30 October 2012

End of October Hurricane

The moon was full and the house cast a strong shadow to the north. The light was sufficient enough that I could see out of my second story window a nocturnal creature discovering the apple core I had earlier discarded and the bread crumbs I had tossed from the heel of a bread going stale.
But in the East—for me the far East but really only the East Coast of the United States, it was a dark and stormy night. Hurricane Sandy (which the New York Times reported had made landfall at about 8:00 pm) had arrived causing flooding, power loss and considerable damage to the infrastructure of the cities and towns. And I found myself obsessed with the progress of the storm throughout the day yesterday and into the evening, and when I awakened early this morning I immediately checked the status of the storm. Perhaps I was fascinated at the destructive power of nature even as children are appalled by and attracted to the things that go bump in the night. The storm also pulled the presidential campaign off of the front pages and it was certainly a relief not to have to read anymore about the polls and the politicians.
The first year I moved to the Mid-West a Halloween storm left a foot or so of snow on the ground and it did not disappear until the following April. I have grown used to storms here, and I think I am surprised by the ferocity of the Hurricane on the East Coast that in my mind remains . . . well, too sophisticated and proper for such disarray. Such phenomena humble me as I think Thoreau might have been chastened at the top of Ktadn. Certain the wildness of Nature sent him back relievedly to civilization. I lived in New York for almost forty years and recall only two aberrant storms: one an actual hurricane sometime when I was in school, though I can’t remember the exact moment. I am certain I felt no real fear or concern, but then, maybe I was only a child. And I have an image in my mind of myself digging out my driveway from too many inches of snow, but again, the exact year eludes me. I am certain, however, that I was not at the time  pleased or well-paid. I was, then too, only a child.
Though last night was not one of them, I have grown used to dark and stormy nights here but I prefer the full moon.

23 October 2012


It is thundering outside and despite the hour (almost 7:00 am) the sky remains dark. I won’t run today. When I was younger I could not be deterred from my daily run; I arose sometimes at 4:00 am to maintain my training for some event or because I was suffering some neurotic episode. I ran through rain and snowstorms, ran in the heat and the cold, the light and the dark, alone and in company. Once in Colorado I set out on a brisk cold morning in only my shorts and t-shirt because I thought the weather in that Western state might be warmer than in Wisconsin. I caught a serious cold. One hot, muggy afternoon in New York City I set out on a ten-mile run through Central Park because . . . well, because I could do so. I experienced heat exhaustion. But as I’ve aged the sense of mortality too readily impinges on my consciousness, I sometimes look for an excuse not to run, and the thunderstorm today in this late October offers me that respite.
I have finished Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton, as part of a larger project studying memoirs and autobiographies. Roth calls the genre the “most manipulative of all literary forms.” I have come around to that opinion myself. Not that I do not read memoirs and autobiographies for I do, I do! The voyeur in me longs either for some window onto revealed truth, or a revelation of some scandalous insight; or a graphic depiction of a salacious scene. Alas, thus far, nothing! Actually, I teach a course centered in autobiographybut I have come to appreciate the genre better when understood as fiction than as fact. I have come to read these memoirs and autobiographies as novels: looking for narrative choice, for character, for plot and literary tropes. Then the potential for some insight into my living increases exponentially. Naming himself Joseph Anton, Rushdie says, “turned himself into a sort of fictional character as well.” I felt sanctioned in my reading of his memoir as a novel, though in fact I didn’t need his approval. Later in the book Rushdie says, “Writers had always worked close to the bull, like matadors, had played complex games with autobiography, and yet their creations were more interesting than themselves.” I’ve come around to that opinion myself. It has been much more interesting to read Joseph Anton (and all of the other memoirs accumulating on my shelf) as novels rather than as autobiographies. And I must say I have read a number of poor novels of late.
Ultimately, I don’t know why I read these memoirs/autobiographies in the first place: who cares? What is Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba that he should weep for her? I am skeptical of most everything I read in these memoirs: even good old Ben Franklin had ulterior motives that served as his editor in this most quintessential American autobiography. As Zuckerman says, “what’s on the page is like a code for something missing.” One writes an autobiography not to report a life but to invent one! It is all fiction in the end. Mrs. Zuckerman comments on Roth’s autobiography: “He’s making everything signify something, when in life I don’t believe it does.” I agree with her. There is a great deal in Joseph Anton (like the seemingly interminable dropping of the names of the rich and famous with whom Joseph Anton socializes) that just has no significance except as a trope by which the reader (read me) characterizes the narrator. And though the circumstances of Rushdie’s story interests me somewhat and offers me insight into the world and times in which we all live, the character of the narrator narrated becomes the story told. Joseph Anton is a novel about someone I would not care to know. But as a novel I employ other critical tools in my reading and I found too much for which I did not care.
I have learned to read novels listening for what is left unsaid, and now I have learned to read autobiographies similarly and question what truths I expect to discover in them. Zuckerman says that we judge the author of a novel aesthetically, by how well he or she tells the story, but that we judge the author of the autobiography ethically: to what extent we believe s/he tells the truth! But since no one can narrate fully the story of his or her life, then what is recorded is always selected with some motive, exactly the technique of the novelist. Understanding that motive and its organizing imperative becomes the interest of the reading and the ‘life’ written becomes only plot. In the autobiography as novel I am concerned with the question to which the book is an answer—and I try to reconstruct from the answer the question. The autobiographer is the pretense and not the subject.
Reading is an ethical enterprise: it is I who makes meaning and I must take responsibility for that meaning. But reading also engages me in ethics: when I read I consider who does the author think I am, and I wonder who does the author want me to be or even to become? In the autobiography the narrator has an audience in mind: how have I been positioned as that audience? How might the author intend in my reading that I be transformed? The author of the autobiography writes immersed in a particular life-world; when I read I wonder into what world does the author invite me, and then I consider whether I want to go into that world? If I read in this way then the author of the novel and the author of the autobiography are conflated as types and I may appreciate either genre similarly. In this reading I feel less like a voyeur and more like an intellectual. 

