Just an Obvious Mini-Reflection

The incredible Doris Salcedo’s incredible Shibboleth, via Bizarre Beyond Belief.

Although things changed in my late teens, before high school, the prudish little person I was created a sharp moral divide between bookishness and athleticism, firmly believing no serious person could maintain both characteristics in any sort of balance (or, really, take up sides at all with the athletic camp). Unsurprisingly, I was spotted at every one of my sister’s games, from softball to volleyball to basketball, book in hand and completely oblivious to what was going on around me. Today, I’ll readily admit I was an idiot– but still have a book or three in tow wherever I go, just to be prepared.

And so I did have Brian Dillon’s Essayism in the front pouch of my purse when I walked into a major-league baseball game the other night. It stayed there the whole evening, until I got back on the train home; I was with a friend, and even had I been alone, I wouldn’t dare have whipped out a book in the midst of a cross-town rivalry. But it did get me thinking about all the good sports (or other genres of) action I missed in my early years, thanks to having snubbed everything that didn’t count as literature– and no wonder I was well aware of being a weird kid. And had I had my nose lodged in my trade paperback on this occasion, I would’ve missed out on a couple of determined rounds of fisticuffs in our section, the horde of security it took to break them up, and the scattered displays of inebriated chest-bumping that made my friend and I believe that the pruning dudes lovingly beating the crap out of each other were just going to have to make out at some point in the future. That is, had I continued ignoring the present world for the crafted word, I probably never would have escaped a very beautiful and very interesting, but very unreal, existence.

All that is not a celebration of stereotypical boys being boys; I can probably handle one live reminder per year of that brand of inanity. And I’m not going to give up quality writing for continual observation of sports-based rituals– but just being part of a merrily tense crowd did remind me that I have to look up every now and then, that there are actual living, interesting things and people beyond the page. A complete chestnut, that– but sometimes, you need to be slapped upside the head by the obvious.

 

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Funding Evil and Its Foes

Dracula: it might seem odd to spend a sunny afternoon by the lake plowing through its last hundred pages, but that’s exactly how I came to the end of a tale that’s somehow managed to maintain its place in many a cultural imaginary for the last hundred-plus years. And overall, it was a good beach read (though perhaps better suited to a colder, cloudier time of year), made even more satisfying by the fact that it didn’t reach its climax on Halloween, as I’d feared it would. The only other surprise was the story’s extremely abrupt ending, largely free of the suspense-prolonging mishaps and false turns that populate a lot of horror literature and film.

Let’s face it: only a rich guy could get away with looking like this and waging centuries’ worth of evil. Via Wikimedia Commons.

What the book did make me consider, though, was just how much it had to say in mostly covert fashion about class and wealth, and what the latter especially can make possible. For instance, this group of friends– two doctors, a lawyer and his wife, a nobleman, and an adventurer– don’t even have to think about getting time off from work or making their excuses to employers et al to go on an international chase after the undead and solve what amounts to an unconventional healthcare situation– nor do they have to worry about the ridiculous outlay of cash the whole thing entails. Admittedly, the threatened Mina does mention in one diary entry, “it made me think of the wonderful power of money!… I felt so thankful that Lord Godalming is rich, and that both he and Mr Morris, who also has plenty of money, are willing to spend it so freely. For if they did not, our little expedition could not start…”(1) But the recognition ends there, and we’re plunged right back into the action.

I’d love to see a story where it’s the poor who have to fight off evil(2) – but my guess is, if it had to entail all the travel and vacation hours required in Stoker’s tale, the search for funds would be pretty brief and futile, and instead of being left with a thrilling adventure with which the protagonists could regale their friends after dinner, everyone would quickly end up dead or damned, with not much of a plot worthy of the name.(3)

But that admonition about necessary wealth also applies to the villain himself; in spite of his super strength and cunning, our man had to shell out quite a bit of coin to get all his boxes of earth, as well as himself, shipped back and forth and housed in multiple properties. Had he been some poor street urchin whose transformation into a vampire hadn’t also elevated his financial or social position in the world, I’m guessing an army of villagers or urban block captains could’ve made pretty short work of someone unable to dismiss fears and/or crimes via bribes, much less afford a room for the night.

And the count’s prosperity is important here in another way. We learn that Dracula originally made his name fighting the Turks and going out in battle for territory, both securing and expanding his realm of control. So sure, he had plenty of funds stashed up over the centuries. But all that money and influence weren’t amassed in order to secure a very long and comfortable retirement feeding off forgettable villagers and waifs; nope, Dracula is a weird part of the colonial project, sailing off to London to plant a flag and propagate his own kind from there. The heart of British imperialism finds itself prey to its own practices, to an entirely different sort of colonizing endeavor– a subplot and/or critique I’m not sure Stoker saw or intended. But if we want to look at how empire is built by sucking resources (and hence, life) from others, vampire tales provide a pretty good analogy.

