Monday, May 18, 2009

Addicted to "Addicted to Love"

I'm gonna have to face it. I'm not addicted to love. I'm addicted to the song.

I recently changed my facebook "music" info to include: "My current guilty pleasure is Robert Palmer." It was important (or intense) enough that I make that change.

My passion is the 1970s. I love sloppy rocking Zepplin. I adore smooth ironic Dan. I go head over heels for over-commercial Boston and their ilk. However, the seventies, no matter where you start, are still so deep!

Sometimes (only sometimes) when I'm station surfing -- because I think the radio is the best way to hear tunes if you've got good stations in your area -- I have a dilemma on my hands (or on my finger). I toggle between some seventies ballad or another on station one and two, and lately, unavoidably, station three offers up some eighties treat that I just can't resist. The draw of the drum machine and the superficial coked-up messages are the exciting alternative to those old seventies tunes that always seem to want to talk about our "relationship."

Maybe I've been spending too much time and effort on the seventies. Maybe we need a breather. No, that can't be! I just need a little eighties action on the side once in a while.

The '80s don't require any effort or thought. The drum machines do the work for me. The synthesizers, now aided by something almost like a computer, punch at just the right time. It's easy and it feels good, so why put all that work into whoever's on the other station?

Robert Palmer knows he is talking to you, and he doesn't care that much about the message he's sending. The keyboard doesn't care whether it's making a pleasing sound. It flatly introduces a soulful voice fronting a "one-track mind." Palmer, always aloof, doesn't admit he's got a personal role in the song until the second verse. It sounds like a condemnation or advice to a friend -- until he mentions "you'll be mine." He's addicted too. That's when things heat up, and someone starts craving "oblivion." Pretty intense for this song. But then we're back to the comfort of synth and completely detached and careless ooooh yeahs. Bridge. WHACK. More detached oooh yeahs. And ride it out on the repetition of that fucking sexy hook!

I don't think I'm going to stop thinking about it (or listening to it) anytime soon. At least not for...a week or so. See 70s? You've really got nothing to worry about! This? Ha, this. It doesn't mean anything.

I admit I can't draw a solid line where the "real" music ends and the cheap thrills begin. There are some '80s outliers that still inspire that '70s romanticism despite their synth-heavy compositions and staccato back-beats. The Talking Heads have immense depth, with an '80s sheen on their ripply surface. The Cars are hangers-on; decade straddlers. These bands fall in line with my true loves of yore. They just look a little blinged out by comparison.

Robert Palmer, however, is the prime example of the kind of eighties music that gives the best of the cheap thrills. There is nothing to be said for his music's depth or lyrical qualities, at least nothing positive about life-changing or society-commentating or otherwise moving capabilities in any of it. The only thing it moves are asses. It snags some unthinking, addictive! part of the brain, that silly part alerts the whole, always-addictive body, and you're stuck listening to repetitive but somehow brilliantly empty music, maybe even for a whole summer.

Ahhh, yeah.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Library, Sweet Library

I'm at the library. I feel like I belong here.

The people who work here are nice to me. The books are all accessible to me. I have a dollar or so in fines but no one cares that I haven't paid them. There are high ceilings, comfortable chairs, free computers, wifi, and big studying tables in here. They let you sit on the floor. People actually look at each other between the stacks. There are three bike racks and a reading garden outside. A coffee shop in the lobby makes fancy things and gives out free samples. And even if my local library were not so well-funded (like the linoleum-covered, crusty-booked library at school) I would love it just the same, because:

"There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration."

That's what Carnegie said.

I had a shitty day of bank tellers treating me like crap, yuppies in stores sneering at my clothes or youth or whatever they didn't approve of, administrative ladies talking to me like I'm ten, and gas pumps that didn't like my debit card. I cursed a lot in the car between all of these places.

And now I'm at the library. I'm myself again.

Friday, May 15, 2009

"Supposing that writing exists": My First Derridaversary

During finals week, I promised myself a "reading treat" once all the papers were in. I wasn't gazing and sighing all week at a shelf full of juicy unread novels (there are many of those), nor was I gearing up for the poetry studies I'd planned for long summer nights. For some sick reason I decided my treat was going to be "Signature Event Context."

I have Limited, Inc. (the Derrida book out of which SEC is a chapter) sitting with all my hard-to-read books on a single long shelf. Because of their concentrated menacing presence, and my concentrated menacing workload, I haven't pulled any of them out since last summer. But my philosophy professor gave the class a thin Derrida packet. "You have this already," he tells me. I took one anyway, because I thought this was just the opportunity to ease myself into reading the hard-to-read books again, and to make that area of the bookshelf populated by poststructuralists, semioticians, and philosopher-critics look as friendly and inviting as it did last year.

So here I am again stumbling over parentheses and em dashes and coined words. Don't ask me why I let his orthography get in the way of his meaning. It's just what I notice when I first jump in.

