Zach Terrell

Zach Terrell is a writer and teacher living in New York City.

Do You Know the San Man?

In Paul Valéry’s Eupalinos; or The Architect, Socrates is walking alone on the beach. He stumbles upon an obscure object, polished and white. He can’t figure out what it is or where it came from. As he later tells Phaedrus, the seashore is a special kind of wasteland, a place of derelict things, a gathering-zone for all the detritus of a great and eternal struggle:

“This frontier between Neptune and Earth, ever disputed by those rival divinities, is the scene of the most dismal and most incessant commerce. That which the sea rejects, that which the land cannot retain, the enigmatic bits of drift; the hideous limbs of dislocated ships, black as charcoal, and looking as though charred by the salt tempests from the transparent pasture-grounds of Proteus’ flocks; collapsed monsters, of cold deathly hues; all the things, in short, that fortune delivers over to the fury of the shore, and to the fruitless litigation between the wave and beach, are there carried to and fro; raised, lowered seized, lost, seized again according to the hour and the day; sad witnesses to the indifference of the fates, ignoble treasures, playthings of an interchange as perpetual as it is stationary…

The enigmatic object Socrates finds on the shore is inscrutable but—for that very reason—captivating; he can’t even be sure whether it is the product of nature or of human craft. Bewildered by its mysterious origins, status, and purpose, bested by it, he hurls the unknowable thing back into the sea.

Socrates’ problem is the problem of waste. The world around us is filled with charred remnants and scattered filth in too many forms; too diffuse, of every size and shape and smell, ugly and unwieldy, born of every age and temperament. It seeps into every crevice, floats down every grime-choked street, pools and piles and decays in every corner of every home city and patch of wilderness. And there is always so much more of it than we can ever hope to study. When entire shipping containers filled with Nikes spilled into the sea, a beachcomber of the 1990s might have stumbled upon a shore covered in these high-priced shoes. Recent climbers of Mount Everest find piles of earlier explorers’ accumulated trash that they are obligated to carry down with them upon their return, along with their own equipment and noble fatigue.

There is no human-made object so well travelled, so ambient, as waste. It stretches from the oceans to the highest peaks. It doesn’t matter how far we “throw it away,” our waste lays thick blankets of our chemical age across the entire planet. It’s in the air, in the water, in yard sales brimming with kitsch, in houses stuffed to the rafters with rubbish, in outer space, spreading out in invisible clouds of toxic chemicals and piling up in immense mountains of garbage stacked in trash-bricks below ground at Fresh Kills or Puente Hills or a thousand other dump sites. The soil itself is part of a new genealogy, as the beaches have been remade into pastiglomerate, their sands mingled with the pulverized microplastics of our petroleum age. Even much of lower Manhattan itself is built on top of sedimented waste. The genes of sea creatures that ingest incredibly small fragments of our trash are mutating.

With our waste we have reordered space and place, yet we tend not to feel this remade world most of the time. The air mostly seems breathable, trees are still vibrant and green, squirrels appear happy and filled with energy.

Even so, if one of humankind’s dreams has put its stamp on the world, waste is the most compelling and universal way in which it has accomplished its mission. Waste comprises the wordless history of all that humankind has done or made. For us, as surely as any expert archaeologist would admit, the detritus of a civilization constitutes its most permanent and revealing record. You are what you discard.

Marking the Unmarked

Last Fall, I had the privilege of teaching an undergraduate class on waste. If you wanted to consider an object more resistant to capture, you would be hard-pressed to find one. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise for a thing we do our best to be rid of—out of sight and out of mind, they say. In this way, waste challenges our ability to adjust our contemplation of it to the proper scale. Every thought about it seems either too big or too small. So the temptation is to encompass everything, which is precisely what the class did.

We let the term spread out and away from us like an oil slick to encompass the wastage of the entire planet, the extermination of entire cultures and peoples, the wastes that make and unmake empires; massive waste and miniscule, visible and invisible. We discovered that the experience an object’s value magically transmogrifies according to arbitrary cultural whims across time (think antiques). We learned that the mechanisms of disgust and structures of morality might be closely connected. We came to understand physical humor in terms of its “wasteful” bodily motions (this is why clowns are funny and baseball players are not), and athletes in terms of their precise and “waste-less” bodily motions (this is why baseball players can hit a fastball and clowns cannot). We encountered literatures of waste in Samuel Beckett, Shakespeare, and Beowulf; poetries of waste in Wallace Stevens, James Schuyler, and A. R. Ammons; philosophies of waste in Descartes, Kant, Locke, Heidegger, and Levinas; arts of waste in Francisco de Pajaro and Mierle Laderman Ukeles. Nothing was wasted on us.

But the most memorable part of the semester was our visit to the smallest museum in New York City, a 36-square-foot abandoned freight elevator shaft in the lower regions of Manhattan, affectionately known as Mmusuemm. Founded in 2012, this self-described “modern natural history museum” presents objects and designs that “explore themes of daily human existence, social issues, and current events.”

mmusuem

While Socrates was unable to deal with the uncanny thinghood of the object he discovered on the beach in Valéry’s story, Mmuseumm reacts to the same situation with surprise and wonder. It takes objects normally caught in the web of insignificant cultural everydayness, like a cornflake, elevates it to curatorial status, and asks questions: What, sociologically, are the biographical possibilities inherent in its “status” and in the period and culture, and how are these possibilities realized? Where does the thing come from and who made it? What has been its career so far, and what do people consider to be an ideal career for such things? How does the thing’s use change with its age, and what happens to it when it reaches the end of its usefulness?

What Mmuseumm is doing could be considered anti-archaeology, a reversal of the discipline of digging through old stuff considered to be valuable to old people. Instead, Mmuseumm digs through new stuff considered to be meaningless to existing populations. (By the way, we’re the first culture to be able to do this; the first feckless consumers to have an eternal standing reserve of junk piles from which to pluck an object for anti-archaeological scrutiny. Thanks, capitalism.) If Igor Kopytoff were still alive, he would surely be delighted to see his 1986 call for a “cultural biography of things” coming to life in the heart of a city too busy to give anything besides ambition a worry, never mind cornflakes.

Throughout the semester, the questions that caught our imagination were especially vivid at Mmuseumm. What we encountered there gave us new eyes. It gave us an analytically nomadic perspective that observes social phenomena from the vantage point of the stuff we take for granted. In this way, the two hours we spent in that 36 square feet ruminating over, for instance, the incommensurability of cornflake shapes, or, how discarding a piece of chewing gum relates to biological surveillance, etc., perfectly captured what I had intended for the class: to reverse conventional patterns of markedness to foreground what typically remains unnamed and implicit.

There’s a piece on display at the new Whitney Museum of American Art that expresses how unmarkedness extends not just to objects, but to people. In the words of the museum, Fred Wilson’s Guarded View

“aggressively confronts viewers with four black headless mannequins dressed as museum guards. Each figure wears a uniform, dating to the early 1990s, from one of four New York City cultural institutions: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. Despite this specificity, the faceless mannequins underscore the anonymity expected of security personnel, who are tasked with protecting art and the public while remaining inconspicuous and out of view. Wilson himself worked as a museum guard in college, and explained: “[There’s] something funny about being a guard in a museum. You’re on display but you’re also invisible.” He challenges this dynamic by placing these ordinarily unnoticed figures at the center of our attention, pointing to the hidden power relations and social codes that structure our experience of museums.

