May 14 2017

Recent Online Reading: 5 Pieces

Since returning from Ireland, I’m still trying to catch up on my reading. Here are five interesting pieces I found this weekend. Some are recent; some a few months old:

How Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ Anticipated the Holocaust,” by Anne Roiphe, The Forward, May 9, 2017.

What’s Ressentiment Got to Do with It,” by Martin E. Marty, The Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion, University of Chicago, February 6, 2017.

Does Creativity Breed Inequality in Cities?” by Emily Matchar with an interview of Richard Florida, Smithsonian Magazine, April 28, 2017.

Joyce Carol Oates explores both sides of the abortion rift in A Book of American Martyrs,” by Olivia Ho, The Straits Times of Singapore, April 11, 2017.

From Kubrick’s dystopia to creative hub–London’s new town is reborn,” by Joanne O’Connor, The Guardian, May 13, 2017.

And here are some recent reading acquisitions I got in Ireland:

Book treasures from Ireland, #Ireland #books #travel #celtic

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Mar 2 2017

Dare To Not Watch the Speech of Any President

I didn’t watch last night’s speech by President Trump.

I haven’t listened to any speech by a president since “yellow cake.”

Besides, I’m exposed to enough high-quality pornography already.

I instead watched an old movie about an older story full of government corruption, terrorism, and false-imprisonment (with a classic ’90s trailer):

Perhaps I should’ve watched the speech instead.

Perhaps I am one of wise Odysseus’ foolish sailors with ears full of honeycomb, unable to hear the sirens shriek.

Or perhaps it is because I cannot trust the music of politicians, not unlike Kafka’s dog:

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….

Even if the law commands us to reply to everybody, was such a tiny stray dog in truth a somebody worthy of the name? And perhaps they did not even understand him, for he likely enough barked his questions very indistinctly. Or perhaps they did understand him and with great self-control answered his questions, but he, a mere puppy unaccustomed to music, could not distinguish the answer from the music. (“Forschungen eins Hundes.” / “Investigations of a Dog.”)

Or is it that every president is but a cheerleader for the nation?––while the citizens remain the actual players on the field getting dirty, getting hit, engaging with our enemies, those old rivals: economics, bureaucracy, apathy of neighbors, etcetera.

Instead of listening to and watching a president speak, I would rather stare too much at the sun shining on the grass—for so oft does it seem that that is all that is left of America’s forefathers and godmothers.

Walt Whitman, where are you? #Whitman #grass

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And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them.
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps.

––Walt Whitman “Song of Myself” § 6.


Oct 19 2016

Three Metaphors Using “Robinson Crusoe”

bookbread typewriter

Let us consider the old deserted island question about which book to bring along, and let us further consider: has anyone ever answered Robinson Crusoe? Yes, Dr. Johnson praised the book and thought it not long enough, but in regard to the immediate circumstances the question addresses, might he or we want a book that offered a greater suspension of disbelief than Crusoe allows? Imagine Johnson stranded on the not-so-deserted Isle of Skye! (Is every book a potential treasure island?)

Among other things, Robinson Crusoe (1719) prophesizes the self-reliance of Emerson, Thoreau’s hikes through the wilderness, Frederick Jackson Turner’s (1861–1932) long goodbye to the frontier, and the American experience of enslavement of natives. Of the personal life of Professor Turner I know nothing, but I know Defoe went to the pillory on charges of publishing controversial religious-political pamphlets, and I know Thoreau went to local jail for protesting the payment of a tax. Emerson, meanwhile, never skirted the fringes of law, but in 1826 he did visit St Augustine, which exposed him to a geography and climate remarkably similar to Crusoe’s island.

But all of the above are based on literal interpretations of Defoe and his book––what about analogical interpretations? How has Crusoe been used as a metaphor? Here follow some examples, beginning with a general observation from British jurist Frederic Harrison (1831–1923):

Nay, Robinson Crusoe contains (not for boys but for men) more religion, more philosophy, more psychology, more political economy, more anthropology, than are found in many elaborate treatises on these special subjects. And yet, I imagine, grown men do not often read Robinson Crusoe, as the article has it, “for instruction of life and ensample of manners.” The great books of the world we have once read; we take them as read; we believe that we read them; at least, we believe that we know them.[1]

(1) THE METAPHOR OF SLAVE NAMES:

Sooner or later any discussion of Crusoe turns to slavery. Yes, before his shipwreck, the character Crusoe, who was already a plantation owner, had intended to enter the slave-trade. But soon enough Crusoe the castaway was captured by a Moor and made a slave.[2] Then enters, much later in the book, the character of Friday, who binds himself to Master Crusoe in voluntary servitude:

