––to shatter the cookie-cutter, foregone conclusions found in too many short stories these days.

Neville’s story has what Wenclas hints at in his phrasing of “new, different angles,” and how “in truth there are more than two sides to every story.” And Neville’s story has many sides, though I haven’t apprehended all of them fully (even after at least three enthusiastic readings). But she seems to have created something that Wenclas, myself, and others are looking for as readers, what Wenclas has formulated as “a faster, vastly more readable and exciting short story….” a “prototype so different from the standard.”

wood

At one point, Neville’s narrator tells readers:

One of the pleasures of life is that there is always so much to think about and attempt to understand. (p. 32)

This to me is a key to understanding why the narrator is almost overwhelmed by the abundance of detail she’s trying to share and the difficulty in expressing why she needs to share that abundance to her readers. They aren’t just readers, but readers-as-characters participating in the story by their close listening. But even an abundance of something Good can be overwhelming and requiring adjustment (Plato, Republic VII, 518) or worse, so poisonous as to necessitate countermeasures (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II, ii; II, vii; III, vii; IV, v).

Yet, at the end of the day, the reader doesn’t know beyond a reasonable doubt if Neville’s narrator’s thinking about life qualifies as excessive and overly abundant. (But there may be clues that I as a reader have as of yet unknowingly passed over.)

wood

The narrator of “Hunger” informs readers that:

I must have complete quiet in the car. I do not listen to music. I listen to my thoughts. (p. 33)

And this line reminded me of something I’d come across recently when rereading Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), a novel whose narrator tells readers:

Sometimes I’ll turn on the radio and listen to a talk program from Boston or New York. I can’t stand recorded music if I’ve been drinking a good deal.

(Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Slaughterhouse-Five, (New York: Dell, 1969; 1971) I, 7.)

If one doesn’t listen to music when in the car for long periods of time, as Neville’s (seemingly sober) narrator appears to be doing—does that act of debarring oneself from art indicate excessive thinking? Vonnegut’s narrator seems to imply that excessive drinking leads to excessive thinking. One wants to say to the main character of “Hunger,” “If only she’d listened to music, then perhaps she wouldn’t feel so trapped in that maze she thinks she’s in.” But that may not be the case for this hungry character.

This notion of too much thinking and not enough music also reminds me of a passage from Kafka’s Investigations of a Dog (1922):

But they––incredible! incredible!––they never replied, behaved as if I were not there. Dogs who make no reply to the greeting of other dogs are guilty of an offense against good manners which the humblest dog would never pardon any more than the greatest. Perhaps they were not dogs at all? But how should they not be dogs? Could I not actually hear on listening more closely the subdued cries with which they encouraged each other, drew each other’s attention to difficulties, warned each other against errors; could I not see the last and youngest dog, to whom most of those cries were addressed, often stealing a glance at me as if he would have dearly wished to reply, but refrained because it was not allowed? But why should it not be allowed, why should the very thing which our laws unconditionally command not be allowed in this one case? I became indignant at the thought and almost forgot the music. Those dogs were violating the law. Great magicians they might be, but the law was valid for them too, I knew that quite well though I was a child. And having recognized that, I now noticed something else. They had good grounds for remaining silent, that is, assuming that they remained silent from a sense of shame.

(Franz Kafka, “Forschungen eins Hundes” (“Investigations of a Dog”) (c. 1922). trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories, ed. Nahum N. Glatzer, (New York: Schocken, 1971) 283.)

Notice that the dogs don’t just howl harmoniously; they make music so complex it can be forgotten.

wood

Finally, there’s the line by Neville from the daughter to her mother, the narrator:

I felt like I was being buried alive, she [the daughter] says and then asks, Where are you? I’m driving, I say, and there’s an uncanny valley sort of blip in her face as she continues doing whatever she was doing when I accidentally called her. (p. 33)

Yes, the daughter could literally mean, “Where are you, mother?” But sometimes asking “Where are you?” is a way of asking “What are you thinking about just now?” Readers don’t know where the mother-narrator is, or is going, for she never mentions a destination. The mechanic she visits functions only to keep her going, but she never intends to stop. It seems the means of her getting there have overcome the goal itself.

But is she being chased? Yes, some mazes have no exits, but I detect no monsters in this story. There is no evidence in the text that the mother-narrator is being chased by a Minotaur.


Aug 30 2019

The Dangers of Being an Eternal Student

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

THE DANGERS OF BEING AN ETERNAL STUDENT:

MEDITATIONS ON BEING A WRITER no. 3

Recently I came across an interesting passage from Ivan Illich (1926–2002) writing in 1973 on how to balance learning against teaching as well as the dangers of being an eternal student:

This blindness is a result of the broken balance of learning. People who are hooked on teaching are conditioned to be customers for everything else. They see their own personal growth as an accumulation of institutional outputs, and prefer what institutions make over what they themselves can do. They repress the ability to discover reality by their own lights. The skewed balance of learning explains why the radical monopoly of commodities has become imperceptible. It does not explain why people feel impotent to correct those profound disorders which they do perceive. (Tools for Conviviality, (c. 1973), (London: Marion Boyars, 1990) p. 68.)

Perhaps I’m too comfortable writing on topics as a non-expert—and (perhaps) this is the origin of recent feelings of scribbler’s impotence. I admit to being a carrier of that most modern of aliments: skepticism toward expertise. Yes, it’s too easy commenting on things as a student rather than a teacher, because against any objection to a comment made by a student, the student can always counter: “I am a student: by definition, I am ignorant.”

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean all objections to student commentary are valid; for it’s legitimate to ask why, to begin with, an objector is paying attention to a student (a non-expert)—for what use can that serve the objector? When it comes to discussing topics, students don’t have followers (captive audiences/readerships) the way teachers (expert authors) do.

The eternal student always knows she or he is powerless against an expert. Perhaps part of the solution is balancing means over ends, as Aristotle explains:

The magnificent man will therefore necessarily be also a liberal man. For the liberal man too will spend the right amount in the right manner; and it is in the amount and manner of his expenditure that the element ‘great’ in the magnificent or ‘greatly splendid’ man, that is to say his greatness, is shown, these being the things in which Liberality is displayed. And the magnificent man from an equal outlay will achieve a more magnificent result; for the same standard of excellence does not apply to an achievement as to a possession: with possessions the thing worth the highest price is the most honored, for instance gold, but the achievement most honored is one that is great and noble (since a great achievement arouses the admiration of the spectator, and the quality of causing admiration belongs to magnificence); and excellence in an achievement involves greatness…. But in all these matters, as has been said, the scale of expenditure must be judged with reference to the person spending, that is, to his position and his resources; for expenditure should be proportionate to means, and suitable not only to the occasion but to the giver. Hence the poor cannot be magnificent, since they have not the means to make a great outlay suitably; the poor who attempt Magnificence are foolish, for they spend out of proportion to their means, and beyond what they ought, whereas an act displays virtue only when it is done in the right way. (Nicomachean Ethics, trans. H. Rackham, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1934) (IV, ii) pp. 208–09.)

https://www.instagram.com/p/B1iJSJKgEHI/

Dec 21 2018

The Gospel of Honor (or “Honour”)

bookshelf

The Gospel of Honor (or “Honour”)

I’m very glad to have my essay/review of Tamlar Sommers’s Why Honor Matters (2018) published in the Fortnightly Review.

It explores what Aristotle, Boethius, Machiavelli, and others, such as Martha Nussbaum have to say about the concept of honor.

But beware, it’s a long read (4100 words):


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”: