Alex Miller Jr.

Alex Miller is a staff writer for The Curator and the co-author of A Bow From My Shadow (Ecco Qua Press, 2013), a collection of poems written in dialogue with poems by Luke Irwin. His work has appeared in The Millions, The Conversation, Transpositions, Pif, The Curator, Denver Syntax, Lake Effect, and Kenagain. He is a Lecturer in Western Literature at Gordon College, and an English and Rhetoric teacher. You can follow him on twitter @miller_jr

The Wedge

And in the marshy field that drinks some of
this river, legs muffed in shifting steam,
pale geese negotiate and wrangle, preen
and complain, beaks the black of a leather glove
and gauntlets already thrown down in rage.
The territory, contested mates, the page
of the pecking order struck out and reprinted.
Their foghorns sound a newly-minted
leader’s coronation, then the lot
are off again in an elegant V
that constantly shuffles its hierarchy,
which navigates the bitter winds though the squawk
of contention keeps clamoring on and on.
Make them our republic’s emblem, its callsign.

Putting Art (back) In Its Place

Gordon College’s Dr. John Skillen is a rare sort of academic: the kind with road dust on his shoes instead of chalk dust on his elbow patches. As he explains in the introduction to his new book, Putting Art (back) In Its Place, his interest in Italian Renaissance art began not in a lecture hall but on a family camping trip in Europe. “For me,” he recalls, “fresh from reading Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy, our slow journey through Italy was a pilgrimage from one Michelangelo masterpiece to another.” Skillen was twelve at the time, and the notion that a boy of that age would have bought and devoured a lengthy biographical novel about Michelangelo is sobering. It signals to us an adherent and adventurous intellect: one equipped with a natural sensitivity to beauty and a rare desire to understand art within its biographical and physical contexts.

These faculties carried him to a busy career as a professor of English at Gordon College and Director of the Gordon in Orvieto Program, a residential study-abroad semester that combines immersion in an Italian monastery with intensive art and humanities classwork. Skillen’s dream, according to an article on the college’s website, was to provide “a venue for the integration of arts, faith and history.” He cultivated that dream by establishing relationships with the clergy and artists of Orvieto, and finding a way to fold his students into their world as contributors rather than observers. He discovered what too few academics have: that a coach-section seat in an airplane is as good a place to read as the chair of a third-story office, and that scholarship divorced from experience is as impotent as it is boring.

Putting Art (back) In Its Place, falls squarely within that practical range of concern. Skillen’s offices have been the streets, monasteries, and duomos of Italy. His lectures take place in the de Medici’s frescoed family chapels, in front of actual artworks rather than projector transparencies. This approach to art scholarship has left Skillen with a rich sense of “…the relationships once operative between the physical setting of installed artworks and the particular actions performed in those settings…” His book argues that we cannot fully appreciate, or even adequately comprehend, the art of the Italian Renaissance without understanding these architectural, narrative, and liturgical contexts.

The modern mind, he explains, has been trained to view artworks as self-contained. We move them thoughtlessly from museum to museum or from studio to home because our evaluation is based solely on what falls within the frame. Artists and viewers in the Renaissance thought differently. As Skillen explains, at that time

…the aesthetic element (of an artwork) was evaluated for how well it did its job in helping the participants’ response match the purpose of the action that the artwork served. In short, beauty was seen as functional, not as something freed from functionality and enjoyed for its own sake.

Chapter by chapter, Skillen explains how Italian Renaissance art was commonly used as a point of reference during worship services. It embellished the pulpits of preachers and gilded baptismal fonts. Frescoes on the walls of private chapels reminded wealthy families that God’s economy values only the rich in spirit. Nestled next to the windows of monks, art taught them the ideal postures for prayers of exaltation, petition, or thanks. Naturally, the financiers who commissioned such art and the artists who made it took these purposes into consideration. Those of us, Skillen points out, who hope to appreciate the results of their labor cannot therefore view it in isolation.

To resolve our decontextualized approach to art, Skillen systematically examines dozens of paintings, sculptures, carvings, and frescoes, focusing not on their formal elements so much as their relationship to the buildings, people, and uses that helped define them, and which they in turn helped to define. The result is a lively and refreshing book that invites us to consider art’s potential to shape communities, alter surroundings, and interact with its contextualizing space.

His phrase for that sense of art’s connection to its context is in situ (a Latin term for “in its original place”), a term that sums up his technical approach: each chapter and section of the book literally seeks to put a work of art back in its place for the reader. One example of this process is his treatment of Masaccio’s Expulsion of Adam and Eve, a famous image of the original couple’s grief as they are cast out of Eden. In textbooks, Skillen explains, “The photographs of Masaccio’s Expulsion…are very often cropped so as to erase its location in situ.”

In fact, the painting is located on the top half of a pillar that frames the entrance to the private chapel of the influential Brancacci family. Across from it, frescoed on the opposite pillar, is Masolino’s Temptation of Adam and Eve Before the Fall. As a Brancacci entered the chapel, a place where the Catholic liturgy of the time would begin by asking him to confess his sins, he would be flanked by the “before and after” of man’s original sin in vivid colors on either side. In Skillen’s words, “The paintings not only frame the entrance physically but would have been understood to “frame” thematically the whole programme of the chapel.”

The Expulsion of Adam and Eve by Masaccio Cappella Brancacci, S. Maria del Carmine, Firenze

The Expulsion of Adam and Eve by Masaccio Cappella Brancacci, S. Maria del Carmine, Firenze

Written with lively clarity and accompanied by a website that provides images of the paintings as well as detailed study questions, Skillen’s book offers insight that extends beyond its area of specialization. An informative and often dazzling explanation of Renaissance Italian art, the book encourages a countercultural view of what art might be to us: a communal and spiritual touchstone rather than a decorative or economic object. Skillen encourages us “…to appreciate the capacity of art to articulate the purposes of the places in which (we) gather, to support the work of the people in and for the society in which (we) live, and to vivify the stories that inform and inspire (our) sense of identity.”

This positive argument is both intriguing and inspiring. But if the book has a flaw, it is that it is couched in a too-generalized critique of the modernity which eventually followed the Renaissance’s culture of liturgically-integrated art. In his chapter “Recovering a Sense of Liturgy,” Skillen quotes George Steiner’s observation from In Bluebeard’s Castle that “The lapse from ceremony and ritual in much of public and private behavior has left a vacuum.” Skillen adds that

The vacuum is often filled in youth culture by the anti-liturgies of ‘hanging out,’ of vegging rather than willfully and decisively doing something together. The vacuum fosters the language of ‘whatever’ to mark an attitude of purposeless passing of time, as in ‘Waddya wanna do tonight, it’s Friday?’ ‘Oh, whatever…just hang out.’

The tone here has shifted from Skillen’s typical scholarly sharpness to that of a curmudgeonly rant. The hypothetical teenage conversation he creates, with its purposeful misspellings, falsely reproduces the “slang kids are using these days,” and might make us suspect that the “vacuum” Skillen senses arises not from an absence of meaning in modern life, but from a benevolent insensitivity to the transformed mechanisms by which meaning is received and transmitted in modern culture.

Often, Skillen references specific artifacts from Modernist art to clarify this critique. But such references can be a little troubling. Only a few paragraphs after his discussion of modern teenage “anti-liturgy,” he quotes the end of W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.” In Skillen’s transcription, the last line ends (the italics are his) “’…what rough beast…slouches toward Bethlehem.’” with a full end-stop after that final phrase. Just afterward, he argues that Yeats’s poem “captures a sense of the lethargy and purposelessness” characteristic of modern life, where we “…interrupt presence and attentiveness in… a conversation at the coffee shop or in a worship service at church with a quick check of Facebook.”

However, the poem actually ends “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?“ The last three words, eliminated in Skillen’s quotation, tie the poem to Yeats’s complex view of history, articulated in his trippy pseudo-philosophical treatise A Vision, as a cycle of violent and peaceful ages. Yeats’s poem is not a flat criticism of modern life but an apocalyptic vision of a new age inspired by unchristian violence (represented by the beast) instead of Christlike mildness. The beast isn’t “slouching towards Bethlehem” because it is uninterested in church, it’s slouching because it’s a beast.

But however hasty Putting Art (back) In Its Place can be in its critique of modernity, what a millennial like myself, prone to doing “whatever” more than I’d like to admit, can learn from it far outweighs any reasons for skepticism. Skillen’s vision of Renaissance Italy, where parades were held to commemorate the installation of new paintings of the Madonna, or the liturgical calendar ”…framed the passage of time not as chronos-time but as kairos-time—time experienced not as flat sequence but rather with narrative direction, with opportunities to be grasped and occasions to be celebrated,” is striking in its power and clarity.

Whether or not we are compelled by the idea of a life famed by liturgy, Skillen’s ability to evoke a culture in which art enlivened, organized, and commented on the life of a whole society will certainly make us skeptical of the hermetic atmosphere of the modern art museum, and of privatized art in general. By calling our attention to art’s context, Putting Art (back) In Its Place challenges us to create a culture more sensitive to its graces, where focus and presence are valued over productivity and ubiquity—in short, the culture we, with our farmers’ markets, “shop small” festivals, and resurgence in community artwork, are so clumsily longing to find again.

Letters from Fairyland

To commemorate Italo Calvino’s upcoming birthday, we’re rerunning this piece.

To many contemporary college students and used bookstore aficionados, the work of Cuban-born Italian author Italo Calvino is a gateway drug into the world of experimental writing, the kind of name you can drop confidently to underclassmen to secure your perceived status in the avant-garde of the well-read. Students in poststructuralism courses who can slog (or love) their way through If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler might sample only slightly less heady pleasures later on between the pages of The Castle of Crossed Destinies or The Barron in the Trees, and pick up indie girlfriends for sure by reading passages aloud from Invisible Cities. In the scholarly sphere, Calvino’s name is now fixed beside that of Umberto Eco in as an icon of effective continental, experimental writing in the 20th century, and the recent publication of his letters by the Princeton University Press is sparking retrospective reviews from all of the major papers and periodicals, many of which are the written equivalent of a head-scratch and a shrug.

Calvino’s letters are athletically written and often industry-focused: He spent the better part of his career as the manager of a publishing house, and those who invest in the big volume will be in for much more genial shop-talk then lyrical prose, extemporaneous criticism or infant fiction. This may register to many as a disappointment. Reviewers who approached the Letters hoping for short fictive experiments like those of the wonderful and absurd Cosmicomics, or perhaps more likely, a personal narrative that corresponds to the young protagonist’s political adventures in The Path to the Spiders’ Nests, found them dry and impersonal. The Guardian’s Ian Thompson was more optimistic than most, cautiously observing that “Above all, the letters illuminate the politics of book publishing in Italy after the overthrow of Mussolini.” In other words, they are letters about Other People’s Books (also the title of a collection of Calvino’s writings published in Italy), and about the trouble of publishing them in a partisan European country that is recovering from Fascism and a lost war. Very often, what we encounter in the letters are Calvino’s opinions about other Italian authors – a pretty far cry from the kind of personal disclosures that could rock the scholarly world. But even these  observations are studded with insights, like those in this brief comment about Luigi Pirandello, the prestigious Italian dramatist of a generation before:

Pirandello is hard, I’ve read him again and again, and reflected on him, though I’ve not yet properly digested him…But however much I continue to discover some new plus points in him, I can’t quite reduce the distance that separates us. Dentone too says he’s seen him but adds: philosophy is not poetry and does not supply us with dreams.

Here Calvino aligns himself with the poets, and in that loyalty we catch a glimpse of his orientation as an author; one who later observes that “…perhaps only the liveliness and mobility of the intelligence escape…the dense net of private and public constrictions that enfolds us.” And to intelligence we might easily add “imagination,” which Calvino possessed in spades.

And here is precisely where his critics zero in on him. Jonathan Galassi of The New York Review of Books notes the apparent “dryness” of the letters as deeply contrasting with the whimsical twists of his fiction, and from there launches into a guarded bit of diminution:

The depicting of the actual was never Calvino’s forte. Even in his first, most realistic novel, inspired by his partisan experience, the young hero undergoes rites of passage perhaps more proper to the realm of the fairy tale. Fantasy allowed him a kind of detachment, a freedom from self that he aspired to in writing, and “a burst of energy, action, optimism…which contemporary reality does not inspire in me.” He rejected as “decadent” “autobiography, introspection, egocentrism, all things that I have always hated and fought against.”

To criticize Calvino for failing to “depict the actual” is not a casual observation: It aims straight for the heart of his literary project, which was thoroughly invested in the actual tragedies and hardships of wartime and post-war Italy and Europe, no matter how obliquely his letters reveal that concern.

As a test case, his famous short story collection Invisible Cities is as good as any at revealing the undertow of the actual beneath Calvino’s fantasies. Framed as a series of exchanges between Marco Polo and his Tartar commissioner Kublai Khan, the subject of which is ostensibly Polo’s impressions of the various cities in Khan’s vast empire, the narrative of Invisible Cities quickly veers into the conceptual, remaining effervescently beautiful even while it undermines the credibility of Polo’s stories. “Your cities do not exist,” Khan tells Polo at one point. “Perhaps they have never existed;” to which Polo replies, “While, at a sign from you, sire, the unique and final city raises its stainless walls, I am collecting the ashes of the other possible cities that vanish to make room for it…” Later, Polo confesses to Khan that all of the dozens of cities he describes might, in fact, just be different versions of his native Venice, which (and here the poststructuralist students gasp collectively) he may never have left at all, making the whole collection nothing but a dream.

Certainly, these tropes and concepts seem far removed from the mundanity of the editing room, the trenches of WWII or the political dilemmas of a post-Fascist Italy, but in the stories themselves, and their meditation on the human project as summed up in the city, we can find a critical mind at work that has read clean through the library and brings the whole weight of that erudite intelligence to bear against society’s flaws. In his fifth story under the heading “Cities and Signs,” Calvino’s Polo tells Khan,

No one, wise, Kublai, knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it. And yet between the one and the other there is a connection. If I describe to you Olivia, a city rich in products and profits, I can indicate prosperity only by speaking of filigree palaces with fringed cushions on the seats by the mullioned window…But from these words you realize at once how Olivia is shrouded in a cloud of soot and grease that sticks to the houses, that in the brawling streets, the shifting trailers crush pedestrians against the walls.

Here, waxing theoretical, Calvino observes astutely how words can often suggest their unstated opposites. But under the flag of that linguistic observation is another, bitterly practical one, about how prosperity tends to generate poverty at its fringes, or even at its heart. The piece brings to mind stories of Italy before WWII, where a single glisteningly-dressed Fascist battalion would get ferried from town to town ahead of the touring Mussolini, so that each impoverished community would appear both armed and prosperous: A gilded surface that belied the actual state of the “brawling streets.”

It is true that Calvino chose to write his fiction at a certain theoretical distance and that he specialized in the fantastic. But like the filmmaker Guillermo del Toro after him, whose monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth are physical signifiers of the warped Republican officers of the Spanish Civil War, some of whom seem to derive sexual pleasure from torture, Calvino has used the fantastic in fiction to process historical human violence, but without diminishing the monstrousness of that violence. His fantasies are not escapes from reality, but lurid analogues to it. In The Baron in the Trees, the fatal promise of one boy to live his whole life without touching the ground has luminous narrative consequences (how do you court a woman from the treetops?), but we are never allowed to forget that at the heart of his oath is a giant vote-of-no-confidence for humanity; a misanthropic streak that decays his fantasy-life in the leaves, and which was probably the reaction to a stuffy, loveless aristocratic childhood:

[W]e had…been warned against sliding down the marble banisters, not out of fear that we might break a leg or an arm, for that never worried our parents—which was, I think, why we never broke anything—but because they feared that since we were growing up and gaining weight, we might knock over the busts of ancestors placed by our father on the banisters at the turn of every flight of stairs.

There is humor in these reflections, certainly, but a bitter humor that only solidifies our sense that this narrator cannot help but inherit the coldness of the family he has fled. Read sensitively, The Baron in the Trees turns out to be a caustic domestic drama dressed up as a fanciful concept novel, and in Calvino one finds this commitment to wrestling with real personal or historical issues informing even his most far-fetched storytelling. Very often, Calvino’s covert subject is human industry, and its apparently inevitable decline into oppression and war; and though Invisible Cities is his sly historical commentary par excellence, the personality revealed in the letters is no less dedicated to these concerns.