I started reading Derrida a year ago, not because of deconstruction, his most well-known claim to fame, but because of something related to deconstruction yet much more specific -- the speech/writing hierarchy. Of course from the get-go I was on Derrida's side, the "Yo speech! Writin' ain't yo bitch no mo!" side. I honestly can't remember how I came across that problem (I'm fairly certain in wasn't in those exact words), but I remember once I knew someone was writing about it I was enamored. I got a pile of Derrida off of Amazon and began skimming this and that, not committing to reading anything in particular because I instantly saw how turgid it was. After a visit with my philo prof, we decided that if speech/writing was my thing, that I should read Plato's Phaedrus and then Derrida's reading of the Phaedrus, "Plato's Pharmacy."

Several months and a few boxes of post-it flags later, I'd nearly conquered reading Derrida. But not without the help of two books on how to read Derrida, and another book that's really a transcript of his talk at Villanova in 1994 called "Deconstruction in a Nutshell"(as if reading him talking is any easier than reading him writing, speech/writing hierarchy beefs aside). If they had published a Derrida for Dummies, I might have gotten that too. But now I think that would void part of the purpose of reading Derrida. And I don't think anyone who really appreciates him would ever write such a thing.

This was the first time I'd read something that I needed to read more than once, something I couldn't read right before bed, or right before class. Granted, I hadn't taken any upper level philosophy yet, and now I know there are many things that must be re-read. (My other buddy Barthes tells us "A first reading is to remind us of what we know. Re-reading is to show us what we don't know.") But even after reading modern Germans like Heidegger and Adorno, and hundreds of pages of long-winded old guys like Hegel, Derrida still wins the turgidity prize.

(Don't get me wrong about my liking difficult writing and reading -- it only works when it's part of the process of the meaning transfer or semiolinguistic communication or whatever moniker floats your boat. It does not work when you are trying to communicate something that's actually pretty simple to the general population -- then it just looks like a cover-up or like the Dr. hired to do the writing must have defended his or her sloppily written dissertation by simply befuddling the committee. Please see my "A Tour of Corporate Speak" from last year. Similarly, language that is too transparent can cause too many problems to get into here.)

I remember going chapter by chapter through "Plato's Pharmacy" and getting very excited when things started to click. I read each chapter three times before moving to the next one. Notes in pencil because I knew what I thought was important might not really be that important. That was my system. Little did I know my devotion to these complicated pages would lead to a period of isolation and lack of personal direction.

My confidence increased, I went online to buy more used books (more purposeful buying, less willy-nilly), and I noticed a bunch of them were coming from the same guy. I ventured to ask a question about Derrida (assuming he'd read all these things), and after making me apologize for bringing up such an intellectual sore spot with him, he told me what he understood about Derrida, which wasn't much more than I understood so far, in several lecture-ish emails. He was getting rid of all his books because he had quit grad school in English. He didn't have much else to say, so after clearing his shelves of the literature he no longer had any use for, I returned to my lonely studies and conversed instead with the post-it flags for the remainder of the summer.

When school started again in the fall, I told some of my English professors what I'd been reading. They all gagged. Even a philosophy professor said to me, "Derrida!? I've read two or three of his words..." And with regard to my senior project that I'd hoped to do on Derrida, I was respectfully directed away from dark waters of decon, and led into the safety zone of more purely literary topics. Considering my own doubts at understanding the material, and the nearly palpable waters of complex thought closing over my head, I climbed onto the literary lifeboat I'd been offered and redirected my project entirely.

A year later, as I work on that completely over-hauled project (now something having to do with American mythologies in literature informed by Barthes' Mythologies -- won't get into it here, and you can tell how non-committal I am) I think I really could now handle the kind of rigorous thinking and writing that my original speech/writing topic would have required. I'm not upset though, as producing a more literary writing sample is probably a good thing. I just don't want to leave that first project idea behind.

Though I still struggle with this kind of stuff, I get a sort of sick pleasure out of it too. I once offered up the term "word pervert" which my friend Henry latched onto, and then he painted a verbal picture of us word pervs as greasy library lurkers trading enseamed volumes under back-corner desks. It hasn't gotten to that point for me, but Derrida has definitely perverted my brain just a little.

And today, in reading "Signature Event Context" I'm reliving the pain and excitement of understanding (sometimes after only two readings, but three is safer), and I'm enjoying the deconstruction of the speech/writing problematic again. After a semester of linguistics, reading Habermas on universal pragmatics, and dealing with contradictions in how I think about writing and speech outside of literature (particularly in politics and history), I've got a whole new model of what a "discourse" looks like. In light of these new and varied tools for thinking about words and meanings (and now, contexts), I am excited to visit that mentally blocked off portion of the bookcase and see what I might find there with a different eye.

In Europe next week I hope to find some Derrida in French to liven up the book pile (or perhaps make it even more frightening).

It just seems very silly looking back on this past year (Has it only been a year?/Jesus it's been a whole year!) since I got so excited about Derrida. Silly because it was love-at-first-read simply because he's another person who supposes that writing exists.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Comfortably, Wordsworth

While doing some menial task at work -- a spreadsheet I think -- and listening to some music on headphones, I was stunned into consciousness by an unexpected association between what I was hearing and what I'd been reading.

"Comfortably Numb" had lulled me into this place of (perceived) clarity when, suddenly, during the second chorus, as Waters sang "When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse" I heard an echo of Wordsworth's question: "Whither has fled that visionary gleam?" It didn't seem a coincidence or a loose association. I thought there must be a reason for it.

After comparing the lyrics to "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," I decided that the themes of "Numb" and "Ode" are but one theme. It is not a theme that hasn't been repeated elsewhere, nor was Wordsworth the first to explore it. But parallels in the lyrics and the poem still seemed significant.

Wordsworth's observations about the "prison-house" and "yoke" of adulthood reflect an early sort of cynicism, which would be fully developed by the time rock musicians were writing reflectively. Wordsworth's little bit of jadedness, however, is tempered throughout the poem by his period fascination with the positive effects of nature on the soul, and nearly sentimental (but never giving over completely to sentimentality in Wordsworth) dwelling on the joys of youth. Pink Floyd carries out the life-cynicism without as much of an attempt to overcome it (Wordsworth repeatedly calls himself back to the beauty of the day, and chides himself for disgracing it with sadness) -- we don't expect Wordsworth's positivity in post-modernity, even with qualifications.

To further the association, Wordsworth's romantically rhythmic and rhymed lines seemed to match the cadence and mood of "Numb." In other well-known poems he often employed a blank verse that trailed on in natural speech patterns ("Tintern Abbey," The Prelude), instead of this anisometric verse with varied line lengths. The choice to use rhyme in "Ode" lends a song-like quality to it. In fact it was set to music several times before Waters and Gilmour got the idea (Waters actually wrote the lyrics and gave Gilmour feedback on the music).

Before I get into the line by line comparisons, I want to note one major difference between the poem and the song. Waters uses a sort of dialog to unfold the story. The first voice we hear, the semi-whispering deceptively friendly voice, is the antagonist (a doctor?) and the second voice -- high and mellow, accompanied by synth strings -- that begins with the first chorus is our speaker. The doctor (society? adulthood?) interviews the speaker who has begun to feel the emptiness of life ("Hello, is there anybody in there?") and of forgetting. When asked "where it hurts" and the speaker realizes he does not actually have any pain, just a numbness (the same thing?), the doctor ensures that the numbness will continue, and at a level where no doubts or memories can creep to the surface. As the doctor does his work ("Ok. Just a little pinprick.") the speaker desperately tries to remember what childhood meant to him, and who he was before the numbness set in, but he "can't explain it" and the doctor "would not understand" anyway. The speaker, unable to express himself, gives up and gives over to the comfort of numbness, and the song ends with his pain never having been felt ("There is no pain") and his exploration of the origins of his numbness incomplete. He is an ironic tragic hero, who faces an end very different from death, and faces it without anything like valiance.

I know "doctor" is too literal of an explication for what's going on in these lyrics but for the sake of explaining the dialog, I cast a person for the part.

Wordsworth does not carry on a dialog with anyone but himself. He also does not necessarily lay the blame for the "forgetting" outside of himself. For Wordsworth, the forgetting is a natural process and a spiritual maturing that is to be expected. The "trailing clouds of glory"(line 65) we bring with us from heaven are sure to dissolve as the sun rises on adulthood, and though youth's "vision splendid" (line 74) will "fade to the common light of day" (line 77), it brings a sadness and a loss, but not tragedy. Wordsworth ends the poem on a somewhat optimistic (but still poignant) note in fact, because, as he suggests throughout the ode, a child is the "best philosopher," but the wisdom of adulthood brings out a new sort of philosopher in the man, a "philosophic mind" (line 191) (rather than soul?) with a new view "that looks through death" (line 190), and can appreciate the beauty and ephemerality of everything the joy-drinking child takes for granted.

Despite this difference in format, the thematic similarities remain, as well as some very close textual similarities. Some lines I found strikingly close (Wordsworth in green, Floyd in pink, of course) are listed here with explanation. Some are repeated, as Waters' much shorter lyrics match up with several lines in the long "Ode," and sometimes, conversely, whole "stanzas" of the song are explorations of a line in the poem.

These are the lines that woke me from work-stupor:

"Where is it now the glory and the dream?" (line 59)
"The child is grown, the dream is gone."

The above lines encapsulate the theme the two works share. I scribbled on a yellow legal pad "Comfortably Numb....Intimations!?"

The below lines show Waters elaborating on an idea that Wordsworth danced around.

"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting" (line 59)
and "The things which I have seen I now can see no more." (line 9)
"When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of my eye. When I turned to look it was gone. I cannot put my finger on it now."

