Friday, January 30, 2009

Music Friday

Here's a song I've been digging lately. 

You can get it for free from Amazon here.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Updike: Born at the Right Time

I like the sociological bent of this reflection on Updike's career, by Jeffrey Eugenides: 

John Updike was fortunate to live when he did. Born in 1932, marrying young and raising children in the fifites and sixties, Updike led a life that resembled, in its outward form and inner turmoil, the lives of a majority of fellow-Americans of his generation. As Updike reached maturity as a writer, postwar America was coming into being and coming apart, and for a great many years Updike’s subject was the subject on everyone’s mind. He had only to write about what was in front of him—suburbia, adultery, divorce and its aftermath—to get at the heart of the nation’s emotional life. I don’t mean to suggest that this was easy to do, only to point out that Updike was the American novelist who articulated, possibly better than anyone else, what everyone was mutely feeling. That was why we grew up seeing his books on our parents’ bedside tables. That was why as a boy the image I had of a writer was the image of Updike, erudite, suave, turtlenecked, Harvard-y.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

When a Man Loves a Wolf

In a brief review of The Road (check out the new mass-market movie tie-in edition) on Amazon, Dennis Lehane makes the following assertion:

It is the love the father feels for his son, a love as deep and acute as his grief, that could surprise readers of McCarthy's previous work. McCarthy's Gnostic impressions of mankind have left very little place for love. In fact the greatest love affair in any of his novels, I would argue, occurs between Billy Parham and the wolf in The Crossing.

Interesting. Greater than John Grady's affair with Alejandra in All the Pretty Horses? Or with Magdalena in Cities of the Plain?

I hate to say it, but I think he's right, if for no other reason than that McCarthy spends more time developing the character of the wolf than either of Grady's love interests, conferring on the she-wolf more complexity and dignity than he can muster for either of these human females.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009: UPDATED

I saw John Updike when he came to Graham Chapel at Wash. U. in the mid-nineties. He read a story called "Lifeguard," from his early collection Pigeon Feathers. After reading it, he expressed surprise at some of the details that dated the story—pregnant women smoking on the beach, for instance. He expressed some embarrassment that so many students across the country had been required to read his story "A&P." He took questions, and I raised my hand in the packed chapel. He pointed at me, but a guy a few rows up stood instead and asked a question. I was disappointed, but then after answering that guy's question, Updike said that he'd actually meant me, so I got to stand up and ask mine after all. In a small way, Updike's graciousness and attention to detail in that moment seem of a piece with the grace of his prose and his attentiveness to the particularities of experience and art in his fiction and criticism.


Some good Updike links: Updike's 2005 "This I Believe" piece; George Saunders remembers Updike; as do ZZ Packer, Jonathan Lethem, and E.L. Doctorow

Monday, January 26, 2009

Dumber than a Bag of Krauthammers

Charles Krauthammer's most recent piece about Obama's inaugural address is interesting to read in light of Stanley Fish's comments about the speech as parataxis, a piece of writing composed of separate moments instead of tightly linked units.

Krauthammer writes: It was so rhetorically flat, so lacking in rhythm and cadence, one almost has to believe he did it on purpose.... The content had neither arc nor theme: no narrative trajectory like Lincoln's second inaugural; no central idea, as was (to take a lesser example) universal freedom in Bush's second inaugural.

In a way, Krauthammer is saying the same thing as Fish. Whereas Fish saw the speech as fitting into a specific rhetorical (even Biblical) tradition, however, Krauthammer sees only disorganization and even an intent to underwhelm:
In a stunning exercise in lowered expectations, Obama offered not quite blood, sweat and tears, but responsibility, work, sacrifice and service.

Krauthammer professes to find this an odd offering, but is it odd? Aren't responsibility, sacrifice, and work exactly what we want from a president? (And quite different from what the vacation-prone Bush gave us?) Wouldn't an inaugural address high on emotion and soaring rhetoric have drawn the scorn of people like Krauthammer? 

Krauthammer's piece seems like an exercise in frustration; he's squeezing the event for all it's worth, trying to muster some sort of coherent criticism, but his primary criticism seems to be that there's nothing to criticize:

The most striking characteristic of Barack Obama is not his nimble mind, engaging manner or wide-ranging intellectual curiosity. It's the absence of neediness. He's Bill Clinton, master politician, but without the hunger.

It's as if he's saying, This guy's as good as Clinton, but we won't be able to impeach him for having sex with an intern, and he won't be weakened by undue attention to the opinion polls. 

On the issue of race, he was even more withholding, and admirably so. He understood that his very presence was enough to mark the monumentality of the moment.

