Another N

Following up on coincidental baobab mentions of late, I started shelving books at the store this evening, and what did I come across almost immediately? Wilma Stockenström’s The Expedition to the Baobab Tree. Something involving (mostly) African flora is most assuredly afoot.

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Cataloguing Coincidences, for the Nth Time

Coincidence with Smile, by Karry Manessa. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

OK, that’s it: something must be at least having a good time with my enjoyment of reading-based coincidences. Whether there’s enough significance in this latest pattern to qualify these quirky linkages as synchronicities in the Jungian sense (i.e., meaningful coincidences) remains to be seen. For now, observe:

Exhibit A: Just before beginning The Little Prince recently, I learned about Ken Bugul’s novel, The Abandoned Baobab, thanks to a blurb on Spain’s Radio Nacional. I ordered the novel that morning, meanwhile cracking open the tale of a boy space traveler.

I forgot about the order for a few days, of course— and Bugul’s book was far enough outside my mind that I didn’t make any connection between its title and the intergalactic child hero of The Little Prince keeping the baobab trees on his asteroid under control. But I did laugh when Bugul’s book came in, baobab tree front and center on the cover. How many times, after all, does your average North American read about this often weird-looking creation in a week, much less when it features as a major character or theme in said reading?

I’m not sure I found any connection between the two books, save for the fact that the French one was written just before literary struggles with colonialism really started gaining ground—struggles that are a central part of the Senegalese novel. Maybe some critics or theorists would note that the little prince has to keep his baobabs (stand-ins for colonized peoples and cultures?) contained, lest they take over his asteroid, whereas the lone tree in Bugul’s novel is really only in danger of dying as the world it knows and the people it’s protected start to adapt to new and foreign/imposed ways. But now I just feel like I’m stretching.

Exhibit B: More startling somehow was the fact that, having just finished Bernard Henri-Lévy’s War, Evil, and the End of History, in which Walter Benjamin’s angel of history gets brought up so often, out of nowhere, I came across a copy of poet Carolyn Forché’s collection, The Angel of History—and not even making the connection between the two, was a little freaked out to open up her book and find it starting out with precisely the figure to which Henri-Lévy kept returning:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. [1]

OK, so at least the two deal with generally similar matters: genocides, wars, horrific attempts at eradication of human beings, even if for different avowed reasons and in different times and places. But good lord, this disconcerting—and again, let’s face it, not quite commonly known among the general populace—angel seems to be hovering over some of my reading selections of late, and it’s a little bit discomfiting.

Exhibit C: As mentioned in my last post, I just blew through The Great Gatsby. And sure, it’s an American classic and all, but does it really get brought up in conversation all that much anymore, especially in tales of weird commerce? Reading a great article yesterday on the wonderfully bizarre Hammacher Schlemmer catalogue, I found out that

At 153 words, the hat’s description is about the average length for Hammacher Schlemmer. A standard catalog is 88 pages long, give or take, meaning that, at four products per page, there are roughly 53,856 words in every issue. That’s more verbose than The Great Gatsby (47,094 words). [2]

Simple coincidence, I’ll grant you. But they keep adding up. Perhaps most strangely,:

Exhibit D: A different bout of reading yesterday had me finding out about some possibly shady circumstances surrounding the care of artist Robert Indiana’s legacy. Indiana moved out to the tiny island of Vinalhaven, Maine, a long time ago, holing up there for the rest of his life. Right, so I’d never heard of this place, and with only 1,200 souls residing there, it’s not exactly like it’s the center of the cosmopolitan art world. So imagine the Twilight Zone feeling I got when on the train this morning, finding a snippet in the New Yorker that read, “Vinal Cove, Vinalhaven: Seven acres with 650′ tidal waterfront. View to conservation land. Part of old farm. Two septic sites, great clamming.” [3]

Good God, people: what is going on?

I’m not sure—but I’ll admit it, shamelessly and in the equally shameless hope that this string of odd little occurrences continues: I love it. I don’t know what it is, but even with the nothing it surely means, I love it.

 

[1] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History, IX, cited in Carolyn Forché, The Angel of History (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994), unnumbered.

[2] Nick Greene, “The World’s Most Peculiar Company.” Chicago Magazine, August 2018 issue. Available from http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/August-2018/Hammacher-Schlemmer/. Somehow, the fact that this company and its catalogue are still out there, and still giving solid attention to weird and whimsical prose, made my day a little better. Thanks, Nick Greene.

[3] Cited “From an advertisement in Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors” in The New Yorker, 30 July 2018, p. 64.

