Matthew Miller

Matthew Josiah Miller lives in St. Louis with his wife Rachel, an independent artist. When not pursuing his academic interests (gift exchange and medieval drama) in grad school at Saint Louis University, he makes pathetic attempts at growing tomatoes and tries not to tweet about food @giftsoutright.

#NewNebraskaSlogan and a New Rhetoric for the Midwest

Recently Tim Siedell, otherwise known as @badbanana, otherwise known as Nebraska’s most successful Twitter comedian, initiated the hashtag #NewNebraskaSlogan. (If you’re not of the Twitterati: a hashtag is a way of linking topics across the site, frequently used for memes.) I found the jokes both amusing and annoying, having learned to be wary of my home state coming into the public eye. Too many knee-jerk assessments of the Midwest run to “corn and cattle,” “flyover country,” or “purgatory”—all of which showed up under the marker #NewNebraskaSlogan. I enjoyed Siedell’s tweets (“Keep Driving to Colorado, Hippie”), but the many contributions from his fans quickly became irritating. If I could learn to consistently adopt the wry, self-deprecatory attitude that Siedell and other notable Midwesterners like Ted Kooser and Michael Perry have attained, I could laugh along with everyone else—but I’m afraid I’m not that sanguine. Like any good loyalist, I’m perfectly willing to laugh when we’re making fun of ourselves, but I can’t stand to hear mockery from outside.

The Great Plains

I’m particularly irritated by dismissive remarks directed at the landscape of the Great Plains. I really think the Great Plains are beautiful, and I’m surprised how few people share my views, even other Midwesterners. Many non-Midwesterners seem to feel it’s socially acceptable to remark to my face how ugly, flat and boring they find my home state. Complain about our lack of high culture or our obsession with college football, and I’ll let it slide and even sympathize (although: Go Big Red). Call my state ugly or boring, though—the more common complaints—and you begin to make me angry. Kansans and Iowans know this phenomenon as well: it’s aggravating to say the least to make chit-chat about how boring one’s home state is to drive across, and yet we do it all the time.

For too long I have failed to challenge this behavior. I blame this on Midwestern manners, which have made me fundamentally conflict-averse and allow me to criticize someone in only the most oblique terms. When my state is abused, I can’t agree, but I’m constitutionally averse to fighting back. Instead, I have frequently employed the phrase “Well, you haven’t really seen the best part of the state,” usually in response to those who have only driven across on Interstate 80 to Colorado. The advantage of this rhetorically sophisticated claim is that it preserves social amity, while suggesting that one shouldn’t judge the landscape based on an acquaintance made while moving at 75 MPH. The disadvantage, of course, is that it’s a total sell-out.

Now, I don’t think the area around I-80 is the best part of Nebraska. (The best part is the gentle little slope down from my parents’ land, full of colored grasses and scrubby trees and with a gravel road cutting through it to a bridge and a band of trees around the creek, then curving back up to the sky.) But I don’t want to capitulate to the assumption that it’s ugly, either. Yes, it’s pretty much made up of fields of grass, corn, or soybeans, and the sky– and I like that. I don’t see that fields and sky are ugly or boring. If I subtly suggest that maybe there are nicer parts of the state—more conventionally pretty, with more trees and more water, maybe some nascent mountains—I’m implying that I agree that really much of my state, and all its public face, is unworthy of notice.

At the risk of sounding obtuse or narrowly regionalist, I want to claim that while the Plains may not be as showy as other landscapes, not as appropriate to calendars or billboards, they hold a beauty as powerful as any other region. If mountains and oceans impress us with their vastness, I counter with the vastness of the sky and the plains—only on the Great Plains do you get a sense of the hugeness not of one particular geological formation, but of the world itself: earth and sky distilled to their essentials. And if this seems too simple and stark for you, if you prefer the complexity and detail of forests and hills, I put to you the prairie grass after a rain, when infinite nuances of oranges, yellows, greens and grays arise on the land. I have lived and traveled in other regions, and I remain baffled as to why even we Midwesterners, in a place of such compelling if simple beauty, allow our tastes to be defined by other people’s land.