Just as objects are given value, so are labors. And just as objects disappear into their everydayness, so do laborers. Whither the garbage man? Generally, we expect all of the individualized and uncollected waste to be mobile, wayward, like a tumbleweed or like the infamous plastic bag in American Beauty. At the same time, we hope or expect that our waste will be properly collected and housed, “secured,” as at Freshkills where everything should look green and tamped down for a good long while, or so we hope, all with nary a second thought about how this transition transpires. Or, more specifically, who is involved. What is the status of the sanitation worker? Who takes the job? What is the work like, on the street or in the dump?

Picking Up

In “La Poubelle Agréée,” a long essay about taking out the garbage, Italian journalist and essayist Italo Calvino describes the process of taking his trash. As his household garbage to is taken by garbage workers, this transforms his waste from the private to the public sphere. For Calvino, this is a kind of ritual gesture that reminds him of the importance of a social compact—what most of us call civilization. As Calvino tells us, he takes out his trash every day as a natural concern for hygiene, and so that on waking up the following morning, he may begin his day fresh and new. In the process, he valorizes the garbage man. Sanitation workers, he says, are “emissaries of the chthonic world, gravediggers of the inanimate…heralds of a possible salvation beyond the destruction inherent in all production and consumption, liberators from the weight of time’s detritus, ponderous dark angels of lightness and clarity.”

picking up

Anthropologist Robin Nagle takes up Calvino’s mantle in her 2013 book Picking Up: On The Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. Acting as the resident anthropologist for the New York Sanitation Department, Nagle chronicles the city’s relationship to garbage in meticulous detail. But the burden of Nagle’s book isn’t just to make us curious about garbage or lead us to ask in that hollow way, “Wow, where does it all go?” Nor does is it ever deliver itself over as a sort of subtle judgment on the fact that we do not, in fact, care about the answer. Rather, just as Mmuseumm elevates mundane objects with an almost sacred appeal, and as Calvino valorizes the sanitation worker, Nagle is also interested in marking the unmarked:

“This is a story that unfolds along the curbs, edges, and purposely forgotten quarters of a great metropolis. Some of the narrative is common to cities around the world, but this tale is particular to New York. It centers on the people who confront the problem that contemporary bureaucratic language calls municipal solid waste. It’s a story I’ve been discovering over the past several years, and from many perspectives.

Like any good anthropologist, Nagle takes “perspective” very seriously. So seriously that she takes it upon herself not just to study garbage collection, but to be a garbage collector. “The best way to learn about their work was to do it with them,” she says, “a notion that eventually inspired me to get hired as a san worker.” After a number of years trying to infiltrate the notoriously (and necessarily) opaque institution of the New York Sanitation Department, and after many more months of harsh and complicated testing and training, she was able to put on the uniform and hit the streets. Immediately, she noticed that san workers are merely obstacles to be skirted.

“When I worked parade cleanups in warm weather, I quickly learned that it was useless to ask bystanders who lingered against the barricades to move back just a little. The coarse bristles of my hand broom were going to scrape their sandaled feet, but even when I stood directly in front of them saying “Excuse me” over and over, they didn’t see or hear me. It’s not that they were ignoring me: I was never a part of their awareness in the first place.

Uniforms in general change the way any worker is perceived. The man or woman wearing a uniform becomes the Police Officer or the Firefighter, the Soldier, the Doctor, the Chef, or, as in the case of Fred Wilson, the Museum Guard. Individuality is subsumed by the role that the clothing implies. But the sanitation worker is more than just subsumed by a role. Because of the mundane, constant, and largely successful nature of the work, the uniform (the official color, according to Nagle, is spruce) acts as a cloaking device. It erases them. Says Nagle,

“He doesn’t carry guns or axes, no one begs for him in a 911 call, he is not expected to step into crisis, to soothe an emergency, to rescue innocents. Instead, his truck and his muscle punctuate the rhythms of a neighborhood at such regular intervals that he becomes a kind of informal timepiece.

Invisibility is a strange quality to possess for an occupation that is so important. Average New Yorkers probably know about the smell and the noise involved in the job, and maybe the maggots and the rats (there are plenty of both). They might even be able to guess at the scale of the task: fewer than 10,000 sanitation employees contending with 11,000 tons of household trash and 2,000 tons of recycling on average every day. But the true nature of the job, its danger and its importance, is less well known. If sanitation workers aren’t out there, the city

“becomes unlivable, fast. Before problems of rubbish and street cleaning were solved, much of New York was infamously filthy. Thousands upon thousands of people who had no choice but to endure streets shin-deep in all manner of debris, whose homes were airless rooms with lightless cellars, died in extravagant numbers of diseases that even back then were largely preventable.

Effective garbage collection and street cleaning are primary necessities if urban dwellers are to be safe from the pernicious effects of their own detritus. When garbage lingers too long on the streets, vermin thrive, disease spreads, and city life becomes dangerous in ways not common in the developed world for more than a century. It is thus an especially puzzling irony that the first line of defense in any city’s ability to ensure basic health and well-being of its citizenry is so persistently unseen. By extension, Nagle’s first-hand account on the matter is both illuminating and alarming. Do you know the garbage man?

The claim to the centrality of sanitation work extends beyond just public health. San workers are also, according to Nagle, key players in maintaining the most basic rhythms of capitalism. If consumed goods can’t be discarded, the space they occupy remains full, and new good can’t become part of the market or household. This may be a simplistic description of a dense and complex set of processes, but the fundamental reality is straightforward: used-up stuff must be thrown out for new stuff to have a place.

Contemporary habits of consumption and disposal represent a use of time that has no historical precedent. Nagle is careful to make the connection: “We depend on our ability to move fast, and so assume the briefest relationships with coffee cups, shopping bags, packaging of all kinds—encumbrances we must shed quickly so that we can maintain what I call our average necessary quotidian velocity.” By this logic, sanitation workers are absolutely central to our physical well-being as residents of a metropolis and to our sense of proper citizenship within a hyper-paced world, even while the work of sanitation remains bluntly unknown.

You and I take out the trash. Sanitation workers take care of what happens next, and that’s when the danger gets real. Nagle recounts how Michael Bloomberg, in discussing labor negotiations during his first mayoral campaign in 2001, suggested that “being a sanitation worker in this day and age is more dangerous than being a policeman or a fireman.” The comment was considered a gaffe, and the response was furious. But it turns out he was right.

“Collecting refuse has long been known to be dirty, strenuous work,” notes economist Dino Drudi in a study for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Less well known is that it is among the most deadly occupations.” He calculates that compared to all job categories measured, refuse work has “10 times the overall on-the-job fatality rate.” At this point, Nagle recounts several horrific collection-related stories. One involves a bowling ball. Another involves hydrofluoric acid. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say, there is no 21-gun salute for a san worker.