In one of them, Calvino writes that:

“My working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”

The chain of priorities he describes here, which ascends from the practical into the conceptual, suggests not only that he tended to begin his composition with an observation of the streets or a morning with the newspaper, but that he even thought of language — which for him was a realm of dangerous abstraction — as connected at the roots with people, and with cities, and with the “heavenly bodies” that might ultimately hold both people and cities accountable for their tendency to embrace corruption. The man we encounter in his recently published correspondences might strike us as either fanciful or austere, but we can begin to know him best by learning how he wanted his work in fiction to “subtract weight,” or in other words, to relieve human burdens. This is not the mission of a fantasist, but of an author who believes he can freshen our experience of the mundane, or even the dire, by presenting it to us in fantastic new shapes. Far from having trouble depicting the actual, Calvino specialized in its transformation and interpretation:  His work lifts us into places where the surreal always seems familiar, so that we can return to a reality where, as he said of his own experience during the two years when he was compiling his book of Italian Folktales, “…everything that happened was a…metamorphosis;” the magic here was in the stories, but the transformation was in the reader.

 

FROM THE ARCHIVE: The Great Railway Bazaar

This piece was first published in July 2014.

 

Almost forty years after its publication, Paul Theroux’s narrative of a train trip from Europe to Japan, The Great Railway Bazaar, is still bandied about Goodreads and NPR summer reading specials as an essential travelogue, which cuts through the wide-eyed innocence and humane goodwill that characterized the generation of travel writers before Theroux, like Patrick Leigh Fermor, taking its cutting tone and realism from Theroux’s cantankerous Cape Cod disposition and air of privilege. As is often the case with important books, those who criticize The Great Railway Bazaar do so for exactly the same reasons its supporters praise it—Theroux never withholds judgment as he steams his way through some of the most economically depressed regions in Asia, allowing his first impressions, favorable or no, thorough ventilation. He is particularly grumpy when forced to take third-class cars and share them with the lowest-paying customers:

“…I thought of them with pure horror. I knew the occupants: there was a bandy-legged gang of dark Japanese with bristly hair who traveled with a dwarf squaw, also Japanese, whose camera on a thong around her neck bumped her knees.

Theroux’s prose is so fluid that even his brutality is elegant. In fact, it is his most morally questionable moments that leave us most in awe, as if we were standing next to someone at a party who was willing to say every mean-spirited thing we were silently thinking, and who could do so with such an Orwellian bite it seemed to validate our cruelty.

The debate about whether Theroux’s racist generalizations are justified by the vividness of their expression has raged for forty years—it is the substance of the book’s fame. A contemporary reviewer for the New York Times wrote that we should love Theroux because “irony is essential, for living as well as for writing,” a point far too vague to be provable, but which captures the language a reader might use, internally, to justify the voyeuristic pleasure of watching Theroux call an elderly Japanese woman a squaw, or grumble that to him, sharing a car with Australians was “like a reminder that I’d touched bottom.” It is the inverse of the pleasure we feel watching a former slave blow the kneecaps off his old captors with a revolver at the end of Django Unchained, a brutality that thrills us precisely because the perpetrator hasn’t earned the right to treat anyone this way. We love Theroux because he is the traveler we would be without any restraint after a month of day drinking.

17-theroux-thegreatrailway

Less often written about is The Great Railway Bazaar’s war with narrative. Unlike Fermor’s genre-establishing A Time of Gifts, Theroux’s traveling yarn makes no attempt to novelize itself: interesting characters are noted, expanded upon, then abruptly abandoned at some midnight station, themes contemplated heavily for chapters at a stretch are forgotten once the landscape changes, and most notably, human interaction is purposefully avoided. Theroux’s ideal travel is not wading the colorful crowds of a Bazaar, but a carefully curated solitude. He is at his best when the cultures he set out to experience can be viewed from behind a first-class cabin window:

“…I preferred to travel for two or three days, reading, eating in the dining car, sleeping after lunch, and bringing my journal up to date in the early evening before having my first drink and deciding where we were on my map…I traveled easily in two directions, along the level rails while Asia flashed changes at the window, and at the interior rim of a private world of memory and language.”

When the inevitabilities of international train travel interrupt that private world, the narratives are a scattershot mix of geographic sketches, armchair cultural criticism, and arguments with train conductors, almost all fascinating, and in no order but the chronological. It is a bare, shameless sequence of events and feelings set down just as they arose, not polished for pace or political correctness, often strenuous to read, and the philosophical import of it is its steady, subtle insistence that even our most vivid experiences are much less meaningful that we often hope, an observation just as brutal as Theroux’s race-tinged aphorisms, and which hums in the background of the book relentlessly, like the muffled sound of wheels.

The frustration of Theroux’s apparent aimlessness is his point: this is not the optimistic lark of a veteran from the greatest generation, but its late-century follow up, a tour of colonialism’s ruins and the backwaters left behind by the collapse of the longform tourism industry epitomized by The Orient Express. Yet the book is not without its profundity, or its narrative flares in the dark—there are passages where Theroux’s nitpicky preferences and the cities he visits align, and a breath of the old, innocent traveler’s thrill sweeps through:

“We were still at the siding at Jaipur Junction. I lay in my berth…read a few pages of The Autobiography of a Yogi, then fell asleep. I was awakened at half-past twelve by a bump: my bogie’s being coupled to the Delhi Mail. All night the train rocked and clicked towards Delhi, while I slumbered in my cool room, and I was so refreshed on arriving that I decided to…see if, as my map said—though everyone claimed it was impossible—I could take a train to Ceylon.”

This story about trains is summed up best by what trains do at night in Theroux’s sleepy stations: shunting. The train backs up and adds a car—at once a reversal and a gain. So too with the book itself. We feel the reversal when Theroux refuses to novelize, when a rickshaw driver in Madras advertises an English prostitute, and he risks his neck rummaging through blacked out slums in search of a “…situation that attracted me. An English girl in Madras, whoring for peanuts…what had brought her to the godforsaken place?” Yet when he doesn’t find her, and ends up in the inevitable Indian brothel surrounded by giggling poor girls, he leaves casually, without dropping a dime, uninterested in these non-English narratives and observing only that none of the girls “could have been older than fifteen.”

The gain is in Theroux’s language. His epithets make The Great Railway Bazaar worth the price of admission, like this one about the passengers boarding India’s Grand Trunk Express:

“There were grand trunks all over the platform. I had never seen such heaps of belongings in my life, or so many laden people: they were like evacuees who had been given time to pack, lazily fleeing an ambiguous catastrophe.”

This is more than a good simile—the depth of the linguistic play makes each place he describes a metaphor for itself, capturing details and personalities with precision all in the turn of a phrase. At its best, Theroux’s language allows his locale to sing the song of itself, magically in spite of his own narrow-mindedness.

Forty years later, Theroux’s name-making work is still unblinkingly disrupting the nobility we misguidedly attach to travelers, who, of course, are just as vain as we are, and our obsession with authenticity, which lures us into believing that anyone who is just passing through, if they have the right attitude, can experience what another country is “really like.” The Great Railway Bazaar doesn’t try to distill any experience but the author’s own, and it does so with an artfulness that has the bite of a strong drink: in the end the buzz is worth the burn.

 

photo by:

Noteworthy: Aziz Ansari’s Master of None

 

There is a serious danger in praising a television show for its choice of subject matter instead of its acting, composition, or production quality: at that point you are talking about the creators’ intentions rather than their product, and something as evanescent as an intention is beyond the purview of criticism. Or rather, it is underneath it: a fact that becomes more evident when praise for a show that engages racism in the TV and film industry turns into blame that it didn’t engage those issues well enough.

What exactly would be “well enough?” It is impossible to say, not because we can’t picture a version of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None where every scene sent the right message about race, but because the show would be neither accurate nor funny if it did. Besides, Master of None’s technical achievements are too noteworthy to make engaging in the cloudy blame-game of political criticism a tempting prospect.    

Ansari is a multi-talented comic who has accomplished the rare feat of becoming more mature and sophisticated as his popularity swells. Those who loved his show-stealing portrayal of Tom Haverford in the sunny sitcom Parks and Recreation will recognize the quick grin and fast delivery he mastered during its seven-season run. But that delivery has matured. In the first episode, when he offers a woman a jar of apple juice to go with her Plan-B pill, his shrugs and banter do more than offset the scene’s brilliant awkwardness: they reveal his character’s deep misgivings about how suddenly serious the breezy post-millennial dating world has just become. You can see it in the way his face falls: an epiphany about the frightening yet enticing possibility of fatherhood that Ansari manages to get across in just a few frames of well-timed grimacing. Master of None is full of similar moments: evidence that Ansari’s physical control is catching up to his wit.

Just as well-crafted is the sitcom’s consistently bleary mise-en-scene. It evokes a colorful, caffeinated New York City where twenty and thirty-somethings are getting a lot of work done by day, then systematically mistreating their bodies at night in hip bars and coffee shops. Through careful scene construction, the demands of productivity are regularly contrasted with the search for meaning: important dialogue is always taking place in transit. Ansari’s shiftless protagonist Dev and his friends unpack serious dilemmas about identity and ambition in the back of cabs, or along crowded pathways in city parks. The flash of traffic lights and red brick of New York’s historic neighborhoods hover and buzz around the bustling characters, whose pontifications are constantly derailed by phone calls from work, texts from their parents, or the sudden need to take care of a friend’s kids. Colorful situation comedy inevitably ensues.

But this over saturated palate is frequently cut through by darkness: just as in a doctored-up picture, the shadows intensify along with the light. The signature scene from episode one, where Dev and his latest conquest sip apple juice and stare into the middle distance, takes place in an Uber at night, where deep shadows are raked by the passing street lights’ neon haze. The moment is funny, but the characters have dark circles around their eyes. Ansari’s ability to highlight the existential dilemmas of being young and urban without being preachy or obvious is a welcome contrast to both his standup comedy’s unconsidered irreverence and Parks and Recreation’s overflowing sap. Master of None’s combination of technical flourish and restraint, as many critics have noted, proves that Ansari and its other creators know just what they’re doing.  

It is this obvious, technical proof of the show’s professionalism which make its most politically uptight detractors sound so windy. You can picture Ansari smiling at the critics who accuse Master of None of racially insensitive casting choices. In a recent piece for Paper, Sandra Song, notes “a marked absence of South and East Asian-American women in the cast.” Yet to pick the show apart for such reasons only confirms one of its most emphatic messages: that for actors and screenwriters, it is impossible to both follow your creative inklings and satisfy such a persnickety, yet hypocritical audience. The point of Master of None’s painstakingly awkward scenario humor is not just that the conversation about race in the world of film and TV still needs to be had, but that in the current climate, it might be impossible to have correctly. As Song herself writes just a little later, “you can’t make everyone happy.”

Eventually, like the protagonist Dev, writers and characters alike are going to have to sit down, talk, be heard, and offend someone. As a writer, to do anything less would mean you weren’t bold enough to have an actual message. To do anything more would be to make your work a slave to its own themes.

Mercifully, Master of None makes neither of these mistakes, because its creators concentrated on cinematic and comedic craft instead of the political demands of their audience. Like the novelist celebrated by Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, Ansari and his co-writer Alan Yang engaged their hefty subject matter with finesse, precisely because they paid no attention to “…the bishops and the deans, the doctors and the professors, the patriarchs and the pedagogues all…shouting warning and advice.” In other words, they didn’t allow their art to be devoured by someone else’s prescriptions about how it should treat its themes. The result is a show where characters often grow weary of being wary, who joke around and make mistakes. In other words, it is a show that depicts our complicated social life as it actually transpires.

 

Perpetual Rediscoveries

Nothing ruins a book faster than a teacher who insists it is important. Scholars with the best argument against the existence of a literary canon use some form of this truism. Tim Parks works along this line in his recent piece for The New York Review of Books about reading and forgetting, and his argument deserves a reply.  

Parks begins by recalling one of those exhilarating instances, during a scattered professional reading life, where multiple texts converge on a single subject. Cruising the internet, he noticed a Nabokov quote about literature: “One cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” Then opening the Dutch writer Douwe Draaisma’s new book Forgetting: Myths, Perils, and Compensations, he read we are foolish if we “…imagine memory as the ability to preserve something…wholly intact.” The subject of both observations, Parks asserts, is how we remember what we read. The conclusions couldn’t be more different.

Nabokov’s sentiment sounds familiar: after we initially encounter a text, re-reading lets us view it whole—in Parks’ words “out of time.” This is the difference between watching a ship emerge slowly from a tunnel and seeing it later, anchored at harbor, where from shore we appreciate its intricate rigging.

Teachers and academics, Parks points out, draw comfort from this notion that only multiple encounters produce deep insights. The nature of their business forces them into circular but avowedly productive reading patterns. Yet backed by Draaisma’s work, Parks challenges this view. “Words in general,” he writes, “have a vocation for…fixing experience in a way that can be communicated across…time.” Be that as it may, he notes we seldom properly remember those words we calibrate to preserve experience. The precise arrangement that gives great literary style its impact is the first thing forgotten. What we possess of literature, unless we are cursed with photographic memory, comes to us in flying scraps at a high wind: we snatch what we can from entropy.   

Slowly, Parks’ crosshairs drift toward the literary canon. He concludes that a culture which celebrates re-reading as the best reading devalues “our [first] reactions to a book” as “irrelevant.” For Parks, this is the trouble with the canon. The riveting freshness that makes a new work memorable to us suffers, it would seem, when a hovering professor declares the “real delights” still lie beyond our grasp.

Decades earlier than Parks, the Cuban-born Italian novelist Italo Calvino wrote a piece for the very same New York Review which initially seems to back him up. True to his experimental style, Calvino’s article “Why Read the Classics?” is a shifting series of definitions for the same term. Arguing himself into corners then playfully escaping his own traps, Calvino defines and redefines “a classic” fourteen times. This could be read as proof that, as Parks implies, a classic does not exist except on an individual scale. But Calvino writes beyond that definition, arriving next at the principle that “every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.” Calvino’s critical touch is playful, but what he’s holding is a razor one that cuts Parks’ elevation of first readings into tatters. We detect the presence of a classic or canonical book, argues Calvino, “when it establishes a personal rapport” with us. “If the spark doesn’t come, that’s a pity; but we do not read the classics out of duty or respect, but only out of love. Except at school.”

Truly, the problem of the canon lives in schools. While literate adults would produce a canon on their own through conversation and experience, schools are where we deploy the texts we feel responsible for passing on. But unless a bad or careless teacher ruins a book for us in advance, all great reading experiences are fresh. There is no such thing as “reading from the canon” in the negative sense that Park bemoans unless teachers tell us a text is important before they tell us why it is wonderful.

Parks’ motives are pure. So were those of Reformation Protestants who threw their holy bricks through the stained-glass windows of so many cathedrals. The reformers wanted a return to the Old Testament and Acts’ supposedly unmediated prayer, a raw encounter with God undiffused by liturgy. But their more brainless devotees thought that smashing Catholic art was the same as stripping the Church’s artifice. Yet iconographic beauty was never the problem, as Knox or Luther would have told them, but how we approach the subject of prayer: the way an encounter with the holy is guided; the wonder and reverence cultivated in ourselves. Parks’ mistake is similar, though on a less dramatic scale: justifiably insisting that our best experiences with books are individual and subjective, he hastily throws out the whole idea of an objective literary canon.

The canon exists not in spite of those thrilling first readings, but because of them–because canonicity means freshness. If Homer’s gruesome elegance and knack for capturing the emotional moment didn’t continue to arrest us, we would stop reading him. And no amount of professorial insistence could create that prerequisite pleasure. Only great literature can do it; one of its chief pleasures being that regardless of context or historical remove, it always feels immediate. Hector’s helmet frightens his infant son, and with careful clumsiness, he removes it before he takes the child from his wife’s arms. A professor can prime a classroom to appreciate the full artistry of that exchange, but even an oaf is moved by it.   

