28 January 2013

On the Other Hand

About her novel Oranges Aren’t the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson says: “I wrote a story I could live with. The other was too painful. I could not survive it.” Hers is an interesting statement that suggests that literature regardless of genre is fiction but healing. The story that the author tells protects her from the story that cannot be told. That other story, I think, the one that Winterson says that she could not survive, could never be told because there are certain things that if spoken would make bare the most private and intimate aspects of the speaker: there would be no way to survive the exposure. The story that is told gives evidence of the author’s survival: that other story, the one that could not be told, would have led to the author’s emotional (or even physical) death. Every work of literature, then, is only the story that can be lived with and not the story that is true, but then, every work of literature then, speaks of survival even when the subject is death.
What might it mean if Winterson’s assertion concerning the writer were true as well for the reader: we read the story with which we can live; the other would be too painful and we would not survive it. On the one hand it would say something about the books we choose to read, and it would define as well how we read those books: discovering the meanings we have to make in order to survive.
I must qualify this statement a bit because there are many books that I cannot read because a) they cannot challenge me; b) they story they tell I cannot read not because I could not survive it but because I cannot enter the story. This might occur for fear that I would not survive the entrance, but also because for any number of reasons, I cannot find the appropriate or comfortable portal through which to enter. But the latter might also derive from my fear.
I recall an idea somewhat related in Phillip Roth’s The Facts: A Novelist’s Autobiography. Roth has asked Nathan Zuckerman, his character and therefore, the person who best knows Roth, to read his autobiographical manuscript and to offer some constructive criticism, and Zuckerman writes back that the manuscript is not worth publishing: it is, Zuckerman says, a fake. Zuckerman says, “Even if its no more than one percent (of your self) that you’ve edited out, that’s the one percent that counts—the one percent that’s saved for your imagination and that changes everything . . .” (272). Thus, Roth’s fictional texts are obviously not facts though they derive from them, but Roth’s facts lack truth because he could not survive their disclosure. Perhaps, Zuckerman suggests, “deprived of the sense of impregnability that narrative invention seems to confer on your self-revealing instincts, you can’t easily fathom your part in all this.” Fiction offers the necessary distance from the facts to enable narration but one should never assume the fiction to be in any way real. That is, Roth’s fiction is the text he can live with. The other was too painful.
The life that the autobiography Roth or Wintersonor any one elseoffers is not the whole story. Roth says, “With autobiography there’s always another text, a countertext, if you will, to the one presented.” Stories, Winterson writes, are compensatory: since we cannot say too many things because they are so painful, we write what we do to compensate for what can’t be said. Writing breaks the silence by maintaining it.” Anna sings, “Whenever I feel afraid, I whistle a happy tune.” Patricia Hampl writes, “We all have our ways of whistling in the dark” (28). I choose a book from the shelf. “Whatever gets you through the night,” John Lennon cried.
Thus, my reading is autobiographical. I choose my reading by the question my life addresses to me about my existence, and from my reading I seek some response. The response I hear is the one I can survive.

21 January 2013

Inauguration Day, 2013

The temperature today hasn’t yet risen to 0 degrees, and now that the hour is past three in the afternoon, the sun will begin to set and the mercury in the thermometer will begin to fall and the cold will paradoxically increase. Of course, the image of the mercury falling is, in fact, inaccurate: first, because I have no thermometer in which mercury resides to either fall or riseI know the temperature by the application on the iPhoneand because if I did have a thermometer it would probably be a digital device with some kind of sensor to measure the outside temperature not unlike the sensor on my car. In my cabin near the woods there are only two temperatures: cold and warm enough. But the idea of the mercury thermometer suits the romantic image I like to conjure (an accurate word for this activity at this moment) of a traditional rural winter scene with the cabin in (or at least near) the woods and the wood burning stove constantly aflame. Out here in Walden I don’t have that latter device either: radiant heat emanates from the water energized by a boiler in the corner and that flows through plastic tubes under the floor. I sit here warm enough with a navy blue scarf wrapped about my neck typing away awkwardly with my hands covered by wrist warmers knitted graciously by my friend, Barb. The black cat is cold, but still has no desire to enter the cabin, which is fine with me because I appreciate the solitude. But I note that he (or she) is the only feral cat with a hefty and expanding girth.
            President Obama today was inaugurated as President and begins his second (and final) term of office. In his speech I heard echoes of Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech on the steps of the Capitol, Obama replacing the powerful cadences of King’s “I have a dream” with the anaphoric “We the people,” and “Our journey is not complete,” and “Together. . .”   I thought it was a speech that promised a democratic agenda (that is intended with a small ‘d’), and that offered for me a bit of hope for my own and my children’s future. And as long as the Republicans continue to act like asses, the Democrats (this time with a capital D) just might retain control of the White House and have a chance to gain a majority in the Congress. I am reminded of the fate of the Whig Party when they would not support ending slavery and were replaced by an activist Republican Party that succeeded in electing Abraham Lincoln who saved the Union and made possible the United States of the next 150 years and the presidency of Barack Obama. I would have like to hear an echo of Lincoln in Obama’s second Inaugural Address: Lincoln’s political acumen taught Obama something about governing. But you really can’t always get what you want . . . However, I was thrilled not to see any sign of Mitt Romney or Paul Ryan, and I viewed with pleasure the dour face of John Boehner.
We haven’t started this second term, and the news is all about the election of 2016. Me, I’ll go feed the black cat for the evening an pour myself a celebratory drink of single malt scotch and toast the future I can believe in this evening.

