Jun 29 2018

Midwest Mod Squad no. 08: Comedy and Calamity

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Midwest Mod Squad no. 08: Comedy and Calamity


What is my method for reviewing short fiction in this series? Basically, I’m just comparing things I’ve recently read (or reread) to the texts and topics at hand. I read quite randomly, so the comparisons and contrasts I make follow my reading habits. But as the great anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) once put it: “Without the random, there can be no new thing.” [1]

What do I mean by the “essence of a story” (besides this and this)? I mean when the reader of a story asks (or determines) at what point do the most essential components of that story intersect. This is the essence. For in that hub––“aye––there’s the rub….”


The essence of “Racquetball,” a very short story by Don Waitt[2] of Tampa, Florida, told by a never-named narrator in the first-person perspective, may simply be the death of the father in the backstory. This single, simple incident (occurring in some nameless America locus) reminded me somewhat of the essence of Paul Yoon’s 2016 short story “Vladivostok Station,” where the essence occurs immediately in the opening line as the narrator reunites with his friend Kostya, and everything that follows in the story is a result of this temporary reunion.[3]

As Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) once put it: “precision and brevity—these are the two virtues of prose.”[4] And, under that Russian rubric, Waitt’s story is certainly virtuous in terms of length and exactness; but, considering the length of Yoon’s narrative, I find the latter to be a bit underwhelming. To complicate matters, James Gallant’s short story “The Adjunct” (discussed below in part III. of this review) mocks the concept of “flash fiction” but not so literally that it ends up being a “long” short story.

The dad in “Racquetball” died from an ambush with a heart attack while playing ball; the narrator of “Vladivostok Station,” however, is concerned with his ambush (or intersection) with an old acquaintance. Both deal with interruptions: via death for one and friendship for the other. For both stories, I am reminded of a line from a recent novel by Stephen King when the alcoholic protagonist realizes: “he had come to believe that life was a series of ironic ambushes.”[5]

“Racquetball” deals with a dead dad who, in terms of the narrator’s memory, is still somewhat part of the narrator’s community. And this reminded me of a passage from Alfarabi (872–950 CE) on how the dead nonetheless remain a part of a living community:

“City” and “household” do not mean merely the dwelling for the Ancients. But they do mean those whom the dwelling surrounds, whatever the dwellings, of whatever thing they are, and whether they are beneath the earth or above it—being wood, clay, wool and hair, or any of the other things of which the dwellings that surround people are made. [6]

Or as sociologist Thomas Laqueur has most recently put it:

It is still common; there are cultures today in which the living regularly speak to the dead. We endlessly invest the dead body with meaning because, through it, the human past somehow speaks to us. [7]

In other words, everything above and below and surrounding a living individual should be consider a part of the individual’s community, both the living and the dead. And in “Racquetball” the death of the dad still lingers––as when the narrator-son has to make an annoying trip to the airport to pick up his dead dad’s wallet. Whether the sports projectile that ended his life was launched with violent intent or was merely accidental, I recall the sentiments from Dune: “There is no escape—we pay for the violence of our ancestors.”[8]

In ‘Racquetball,” this idea of the dead still being a part of a living community is made apparent to readers through the storyline of the narrator’s mother becoming emotionally apoplectic from the horror/grief of her husband dying in the prime of life at age forty-eight. As Seneca once put it: “Nothing makes itself more unpopular quite so quickly as a person’s grief,” which is why the narrator of “Racquetball” has given up on overly comforting his widowed mother, though he hates himself for doing so.[9]


The essence of “The Adjunct” by James Gallant[10] (who has written books about Atlanta and Ohio) seems to occur when the main character Aurora Magnusson decides to start a literary magazine at a college in the Ozarks, a college that hasn’t quite decided to hire her, that is, until she pitches her plans for a publication with the college’s name in the title. While her scheme turns out (at least temporarily) to be self-sustaining, it also appears to be something of a racket of the humanities. For in this story would-be writers pay “entry fees” to have their work published, and Magnusson, meanwhile, pockets the fees without disclosing this revenue stream to her college employers.