Not unlike the willingly ignorant modern lives we’re living outside the purview of the problem of waste, New Yorkers know none of this. We put our garbage out and think the Garbage Fairies make it all go away. Little do we know, the Garbage Fairies wear dark green uniforms, drive loud white trucks, and lift, in some districts, their share of twenty tons of trash every day; whose families must adjust to a schedule that allows two days off just once every two weeks; who, when they are junior hires, find out only at the end of one shift when and where their next shift starts, which can bounce them all over the clock and sometimes all over the city for weeks, months, even years; who, unlike Socrates, find something useful to do with the detritus that constantly “washes up”; who spend their working hours handling heavy machinery and stepping in and out of traffic; and who suffer an array of debilitating and sometimes deadly injuries. Regardless of their time on the job, the families who depend on them, the specific assignments they take, the physical pains they endure, or their crucial role in the city’s well-being, as soon as the Garbage Fairies put on that uniform, it’s as if they cease to exist.

This has bothered Nagle for a long time. Thanks to Picking Up, it has the chance to bother us too. 

Quicklink Friday | 8.16.13

Flatland
“Do artists and curators need to be included in physical exhibition spaces in order to create income-generating reputations, or could their presence on a particular curated website offer the same art-world imprimatur?”
Loney Abrams, The New Inquiry

Hell is Other Gamers
What matters in life? Sadie Stein on a new video game that forces you to choose.
Sadie Stein, The Paris Review

The XYZ of Hearing: The Squid’s Ink
“I went into medicine because I love poetry.”
Laura Manuelidis, Poetry Magazine

Our Expirement in Criticism
Former Curator editor Alissa Wilkinson, now Christianity Today’s chief film critic, reflects on what they’re trying to do.
Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today

History as Wall Art
“‘What does history look like? How do you draw time?'”
Alan Jacobs, The New Atlantis

Why aren’t religious people as creative as unbelievers?
“[B]land art just doesn’t do it for me. But neither does the blasted, lonely life of a countercultural rebel who despises religion and tradition. I want both real meaning and real creativity.”
Connor Wood, Patheos

Have You Ever Tried to Sell a Poem on Craigslist?
The case of poet (and Curator editor) Aaron Belz’s curious, witty entrepreneurial spirit, and its place in the world of poetry today.
Micah Mattix, The Atlantic

Teenager Tackles Autism with Help from Google Glass
The hopeful benefits of face-tracking tools.
Cade Metz, Wired

When Einstein Met Tagore
The historic encounter (and convergence) between two great thinkers.
Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

Bursting the Neuro-Utopian Bubble
“Pyschosocial problems cannot simply be solved in the neuroscientist’s lab.”
Benjamin Fong, New York Times

Book Review: Faith, Hope and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination
“What makes Guite’s work striking is his claim that poetry has the capacity to redress our post-Enlightenment reductivism by offering not merely an illustrative assist, but rather a “transformed vision,” with poetry being a carrier of a type of knowledge in its own right.”
Robert Covolo, Themelios

Longread: Do Elephants Have Souls?
Behold, the longest most enjoyable exploration of elephantoid soul-hood you’ll ever read.
Caitrin Nicol, The New Atlantis

Quicklink Friday | 8.9.13

Epistemology of Lists
“I’ve come to think of the list as a particular epistemology, a way of thinking with unique qualities.”
Adam Rothstein, The State

O.K., Glass
Author Gary Shteyngart explores the world with Google Glass.
Gary Shteyngart, The New Yorker

George Saunders’s Advice to Graduates
“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”
Joel Lovell, New York Times Magazine

Beauty and the Enlivening of the Russian Literary Imagination
A much needed origin-tracing of the phrase “beauty will save the world.”
Glenn A. Davis, The Imaginative Conservative

Science is Not Your Enemy: An impassioned plea to neglected novelists, embattled professors, and tenure-less historians
“Many of our cultural institutions cultivate a philistine indifference to science.”
Steven Pinker, The New Republic

The Scientism of Steven Pinker
“If [what Pinker described] is scientism then obviously no sensible person should have a problem with it.”
Ross Douthat, New York Times

UPDATE: Now Noah Millman has joined the conversation.

Mumford & Sons: Hopeless Wanderer
Self-parody at its finest.

Colin McGinn: Not the Only Masturbating Philosopher
Observations on the sometimes abhorrent masculinity of philosophy.
Nathan Schneider, Religion Dispatches

What Love Looks Like
Six micro-movies on the physics of love.
Tangible Graphics

How to Refer to the Milky Way Across the Globe
How different parts of the world refer to our home galaxy.
Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic

Throw Like a Girl
The story of a new pro softball team, and how what they’re doing is “more than just a ball game.”
Ben McGrath

cf. Iris Young’s influential feminist essay from the 80’s

ICYMI, Philip Roth, The Art of Fiction No. 84
“In an enormous commercial society that demands complete freedom of expression, the culture is maw.”
Hermione Lee, The Paris Review, Fall 1984

ICYMI, The Moral Economy of Guilt
“The curious process by which notions of sin and guilt have become both illusory and omnipresent.”
Wilfred M. McClay, First Things [Ed. note: this is a personal favorite.]

What Makes a Good Book

For those of us who tend to read the same sort of stuff over and over again, I give you Marcel Proust on what makes a good book:

So it is that a well-read man [or woman] will at once begin to yawn with boredom when one speaks to him of a new ‘good book,’ because he imagines a sort of composite of all the good books that he has read, whereas a good book is something special, something unforeseeable, and is made up not of the sum of all previous masterpieces but of something which the most thorough assimilation of every one of them would not enable him to discover, since it exists not in their sum but beyond it.

De-Privatizing Poetry

A great run-on sentence from one W. B. Yeats encouraging us to think of the reading of poetry not only as a solemn, pious activity but as a public, formative, communal exercise:

“Some day the few among us who care for poetry more than any temporal thing, and who believe that its delights cannot be perfect when we read it alone in our rooms and long for one to share its delights, but that they might be perfect in the theatre, when we share them friend with friend, lover with beloved, will persuade a few idealists to seek out the lost art of speaking, and seek out ourselves the lost art, that is perhaps nearest of all arts to eternity, the subtle art of listening.”

 

Curator Quicklink Friday | 8.2.13

The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema
“Frank Capra said, ‘Film is a disease.’ I caught the disease early on. I felt it whenever I walked up to the ticket booth with my mother or my father or my brother.
Martin Scorcese, New York Review of Books

A Contribution to the Critique of John Mayer
“John Mayer does not merely live. He also has not been executed.”
Evan Calder Williams, The New Inquiry

Eyelid Lick By Donald Lumbar
“A book-length poem defiling any preconceived notions of poetry collections.”
David Peak, The Rumpus

This Charming Man
“How the hell can you transfer the misery of the Trayvon Martin case to Jay Z and his dopey new album?”
Sasha Frere-Jones, New Yorker

Faith in Fiction
“I’m sick of Flannery O’Connor. I’m also sick of Walker Percy, G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Dostoevsky.”
Randy Boyagoda, First Things

ICYMI: Wes Anderson’s Worlds
“From Rushmore to Moonrise Kingdom, Wes Anderson’s films readily, even eagerly, concede the ‘miniature’ quality of the worlds he builds, in their set design and camera-work, in their use of stop-motion, maps, and models. And yet these miniatures span continents and decades. They comprise crime, adultery, brutality, suicide, the death of a parent, the drowning of a child, moments of profound joy and transcendence.”
Michael Chabon, New York Review of Books

The Voice of Ireland: An Interview with Writer Kevin Barry
“[W]riters need to eat! Part of the problem I feel with modern technology is that everyone expects artists to work for free; and if they do express a desire to get paid, this somehow connotes that they are opportunistic scumbags not totally devoted to their art, and so on.”
T.J. Logan, Wunderkammer Magazine