Of course, there’s the question of Christianity as the (one) force able to defend against this sort of evil, a topic or theme that’s been so hashed and rehashed, it’s not really worth talking about– except for some brilliant comedic queries I’ve witnessed over the years. Probably my favorite was dropped into a Mexican vampire spoof, one of those eye-rollingly bad b-movies you somehow find yourself watching on a Saturday afternoon and wondering what you’re doing with your life. But on this occasion, right before total despair set in, the hero, convinced of his victory, shoved a ridiculously large crucifix into the vampire’s face– to which the latter responded in triumph, “Ha ha! I am Jewish!” and advanced without a hiccup. The hour of my life I’d wasted up until then was suddenly redeemed.(4)

Whether in its pulp varieties or not, after dwelling for 400-plus pages in the world of horror, I’m ready to move on to– I’ll say it– more elevated matter. If the couple of wonderfully weird Elizabeth Bishop poems I read last night are an indication of what’s to come, things are about to take a more authentically poetic turn.

 

(1) Bram Stoker, Dracula, Barnes & Noble Classics (New York: Fine Creative Media, Inc., 2003), 418.

(2) I’m talking authentically poor– not (upper) middle class, as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer or The Lost Boys. Those settings of suburban comfort may not have been able to draw upon ridiculous wealth, but their locally based struggles were staged within healthy financial situations.

(3) I have a feeling that, had he wanted to treat less urgent subjects, Gil Scott-Heron might’ve done an amazing job with both the question of wealth and race in tales of horror and adventure. Someone needs to take Blacula one step further, under the guidance of “Whitey on the Moon.” But the mere suggestion is sounding offensively frivolous; we’ve got much more pressing matters to address, after all, than fictional creatures’ social arrangements.

(4) It doesn’t have to do with vampires, but in The Muslims Are Coming, Dean Obeidallah’s fantastic skit on ghost-hunting shows is apropos enough to include in a footnote to this piece. A fellow fan of this TV genre, Obeidallah wonders why families burdened by some supernatural presence are always Catholic. After asking why ghosts apparently don’t enjoy dropping in on Jews and Muslims, he goes on to ponder how his own co-religionists would probably have just gone on and welcomed the specter right in.

Poetry for the Vigil

There’s something about a storm on the horizon that won’t let me sleep– maybe just the marvel that some primeval awareness of weather patterns and their onetime implications for shelter and sustenance still linger in some backwoods of bodily awareness. Even before becoming aware of the first quiet hints of thunder, I’m suddenly awake and can do nothing but lie there uselessly until the system has worn itself out and there are no longer any low, thrilled giggles beneath my window, from late-night walkers caught in the rain.

From ako-aleko at Wikimedia Commons.

It was somehow appropriate that I waited it all out tonight with David Whyte’s collection of poems, The House of Belonging. I’m not sure where I first heard of Whyte or his book, which has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years– and I purchased it so long ago that I no longer had any expectations at all about what I’d find there.

Well– the material seemed to fit my mood, or to allay my restlessness to some degree; in the midst of the general tempest that is existence, Whyte, in his poet’s guise, at least, maintains an often frustrating calm in the face of just about everything, exploring how he belongs in the world, and the time and patience necessary to discover that manner of being. The simplicity of the whole project is often cripplingly beautiful, as in the second poem’s reference to his home,

where I want
to love all the things
it has taken me so long
to learn to love.(1)

And Whyte’s acknowledgment even within this belonging of all “the testaments of loneliness” strikes a familiar minor chord with any insomniac with only the pages of a book to talk to in the middle of a blustery night.(2) But there are entire chunks of this volume that seem as if they’d be more appropriate in a self-help manual, more nuanced declarations and reminders of Stuart Smalley’s assertion, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” I started to wonder, in fact, if Whyte had also fallen in his past upon emotional times hard enough to have cried half-ashamedly in a bathtub over the truisms found in How to Survive the Loss of a Love (3); numerous lines such as the following made me question whether I’d been deluded about the really good stuff that had come before it:

Sometimes it takes the darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you. (4)

Maybe part of the problem was with what often felt like prose that had simply been sliced into separate lines– not prose poetry, and not quite “poetry poetry,” begging the question of what counts as authentically part of the genre. Even though I’m no fan of strict labels or parameters, I was still uneasy with my basis for wanting to disqualify these sections– namely, the same one US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart used to define obscene material: “I know it when I see it.”(5) There was something about many of these run-on sentences that just couldn’t qualify for me as “it.”