Parks is right to observe, like Proust, that our memories of books or whatever else are “as fugitive, alas, as the years;” isolated from us by time’s accumulating complexities and distances. But most literature’s object isn’t to be remembered verbatim. It is to draw us back to itself by its capacity to enrich experience. Compared with the compounded thrill of reading Chaucer over again, to remember The Canterbury Tales word for word would be a burden. Better to commit the opening eighteen lines to memory and keep the rest a precipitating vagueness, begging to be solidified.

The Literature of Witness

In a recent article for The Hedgehog Review, Alan Jacobs reflects on a strange experience. Years ago at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, he spent an afternoon in an interview room with Frederick Buechner, watching strangers praise the novelist as essential to their Christian lives. “Your writing has meant everything to my faith,” they all seemed to be saying, “I don’t think I could be a Christian without your books.” The force of their compliments leads Jacobs to ask how writers could have become so essential to the development of a community’s faith. As a scholar of literary history, he understands that this role of spiritual mentor used to be played by very different cultural figures—notably theologians, logicians, even scientists. “It seemed to me,” Jacobs observes, “that such radical dependence on literary experience would have been…impossible even a century earlier.”

The inquiry propels him into a history of Christian humanism, beginning with Renaissance Italian poets, and ending (as too many Christian histories of literature seem to end) with C.S. Lewis, whose “baptism” into the faith was at the hands of the Victorian novelist George MacDonald. At a stage when Lewis knew nothing about Christianity, MacDonald’s fiction initiated him “into habits of aesthetic experience that would later make him receptive [to faith] for reasons he could not then have stated…” So Jacobs arrives at the now classic notion of “pre-evangelism,” which Lewis and his great friend Tolkien often advanced in their mature essays.

The “Witness of Literature,” as Jacobs calls it in his article’s title, derives from its capacity to prime our imaginations to comprehend spiritual reality. Just as Lewis was inadvertently prepared to accept God’s existence by MacDonald’s fantastical novels, many a Christian can remember feeling affection for Aslan before they believed in Christ. The lion often hinted to the Pevensies that he had “other names,” one of which, we’re left in little doubt, gets whispered from the altar where as adults we take communion. “All those,” Jacobs concludes, “who are led to and strengthened in religious faith by writers must believe that writers have, at the very least, superior powers of perception enabled by superior imagination.” It is these superior powers of imagination that make authors the “best new arbiters” of spiritual wisdom in our century, infusing literature with the power to witness.

Yet this language of witness has been, as Jacobs certainly knows, picked up by other writers to describe literature’s potency. Famously, the Polish-speaking Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz used it in his book-length lecture series The Witness of Poetry. Here, “witness” is used not in the evangelical sense, but in that of the courtroom. “I have titled this book The Witness of Poetry,” Milosz writes, “not because we witness it, but because it witnesses us.”

But what has poetry witnessed us doing? As a young Lithuanian who migrated to Poland in the thirties, Milosz was present for many of the twentieth century’s most notable bloodbaths: the Warsaw Uprising, the Nazi occupation, and the equally horrible advent of Communism. Each event diminished his circle of literary contemporaries, until they were but a handful of exiles across the globe. In California for much of his adult life, Milosz was able to lucidly recall the moment when, clutching a copy of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland under his arm, he realized that “we were going to need a different kind of poetry:”

“A man is lying under machine-gun fire on a street in an embattled city. He looks at the pavement and sees a very amusing sight: the cobblestones are standing upright like the quills of a porcupine. The bullets hitting against their edges displace and tilt them. Such moments in the consciousness of a man judge all poets and philosophers…The vision of the cobblestones is unquestionably real, and poetry based on an equally naked experience could survive triumphantly that judgment day of man’s illusions.[1]

The man under the machine gun was of course Milosz, and from that judgement seat (who could question his place there?), he condemned any poetry that did not deal in “naked experience.” By this, he meant that poetry, and by inference all of literature, needed to pay unflinching witness to the very worst realities if it was to stay relevant in a war-rocked world.

To Jacobs, the idea that literature is essential to spiritual development seems historically unprecedented. Milosz, too, was facing an unprecedented historical situation–that of genocide in the heart of modern Europe–and searching for a literature that was adequate to it. In fact “adequate” became a vital word for twentieth-century Nobel authors, whose claims about literature’s powers were dulled, yet hardened, by repeated coatings of blood. Seamus Heaney, who lost many relatives and friends to the diffused terror of Northern Ireland’s “troubles,” said that he became a poet when his “roots crossed his reading,” a process that energized his search for “images and symbols adequate to our predicament.”[2] That predicament was violence perpetuated by the deadly mixture of conflicting ideologies and a shrinking world: the recipe that produced the bitter concoction of our global political landscape.

Such a political landscape tended to leave the literal one dotted with burnt-out buildings. Milosz had seen plenty of these in Krakow. And knowing from such tumultuous political experiences that “What surrounds us here and now is not guaranteed,” Milosz insisted in The Witness of Poetry that we must construct literature “out of the remnants found in ruins.” Imaginative writing was his way to redeem culture destroyed–intentionally or unintentionally–during conflict. By his lights, the “witness” of poetry is its bracing power–not the power of pre-evangelism, but of preservation and reconstruction.

But Milosz’s imagination was, as he confirmed in an interview for The Paris Review, both Christian and Catholic. Though he sometimes wandered the fringes of orthodoxy: his confessor Pope John Paul II once told him that in terms of belief, his poems seemed to “make one step forward, one step back,” to which Milosz answered: “Holy Father, how in the twentieth century can one write religious poetry differently?”[3] It therefore seems possible that at their roots, Jacobs’s idea of literature’s witness and Milosz’s might cross, or even be one and the same.

After all, the Christianese language of “witnessing” is simply a slang corruption of “witness” in the same judicial sense Milosz proposes–to Paul, the act of evangelism is firstly an act of reportage: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance” he writes to the Corinthians, “that Christ died for our sins…that he was raised…and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.”[4] So from the start, to bring others into belief was to testify with reference to reliable observers. The Bible, a piece of literature as rich at it is confusing, gets much of its energy from claiming to be fact. It can only “witness” to us in Jacobs’s sense because it has first witnessed us in Milosz’s.

“It is far too easy,” Jacobs writes, echoing the fourteenth-century French humanist Jean Gerson, “for the point of…discourse to be lost in the apparatus.” This is precisely the danger Milosz hoped to avoid by emphasizing literature’s duty to record “naked reality.” The point, as Jacobs and Milosz both seem to understand, is that imaginative literature is essential to our spiritual development. The practice of writing, reading, and appreciating it is inseparable from our pursuit of truth, because its prime effect is to heighten perception. Sensitive readers of books make shrewd students of reality. “How did literary writers come to be seen by many as the best custodians and advocates of Christian faith?” Jacobs asks. The answer might be that they always were, but that it took the nightmares of the twentieth century to wake us up to their importance.

 

Citations

[1] Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, 41.

[2] Seamus Heaney, “Feeling into Words,” Preoccupations 56

[3] Czeslaw Milosz, The Art of Poetry No. 70. Interviewed by Robert Faggen. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/1721/the-art-of-poetry-no-70-czeslaw-milosz

[4] 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 5b, & 6. NIV

The Wikipedian Harp

Like wood fire or the tide coming in, Hatnote’s Listen to Wikipedia website is a process you could watch forever. Using a musical scale that seems lifted from ancient China, it translates Wikipedia edits into sound. Whenever a user tweaks an article, the site plucks a twangy note, varying in pitch depending on the change’s size. Whenever a new user joins, a chord swells in the background. The effect is meditative and strangely stirring, accompanied by visuals like rippling water. Watching the articles and usernames pop up creates the sense of harmonious human activity surrounding you. Never mind that each edit is as likely to decrease the store of human knowledge as it is to increase it; the site’s design is to inspire. And it does. It is a contraption to marvel at.

Without any context, I showed Listen to Wikipedia to my high school students. Pleased by its sound, they listened and worked for several minutes before asking what it was. The explanation produced boggled faces without exception. It was the same thrill, I explained to them, that the British Romantics felt when they discovered the Eolian Harp.

Listen to Wikipedia is the perfect analogue to that piece of eighteenth-century kitsch that Shelley and Coleridge found so inspiring. When the wind hit it at the proper speed and angle, an Eolian Harp made music, just as this website made songs from Wikipedia revisions. The translation of natural force into harmonious art was a Romantic ideal. This made Listen to Wikipedia a handy object lesson. But I ran into trouble when I realized that for these tenth graders, there was no hesitation to label the Internet a natural force.

I had gained some ground with this analogy between the Harp and Listen to Wikipedia, but it was more or less impossible to communicate their differences. And these differences are fundamental. While Listen to Wikipedia elevates an internet archive into a piece of music, the Romantics looked beyond human ingenuity for their inspiration. While this difference may not seem troubling at first, what inspires our music should matter to us, and no artist makes that claim more convincingly than Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Coleridge is often written off by readers as a pudgy let-down. Shoved next to Wordsworth in all the anthologies, he seems condemned to live in the older poet’s wiry shadow. His reputation as a scholar depends on his Biographia Literaria, a book both tedious and plagiarized. As a poet, his fame rests on a modest number of pieces which, despite their complexity and age, are still well known in the classroom. “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” has been confusing English-speaking schoolchildren for two centuries. Though it can be difficult to untangle its twisted syntax, the poem is always dazzling. The general consensus is that after his early effervescence, Coleridge fizzled. Eclipsed by his friend Wordsworth, he retired to a life of closeted scholarship and self-pitying odes.

It is true that Coleridge lacked Wordsworth’s knack for sustained eloquence. He also suffered from a debilitating addiction to laudanum–a dangerous but commonly prescribed concoction of opium dissolved in alcohol. But he had an unequaled talent for finding concrete symbols for philosophical ideas. In “Kubla Kahn,” Xanadu represented the dizzying heights of luxury and power. In “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” the waterfall, subtle as inspiration, stirred the leaves of trees. And most famous, “The Eolian Harp” gives us the preeminent Romantic symbol for the poetic process.

The poem is set in a garden around sunset, where Coleridge is cuddling his lover Sara, and listening to the sea. Mingled with that sound is the music of the Harp, to which Coleridge directs his poetic attention. At first, there is an associative blur between the feelings stirred in him by Sara, and those the Harp evokes. He tells her to note:

“How by the desultory breeze caressed,
Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover,
It pours such sweet upbraiding, as must needs
Tempt to repeat the wrong!

The metaphor is apt and sexy, evoking the pulses of the breeze as it makes music through the instrument. But Coleridge’s consideration of the Harp soon becomes more philosophical. “Where the breeze warbles,” he writes, “…the mute still air | Is Music slumbering on her instrument.” The air has shifted roles, from an insistent lover to Music itself. From this metaphor scholars extrapolate Coleridge’s whole conception of art.

If the air is Music, then Coleridge must see nature as the source and soul of art. The poet’s role, like the Harp’s, is to orient himself toward nature to best translate its power. If the poet is the Harp catching the wind, his poetry is the music the wind makes through the harp. It is a beautiful metaphor which allows Coleridge to envision poetry as a process fueled by nature.

Shelley picked up this metaphor in his later work, and his “Ode to the West Wind” hinges on similar images. These poems show that if British Romanticism is a cathedral, Nature is what was worshipped there. Nature was their model, fuel, and inspiration; the cornerstone of the whole movement.

The difference between “The Eolian Harp” and Listen to Wikipedia is their source of artistic inspiration and sustenance. The secret of the Harp’s thrill is that it translates a natural phenomenon, a movement we don’t control, into spontaneous art. This is precisely what the Romantics hoped to do in poetry. Yet Listen to Wikipedia translates the Internet into song. Both the inspiration and the song are man-made. This difference is profound. It indicates a transition from a culture inspired by otherness to a culture inspired by its own ingenuity.

There is a Pygmalion gravitas to watching students gape in awe of the Internet. Of course, the British Romantics were no strangers to the self-aggrandizing tendencies of art. Like us, they loved to elevate the makers of culture above culture itself, and our obsession with the artist-celebrity is arguably part of our inheritance from this era.

If Brad Pitt had a clubfoot, a pension for forbidden men as much as forbidden women, and had died in a Greek rebellion, he’d be Lord Byron. Byron pioneered our modern conception of the artistic celebrity: the turning of boldness, talent, and sexuality into mass-marketable products. Along with his incredible gift for intricate plots and the enjambed line, they made him famous. But he, too, was a student of Nature. “She Walks in Beauty” is one of the best love poems in English, and it praises its dark subject by calling her a cloudless night.

It is quite a different thing to praise the Internet by means of the Internet, to take our inspiration from a source of our own making. This is precisely what Listen to Wikipedia does, because it serves no purpose but to translate a digital archive into art. Both pieces of culture turn raw force into refined art, and while the Harp shares a sense of spontaneity with poems like Coleridge’s, Listen to Wikipedia does not carry the same sense of transcendence, because it translates a weaker force. The most enduring message of the Romantics is to look for inspiration outside of human industry. Though they were fascinated by culture and conscious of their contribution to it, they sought transcendence in nature because it is ultimately eludes human comprehension and control.

Public contributions to the Wikipedia, it’s true, are potentially endless. Furthermore, a large portion of the edits the website tracks are actually made by automated bots, which might inspire some to consider the archive a kind of self-governing natural force. But automation is not autonomy. Wikipedia’s growing complexity only means the jack-in-the-box we’re winding is getting larger and more complicated. Its power to surprise us is increasing. But it can never transcend us (in the philosophical sense) in the way the Romantics believed nature did.

To say the Romantics were smarter or more moral because they were inspired by nature would be both bad history and misguided chronological snobbery. But Listen to Wikipedia is a small sign that ours might be an age of dwindling aesthetics. There is elegance in Wikipedia’s construction, but to elevate that structure into music shows that we are satisfied with an intellectual culture that is increasingly about itself.  Flawed as they were, it would be worthy of us to reclaim the best parts of our inheritance from the Romantics along with the worst. For their poems are reminders that without true otherness, there can be no transcendence.

Noteworthy: Clive James’s Life Sentence

The Australian poet and critic Clive James has just released two new books—a fine way to start a year when everyone thought you’d be dead. The title poem of his new poetry collection Sentenced to Life begins by locating its author, who was diagnosed with leukemia, lung disease, and kidney failure in 2010, in the strange limbo of a day he thought he’d never live to see: 

Sentenced to life, I sleep face-up as though
Ice-bound, lest I should cough the night away,
And when I walk the mile to town, I show
The right technique for wading through deep clay.
A sad man, sorrier than he can say.

But surely not so guilty he should die
Each day from knowing that his race is run…

The passage echoes James’s recent translation of The Divine Comedy, where in the second Canto, Dante notes the gathering silence as he and Virgil approach the entrance to the afterlife: 

The day was dying, and the darkening air
Brought all the working world of living things
To rest.

Just as Dante’s narrator was sentenced to wander the underworld, refining his spirit and his craft, James has treated his recent years at death’s door as a visionary poetic struggle. The atmosphere, heavy with both anxiety and restfulness, suggested by the “darkening air” that brings “the working world of living things | To rest” characterizes Sentenced to Life from cover to cover. The double-meaning of “life sentence” shouldn’t be lost on his readers: James feels compelled to serve the time left by making it meaningful, one sentence at a time, even if this process feels as difficult as “wading through deep clay.”

This sentiment also dominates Poetry Notebook, his latest book of criticism. He introduces it by noting how the urgency of illness has relegated him to short pieces. To those of us used to his longer essays, this might seem like cause for disappointment, but James’s writing has always shined when compact, and there is enough critical bite in one page of Poetry Notebook to digest for days.

In his typical aphoristic style, James can sum up a whole critical argument in a single epithet. A highlight from the first few pages:

“…like abstract painting, abstract poetry can extend the range over which incompetence fail[s] to declare itself. That [is] the charm for its author.”

Or even more compressed and memorable:

“Real talent can survive anything, even encouragement.”

Clive James has survived a lot over the last five years, including an abundance of encouragement. His two latest releases reveal as much talent as ever. They are enough to make us hope his life sentence will last a good deal longer.