Norm McDonald’s Weird, Wonderful Twitter Book Club
“[H]e’s so well read he puts your old English lit professor to shame.”
Stuart Thomson, Ballast

Charles Rosen’s Lost Masterpiece
“Charles Rosen’s intellectual grasp of music was peerless.”
Jim Holt, New York Review of Books

Curator Quicklink Friday | 7.26.13

Why Fiction Matters: An interview with George Saunders
“For me, the process of writing is always to move away from the abstract and toward the embodied. The fiction writer’s job, as I see it, is to make a vivid representation of life as he’s known it.”
Kevin Spinale, America

‘This Did Something Powerful to Me’: Authors’ Favorite First Lines of Books
Jonathan Franzen, Margaret Atwood, David Gilbert, Roxane Gay, and other writers share their thoughts on what makes an inviting and memorable opening sentence.
Joe Fassler, The Atlantic

‘Camp Grounded,’ ‘Digital Detox,’ and the Age of Techno-Anxiety
“Which effects are *caused by* the technologies and which are *enabled by* the technologies and which just happen to *occur through* the technologies?”
Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic

Saving Italy, by Robert M. Edsel – a review
Two responses to art in wartime: the knife and the kiss.
Andro Linklater, The Spectator

Drinks With David Sedaris
Sedaris, on his creative process: “Oh gosh. I just get up right in the morning and go right to my desk first thing. And I keep a notebook. I’ve been on this tour since April 2. A different city every day.”
Timshel Matheny, Paste

#GrowCurator Campaign: Update 2 – Donation Perks

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Dearest readers,

We had a ton of fun coming up with all the perks you’ll get in return for donating to our #GrowCurator Campaign. We’re especially excited about putting together the first ever “Best of The Curator” print anthology, complete with original graphics, editorials, and featuring a collection of our favorite essays from the past five years of Curator. Below is a list of other perks you get for donating! Check ’em out and don’t forget to head over to our Indiegogo page to donate!

  • A personal thank-you from the editors with your name published on the Curator website so that everyone will see how cool you are!
  • A copy of editor-in-chief Aaron Belz’s new collection of poems, Glitter Bomb, hot off the press!
  • A copy of Mako Fujimura’s beautiful graphic autobiography, River Grace.
  • A copy of the forthcoming print anthology, “Best of The Curator, 2008-2013″.
  • “Best of The Curator, 2008-2013″ WITH YOUR NAME in the acknowledgments. Immortalization!
  • “Best of The Curator, 2008-2013″ with your name in the acknowledgments SIGNED by Aaron Belz and Mako Fujimura.
  • 50% off the International Arts Movement’s INHABIT Conference in October!
  • 100% FREE registration for the INHABIT Conference in October

Zach Terrell,
Asst. Editor
@zachterrell

DONATE HERE

#GrowCurator Campaign: Donors

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We owe a huge thank you to the following people for graciously donating resources to the #GrowCurator campaign:

Anonymous – $125
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Anonymous – $10
Anonymous – $35
Anonymous – $125
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Anonymous – $125
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Adam Race
Natalie Whitaker
Matthew Terrell
Win Bassett
Dimitra
Matt Connor
Lorraine Benini
Christopher Cohoon
Joyce Wong
Bria Sandford
Zak Bronson
Julie Silander
Chris Nystrom
Lillian Goudas
Carolyn Givens
Matt Wood
Alaina Hohnarth
Mary McCampbell
Bijan Mortolooi
Cindy Terrell
Nathan Terrell
Gavin French
George Anderson
John Hardy
Celinda Sorenson
Gordon Dinwoodie
Susanna Chang
Chet Mancini
Lucas Kwong
Orval Noble
Benjamin Dolson
Peter Candler
Brendan Dixon
Deborah Ritchey
Jenni Simmons
Andrea Avery
Anke Claasen Hass
John Abraham-Watne
Matthew Ballou
Grace Joetama
Steve Taylor
Kimberly Hyatt
Sheryl Root
Adam Joyce
Jamie & Deanna Smith
Sarah Barton
Daniel Telles
Kristina Erni
Dianne Collard
Katie Walker
Gordon Dinwoodie
Chris & Barbara Giammona
Carol Frederick
Rosie P.
Christopher Yokel
Aaron Belz
Meaghan Ritchey
Zach Terrell

It’s not too late for you to donate, too! Please help make Curator a sustainable and serious journal!

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#GrowCurator Campaign: Introduction

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Lovely readers,

I’ll be straight: the budget under which The Curator has been working for the last five years is…jaw-dropping. That is, for those of you who know anything about what it’s like to publish a consistent and relevant journal in the world today, you’ll know that ~$3,000/annum is, uh, beyond meager.

We aren’t complaining, though. Heck, we love what we do; for us, The Curator is one of those rare places Frederick Buechner talks about where our “deep gladness” continues to meet “the world’s deep hunger.” That being said, we’ve decided The Curator deserves a better version of itself, for everyone’s sake. Our writers and editors deserve better care and compensation. (Side note: I myself have not received a penny in a year’s work). Our readers deserve more and better content and an expanded vision. Even beyond that, we’re utterly convinced there are artists and geniuses out there scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it, and they deserve more and better attention. With your help, we can continue celebrating them. And, by golly, there’s some really cool stuff you will get in return! Check out our INDIEGOGO CAMPAIGN for the special perks you’ll receive for donating, and stay tuned for updates!

Zach Terrell,
Asst. Editor
@zachterrell

DONATE HERE

Curator Quicklink Friday | 7.19.13

D.H. Tracy and the Role of the Poet-Critic
“I would guess that if you hired a left-brainiac economist to analyze “the present situation of poetry,” he or she would find that the dynamics of the system match those of an economy with overwhelming quantities of counterfeit money in it.”
D.H. Tracy, Contemporary Poetry Review

Mozart vs. The Beatles
“We may say, ‘You can’t argue about taste,’ but when it comes to art we care about, we almost always do.”
Gary Gutting, New York Times

11 Things I’m Trying To Do in Order To Achieve a Sane, Healthy, and Marginally Productive Relationship With the Internet
“1. Don’t wake up with the Internet. … 11. Don’t go to bed with the Internet.”
Mike Sacacas, The Frailest Thing

Archbishop Justin Welby: ‘I was embarrassed. It was like getting measles’
“At Eton, he had ‘vaguely assumed there was a God. But I didn’t believe. I wasn’t interested at all.’ That night in Cambridge, though, praying with a Christian friend, he suddenly felt ‘a clear sense of something changing, the presence of something that had not been there before in my life. I said to my friend, ‘Please don’t tell anyone about this’, because I was desperately embarrassed.”
Charles Moore, The Telegraph

Laughter Without Humor: On the Laugh-Loop GIF
Laughter as “a material force unbound by the taxonomies of humor, and the limitations of the human.”
Fran McDonald, The Atlantic

Curator Quicklink Friday | 7.12.13

This Violin is Worth $3.5 Million Why? Why do we see some things as precious and others as worthless? A journey through the secret world of fine violins in search of the meaning of value
“Of the 6 billion people on the planet, there are perhaps four men whose knowledge of rare violins is so vast and deep that their opinion of an antique instrument can set its market worth.”
Jon Gertner, CNN