Gallant’s story (told in the third-person perspective limited to Aurora’s point of view) seems to silently mock grad-student lingo, particularly phrases like “self-sustaining” and “job security,” which aren’t even mentioned in the story proper but seem apparent (at least to this reader).

Magnusson’s self-sustaining scam to publish a literary magazine is divorced from any ideals of quality in the literature it publishes, as evidenced in her speculation as to how she will operate the publication: “The editing probably wouldn’t take that long once the magazine was up and running.”

It’s also not even clear if Aurora Magnusson wants to be a full-time professor, much less an adjunct one. She is (like a good middleclass American) only interested in paying her bills (particularly her rent). In a grander sense, she seems to be going through the motions in order to maintain the appearances of having graduating from graduate school.


For both narrators of these stories, there is a kind of defiant smiling in the face of utter hopelessness, which isn’t (I think) quite the same as whistling in the dark through a graveyard. Magnusson certainly gains power over the writers whom she now edits; but it remains unclear what power (if any) she wields over her readers. The narrator in “Racquetball,” meanwhile, seems similar to the powerless tenant farmers described in Georgian writer Harry Crew’s (1935–2012) memoirs:

They spoke for a while about the weather, mostly rain, and about other things that men who live off the land speak of when they meet, seriously, but with that resigned tone in their voice that makes you know they know they’re speaking only to pass the time because they have utterly no control over what they’re talking about: weevils in cotton, screwworms in stock, the government allotment of tobacco acreage, the fierce price of commercial fertilizer. [11]

Both Waitt and Gallant’s stories deal with kinds of powerlessness: “Racquetball” about death; “The Adjunct” about job drought, that is, a writing/teaching career thwarted by economic desperation. Both stories remind me of a remark by social philosopher Eric Hoffer (1902–1983): “The powerful can be as timid as the weak. What seems to count more than possession of instruments of power is faith in the future.”[12]

And both stories might be about what Crews once realized: “The only way to deal with the real world was to challenge it with one of your own making.”[13] In “Racquetball” the narrator has to make his own life better by ignoring the undue, continuous grief of his mother. In “The Adjunct” the main character Magnusson literally creates a literary enterprise to “deal with the real world.”

Both stories are by “expert” readers, that is, “established” writers. They know what they’re doing whatever the reader knows, agree with or not. And this brings me back to Pushkin:

In a draft letter to Ryleev of June–August 1825 Pushkin contrasts Western writers who all wrote for money with the situation of poets in Russia where ‘(except for me) they write from vanity … There if you have nothing to eat, you write a book; here if you have nothing to eat you enter government service and dont write.’ [14]

Finally, it needs to be pointed out that both stories are very funny. But when one analyzes humor, she or he too often ends up like those who stare at the countenance of Medusa: silently frozen in perplexity.



[1] Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature: a Necessary Unity, (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1979) 147.

[2] Don Waitt, “Racquetball,” NewPopReview.com.

[3] Paul Yoon, “Vladivostok Station,” Harpers, July 2016.

[4] Elaine Feinstein, Pushkin: a Biography, (Ecco Press/Harper Collins, 2000) 80.

[5] Stephen King, Doctor Sleep, (New York: Scribner, 2013) 64.

[6] Alfarabi, The Political Writings, trans. Charles E. Butterworth. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2004), “Selected Aphorisms” p. 22, no. 22.

[7] Thomas W. Laqueur, The Work of the Dead: a Cultural History of Mortal Remains, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2015) 6.

[8] Frank Herbert, Dune (1965), (New York: Ace Books – Premium Edition, 2010) “I. Dune,” 237 (from “Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib” by the Princess Irulan).

[9] Seneca, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Letters from a Stoic), trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin, 1969) Letter LXIII, p. 116.

[10] James Gallant, “The Adjunct,” Fortnightly Review, May 28, 2018.

[11] Harry Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place, (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) 16–17.

[12] Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951), (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) §4, p. 18.

[13] Crews, A Childhood: the Biography of a Place 126.