15 January 2013

Fare thee well, my own true love

Daughter #2 is struggled her way back to school after Winter Break: the fog somewhere made the flying slow. It is hard to be en route when you want to be there.
And it was hard to see her off again; in the sound track of my mind I hear Bob Dylan’s “Farewell.” In the song it is the narrator who is heading for travel, and though the leaving is without regret, it is also with some pain.
So it’s fare thee well my own true love
We’ll meet another day, another time
It ain’t the leavin’
That’s a-grievin’ me
But my true love who’s bound to stay behind
Of course, it was not my true love but me who seems bound to stay behind. But what might I mean by ‘staying behind,’ when in fact I am far in front of her in years and experience. The young often consider their lives as a catching up to the elders, and the elders often look back on the young with caution and some envy. There is a line in an episode of “Girls” in which a doctor doing a gynecological exam and listening to Hannah anxiously express her myriad concerns, says “God, I wouldn’t want to be 24 years old again.”  I think that what she means is that she would never want to experience again the angst and uncertainty that must be part of being young. Not that there isn’t angst and uncertainty at my age, but there is a certain settledness to this so-called maturity: I have developed sufficient strategies to alleviate the anxieties that accompany my desert wanderings, or sufficient strategies to mask the struggle. There are certainly things at this time of my life about which I no longer have to be concerned. The troubles ahead appear fewer. Which is not to minimize the growing spectre of mortality . . .
            Ah, there is too much cliché involved in this topic. What I think I might mean by ‘staying behind’ is that there is a certain caution that accompanies my decisions and movements that inhibits the exploration and enjoyment I attribute to the young and to my young children who are, they will remind me, well past young. I know, I know, my children are privileged, and I am proud that they have for now chosen socially responsible and non-lucrative professions. The world is today a troubled place, and last evening at a meeting we were advised of the many cautions that now are in place to protect our children in the event of emergencies in the schools. These drills are not new: when I was a student we ducked under our desks, or crouched against the walls between the classroom doors, head tucked to our chests and covered by our arms to protect the eyes from flying glass in case of nuclear attack. As if that would have helped. The bankruptcy of social programs and ethical standards today threatens the lives of our children no lessmaybe even more so because more possible, than those air raid drills.  
But forty years or so ago on my desks sat no computer, no cell phone, no iPod or iPad, no Kindles or Nooks or Tablets. These are fun and useful devices and they bring the world, troubled as it may be, to our chldren’s doors. I do want to see what comes next and to share these wonderous tools with the children: but I think I’ll have to be content to say fare thee well and suffer to be left behind.