Here Krauthammer again shows that he understands exactly what Obama is doing. Indeed, Krauthammer can't help himself: he even praises the President. But then he overreaches, trying to stretch the observation into something that fits his own ideology:

Obama's unapologetic celebration of Washington and the Founders of the original imperfect union was a declaration of his own emancipation from -- or better, transcendence of -- the civil rights movement. The old warrior Joseph Lowery prayed for the day when "white will embrace what is right." Not Obama. By connecting himself in this historic address to Washington rather than Lincoln the liberator, Obama was legitimizing the full sweep of American history without annotation or mental reservation. If we ever have a post-racial future, this moment will mark its beginning.

"Transcendence of the civil rights movement," "legitimizing the full sweep of American history without annotation," "post-racial future"—slippery phrases in which Krauthammer attempts to squeeze a kind of Republican victory out of the moment, just as William Bennett tried to on election night when he said that Obama's victory meant no more excuses, no more talking about structural inequalities and injustices in America.

Krauthammer ends on a note of forced ominousness:

A complicated man, this new president. Opaque, contradictory and subtle. And that's just day one.

One might feel heartened that we have a complicated president to lead our complicated country in our complicated world. Not Krauthammer, apparently, who seems to feel a faint cold fear at this mysterious man who has somehow insinuated himself into the Oval Office.

Never mind that he's written a 450-page memoir in which he painstakingly works through the complications of his own identity and another book in which he outlines his philosophy on the future of America. No, people like Krauthammer and Spengler at the First Things blog insist upon seeing Obama as unknown and unknowable, something out of a story by Edgar Allan Poe. 

Spengler, writing about a Poe story called "The Man in the Crowd," in which the narrator follows a cipher-like character, concludes:

After twenty-four hours of unrelieved Inauguration coverage, I felt at one with Poe’s narrator, who learned no more of his quarry than the rest of us learned about Barack Obama.


I'm reminded of the opening of Ralph Ellison's famous novel:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fish on Obama

From Stanley Fish, an interesting comment on the style of Obama's inaugural address:

Obama doesn’t deposit us at a location he has in mind from the beginning; he carries us from meditative bead to meditative bead, and invites us to contemplate....

There is a technical term for this kind of writing –
parataxis, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the placing of propositions or clauses one after the other without indicating . . . the relation of co-ordination or subordination between them.”

The opposite of parataxis is
hypotaxis, the marking of relations between propositions and clause by connectives that point backward or forward. One kind of prose is additive – here’s this and now here’s that; the other asks the reader or hearer to hold in suspension the components of an argument that will not fully emerge until the final word. It is the difference between walking through a museum and stopping as long as you like at each picture, and being hurried along by a guide who wants you to see what you’re looking at as a stage in a developmental arc she is eager to trace for you.

Of course, no prose is all one or the other, but the prose of Obama’s inauguration is surely more paratactic than hypotactic, and in this it resembles the prose of the Bible with its long lists and serial “ands.” The style is incantatory rather than progressive; the cadences ask for assent to each proposition (“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood’) rather than to a developing argument. The power is in discrete moments rather than in a thesis proved by the marshaling of evidence.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Wilco Web

Still in my Wilco groove. I'm listening right now to this great live recording from Rochester, NY, on 12/6/08, available for streaming from the band's website.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Redemption Songs

David Remnick on the music of the inauguration:

...for me the peak was an event I went to with my fifteen-year-old son, put together by Jazz at Lincoln Center and Wynton Marsalis, at the Kennedy Center. The show opened, more or less as America does, with a jazz march—Wynton leading the way, with Dr. Michael White on clarinet, a bass drum, washboard, the whole marching setup—and the highlights that came after included Dianne Reeves singing “Skylark”; Cassandra Wilson on a bottomless blues; Paquito D’Rivera and Diego Urcola on “A Night in Tunisia”; Béla Fleck, Derek Trucks, and Marsalis on a Django-inflected “Sweet Georgia Brown”; and the West African ensemble Odadaa!, with Yacub Addy trading musical passages across the stage with Marsalis’s Lincoln Center Orchestra. The white kids from the Foxboro High School Jazz Ensemble sounded as if they had been practicing and reading the cultural instruction manual of Ralph Ellison’s “Shadow and Act” from birth, and it was kind of wonderful to watch Marsalis and Sandra Day O’Connor talking about their musical childhoods—hers in rural Arizona, his in Louisiana....

My memory may be shaky, but I don’t remember such music from the Reagan inaugural. Or from any other. Finally, a true reckoning of the cultural inheritance—African-American at the root, but infinitely complex, infinitely soulful, completely our own—right in the center of official Washington. Let freedom ring.

Inaugural Poems

At n+1, a review of inaugural poems, including this critique of Elizabeth Alexander's mastery of "the American poetic singsong": 

the elocutionary convention of delivering verse with preciousness and with rapture, so that the audience can hear how profoundly the poet loves the English language, how badly the poet wants to give the English language a deep tongue-kiss. In the singsong, speech occurs at an even volume, no syllable spoken much more loudly or softly than any other; in the singsong, the only way to emphasize a word is to say it slowly, or to pause after it. The singsong ignores both the syntactic beat of vernacular English and the rhythm of syllabically metered lines, giving every poem the cadence of an automobile engine that (precious thing!) can't quite turn over.