The forgetting seems to be an important notion, but it fades away in the poem. Waters' speaker seems to struggle with this more than Wordsworth does. He desperately tries to recall the vision, to articulate what has gone missing. The message of the "Ode" is the same as the message of "Numb," insofar as the vision is something the child takes for granted or never looks at full-on. Once he gains the self-consciousness to look for the source of the vision, it moves away from him. But Wordsworth shows the ramifications of all this indirectly, and keeps calling his own attention back to the May day, making himself delight in the children he is observing rather than deal with his loss and forgetting on a personal level.

I picture Wordsworth on a green hill shaking his head at the view and the kids. "Mmm-mmm. Isn't that something. You can never go back to it." I picture Waters' speaker on a cold metal table waffling between misery and acceptance, desperate to cry out but muted by forgetfulness and an inability to articulate what there are no words for (though Wordsworth did his best to find substitutes) in the language of Man. The word I keep returning to for "Numb" is "desperate." Wordsworth is not desperate, only contemplative. Or if he is desperate, he hides it well.

"The homely nurse doth all she can/To make her foster-child, her Inmate Man/Forget the glories he hath known" (lines 82-4)
"Well I can ease your pain, get you on your feet again."
and all the doctoring lines about fixing him up

The above lines make reference to the forces and niceties of the Earth that keep us in line, keep us accepting of the numbness and of the trappings of adulthood. This is a far bigger fish to fry for Waters' twentieth century speaker than it was for Wordsworth, who was lulled into numbness by the "meanest" things in nature! This bigger conflict for Waters' speaker would explain the dialogic framework (them v. me) of the Pink Floyd song and the locus of the pain/numbess being outside of the Man.

"To me alone there came a thought of grief"
(line 22)
"Now I've got that feeling once again...I can't explain, you would not understand."

The above lines show that both speakers are outsiders. They are alone in their feeling grief at this situation that faces every man. Wordsworth is sure no one else beholding that pastoral scene has any unrest in his heart. Waters' speaker is sure the doctor could not understand what he is yearning for, even if he could explain it.

Didn't find a direct match in Wordsworth, but this line kills me!
"When I was a child I had a fever. My hands felt just like two balloons."

There are quite a few lines in "Ode" having to do with the child's light-infused vision of the world, his fresh and dazzling perspective on sunsets, lambs, mothers, everything. I think the word "fever
" catches my eye in the Floyd line; the fever being the altered vision, the heat and energy of youth. It could be both Wordsworth's fever and an actual childhood fever, giving it a place in Water's speaker's mind where it would be vividly remembered, so that it calls him back to his childlike way of seeing. The balloons are hard to figure -- but I think they are a distinctly child-like interpretation of a physical sensation. Also, it is a comforting thing for a feverish child to have such happy thoughts -- his perception of his body's changes in sickness remind him of balloons, rather than frightening him. All he has to judge the situation by are "fragment[s] of his dream of human life" (line 92).

"The little actor cons another part"
(line 103)
"As if his whole vocation/Were endless imitation." (lines 107-8)
"Both of them speak of something that is gone" (line 54)
"This is not how I am."

The above lines show the speakers struggling with who they are at that moment. Waters' speaker remembers his childhood self, and denies the man he has become. Wordsworth, lost in brief reflection on trees and flowers, is brought back to his speculations in line 54 because of he way a tree and a field refuse to interact with him the same as they had in his youth. He is in limbo between his selves. Lines 103 and 107-8 are Wordsworth's description of a child growing up, as he learns by imitation. However, many critics have wondered at this entire stanza on the child growing up, and some call it superfluous (See Cleanth Brooks, "Wordsworth and the Paradox of the Imagination"). These last lines add ambiguity to the poem, because the adult-making process is described differently than elsewhere. Could it be that the little boy who learns to play his part becomes a man who is always merely playing? Wordsworth wonders what Waters' speaker states without question: "IS this how I am?"

"Whither has fled that visionary gleam?" (line 58)
"And custom lie upon thee [me] with a weight/Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!" (132-3)
"At length the Man perceives it die away/And fade into the light of common day."
(lines 76-7)
"I have become comfortably numb."

The above Wordsworth lines and many, many more can be summed up by Waters' ingenious title-giving phrase, "comfortably numb."

Perhaps, is the below line the key to Wordsworth's actual suffering, which he manages to hide better than Waters' speaker?

"A timely utterance gave that thought [of grief] relief,/And again I am strong."
(lines 23-4)
"Just a little pinprick...I do believe it's working, good. That'll keep you going for the show."

Whereas this renewed strength may be a kind of denial for Wordsworth, Waters acknowledges the pain/numbness as something he has succumbed to, and that the pure numbness he gets a shot of is (like Wordsworth's shot of strength from a jangling tambor) merely to keep him operating as a human. Despite his doubts and fears, the show must go on. Again Waters presents a far more cynical approach to "the show" than Wordsworth many have even been capable of. The angriest Wordsworth gets at society is when he complains of "custom."