The Scent of a Narrative

While reading The Great Gatsby for the first time, a friend was talking to me about his thoughts on the book. And I realized that, having devoured the thing in one night when I was fourteen—and hence, not having established anything like a dependable memory of just what went on in those pages—I couldn’t on some level say I’d ever read it. And so: I grabbed a copy and returned, nearly thirty years later, to a tale I had only technically absorbed.

What hit me, though, on opening the Penguin Modern Classics paperback I’d bought* was a scent-inspired flood of memories from early childhood. Something in the paper contained exactly the same smell that surrounded me in the Sunday-school classrooms and the large hall used for socializing and snacking and coffee-drinking of the church my family attended until I was eight or nine. That distinctive, fondly remembered scent brought with it the combination of wood and paper, of old buildings well and purposefully maintained.

Although that same smell failed to elicit any memory of the book’s plot, it did lead to the clear vision of where and how I first read the novel: over the course of one summer night, on the folded-out mattress of the living-room couch—a place my sister and I for some reason considered a privileged, interesting location that spoke of slumber parties and no schedules that would force us into sleep long before we had any desire to go to bed. I gobbled up the book, less for the enjoyment of content and more, I’ll admit, because the two of us had gone crazy trying to rack up our respective counts for the library’s summer reading challenge, tossing in softballs like comic books and teen series (think Sweet Valley High and The Girls of Canby Hall, with an occasional and desperate Baby-Sitters Club added in) in order to pad our lists. Even we knew we were taking the thing to an absurd and dishonest level, and I don’t think we ever actually turned in our lists, maybe fearing being exposed as cheats. And I didn’t realize it then, of course, but my speed-reading only resulted in my becoming at least of a bit of an impostor, where Gatsby was concerned, given my inability to say anything substantive about it.

But the odd thing about my recent determination to remedy that first round of literary gluttony is this: I finished Gatsby in the course of one evening and the next day. Not because I just wanted to finish it—but this time, because it was just so simply good. I’m hoping that my more attentive dive into Fitzgerald’s world will at least reinforce the scraps left from that first reading, and that the next time someone talks about Nick Carraway’s summer on Long Island, I’ll at least be able to take authentic part in the conversation.

 

* With a delightful warning on the bottom of its back cover that “For copyright reasons this edition is not for sale in the U.S.A. or Canada,” and featuring a little blue price tag on the top left-hand corner that tells me (“Fr. 3–“) the original purchase was probably made in France.

In Which I Confront a Childhood Grudge

It should come as no surprise that I probably took more umbrage than most kids my age at adults’ assumptions about what I liked, how much I understood, what I wanted to be doing, and so forth. I was furious, for example, as a six-year-old, when a relative stood over me one winter, asking in a sugary voice that she surely never used with her peers what Santa had brought me. I just stared up at her, wondering if she was truly as idiotic as she appeared, believing not only herself in a fictional character, but also in my own credulity.

And so, you would have thought, given this childhood rebellion against the way in which adults approached kids, that I would have felt at least some sympathy for Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, who wanders from planet to planet marveling to himself how terrifically strange adults are.

Milan Cupka, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Well—no, unfortunately. I had no desire to read the book, after having seen the drawings it features in some sort of broadcast version—not the Japanese production from 1978, not the 1974 movie with Gene Wilder; maybe what I’m thinking of now is only a jumble of mixed-up half-memories. But I do remember feeling offended by what was presented, or so it seemed to me, as the de facto, charming innocence of childhood. By association, that meant me, and, because the declaration of one’s charming or innocent character was always made (at least up until that point in my life) by someone who wielded more power and/or authority (i.e., age) than I had, I hated the assumption that I was cute or charming.

But after being exposed a bit to the book via Beasts at Bedtime, which I recently read, I decided to go and pull it down off my shelf, and see whether my hostile suspicions had been founded or not. Quite frankly, I’m not sure where I come down on the matter, having just finished it. Maybe my basic question is for whom this book was written. For children, really? I get the sense it wasn’t. From things like unnamed references to Ataturk’s Westernization of dress styles to philosophical pondering over what it means to be tamed/domesticated or what it means to see clearly (not with the eyes, of course, but with the heart), the book seems to be a condemnation of “adult” ways, via the innocent outlook of a child from a tiny asteroid.