Flubbing the Oath: UPDATED

According to Jeffrey Toobin, it was Chief Justice John Roberts who flubbed the oath, and Obama's hesitance was a reaction to Roberts's mistake.

If you watch the video with this in mind, you can see Obama's amusement, followed by his decision to go ahead and say it Roberts's way.


According to the Huffington Post, Obama and Roberts re-did the oath on Wednesday night, just to be sure.

Craig, the White House lawyer, said in a statement Wednesday evening: "We believe the oath of office was administered effectively and that the president was sworn in appropriately yesterday. Yet the oath appears in the Constitution itself. And out of the abundance of caution, because there was one word out of sequence, Chief Justice John Roberts will administer the oath a second time."

The Constitution is clear about the exact wording of the oath and as a result, some constitutional experts have said that a do-over probably wasn't necessary but also couldn't hurt. Two other previous presidents have repeated the oath because of similar issues, Calvin Coolidge and Chester A. Arthur.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Wisdom from Flannery O'Connor

From Flannery O'Connor's "blog":

Catholic readers are forever being scandalized by novels that they don't have the fundamental equipment to read in the first place, and often these are works that are permeated with a Christian spirit. It is when an individual's faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Every Party Needs a Party Pooper

I came across this on another blog today, one apparently devoted to opposing James Wood. As far as I can tell, this is sincere:

The end of the old year and the beginning of the new one – yes, it’s the season of those tiresome, compulsory Best of! and Top Ten! lists, including, alas, ‘literary’ lists. These bullet-point bonanzas are the expression of a marketing sensibility, which means that book-lists bear the same relationship to literature as a Hallmark Valentine does to love. Yet participation in this annual ritual serves to reinforce certain ideological practices that are crucial to the reproduction of the current culture. Here – for your post-holiday pleasure – are the top five ideological practices these lists reinforce:

the fashion-system (obsession with small differences in the context of a large but unregarded sameness; the importance of being “up-to-date,” of knowing what the “trends” tell us about our irresistibly fascinating selves, etc.)

the star-system (which items are common to most lists? which item will “win”?)

the construction of a social and personal identity as the sum of market choices

manifest populism (anyone can do it – it’s fun! What’s your list?)

latent elitism (the last word goes to the cultural arbiters)

Dude needs to lighten up.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Deborah Treisman Answers Questions About New Yorker Fiction

Those like me who follow the fiction in the New Yorker will probably be interested in these answers to readers' questions from Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman.

Who Controls the Past Controls the Future

The revision is well underway, and Obama hasn't even taken office yet. In Charles Krauthammer's column, reprinted in the Post-Dispatch today, he claims that many of Obama's choices so far have affirmed the policies of George W. Bush, demonstrating that Bush's legacy is destined for a major re-evaluation.

Obama opposed the war. But the war is all but over. What remains is an Iraq turned from aggressive, hostile power in the heart of the Middle East to an emerging democracy openly allied with the United States. No president would want to be responsible for undoing that success.

This account of the situation in Iraq sounds precisely like what Peter Galbraith predicts in his book Unintended Consequences: How the War in Iraq Strengthened America's Enemies, as described in Michiko Kakutani's review:

The “pretense that the surge is a success and that therefore the United States is winning the Iraq War,” Mr. Galbraith contends, “is the opening salvo in a coming blame game as to who lost Iraq.” He suggests that the surge has enabled President Bush to “run out the clock on his term in office so as to avoid having to admit defeat” and that running out the clock serves the interests of the Republican Party, setting up a G.O.P. story line for 2009: “When George W. Bush left office, America was winning the Iraq War. His successor — abetted by the Democratic Congress and the faithless American people — squandered the victory and is responsible for the consequences.”

Krauthammer seems to be setting up exactly the narrative that Galbraith predicted Republicans would concoct: W. had things under control, so any future successes must be a result of W.'s vision, whereas any future failures can be ascribed to Obama's and the Democrats' craven altering of that vision.

Krauthammer writes, "The Democrats now own Iraq. They own the war on al-Qaeda." Well, yes, but who got us into the mess in Iraq in the first place? And since when is it the war on al-Qaeda? Bush made it the war on terror, and that broad formulation allowed him to take the war to Iraq, which he'd wanted to do even before 9/11. Krauthammer is trying to blur our memories of the past in order to cast a more forgiving light on Bush's administration. 

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Getting Out of Iraq

The organization my wife works for did a crisis simulation today with local students about getting out of Iraq carefully. Below is a KSDK story about the event. 