 

That Pure Exclusive Music

Recently some students of mine organized a Lenten social media fast, and asked me to be a faculty sponsor. Those who gathered at the meeting were few enough to fit around a small table, but the sentiments they brought were similar: all of them were tired. All complained they needed a furlough from the panopticon in which social media imprisons middle and high school students, who more than any other social group are governed by the vox populi. I see social media as only one manifestation of a creature, fed by hormones, that is as old as humankind, and have no intention of attacking it here. But it is notable that the idea of “creating mental space” in one’s life by unplugging from Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat (the “big three” for students at the school where I teach) resonated so strongly for these students, and that they unanimously talked about replacing these predominantly visual/aural mediums with some form of print: the Bible, a novel, or a book of poems. Many of them also spoke about using the time to memorize poetry or scripture.

As a teacher, I perform small touchdown celebration-style victory dances on the inside whenever a student of group of students initiates such a rich-sounding activity. When a student learns to value the profits of mental discipline, they have become truly educated. Learning has become a tool they can use to shape their interaction with society rather than a crucible through which they need to pass before moving on as a passive member of society.

Yet the particular activity these students chose reveals the tension they perceive between what Mike Chasar, in a recent article for Poetry, called the “…oral and print value economies.”[1] Chasar’s piece is a response to Catherine Robson’s new book Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem, a study of memorization in the British and American school systems, and its effect on the students who emerged from those systems in the mid and late twentieth century.

Heart Beats is partly the story of memorization’s decline as a popular assessment tool, and therefore as a cultural influence in the United States. Chasar’s response argues that memorization has escaped the classroom only to flourish in other settings, many of them still scholastic. These range from “Poetry Out Loud competitions to Def Poetry, all sorts of YouTube videos, and Disney’s celebrity-studded ‘A Poem Is…’ video series that premiered during National Poetry Month 2011,” and are proof that the funerary tone of Robson’s book is inappropriate in light of the exploding role poetry memorization is beginning to occupy in the age of the Internet.[2]

Chasar rightly notes that the marriage of poetry memorization to the World Wide Web is a strange one, since oral and print cultures often represent competing cultural economies. My students’ desire to shift away from the apparently “less meaningful” visual/oral mediums of Instagram and Snapchat to “more meaningful” printed media handily illustrates that competition.

Especially in the world of education, the association of refinement and complexity with print and of shallowness and transience with aural culture runs deep.

This loyalty is strongest of all in the Humanities. As Chasar writes, no matter how popular Poetry Out Loud and ‘A Poem Is…’ become, from the perspective of educators and high-performing students “…oral/aural formats are tainted by affiliation with the values of the worlds of oral communication out of which people are meant to be educated.”[3] These “worlds of oral communication” would seem to be represented by pop and hip-hop music, slam poetry, sitcom television, and many other forms of apparently “low culture” from which my students feel the need to distance themselves. They assume that to enrich their mental experience during a season of contemplation, they need to abandon aural and visual media in favor of print.

Yet this assumption is troublesome, because without recourse to brain science or sociology, my students and I cannot say anything meaningful about the relative quality of aural versus print media that is not anecdotal. Reading a book simply “feels different.” More strange in light of Chasar and Robson’s insights is the instinct each of my students shared that the ultimate commitment to absorbing “high-quality” media would be to memorize poetry. But as Robson’s book astutely observes, to memorize a poem is to snatch it back into the aural cultural economy from which the industry of poetry has worked hard to separate it.

One assumes that when we memorize a poem, we intend at some point to recite it, possibly during casual conversation. Doing so would make it part of our aural culture. But a poem that enters the vernacular loses some of its sheen. I’ve often cracked jokes to peers and students about a decontextualized quotation from Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” decaled on the wall near our eighth grade lockers. It is, of course, the “I took the road less traveled by” passage, reduced to a truism (not to mention misinterpreted) through overuse in public discourse. What makes me roll my eyes at that quotation? Its association with the supposedly “low” aural cultural economy, out of which it is my job to elevate students by means of encouragement, clever class exercises, or outright coercion.

“The sea was not a mask,” Wallace Stevens writes in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “No more was she./ The song and water were not medleyed sound/ Even if what she sang was what she heard.”[4] These lines express something about the unbridgeable gap between a person’s internal experience and the external world. The woman singing as she walks the shore might sing about the ocean’s thunder; the sounds might even intermingle. But they are not the same sound, not the same phenomena. A brilliant poet well-read in twentieth century philosophy, Stevens wrote a great deal about that separation between the inner and exterior worlds. He thought of poetry as similar to the woman’s song: it originated within and could almost communicate with the outside.

My students and I might not share Stevens’s complex and bleak vision of art’s role in the world, but our assumptions about the relative quality of aural and written media illustrate a dichotomy just as stark. We think that to memorize a poem is to enhance our inner experience, because printed poetry is the penultimate expression of the inner experience. But what happens when on those very rare occasions, we encounter a poem’s “moment” in our everyday lives and (spurning the eye-rolls and social stigma we know we will suffer as a result) recite it?

When we do, we risk corrupting poetry’s prestige in the name of keeping it relevant to someone other than career academicians who have shanghaied it by accident of their enthusiasm, bureaucratic writing culture, and understandable devotion to systematic analysis. I once had the opportunity to ask the great Alaskan nonfiction writer Leslie Leyland Fields if she ever considered devoting herself seriously to poetry. I was an aspiring poet myself. Her reply was that she considered poetry a dead language; a series of dusty exchanges between professorial types who had forgotten that the purpose of language was to communicate. Memorized and recited poems are the strongest evidence available against her case.

Printed poetry captures interior experiences—what Stevens called our “pure exclusive music.” When we read it, our inner worlds are stimulated and enriched. But only memorized poetry can create cultures. There have been occasions when, walking into a room full of chattering ninth graders, I have heard them exchanging scraps of The Odyssey’s invocation of the muse as the punchline of a joke. As long as jokes like these continue, Homer’s language will enjoy a place among the living.

The Swedish poet Thomas Tranströmer likened poetry to the notes kids pass back and forth in the classroom while that teacher History drones away at the podium. Robert Hass noted that now they are texting each other instead, but the intimacy and irreverence of poetry is captured well by either metaphor. It may be that under the pressure exerted by the Internet’s swelling hegemony, the value distinctions between print and aural cultures still so thoroughly propped up in educated minds will begin to crumble. If so, poetry only stands to benefit, because its relegation to the page of the academic journal is a tiny span on its lurid and decidedly unacademic timeline. It is not absorption into lowbrow culture that endangers poetry, but imprisonment in the highbrow. In any case, despite the loud and worried voices of its advocates, poetry is in no danger of extinction, because nothing so fine and so useless will ever be abandoned by young students once they’ve gotten a taste for it. Nothing is as essential as the inessential.

 

[1] Mike Chasar, “Orality, Literacy, and the Memorized Poem: Hearing Art’s Heartbeat,” Poetry, January 5, 2015, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/249542.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Mike Chasar, “Orality, Literacy, and the Memorized Poem: Hearing Art’s Heartbeat,” Poetry, January 5, 2015, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/article/249542.

[4] Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” Poets.org, http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/idea-order-key-west.

A Good Deed is a Naughty Word

In November, the Chinese State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television issued an official statement banning public wordplay – a gesture to which the western world has responded with puns blazing. Rightly so: when a government, even one as comically demonstrative as China’s, attempts to restrict discourse at such a fundamental level, it betrays motivations that must seem either ludicrous or malevolent. Though the West has reacted to the ban with irreverent hilarity, the laughter is partly nervous, because behind such restrictions is a search for national identity that all nations share.

The SAPPRFT, as the Chinese media watchdog is ponderously abbreviated, began the announcement with an explanation that it has been working for years to “clean up and rectify non-standard language usage in radio and television broadcasts,” noting that it has “achieved noticeable results in restricting the deliberate imitation of local dialect pronunciation and the indiscriminate use of foreign loan words and Internet slang.”[1] In these sentences, most reporters have smelled a whiff of something sinister and Orwellian, particularly in the targeting of “local dialects” and “foreign loan words.”

But the reporters may be slightly off their scent: national language regulation is neither a new, nor an originally Chinese practice. France’s Académie française has now released its ninth edition of a dictionary which is explicitly calibrated to root out “familiar, popular, vulgar, trivial, slang,” and to provide a corrective force against “the faults, [and] the ridiculous language tics most commonly observed in contemporary French.”[2] Though the Dictionary of the French Academy purportedly welcomes “some foreign terms,” it only does so only “provided they meet a genuine need, they are well rooted in use and do not already have an equivalent in French realizing the same reality.” The ultimate goal, their website insists, is to make the adoption of foreign terms into French “safer,” a sentiment that reeks of petty nationalism like over-aged rochefort.

Closer to home, many U.S. cities with large Spanish-speaking populations have resisted the official adoption of that language. As the Huffington Post reported in February of 2013, the Mayor of Doral, Florida, was “rebuffed by every council member and numerous constituents” when he attempted to make Spanish the city’s official second language.[3] But it would be unjust to condemn those constituents as proto-conservative hard-noses or petty nationalists, because the majority of them were Spanish-speaking immigrants. Councilwoman Ana Maria Rodriguez, speaking to the Huffpost, commented that “Our parents and some of us that are up here came from Latin America and other countries knowing that the United States has English as the language…We came here knowing we had to adapt to the language of this country.”[4] In other words, the immigrant population rejected the public adoption of Spanish as an act of solidarity with their adopted country. To be American, in their view, partly meant speaking English, and they identified as Americans.

Circumstances like these reveal just how fraught the debate over government language regulation truly is, how many cross-currents meet in those waters. Those who would encourage Spanish-speaking U.S. citizens to retain their language as an act of loyalty to their culture might well be met with a blank stare and an uncomfortable question: “What culture are you talking about, and why do you assume it is foreign to yours?” Doral’s rejection of government sponsorship for Spanish proves that the conservation of borrowed language can be used to exclude others just as effectively as its eradication. What matters is not the language a people chooses to use, but that they have the power to choose it.

Of course, a perfect version of any language does not and cannot exist. The pursuit of such a thing is always evidence of foolery or foul play. Hard as the Dictionary of the French Academy may try to be prescriptive, all records of public communication are necessarily descriptive, especially dictionaries. As the Académie knows full well, its attempt to conserve and purify spoken French is an act of sentimental idealism, and one that it must work hard to distinguish from openly racist attempts to exclude second-language French citizens from the public discourse. More viable and more horrifying is the notion of an official state version of a language. Such a language is an act of oppression, and has always gone hand-in-hand with totalitarianism.

As Clive James notes in his essay collection Cultural Amnesia, Albert Camus can be credited with probably the best quotation ever written about state language: “Tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.” By this he means that, to quote Clive James, “The tyrant’s monologue doesn’t want to be interesting, and that’s the point.”[5] The million solitudes that a totalitarian governor talks over aren’t just ignored by his monologue, they are created by it. The freedom to talk endlessly, without being interesting, original, or entertaining, can only be exercised by a government whose audience has no power to react or escape. Stalin proved this principle with the interminable speeches he delivered at the height of his power. The famous anecdote about them is that those listening had to applaud until their hands ached, afraid that if they were the first to stop, they would be noticed by the S.S. and never make it home.

The report issued by the SAPPRFT certainly has the feel of a tyrant’s monologue. It is written by a hand free from the need to be compelling, or even comprehensible. Here is one sample of it; a droning run-on that could’ve come straight out of Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language,” which quotes several equivalently sterile passages from the contemporary English press:

“The importance of regulating the use of the national common language and scripts must be fully realized. Utilizing radio and television to popularize and standardize the use of the national common language and scripts is a strategic requirement for transmitting outstanding Chinese traditional culture and enhancing national cultural power…[6]

If the SAPPRFT aims to enhance “national cultural power,” it will certainly not be doing so by the force of its literature. This deeply ironic situation, in which an autocratic government exhorts its citizens to make great art while forcing that art to remain innocuous, would be hilarious if those citizens weren’t being spoken to at gunpoint. The reason for these new regulations, according to the report, is to reduce the media’s potential to “mislead the public, especially minors,” who deserve to be exposed only to the most “outstanding traditional Chinese culture.”[7]

It need hardly be said that like all great languages, Chinese operates using a wealth of idioms and enjoys a rich exchange of puns and word-games, some of which operate between dialects. The SAPPRFT report casts these as insidious and degrading. Yet it is difficult to understand what the alternative is supposed to be, apart from a language that is entirely “safe.” That is, a language which can convey nothing subversive to the party line. “That’s the most ridiculous part of this,” David Moser, academic director for CET Chinese studies at Beijing Capital Normal University, told the Guardian, “[wordplay] is so much part and parcel of Chinese heritage.”[8]

Of course, it is part and parcel of the heritages of all languages, and of all the people who use them, especially in those fortunate nations where many languages happen to meet. In its quest to strengthen China’s national identity, then, the Chinese government has laid an axe to its roots. What motivates such gestures is fear, the fear that haunts all totally centralized governments, of the power and flexibility of freely used language, which though it can be dressed up and manicured and punished, will always be a bastard. It is prodigal by nature, and it always returns wealthier than it left.

 

 

[1] “Language Log,” http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=16197.

[2] “Academie Francais,” http://www.academie-francaise.fr/le-dictionnaire/la-9e-edition.

[3] Christine Amario, “City Of Doral Votes Against Spanish As Official Second Language,” Huffington Post, February 14, 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/14/fla-mayors-push-for-bilin_n_2689292.html.

[4] ibid.

[5] Clive James, Cultural Amnesia (New York: Norton, 2007), 88-89.

[6] “Language Log,” http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=16197.

[7] ibid.

[8] Tania Branigan, “China bans wordplay in an attempt at pun control,” The Guardian, November 28, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/nov/28/china-media-watchdog-bans-wordplay-puns.

The Migration of Robert Hass’s Poetry

The summer before my senior year of college, a friend from my hometown threw a massive party, the only purpose of which was to gather as many of our classmates as possible from as far away as he could and savor our evaporating friendships. There was a fatal sense that this particular group would never be in the same room again. Dressed up in the nonchalantly classy “mad-hatter” style of southern hipsters, the men in waistcoats and jeans, the women in high-waisted dresses, we danced and drank like sixteen-year-olds at Mardi Gras.

I was falling in love with the woman I would later marry, and late in the evening, we settled our sleeping bags together on the basement floor. My roommate claimed a nearby couch. My sister’s fiancé was playing Springsteen on the piano, Alice in Wonderland was looping silently on a projector screen across the room, and a little wood fire outside was throwing light onto two or three tired faces beyond the large french windows. All night, my roommate had been carrying a small red book under his arm: Robert Hass’s Time and Materials. As my girlfriend and I fell asleep, he read us “Pears,” a startling dream poem about Hass’s dead English uncle, which ends like this:

…I notice, to my surprise, a bird,
Brilliantly yellow, a European goldfinch, perhaps,
Red in the wingtips, high up among the leaves
Of an espaliered pear tree, on which each of the pears
Has been wrapped in a translucent paper packet.
I experience my interest in the bird as irresponsible.
My uncle is holding my hand very tightly and I am
Leaning just a little to the left to see the bird more clearly—
I think it is red on the wingtips—and from that angle
I can see the child’s body slumped under the pear tree,
And think, “Well, that explains his panic,” and,
When I look again, the bird, of course, has flown.

At the time, the poem struck me only on the intellectual level. The chill I got when the dead child appears was the same you might feel watching a dancer perform a difficult leap: the weight of the thing lay in the technical difficulty of it. Hass’s free verse, which often uses five stresses per line, is almost Miltonically strong in that passage, a gathering force that leapt up before tumbling to a fine denouement in the last line. Even so, I went to sleep untouched by the references to European conflict, or by the undercurrent of horror and displacement in the rococo image of the candy-growing pear tree, and the ornate, disappearing bird.

I didn’t consider the poem again until several months later: Christmas break, I bought the collection in an Asheville bookstore and took it to my parents’ new house in Greenville, South Carolina. My roommate was on the phone, explaining his long-distance running routine over the piny terrain of the suburbs near Seattle. During that conversation he asked me to read “Pears” to him, which I did, pacing the shrub-lined walkway that lead to the front door. The December night was mild, even for the South, and I was considering blowing the folding money I’d just been given on a plane ticket to Michigan, where my girlfriend, snowed in and grumpy and medicated, had just had her wisdom teeth removed. During this second reading I realized that the underlayer of panic so evident in the last lines is present from the start:

My English uncle, a tall, shambling man, is very old
In the dream (he has been dead for thirty years)
And wears his hound’s-tooth jacket of soft tweed.
Standing against one wall, he looks nervous, panicked.
When I walk up to him to ask if he is all right, he explains
In his wry way that he is in the midst of an anxiety attack
and can’t move.