The above lines also call us back to the aforementioned lines about the "little actor."

Finally, there is no direct and meaningful correllation here, but I find the below lines to be imagistically similar.

"Though far inland we be/Our souls have sight of that Immortal sea...And see the children sport upon the shore/And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore."
(lines 167-172)
"A distant ship's smoke on the horizon. You are only coming through in waves. You lips move but I can't hear what you're saying."

Wordsworth has inspired two centuries of poets and artists, and I think we can count Pink Floyd among them. It is not only amazing to see what Waters may have borrowed from this epic theme done Wordsworth style, but to see how the song can even illuminate a poem that was written over 170 years before anyone ever got stoned to The Wall.

P.S. In case you thought I missed a line, I'll tell you I could probably write a whole new entry just on "You are receding." But I'll save that for later. (That's why I didn't open that can of worms during the comparison.)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Novel

This is a re-post of something I wrote last summer. I had taken it down to fiddle with it. Actually I had taken a couple of things down because I had a bout of blog paranoia where I thought everyone was going to steal my ideas. I'm quite over it now.

A hot and sweaty bike ride landed me at the local Borders Books. It seems most of my hot and sweaty times are spent with books these days.

I wandered around, my eyes adjusting from blazing sunlight to cool fluorescent, my legs slowing down from frantic pedaling to a stroll, and when the sunspots cleared I was happy to find myself in the section they call "Fiction/Literature."

On an end cap were a collection of Chuck Palahniuk novels, so I gave them a look. Each one had a different cover, but all very Palahniuk. Directly above Chuck was a collection of novels by a Ms. Jodi Picoult, which were not so fun to behold. Each had a cover photo of girls' dresses or a set of feminine arms or a pair of feminine shoulders (synecdoche is all the rage, you know -- or is it metonymy? no one knows). I tire so much of this kind of cover art. And even worse, at the bottom of each cover, in very small lettering, was the label "A NOVEL."

This is the label one finds on almost every new piece of work in the "Fiction/Literature" section. Most of what Americans read today can be classified as novels, yet publishers, authors, or whoever it is that thinks such a label is necessary, seem to think a book's being "a novel" is not something self-evident. We must label it, or they won't know what it is.

Without the label, one picks up a book with a lyrical title, opens the cover to find no extensive table of contents, perhaps a forward, a page titled "Chapter One." Flipping through the book confirms that there are at least twenty more of these chapters, full of long passages of prose and many sections punctuated by quotation marks. I think one would assume one has picked up a novel.

This identification process would take less than ten seconds, assuming one has not already made up their minds that the shelf is full of novels and has no doubt about the format of the book -- it being lodged between Kerouac and Kesey in the Fiction/Literature section might be a clue.

"But," argues the label-happy publisher, "writers who write novels also write poetry, criticism, plays, they create anthologies! We need to be clear!" Not to worry. These things are all safely removed from the novel area and housed in their own special stacks. The only infiltrators into the novel shelves are books of short stories and collections of essays. These have always been labeled. So the novels do not need to be labeled. I think our readers can use the process of elimination and a bit of common sense to figure out which are the novels.

"But," argues the publisher, "someone might buy the book and start reading it, and still not know it's a novel!" Good point, publisher. Some readers who are not very well-read may be thrown by what they find inside the cover of something they assumed to be a novel. If the format becomes unfamiliar, the narrator gives over to more and more narrators, the narrative distance changes, the chapters are interspersed with poetry -- these are all things which might cause a novice reader to ask "Is this a novel?" (trans. "Should I be reading this?")

So people don't want to get in over their heads. As we've said, the average American reads novels, not plays or poetry, and certainly not essays or criticism. The label may assuage any fears they have after being jarred by a novel that takes the form of a narrative essay, bursts into poetry, or blurs the lines between narrator/author/God. The timid reader checks the cover and exhales, "Phew. It says, 'A Novel.'" Perhaps it is this quality of the novel, its refusal to be defined or formatted, that puts the publisher into a labeling panic.

I wonder if a novelist refused such a label if she would be denied a book deal. Such "a novelist" would probably call herself "a writer." Anyhow, Mr. Random House or Mr. Penguin would stare blankly at her: "How the hell will anyone know what they're reading!"

Scanning the shelf of McSo-and-Sos I find a woman writer who has kept the stamp off of her work. Colleen McCullough writes books; maybe they're novels. We don't know. Especially because the cover art is actual artwork and not photos of sad little girls. Doesn't she know the conventions? Perhaps she already had her foot in the door when the labeling party began, so when they asked her where they should stick it she told them where they should "Stick it." They found a way though. Two of her works have starbursts on the spine containing those words in one way or another: "One of the most beloved novels of all time!" "A New York Times Bestselling Novel." Sorry Colleen.