Philosophy Versus Science: A Fight Where We All Lose
“There is no conflict between philosophy and science, only between some philosophers and some scientists.”
Tim Dean, Wonder

On the Philosophy of Google Glass
“Glass is not a technology that is designed to amplify our own innate abilities as humans or to make us better as humans, but rather one that acts as a crutch to lean on in place of exercising the very thing that makes us human.”
Kyle Baxter, Tightwind

Biola University launches new center for Christianity and the arts
Mike Boehm, LA Times

An Evangelical Renaissance in Academe?
“[E]vangelical Christians have been shedding their ‘fundamentalist baggage’ and reclaiming a place within deeper traditions of Christian learning and at the table of American cultural life.”
Thomas Albert Howard & Karl W. Giberson, Inside Higher Ed

The Secular Society
“When faith is a matter of personal choice, even believers experience much more doubt. As James K.A. Smith of Comment Magazine…put it, ‘We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.'”
David Brooks, NY Times

Book Reviews:
Icons and the Name of God
TJ Kaethler, Transpositions

A Complex Delight
Preston Yancey, Transpositions

Can Song Lyrics Be Considered Poetry?

“[W]hether lyrics are poetry is a question that doesn’t require an answer—or has too many to bother with,” says Michael Robbins in the Chicago Tribune. In all likelihood, he’s right. So for that, we can just relax and have fun with Mr. Robbins’ quick exploration of the topic (assuming we’re able to overlook the Joanna Newsom comment) where he really lets Christopher Ricks answer for him:

This is the most significant way in which songs differ from poems — they’re intended to be heard, while poems for some time have been written primarily for the eye. As Christopher Ricks puts it in his brilliant and annoying “Dylan’s Visions of Sin,” “the eye can always simply see more than it is reading, looking at; the ear cannot, in this sense (given what the sense of hearing is), hear a larger span than it is receiving. This makes the relation of an artist like Dylan to song and ending crucially different from the relation of an artist like Donne or Larkin to ending.

If that’s too general a question and answer for you, try “How Ya Like Me Now?”, a more refined piece I saw over at Poetry Foundation not long ago considering whether or not hip hop’s suspended adolescence keeps it from serious consideration:

If rap is mainly a genre for and by adolescents, it is largely because its notion of artistic self-assertion is an adolescent one—a fight for status in a closed hierarchy. A little of this kind of spiritedness may be healthy for art—contemporary poetry could use a dose of it—but the Anthology of Rap demonstrates that it’s not until this striving is sublimated and turned inward, becoming a struggle for truth and beauty, that an art grows up.

So, what do you think?

Curator Quicklink Friday | 7.5.13

The New Theist
“How William Lane Craig became Christian philosophy’s boldest apostle.”
Nathan Schneider, Chronicle of Higher Education

Bill Craig and the Story of Christian Academics
In reply to the above article: “There’s a major difference between [William Lane Craig] being prominent and well respected within the community of intellectuals and [William Lane Craig] being well recognized outside of that community.”
Josh Stein, Philosotroll

The Gospel According to ‘Me’
“The search for authenticity is an obsession that is futile at best and destructive at worst.”
Simon Critchley, The NY Times

Sex Without Bodies
“What unites the LGBTQIA coalition is a conviction that [bodies are irrelevant].”
Andy Crouch, Christianity Today

How Do Bodies Matter?
In reply to the above article: “It’s not that bodies are ‘irrelevant’ for gay people—otherwise gay men wouldn’t be attracted to men!—but it’s that having a male body is, for gay-affirming Christian theology, taken to be irrelevant when it comes to discerning whether it’s ethical for me to have sex with another man (or men).”
Wesley Hill, First Things

Commerce and Art
“A negative view of commerce remains the dominant view in the Irish and British literary world.”
Steven Miller, The Weekly Standard

The Walls Come Tumbling Down
A look at the rise of immersive theater.
Diep Tran, Theatre Communications Group

The Two Best “Cookbooks” You’ll Ever Own

What I wouldn’t give to have dinner with these two gentleman…

lamb

Robert Farrar Capon ~ The Supper of the Lamb

Besides offering the best excuse you’ll ever come across for not going on a diet (“It costs more to diet than to get fat”), The Supper of the Lamb has a hell of an organizing principle: to walk the reader through a wildly complicated recipe for, you guessed it, lamb, while brandishing a rather lavish theology of creation along the way.

Why do we marry, why take friends and lovers, why give ourselves to music, painting, chemistry, or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. Half of the earth’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become. For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is an outlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself—and it is our glory to see it so and thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last. We were given appetites, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great.

It’s still on my bucket list (and probably always will be) to read The Supper of the Lamb aloud to my friends as we prepare Capon’s recipe—and while we’re at it let’s go ahead and throw in that Babette’s Feast will be muted in the background.

 

88673

Leon Kass ~ The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature

“Be forewarned,” says author Leon Kass, “you have picked up a strange book.” Strange indeed, and not for everyone. But I assure you, it’s fascinating. And why should we expect anything less of someone who has spent several years as a practicing medical doctor, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago (that’s right, science and philosophy), and, among other things, as a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics? Suffice it to say, if Kass is as boundless a cook as he is a thinker, he’ll be the first one with an invitation to my lamb dinner party.

The Artist’s Ambition

Here’s something that may make you bite your fist. (Feel free to substitute “artist” with just about any job or vocation you care about enough to do well):

One must have devotion to be an artist, and there’s no way of minimizing its cost. But still, just as in religious contexts, there is a kind of devotion that is, at its heart, escape. …

If you’ve never been consumed by an art, it might seem strange to think of it in these terms—as an antithesis to life, almost, or at least as a kind of parasite. But the fact is, art can compromise, even in some way neutralize, the very experience upon which it depends. If to be an artist is to be someone upon whom nothing is lost…then it follows that to be an artist is to be in some permanent sense professionally detached. An artist is conscious of always standing apart from life, and one of the results of this can be that you begin to feel most intensely what you have failed to feel: a certain emotional reserve in one’s life becomes a source of great power in one’s work. …

Given all this, it’s not surprising that some religious poets have felt a difficult tension between their devotion to art and their devotion to God. [Gerard Manley] Hopkins actually renounced poetry for a number of years. His reason was that poetry wasn’t consistent enough with the seriousness of his vocation, but you don’t need to read much Hopkins to realize that the real reason was that the intensity of his creative experiences competed with the intensity of his religious experiences, and he felt himself presented with a stark choice. … Though Herbert sometimes linked poetry to God and experienced grace through words, he was conscious of some secular element at the very heart of making art, some necessary imaginative flair in himself that needed to be subdued, or at least tidied up and made fit for sacrifice. …

I once believed in some notion of a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than for oneself. But now? If a poet’s ambition were truly for the work and nothing else, he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making, but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self—except for that terrible, blissful feeling at the heart of creation itself, when all thought of your name is obliterated and all you want is the poem, to be the means wherein something of reality, perhaps even something of eternity, realizes itself. That is noble ambition.

Art needs some ultimate concern[.]

~ Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss

Does America Lack Sacred Space?

According to David Bentley Hart, American religion is a “poltergeist”, a force

capable of moving material realities about, often unpredictably and even alarmingly, and yet possessing no proper, stable material form of its own. American religion lacks the imposing structures of culture, law, and public worship the Christendom evolved over the centuries, but its energy is almost impossible to contain. It has no particular social place, yet it is everywhere.