Postcards and video montages may insist that some areas of the world are uniquely sublime, but on this I stand firmly with the Romantic poets, for whom no piece of nature is unworthy of notice. (John Greenleaf Whittier, for example, wrote an ecstatic paean about the Plains.) So I’m developing a new rhetoric for answering those who feel free to disparage my state: rather than hinting that there are yet-to-be-seen and more beautiful vistas, I’ll suggest to my interlocutors that they pull off the Interstate and take a real look at the landscape, without imposing postcard standards of beauty on a land built for other ideals. In keeping with this new rhetorical position, I’m a fan of one of Tim Siedell’s #NewNebraskaSlogans: “You Forgot About Us Again, Didn’t You?” It puts me in mind of a sign I once saw outside a small Nebraska town, the name of which I cannot recall: “We Like It Here.” It’s self-deprecating but carries a bite, polite but pointed; there are no grandiose claims, but also no apologizing. And it implies just what I hope to imply in my new rhetoric: only our lack of attention prevents us from seeing the beauty of the land. Some landscapes force their beauty upon us—in others, the beauty must be sought out. The Midwest is of the latter kind. And thus all the more worthy of notice.

A Passion for the Possible

I spend a lot of time listening to music and reading at the same time. I’m not proud of this behavior—I end up giving neither music nor book the attention it deserves—but I have an excuse: my downstairs neighbors are beginning violin students. Given the choice between being distracted by a squeaky rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or Mark O’Connor’s “Appalachia Waltz,” I choose the professional. Sometimes, however, this desperation tactic pays off, as it did recently when I read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to the accompaniment of Jakob Dylan’s album Women + Country.

I didn’t give much thought to my music selection as I started into the novel, though the spare, rootsy album felt superficially appropriate to McCarthy’s depiction of the postapocalyptic American West. I paid only occasional attention to Dylan’s lyrics as I read, but I could nonetheless sense a deeper convergence between novel and album. McCarthy’s father character, struggling to protect his son in a desolate and dangerous land, was reflected in the opening track of the album: “I give my tears and I give my blood / I’d give nothing but the whole wide world for one.” Songs like “Down on Our Own Shield,” “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” and “Everybody’s Hurting,” with their themes of struggle against desolation, resonated with the narrative of the book. Novel and album share remarkable similarities: each draws on the culture of the American West; each takes place in a desolate, postapocalyptic world; and each depicts the quest for hope in the midst of destruction. Yet despite the two works’ convergences, the signs of hope they uncover are strikingly different.

As befits McCarthy’s more intimate narrative, the sign of hope in his novel is smaller, more tenuous than Dylan’s. McCarthy’s nameless father and son are “carrying the fire,” the light of civilization, in their own bodies alone. Given the challenges they face, that fire is often a flickering candle at best. When the boy encounters another family, he asks: “Are you carrying the fire?” Joining the others, the boy himself becomes a sign of hope, carrying the fire forward into another tiny community. Two other children are members of this group, and so the fire seems to grow, ever so slightly.

The sign of hope after McCarthy’s apocalypse is closely to tied to the fragile human bodies of the novel’s protagonists. As the novel concludes, McCarthy gives us this depiction of the boy’s faith:

The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father… The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.

The boy thus begins to treat his father as a kind of saint, an intermediary between himself and God. And yet not precisely an intermediary, for there is no suggestion that the boy’s goal is to reach God through his father—indeed, the reverse might be more true. Yet this does not make the boy’s faith precisely idolatrous or sacriligious. In Christianity, arguably the primary background of both the novel and the album, God is understood as both immanent, wholly involved in the world, and transcendent, wholly other from it. Though his suffering could have driven him away from an immanent divinity—how can God be near us if he’s letting us suffer like this?—McCarthy’s boy clings to a hopeful vision of an immanent divinity. Despite his grief, for the boy the face of God remains the benevolent and intimate face of his father, and the boy’s own body remains the sign of divine hope. The Road thus allows to boy to retain hope in a loving God despite the destruction of his world.

