Apr 12 2017

Some Brief, Random Thoughts on Crafting a Better Book Blog

For the past several months my writing on this blog has been stuck in a rut, lodged between two dikes:

(1) writing posts about current events, outrages, and crises and trying to relate those things to various literary references and book-jewels picked up over the years;

(2) writing posts on things that attempt to ignore the historical, cultural, political, and economic contexts in which I live, things that think not of posterity, things which take very seriously Oscar Wilde’s definition of the art of doing nothing:

Gilbert. Nothing that one can imagine is worth doing…. Let me say to you now that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual. To Plato, with his passion for wisdom, this was the noblest form of energy. To Aristotle, with his passion for knowledge, this was the noblest form of energy also. It was to this that the passion for holiness led the saint and the mystic of mediaeval days.

Ernest. We exist, then, to do nothing?

Gilbert. It is to do nothing that the elect exist. Action is limited and relative…. Yes, Ernest: the contemplative life, the life that has for its aim not doing but being, and not being merely, but becoming—that is what the critical spirit can give us…. The necessity for a career forces every one to take sides. We live in the age of the overworked, and the under-educated; the age in which people are so industrious that they become absolutely stupid. And, harsh though it may sound, I cannot help saying that such people deserve their doom. The sure way of knowing nothing about life is to try to make oneself useful…. It can do for us what can be done neither by physics nor metaphysics. It can give us the exact science of mind in the process of becoming. It can do for us what History cannot do. It can tell us what man thought before he learned how to write…. [1]

There is such a thing as robbing a story of its reality by trying to make it true…. [which is why] The justification of a character in a novel is not that other persons are what they are, but that the author is what he is. Otherwise the novel is not a work of art….[2]

Or perhaps this whole post is merely one more exercise in my “luxury in self-reproach”:

He covered page after page with wild words of sorrow and wilder words of pain. There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution. When Dorian had finished the letter, he felt that he had been forgiven…. [For] to become the spectator of one’s own life, as Harry says, is to escape the suffering of life. [3]

Nonetheless, lately all attempts at blog criticism––no matter how unorthodox, whether analogical or literal––seem but Biblically lukewarm.[4]

Right now instead of blogging about books, I feel like listening to Heino sing country songs while I work in my father’s vineyard.

Pruning the vines, #vine #wine #vineyard

A post shared by Christopher Landrum (@bookbread2) on

 

Some random thoughts that run through my head while under the sun, among the vines, amid the Sänger musik:

  • What do we mean when we say something like: “I answered the question without even thinking?” Surely something was thought before, during, and after the answer was made.
  • To be an immigrant is to be a quotation in someone else’s book, to be stuck between someone else’s words.
  • I bet residents of Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s really resented Scott McKenzie’s single “If You’re Going to San Francisco.”

     

Surely that song spoiled the city’s prior exclusivity. Afterward it allowed everyone who wanted to migrate Out There. This ruined it for the locals, forcing them to become totally lamestream, or as Wilde puts it: “to be popular one must be a mediocrity.”[5]

NOTES

[1] Wilde, Oscar. “The Critic as Artist – II.” (1891)

[2] Wilde, “The Decay of Lying” in Intentions (Volume 7 of The Complete Writings of Oscar Wilde). New York: The Nottingham Society, 1909. pp. 3–57 at 10–11.

[3] Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. 1890. NY: Barnes & Noble Classics Edition. 2003. VIII, 100; IX, 114.

[4] See Revelation of Saint John 3:16:

So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

And from Richard McKeon (1900-1985):

Literally or analogically conceived, therefore, the philosophic principles which lie behind the discussions of the critic select for him, by defining his terms, a subject matter and principles from the vast diversity which those terms might encompass. [First] If the poet is the source of distinctions or analogies, the discussion may be of character, knowledge, or technique; or of imagination, taste, or genius; or of beauty, truth, or moral goodness. [Second] If the poem is fundamental, all problems may be translated into those of form and content; or of imitation and object; or of thought, imagination, and emotions; or of activity and effects. [Third] The effects finally, if they are fundamental, may be treated in terms of expression and communication; or of context and moral, social, economic, or semantic determination; or of influence and emotion.   (“The Philosophic Bases of Art and Criticism,” Modern Philology, XLI: 2. (Nov. 1943.) pp. 65–87 at 75.)

[5] Picture of Dorian Gray XVII, 201.


Jul 21 2016

Rereading Ruthie Leming – Part I: Tattoos & Taboos

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Just yesterday in trendy-all-too-trendy Austin, Texas lived and labored the world’s greatest tattoo artist: Homer Milton. He was as blind as the bats reverse-perched under the downtown bridge, but his work was known throughout the world, even among Japan’s Yakuza.

One day Milton could hear cane taps and paw patter outside the store door. A client entered the tattoo parlor covered from top to toe in ink and design. In one hand was a retractable cane; the other, the leash to a docile Rottweiler. His name was Dick McKeon and he was as blind as the mice in Longhorn Cavern. He was a white man who no longer looked white because of the overlap and intricacies and intersections of symbols, numbers, icons, and forms sprawled over his skin. It was as though he were permanently clothed in every tattoo conceivable, where the diversity of one only dithered another.

McKeon: Sir, today I wish to inquire about acquiring a new tattoo. Something to remind me of the joy of good old days.

Milton: I remember someone reading to me a long time ago that the common joy of the soul is the foundation of genuine community.[1]

McKeon: Right, I want a tattoo that will remind me of the common joy created when cheering for local sports teams––cheering for victory!