While there is some advantage in the absence of strong institutional organization, at least in certain circumstances, and despite the fact that “faith often thrives best when it is largely unaccommodated, roaming on its own in wild places,” the formlessness of American religious life, according to Hart, does greatly degenerate its aesthetic influence:

[T]here is no American equivalent of Sacré-Cœur [pictured above]: some consecrated space haunted by the glories and failures of a deep past, ennobled and burdened by antique hopes and fantasies, emblematic of an ancient people’s whole spiritual story, but also eloquent of spiritual disappointment and the waning of faith. There are places of local memory, especially in the South, but their scope is rather severely circumscribed. America’s churches, when they are not merely serviceable clapboard meeting-houses or tents of steel and glass, are mostly just imitations of European originals: imported, transplanted, always somewhat out of place. They tell us practically nothing about America itself, and even less about whatever numerous presences might be hovering overhead. … American religion is…a style of faith remarkably lacking in material forms. … It has a spirituality that…makes very little contribution to the aesthetic surface of American life. American religion does almost nothing to create a shared high culture, to enrich the lives of ordinary persons with the loveliness of sacred public spaces, to erect a few durable bulwarks against the cretinous barbarity of late modern popular culture, or to enliven the physical order with intimations of transcendent beauty. With its nearly absolute separation between inward conviction and outward form, it is largely content to surrender the surrounding world to utilitarian austerity.

Suffice it to say according to Hart it remains an open, albeit age-old question the kind of impact a largely formless American religious economy can have over American aesthetic life write large.

Read Hart’s entire essay here, or here.

UPDATE: Last Thursday Christianity Today ran a piece on suburbs and sacred space to which Alan Jacobs responded. Seen anything else? Have any thoughts?

Imagination au Pouvoir!

To give up on the naïveté of romanticism would be to give up on a form of resistance to what Wallace Stevens calls ‘the pressure of reality’. It would lead to the complete privatization of literature and all artistic production; it would be the end of philosophy understood as the imaginative effort to link the public and the private; it would lead to the total bureaucratization or professionalization of politics and the banalization of everyday life. To say the very least, such is the risk of the contemporary situation, where we are living through what Stevens called ‘a leaden time’, what Heidegger called ‘a time of dearth’ and Wittgenstein called ‘the dearth and darkness of this time’. Romantic naïveté is the resistance of the philosophical, poetic and political imagination to our somewhat chastening contemporary circumstances. Knowing itself to be naïve, romanticism is still, I believe, the most plausible response to nihilism. Romantic naïveté is the consciousness of the tranquilized bustle and the anemic pallor of everyday life, and the attempt to resist the disenchantment of the everyday with the violence of the imagination — imagination au pouvoir!

~ Simon Critchley, Very Little, Almost Nothing

A Surprising Source of Wisdom for Faith-Based Filmmakers

Square. Anal-retentive. Pedantic. Frothy.

Such are not the words you expect to hear of someone with wisdom to offer the world of art. Yet…

Rick Santorum has accepted the position as CEO of EchoLight, a studio which to date has churned out the kind of saccharine schmaltz we’ve come to expect from faith-based film. Alyssa Rosenburg has dug up some evidence, however, that may prove Santorum to be the right person for the job:

“In a 2011 speech at the Heritage Foundation, the senator urged Christian conservatives to get involved in popular culture,” she reports. “’The problem in the past is that you have these people who create these Christian films—great message, terrible acting, horrible editing,’ Santorum said. ‘They are not entertaining, they’re preachy.’ In that speech, he said that conservatives needed to go to Hollywood. But “’Dallas can become the Hollywood of the faith-and-family movie market,’ he said Monday.”

Yeah. Here’s to better filmmaking. Cf., in order of increasing meta-relevance, William Romanowski, Andy Crouch, James Davison Hunter.

Read the rest of Rosenburg’s thoughts here.

photo by: Gage Skidmore

On Doing Something Interesting

“I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do. I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith by one human being to another. I want to believe there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it. I miss civilization, and I want it back.”

~ Marilynne Robinson

Amen! If the world is to be filled with beautiful things, it will be because it first has the expectation that such things are worth it. Here’s to all the Ms. Robinson’s waiting for us to do something interesting. Let’s impress them today.

A Very Brief Taxonomy of Doubt

Note from the author: The following was not originally intended for an audience. After a series of winding email conversations in which a couple of trusted friends graciously allowed me to “process” what many would call a “season of doubt”, I decided to write down a few things I had learned. I wanted it to be something I could always come back to, a kind of highly assertive “Don’t forget this, you idiot” kind of thing. The result surprised me. And helped me. Perhaps it will help some of you, too.

—————————————————————————————————————————

There are three kinds of doubt and two are constantly at work in you.

The first kind of doubt is conscious-linguistic, and is the least pervasive. This is the kind of doubt involved in reflexive, conscious decisions over such issues as whether to believe in God, or if Santa is really the one eating your cookies, such that you can verbalize your opinion.

The second kind of doubt is similarly intellectual, but less conscious, and more pervasive. As Marilynn Robinson explains: “Every higher act of the mind, intellectual, aesthetic, or moral, is, paradoxically, also an exercise in self-doubt, self-scrutiny. We continuously stand apart from ourselves, appraising.”(1) This doubt is the existential expression of this continuous appraisal—the expression of the possibility of opposites. It is the endless dialectic of the mind, intangible and unseen. It is always happening and naturally encourages a forward motion, a synthesis of the known into the next. It liberates the human imagination, like the invitation found in various moments of “not knowing” that marks a break with your ingrained habits of thought. It opens up novel possibilities of meaning, piercing the illusion that you see the world directly.

The third kind of doubt is experiential. It is “ontologically prior” to the former two, meaning it happens first and is far more pervasive in everyday life. This is the doubt involved in the most basic, bodily levels of human experience. It is the doubt of craft and poiesis, of the artisan and the athlete whose every move is made against countless other possibilities. But it is also the everyday doubt of choosing between different pairs of socks or cereals, and is the doubt that guides you through traffic in a car or on a sidewalk. This doubt is the expression of inculcated practices, your “primordial familiarity” or way of doing things without having to think about them. Everything you do stands in relief against what you don’t do and is a function of this experiential, embodied doubt.

None of these forms of doubt are an enemy to faith, at least not of themselves, nor are they faith’s parasitic appendage. They are faith’s quiet conversation partners—preludes to genuine faith, preceding all the characteristics of Christian living that express themselves as humility. “I’m sorry” begins in doubt, as does repentance, or any change of mind. It creates a disposition in you to give and receive. It opens up conceptual space, giving you the chance to nullify old conceptual maps, propelling you into uncharted regions, outlandish and bracing, where you must create coordinates more capacious than the ones you already knew.

Your faith has a different kind of enemy.

If irony is doubt’s playful cousin, and skepticism its cautious older brother, cynicism is doubt’s evil twin.

Cynicism is paralyzing doubt. It is doubt for the sake of doubt, a dysfunctional endless regression that will eat you up whole. Cynicism identifies everything by reference to the framework of total skepticism. By seeing through everything, it sees nothing at all. It’s over-enhanced doubt, folding in on itself like a nightmare version of Martin Luther’s “inward turn.” But—crucially—cynicism is not something that happens at the conscious-linguistic level, like the first kind of doubt. Rather, it’s more like an “affective orientation” operating at the same unconscious level as the second and third kinds of doubt—like a pre-reflective hardening of your guts.