[14] Feinstein, Pushkin: a Biography 125.

Feb 13 2018

Seating at Dinner

Piazza Navona, Roma, Italia

Seating at Dinner
(According to Martha Nussbaum and Larry McMurtry)

First, from Martha:

The domain of life that can be called the “Middle Realm,” a realm in which much of our daily life is spent: in dealings with strangers, business associates, employers and employees, casual acquaintances, in short people with whom we are not involved in relations of intimacy and deep trust, but who are also people and not legal and governmental institutions. A great deal of anger is generated in this realm, over slights to reputation and honor, insults or fantasized insults, and some genuinely harmful and awful behavior. Seneca’s On Anger depicts a typical Roman’s day as a minefield. Go to a neighbor’s house and you are greeted by a surly doorman who speaks rudely to you. Go to a dinner party and you discover that the host has seated you at a place at the table that others will view as insulting. And on it goes. [1]

And from Larry:

I wasn’t good at galas, either, being inexpert in the delicate metropolitan matter of placement. At my second [PEN] gala, held downtown in the old Customs House, both Susan Sontag and Peter Jennings (the late ABC anchor) left because they were seated with people who had no idea who they were. Such, I suppose, is the Big Time. Towering figures such as Susan Sontag and Peter Jennings must be seated next to people who want to sit beneath a tower. What could be more simple?[2]

Interior of a restaurant (1887)
by Vincent van Gogh (Wikicommons)



[1] Nussbaum, Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice, (New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2016) 138.

[2] McMurtry, Literary Life: a Second Memoir, (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2009) 132.

Oct 27 2016

Throwing Heidegger for a Loop (by Not Reading Him)

Palazzo Re Enzo, Bologna, Italia

Throwing Heidegger for a Loop (by Not Reading Him)

The Younger Seneca (4 BC–65 AD) writes that, “the fall of anything great generally takes time,” for this is the nature of Fortune.[1] Fortune juggles us from her felly—because she is a jester performing before the Court of Zeus—Seneca, therefore, advised his fellow ancients to accept Fortune; for they cannot resent her.[2] They must adopt a noble spirit (wherever she throws them).[3]

I have yet to read Being and Time (1927). But I’ve heard things about it. I’ve heard it discusses a concept called “thrown-ness” (Geworfenheit) that seems to be basically the same as the ancient idea of the goddess Fortune. And moderns, even before Heidegger (1889–1976), have tossed around this same idea––that the condition of being is analogous to the sense of being thrown by Fate/Fortune. Emerson (1803–1882), writing 80+ years before Heidegger, believed that while we are thrown into our immediate conditions without whim or warning, we must choose not to passively fall like Milton’s Satan, but instead soar like a Hellenic Icarus:

The man who bates no jot of courage when oppressed by fate[,] who miss ed ing of his design lays hold with ready hand on the unexpected event & turns it to his own account & in the cruelest suffering has that generosity of perception that he is sensible of a secret joy in the addition this event makes to his knowledge––that man is truly independent,––“he takes his revenge on fortune”* is independent of time & chance; fortune may rule his circumstances but he overrules fortune. The stars cannot thwart with evil influences the progress of such a soul to grandeur….[4]

So use all that is called Fortune. Most men gamble with her, and gain all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls. But do thou leave as unlawful these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the Will work and acquire, and thou hast chained the wheel of Chance, and shalt sit hereafter out of fear from her rotations. A political victory, a rise of rents, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.[5]

This thrown feeling was not limited to American transcendentalists. Take the Scottish bookman Andrew Lang (1844–1912):

So he brings us no news
From the stars we peruse,
Or in hope, or in terror survey;
He is only a stone
From the world that was thrown
When the Earth was an infant at play.[6]

Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), the founder of anthroposophy, once defined free will as being “conscious” of our “desires, but ignorant of the causes by which they are determined.” For Steiner, the fact that we prioritize our desires gives the illusion of free will. Being human, we cannot free ourselves from our free will. We cannot help that we’ve been thrown. For Steiner:

[A thrown] stone, for example, receives from an external cause acting upon it a certain quantity of motion, by reason of which it necessarily continues to move, after the impact of the external cause has ceased. The continued motion of the stone is due to compulsion, not to the necessity of its own nature, because it requires to be defined by the impact of an external cause. What is true here for the stone is true also for every other particular thing, however complicated and many-sided it may be, namely, that everything is necessarily determined by external causes to exist and to act in a fixed and definite manner.