But if nothing else, the book, which really did contain some gems, got me through the first phase of this rainy night; maybe I should take it to my upstairs neighbor, who’s chosen to wait out his own restlessness by pacing back and forth above my head on creaky floorboards. I’ll make another attempt, though, to get some sleep, even though the thunder’s returned, and a few little drops of rain, and I need to shut the windows again

while
the night wind carries
everything away outside.(6)

 

(1) David Whyte, “The House of Belonging,” in The House of Belonging (Langley, WA: Many Rivers Press, 1997), 6.

(2) Whyte, “The Truelove,” 96.

(3) Peter McWilliams et al., How to Survive the Loss of a Love (Prelude Press, 1993). Credit where it’s due: this was a strangely powerful and necessary volume, a couple of years back. But I’m still going to be snarky about admitting that fact.

(4) Whyte, “Sweet Darkness,” 23.

(5) That statement was made as part of 1964’s Jacobellis v. Ohio, which declared Louis Malle’s film The Lovers not obscene.

(6) Whyte, “The Winter of Listening,” 29.

Final Questions without Answers

And so, gentle readers, I have done it: in spite of pillows and comforter and the need for sleep fighting me every step of the way, I completed Pack of Lies last night. Maybe not since John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory (and Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake before that) have I felt such satisfaction at coming to the end of a collection of words. But while those predecessors resembled intriguing sacks of lead, this prolix head-trip never felt like a deadweight.

After this post, I’m guessing I’ll leave the trilogy’s mysteries to themselves,* maybe wondering at stray moments

“Sneering and Defiance,” from The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin, via Wikimedia Commons.

1) what the intention was behind riffing on my beloved Ethan Frome. I don’t exactly enjoy pondering the long and ruined lives of Edith Wharton’s couple maimed for love. Maybe that was precisely Sorrentino’s purpose: a smirking way of calling out much literary tendency to give a glimpse of something terrible and let us think we’ve really understood it or absolved ourselves of the necessity truly to grapple with its implications. I can envision the author enjoying our despair at being confronted with logical, if absurd, extremes– especially when they deal with just how sour the plight of sweethearts can turn, and when they’re tossed in among a whole sweep of frivolous humanity.

2) what the weird demons who drop in on the scene every now and then were meant to do, beyond just being included for the hell of it. An update on Greek tragedy’s divine interventions– or maybe the result of being left without heroic (or any overarching) ideals: the gods become as tawdry as the people they toy with?

3) what Buddy and Dick and their caricatured Hardy Boys-type ramblings were meant to accomplish. Parody, sure– but to what end, inserted into this particular crowd of characters?

4) whether there was any real plan behind the alphabetizing that took place in Misterioso. My baseless speculation is that Sorrentino was just trying to see who’d notice it, and at what point– and maybe, who’d go back to figure out what the non-existent hidden message was within this arrangement. Again: tossing in a wrench just to see how the works respond?

5) finally, whether Sorrentino was as hostile in real life to John Crowe Ransom as his digs at the poet would seem to indicate– and/or whether said poet/his poem “Janet Waking” was a convenient foil for one of the book titles, Sheila Sleeping, that keeps popping up throughout the trilogy. At any rate, Ransom would probably have been disgusted by this cast of characters and their antics– and they probably would have laughed at his.

At the beginning of this post, I mentioned John Milbank, bless his angry and exacting heart. While having to soak up his thunderings for a doctoral exam, I became convinced he’d imprisoned a closet-full of grad students, hopeful noses to the grindstone and racing to be the first to find the most obscure fact about orthodoxy, along with all of its imaginable variations. I could envision Sorrentino having his own horde of willing literary servants working on Pack of Lies– but in this case, they, along with their chief, would all be high, and just tossing index cards pertaining to the characters they’d been assigned into a pile. Had this weird party taken place twenty years after the actual book’s publication, I’m sure Milbank himself could have made a delightful appearance in all these goings-on, railing against the post-modern mischief he’d never deign to acknowledge.

 

* To bypass all my queries, just see my reviewlette on Goodreads and/or LibraryThing, viz., “Not a clue how to rate this. Did I get it? Is there anything to get? I have no idea– but I never felt burdened, and often cheered on Sorrentino’s frequent jabs at a variety of cultural/academic/societal/publishing world/literary practices.”