The larger cast of characters in Dylan’s album allows Women + Country to present a more transcendent, mystical sign of hope. God is often only a distant presence, as when the farm laborers of “Everybody’s Hurting” ask “My eyes are open Lord / Where did you go, have we just left you bored?” Nonetheless, on the centerpiece of the album, “Holy Rollers for Love,” Dylan presents a vision of hope-beyond-hope, a wild and even irrational spirit discovered in a world “Filled with canteens and tear gas / From this last voyage of us.” The song’s verses are grim: “Hereafter’s bringing more funerals than fairs / And it’s a book of blank maps / That we’re using to get us there.” Directionless, humanity has brought itself to the verge of destruction, and there seems to be little hope until Dylan’s voice lifts in the gospel-tinged bridge and final chorus:

Glory glory hallelujah be warned

God is still marching, still raising his sword

Board these windows and guard your stretch of floor

Something sinister’s got you the minute you open the door.

 

With battle songs filling their lungs

Move them out down under the sun

Give them tears for cherry red blood

Stack them old, we cradle them young

World is crazy or maybe just holy rollers for love

World is crazy or maybe she’s holy rollers for love

World is crazy and making us holy rollers for love

In Dylan’s world, hope continues despite the terror and sheer unreason of divine glory. Hope is grounded in the mystery of the sufferings of the world, “making us holy rollers for love.” Divine hope is inexplicable, shining through violence and destruction to bring blessedness. Though God may be distant and inexplicable—even dangerous—hope endures not just in the flickering flame of human survival, but as a certainty that somehow, “God is still marching.” Dylan’s God is the Lord of Hosts—perhaps not as approachable as McCarthy’s father God, but a source of comfort in his power and eternal justice. Hope thus arises from the power and majesty, not the closeness, of the divine.

***

I had intended to end the essay around here. I had a nice conclusion about needing both McCarthy’s immanent and Dylan’s transcendent hope for a full picture of spirituality—true enough, as far as it goes. But having drafted the piece earlier, I intended to write my conclusion on March 10, 2011, the day massive earthquakes and tsunamis hit Japan. My wife spent two summers in Japan and we have many friends there, so we spent much of the day anxiously watching CNN and Facebook for updates. At the end of the evening, with most of our friends safely accounted for, I sat down at my computer as planned to work on the piece. As I tried to write my conclusion, writing about hope in literature and music began to feel increasingly strange. Can Cormac McCarthy really say anything to the suffering in Haiti, New Zealand, or Japan? Why bother with amusements like these? What hope can Jakob Dylan really give?

With these questions haunting me, I went rummaging through some old readings from a class on spirituality, and found an excerpt from Jürgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. Moltmann takes Kierkegaard’s phrase “a passion for the possible” to refer to a hope that is grounded in something real—a coming Kingdom which makes all our hopes possible. And for Moltmann, “the man [sic] who thus hopes will never be able to reconcile himself with the laws and constraints of this earth.” One who hopes cannot rest easy, because that person possesses a desire to see hope realized, and a belief that it can be. What profit, then, a passion for the impossible worlds of literature and music?

Again, it’s hard to see the relevance of McCarthy’s nameless fugitives or Dylan’s marching God to a situation that seems to call rather for the Red Cross. And yet “a passion for the possible” could also suggest that what we are tempted in our despair to call impossible—carrying the flame, justice rolling down—may in fact be possible after all: embracing the seeming-impossible, we hope for hope. We embrace what I might call a “prevenient hope,” riffing on a term originally used for grace. A prevenient hope would allow us to shake free of a despair which has closed off even the possibility of hope, limiting our imaginations to the realm of the actual. By enlarging the hopeful imagination, perhaps art can help in bringing us to the point from which we can begin to hope. Though prevenient hope is hardly the final virtue, neither is it merely trivial. McCarthy and Dylan, with their contrasting but hopeful visions, help keep that prevenient hope alive in me.