There is a shortness of breath in the fourth line’s repetition of adjectives (“nervous, panicked”), and in the staccato conjunctions that disrupt the action in line five: to, to, if. My roommate was recovering from a breakup that had left him gutted, and something in the poem’s nervous grief, his desire to hear it, and his admiration for the uncle’s character–his wry, English way of admitting he is terrified–illuminated Hass’s purpose.

I had read “Not Going to New York: A Letter,” from the collection Praise, which is mostly about Hass’s grandmother, and in it he recalls first feeling the terror of death when he looked at the “folds of her quivery white neck,” an image that he’s reminded of whenever he flies over the snow-covered arroyos on the east side of the Sierra Nevada. “Old age isn’t for sissies,” the poet remembers his grandmother telling his son, then observes: “This has nothing to do with the odd terror in my memory. / It only explains it…” Reading “Pears” over the phone and remembering this line, I realized that in Hass, art can only liberate emotions by virtue of being aloof from them. To him, a metaphor is an indifferent artifact on which we lavish meaning.

I realized that a parallel process was happening now, as we encountered the poem over the phone. My roommate could only feel his grief when it was spoken back to him in a lyric he didn’t write, just as Hass could only understand his terror when it was reduced to a symbol he didn’t invent.

“Pears” has resurfaced for me often since then, and it’s only as I’m writing this and reading it again that I’ve grasped the complex consonance and parallelism that affects the beauty of certain passages, like the two lines about the book his uncle’s parents brought for him “…[f]rom Liverpool, the deep rural dark outside of winter / And night and night sounds at the turn of the last century–” These lines make me aware  that almost every image in the poem evokes a memory, which in turn evokes the huge conflicts of the 20th century. Historical reference shadows even the poem’s most intimate objects and details. I’ve read the poem to my wife so often now that when I have to leave early, in the powder-blue predawn of Massachusetts school day, she will sometimes stand in the door and throw the quotation down the driveway after me: “When I look again, the bird, of course, has flown.”

The Apple Trees at Olema: New and Selected Poems arrived in 2010, and contained only a light sprinkling of new verse. My old roommate, who now lives in St. Louis, and I have grumbled over the phone for years that Hass’s still voluminous output has recently been confined to academic essays. But my grumbling ended when I picked up What Light Can Do, the 2012 collection of his new critical writing, in the slim Literature and Criticism section at Barnes and Noble. The first essay I turned to was “Wallace Stevens in the World.” The piece is biographical as much as critical, and follows the same structure as his greatest poems, such as the much anthologized “Meditation at Lagunitas,” which moves from philosophical observation (“All the new thinking is about loss”), to intimate passages about human grief (“the way her hands dismantled bread”), to the final climax where his syntax strengthens almost into blank verse, and the apparent void between word and world is jumped by a chant-like celebration of being. Similarly, in “Wallace Stevens in the World,” from What Light Can Do, Hass concludes that the essay’s meditation on a years-long relationship to the Stevens poem “The Emperor of Ice Cream” has been

…one image of the way poems happen in a life when they are lived with, rather than systematically studied. Or alternately studied and lived with, and in that way endlessly reconceived…

Hass found that experience sometimes interprets difficult poems more readily than scrutiny, that the poems that stick with us are not read by us, but happen to us, in our lives. The rhythm, and the mystical claims about language in that passage echo the end of “Meditation at Lagunitas,” where the speaker insists, “There are moments when the body is as numinous /as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.” Word and flesh are perpetually approaching one another in his work, which suffers beautifully while it searches for a way to reconcile them. So his poems have been a relief to me, because that search has also happened in my life and writing. When I’d finished “Wallace Stevens in the World,” my coffee had gone cold and my wife was restless to leave the bookstore. I sent my old roommate a text: “Hass didn’t stop writing poems. They became essays.”

Photo Credit: Steve Rhodes

Why Pick the Old Bones?

Like many good curators, Sir Walter Scott was a creative falsifier with a rich sense of his own license. Many of us know him by reputation rather than by reading, but The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border has shaped English-speaking culture because it was one of the first and best literary assertions of enthusiasm for the local. We owe our American passion for regional farms and boutique shopping at least partly to Scott’s collection of lowland border songs and legends, because he was one of the first cultural figures of significance to celebrate what was near for nearness’s sake. The Minstrelsy itself, after a little investment in its dialects, is a rollicking read—since the ballads and poems it includes intentionally avoid the highbrow, they tend toward the lurid, and forecast a career where Scott continued to make heaps of money with stories of suddenlylost virginity or violent death, including one where a witch actually blows up a hunter on the doorstep of his cabin.

Scott was a full-time anthologist before he became the popular novelist and poet, but it is widely recognized that he added his own touch—even his own stanzas—to the songs and stories he preserved, so that The Minstrelsy should be seen as an act of invention as much as one of arrangement. And as quickly as the curator became creative, he started to feel the guilt associated with profiting from old war stories, which were his anthology’s main fare. The Minstrelsy includes an “anonymous” poem about two crows eating a dead soldier, “The Twa Corbies,” which simmers with a restless regret about depicting violence that has hounded generations of writers since. Settling on the corpse, one crow says to the other:

…Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I’ll pike oot his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair
We’ll theek oor nest whan it grows bare.

Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken whar he is gane;
Oer his white banes, whan they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.

Whether Scott wrote parts of this poem or only smoothed its edges is unimportant. What matters is its intentional place in the collection, constituting a confession, or at least a worry, on its author’s part. When we pick the bones of old stories, especially about conflict, do we assume a part of the war-guilt that leaves us a little richer for plucking out the “bonny blue een” of the dead?

Since this dilemma has roots in our most popular kinds of storytelling, it isn’t surprising that it has cropped up everywhere from the gardens around Scott’s mansion to the Hollywood box office. There is nothing historical about the wildly profitable film adaptation of Marvel’s comic series The Guardians of the Galaxy, but its plot is palatable and resonant because it is built on familiar political premises. A religious extremist, Ronin, is stirring up trouble in politically unsettled territories, seizing the power always available to maniacs in a culture of fear, and conducting ethnic slaughter while the distant governments who might be able to do something about it flounder in a bog of bureaucratic halfheartedness. Subtract space travel and walking tree-beasts from the premise and it sounds like a lead from CNN.

It is significant that Ronin’s character and motivations were adapted to echo contemporary world-political events—a wise move on the filmmakers’ part, and one that places The Guardians of the Galaxy squarely in “The Twa Corbies’” territory: The narrative gets its punch, its sense of currency and relevance, by picking over stories of real international violence—scavenging the battlefield, as Scott would have put it.

But is it necessary for our storytellers to wrestle with this theoretical guilt, or for us—the consumers—to equivocate before we buy a movie ticket? The late Irish poet Seamus Heaney, one of our master political storytellers of the last century, certainly thought so. As a survivor of Ireland’s Ulster Troubles, Heaney discovered much of his subject matter in the rubble of grocery stories blown up by the IRA or their enemies, and his sense of scavenger’s guilt was so acute it became the paradigm of his early work. “Bone Dreams,” one of his many poems about digging up Irish graves, locates the cause of the Troubles in England’s savage, militarized colonial politics at the time of the Act of Union, but the guilt he reserves for himself:

White bone found
on the grazing:
the rough, porous
language of touch

and its yellowing, ribbed
impression in the grass —
a small ship-burial.
As dead as stone,
flint-find, nugget
of chalk,
I touch it again,
I wind it in

the sling of mind
to pitch it at England
and follow its drop
to strange fields.

Heaney was aware that his poems would be read widely, “dropping to strange fields” even if he aimed his spite at England, but also that by writing about Ireland’s past he disturbed actual graves, unearthing deep hurt and political rancor along local party lines. It took him years to reconcile himself to a creative process that destabilized Ireland’s tenuous seasons of peace to seek out solutions beyond the power of politics, but when peace finally came to him in “Station Island,” it wasn’t through a rejection of his identification with the corbies. Instead, he literally embraced the dead, allowing the “cold and bony” hand of a corpse to lead him on a visionary journey:

Like a convalescent, I took the hand
Stretched down from the jetty, sensed again
An alien comfort as I stepped on ground
To find the helping hand still gripping mine,
Fish-cold and bony…

…the tall man in step at my side
Seemed blind, though he walked straight as a rush
Upon his ash plant, his eyes fixed straight ahead.

Accepting his identity as scavenger allowed Heaney an “alien comfort”: the realization that in a violent world, violence is inherent to truth telling. The trick was to avoid what Romantic scholar Fiona Stafford calls the “anonymous and predatory” posture of the crow, and involve himself emotionally in the narratives he salvaged. It is not bloodiness that’s the crime, but detachment.

The professional hooligans in The Guardians of the Galaxy have more or less the same epiphany, deciding that while they are happy to steal from the government, blow up a prison, and break people’s necks over a stolen Walkman, detaching themselves would be appalling when the situation escalates to ethnic cleansing. Star Lord and his friends are willing to profit from the help they lend the government that defamed them in the first place, because the only alternative would be a culpable silence—the same silence that Scott and Heaney rejected by continuing to write. But this tension isn’t laid to rest because some of our literary predecessors or blockbuster heroes found peace about it in their own time: Since the dilemma is founded on conflict, it will continue to behave like conflict—evolving, defying borders, and troubling the comfortable. In that sense scavenger’s guilt isn’t an impediment to good writing, but one of its predicates: the dead weight at the bottom that makes it seaworthy.

 

Proserpine

A wave’s white flag unfurls against the headland.
We’re pleased with summer’s long foreseen surrender:
hot noons betrayed by maples fringing umber,
horny insects dying in the wetlands.
You said how often pleasure reads as loss—
The pale moths of our nights mating in long
grass until their sailcloth bodies fall
apart. That will be the way we gloss
a season, the way I call your legs
laid down together a horizon close to dawn,
or you my beard a tangle of black weeds.
For both of us, the ocean’s tannin dregs
spell out September. But you. I won’t rely on
myths to frame you. Of fame you have no need.

At the School of Transparency

Early in July, I arrived at Cedarville University, a Baptist liberal arts college near Xenia, Ohio, in the middle of the night. The large brick campus, built sprawlingly as if it had infinite space to grow, was empty except for a few bleared fellow administrators pacing near the doors of a dormitory. A handful were unstrapping mountain bikes from the top rack of an all-wheel-drive sedan with SEI: WAnet Summer English Institute, in patriotic decals on the driver’s and passenger’s side doors. The bikes struck me as a good idea: there was a quarter mile between most buildings on campus, and when dealing with Chinese students, it is good to be the first in line to meals. Line-cutting is an east Asian mainstay: in a country of crowded billions, queuing means you never get to eat.

The Summer English Institute is an intensive American language and culture program operated by WAnet, an arm of Wheaton Academy in Illinois that provides administrative support for private Christian schools in the U.S. wishing to accept exchange students from overseas. Prepared and recruited for year-round, SEI is WAnet’s big show: students arrive by hundreds at Chicago O’Hare only to be ferried by short bus to Cedarville, where they will spend four weeks in an English immersion program, which I am helping to administer. During this time, a meaningful percentage will become so thrilled with the comparatively casual, student-oriented Western classroom experience, and with the friends they have made here, that they will sign up for an interview, endure a multi-stage vetting process, and finally be enrolled in WAnet schools across the country for the coming fall, less than six weeks from now. Many of these students are younger than fifteen, most were planning to be away from home only four weeks, and 98% are Chinese. I did not learn about these processes by talking to them: I don’t speak a syllable of Mandarin.

Cedarville, Ohio (population 4,019), is a sleepy, dry town that exists to serve ice cream and coffee to the approximately 3,000 students in residence fall through spring at the university. It is a place steeped in a distillation of mid-American Baptist culture so pure it has stained the furniture mauve. A series of banner advertisements near the student center vaunt the appeals that bring thousands of dads to their doors with open checkbooks each fall: “Required Biblical Studies Minor at the heart of our undergraduate programs,” “Doctrinal statement affirmed by all faculty and staff,” and most strikingly: “Literal six-day creationism taught in all programs.” Whether these policies stifle authentic theological discourse has been the subject of a recent administrative controversy at Cedarville that made it to the Huffington Post, but isn’t the subject of this essay. The Huff Post article, interestingly, is full of language exactly as windy and doctrinal as the policies it maligns; the parallel could be a fruitful subject for a religious studies MA somewhere.

For me, the source of interest here is the staggering contrast between the 200-odd Chinese SEI attendees and the American Protestant summer campers with whom we are sharing the campus. Several days ago, the first of these camps rolled in: a conference called Lift (according to their website, “a high-energy, heart changing, life experience where true friendships are made and students are inspired to know, love and follow Jesus”) whose staff instantly proceeded to spraypaint a boulder near the lake with Bible verses, and to set up a dunking booth in a dormitory parking lot. My first long conversation with Chinese students was an attempt to explain the dunking booth to them as we passed by. They were holding large notebooks. Having just finished eight solid hours of classes in a second language, they were on their way to two more hours of “clubs,” all of which are also conducted in English. Several more of our kids had wandered into the line, mistaking this crowd for a contingent of SEI’s American staff, holding two yellow tennis balls and whispering to one another rapidly in Chinese.

“It’s a dunking booth,” I said.

“We don’t know English well enough to understand what you mean,” one of the boys I stood with told me fluently.

“You see that red target?” I said.

“The one beside the man in the chair?”

“Exactly. When someone hits that with a ball, that guy gets wet—“

Almost as soon as I’d said it, someone nailed the target and sent a soggy teenager back into the water.

“You do this for fun?”

“Yes, at carnivals—big parties.”

Our two stray students exhibited a flash of understanding, and started to laugh. They were next in line. I offered the two I was speaking with a ride back to the dorm and tried with no success to explain a county fair to them. We parted very friendly and very bewildered.

What understanding I have about Chinese culture comes from three sources: an undergraduate course called Living and Working in Multicultural Contexts, which I took because I was in love with a missions major; my two youngest sisters, who are adopted from China but pure South Carolinian by disposition; and the poetry of Li Bai. Bai (AD 701-762, sometimes called Li Po) is a golden-age Classical Chinese poet known for his revolutionary treatment of traditional themes and for public drunkenness. The legend is that, drunk in a rowboat, he drowned trying to embrace the moon.  A fact I remember from Living and Working in Multicultural Contexts about the East Asian disposition is their long cultural memory, which reaches well beyond individual lifetimes. When an American discusses economic power, she is confident, because she knows “we are the behemoth.” A Chinese person will enter the same conversation with an equal but distinct sense of superiority: “We will be the behemoth in twenty years.”

This sense of participation in eras other than their own extends backward as well as forward, meaning that my reading in Li Bai provides insight into SEI students that still remains relevant. One of my favorites is his philosophical triptych, “Bathed and Washed:”

“Bathed in fragrance,
do not brush your hat;
Washed in perfume,
do not shake your coat:

“Knowing the world
fears what is too pure,
The wisest man
prizes and stores light!”

By Bluewater
an old angler sat:
You and I together,
Let us go home.

The poem begins with a quotation—a truism the poet himself is hearing from his fishing companion. The traditional theme Bai is transforming is (I generalize) that of passivity or transparency: the notion that the ideal poetic and spiritual state is one of submissive availability. If you have achieved transparency, you are empty; you wait to be filled by experience. If a walk near the river bathes you in fragrance, “do not brush your hat.” If it washes your clothing in perfume, do not shake it out. Stay passive and receptive. The wise man prizes that which fills his mind, and “stores” that “light.” Certain of the truth of this, the poet accepts the invitation to go home with the wise old fisherman. How different from the Lift conferees, who sit behind me while I type this having a small group discussion about the imperative to “spiritually transform themselves” this week. The value of transparency illustrates the precise difference between the American youth groups and our own dark-haired gaggle: the Chinese are willing to be transformed by their experience, while the Lift students’ only posture is that of a transforming agent. If SEI is a well gathering water, Lift is a wrecking ball.