This may be what caused me such resentment as a child, although I couldn’t have expressed it then—and, still remembering my indignation, what still makes me grumble at this whole set-up. The child is being used to point out the adult world’s ridiculous habits. It was that sense of being used for something I got as a kid; maybe, had I understood or been into Kant at the time, I would have alleged I was being treated as a means, not an end unto myself—used

— for someone else’s entertainment: think about children’s sermons, if you grew up in a religious community that made its kids go to the front every service and provide free chuckles for the rest of the congregation)

— to reassure others that they were secure in their powers (I had an especially disheartening and prolonged experience with school librarians, who seemed continually to hate their lives and their charges, over whom not even they could exercise their strict wills)

— to feel safe in posing questions they were too afraid to ask about the real world (as in, the privilege of asking big questions is only available to people who don’t have any real responsibilities, and whose practical lives won’t be threatened by any answers they find).

In other words, perhaps, it’s the heavy-handed nature of so much of what qualifies as children’s literature that seems to give the lie to these productions’ own purported agenda (of teaching children, or providing simple, wholesome entertainment for them). For many adults, who love to see children as charmingly simple, it’s an easy and permissible way to express doubt about their world without having to change anything, do something about their dissatisfactions. And because they wish their own lives weren’t taken up by admittedly absurd concerns and worries, said adults project those nostalgic desires onto beings supposedly only taken up with play and learning about their world with open-eyed wonder (i.e., it’s only a kid’s question; they’ll learn soon enough to grow into Things As They Are, and then we’ll have more companions in our upright misery).

Now, look: I’m not arguing that all’s children’s literature is just some underhanded form of ressentiment against little people who don’t yet have to deal with all the burdens and idiocies of adult life. And I certainly won’t allege that the six-year-old me was a sophisticated cultural critic, nodding in sage agreement over Edward Said’s demonstration of orientalist assumptions or taking heart at Noam Chomsky’s deconstruction of ideologies inherent in mainstream media practices. Not remotely. But I was keenly aware that I was being treated differently than people who happened to be taller than I was, and that there was something less than simple kindness in that treatment.

I’m glad I finally got around to reading The Little Prince; it’s at least made me think, and now I feel a bit more secure in the accuracy of my childhood instinct. But will I give the book to the young people in my own life? The jury’s still out on that one.

Finding—or Denying—the New

OK, I hesitate to even begin offering commentary on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life; based on its length and density, I can already tell it’s going to give John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory a run for its money, in terms of its status as the book that’s taken the longest for me to read.[1] But at the risk of chiming in too prematurely, here’s a chunk of Sloterdijkian thought I appreciate:

… there is nothing cognitively new under the sun.
The novelty of the new… stems from the unfolding of the known into larger, brighter, more richly contoured surfaces. Consequently, it can never be innovative in an absolute sense; in part, it is always the continuation of the cognitively existent by other means. Here, novelty and greater explicitness amount to the same thing. We can therefore say that the higher the degree of explicitness, the deeper the possible, indeed inevitable disconcertment caused by the newly acquired knowledge.[2]

Note, nothing cognitively new under the sun. Does this go for style and/or stylistics as well (and does style, which has to do with creativity and idiosyncrasy, and therefore with a cognitive ability to tell the difference between one mode of [verbal, artistic, musical, etc.] expression and another, fall within the cognitive realm)? For example, Sloterdijk himself (and in English, with his translator’s help) will sometimes turn a phrase in a way that may provide a particular reader with new-to-her way of thinking about or seeing something. Witness the way in which he compares photography’s ability to shape our sense of an image to nature’s being merely “the first edition of the visible,” and so less impressive to us.[3] Or his manner of describing how ancient statuary called viewers to strive for a physical ideal, asserting that “It displays how being and being exemplary converge.”[4]

Greg Tobias, via Wikimedia Commons.

I was struck by how both of these phrases’ (and others’) made me stop short with the pleasure of realizing I’d never thought about nature or an ideal/example in that way before. But as Sloterdijk said, although I might now have a more detailed or nuanced understanding of these things, I do not have an “innovative” one.

But remove the “cognitively” from his quote above, and I wonder if the author would still be comfortable making his statement? Even if so, I’m not sure what “new,” plain and simple, might mean. I’m trying to think of things that are truly new—maybe close, at least, to what Alain Badiou would call an event, an eruption into the normal stream of things by something so previously unseen or ignored or unheard-of—something that really doesn’t even count as within the realm of Being, in a given situation—that it results in unignorable transformation, a completely new Something that must be confronted. I’m guessing Badiou wouldn’t qualify, say, the atomic bomb as an event, nor would Sloterdijk allow it to be considered “new,” having followed on the heels of bombs-as-such, even if the potential for destruction it unleashed, and the consequent public fears that grew up around it, were of a much greater degree than any of its predecessors.

