“Life must be understood backwards; but… it must be lived forward.”   Soren Kierkegaard

I’ve just started reading Orwell’s 1984, for the first time, and I almost had to put it down. It’s just too real, too true, too prescient, and I couldn’t get into the narrative because I was getting too angry about things happening now.

My mother, a friend and I had the same experience a few years ago at a Shaw Festival production of The Crucible…it’s about Salem, it’s about McCarthyism, and it’s about us, now.

I literally cried one day this past spring when Rage Against the Machine’s “Ghost of Tom Joad” came up on my mp3 player, for the same reason. How do we keep making these same mistakes? How do we keep allowing these same things to happen? How can these texts still be so relevant and necessary, and why can’t we learn?

Life must indeed be lived forward…but it takes the understanding we gain from recognizing our past.  So neither ignorance nor bland nostalgia will be of any use.

(The good news is, I’ve finally managed to limit these feelings enough to get through the book. I’m sure I’ll finish it soon.)

Thanks, General

October 20, 2008

I’m going to be getting a book on Dick Cheney off hold from the library soon, so politics will be worming its way back into my pleasant literature blog.

But I wanted to share something really good first. Colin Powell was on Meet The Press yesterday, and said something I’ve been wanting to yell about from the very beginning of this US presidential campaign:

“I’m also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, “Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim.” Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian.  He’s always been a Christian.  But the really right answer is, what if he is?  Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. ” (mtp.msnbc.com)

Thanks, General.

On rereading

October 20, 2008

I’m an avid rereader.  I can never understand those clutter shows where people say they should get rid of books if they’ve read them once.  I turn to books over and over again, many of them, many times.

I just finished rereading Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which I read for the first time in 2002.

It’s a wonderful book – well, a series of short stories, which I like even better – full of postmodern mystery, questions of identity, and readers and writers. And incredibly well-written and intelligent, but without ostentatious complexity.

I don’t want to give too much away, so what I really wanted to talk about was my experience of rereading. It was really fascinating to me, seeing what I had marked or commented on that held less significance upon rereading, or things I was absolutely shocked that I had missed the first time around.

I suppose what it really comes down to is a concept that’s actually mentioned in the book: the palimpsest, or a text where layers of meaning are built up (literally) over time.

So I’m thinking about my thoughts on the book. And the more times I read, the more layers there will be.

Doesn’t get much more postmodern, or more ancient, than that.

Music and History

October 15, 2008

I just finished reading a book about the California folk / rock scene of the 60s and 70s, called Hotel California, by Barney Hoskyns.   For someone like me, who knows a lot of the context but doesn’t have encyclopaedic knowledge, it was a really good read.   For someone like me, who thinks she should have been born in about 1951 so she could have heard all this awesome music firsthand and driven a 1969 Corvette Stingray convertible, books like this are always great (the only problem with that whole 1951 thing would have been being a sentient adult in the 1980s).  If people are interested, they should also check out books by Greil Marcus (including Mystery Train), and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka)’s Blues People.  I’ve got a few more on my to-read list, including Clapton’s autobiography and one about the ladies of the scene: Joni, Carole, Linda, Joan, etc.

But the end of this one got me thinking:

“In selling their souls for fame and riches, the stars of the 1960s and 1970s helped create a world where passive consumerism replaced emotional engagement and political commitment.  The apathy of twentysomethings over the environment and Iraq is shocking when one harks back to the civil rights and Vietnam war protests of the 1960s.” (272)

I have problems with most forms of absolutism, and this sort of historical assumption has been bothering me more over the last couple years.  People who spent the last year in school with me know of my issues with Michael Gorman, who asserted in an essay we read that people (and he makes the subject female) born in the 1980s do not have “rich interior lives” because of technology.

That’s an extreme case.  And I do appreciate that times were a lot different four decades or so ago.  I’ve listened to all the music, read all the books, know about the issues and the politics, and still know that I’ll never know what it was really like.

But on the other hand, nothing that I’ve read really convinces me that people were a whole lot different then than they are now.  Hoskyns’ book, to me, describes people who thought they had a lot figured out and going on but that never really did anything (socially or politically, I mean) or effected any change other than personal enrichment. And I get that he’s saying that was the beginning of the problem, but it’s hard to see how promises of revolution could be ‘betrayed’ when, if you really get down to it, the revolution never got started in the first place.

I’m not being critical of my parents’ generation.  I just think that, from a long time before the 1960s to a long time after any of us are around, each generation has had its own promise, its own coming of age, and its own tragedies.

what a weird book.

October 5, 2008

A few weeks ago when I was going through my books for a garage sale, I noticed my childhood copies of Around the World in 80 Days and The Three Musketeers (both abridged). When I was thinking about keeping them, I realized that what I really should have are unabridged copies. So, the $5 copies were ordered from Chapters, my abridged versions got sold, and, now, the reading has begun.

I started with Around the World in 80 Days, because I remembered being really enthralled by the story and the characters. What a strange, strange book!