Fewer than 20% of SEI students are Christians—the organization has no explicitly evangelical purpose. Yet several make more or less unsolicited professions of faith each year, and many more do so down the road at the schools where they are placed. There is a pure pleasure in the belief of those I have talked to. It is thoughtful, without gimmicks, strikingly sincere, transparent. Last night a Christian SEI student, whom I know to be fluent in English, was standing in a long line (they learn quickly!) in front of some Lift conference members, who complained about the crowds using an Asian racial slur. The girl smiled, turned around, and introduced herself.

True Detective

How much do detectives need the dead? In the first Duino Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that “In the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us…But we, who do need such great mysteries, we for whom grief is so often the source of our spirit’s growth—: could we exist without them?” Rilke’s lines feel as right as they do surprising, because they identify the imaginative potential for the living of those who have died young. Because they symbolize the unrealized promise of a life well lived, the young dead fill a necessary role: The warning implied by their absence places a demand on the living to forge stronger identities.

HBO’s True Detective, written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary JojiFukunaga, is a crime drama that needs the dead very badly, and has made a feast out of them, along with a few other common ingredients: the gothic mystique of the rural south, two emotionally wounded detectives who have no idea how to be decent men and some butchered pieces of the philosophy of Nietzsche. When Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) stumble onto a murdered prostitute dressed up as a pagan goddess in a Louisiana cane field, the ensuing grief turns their young partnership into a friendship, and a single case into a 19-year-long chase for a serial killer who—of course—is twiddling his thumbs all along right beneath their noses. The machismo of their journey from end to end—which involves innumerable cigarettes, several affairs, gun fights, manly smack-talk and a sprinkling of angry anal sex with each other’s wives—has invited a backlash of feminist-tinged criticism after the drama’s initial surge of praise from critics.

But True Detective will survive the contention because for all its myopia, it compellingly explores the emotional territory shared between the murder and the detective without once confusing the two. For both, the dead are the great mystery, but it is only the detective for whom they can be the source of the spirit’s growth.

Most of the series is arranged in a double timeline: Marty and Rust, brought in separately to be interviewed by the Louisiana Police about the cane field murder case, narrate the drama in sequences which become voiceovers for lengthy flashbacks. In their mutual past, what at first appeared to be an isolated murder lead to a hunt for a cultic serial killer who could still be at large in the series’ present, entrenched in a system of local schools funded by a fundamentalist parachurch organization. Marty, who plays a down-to-earth father of two with a propensity for extramarital affairs, is a hypocrite: his characterization of his now ex-partner is full of pity for Rust’s lack of “family ties” which “give a man direction.” Rust, who forces his interviewers to buy him a six pack at the outset because on his off days he “starts drinking at noon,” is equally hypocritical: His own narration is smattered with nihilist jargon that, the audience always knows, conceals the deep hurt created by the accidental death of his daughter and unraveling of his marriage, which occur before the show begins.

The mystery of the girl’s death, which is lively and well-crafted, is shot through with the strong dialogue that results from this pairing of a rudderless everyman with a bored, isolated brainiac. Each partner has a clear vision of the other’s flaws, and isn’t afraid to lay them out, yet it is Rust’s uncanny knack for interpreting the murderer’s symbolism (antlers on girls, spiral tattoos, etc.) which draws the partners toward the mystery’s solution. Marty, of course, doubts Rust’s logic—that the somehow school-affiliated murderer is being concealed by the state government—at every step, and for good reason: It smacks of conspiracy-theory conjecture. And these misgivings frequently become charged with personal dislike, because though Marty and Rust make good partners, they uncannily mirror one another’s flaws:

Marty: “You know the real difference between you and me?”

Rust: “Yup: denial.”

Marty:  “The difference is that I know the difference between an idea and a fact. You are incapable of admitting doubt. Now that sounds like denial to me.”

Rust: “I doubt that.”

This dialogue crackles because it bares the human needs that fuel each partner’s compensatory obsession with the murder. Rust, who views humanity as “sentient meat,” the product of an evolutionary accident that put consciousness into the “thresher” of fleshly existence, insists to Marty late in their partnership that “however illusory our identities are, we craft those identities by making value judgements. Everybody judges all the time. Now, you got a problem with that, you’re living wrong.” Marty responds to this with fantastic incomprehension (“What’s scented meat?”), but Rust’s philosophizing has put a finger on both their problems nonetheless. Slowly, each man begins to dedicate more and more of his personal resources to the case, and we get the sense that the inevitable collapse of their relationships is what they actually needed deep down; as if their own identities depended on giving the murdered girl a past, and that anything short of an air-tight solution to the case would result in personal dooms so terrible they might as well be paralleled by interpersonal ones.

These dilemmas have been criticized as meaningless because they are so gendered. As Sarah Kelly rightly put it in her review in Ex Terra, what is at stake in True Detective is how, in the 21st century, men can figure out how to be men. But Emily Nussbaum, writing for The New Yorker, insists that “while the male detectives of ‘True Detective’ are avenging women and children…every live woman they meet is paper-thin.” None of these women, she argues, has any interior life. Nussbaum suggests compellingly that we cannot expect a coherent answer to the question of male identities from a show that has no concept of female identities. Women are never singular in True Detective, only plural: a symbol, a totem, a commodity or a memory, a mystery or a desire.

Yet though this lack of depth is a real narrative failure for the show, it is precisely the same failure that, as it turns out, Marty and Rust must correct in order to discover themselves. Theirs is a story of escaping a gendered myopia, and it turns out that they must sacrifice all of their relationships, all other narratives in their lives, to rescue the narrative of the murdered girl. The show’s writers seem to have committed the same mistake, but the characters ultimately escape it. It is unfortunate that Nussbaum wrote her review before she got to see both Marty and Rust weeping at the finale, where they give up their macho myths of themselves in order to reconnect with the living world.

True Detective drew its audience in with the sensational and macabre. It will retain that audience with a refined plot, muscular dialogue and surprisingly refined moral sense. The success of recent HBO dramas has proven that shock factor can propel a narrative a good long way, but many of their claims to seriousness turn out to be based on the confusion of the brutal with the deep. When someone dies in Game of Thrones, they usually die terribly, but they rarely die significantly. But death is always significant in True Detective; in fact, its characters spend the length of the show trying to escape the demands of the dead so they can get back to the business of living. Their journey into the dark world of sexualized murder matters, not only because the art of it is well-rendered, but because it reminds us of the darkness in fetishes instead of fetishizing darkness.

 

Liszt We Forget

Recently my wife and I attended a Boston Handel and Haydn Society performance of Beethoven’s 4th symphony. Anyone who has been to such a concert in the U.S. will recognize the atmosphere: hushed elderly folks folding themselves into tiny balcony seats, the rustle of programs, mock-classical sculptures of the muses and Apollo gesticulating in butter-colored light from alcoves above the crowd. The vibe was of an elevated politeness that fit uncomfortably on a populace used to taking a predominantly casual attitude toward art. The house was crowded, and after five minutes of the oddly beautiful ambience of the tuning orchestra, the graying and tails-clad conductor gave us a few quips about Beethoven’s life and work before striking up the first movement of what the program called “a rollicking party bus of a piece, brilliantly entertaining but often neglected, given its placement between the more popular 3rd and 5th symphonies.”

The analogy struck me as hilariously out of place, a kind of reaching parallel between the layered, highbrow art before me with gratuitous twenty-something party culture which somehow seemed to reduce to dignity of both. I felt the program’s language was in violation of symphony culture rules, unspoken but universally understood: audiences must clap at the end of whole pieces, not between movements, should dress like southern churchgoers, curb any bodily needs that cause movement or make noise, and above all should take the music “seriously,” clothing themselves in a silent, emotionally-sensitive passivity that can respond to the music’s subtleties deeply, but only internally.

Yet it occurred to me that by taking offense on the 4th symphony’s behalf, I was robbing myself of the ability to accept what might be a legitimate, intended emotional register. Why was the notion that Beethoven intended to induce a “rollicking” feeling in me so absurd-sounding? Would it actually be a “truer” experience of the music if the audience clapped, head-banged, and tossed empty beer cans around like the crowd in a typical rock concert?

Many of us have read stories of historical symphony, opera, and ballet audiences that were very rollicking indeed, perhaps most famously the early twentieth-century crowd at the opening performance of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring, who, the documentation tells us, responded to the jarring primality of the music at first with unrest, then with argument among themselves, and finally with rioting, jumping over the seats of Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées to sock each other in the face, overpowering the police and eventually forcing Stravinsky to run for his life. That example is extreme, but what sea change in music culture transformed classical audiences from potential powder kegs to wet blankets, and is the change a positive one? The history is complicated, and scholarly opinions vary widely about whether we should try to adjust our attitude back to the rowdy, casual take on classical music that was once the industry standard.

Alex Ross, staff writer for The New Yorker and probably the present generation’s best-known popular classical music critic, is firmly critical of the monastic attitude American audiences adopt toward symphonies. He has written at least two articles that deal exclusively with the subject of audience behavior, “Applause: A Rest Is Noise Special Report,” an online essay appended in 2005 to the website associated with his seminal book The Rest is Noise, and “Why So Serious?” which appeared in The New Yorker in 2008. The essays are similarly flavored, and as a pair represent his take on the contemporary state of affairs. In “Applause” Ross opens by reminding us that history is on his side:

“Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, applause between movements and even during movements was the sign of a knowledgeable, appreciative audience, not of an ignorant one. The biographies of major composers are full of happy reports of what would now be seen as wildly inappropriate applause.”

As an example he cites the letters of Mozart, who, when riotous clapping and shouting broke out during the final Allegro of one of his compositions, was so delighted that he “went right after the Sinfonie to the Palais Royale—bought myself an ice cream, prayed a rosary as I had pledged—and went home.” Even zanier, Ross tells us in “Why So Serious?,” was the typical nineteenth-century piano recital, where crowds and composers together exercised behavior that was “by modern standards, completely nuts.” Here he points to Liszt’s habit of taking requests during his concert by drawing little notes from the audience out of an urn. Apparently, Liszt was all the happier when the crowd defied format and sent him innuendos, false requests, or any message that gave him the chance to launch a witty repartee (One read, “Is it better to marry or remain single?” to which Liszt retorted, “Whatever course one chooses, one is sure to regret it.”)

My friend Brian Gillikin, himself a composer and postgraduate scholar in the field, was able to indicate the historical moment when Western audiences began to change their behavior. In the late nineteenth century, the Romantics began to compose music with generally more dramatic volume ranges, so that while some passages were “so loud that no audience noise could ever compete,” others were extremely quiet and subtle, and therefore easily disturbed by so much as a cough. It was therefore partly the demands of the composers that lead to a “quieting down” of their audiences—shifts in compositional habits meant that a little informal background noise could cause a listener to miss significant elements of the art.

Other factors contributed as well, including changes in crowd demographic and in the size of concert venues, away from the snug parlors of the wealthy and towards large specially-built public halls. Aware of these complexities as he is, Alex Ross still concludes that our contemporary attitude is in need of rehabilitation. He argues that the current state of affairs alienates artist from listener, when it is precisely that relationship which creates the appeal of a live performance: “we are [now] spectators at a spectacle that is not ours,” he writes, “…our only power is that of consumers in general, to buy or not to buy. Is it any surprise that a lot of people aren’t buying?”

Yet as things stand, while a piece might be styled a rollicking party bus by the conductor, those of us in the audience will suffer consequences if we try contributing to that atmosphere. It would take a significant, adventurous effort on the part of performers and listeners together to change this, and the shift would involve real aesthetic sacrifices. Another musical friend eloquently pointed out to me that silence is the composer’s canvas, and blank space is understood by artists in all genres to have expressive value.

As Mr. Gillikin put it, clapping between movements might now be thought uncouth because it “…can often destroy the meaningful silence the [contemporary] composer intends between movements,” and I tend to agree. When I consider hearing a performance of a piece like Ralph Vaughn Williams’s “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” which begins with more than a full minute of smoldering undertones in the strings, the thought of being surrounded by chatty, informal members of Ross’s “reformed” audience is repulsive.  Perhaps our rehabilitation should involve our musical education instead of our musical attitude: it would take crowds who fully understood the intensions of the composer to know when silence might be golden, and when uncouth, and a truly great audience to know when to throw a punch. With a little attentiveness, perhaps we can reach that place again.

Singing Beach

Just as music’s bird from paradise
is caged in a piano’s lacquered keys,
our words, memory flowing toward a form
then settling in autumn ice.
Here, walking among foam-thrashed leaves,
the summer’s spent wine making us forlorn
while house lights kindle along shore roads
and a gull’s wing cuts the soft melon
of a rising moon, I won’t concede
the territories your strong forehead,
your silk-wrapped hips have won
in me by giving them a name, for fear
the casual stab of my pen’s art
will land too heavy, and graze the heart.

photo by: Muffet

The Fruits of Rejection

The critic Clive James, who is now experiencing a personal fragmentation that parallels that of the twentieth-century Europe he has written about for so long, is a master of what Aristotle called the artistic proof: the advancement of an argument by means of logic and imagination, rather than by recourse to forensic evidence. In our information-steeped culture, reference to a recorded fact often seems to carry the weight of proof, but James’s writing proves that a well-spun argument is more memorable, and ultimately more convincing. His sprawling masterpiece Cultural Amnesia is an alphabetically-arranged collection of biographical essays nearly nine hundred pages strong, which covers as many subjects as his subjects themselves studied. It is no coincidence that many of his heroes were Jewish intelligentsia working under the exile and oppression inflicted by the rise of Nazism in Europe. Taken as a whole, Cultural Amnesia is a document about the imagination surviving oppression, and to those of us who still want to make a career by the lights of our creativity—that is, in the humanities—his writing is a reminder that, as Bendetto Croce asserts in quotation on James’s title page, “all history is contemporary history.”

An unqualified comparison between the state of modern Western academia and the holocaust would be more than grandiloquent—it would be maniac in its insensitivity. But my own experience as a vocation-seeking graduate of a major Western university (in my case, the University of Edinburgh) has been comforted by James’s opening chapter, “Overture: Vienna.” There is a parallel to be found between the fin de siècle Austria James idealizes in that chapter and the experience of the academic generation that is currently at a wholesale loss for work in Europe and the U.S., though it is not a parallel of degree. My story is common enough to read as a modern parable: deeply in debt after a non-terminal graduate degree abroad, I moved with my wife to New England, where for four years, I have learned through dozens of applications and hundreds of hours and dollars wasted that those without personal connections, perfect GPA’s, or limitless time need not apply to funded doctoral programs. The opposite tactic — to seek work as an adjunct professor slogging through stacks of freshman composition papers — is successful enough, but upward mobility for part-time faculty is the first thing to disappear in moments of financial strain, and what four-year colleges face now is far deeper in its implications than a season of economic recession. Tenure is disappearing. Retention is low. The Western university is becoming financially untenable as the cultures so long fed by it invest more and more deeply in communications infrastructures that are basically dehumanizing. As the campus evaporates, where will the human element in the humanities reside? James’s writing offers a comforting answer.

“In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries,” he writes, “Vienna was the best evidence that the most accommodating and fruitful ground for the life of the mind can be something more broad than a university campus. More broad, and in many ways more fun.”

 Fun is a nearly forgotten word among modern academics. Those of us living now ought to be humbled by the reminder that the perennially sidelined Austrian Jews of the early twentieth century, who had been blackballed by the universities for years and who could see their political doom gathering like winter rain just over the border, still saw the fun implicit in the pursuit of the humanities, and luxuriated in it.  Even more humbling and liberating is the notion that being barred from the traditional path to an academic career could ultimately be a blessing. No one remembers the academicians who were tenured in Austrian universities at the time of the invasion, but the Jewish scholars they relegated to the cafes are still among the most celebrated writers and thinkers of their time, as James is quick to remind us:

 “Whole generations of Jewish literati were denied the opportunity of wasting their energies compiling abstruse doctoral theses. They were driven instead to journalism, plain speech, direct observation and the necessity to entertain. The necessity to entertain could sometimes be the enemy of learning, but not as often as the deadly freedom to write as if nobody would ever read the results except a faculty supervisor who owed his post to the same exemption.”