Almost all of these books have it in some form. "A NOVEL" "a novel" "a novel" Some in tiny letters at the bottom, some vying for attention with the title, some with design elements specifically for containing the phrase "A Novel" (a little cameo shape under the title is most popular.) But a few who have gold seals to sell their books were spared, like Pulitzer Prize winner Cormac McCarthy. On the whole, men are better at dodging the label than women. But we've always had trouble dodging labels.

Maybe someone in publishing knows more than I do. Is the modern novel having an identity crisis? Are we trying to help it find itself?

I fear the day may come when the new editions of old favorites sport that contemplative phrase "a novel." (They just think they're so stylish when they italicize it.) Will the publishers do it because they simply end up going too far in a world where people don't mind having their intelligence insulted? Because they don't remember the days when books had no cover art, just a title on the spine? Or perhaps they will do it because twenty years from now our children truly won't know whether Wuthering Heights, War and Peace, and Middlemarch are novels, movies or social networking websites.

I have a short novel in progress -- "a novella" they would call it. If I were ever to publish "a novel" or "a novella," I would kindly ask my publisher to forgo the label "a novel." Instead I would ask that he place the label "A BOOK" in very large type directly underneath the title -- or maybe directly above. I wouldn't want my readers to be confused.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Things I Saw Today

Today I saw some things.

Blanket of white flower petals sticking to a near-perfect circle of oil in the company parking lot.

Journal entry magnified and distorted through a big water bottle.

Old man with a toothbrush behind his ear, like a pencil.

Blue sky. I had to look again. Blue sky.

Glassy brown eyes. Didn't I sleep?

A new hole in the fence.

A robin on the hood of a maroon Corvette.

Greasy fellow in a wife-beater and gold chains riding a beater bike in the road.

Framed poster of The New York Times, Jan 5, 1956: "MIT to Open School for Studies on High Level."

Hundreds of feet of tarp that will be a tent on graduation day.

Professor-wife of my professor/adviser who I'd somehow never seen.

A McDonald's fashion t-shirt for $7.

Down's Syndrome woman opening a bag of chips with her teeth.

Gulliver's Travels sliding down the book return chute at the wrong library.

Girl I work with, in the parking lot, didn't recognize me. Must be the eyes.

Meter maid riding a Segway.

Ingredients on a Pepsi Max can, and the West Virginia stamp on the can top.

A pothole that could swallow a motorcycle.

Too much produce.

Several bad drivers, mostly in white cars.

Fortune in a cookie: "The next few days are a lucky time for you. You can take a chance."


This has been an experiment, because I feel like I almost always smell, feel, and hear what I write more than I ever see it. It's funny because the seeing comes out in this matter-of-fact way, since I'm not used to observing (input) or writing (output) like that. I purposely tried to keep out metaphor and figurative speech, but once I'm used to seeing I'll let more in.

This was just an idea I had, but it's probably an exercise they recommend in those how-to-write books, which I have some experience with from writer's groups. I've always had the best handle on place and grounding, a pretty good grasp of character, and absolutely no talent for plot (Aristotle would hate my stories). I try to hone my better skills and remain unapologetic about the absent ones. So the object of this was to work on showing things as they are, so that I can then show them how I want them to be appear. The right picture to present to the reader probably lies somewhere in between.

Going back to a recommendation from Virginia Woolf, who I can't seem to shake (nor do I really want to!), I think this summer is going to be a time for my "fictitious mind" to get some exercise. Besides those philosophy papers I'm writing for conferences next fall, I want to write some damn stories! Of course, I'm sure my critical mind will try to dominate again, and we'll be back to August before I do anything creative.

UPDATE: 5 Minutes Later....I keep trying to think of more things to write but every time I think of one it's a taste or something. Damn. What a short list. I'll get the hang of it.

UPDATE: 9pm... My hard working eyes were rewarded with one of the most breath-taking twilights I've witnessed, in any season, in any place. Watching the sun set was nothing compared to watching this patchy pink twilight be swallowed up in deep blue. The backlit sky was like the ceiling at the Venetian, but instead of vulgarizing the scene, the reference made it all the more amazing -- a real sky, perfect enough to imitate in man-made tromp l'oeil, then given back to the heavens and the winds to suspend it and carry it on by for our enjoyment. I turned round to find the moon had joined in the show, spraying some glow over grey seafoam clouds. Soon it was wrapped in the folds of them, and I turned back to see the moving peach-pink was now a dusty celing. I was in a snow globe, but instead of snow, white petals, and instead of snow-smell, lilacs. And as the clouds closed the gaps between themselves, the scents grew stronger. The pressure dropped and my head grew clear. I was truly on the ground, in one place. And I stood there in the driveway until the neighbors came out and looked at me.

All this would have been way more, uh, spiritual if Aja hadn't been blasting from the screen door.

On Location

I don't mean that I am "on location" but that I am writing about location. Well, I guess that means I'm on location for this "story."