07 January 2013

On Average

Wikipedia defines zeitgeist (spirit of the age or spirit of the time) as “the intellectual fashion or dominant school of thought that typifies and influences the culture of a particular period in time.” Unlike Raymond William’s concept of the structure of feeling, an unarticulated social experience in solution, before social formations have precipitated out and are immediately available to discourse, the zeitgeist can be defined. Often cultural critics and scholars name it and discuss it in public discourse, and they define events and productions of all sorts as deriving from the period’s zeitgeist. I suppose that I’ve learned enough from postmodernism to maintain my skepticism towards the idea that any single strain of thought or belief could represent the time in which I live, and hopefully I know enough to doubt that one can reduce an age to the influence of any single philosophical perspective. But I do like to search out evidences of cultural thought that I can ascribe as zeitgeistianarticulableand that might serve as an alternative perspective to what too many hold as the dominant spirit of our age! To present the alternative zeitgeist as if it could ever have any ‘influence’ would be, as Melvyn Douglas in his very worst Danish accent says to Billy Budd (and I perhaps quote a very bit inaccurately) “like farting into the wind.” There is no contest.
Nevertheless, Hope Springs Eternal . . .
There are two moments in recent films that present an alternative to the dominating zeitgeist: a prevailing doctrine that more is better and that being number oneat any costis superior by any measure to being Number 2. This belief drives the demand for accountability and institutes high-stakes testing standards as a measure of achievement that dominates the public discourse in education and other fields. But in both of the films I intend to cite, being number not even number two is the sought after goal: the characters do not participate in the drive for measures of superiority. Rather, the characters celebrate the achievement of having risen barely to the level of below average or have just barely attained to the standard of average: it is at these socially unacceptable levels deemed to be failures that the fun in life begins.  
In the first film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Patrick holds aloft his report cardor it may be simply the evaluation for a single courseon which C- is boldly written in red ink. Thrusting the paper towards the camera, he screams triumphantly,  “C-, Ladies and Gentlemen. I am below average!” At this announcement, his friends Charlie and Sam applaud wildly and celebrate Patrick’s proud declaration of academic (non)achievement. Since the film intends the audience to identify with the characters and hence, with the C- grade, the film celebrates Patrick’s success in the mediocre measure of his academic assessment.
In the second film, Silver Linings Playbook, Tiffany bargains with Pat in an exchange of favors: she will deliver a letter to his ex-wife (who has had a restraining order issued against him) if Pat will enter as her partner in what she refers to as “this dance thing,” that turns out to be a fairly sophisticated amateur competition: as one character in the film asks at the array of exotically costumed entrants warming up before the event, “Is this Dancing with the Stars?” I believe that Silver Linings Playbook is a film about the strategies we develop to manage our neuroses and thus, achieve some happiness in lifeto find the silver lining in the cloud, the life our neuroses create. Yes, I think, we all require a playbook to handle ourselves and our neuroses out in the world. Tiffany and Pat are the neurotic focus of the filmbut, in fact, no one in the film does not manifest some serious neurotic characteristics that they must learn to manage to continue to function in the world with some degree of happiness and success. How each manages his/her neuroses and still manages to establish and maintain relationships seems to me to be what the film is about! We all need a silver linings playbook!
And so Tiffany and Pat enter the “dance thing” and become part of a gambling parley Pat’s father (who has an amusing array of strategies in his playbook) makes in a double or nothing bet with his friend, Ronnie. In order for Pat’s father to win the bet, the Philadelphia Eagles must defeat the Dallas Cowboys and Tiffany and Pat must score a five out of a possible 10. Of course, they have had no higher aspirations than that average achievement: they are not entered to win but to participate. Its discipline and effort has served as a strategy for dealing with their lives organized by neuroses. The two take their turn on the floor as uncostumed and absurd amateurs, and perform their wildly irregular choreographed dance routine that ends with a hilariously botched  ‘Big Move.’ But when their score is announcedan even 5they and their families erupt in ecstatic joy and celebration. The announcer looks puzzled and wonders aloud, “Why are they so happy with a five? I don’t get it.” But it was not the score, really, that mattered to either Pat or to Tiffany; rather, their participation in the event served as a strategy in their silver linings playbook. It was not their score that truly mattered but their participation. Being average was the bonus!
These movies represent small acorns. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if from these little acorns some lovely oak trees would grow, and we would all learn to be content to live our lives noncompetitively and with satisfaction in our disciplined endeavors. Wouldn’t it be loverly to have a full silver linings playbook!

03 January 2013

Second Pass

I recall this specific episode of Seinfeld. It concerned Elaine’s panic when she learned that the contraceptive sponge had been pulled from distribution and was no longer going to be sold in the New York drugstores. In anticipation she attempted to corner the market of the product and hoarded the boxes of sponges in her apartment. Then she began to discriminate between those men who were “sponge-worthy” and those who were not so deemed. “Jerry,” she says desperately, now that the sponges have gone off of the market “I’ve got to reevaluate my whole screening process. I can’t afford to waste any of them!”
I’ve got shelves and shelves downstairs of autobiographies and memoirs, but lately I’ve been wondering what constitutes a life worthy of an autobiography or memoir. Elaine interviews her latest beau: she inquires after his financial status, his habits of personal cleanliness, the current state of his bathroom, his willingness to trim his sideburns before she declares him “sponge-worthy” and takes him to her bed! What deems a life worthy of its being written and of my reading it?
I ask this question because I have just completed Winter Journal, a memoir by the author Paul Auster. I actually have not read any of his other works, and so I cannot say to what extent this latest piece can give insight into any of his already published work, but I find his life not especially extraordinary that I need study it. Indeed, the accounting of the progress of his life consists mainly of descriptions of a non-remarkable childhood, a typical adolescence with the de rigeur account of his sexual frustration, his masturbatory habits, and then his initial, unsatisfying sexual encounter; an annotated listing of the places he has lived (his girlfriends remain mostly without names), and a description of a series of encounters he has had in life with death. All in all, I would say, a rather uneventful eventful life. Indeed, this book is more about death than about life. “You have entered the winter of your life” closes the book. What makes this life sponge-worthy? I prefer King Lear or “The Dead.”
What does make a life worthy of recounting in such a public forum? In her own memoir, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson writes “But life is more than an arrow. The womb to tomb of an interesting lifebut I can’t write my own; never could . . . I would rather go on reading myself as a fiction than as a fact . . .” That is, Winterson suggests that in her writing she would rather write the emotional and imaginative interactions in which she has engaged, but there is nothing linear about these events. Perhaps there are things that are too painful to be spoken, and so what we do manage to say compensates for what can’t be said. The truth remains silent. “We bury things so deep we no longer remember there was anything to bury. Our bodies remember. Our neurotic states remember. But we don’t.” Thus, all autobiography is fiction: our bodies exist in the real world and do not write the life, and our neurotic states tell a necessary but not necessarily factual story.
What makes a memoir sponge-worthy then must be the ability to use the neurotic states to tell the stories of bodies and their neurotic states. Memoirists, Patricia Hampl writes, “wish to tell their mind not their story.” A sponge-worthy memoir writes a fascinating mind.