Now, pray, assume that this stone during its motion thinks and knows that it is striving to the best of its power to continue in motion. This stone which is conscious only of its striving and is by no means indifferent, will believe that it is absolutely free, and that it continues in motion for no other reason than its own will to continue. Now this is that human freedom which everybody claims to possess and which consists in nothing but this, that men are conscious of their desires, but ignorant of the causes by which they are determined. Thus the child believes that he desires milk of his own free will, the angry boy regards his desire for vengeance as free, and the coward his desire for flight. Again, the drunken man believes that he says of his own free will what, sober again, he would fain have left unsaid, and as this prejudice is innate in all men, it is difficult to free oneself from it. For, although experience teaches us often enough that man least of all can temper his desires, and that, moved by conflicting passions, he perceives the better and pursues the worse, yet he considers himself free because there are some things which he desires less strongly, and some desires which he can easily inhibit through the recollection of something else which it is often possible to recall.[7]

C. S. Lewis (1899–1963) warned that even if an individual is competent enough to realize their condition of being thrown into the world arbitrarily, that realization often further throws that individual into the habit of mistaking the map for the territory it marks:

The truth is that [the  medieval] language about inanimate bodies was the same kind of language that the modern man uses—I mean, the modern “plain” man, not the modern scientist or philosopher. When a modern says that the stone fell “in obedience to the law of gravitation,” he does not really think there is literally a law or literal obedience; that the stone, on being released, whips out a little book of statutes, finds the chapter and paragraph relevant to its predicament, and decides it had better be a law-abiding stone and “come quiet.” Nor did the medieval man believe that the stone really felt homesick, or felt at all. Both ways of putting it are analogical; neither speaker would usually know any way of expressing the facts except by an analogy.[8]

For Lewis, the analogy of the stone (or thrownness for that matter) is only a tool used to finish the product the job calls for, nothing more.

When during an election year a journalist asks, “Where are we headed in this country?”  what they mean, as John Searle (1932–) points out, is that, amid the flux of consciousness, the thrown-ness of being, Searle realizes we are thrown both collectively as well as individually. In other words, while the individual kamikaze pilot found himself thrown into the immediate situation of the cockpit, the many individuals on the ground who were attacked at Pearl Harbor suddenly found themselves collectively “thrown” into a world war:

To illustrate the relationships between higher-level or system features, on the one hand, and micro level phenomena, on the other, I want to borrow an example from Roger Sperry. Consider a wheel rolling down hill. The wheel is entirely made of molecules. The behavior of the molecules causes the higher-level, or system feature of solidity. Notice that the solidity affects the behavior of the individual molecules. The trajectory of each molecule is affected by the behavior of the entire solid wheel. But of course there is nothing there but molecules. The wheel consists entirely of molecules. So when we say the solidity functions causally in the behavior of the wheel and in the behavior of the individual molecules that compose the wheel, we are not saying that the solidity is something in addition to the molecules; rather, it is just the condition that the molecules are in. But the feature of solidity is nonetheless a real feature, and it has real causal effects.[9]

Finally, let us not forget Walter Kaufmann’s (1921–1980) critique in Discovering the Mind Vol. II: Nietzsche, Heidegger and Buber (1980) that all the ideas in Heidegger’s great Book of the Blackforest can already be found in Leo Tolstoy’s (1828–1910) novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) where passages like––

“It is as if I [Ivan] had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death….”