I have always considered place to be an important part of self. We cannot remove ourselves from the "environment," from --

Hold on. My boss just handed me a fortune cookie: "The next few days are a lucky time for you. you can take a chance." Hey! That's a real fortune! Don't you hate it when the cookie just tells you something useless like "People like you"?

--from the people we live near, the climate in our state, the rooms we work in, the old or new buildings we wander around, or the smells we've grown used to. These things change with our changes of place, but some of each place sticks with us, making up part of our selves.

Some places are more compatible with the core of who we are, even though they all get through to us a little. Many people are pretty resilient when it comes to bouncing between different types of places, but most of us have one that we miss or one that we think best aligns with who we are. I miss friends in Tucson, I miss growing up in Maryland, I miss riding all over California. I miss all their smells. But I'm not sure if there's somewhere I'm supposed to be now, someplace with a new smell or a different type of friends.

Too many changes of place can muddy this yearning for home or roots or just familiarity. The three places I've listed are not places I can go back to and expect to pick up where I left off. I left Tucson for good in 2005, and as I said I miss the people most. But only one friend is left there. My two best friends in AZ had extreme changes of place -- one went to Germany, the other just landed in Brooklyn. So going back there would be something completely different.

I left California in 2001 (we'd been on and off for a few years, me and Cali) and I miss doing things outside there most of all. Camping, night hikes, road trips, beaches, weird stuff. Those things are still there to do, but I can't just go there to live outside or in a tree or something (well, I could...). I'd have to live there and work there again, and it just wouldn't be the same.

Even earlier, I left Maryland in 1994, and that location is definitely not the place I left behind anymore. "You can never really go back." said Grandma Byrd on the phone from Maryland last Saturday. She had just been down to the Shenandoah Valley to bury her sister, and she didn't feel she belonged in the place where she grew up. Those words hit home (wherever that is?) for me. I know she's not the first person to utter those words, but coming from her gave them new meaning.

Now I am in Illinois. I have been here for four years this July. That's almost as long as my on-off relationship with southern California, which is very much a part of me. But I have not let Illinois internalize. I've resisted it from day one. The suburbs, the flat land, the lack of starlight, the blase sunsets, the not-very-poofy clouds and the terrible winters immediately turned me off, and the suburbanites were just the poison icing on the cake. I had culture shock moving here more than anything! But nature shock wasn't far behind on the list of reasons to keep Illinois out of "myself."

Now I am on the brink of leaving old Lincolnland, and I wonder if my resistance has been unhealthy. I am desperate to get into a non-Illinois school with money or at least in an affordable area so I have an awesome excuse to escape. I'll find out sometime next spring where I'll be going, and I've got enough shitty backup plans that I'm sure to get at least one letter of acceptance to something. So will I run off as soon as I find out? Will I stick around for the summer and mope about another change of place? Will I even miss it here?

I remember the first time I thought of this place as home, as in, like the place I'm going back to that's where I came from. About a half-year into living here, I went to Florida for just a weekend, and it was too cold. I thought, "I can't wait to go home." Then I was filled with mixed emotions about what that means. It was February so it was probably a lot warmer at "home" in Arizona than at "home" in Illinois.

I called my ex-Tucsonan friend yesterday to see how she's adjusting to life as a New Yorker (how long till she gets that title?). She was at the laundromat. She said its not as bad there as she thought it would be, but moving from a medium city to a metropolis probably jarred her as much as my move to the endless suburbs jarred me.

If I try to be objective about where my next place is, I think about what I like in a place -- liberal politics and people, mild climates, outdoor activities, and it seems I should be aiming myself west again. But I haven't. I've been mostly looking east (except Colorado, which appeals to me because I have absolutely no precedent for it), and being sentimental. I think about old things, grass and trees, people who say what they mean, childhood, and family. I guess the key is, no matter where I get to go (because they make the decision), to expect something different, but not too different. And to not to expect to go "back" to anything. Oh yeah, and to leave Illinois for someplace that has some better smells.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Woolf and Masculine Poetry

Milton is coming along, and it looks like he's turned into a paper on Virginia Woolf. She and I are buds again lately -- must be a summertime thing. This is the most excited about a paper I've been all semester, and while "I am no ardent feminist" (Woolf's words), I think she may be someone I want to hang out with for a long long time.

This is the first three pages (the most revised part) but the rest is spilling and spilling onto more pages as everything expands. The intro paragraph is a mess and I'll have to write it last.

Approaches to Masculine Poetry – “Woman-Manly” Readings of "Paradise Lost"

Milton holds a place at the head of a long patriarchal tradition of literary misogynism and the occlusion of women writers. Virginia Woolf calls him "the first of the masculinists," and he tells the story of a woman's inferiority that every woman of literature reads early in her studies. "Paradise Lost," through Milton's treatment of Eve, sets up the framework for a permanently skewed female creative ego; one that must approach the works of Milton and his male peers with reverence and timidity, and think of her own work as second, other, and inferior. Feminist critics have waged war on Milton for decades, but woman writers have struggled with him for centuries. Any woman who studies the western canon cannot simply dismiss the cornerstones of literary tradition, but finding a way to come to terms with the very real masculine influence of patriarchal works like "Paradise Lost" is important for finding one's self as a reader and writer, and gaining new meaning from Milton's poetry, despite what his intentions for Eve and her daughters might have been.