I smiled at him, and looked pleasantly, and beckoned to him to come still nearer; at length he came close to me; and then he kneeled down again, kissed the ground, and laid his head upon the ground, and taking me by the foot, set my foot upon his head; this, it seems, was in token of swearing to be my slave for ever. [3]

Now compare ex-slave William Wells Brown (1814–1884) and his metaphor for Friday:

I resolved on adopting my old name of William, and let Sandford go by the board, for I always hated it. Not because there was anything peculiar in the name; but because it had been forced upon me. It is sometimes common at the south, for slaves to take the name of their masters. Some have a legitimate right to do so. But I always detested the idea of being called by the name of either of my masters. And as for my father, I would rather have adopted the name of “Friday,” and been known as the servant of some Robinson Crusoe, than to have taken his name.[4]

And consider how much stock Robinson Crusoe puts into his own name:

My father being a foreigner of Bremen … lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called—nay we call ourselves and write our name—Crusoe; and so my companions always called me.[5]

Crusoe embraces a name corrupted by his peers, a nickname that disguises his cultural origins, while Brown refused to accept the name his master gave him. Brown would not be enslaved by an ill-fit name, because, as fellow ex-slave Frederick Douglass put it, slavery “saps the foundation of religion; it makes your name a hissing, and a bye-word to a mocking earth.” [6] Brown’s defiance and Douglass’s passion complement Thoreau’s observation:

It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself. [7]

(2) THE METAPHOR OF TECHNOLOGICAL ADAPTATION

Several times in my random readings have I come across someone so impressed by Crusoe’s usage of technology and its adaptation amid isolation that they couldn’t resist making a metaphor of either the character or his situation. Take again Frederic Harrison:

Where in this terrible world was man? Scanty in umber, confined to a few favourable spots, dispersed, and alone, man sustained a precarious existence, not yet the lord of creation, inferior to many quadrupeds in strength, only just superior to them in mind—nothing but the first of the brutes. As are the lowest of all savages now, no doubt even lower, man once was. Conceive what Robinson Crusoe would have been had his island been a dense jungle overrun with savage beasts without his gun, or his knife, or his knowledge, with nothing but his human hand and his human brain.[8]

From literary critic George Saintsbury (1845–1933):

The poets are always in a Robinson Crusoe condition, and worse: for Robinson had at least seen the tools and utensils he needed, if he did not know how to make them. The scops and scalds were groping for the very pattern of the tools themselves.[9]

And from poet Paul Valéry (1871–1945):

Aren’t you the Robinson Crusoe of the mind? Cast away within himself, remaking in his island of the will his own truths along with the tolls that are required…. Other points to be made. I am owed nothing. I don’t expect anything from other people. This leads to a kind of Crusoeism. I live on a desert island where I manufacture my own tools. And what comes to me from other people is simply jetsam, debris washed up on the shore. [10]

(3) THE METAPHOR OF IMPROVISATION

Kafka admired Crusoe for his ability to survey the situation. Crusoe acted and did not theorize. He explored and exploited his position on the island. He made no excuses and became self-reliant:

Had Robinson Crusoe never left the highest, or more correctly the most visible point of his island, from desire for comfort, or timidity, or fear, or ignorance, or longing, he would soon have perished; but since without paying any attention to passing ships and their feeble telescopes he started to explore the whole island and take pleasure in it, he managed to keep himself alive and finally was found after all, by a chain of causality that was, of course, logically inevitable.[11]

In other words, when Crusoe surveyed his position on the island, he didn’t get caught in any analysis-paralysis, and Kafka admires Crusoe’s method of improvisation, this muddling through. For those who are self-reliant suffer no anxiety of influence.

NOTES

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[1] Harrison, Frederic. The Choice of Books. Chicago, IL: R. R. Donnelley & Sons Co. 1891.pp. 106–07.

[2] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. II.

[3] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. XIV.

[4] Brown, William Wells. The Narrative of William W. Brown: An American Slave. Boston, MA: Anti-Slavery Office. 1847. p. 98.

[5] DeFoe, Robinson Crusoe, Ch. I.

[6] Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July, July 5, 1852?”

[7] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, or Life in the Woods. 1854.“Ch. I – On Economy.”

[8] Harrison, The Meaning of History. 1894. NY: Macmillan. 1911. pp. 27–28.

[9] Saintsbury, George. The Flourishing of Romance and the Rise of Allegory. London: Blackwood & Sons. 1897. p. 269.