For James, pre-occupation Vienna doesn’t represent an intellectual alternative but an intellectual ideal. The oppressive atmosphere that sent the Jews to the cafes also inadvertently liberated them from intellectual brown-nosing, and swept them into a more holistic vision of the educated life; one which found its validation and its subject matter on the ground rather than in the ivory tower. We owe writers like Peter Altenberg, Egon Friedell, and Manes Sperber not only for pioneering writing styles that balanced accessibility with depth, but for predicting the tribal bent of Nazism and its genocidal consequences. It is not too much to assume that these scholars saw the political landscape most clearly because their attention had been directed away from the insulating concerns of traditional academic careers.

Pitting the necessity to entertain against the luxury of collegiate obscurity is partly unfair, because neither atmosphere can guarantee good writing or preclude it.  But James’s assertions remind us that writing has long been, and still should be, the measure of useful thinking, and that those who think and write well do not need a diploma to earn their bread, or the respect of their peers. “Reading about Vienna now,” he reflects, “you are taken back to a time that should come again: a time when education was a lifelong process. You didn’t complete your education and then start your career. Your education was your career, and it was never completed.”

Vienna was, of course, invaded, and there the contemporary parallel mercifully ends. But the consequences of that invasion are also hopeful in their familiarity. James concludes his overture by observing that the intellectual diaspora brought on by the occupation, as it dashed a unique cultural milieu to pieces, effectively scattered the seeds of that milieu across the West. He writes: “In each case, the suppression of liberalism worked like a shell-burst, with the Jews as the fragments of the shell’s casing, the fragments that travelled furthest. These local disasters added up to a benefit for the world, so we need to change the metaphor, and think of an exploding seed-pod.” The outcast Viennese intelligentsia, which included more than only Jewish refugees, re-penetrated Western society at every level, in the primary school system, the newspapers, the publishing houses, the shipping industry, military, the gardens and the cafes. Every one of these vocations was dignified by thinkers whose sense of imagination had survived the most extreme censorship imaginable, which went beyond ideas and attempted to bodily eliminate human beings.

Our own situation is a far more hopeful one, and if all history is contemporary, then aimless students of the humanities can still claim citizenship in the Vienna that James’s Cultural Amnesia celebrates. If trends continue as it seems they must, a hefty percentage of four-year university campuses will be gated within the next ten years. For the humanities, this isn’t exile, but an opportunity to take the thinking fostered by advanced degrees and practiced writing out into the apparently mundane fields that need them most urgently, to re-humanize the West. James tells us that when a woman blamed Peter Altenberg for only being interested in her body, he replied “Was ist so nur?”—”What is so only?” In a more respectful but equally irreverent spirit, thinkers and writers employed outside the academy must remove the only from only a job. History has already proved that the imagination cannot be gated up, and that its importance only increases the less it is valued. Liberation from the campus and the exam room will leave the best of our generation free to bring the intellect into the cafes of our time: the ephemeral spaces of online communities, yes, but also the places of work and leisure that will only be mundane if we are unequal to the task of edifying them.

photo by: luca.sartoni

The Ethics of Translation

It would be difficult to find two less kindred twentieth-century cultural figures than Roland Barthes and Czesław Milosz. The first, a cigar-clutching Frenchmen for whom his own country’s literature was the center of the intellectual universe, shared the better part of a lifetime with the Polish-speaking Lithuanian for whom nearly all of experience was an act of translation. Barthes was killed by a laundry truck on the streets of his beloved Paris, neither physically nor theoretically far from where he began his popular career as a critic. Milosz did not die in his bed in Krakow until he had completed a tour of the globe that included stops at the epicenters of nearly every western Western cultural crisis in the 1900s, from the German invasion of Poland to the free love movement in Berkley, California in the ’60s. Yet though the two were divided by their heritage, experience, and attitudes, they shared a compulsion to identify the role of the author in a century whose violent conflicts had spilled confusion and fragmentation into its literature. While Milosz restlessly engaged these issues from the inside, writing poetry and teaching Slavic Literature in California, Barthes solidified his early career as a literary critic with the compact treatise Writing Degree Zero, which ambitiously attempted to map the writer’s relationship to history in two hundred words or less.

Writing Degree Zero defines the author’s identity using three sweeping categories. The first two, language and style, were by no means revolutionary. The last term, écriture, is difficult to translate properly into English, but in it lies the meat of his critique. The question Barthes sought to answer in his book is demoralizingly simple: Can an author exercise any meaningful influence on history? Cautiously, the essay hopes to venture a yes, but not before Barthes thoroughly defines his terms. Yet at precisely the moment when those terms seem to usefully describe an author’s role, they devalue something that, for Milosz, is close to the soul of the author’s role: choice of language.

“A language and a style are objects;” Barthes writes, “[while] a mode of writing [écriture] is a function…[it is] form considered as a human intention and thus linked to the great crisis of History.” Barthes posits that an author does not start to exercise historical influence until she, taking language and style for granted as her playing field and physique, develops a strategy with which to play the game. This strategy is her écriture, or “mode of writing,” the outworking of her intentions in literature. A particular language and style have come to the writer by nature. It is how she chooses to wield them in her own historical situation that determines her historical efficacy. Écriture, then, is Barthes’s name for the influence, no matter how frail or robust, a writer can exercise with her art on the lived-in world.

Barthes’s terminology is theoretical in the extreme, but it provided contemporary writers with a way of describing their relationship to the historical situation they inhabited. Recalling the bombed-out streets of Warsaw and the sound of the blitz over central Europe, Milosz would probably shrug his shoulders at the chilly aestheticism that Barthes’s level of abstraction implies. Fully capable of splicing literary theories with the best minds in Europe, Milosz would be dumbfounded with Barthes for expending so much ink and air to articulate a historical theory of literature which evidenced such a dim concept of what history feels like when you’re living through it. Barthes is trying to describe what great writers do. Milosz would say that such a description is impossible if we assume that language is nothing but a playing field. For Milosz, it is the battleground, still littered with casualties.

To Milosz’s eyes, the choice of what language to write in is a choice between histories with a lowercase h. History is never actually experienced as a monolithic Hegelian force, but rather as an intimate atmosphere. While Barthes assumes that language “functions negatively,” that it does nothing but set the limits of what a writer might possibly say, Milosz knows that a history can be lost, if the people who remember it are scattered or their language silenced. Each country has its own linguistic “texture;” every subculture, niche, and village conducts each linguistic exchange in a unique historical context, and those contexts can be murdered. This is exactly the crisis which Milosz feels he has survived in Poland. The circle of poets and writers he frequented as a teenager in Wilno was reduced by the Nazi occupation and the Warsaw uprising to a handful of refugees, who began to see their literary role less in terms of interpretation or beautification than of testimony. Many of these poets, even after their readership became predominantly English-speaking, continued to write in Polish, enduring the isolation of the linguistic refugee in the name loyalty. To the uninformed, this decision might seem hubristic, but for Milosz and his peers, the stakes could not have been higher: if Barthes’s theories were to be accepted, then in historical terms the almost total loss of Polish-speaking writers in the middle of the twentieth century didn’t matter much. Language being neutral, we have lost only those writers’ écritures. But to the few Polish poets who survived the near-eradication of their entire literary context, language itself is the last and best witness to a lost world.

In his late career essay “Who Was I?” Milosz reflected on this ethical quality of language choice while pondering the writer he once was:

As a young man I was struck by the magnitude of what was occurring in my century, a magnitude equaling, perhaps even surpassing the decline and fall of antiquity…How, then, at a later date, as a witness to what was underway, could I seriously pursue a literary career…as if nothing had happened? To whom, about what, was I to speak?

The “about what?” was to become increasingly clear to Milosz as his own, remarkably optimistic, poetic form was refined: His poetry would take its own isolation, as well as the transient nature of all human culture, as its subject. It is full of the haunting observations of a literary refugee, as in “On Pilgrimage,” one of the many highly reflective poems from his years as a professor of Slavic Literatures at UC Berkeley:

May the gentle mountains and the bells of the flocks
Remind us of everything we have lost,
For we have seen on our way and fallen in love
With the world that will pass in a twinkling.

Such poems grew gradually into an answer for the young Milosz’s “about what?” but the “to whom?” elicited a far readier response. “I belong,” he wrote  only a few lines later in his essay, “to the estate of Polish literature and no other,” and to belong to the estate of Polish literature meant loyalty to the Polish language. To guarantee his poetry’s historical witness, Milosz sentenced his work to a lifetime of translation. Only a strict ethic could move a writer to such a troublesome aesthetic decision, but this was the ground on which Milosz built his oeuvre; a territory where the heady, self-congratulating concept of the écriture was swapped for the patient isolation of the archeologist, digging up the ruins of dead cities, and demanding that we value what was lost, and what remains.

 

 

 

photo by: Arek Olek

The Principle of Volubility

In the United States, few poets have endured the kind of censure that Ted Hughes has experienced since the death of Sylvia Plath. Hughes’ role in the weird melodrama which led to Plath’s suicide has been processed so thoroughly by the criticism that it seemed inseparable from an aesthetic consideration of his work, but at fifty years’ distance, we are better situated to do so: Emory, an American university, keeps the archive of Hughes’ manuscripts and personal papers, and the feminist reading of both Plath and Hughes has matured enough to admit character flaws on both sides of that dark marriage.

This critical liberation comes at a timely moment. The monstrous Collected Poems of Ted Hughes isn’t quite ten years old, and has given a freshened generation of critics the chance to evaluate his poetry by some means other than the biographical. But the results were disappointing. Case in point: Paul Batchelor’s 2005 review of Collected Poems in Tower Poetry, which divides Hughes’ work into various roles or personas, “The Nature Poet,” “The Mythographer,” etc., leveraging the convenience of those categories to organize its tepid distaste for Hughes’ style. In the “Nature Poet” section, Batchelor makes the excellent point that Hughes’s reiterative descriptions of his subjects “outstrip most people’s experience,” noting that through the overlapping phrases of poems like “Sketch of a Goddess,” which describes two orchids, we are made to feel the inadequacy of language:

 

That one’s past it. But this one’s in her prime.
She utters herself
Utterly into appeal. A surrender
Of torn mucous membranes, veined and purpled,
A translucence of internal organs
In a frisson,
Torn open,
The core debauched,
All loosely dangling helplessness
And enfolding claspers –

 

His apparent failure to settle on the right phrase for the orchids, to Hughes’ fans, is the fresh expression of an old and delicious problem: Romantic Irony, the brilliance of a physical world that both compels us to describe it and defies description. There’s a good argument to be made that this dilemma is at the core of poetry’s efficacy; that English poetry has always been playing this game that it can’t win, and always pleasing us as it does so. But Batchelor attacks Hughes precisely for his expression of that problem, arguing that in the famous collection Crow, the backload “ …of such descriptions is immediately rubbish when you look up and see the crow flying,” and concluding that Hughes “…appears to have exhausted nature as a means of negotiating his experience.”

But Batchelor’s analysis flips Hughes’ real dilemma on its head: With his long descriptive lists and huge volume of published work, Hughes wasn’t belaboring a natural world he had exhausted, but celebrating a beauty he couldn’t exhaust. What Batchelor really takes umption with isn’t Hughes’ subject, or style, but his volume. “Hughes was prolific,” he writes, but this does not work out to a compliment: “There are many weak, and some positively bad poems in Collected Poems…” the implication is that Hughes should have either curbed the writing impulse, or curated his collections better.

It is revealing to contrast this critical reaction to those of Elizabeth Bishop’s reviewers. In terms of volume, Bishop is Hughes’s opposite (her life’s work included only 101 published poems). The Poetry Foundation, with audible gaspiness, describes Bishop as “…a perfectionist who did not write prolifically, preferring instead to spend long periods of time polishing her work.” “Perfect” is an adjective that circles Bishop’s work like a moth, and for all her lack of volume, she frequently rivals or outperforms Hughes in anthologies. Ernie Hilbert, reviewing her volume Bold Type, wrote that Bishop’s is distinguished by “craft-like accuracy” and “a miniaturist’s discretion and attention” He celebrated her poems as “…balanced like Alexander Calder mobiles…every element…poised flawlessly against the next.” It is difficult to find a review which doesn’t share Hilbert’s awe. But are brevity and balance really such reliable aesthetic standards?

Education is preceded by canonization. The anthology is its roadmap, and the excerpt, as much teachers hate to admit it, is its currency. Our generation, whose scholars have been brow-beaten by political discourse into an ideological obsession with inclusiveness, has done a fervent job rewriting the book on who should be included in those anthologies and excerpts. But the nastier question has to do with what should be included. The what question is not solvable, because it is predicated on the notion that we can comb through and extract an author’s “representative works,” which are actually mythological beasts, about as discoverable as griffins.

With poets like Bishop, this dilemma seems easier to untangle, given her concentrated output. But with voluble poets, such as Hughes or Walt Whitman, the difficulty is compounded. Someone once wrote of Whitman that “only a genius could have made his mistakes,” and that aphorism sums up the anthologist’s, and ultimately our culture’s, dilemma as we attempt to convey Whitman’s importance: Even his mistakes are genius, so how can decide what is most brilliant, moving, worth discoursing about? We can’t, but critics like Bachelor reveal that smart people are still allowing the anthologist’s impulse to steer their aesthetic judgement. Bachelor dislikes Hughes not because what he wrote wasn’t poetic, but because he wrote too much of it.

Yet volume can be just as profitable as refinement. The endurance of writers like Whitman and Hughes is undeniable, but we’ll be forced to deny it if we accept Paul Batchelor’s critical criteria. To an artistic mind that is already well-trained, expansion can be a form of revision: Left together on the page, multiple phrasings can assume an atmospheric weight equivalent to one of Basho’s Haikus, which get their gravity from brevity. Poems like Hughes’ “Bride and Groom Lie Hidden for Three Days,” which are flooded with descriptive language, might lose their power if the author had scratched all the repetitious phrasings. In this poem, economy would be a vice:

 

…And now he connects her throat, her breasts and the pit of her stomach

With a single wire

She gives him his teeth, tying the the roots to the centrepin of his body

He sets the little circlets on her fingertips

She stiches his body here and there with steely purple silk

He oils the delicate cogs of her mouth

She inlays with deep cut scrolls the nape of his neck

He sinks into place the inside of her thighs

So, gasping with joy, with cries of wonderment…

They bring each other to perfection.

 

There is certainly an infinite care in even Hughes’ most apparently off-hand poems, a fact which reveals one last truth about the dilemma between concentrated and voluble poetry: It dissolves under examination. Bishop’s perfection is as voluble in its depth as Whitman’s is in its breadth, just as Hughes’ descriptive panegyrics are every bit as crafted as Stephen Spender’s shoe-polished stanzas. Our preference for one over the other is not a question of quality, but of stylistic preference; a preference we should never make into a principle. The flaw that causes college reading packets to favor Bishop is systemic: A consequence of our need to anthologize. The virtue that will save Hughes from undeserved anonymity must be begun in the criticism. Experience, poetry’s subject, is not exhaustible, and we should not accuse the poets who attempt to emphasize this inexhaustibly of absurdity. In fact, the apparent looseness of voluble poetry accounts for that expansive quality taken on by the examined life. Fitting easily into the museum is an excellent criterion for the curator, but a poisonous one for the artist, and Hughes, who was a genius, should be allowed to make his genius mistakes. The delight of his sort of poetry is that it lies close to life, which cannot be summed properly up any more then he can be satisfyingly anthologized.

In Defense of Pompous Asses

The health of a marriage involves cruel revelations. When these turn up, the moral fiber of both parties is proved by their capacity to laugh. I had been married for a year when, returning to Chattanooga (the city where we met), my wife and I reunited with a friend. Like many literary types, this friend had obsessive journalistic habits, and on her laptop there is a Word document that catalogues all of her favorite conversations for at least the last ten years. We were drinking straight gin out of ceramic mugs and reliving the highlight reel. It was June and the windows were open to a hail of tree frogs and black-faced crickets.

I got up to relieve myself of some of the gin. When I came back, my wife and this friend—we’ll call her Annie—were shoulder to shoulder in front of the laptop, cycling through the tipsy one-liners and classroom embarrassments. They were enjoying themselves to the point of distraction, and they didn’t notice me arrive, and start to read over the tops of their heads. I saw my name. And there it was, a quotation of my wife’s from the first few weeks that we dated:

“Alex will be a great guy when he gets over his pompous ass phase.”