Cynicism expresses itself as wisdom, a better-than, a way above the unholy canards of certitude, but it is an epistemic and experiential straightjacket. It’s built like doubt, but tangled in itself, and refuses any forward motion. It’s sexier than radical certainty but no less myopic.

When the one thing you want is a complete shadowless grasp of every aspect of even just one simple thing in this life, when you have dug down to the deepest stratum of your understanding and are confronted by mystery—deep impenetrable mystery—and come to realize that you do not understand, cynicism will be calling to you like a siren. If you accept the call, that cynicism will treat the darkness (which is the mystery at the core of your existence) as if comically inconsequential. It will detach itself from all meaningful possibilities, and perpetuate its fundamental drive to preserve itself and itself only.

Real faith, on the other hand, acknowledges this mystery and allows doubt to do its work—to scrutinize, interrogate, and rail against the parameters of understanding. It will employ doubt to bring future possibilities to the foreground, and use wisdom to press toward those possibilities and displace the undesirable ones to the background. In other words, “faith digs down to the deepest stratum and finds trust. Practical trust.”(2) Hope is that trust directed toward the future.

So long as doubt is viewed as a blemish on your life as a believer, so long as the strange momentary abandonment of accredited certainties is a pockmark on your “truly believing,” you will remain inattentive to advents, the birth of the new, to liberating changes of mind. When it is made an enemy, when doubt becomes a proverbial no-no, you will be robbed of that crucial moment of disorientation, that split-second of dispossessive bewilderment that can deliver you from the loss of perspective.

So, if you are faithless today, it may be because you are doubtless.

 

 

  1. Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind.
  2. Nicholas Wolterstorff, Thomas Reid and the Story of Epistemology

 

photo by: geezaweezer

SXSW Interview with Easter Island

On the eve of their SXSW debut, brothers Ethan and Asher Payne, founding members of up-and-coming dream-pop outfit Easter Island, sat down with The Curator for a quick chat about djimbés, their forthcoming new music video, and life on the road…with typical class and humor. Listen to two tracks from their debut LP, Frightened, below.

Zach Terrell: So, you guys, like, play music?

Easter Island: Meh. [Laughs]

ZT: That’s cool. I used to play the djimbé. Lately taken up the cajón. Anything with an acute accent, basically.

EI: [Laughs]

ZT: So anyway, maybe we should start with the brand new music video for “You Don’t Have A Choice”. Tell us about it.

EI: The concept of intimacy is something Ethan and I have been thinking a lot about. And you know, you can’t talk about intimacy without talking about sex, touchy as it is. We decided to express intimacy in the video as a communal, consequential reality. We wanted to ask questions like, you know, how connected are people before, during, and after sex? Does the intimate act only affect the parties directly involved? Is sex something shared in community? Obviously not [laughs] in the literal sense, but, you know, what are the wider meanings of the act? What about when either or both parties have had multiple partners? Does that change the communal aspect? We’re just asking things we think are relevant. Not trying to draw silly conclusions. It was a fun project.

ZT: You dealt with similar themes in the video for “Hash”, no?

EI: Kind of, yeah. Community was in that one, too, I guess. The main concept of “Hash” is escape. You see at the beginning these two kids, a boy and a girl, who’ve grown up in a cult. They’re just starting to realize there’s a whole world out there beyond the boundaries they’ve been living behind as members of this cult. The video fast-forwards to their wedding where [spoiler alert] they make a daring escape.

ZT: So it’s like The Village meets Plato’s Allegory of the Cave?

EI: What did you call me? [Laughs]

ZT: Never mind. What part of playing at SXSW are you guys most excited about?

EI: We’ve never played SXSW before, so we’re just really excited. We’re playing five showcases. We’re excited about the food. We’re excited about being surrounded by hundreds of other bands. We’re excited about the sense of community we’ll probably feel when we see fellow Athens bands. We’re excited about the weather. We’re excited about experiencing something new!

ZT: Tell us a bit about how you got this opportunity. How’d you get to where you are today?

EI: Not long ago we were playing weddings and Bar Mitzvahs1 under our Ke$ha cover-band name Tequila Mockingbird (Where Is My Clothing).  [Laughs]

Really though, it started about two and half years ago when Ethan and I, after writing music separately our whole lives, decided to join forces and with a few friends and write music together. After playing a handful of shows in Athens, we decided to record the five or so songs that we had under our belts into an EP, Better Things, released in March of 2011. Soon after the release, we got a call from ABC for the rights to play “Proud” (our first single) on an episode of “Off The Map”. It was pretty hilarious because the song ended up being played over a montage of sex scenes.

ZT: Oh! Inspiration for the “You Don’t Have A Choice” video?

EI: Exactly.

ZT: Go on.

EI: Not long after that, we started to work on Frightened, our first full-length record, which released at the end of the summer. We received a lot of positive and humbling press from all over. We were pretty flattered when Paste gave us a handsome review, and put us on their list of the “Best of What’s Next”.

ZT: Yeah, we’ve seen you up at Paste a few times now. We’re glad they found you.

EI: Us, too. It helps that we’re based in Athens, GA, just a hop, skip, and jump from the Paste headquarters in Decatur.

ZT: Speaking of Athens, what’s it feel like to follow in the footsteps of such Athens greats as R.E.M., of Montreal, The Whigs, etc.?

EI: Very humbling. Thankfully we are close with some of the more recent Athens bands that have made a splash in the international scene. Being part of the Athens music culture in our small way, I mean…it’s just so fun. The bands like the ones you mentioned have paved a way for younger musicians like us. The least we can do in return is to create the best art we can.

ZT: The guys in the band seem to have such great relationships—you’re like the anti-Oasis. That must make life on the road a lot easier.

EI: We have our ups and downs like any band…heck, any relationship. But we really do care about each other. It’s remarkable how well we work together for the same goals: to create the best art we can, and take care of one another and the community around us. It helps that each of us are pretty laid back as well…taking each tour or show as flexibly and professionally as possible. Each person has a specific skill set. If we were talking Captain Planet skills…Patrick [drummer] would be fire, Nate [lead guitarist] would be earth, Ethan (singer, rhythm guitarist) would be water, Ryan (bassist) would be wind, and I would be…uh…heart…I guess? [laughs]

ZT: [Laughs] Short straw! Thanks, guys, for chatting. Have fun in Austin and “Go Planet!”

Follow the hyperlinks to stalk Easter Island on Facebook, and/or follow them on Twitter and Instagram.

A Southern Existentialist

In his 2011 film, Walker Percy: A Documentary Film, Win Riley sheds some intimate light on the enigmatic life of Walker Percy, Louisiana doctor-turned-philosopher-turned-novelist. Mr. Riley was kind enough to sit down with The Curator and answer some questions about Percy, the film, and what they both can mean for us today. 

I think a lot of our readers are familiar with Percy, at least by name. But for those that aren’t it would be nice to get a sort of bird’s eye view of who he was, what he wrote, why he did it, etc.