Nor would I consider “new” certain businesspeople’s thrill surrounding so-called “disruption” in business practices. Sure, they may be disruptive in terms of creating usually needless havoc—new, perhaps in the way in which tasks are accomplished and value assigned to anything from consistency, to loyalty, to commitment, to the ultimate aim of doing business at all (wealth? power? glory in production itself?). But new/disruptive in terms of the ultimate understanding of what business is, what buying and selling are or were meant to be? Doubtful.

And if we’re going back to style, even had Ezra Pound not cribbed the phrase from a couple of Confucians, I often can’t think what the imperative “Make It New” means for art or poetry or writing, especially given the role of cognition in those media’s creation and consumption. A different style, yes—but neither James Joyce nor Jack Kerouac nor David Foster Wallace emerged ex nihilo; their methods of expression were influenced by predecessors in one way or another.

Having just engaged in a lot of dense bloviating myself, I may just find Sloterdijk’s assertion to be a relief because I’m suspicious of celebrations of the new for newness’ sake, and see in them a sort of adolescent frustration with forms and stories we may not yet know how to value or understand—a sort of attempt to escape from the patience and drudge work required to maintain most beautiful and worthwhile things, from mastery of a particular craft to long-term friendships.

But again: I’m only a chapter or so in; who knows, a year from now, when I’m nearing the end of this vast tome, whether I’ll still be holding onto that conviction, or whether I’ll have assumed some other, completely new (to me, if not to Sloterdijk) opinion on the whole matter.

 

[1] If memory serves, that latter one took a good six weeks, and was admittedly plodded through at a glacial pace, given its centrality to one of my doctoral exams. The only thing I can remember about it now, though, at least a decade after having to deal with it, is my conviction that Milbank had to have had a bevy of low-paid grad students locked in a closet somewhere, each working on an obscure point and finding the appropriate references needed to back it up.
Incidentally, it took me longer to read Milbank’s book than it did to read Finnegan’s Wake.

[2] Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life, translated by Wieland Hoban (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013). 7.

[3] ibid., 22.

[4] ibid., 26.

Books in Dialogue

Incredible. I’ve probably mentioned before the semi-transcendent thrill I get when two books I happen to be reading at the same time end up having a sort of conversation with each other. In yesterday’s post, I spoke about James Agee’s wrestling with the concept of beauty, and who might be morally allowed (or not) to make any judgment about certain objects’ qualification as beautiful, especially when said objects essentially give evidence of ruin in one form or another.

Well, behold, consider what met me today in Bernard-Henri Lévy’s War, Evil, and the End of History: “What “beauty” is there in a destroyed urban landscape? Is it really bewitching, this city that looks as if it’s returned to the earth, buried, crushed beneath the weight of an invisible pestle?” [1]

Huambo, Angola; jlrsousa on Wikimedia Commons.

He’s speaking here of contemporary war-torn communities, in this particular case, of a couple of cities he’s visited in Angola, and of some authors’ celebration of (different) war(s) as an aesthetic phenomenon, which he finds hideous and “always dangerous.” [2] Lévy goes on to ponder “two theories of ruin:” one that sees the march of history as justifying particular instances of destruction. [3] (This one, incidentally, is supposed to comfort the insignificant individuals crushed by ruin with the knowledge that they’re part of history.) The other wonders, “What if ruin were ‘the natural state of modern things?'” Lévy draws out this question with further ones, finally ending up asking whether ruin is “the first, but also the last, word of the world we’re entering,” and applies that question to “the pure scandal of these [Angolan cities’] ruins.” [4] Since these thoughts are part of the brief “Réflexions” section of the book, extended footnotes to some of the articles he’s presented, we’re largely left to continue asking the questions ourselves. But Lévy does express his disgust with the idea of subjecting the victims of these horrors to “the final outrage of having to hear that the greatest suffering permits the finest redemption,” and leaves us with the assertion that “One is always right to leave ruins, but also to hold onto them.” [5]

What does, or could, that last sentence mean for ruined places, cities, homes? Does leaving the ruins mean leaving one’s home? If we’re going to jump into questions of self-imposed guilt, à la James Agee, what might someone leaving his or her own ruins worry about, in terms of (self-)accusations of abandoning others—people or places—to their fate?