18 October 2012

On Memoir, continuing

The phone says it should be raining (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) but the early morning stars are clearly visible. Outside the black cat has eaten breakfast and stares interestedly into the cabin. I suspect should the temperature drop a few dozen degrees (it is now 50 degrees) the cat will enter the warm room as if it owned the place and I were the interloper. I’ll go running in a bit.
I’ve been immersed in book-reading over the past several months. I move from text to text, novel to novel with relative ease and comfort. It is a guilty pleasure to enter into the world of the books, to leave this world behind and enjoy adventuring in another place.  Though I think at times that this activity occurs with one foot in the book and the other in this world. And a pencil in my hand. In Nabokov’s Speak Memory, I read that he kept hundreds of well-sharpened pencils about him for his writing. I have a pencil sharpener at each of the desks at which I work.
And I find that right now I can’t stop reading Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie’s memoir recounting his life and focusing in detail on the twelve years he lived under the fatwa for having written and published The Satanic Verses. I don’t know that I am avoiding anything else: I purchased the book because it is a memoir and I am fascinated my memoirs. I keep asking, Who are these people that I should know their lives? Who are these people that they tell their lives? I understand (I think) the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin that is meant to portray the exemplary American life that should be practiced by everyone; I almost understand the autobiography of Augustine, whose path to faith should be the model for a similar route for the rest of humanity; and I believe that The Education of Henry Adams means to portray the (radical) times through the critical eyes of the historian and cultural seer.  But I have been reading memoirs and autobiographies for some time (I teach a class in autobiography) and I can only understand them as exemplars of narrative style, an emphasis that transforms the memoir into a work of fiction. A good memoir might be a great novel. Zuckerman tells Roth about the autobiography the author has sent to him for evaluation: “Even if it’s no more than one percent that you’ve edited out, that’s the one percent that countsthe one percent that’s saved for your imagination and that changes everything . . . With autobiography there’s always another text, a countertext, if you will, to the one presented.” I agree. And I think that that countertext is always a novel. So it must be, too, with The Education of Henry Adams, the Confessions of Augustine, and all the other autobiographies and memoirs I have read and will continue to read. Some of the novels are better than others.
Joseph Anton is a novel about a man who actually wrote a novel that was condemned as blasphemous fact, and the author of that novel was cruelly condemned to violent death as a result. The story recounts his descent into absence, invisibility, rage and madness. The story concerns freedom, a subject in which I have some interest, and the right to air ideas in the world without danger. Joseph Anton is a novel about the pusillanimity of too many of the world’s leaders when confronted with unreason, a subject I daily experience; Joseph Anton is the story of the frightening consequences religious fanaticism has on the world and on the individual, a subject reported almost daily in the newspapers; Joseph Anton is the story of great friendship and loyalty, and also of human cravenness and greed. Actually, Joseph Anton is an autobiography that in its 600 pages leaves out at least one percent of the life lived but that covers life fascinating and wonderful detail. I think Joseph Anton is a wonderful novel very important to an understanding (even an appreciation!) of our age. 
The book requires attention than I give it here, but I want to get back to the book, even though I know how it ends. I am not reading it to get to the end; I am reading to enjoy the narration.