Virginia Woolf is perhaps the first of the woman-critics, or at least the first of them who would have had an early feminist slant to her criticism, and therefore a strong (if conflicted) opinion about Milton’s masculinity. Writing in the early decades of the twentieth century, Woolf attended school in a time when higher education had only been open to women for about twenty years. In her 1929 book-length essay, “A Room of One’s Own” she tells a tale of a visit to the library at the local all-male university, a library where she, a woman, needs a permission-slip to enter. She takes us on a virtual tour of the shelves of masculine books, stopping frequently to berate writers such as Flaubert, Browning, Dickens and their male peers (everyone post-Milton is game, from Victorian poets to French novelists) giving us some detail about why their writing does not help women writers, and how their literary attitudes prolonged women’s stay in the shadows, “block[ing] their view of possibilities both real and literary” (Gilbert 368). “Lamb, Browne, Thackery, Newman, Sterne, Dickens, De Quincey –” Woolf writes, “whoever it may be – never helped a woman yet, though she may have learnt a few tricks of them and adapted them to her use” (76). Woolf acknowledges the power and influence, indeed the necessity of men’s writing (she reads all these men with awe), but maintains that reading great writing by men cannot help a woman writer reach her full “genius” potential. And the guilt that follows from borrowing those masculine “tricks” is perhaps worse than simply producing writing that is too womanly to be accepted as literary.

Although the above mentioned authors are frequently returned to, when Woolf has her most profound realizations, makes her most life-affirming statements about coming into her own as a writer, she invariably brings up Milton to take the blame for her former writer’s repression and continued difficulties as a woman (she worked some terrible low-paying jobs in order to keep herself dealing in letters for a living). When Woolf’s aunt leaves her a handsome legacy, she describes the financial freedom as “a view of the open sky” which had previously been blocked by “the large and imposing figure of a gentleman, which Milton had recommended for my perpetual adoration” (39). Throughout the essay, she uses Milton only in this metaphorical and blaming way, not even mentioning specifics about his work when she compares them to the works of other men. Woolf disparagingly calls Keats “Miltonic” then goes on to contrast Milton with her beloved Shakespeare who, unlike Milton, had no “grudges or spites” (56), no “desire to protest, to preach, to proclaim an injury, to pay off a score, to make the world the witness of some hardship or grievance was fired out of him and consumed” (57). Finally, in her concluding chapter Woolf makes the quick statement “Milton…had a dash too much of the male in [him]” (103) and vaguely sums up all of his trespasses, his masculinity in itself, as “Milton’s bogey,” a blinder that we must look past, lest we woman writers let it “shut out our view” (114).

Every mention of Milton in “A Room of One’s Own” is cited here. This seems almost an absence of Milton when we consider how profoundly Woolf was affected by him (Gilbert 368), and that she was writing on the very subject of women responding to male writing! Without facing Milton directly or directly addressing his works (for this, perhaps, would be too difficult for her writer’s soul) Woolf makes harsh judgments about the man. (When Woolf finally has to speak of a poem directly because another writer had written on it, she acts as if she can’t quite remember which work it was – “…he wrote an essay about one of Miltons’ poems…It was LYCIDAS perhaps…” (7).) Woolf sees an all-consuming masculinity that clouds Milton’s poetry and blocks woman’s view into the past and the future of her writing, but she cannot look into the face of it with the same confidence with which she converses with the masculine Romantics and Victorians.

A key to Milton’s limited appearances in “A Room of One’s Own” can be found in Woolf’s journal entries on “Paradise Lost.” Sandra Gilbert’s explication of one of these entries shows Woolf’s voice to be different than her normal writing style, and almost too apologetic for her opinions of the poem. She is left feeling “puzzled, excluded, inferior, and even a little guilty” by Milton (369). This timidity in the face of the patriarchs is nowhere to be found in “A Room of One’s Own.” Even a writer with a developed resistance to the authority of masculine poetry cannot escape the influence of a male viewpoint as strong as Milton’s. Brilliant women read him “with painful absorption” as Gilbert calls it (369).

And so on!

I finally got my "In Virginia's Room" essay back (with comments) from our wonderful resident Woolf scholar, so I'll put it back up here soon for more comments and suggestions. I'm going to submit it to our humanities journal in the fall, and even though it's literary, I'm working on the journal so... "Hmmm, this is kind of an outlier, but I think we can make an exception for this Robyn character." Unless somebody knows a good place to submit such things. Everywhere I look they have either literary magazines (poesy and such) and humanities journals (not quite literary). Isn't there an undergrad critical journal somewhere?