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

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[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.


Jul 1 2017

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part II)

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part II)

After a careful first reading of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (2017), I find its central thesis to be found on page 83:

The real question facing us is not whether to quit politics entirely, but how to exercise political power prudently, especially in an unstable political culture. When is it cowardly not to cooperate with secular politicians out of an exaggerated fear of impurity–and when is it corrupting to be complicit?

Or as Miss Anscombe once put it:

It is indeed one of the troubles about government, that it is difficult to specify the ‘things that are Caesar’s.’[1]

This is the same question that confronts Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1966). Its historical inaccuracies aside, it develops the question of whether the King or the Church would rule England.

It is the same question the butler Stephens refuses to face in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day (1989) with regard to whether his employer was a Nazi sympathizer and if Stephens “did his duty” by never questioning his employer’s requests.

And what is the answer to Dreher’s and Anscombe’s and Bolt’s and Ishiguro’s dilemma? I suggested last time that it might involve Emersonian compensation. But now C. S. Peirce is nagging me, and I’m afraid he re-articulates the whole problem when he says:

Unless we make ourselves hermits, we shall necessarily influence each other’s opinions; so that the problem becomes how to fix [stabilize] belief, not in the individual merely, but in the community.[2]

See also: “Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part III).”

and:

Reading About Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (Part I).”

NOTES

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[1] “On the Source of the Authority of the State.” From Ratio 20 (1), 1978. The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe. Vol. III: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Blackwell: Oxford. 1981. p. 132.

[2] “The Fixation of Belief.” Popular Science Monthly. No. 12. (November, 1877.) 1-15.


Feb 5 2010

Occupied with Occupations

In a Jan. 29, 2010 column of the London Telegraph, “When Fiction Breaks Down,” John Lanchester argues that readers rarely come across a story that focuses on a character’s occupation because modern jobs are too complicated for novel readers and their writers.

Initially this sounds absurd, but as an American, Bookbread often misses implied or understated references to the institutional caste-class-clashes of merry ole England. Perhaps there is sense to be made of Lanchester assuming the majority of modern day workers engage in their productivity via complicated, non-novelistic jobs.

But just because Lanchester reduces readers of novels to crass careerists (unworthy of mention in fictional long form) doesn’t imply that twenty-first century writers should delve into the peasant’s trough to discover and recover the details of homesteading, as younger readers encounter in the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. No, Bookbread must countercheck and ask: Aren’t most of today’s jobs uncomplicated, boring, tedious—all the things a writer tries to avoid in his or her writing—and that one of the principle responsibilities of novelists is to enchant the reader by escaping that boredom?

In “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Nabokov observes:

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer. . . .The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.”

Yes, sometimes such enchanting requires fantasy and absurdity peppered with philosophy, but that doesn’t mean novelists should omit writing about the occupations of characters that readers can then relate to. Otherwise there would be no need to read about the surveyor’s inability to measure in Kafka’s The Castle (1926), nor The Old Man and the Sea (1952) and Hemingway’s focus on Cuban fishermen, nor the duties of butlering described in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989).

Bookbread was not the first to recognize that nobody works for a living in Ulysses (1922), but because Lanchester’s entire exordium waxes nostalgic—how writers don’t have real bosses—readers quickly conclude the rest of the article contains little beyond remembrances of literary things past, things that really have no relevance to current and would-be twenty-first century writers or their readers.

Lanchester, however, does preach a bit of literary gospel when he explains:

The world is full of interesting things that don’t fit inside traditional fictional forms. That is because a novel has to seem true. It doesn’t have to be factually or literally true and the kind of truth it seeks can be fantastical, wild, unearthly, illogical, dreamlike, incoherent, even mad—but it does have to feel true. It has to generate a world of its own and create a satisfying internal order within that world, on that world’s own, mysterious, innate terms.

Alas, Lanchester tries (and fails) to create a formula via Venetian voodoo:

Freud said that the two criteria of mental health were the ability to love and to work. The first of those impulses is amply chronicled in the world of fiction—indeed, exhaustively so, since there are shelves and shelves of books that are essentially all about love. The world of work barely features.

UPDATE:

D.G. Myers’s “Sex and the Novel” on A Commonplace Blog goes completely against Lanchester’s Freudian formulation, claiming that when it comes to sex:

Few novelists have treated it as an idea. At best it represents a getaway from ideas.

Myers then creates his own formula in a follow up:

The twentieth-century novel became an either/or. Either it included plenty of sex scenes, or it ignored human sexuality altogether.

The issue concerns what (if any) ideas have been conjured by the word “sex” in a context of twentieth-century English language fiction.  Perhaps (like work) sex in the twenty-first century is something too inane or complicated for novel readers and writers to expose themselves to.

Being that Bookbread comes from the Miller/Mailer school, the question beckons:  Who are we to blame for “genital friction”?  Freud?  Joyce?  Henry Miller?  Bookbread want a scapegoat for the novelistic proliferation of belly slapping.

In other readings:  An essay “Our Boredom, Ourselves,” Jennifer Schuessler of Sunday New York Times Book Review provides a recent example of a novelist writing about occupations, and becoming bored:

In April 2011, the limits of literary boredom will be tested when Little, Brown & Company publishes “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel, found unfinished after his suicide in 2008, about the inner lives of number-crunching I.R.S. agents. An excerpt that appeared last year in The New Yorker depicts a universe of microboredom gone macro: “He did another return; again the math squared and there were no itemizations on 32 and the printout’s numbers for W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441 appeared to square, and he filled out his codes for the middle tray’s 402 and signed his name and ID number. . . .”

Whatever to make Wallace, at least Schuessler gets it right in her conclusion:

After all, if it weren’t for all the boring books in the world, why would anyone feel the need to try to write more interesting ones?

NYR: Franz Kafka, The Castle / David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.

Nabokov, Vladimir. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” Lectures on Literature. (1980). Ed. by Fredson Bowers. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY. (1982). pp. 5–6