[10] Valéry, Paul. Cahiers = Notebooks. Vol. I. Translated by Paul Gifford et al. Edited by Brian Stimpson. Based on the French Cahiers edited by Judith Robinson-Valéry. (1931. AP, XV, 161–63.) pp. 78, 161. The sentiment is not reserved only to Valéry. Consider Eliot on Blake:

We have the same respect for Blake’s philosophy (and perhaps for that of Samuel Butler) that we have for an ingenious piece of home-made furniture: we admire the man who has put it together out of the odds and ends about the house. England has produced a fair number of these resourceful Robinson Crusoes; but we are not really so remote from the Continent, or from our own past, as to be deprived of the advantages of culture if we wish them. (“Blake,” The Sacred Wood. NY: Knopf. 1921)

And take Frye on all of the above:

T. S. Eliot in an essay on Blake … speaking of Blake’s resourceful Robinson Crusoe method of scrambling together a system of thought out of the odds and ends of his reading. (The Great Code: the Bible and Literature. 1981. NY: Mariner Books. 2008. p. xxi)

[11] Kafka, Franz. Parables and Paradoxes. NY: Schocken. 1961. p. 185.


Aug 2 2016

Questions and Comments for Folks Who Like to Read

bookbread Canterbury

The eighth-century monk Bede charitably advises “good luck” to his readers,[1]  and twentieth-century bard Bruce sings that tramps are born to run: some sprinters, others marathon runners, but in all ages, the writer is a tramp who begs readers for charity. Yet what, exactly, is a charitable reader? How do readers convey caritas? And how do they express their gratitude toward writers who help them? Do readers feel in debt to such writers? Do they owe them something? Is this what Rod Dreher felt when he wrote How Dante Can Save Your Life (2015)? Is this what I do when I blog about Dreher’s work? Is that how Dante felt about Boethius’s Consolation (523 AD)?—and Boethius had felt about Plato?

How, for example, did someone like Martin Buber want to be read? And how did he read Torah and Talmud? It is an exaggeration, though only a slight one, to say that Buber begged for Jewish readers but received only Christian charity. Buber’s translator Walter Kaufmann once complained that Buber indulged in much unnecessary wordplay,[2] but do we not play and joke (most frivolously, most unnecessarily) with our intimates rather than strangers?

My collective answer to these questions is that the mind of the active reader renders an alternative present time to encounter an imitative presence of the writer.[3]

When I read Buber, a self-described philosophic anthropologist, I understand him (I think) because he was a writer who tried engaging in an I–You mode of discourse with his potential readers. It is all quite mundane and requiring nothing supernatural to understand a text as, to a certain extent, imitating the writer who wrote it—that it contains the spirit of the writer. For even an adamant atheist like Gregory Bateson (a scientific anthropologist) could admit that his thoughts would exist after death:

When you’re dead you’re dead, living on only in the sense that your molecules recycle to the maintenance of the biosphere and your ideas recycle to the maintenance of evolution. The supernatural and miracles, [Bateson] liked to say, “are a materialist’s attempt to escape from his materialism.”[4]

Now Kafka was a writer who never begged a reader for anything. One can say that in his works he essentially communicated in an I–I mode of discourse. Nonetheless, he remains insightful, as when his character of Raban discusses the frame of mind of the reader:

Books are useful in every sense and quite especially in respects in which one would not expect it. For when one is about to embark on some enterprise, it is precisely the books whose contents have nothing at all in common with the enterprise that are the most useful. For the reader who does after all intend to embark on that enterprise, that is to say, who has somehow become enthusiastic (and even if, as it were, the effect of the book can penetrate only so far as that enthusiasm), will be stimulated by the book to all kinds of thoughts concerning his enterprise. Now, however, since the contents of the book are precisely something of utter indifference, the reader is not at all impeded in those thoughts, and he passes through the midst of the book with them, as once the Jews passed through the Red Sea, that’s how I should like to put it.[5]

Compare Emerson:

A page which is tedious to me today, tomorrow becomes precious because I read in a book that it is precious to another man… You do not doubt that the same book, the same history yields different light to a boy & to a man. Last year you were a boy[;] now you are a man. Again; today you are a boy, & next year you shall be a man.[6]

Chosen by fortune, thrown by fate, the elect reader of Kafka and Emerson passes through with ease while the others left behind—the unchosen, illiterate Egyptians in pursuit of escaped slaves––are to be engulfed in the oceania of biblioteca, falling off the cliffs of Parnassus, to be, in Bateson’s terminology, “recycled.”

I have written more than I planned, though not more than I wished.

­­––Alcuin of York (735–804 AD)[7]

NOTES

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[1] Bede, Venerabilis. “Table of Contents for Books II and V” Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum. (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.) Translated by Roger Collins. Edited by Collins and Judith McClure. NY: Oxford UP. 1994. p. 64.

[2] Kaufmann, Walter. “Prologue to I and Thou,” Ich und Du. (I and Thou.) By Martin Buber. 1923. Translated by Kaufmann. Scribner: NY. 1970. p. 19.

