Aug 26 2022

Immoral Temptations: The Case Against Imagination as a Tool to Ease Society’s Pains

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Immoral Temptations:
The Case Against Imagination as a Tool to Ease Society’s Pains

Maybe everything I wrote about imagination last week was wrong.

Maybe my convictions on the subject were too tight and need to be loosened a bit.

Perhaps, like Louis Renault, the police captain in Casablanca (1942), I should “have no convictions,” be “master of my fate” and “blow with the wind.”

Maybe imagination has a flipside full of adventure, criminality, corruption, immorality—full of things that won’t help my neighbors and me as we confront our society’s greatest perplexities with regard to traffic, housing, public safety (including classrooms), drought, and equality in broadband internet capabilities for both urban and rural areas.

Maybe there aren’t any silver bullets to slay these social werewolves with. Maybe our imaginations fooled us into believing in the bullets. Maybe that was too much to ask.

Maybe readers and voters should be wary of the adventurous side to imagination, as when poet-and-politician John Milton (1608–1674) has Satan say in Paradise Lost (1667):

let us try
Adventurous work (X, 254–55)

And later:

and now expecting
Each hour their great Adventurer from the search
Of foreign worlds, (X, 439–41)

And British novelist Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) has his narrator Marlow say of sailor Jim (who will go on to become Lord Jim):

After two years of training he went to sea, and entering the regions so well known to his imagination, found them strangely barren of adventure. He made many voyages.

(Lord Jim (1900) in Lord Jim: The Authoritative Text, ed. Thomas C. Moser, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968), II, p. 7)

Compare French writer André Gide (1869–1951) and his conspiratorial, comedic novel Les caves du Vatican (1914), usually translated as Lafcadio’s Adventures. In it, Gide elaborates on the juncture of crime and imagination:

“A crime without a motive,” went on Lafcadio, “what a puzzle for the police! As to that, however, going along beside this blessed bank, anybody in the next-door compartment might notice the door open and the old blighter’s shadow pitch out. The corridor curtains, at any rate, are drawn…. It’s not so much about events that I’m curious, as about myself. There’s many a man thinks he’s capable of anything, who draws back when it comes to the point…. What a gulf between the imagination and the deed! … And no more right to take back one’s move than at chess. Pooh! If one could foresee all the risks, there’d be no interest in the game! …. Between the imagination of a deed and … Hullo! the bank’s come to an end.”

He preferred adventure—a word as pliable as his beaver and as easily twisted to suit his liking.

(Les caves du Vatican (Lafcadio’s Adventures) (1914), trans. Dorothy Bussy, (New York: Knopf, 1953), (V, i), p. 186; (V, ii), p. 192)

Later when Conrad (a Polish sailor writing in Victorian English) penned his novel of Russian affairs Under Western Eyes (1911), he was in a mood to renounce imagination; although, at the same time, he seems to be, as the English say, “laying it on a bit thick”:

In the conduct of an invented story there are, no doubt, certain proprieties to be observed for the sake of clearness and effect. A man of imagination, however inexperienced in the art of narrative, has his instinct to guide him in the choice of his words, and in the development of the action. A grain of talent excuses many mistakes. But this is not a work of imagination; I have no talent; my excuse for this undertaking lies not in its art, but in its artlessness. Aware of my limitations and strong in the sincerity of my purpose, I would not try (were I able) to invent anything. I push my scruples so far that I would not even invent a transition.

(Under Western Eyes (1911), (New York: Modern Library, 1996),(II, i), p. 77)

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In her novel The Custom of the Country (1913), American Edith Wharton (1862–1937) has the character Ralph conclude that the best solution in his particular situation is to restrain his imagination:

An imagination like his, peopled with such varied images and associations, fed by so many currents from the long stream of human experience, could hardly picture the bareness of the small half-lit place in which his wife’s spirit fluttered. Her mind was as destitute of beauty and mystery as the prairie school-house in which she had been educated; and her ideals seemed to Ralph as pathetic as the ornaments made of corks and cigar-bands with which her infant hands had been taught to adorn it. He was beginning to understand this, and learning to adapt himself to the narrow compass of her experience. The task of opening new windows in her mind was inspiring enough to give him infinite patience; and he would not yet own to himself that her pliancy and variety were imitative rather than spontaneous.

(The Custom of the Country (New York: Scribner, 1913), II, xi, 147)

One might here compare the realization by the character Jesse in Sherwood Anderson’s (1876–1941) American novel Winesburg, Ohio (1919):

He invented a machine for the making of fence out of wire. Faintly he realized that the atmosphere of old times and places that he had always cultivated in his own mind was strange and foreign to the thing that was growing up in the minds of others. The beginning of the most materialistic age in the history of the world, when wars would be fought without patriotism, when men would forget God and only pay attention to moral standards, when the will to power would replace the will to serve and beauty would be well-nigh forgotten in the terrible headlong rush of mankind toward the acquiring of possessions, was telling its story to Jesse the man of God as it was to the men about him.

(Winesburg, Ohio (1919), (New York: Viking, 1960), “[VII] Godliness – Part II,” pp. 58–59)

Finally, German writer Thomas Mann’s (1875–1955) first novel Buddenbrooks (1922) tells how the character of Thomas Buddenbrook “found himself forever falling behind his own active imagination.” In a similar vein, William Yeats (1865–1939) has discussed how hatred may be the “basis of imagination,” which, in the case of Ireland, led, in his opinion, to literal sexual abstinence as well as imaginative impotence:

The symbol without emotion is more precise and, perhaps, more powerful than an emotion without symbol. Hatred as a basis of imagination, in ways which one could explain even without magic, helps to dry up the nature and make the sexual abstinence, so common among young men and women in Ireland, possible. This abstinence reacts in its turn on the imagination, so that we get at last that strange eunuch-like tone and temper. For the last ten or twenty years there has been a perpetual drying of the Irish mind with the resultant dust-cloud….

In the eighteenth century Scotland believed itself religious, moral and gloomy, and its national, poet Burns came not to speak of these things but to speak of lust and drink and drunken gaiety. Ireland, since the Young Irelanders, has given itself up to apologetics. Every impression of life or impulse of imagination has been examined to see if it helped or hurt the glory of Ireland or the political claim of Ireland. A sincere impression of life became at last impossible, all was apologetics. There was no longer an impartial imagination, delighting in whatever is naturally exciting. [William] Synge was the rushing up of the buried fire, an explosion of all that had been denied or refused, a furious impartiality, an indifferent turbulent sorrow. His work, like that of [Robert] Burns, was to say all the people did not want to have said. He was able to do this because Nature had made him incapable of a political idea.’

(Mann, Buddenbrooks (1922), trans. John E. Woods, (New York: Knopf. 1993), (VII, v), p. 369; Yeats, Extracts from a Diary Kept in 1909 in The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, (New York: Doubleday, 1958), (“Estrangement,” XLII), p. 330; (“The Death of Synge,” XXX), p. 352)

So perhaps Texans should be so quick to “applaud innovation” that comes from imagination:

(Harvey is, however, usually right when it comes to analyzing Texas politics.)


Oct 28 2020

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

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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


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 NYU’s Creative Writing Program. His story “Gormley,” 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.