Milton: You remind me of when and why I quit baseball as a child. It wasn’t because of the winning or the losing or the cheating or the bruising. It was because of everyone else’s parents, the mob rule of the crowd. I remember I quit baseball because I’d rather have gone fishing and taken a dip in the river than deal with the rabble.

McKeon: Well, it sounds like you tried to escape both the conformity of childhood teamwork as well as the herd mentality of the helicopter parents of your fellow players.

Milton. I tried to escape, but successfully failed. For, “wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions.” [2]

McKeon: I’m impressed with your quotation but regret its lack of trendiness. You should be reading newer works that express the old ideas. Like the other day I was listening to this book called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013). Ruthie’s friends would go to the river to escape from small-town parentage:

During her junior year Ruthie’s crowd began hanging out at the river, where they could build bonfires and drink beer without adults hassling them.[3]

The river at Starhill was (and probably still is) a place to congregate, a place of sociological sifting of wheat from chaff.

Milton: I know what you mean. As Americans we know this scene inside and out. It’s well portrayed in films like American Graffiti (1973) and Austin’s own Dazed and Confused (1993). We know it not because it’s cliché but because it’s so essential to our own understanding of ourselves within our own culture.

McKeon: While Ruthie’s friends tried to temporarily escape from their parents, her brother Rod tried to permanently escape the entire town:

The intolerance, the social conformity, the cliquishness, the bullying. At sixteen this is what I thought small-town life was and always would be. There, on the far side of the river, was the rest of my life, straight ahead. I had no intention of looking back.[4]

Milton: Yeah, but every army needs a system of rank and can’t survive without one. But you’re right. Rod tried, but we suffer no escape. None for me with baseball back then. None for Rod or Ruthie or her friends. None even for small town folks of last century. They could not escape the in-group/out-group resentment inherent to our anthropology. Take for instance the psychology of a small southern town found in Carson McCuller’s novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940):

The place was still now crowded—it was the hour when men who have been up all night meet those who are freshly wakened and ready to start a new day. The sleepy waitress was serving both beer and coffee. There was no noise or conversation, for each person seemed to be alone. The mutual distrust between the men who were just awakened and those who were ending a long night gave everybody a feeling of estrangement…. They shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow.[5]

McKeon: So whether at a river or in a café, we sell ourselves this idea that our collective feeling of shared estrangement within our communities is a new, unique twenty-first century problem. We say all the billions of people for millions of years have been inescapably trapped in history, but we in century twenty-one are exceptional because we are aware of, and attentive to, the trap itself.

Milton: But it’s unique to no one but us. Everyone from the past would find no difference between now and then.

McKeon: But difference is the key to it all.

Milton: How so?

McKeon: Well, take Dreher’s sequel to Little Way, How Dante Can Save Your Live (2015), where he talks about in the world of––indeed, the anthropology of––his small Louisiana town of Starhill, a place where anything different made for a severe taboo:

As I reported the book [Little Way], I learned from questioning my sister’s friends, her husband, and my parents more about why Ruthie held me in such disdain. It had to do with my moving away to the city; Mike said that she always felt that I belonged in Starhill, and that she took my leaving as a personal rejection. It had to do with my having tastes and beliefs she didn’t understand; for Ruthie, as for Daddy, “different” was a bad word. It had to do with her believing that I was getting away with something, being paid to write for a living instead of doing honest work. And it had to do with, well, me; even her best friend, Abby, said that she couldn’t fathom why Ruthie’s patience with everyone else was endless, but she could barely tolerate me for a moment….

And there it was. We would be held responsible for doing more and more to win the Leming children’s love, though it would be impossible to do so because of our original sin: being unlike my father, my sister, and the rest….

A thick iron gate slammed shut within me, and from behind it I regarded my father with cold contempt. He had struck me where he could do the most damage: my sense of manhood. I followed him and my sister out of the field, my face on fire, this time not with shame but with wrath. And from that moment on, I saw him not as my champion. I saw him as my adversary. [6]

Milton: You should compare Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound (2008) whose story is set in the same Mississippi delta region as Dreher, but about 100 years prior. In Mudbound “lend” is a taboo four-letter word.[7]

McKeon: It’s because difference is a debt owed to the community. For community equals conformity and both make up a system of checks and balances that is intolerant toward debt.

Milton: And difference is the key. The atheist anthropologist Gregory Bateson once explained why all information, including cultural information, is binary. Bateson holds that facts—in any context––are but “effective differences,” and “information consists of differences that make a difference.” The human mind “is an aggregate of interacting parts or components,” and the interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in space or time.”[8]

McKeon: A––“nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in time or space”––and you say the guy was an atheist?

Thus the blind tattooed the blind—both knowing exactly what they wanted—both of whose origins and orientations toward the world were completely incompatible in comparison to the other.

NOTES

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[1] Buber, Martin. Meetings: Martin Buber. Edited by Maurice Friedman. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co. 1973. p. 39.

[2] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “Ch. VIII – The Village.”

[3] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p. 28.

[4] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 19.

[5] McCullers, Carson. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. 1940. Modern Library. 1993. I, ii, p. 36; II, vii, p. 238.

[6] Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. pp. 26, 32, 11.

[7] Jordan, Hillary. Mudbound. Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill, NC. 2008. p. 117.

[8] Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. NY: E. P. Dutton. 1979. pp. 61, 81, 92, 99. Cf. Plato, Republic 521c–523b, 524e, 525a–526d.