Suddenly some force struck [Ivan] in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light. What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction.[10]

––do seem to be echoed by Heidegger 40 years after Tolstoy penned them. But Tolstoy had been writing about being and time and death for a while. He had realized very early on that, “When we don’t think we don’t feel. When a man thinks, it is the worse for him.”[11] Moreover:

It happened with me as it happens with everyone who contracts a fatal internal disease. At first there were the insignificant symptoms of an ailment, which the patient ignores; then these symptoms recur more and more frequently, until they merge into one continuous duration of suffering. The suffering increases, and before he can turn around the patient discovers what he already knew: the thing he had taken for a mere indisposition is in fact the most important thing on earth to him, is in fact death…. We cannot cease to know what we know.[12]

So we know we’ve been thrown. And we know it without ever having read Heidegger. Let us end with Emerson:

Be a football to time & chance [,] the more kicks the better so that you inspect the whole game & know its uttermost law. As true is this ethics for trivial as for calamitous days.[13]



[1] Seneca, Epistle XCI.

[2] Seneca, Epistle XCI.

[3] Seneca, Epistle CVII.

[4] Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks [JMN], Vol. III, June 29, 1827, pp. 92–93. *“[Editor’s note:] See Taylor’s Holy Living p. 128 Phil. Ed…. The edition to which Emerson refers is uncertain. The earliest listed Philadelphia edition of Holy Living is 1835.”

[5] Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” (1841) last paragraph. See also from Emerson’s journals:

What is the matter with the world that men do not rule themselves but let circumstances rule them. They lay no plan of life but are guided by the gale that haps to blow. Should we not think it strange that an architect should begin to build a house without having determined upon any measurement for the front or the height or the disposal for the room within but left himself to be governed by the shape or the quantity of the materials he might chance to collect? Would you not call the mariner mad who left the port with the first wind that blew & as the wind changed loosened his sheets & still stood before it the wind let it blow from what quarter it would. What does he do? He With an anxious face he pulls sits down to his charts, he consults his chronometer, he takes the altitude of the sun, he heaves the log into the deep & so painfully determines from hour to hour the steadfast course he would keep through the sea. (JMN, Vol. III, June 25, 1828, pp. 132–33.)

[6] Lang, “Disillusions from Astronomy.” Grass of Parnassus: First and Last Rhymes. London: Longman’s, Green, and Co. 1892. p. 146.

[7] Steiner, The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity. Revised edition of The Philosophy of Freedom. Translated by Mrs. R. F. Alfred Hoernle. 1922. Putnam: NY. p. 4.

[8] Lewis, “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages.” Chapter 3 from The Discarded Image: Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge UP. 1966. Originally delivered in 1956 as a pair of lectures to an audience of scientists in Cambridge. Reprinted in Chaucer and His Contemporaries: Essays on Medieval Literature and Thought. Edited and Introduced by Helaine Newstead. NY: Fawcet. 1968. 46–66 at 54.

[9] Searle, “Free Will as a Problem in Neurobiology.” Freedom and Neurobiology. pp. 48–49.

[10] Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, IX, XII.

[11] Tolstoy, Sebastopol (1855), I.

[12] Tolstoy, A Confession (1880), III, VI.

[13] Emerson, JMN, Vol. V, October 8, 1837, Journal C, p. 391.

Aug 19 2016

The Olympics: Seneca on Coaches, Athletes, & Slavery

bookbread typewriter

The Olympics: Seneca on Coaches, Athletes, & Slavery

From Lucius Annaeus Seneca:

There are the exercise, in the first place, the toil involved in which drains the vitality and renders it unfit for concentration or the more demanding sort of studies. Next there is the heavy feeding, which dulls mental acuteness. Then there is the taking on as coaches of the worst brand of slave, persons who divide their time between putting on lotion and putting down liquor, whose idea of a well spent day consists of getting up a good sweat and then replacing the fluid lost with plenty of drink, all the better to be absorbed on a dry stomach. Drinking and perspiring—it’s the life of a dyspeptic! There are short and simple exercises which will tire the body without undue delay and save what needs especially close accounting for, time.

—Letter XV, pp. 60–61 in Letters from a Stoic (Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium). Translated by Robin Campbell. 1969. Penguin Classics.