There was nothing about this circumstance that wasn’t funny, and I would’ve been a crummy husband to take offense. We laughed for minutes straight, because this was the true diagnosis. One thing I am certain of is that I am not yet over the pompous ass phase. To most of my friends and certainly to my wife, my disposition looks like a perpetual struggle for dominance between Bertram Wooster and the bone-dry teacher from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” a combination of self-satisfied remarks and detailed, literary over-explanations about why I find Michael Crichton tiresome.

But there is a noteworthy issue implied by her remark that goes beyond my ability or inability to eat some humble pie: Is there a difference between aesthetic standards and snobbery? Is it the aggravating, can’t-leave-the-job-at-work college English teacher in me that needs to enforce taste on the world, or is our society, so full of slick iPad games and corporately-generated R&B one-hit-wonders, in need of some unabashed defense of that which is fine, and derision of that which is not, even to the point of losing temper? This is a nightmarishly inconvenient question to approach, because in my experience, almost any discussion of taste quickly becomes a discussion of personal character, and that is a non sequitur when you get down to it. We all need to put in our best efforts not to be a pompous ass about the things we care about (one trip to a bar frequented by Harvard students is enough to convince anyone of this—why do the experts always seem to forget that truly great ideas should humble us?), but we all also need the practiced discernment and good taste that enables us not to swallow art that is ultimately profit-driven without argument. The lack of this trait is costing us a generation of potentially good thinkers. Trust me about that. I teach them. Fewer and fewer are making it through without wounds of the mind that are probably unmendable. Attention spans are short. Tastes are confined to that which can be enjoyed without difficulty; a standard which rules out most things worth doing. But why not, in a mass-media culture, let the masses have their fun undisturbed?

The paradoxical truth is this: Ignorance is prouder than knowledge. As a well-read man once said, knowledge puffs us up. But ignorance skips over the puffing up and spends all of its time knocking everything around it down. We should pick the lesser of the two evils, and risk sounding like asses, if it means saving ourselves in the long run from an existence of being spoon-fed corruptive drivel that masquerades as art. Real art is worth far too much not to let ourselves occasionally get cranky over it. It contains the best of us. Defending it is therefore an act of self-defense.

 

It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning towards the window, should say:
                ‘That is not it at all…’

 

So said T. S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. You would have to square up to the mountainous output of France’s own master aesthete, Marcel Proust, to find a challenger in any language, and even then you are dealing with a much more lacy and becoming character. Eliot cuts like a scalpel, and what he’s after is the beating heart of Western aesthetics. He wants to show it to us, bloody and worn out after surviving global war, and make the claim that a healthy knowledge of Shakespeare, Dante, Norse Mythology—in short, the canon—is the last refuge available to us. Homogeny, peace, meaningful discourse, everything that appeared to be provided by Nationalism and vaguely Judeo-Christian values (both, as he thought then, destroyed by the Great Wars) was now only available to us if we sat down and memorized some late-medieval Italian. This sounds like insanity on the front end. It sounded like blasphemy to Eliot’s fellow American poet, William Carlos Williams, who pegged him as an eternal enemy from the moment he laid eyes on Prufrock, because what Williams wanted was to burn the ships of cultural memory forever—to forget the past and write about soap dishes, teenage girls’ attractive legs, and the farmhands shuffling around his small-town doctor’s office in New Jersey. But he knew the second he read Eliot that his battle could not be won. The way had been closed. Tom Sterns had made an argument to the contrary so profound and beautiful that it seemed destined to obsesses us, which indeed it has.

It is important, more important than I can say, to note here that Williams died poisoned by jealous hatred for Eliot and pretty much every other writer in the game, and that Eliot put down his scalpel and died an Anglican. Many would argue that by becoming an Anglican, he had merely swapped the worship of canonized literature in general for the worship of the figure of Christ, as presented in the most canonical book of all: the Bible. This is not very problematic from the orthodox standpoint, though it irks those academics who love the “un-mystical purity” of Eliot’s formative years. Yet from beginning to end, his loyalty remained fixed on the value of great art, and its remembrance. The final realization of his life, which might be beside the point of this essay (though I doubt it), was that Christ’s story happened to be both fantastically literature and literally true. This discovery precipitated a sea change known as the Four Quartets.

It is enough for the issue at hand, though, to concentrate on his original point of departure: Great art is the saving grace of civilization. If by claiming this, Eliot was proving himself to be a cold poser with clean hands in wartime, an affected English accent, and his nose in a book, then society should get over its pompous ass phase and stop paying attention to what he said. But if it was true, than by losing the little Latin we learned in middle school, watching modernized DVDs of Shakespeare instead of slogging through the plays, and more or less continuing to prioritize the quick, passive entertainments that our incredible advancements in communication have made possible over forms of pleasure that have higher learning curves and less tangible payoffs, we are forking over the soul of our civilization for an hour’s worth of booty shorts and explosions. A society like that deserves to go the way of Rome, which, by the way, began to crumble at exactly the historical moment our own society is now reaching. The gladiatorial games fed the lowest instincts of the mob in order to distract them into spending more money than they would have in a more rational state of mind. The similarity of this strategy to that of corporations like Google (which is now well into the late stages of developing driverless cars, the sole rationale for the project being that if people don’t have to drive themselves to work, they can spend their whole commute on handheld internet devices viewing content provided by Google, and eventually spend their money on that content) is notable. It is also terrifying.

What is the difference between snobbery and good taste? In the wrong circumstances, and escaping the lips of the wrong personality, the difference is nothing. But in the right hands, good taste is a floatation device, or a weapon for self-preservation. Now, it isn’t for anyone to autocratically decide what good art is. I have done my best as a writer and a teacher to live by the mantra that a friend of mine laid out for me: Once you have gotten a very clear-cut idea of what is good art and what is bad, you have lost the point entirely. The luxury of holding a rap song or a Botticelli painting up to established criteria and deeming it great or not great is a deadly one. It is exactly this propensity to accept or dismiss what is being offered without thinking that good taste, real taste, prohibits in us. Taste forces us to take the time to consider, to search for beauty in the thing at hand, and hopefully makes us dismiss it loudly, with a “That is not it at all!” if we decide there is none in it. Real, enriching pleasure is a hard thing to come by. Yet it is the duty of everyone, not just herringbone-clad English professors, to root it out and not to settle for anything less. An English-speaking world that decides it has no time for this process of discernment will have lost my loyalty. It is only so long until it would find itself with the Visigoths at the door, asked why it deserves to survive but at a loss for the appropriate quotation.

 

 

Under a Cloud of Ash

The Acropolis was locked. It hadn’t occurred to either of us that the seat of Western culture would operate under loosely the same hours as a museum over Thanksgiving weekend. It was hot and we were both wearing backpacks. Dani had her “Greek travel” hat on—a straw farmer’s-style with a circular brim and blue ribbon around the base—and Drew and Kate were supposed to recognize us by it. For a few dumb minutes we had stood outside the locked wrought-iron black gates of the Acropolis entrance, where a security guard in a tan uniform stared out at us from a box that wasn’t even big enough for him to sit down in. Huge birds smashed into the trees above us and bent their branches.

Eventually we fled and walked to the end of a street that seemed to consist entirely of gelato shops, where sweaty tourists crammed in families of six around short circular tables, trying to scrape out huge mouthfuls of ice with tiny spoons, past thin, mottled trees whose trunks were painted chalk white to about the height of a passing Vespa, and found a square, just as beautiful as the rest, tiled with sandy flagstone, but abandoned, with nothing in it but two dumpsters and two dozen pigeons. They wouldn’t move, though we actually brushed them aside with our feet and threatened to put our backpacks down on them. Dani finally threw her Greek hat at them, and in a dusty rush they flapped up into the trees. It was a hot afternoon in April, our phone was charging us a pound and a half for every text we sent or received, and Drew and Kate were the only ones who knew how to get to our hostel. We sat on the warm flagstone and watched the sun set.

We had thought we would be in Athens alone. In Iceland, a pimple of a volcano called Eyjafjallajökull had been erupting since April. We had tracked its ever-shifting high-atmosphere ash cloud through an interactive map on the BBC website. Though composed of fragments so tiny they were invisible to the human eye (even Scotland had stayed sardonically sunny the entire month), clouds of ash affect jet engines the same way flocks of geese do and had consequently grounded every flight in Europe.  It was now a British bank holiday, and as Dani and I packed up in our flat in Edinburgh, heroic news stories had emerged of travelers who had given up camping in the airport to cross thousands of miles by alternate means.

One of them, in fact the best I have heard, is the story of how Drew got from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Paris, where he met his girlfriend Kate under the Eiffel Tower, and finally to Athens, where the both of them were now supposed to meet us under the pillared shadow of the Parthenon. Drew, who had watched Hindus burning the dead under towers that looked like cracked sand sculptures. Drew, who once nearly died from a parasite he’d eaten in a Himalayan fish called “The Special.”

A week before, Dani, on the phone with Drew: “So, the boat from Iceland is a no” (there was a part of southern Iceland where, for a window of about two days, Eyjafjallajökull’s goose-cloud hadn’t flown. It had been proposed that Drew fly there from Chattanooga and take a boat to Spain). “No, we did know someone in Morocco. He’s moved now. And it wasn’t a nice part of Morocco.”

Five days before, Dani, on the phone with Kate: “What airport in Spain? No, there are disposable phones you can buy when you get there. He doesn’t believe in them. Right.”

Four days before, Dani to Kate again: “Well, what’s an obvious place in Paris?”

While we had slept on the floor of the Amsterdam airport, to which we’d been able to sneak through a miracle-window in the atmosphere, and watched the Netherlands refine the soccer team that just barely lost them the World Cup later that July, Drew had flown to southern Spain, and begun to hitchhike, train hop, and jog his way to Paris, for a rendezvous with Kate, who had taken the Chunnel there from Oxford. He had slept in a hammock strung between trees in public gardens and had been woken up, he told us later, by automatic sprinklers more often than security personnel. He had no phone, one pair of shoes, no money and was unable to shave for the entire journey.

In the end, Kate waited for two days under the Eiffel tower, which, as everyone knows who’s been there, is a dusty, trash-strewn parking lot where sad people of every kind attempt to sell you key chains and cold gyros. It would be impossible to say who had had the worse time of it. When Drew finally arrived, Kate hardly recognized him: A skinny Lawrence of Arabia in boat shoes. Euphoria ensued. Drew triumphantly showered. We were never told how they spent their time together in Paris (one assumes the top of the tower didn’t feature) apart from a single incident involving a lost train ticket on the metro. Two Parisian underground operators attempted to extract sixty euros from Kate, at which they both exploded into decadent profanity in both French and Spanish, and sustained it until the train was stopped, the operators hastily moving on, and Kate both laughing and crying. “I had no idea how much French I knew!” Drew told us. Kate wasn’t sure that what he’d spoken had been French.

The sun was behind the Acropolis. A delicate kind of fly, which seemed more attracted to pigeons than garbage, had begun to collect in the little square. Dani and I risked a three-dollar text. Before long, out of the gelato crush, came Drew, his beard washed electric-blond with the sun, wearing an aluminum cooking pot on his head. Kate was walking beside him with her hands in the pockets of airy seersucker shorts. We scared up the pigeons again hooping, hollering, making dinner plans. Smells of kebabs and coriander had started filling the streets, salt-tangy and intoxicating.

Around us, the Athenians were preparing to celebrate May Day, a communist-flavored holiday passed down to Europe by the dying Soviet Union, and which among the Greeks was marked by organized protest, widespread transportation boycotts, and leftist demonstrations that sometimes descended into isolated pockets of violence. Between the four of us, we knew nothing about this. Our plans had been made months in advance and dictated by considerations such as available time off and comfortable weather. May Day was something you shouted in imaginary games, when the plane was about to crash.

We were heading for the Cyclades, a system of islands in the Aegean famous for their friendliness, beauty, blue-domed churches and whitewashed fishing towns. Our scheduled departure for home was Sunday, May the 2nd. We were to fly out of Athens.

photo by: Aster-oid

The Myth of Narcissus Goes Social

Not recognizing himself
He wanted only himself. He had chosen
From all the faces he had ever seen
Only his own. He was himself
The torturer who now began his torture.

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid

Eight or nine months ago I was still in the honeymoon phase of first-time smartphone ownership. Instagram was the first app I embraced. Armed with a battery of hazy filters, I set about making the street corners, stairways, and appliances of my daily life into art. My following crept past the single digits (not including parents), and I became aware of the lusty satisfaction of having a photo “liked.” It was not a new concept: shared experience, the promise of a digital community that transcends geography by replacing it with a cheerful topography of glitzy, artistically emphasized experiences.

My moral sense was skating through this landscape undisturbed until one day, checking the photo stream, I noticed something that prickled my neck hair. A friend of mine was adding pictures from his actual honeymoon. The photos were tasteful and appropriate; they depicted a modest fantasy of splashing water, umbrellaed cocktails, and endearing hugs by sunset. But suddenly the smartphone in my hand felt less like a link to my peers and more like a keyhole to a peepshow. My honeymoon with the media stream was over. There was something categorically wrong about projecting, for the general public, a life event that is intimate by definition. Far from forming a sense of community between my friend, his new wife, and myself, it created, unaccountably at first, the distance one feels when still deciding whether or not to buy a product. I had seen these flashy pictures before—in cologne advertisements.

A few weeks later, a freshman in my college writing course turned in a paper that, using statistics and marketing documentation from major companies like Starbucks, demonstrated convincingly that Facebook is, essentially, a self-marketing tool. The website—probably without knowing it—has simply substituted “profile” for “advertisement,” and, while its participants are not actually selling themselves (this caveat excludes band, company, author, and political Facebook pages), they are making the same editorial decisions with their own image as an advertiser does with a product: Only the positives are displayed.

As an educator I do not tell Facebook when I am a little overboard with the whisky on a Thursday night, or fighting with my wife, or having some embarrassing trouble digesting a spicy taco. No: Facebook is only informed of my most sanitary thoughts and actions. Because my online reputation can make the difference for me between dollar signs and unemployment (I have known teachers who have lost their jobs as a direct result of posting “red cup” photos, in spite of the fact that the cups were holding only grape juice), I treat my identity, insofar as it exists on the internet, as a product—one that I must advertise. Instagram boils this process down to its most subversive state by being dedicated exclusively to that most powerful advertising tool of all: Image. In the end, our photos may be about sharing experience, but only experience that reflects positively on our marketable image. Even our photos of church group, or a friend’s birthday, or exercise at the YMCA are, if we admit it, about us. Every photo is a “selfie.”

This reality commands an army of unintended consequences. Anyone who works in advertising knows that to keep a company perpetually sellable is a career-long process, which requires a full eight hours of slogging labor every day, and leaves the copywriter or image consultant tired in her chair at home. But to advertise one’s self perpetually by means of social media is a wearisome project. It requires a portion of mental attention to be available at all times, looking for the compartmentalize-able moment.

Anyone who has used Instagram with any regularity, or known someone who does, has felt this peculiar brand of exhaustion. “Hold up!” your friend shouts while you walk back from the wharf at sunset, and you turn, to notice her ten paces behind, selecting a filter. At dinner, the waiter is pulled away from a crowded six-top that just sat down under the opposite window to snap a group photo of your whole table—after all, these get-togethers happen less and less. Your mother, of course, is taking a picture of her food. Where are these photos going? Do they matter to those involved in your current experience? Not at all. They only matter to those who have missed it, and can do nothing but make them detached from whatever it is they happen to be doing, as they, just for half a second, check the photo stream.

The topography of shared experience has only one geographical feature and one explorer: The Self. This is a cruel twist of logic, but it isn’t a new one. In the months that I first started to abandon social media, I happened to be teaching Ted Hughes’ translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the myth of Narcissus came to hand as the perfect barometer of a civilization that has always been just as self-concerned, but has only recently developed the tools to socially interact with its own face.

Narcissus became rooted in the end, and similarly, the new narcissism of social media has the effect of rooted-to-the-spot mental stagnation. To record life at the same moment we experience it requires more attention then we can spare. We will give our devotion to one process or the other. But there is a deeper problem: To self-advertise is to make perpetual war on the fallibility of our own nature. It forces us to conceal the flaws that real friends and loved ones must experience and forgive in order to genuinely love us. In the end, the photostream isn’t a new landscape but a hall of mirrors—one that is easy to get lost in.