[3] For Buber:

What is essential is lived in the present, [dead] objects in the past…. Presence is not what is evanescent [vaporous] and passes but what confronts us, waiting and enduring. And the object is not duration but standing still, ceasing, breaking off, becoming rigid, standing out, the lack of relation, the lack of presence….(Ich und Du, I § 17)

Creation is the origin, redemption is the goal; but revelation is not a datable, determinate point poised between them. The center is not the revelation at Sinai but the continual possibility of receiving it. That is why a psalm or a prophecy is not less “Torah,” teaching, than is the story of the exodus from Egypt. (“People Today and the Jewish Bible: from a Lecture Series.” Die Schrift und das Wort. (Scripture and Translation.) By Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. Translated by Lawrence Rosewald with Everett Fox. Indiana UP: Indianapolis, IN. 1994. p. 8)

[4] Nachmanovitch, Stephen. “Gregory Bateson: Old Men Ought to be Explorers.” Leonardo, Vol. 17. No. 2. (1984.) 113–118 at 117.

[5] Kafka, Franz. “Hochzeitsvorbereitungen Auf Dem Lande.” (“Wedding Preparations in the Country.”) Translated by Tania and James Stern. Franz Kafka: The Complete Short Stories. Edited by Nahum N. Glatzer. NY: Schocken. 1971. 74–75.

[6] Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Vol. V. 1835–1838. Edited by Merton M. Sealts, Jr. 1965. Belknap Press, Harvard UP. November 24, 1837, Journal C, p. 435 and December 3, 1837, p. 440.

[7] Alcuin of York, “Letter 126,” Alcuin of York: His Life and Letters. Edited and Translated by Stephen Allott. York, England: William Sessions Limited. 1974. p. 133.


Mar 9 2016

Fun and Philosophy with Martin Buber

bookbread pencil shavings

 

What’s not to like about Martin Buber? Walter Benjamin, Walter Kaufmann, Gershom Scholem, Franz Kafka, Leo Strauss et al answer that question in Benjamin Ivery’s interview with Dominique Bourel in The Forward:

Buber is often between two fields. He writes too well to be a philosopher, and that unsettled people.

Read it all here.


Mar 5 2010

Why There Is No Jewish Narnia (Jewish Review of Books)

via Why There Is No Jewish Narnia > Publications > Jewish Review of Books:

Some readers may have already expressed surprise at my assertion that Jews do not write fantasy literature. Haven’t modern Jewish writers, from Kafka and Bruno Schulz to Isaac Bashevis Singer and Cynthia Ozick, written about ghosts, demons, magic, and metamorphoses? But the supernatural does not itself define fantasy literature, which is a more specific genre. It emerged in Victorian England, and its origins are best understood as one of a number of cultural salvage projects that occurred in an era when modern materialism and Darwinism seemed to drive religious faith from the field. Religion’s capacity for wonder found a haven in fantasy literature.

This is the first time Bookbread has encountered labeling Kafka under Victorian Fiction since, apparently, anything that was both literary and fantastic came out of that era. Atrocious. (But what can you do?) Thank goodness there’s nothing supernatural or fantastical to be found in the märchen der Brüder Grimm und Martin Buber….


Feb 12 2010

Reading is Soooo Retro

21st Century Literacy Log has some info from her post “Building Deeper Readers” and provides a few interesting phrases for the current phase of twenty-first century fiction:

….”Endangered species—Perhaps most endangered of all . . . the adolescent reader….

“….readicide”

“….Rather than lift up struggling readers, an emphasis on test prep ensures struggling readers will continue to struggle….”

In plain polemic: Readicide remains rampant across America, but should Texans worry? Can’t the clerics of twenty-first century Texas strive to function as technocratic gatekeepers of internet methods, software grammar, and the laws of search to the illiterate demos? Can’t we all guard each other’s gate as in Kafka’s parable of Before the Law (1925)? What’s wrong with a twenty-first century writer “doing his own thing” if it involves only one of the various types of reading, writing or technology skills? Readicide?—please. Bookbread says, “Bring it on.”

Some of 21st‘s notes on educating aptly apply to current students of Texas public schools, considering their reading habits.

“In short, all this emphasis on test prep plays a large part in maintaining ‘apartheid schools….'”

Bookbread can’t vouch for the accuracy of this assertion—I seem to recall that apartheid schools (ethnically and scholastically) were maintained by the state well before the modern era of public education and its emphasis on test prepping. Who’s to say there won’t be “apartheid schools” once citizens grown bored with spending their time and money on test prepping and standardization? Again, from 21st‘s notes:

“Remember: WYTIWYG (‘witty-wig’)—’What You Test Is What You Get.'”

This assertion appears accurate in so far as it demonstrates the current need for test-teachers, reading teachers, writing teachers, etc.

Texas, moreover, will focus on test-teachers and student testers. Its graduates will know how to take (i.e. read questions and write answers for) a Texas test. Beyond that, who’s to say?


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