Lévy also gives a brief mention in the introduction to this section of the book of “a journalism of ideas.” [6] Is this what he considers or denies his work to be—and how would Agee, who held intensely bitter views about journalism, react to this approach to the genre? As the latter said, “The very blood and semen of journalism… is a broad and successful form of lying.” [7] Whatever the reaction of both to charges of their being journalists of ideas, I sure would love to see them as co-panelists about the state of the genre—its practices, assumptions, and effects upon all manner of Things Public—in the US today.

 

[1] Bernard-Henri Lévy, “Aesthetics of War,” in War, Evil, and the End of History, transl. Charlotte Mandel (Hoboken: Melville House, 2004), 118.

[2] Lévy, “Philosophy of a Ruined City,” 119.

[3] ibid., 120.

[4] ibid., 122.

[5] ibid.

[6] Lévy, “After Le Monde, a Question of Form,” 113.

[7] James Agee and Walker Evans (photographer), Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), 235. Earlier in that paragraph, Agee says, “Who, what, where, when and why (or how) is the primal cliché and complacency of journalism: but I do not wish to appear to speak favorably of journalism. I have never yet seen a piece of journalism which conveyed more than the slightest fraction of what any even moderately reflective and sensitive person would mean and intend by those inachievable words, and that fraction itself I have never seen clean of one or another degree of patent, to say nothing of essential, falsehood.” (234) And he’s just getting started.

The Fraught Privilege of Judgment

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: it’s been on my shelf for years, lying unopened that entire time under the misguided assumption that this was a documentation of devastation funded by the Works Progress Administration. Little did I know just how strange an anthropological undertaking it still is, or how almost Kerouackian it sounds—a sort of Beat paean avant la lettre.

What I ran across today, though, was more evidence of just how relevant the author’s existential wranglings remain about exactly what he’s doing. James Agee’s reflections on living briefly with three different poor white sharecropper families in the mid- to late 1930s include a number of assertions and questions about the problems involved in the well-to-do of this world swooping in to study and judge and uplift the poor. His own guilt about his place in this project does sometimes romanticize the people and phenomena he describes. But the section from Part II titled “Beauty” could so easily be directed at the moral ambivalence (or evil, depending on your feelings) of contemporary ruin porn, I had to read it over again.

Walker Evans, via the Library of Congress on Wikimedia Commons.

Agee says that the hovels he’s been visiting might just qualify as beautiful, “[i]n part because this [beauty] is ordinarily neglected or even misrepresented in favor of their shortcomings as shelters, and in part because their esthetic success seems to me even more important than their functional failure”—and admits to there being “moral problems involved in evaluating it.” [1]

The discussion that follows is brief, and is concerned mostly about the fact (he asserts) that only those with the “economic advantages of training” are able to see this beauty, and these elite few “have only a shameful and thief’s right to it: and it might be said that they have any ‘rights’ whatever only in proportion as they recognize the ugliness and disgrace implicit in their privilege of perception.” And then a footnote further down refers to the “sin… in feeling in the least apologetic for perceiving the beauty of the houses.” [2]

Add to the sharecroppers’ homes the industrial wastelands of the Rustbelt or abandoned sections of any city across the globe, and Agee’s words still demand we give an account of the moral valence of our aesthetic obsessions. Other than curiosity about the stories they might be able to tell us, why, for example, do we seize upon abandoned factories as delicious viewing? If we feel any guilt about doing so, does that do any good to anyone at all? If we act upon that guilt, and try to “help” those affected by urban blight, do our attempts to assuage our bad bourgeois consciences do anything beyond burden a hurting population with the added weight of paternalistic attention?

Hard questions indeed, ones to which I can’t even begin to propose useful answers. That sense of being at a loss isn’t surprising, though; look at a lot of the comments said to have been made by Jesus about considering the poor, or the future Buddha’s being kept under lock and key as a young man so as not to have to see evidence of poverty, and it becomes obvious that we really haven’t come that far in changing how we think about material abjection. [3] I still have a way to go with Agee’s book; I doubt he’ll come to any conclusions, either, but I can almost guarantee I’ll find his thought-struggles worthwhile.

 

[1] James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988), 202.

[2] ibid., 203. The section ends with Agee wondering whether things can be beautiful by chance, what creational intention has to do with something’s beauty, and what role the realities of culture play in it all.

[3] Most obviously, you’ve got Luke 6’s Sermon on the Plain, which is much more materially focused than is Matthew 5’s more spiritually centered Sermon on the Mount. Think about the poor widow giving her hard-earned coin, the assertion in Matthew 26 that “you always have the poor with you,” and on and on; so many mentions of how to deal with the existential realities of poverty.