First, there are reasons why one shouldn’t necessarily buy the cheapest available version of a classic – the introduction to my Aladdin Classics edition says that in 1872, “Countries began forging the ties that, two centuries later, have become our tightly woven global economy” (xiv). I understand being a bit loose with those sorts of measures, but still…2072?

Anyway, Verne’s text itself is weird enough.

Most offputting were its confused attitudes towards the various cultures and countries encountered on Phileas Fogg’s journey. Indians (from India) are referred to as having “barbarous customs” and being fanatics, and Fogg’s interest in a young Indian woman is justified by the fact that she, “from her manners and intelligence, would be thought a European” (92).  She speaks English with “great purity” (104). At the same time, however, there are passages like this, that indicate Verne recognizes at least some of the problems of colonialism:

“What would these divinities think of India, anglicized as it is to-day, with steamers whistling and scudding along the Ganges, frightening the gulls which float upon its surface, the turtles swarming along its banks, and the faithful dwelling upon its borders?” (108)

When Fogg travels to America, Mormons get the same treatment. On one page, it’s suggested that polygamy is Mormonism’s “foundation” (224). Six pages later, “it must not be supposed that all the Mormons are polygamists” (230).

Americans themselves are rash and foolhardy (249, 241), and, of course, the Sioux attack Fogg’s train “like enraged monkeys” (252).

So, overall, Verne’s attitudes are pretty typical for his day, even if they get a bit muddled every once in a while.

The second interesting thing is the book’s focus on “the exact sciences”, meaning, especially, time, money, and branding. There’s a great deal of concentration on what things cost, what sort of things are bought, even before Fogg begins on his journey. And these sorts of terms are applied also to people: at one point, Fogg moves “mathematically” (140). Huh?

Fogg is the most fascinating element of the book, to me. He’s a lot like the great American character, Melville’s Bartleby. Everyone, including the narrator, is constantly trying to ascertain his motives and feelings, and Fogg defies all such speculation:

“If anyone, at this moment, had entered the Custom House, he would have found Mr. Fogg seated, motionless, calm, and without apparent anger, upon a wooden bench. He was not, it is true, resigned; but this last blow failed to force him into an outward betrayal of any emotion. Was he being devoured by one of those secret rages, all the more terrible because contained, and which only burst forth, with an irresistable force, at the last moment? No one could tell. There he sat, calmly waiting – for what? Did he still cherish hope? Did he still believe, now, that the door of this prison was closed upon him, that he would succeed?” (294-295)

I just wish that this characterization – the utterly inscrutable – was carried out all the way to the end. But, of course, it’s a good adventure story. So it ends with one of those neat endings I was talking about before.

Although, there’s a clever note even at the end – one of the characters has left his lamp burning the whole time, and his reward from the trip goes to paying back the bill.

I think I’ll move on to the Musketeers.

I receive Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac in my inbox every day (today is also Thomas Wolfe’s birthday). But I really loved this poem.

Number one, because of the whole academic publishing thing. Number two, because at one of the places I’ve worked, there was a biography of the founder for sale. About 10 years after it was published, we still had 5 or 6 thousand copies. When management contacted the publisher to get permission to lower the price…

We were told they had shredded all theirs.

Storage space was worth more than this book, to its publisher. Excellent.

The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered

by Clive James

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered.
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized
And sits in piles in a police warehouse,
My enemy’s much-praised effort sits in piles
In the kind of bookshop where remaindering occurs.
Great, square stacks of rejected books and, between them, aisles
One passes down reflecting on life’s vanities,
Pausing to remember all those thoughtful reviews
Lavished to no avail upon one’s enemy’s book,
For behold, here is that book
Among these ranks and the banks of duds,
These ponderous and seemingly irreducible cairns
Of complete stiffs.

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I rejoice.
It has gone with bowed head like a defeated legion
Beneath the yoke.
What avail him now his awards and prizes,
The praise expended upon his meticulous technique,
His individual new voice?
Knocked into the middle of next week
His brainchild now consorts with the bad buys,
The sinkers, clinkers, dogs and dregs,
The Edsels of the world of movable type,
The bummers that no amount of hype could shift,
The unbudgeable turkeys.

Yea, his slim volume with its understated wrapper
Bathes in the glare of the brightly jacketed Hitler’s War Machine,
His unmistakably individual new voice
Shares the same scrapyard with a forlorn skyscraper
Of The Kung-Fu Cookbook,
His honesty, proclaimed by himself and believed in by others,
His renowned abhorrence of all posturing and pretence,
Is there with Pertwee’s Promenades and Pierrots,
One Hundred Years of Seaside Entertainment
And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,
His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor’s Book of Boobs,
A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
‘My boobs will give everyone hours of fun’.

Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,
Though not to the monumental extent
In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out
To the book of my enemy,
Since in the case of my own book it will be due
To a miscalculated print run, a marketing error,
Nothing to do with merit.
But just supposing that such an event should hold
Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset
By the memory of this sweet moment.
Chill the champagne and polish the crystal goblets!
The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am glad.

“The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered” by Clive James from Opal Sunset: Selected Poems, 1958–-2008. © W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.