Legacy Labels and Literature

It might be advisable to sit and think for a bit, instead of heading straight for the keyboard after finishing a book. But I just completed Kenneth W. Warren’s What Was African American Literature?, and am full of excited thoughts needing further organization, clarification, and exploration. In other words, this extended lecture (given at Pomona and Harvard) has done exactly what a good book should do.

Very basically, Warren argues that African American literature was only an identifiably cohesive category when shaped by, responding to, and resisting the realities imposed by Jim Crow. The Harlem Renaissance, the New Black Aesthetic, work by contemporary authors– they’re something else, not defined by the characteristics of what he calls “instrumental or indexical expectations” (1): producing literature that simultaneously strove to bring down Jim Crow and to prove (largely to white audiences) that said literature was just as sophisticated as the best the Western world had to offer. In a post-desegregation, post-Voting Rights Act United States, the output of black authors no longer contains the “belief that the welfare of the race as a whole depends on the success of black writers and those who are depicted in their texts.” (2)

Phillis Wheatley: not part of African American literature because “the mere existence of literary texts does not necessarily indicate the existence of a literature”? (3) Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Warren isn’t trying to deny the uniqueness or worth of black American writing outside this period, nor is he denying that its authors continue to address– indeed, may not be able to avoid addressing– race in one way or another in their work. But he’s trying to grapple with the fact that literature of the period he’s discussing in some sense grounded itself in and simultaneously worked to deny the inherent existential difference of a particular group from others, or at least from the dominant others, in a given society. Once the belief in that inherent difference largely (so Warren) crumbled, what was there to make this body of literature, maybe even black American experience in general, unique?

I can’t possibly cover all the details of Warren’s argument, in which questions of intra-group class and educational hierarchies are prominent. Nor have I reached anything like a point of dis/agreement with his assertions. But in addition to the specific body of literature it addresses, I’ll argue that the book is also relevant to other so-called “minority” groups and their artistic output. What does it mean to be representative of one’s group, to have authority to speak as a member of it? How do you– either as an insider or a dominant (or not) outsider– define that population itself? To be considered authentically part of that collective, must one include in one’s writing themes and characteristics associated with it (history, stereotypes, etc.)? If Louise Erdrich suddenly started writing about life in Paris, or Amy Tan about sledding in Sweden, would people be up in arms that they weren’t authentically “Native American” or “Chinese American”– and to whom would it matter?

And because I’ve gone straight from Warren’s final page to this post, I haven’t done any research that might be able to answer the question of how the author’s argument might have changed since the book was published in 2011. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the heightened awareness among the general public of race-related police brutality and other forms of structural racism, and/or the increasing use of the phrase “New Jim Crow” (especially regarding mass incarceration), might there still be, if in altered form, an African American literature– or a need for it?

While I’m leaning towards his saying yes to the second question, I think Warren would still say no to at least the first, largely due to the recognition that 1) it’s not original, or really controversial, to claim today that racism exists, and pervasively so; and 2) that black elite writers can’t necessarily claim to be representing or speaking for the entirety of a population that has of course never been homogeneous in its tastes or opinions. As evidenced in a pointed allegation about those elite writers holding onto the idea of African American literature, Warren asserts they might write out of a “need to distinguish the personal odysseys they undertake to reach personal success from similar endeavors by their white class peers.” (4)

So, where does that leave us now? I’d be interested to hear what contemporary powerhouse writers such as Claudia Rankine or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Teju Cole or Octavia Butler– and black readers of black writers– have to say about Warren’s argument. I guess that’s my project now– and of finding out whether I could have avoided spewing out at least a few of my questions to the general public before doing my research. Off to the the forking paths, then, left to explore in the wake of a truly engaging book.

 

(1) Kenneth W. Warren, What Was African American Literature? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 10.

(2) ibid., 139.

(3) ibid., 6.

(4), ibid., 139.

The Need for (Traditional) Narrative

As previously discussed, I’m enjoying Gilbert Sorrentino’s Pack of Lies, even if the third volume in the trilogy, Misterioso, is starting to feel a bit like overkill. And much as I can get down with some well-wrought experimentation, this round of innovative boundary-busting has left me with the need for some old-fashioned verbal grounding– something with a more solid, identifiable flow. What could be more appropriate than some 19th-century horror to satisfy that craving– meaning, in this instance, Bram Stoker’s Dracula?