11 October 2012

The Dilemma of the Second Debate

I can’t stand it anymore! I wake up every morning with a hangman’s knot in my stomach. This state does not result from any unusual emotional unrest in myself or in those near and dear to me: though we each experience the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we enjoy the complete and complex engagement of our lives in the world, or, looked at another way, as the engagement in the world of our lives. But since the exceptionally weak performance of the President in the first debate on October 5, I awaken daily to the horror that Mitt Romney could be elected President and that Paul Ryan would serve in the office right down the life to the President. Oh, I think I am safe from the consequences of their policy agenda, but I despair for the lives of my children should the Republicans achieve the Presidency. And what would be the severe consequences for  the country, for the widows, the orphans and the strangers in our midst? Who will ensure that the corners of our fields will be left to the gleanings of those who are most in need? There is nothing that either Romney or Ryan has ever said that calms my terrors. I awaken viscerally to the nightmare every morning.
And so I don’t know if I can stand watching the Vice-Presidential debate tonight and observe anything but a total evisceration of the Republican Party agenda. Unless Joe Biden crushes Romney’s mouthpiece, I couldn’t stand to watch the smugness of the Republican candidate asserting that they do, indeed, have someone other than the rich in mind. When I think of the two Rs I think also of the Weird Sisters who lie with half-truths; I think the Republicans lie without equivocation.
And yet I am drawn to the television as the proverbial moth to the flame, and there seems no way to avoid being consumed in the conflagration. I move toward the light but the consequences in ding so are deadly. Or (to offer another figure of speech) . . . I feel that watching the debate would be akin to paying my entrance fee into the Haunted House because I want to experience--without danger fear and terror--but that when I  enter the winding corridors the terrors that are set out there are not illusions but are all-to-real flesh and blood dangers.  The wax statues turn out to be live and threatening presences. In there are no illusory horrors but only real dangers.
So, tonight I hope for the best but fear the worst. I so long to awaken in the morning with an unknotted stomach.
And now I read in Newsweek the cover story entitled “Heaven is Real.” Isn’t this just more ammunition now available to the evangelical right to support their fascistic agenda. The author says “The universe as I experienced it in my coma isI have come to see with both shock and joythe same one that both Einstein and Jesus were speaking of in their (very) different ways.” I want to remind the good doctor that Einstein was a Jew (well, so was Jesus for that matter), and that the universe of neither is a Christian one. Steven Gimbel’s flawed text Einstein’s Jewish Science is firm proof of that.
I hear over and again Gogo’s complaint and Didi’s assertion, “Nothing to be done!” I despair.

08 October 2012


And so there is only one more stage to occur in my relationship with the black cat. Now, when I step out of the house in the dark, early morning, the cat stands waiting. I don’t know where s/he has been sleeping but I suspect she has set up some domestic arrangements under the porch. It is somewhat shielded there from the cold rain and wind. Greeting me, s/he speaks uttering some form of greeting or concern for its hunger. I wish it a good morning and head out toward Walden. The cat walks before me forward, turning occasionally to ensure that I am still following behind.  As we approach the cabin, the motion light turns on (I do not know to whose motion the light responds) and I enter and turn on the light switch to illuminate the inside. Outside the cat sits immediately in front of the door staring into the now-lit room, declaring its hunger with some urgency and even complaint. Or it is questioning my devotion and dependability. This morning I put my coffee mug on the reading desk, and head to the book shelves under which I store the cat’s supplies. I grab a can of soft food and the bag of hard Purina Cat Chow and head back out into the dark. The motion light goes on. As I open the door the cat scurries away, but soon turns back towards my crouching figure and makes constant exclamation as I fill its bowls with food. It paces close to me now, seemingly unafraid of my presence. This morning the black cat must have been especially hungry (the weather has turned blustery and it needs to build up its levels of fat) because even while I still squatted at the bowls, it began to taste from the bowl of soft food. And as it ate, I reached out to scratch its neck but it did not cease its feasting. Rather, the black cat arched its neck in seeming pleasure with the physical attention I was paying it, and then turned immediately back to the bowl. Soon it grew again suspicious and moved back behind the corner of the cabin, disguised behind the single burning bush; for its comfort I arose and reentered the cabin and the cat returned to the bowls and finished its breakfast. Then it sat down before my door to bathe itself and take a nap.
An hour or so later I headed out for my morning run, shower and breakfast, and when I returned some time later to the cabin the black cat was still sitting lying before the door. It has a sense that every time I open the door to Walden I will give it food, but that is not my intention. Nonetheless, the black cat has begun to set up some kind of residence in the environs of Walden, during the day sleeping in the woods that surround it or sitting by the cabin in the warm sun on those days when it shines. Today is not one of the days, and I think the black cat is considering that one day it may have to enter the cabin door after its morning meal. As it sits in front of the door or outside across from a window, it looks inside with some wonder and curiosity. I wonder does it know that winter approaches? I wonder at what temperature it will throw caution to the wintry winds and venture in. And will it consider itself a resident or a transient visitor?