Sure. Percy was a novelist and philosopher. His very first novel was published sort of late in his life, in his mid-forties. He was a doctor, um, who contracted tuberculosis as a young man…

Which he got while he was in medical school, right?

That’s correct. Tuberculosis basically ended his medical career before it began.He spent about 20 years of his life just reading and writing philosophical essays before his first novel came out. He wrote The Moviegoer, won the National Book Award, and went on to write The Last Gentleman, Love in the Ruins—six novels in total—and several collections of essays, as well as his correspondence with Shelby Foote.

After watching your documentary I started thinking it might have been his family life that got him exploring the kind of philosophical questions that he did.

Yeah, I think that’s right. You know, Percy’s mother and father died when he was young, both very tragically. Both his father and grandfather killed themselves. His mother died in a car accident that Percy witnessed. And then he got tuberculosis and sat out WWII. I think his mind turned to matters more challenging during convalescence. He had a lot of time to think about philosophy and his own role in the world, his purpose, and I think he really struggled with that.

Hence being so drawn to the European existentialists…

Exactly.

I do find it interesting that he was asking the same kinds of philosophical questions as Camus and Sartre and Kafka but without giving over his writing to that kind of obscure, absurdist fetish that was all the rage. Like, he presents the same sort of ideas, without…

Exactly, yeah, Walker’s protagonists, like Binx from The Moviegoer, suffer more from the inability to act, from a particular kind of malaise, rather than from some kind of existential terror. I think like many authors, he didn’t enjoy categorization but a few people have categorized him anyway as being a Christian existentialist, which is a very strange idea.

Haha, yes.

But that’s part of what’s interesting about him. He lived in a very small town in Louisiana. You know, it’s intriguing…this former doctor living in Covington—a “non-place,” as he called it—who was equally knowledgeable and interested in semiotics and Kierkegaard.

So I guess there are like three possible entry points to Percy’s work. Either through Percy’s fiction, or his philosophical essays, or, like me, kinda working backwards from the philosophy he was interested in. Which route did you take?

Initially I read The Moviegoer as a teenager, and either completely missed or misunderstood the sort of philosophical undercurrents of the novel. But something about it drew me in. The setting. The tone. And then later in college I reread it and had a slightly better idea of the philosophical undercurrents, so I became more intrigued and more curious about it and Percy…because there are seeming contradictions in the novel and in Percy’s life that on the surface, if nothing else, are intriguing. The more I read about Percy the more questions I had about him.

And he was a real philosopher, too.

That’s right, yeah. He was really interested in language and wrote a slew of academic essays.

Right, and not just because he was an abstract thinker, either. It all came back to a very real, everyday thing: his daughter’s struggle with hearing.

Exactly. He and his wife, Bunt, worked to find ways to communicate with her—to teach her to speak, to read lips. He became fascinated by the human capacity for symbolic communication. He was intrigued by how his daughter was able to pick up things without her being able to hear. He worked out his fascination in many of those philosophical essays. Incidentally, it was also this existential/linguistic insight that led him back to God. It’s a complicated notion best accessed through his essays, but it had to do with this idea of consciousness of the world through language, through naming—what he and others called thirdness.

Was he taken seriously as a philosopher?

Well, we hear more about Percy the novelist than Percy the philosopher, right? I think he thought that his legacy would be based off of those essays in the end. But he was also drawn to the idea of having a wider audience for his ideas, so I think that’s what drove him to write novels. What’s interesting about Walker is that in many ways his interest in philosophy was driven by genuine curiosity. In other words, I’m not sure he cared so much about his standing among academic philosophers. He was driven by his desire for answers.

Who was the first Percy family member you were able to contact about doing the film?

It was Walker Percy’s wife, Bunt Percy. I’d been wanting to do a documentary about Percy for years. My brother and I were big fans of Walker. I knew it was going to be a difficult film to make—Percy is such a complex figure. So before I even knew the film was going to happen I wanted to find out more about him. I read his books and everything I could find. And then I met Percy’s daughter who introduced me to Bunt. Apparently Bunt had seen my previous film, about a painter named Walter Anderson. By some stroke of luck she had seen that and enjoyed it. And when I called her she said, “Why don’t you come on over and tell me what you have in mind?” So I went over to Walker’s house in Covington and sat down with her and talked with her about my ideas about the documentary on her husband.

How was that received?

I felt very fortunate. At that stage I thought I knew more about Percy than I really did. She was excited about the idea and said she would do everything she could to help, you know, like calling friends and people that would be good to talk to for the film.

That must have been encouraging, her support.

I don’t think I could’ve done it without her and her encouragement. It gave me confidence and got me thinking that the film was something worth pursuing.

What period or moment in his life did you find most interesting while you were making the film?

The most interesting part, to me, was his transition from doctor to writer-philosopher. While he was healing from tuberculosis, he basically changed his life.

Yes! What moment could possibly better encapsulate the life of an existential philosopher than something like that? Becoming, you know? “Existence precedes essence,” to use an overused phrase. Percy was restless, so he kept searching.

Totally. I think it was David Foster Wallace who said that great writing makes us feel less alone. I think Percy felt that strongly when he read the things that he read while he was ill. In some sense he found the same solace Wallace did and he wanted to provide that for others. So he wrote.

Did he ever. Speaking of his writing, say you’re trapped in a big city during a hurricane or snowstorm (can you tell I live in New York City?)…

Haha.

All you have is candlelight and Percy’s entire collected works. What do you pick up first?

The Moviegoer. I think that’s his most important novel. But quickly followed by The Last Gentleman, which became chronologically just after The Moviegoer and just before Love in the Ruins.

I love that title. Love in the Ruins. I mean that kind of says it all in terms of his life. Hope in the midst of despair.

I think that’s a good way to put it.

Was there anything that you learned while making the film that you didn’t already know?

I discovered a great deal about Percy, that was one of the joys of making the film. You know, if you set out to make a film in which you already know everything about the subject it would be a great disappointment. Anyway, the complexity and consistency of his thought became so apparent after looking closely at his life. Most important though, I got a fuller picture of him as a man—not just as a thinker, or famous novelist–but as a father, a brother.

Like I said before I think most readers of Curator have at least heard of Percy, but there are probably some, what should we call ‘em, trollers, that have somehow landed on our page who have never read let alone heard of Percy…so what case can you make for Percy? Why do you think his literature matters today? What wisdom does he have for us?

Well I think Walker would probably laugh at the word “troller.” I think there are two ways to look at it. You can look at his novels from a purely literary perspective and look at the great things that his novels do—what they tell us about who we are and such. So you can read him on that level. But on a deeper level I think Walker can tell us important things about 20th century American life that apply today. In some sense he felt that the 20th century was some a sort of “desert of theory and consumption”, and he felt that it wasn’t enough.

What he wanted us to do was to search for something more meaningful. For him it was Christianity. I think at his best though he doesn’t point us in any particular direction, to do this or that, I think he’s encouraging us to be more engaged with the world around us, which I’m probably making sound more pretentious than he ever would have intended. [Before making the film] I had this picture of Percy as this sort of brooding existentialist on the banks of the river in the small town of Covington, because often when you look at photographs of him he looks sort of, you know, despondent. And the truth, after talking with his family and learning more about him, was that though he did have these moments of malaise but he also had a fulfilling and happy life with his family. His writing is a testament of his refusal to fall prey to the “desert of consumption”…or to the alienation it encouraged.