Having seen and been unjustifiably scared out of my mind by multiple film versions,(1) I’m sort of amazed it’s taken me this long to read the book, prone as I am to finishing written originals before checking out their adaptations in other media. Part of it may have been due to the fear of wasting time on Romantic(-ish) cheesiness; witness copious amounts of eye-rolling, for example, at The Woman in White. Film adaptations of old tales of the supernatural, especially more contemporary ones, can often eliminate the treacly clichés of gender, honor, true religion, and so forth, found in the texts– and although it’s rare that I enjoy movies more than the books on which they were based, those freak cases usually come from the horror or sci-fi genre.(2)

Maybe it’s because I was expecting so little that I’m enjoying Dracula so much. Oh, sure, Lucy is the exasperating epitome of sweetness and light, and her tenderly spurned gentleman callers harbor suspiciously little resentment towards her chosen beau. But Stoker has arranged the many journal entries and letters that make up the novel in such a way that it really does resemble a well-ordered case study, so that the reader can almost believe the format involves no pretense. Along with the story, in other words, I’m enjoying how Stoker is telling it, seeing how he’s orchestrating and organizing what might initially have been a simple idea, so that an originally generic thought about a folk monster was transformed into a tale of many working parts. Admittedly, it’s no hyper-Dickensian world akin to that of Infinite Jest,(3) but there’s something to be said for a quality easy read.

Carl Jung was noted for talking about synchronicity, or meaningful coincidences. I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate my calling him into service for the following, but the display I came across on my way home seemed to be a perfect encapsulation of my reading Sorrentino and Stoker at the same time. I’ll end, then, by using one of the good Romantics to caption the picture I took, even though he would also probably be offended. “Look on my Works, [then,] ye Mighty, and despair!”(4)

 

 

 

(1) At this point, Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 production is hands-down the most terrifying of all– and that despite my easy ability to laugh at what a friend called the castle-bound vampire’s “butt hair,” as seen in the film still below.

(2) For instance, Andrei Tarkovsky’s version of Solaris blows Stanislaw Lem’s book out of the water. And whichever low-budget adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw I saw as a teenager was so delightfully creepy, I’ve been afraid to spoil that memory by reading the story itself– a probably erroneous move I think I’ll soon correct.

(3) (Best book ever– among other reasons, because how in the world did David Foster Wallace not only come up with, but also keep straight, so many brilliant, complex, enormously textured lives and entanglements?!!?)

(4) That’s from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”

Maybe I’m All Wrong– But Sorrentino’s All/Right

I suppose I should be more circumspect than I am about my own ignorance. For instance, it probably doesn’t sound all that sophisticated to admit that I snatched a lovely copy of Gilbert Sorrentino’s trilogy, Pack of Lies, off the remainder shelf only because 1) I was aware Sorrentino was a Big, Important Name; and 2) the book is put out by Dalkey Archive, which must mean I’m supposed to be reading it for my own enculturation and cocktail-party bragging rights. I will also freely admit to the fact that, two-thirds of the way in, I often have no idea whether I’m missing something significant, whether my instinctual joy in this carefully designed mess is legitimate, or whether Sorrentino has pulled one over on a lot of literati eager to expound upon all the hues and shades of brilliance in his experiment.

There’s also probably some sense in refraining, at least before the more methodological among us, from admitting that my enjoyment of this tome is mostly grounded in sheer good feeling. Of course, that doesn’t exclude admiration of Sorrentino’s deadpan analyses of certain clichéd literary practices. I wish I could cite the entire section from which the following comes; instead, I’ll taunt you with an exemplary snippet:

Blow, an interesting, depressed person with an awareness of life in our time… packs up his personal, annotated copies of [some non-existent titles], and leaves to save a civilization worth saving from the barbaric hordes. Many of his poems are about the headstrong virility of youth and the slow, dark wisdom of age.
For a change.*

Sorrentino also manages to maintain superb variations on weird image-threads throughout the book. Right when you think you’ve forgotten, say, about lighthouses being brought in as mood descriptors, up pops a new inflection of that theme, as in “Buddy’s smile beamed like a demented lighthouse.”** If you don’t approve of the notion of inanimate objects expressing emotion, you might not share in my love of what the author’s doing here. I’ve never seen a demented lighthouse– but I get it, I totally, lovingly get it.

Then again, I’ll make a final admission about my amateurish approach to Pack of Lies: plowing through at least a couple hundred of its complex pages while flitting through eight time zones in an austere economy seat probably contributed nothing to understanding this thing “correctly.” Diving into a work that should be confronted with all one’s mental acuity, there I was grooving on this stuff through the lens of sleep deprivation and a week’s worth of inept stuttering in a language not my own. But in the end, if anything, whether the work itself or the way you read it, can make you forget about your numb derrière and the oaf in front of you who’s reclined his seat into your face– well, whatever’s going on, I’ll call that a win.

 

* Gilbert Sorrentino, Pack of Lies (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997), 306.

** ibid., 387.