I taught the student who played Jon Stewart.

Friday, January 16, 2009


A U. of Chicago professor replaces the names of U.S. states with countries that have similar GDPs.

New York=Brazil!
New Jersey=Russia!

(Via St. Louis Magazine's Editor's Room.)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What Light

These lyrics from Wilco's "What Light," in their straightforward way, seem to express, from the artist's point of view, what I was trying to get at in an earlier post about authorial intentions:

And if the whole world's singing your songs
And all of your paintings have been hung
Just remember what was yours
Is everyone's from now on

Once you put something out into the world, it becomes everyone's, in the sense that everyone can make meaning of it, independent of your intentions.

The song continues:

And that's not wrong or right
But you can struggle with it all you like
You'll only get uptight

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Best (African) American

Today on St. Louis on the Air, Don Marsh interviews Gerald Early about the new Best African American Essays and Best African American Fiction collections, of which Early is the series editor. 

When I first heard about these new series, I wasn't quite sure what to think. Like the African American fiction section at Borders where you have to go to find Toni Morrison or Edward P. Jones, these series seemed to smack of "separate but equal," a kind of literary Negro league. 

Marsh asks Early about this misgiving in a slightly different way, wondering if critics might say that the notion of "best African American" is polarizing: Why should we have to label something African American or white or whatever? Early acknowledges the question as one he'd given thought to, then suggests some things about the African American essay as its own genre. 

As I thought about it some more, it occurred to me that, in some ways, the question is moot. The books are being published by Bantam because Bantam thinks they will make money. Marsh and Early both comment on how the sales prospects for the books are looking even better in light of the election of Barack Obama. Early also notes that, at one point, he floated the idea of changing the titles of the series to "Best Multicultural"—but that the publishers rejected the idea vehemently. They wanted, it seems, a specific market niche.

I argued in a previous post that these "best of" collections are, ultimately, merely a bunch of pieces of writing that somebody liked. But an important corollary I didn't think of is this: They are collections of writing that are intended to sell books. The publishers behind the Best African American series evidently felt that a segment of the market was being left out by the rest of the "best ofs," and they are seeking to reach it with these books. Likewise with the African American section of the bookstore. 

Early notes that the writers whose works are included in the collections were ecstatic about their selection. Perhaps they feel not that they are being ghettoized or sent into some alternate league, but instead that their work is being highlighted in the marketplace, given a better chance of reaching the readers who might find it interesting. And, really, what more could a writer want? And is it really so great to be lost among the shelves with all the other fiction—or not to be included at all in the original Best American series because the tastes of the editors have a different emphasis?

The point is that such collections are arbitrary books to begin with, and if, by exploiting the "best American" label, those who produce these new series can draw attention to interesting writing that would have otherwise been overlooked, then that's good for business and good for writers—and, maybe, good for race relations in America. 

This is Not a Test

My new favorite song to play on the guitar:

Oh, Rickey, You're So Fine

Roger Angell on Rickey Henderson, now a Hall of Famer:

Everything about him made you wince and gasp at the same time. How does a major-league ballplayer, for instance, end up playing for nine different teams, while also rejoining his first team, the Oakland Athletics, four times? Why would a major-league outfielder insist on grabbing oncoming flyballs with an angry-looking one-handed slicing motion, as if they were, well, horseflies? Why would a left-handed guy bat right-handed in the first place, reversing the throws-right, bats-left preference that is so advantageous to a batter? Why did Rickey talk in a whiney Peter Lorre–Richard Widmark whimper, and refer to himself most of the time in the third person, as he did, as I recall, on the day in the A’s’ clubhouse when he first appeared wearing the club’s spanking brand-new uniform, which had replaced the execrable Charlie Finley polyesters: “Ree-kee ain’ goon’ be steal-in’ no bay-ses in this uneee-fohmmm!” Why did Rickey fold himself into a wizened gum ball, an arthritic Yoda, while standing up at the plate?

It was all on purpose, of course.

Read on

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Trying to Break Your Heart

The other day, I watched Sam Jones's documentary about Wilco, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. It was really well done—a great piece of cinema verite, as one of my friends noted, a window into how music is created, how band members relate to one another, how the business works, and even some peeks into a rock star's personal life. Jeff Tweedy comes across as a pretty genuine human being; Jay Bennett as something of an ass. Watching the credits, though, I did note that many of the best songs featured in the film were co-written by Bennett. I think the band probably has lost something since his departure, though who knows how long they could have continued to work together without his leaving.

The movie has sent me back to my Wilco discs. These days I find that I tend to listen only to the cream I have skimmed off the albums and put on to my iPod, so I've enjoyed going back to the full collections. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot never gets old, but it's interesting to listen to after having heard the proto-versions of the songs in the film. Being There has seemed spotty to me in the past, but now I'm reminded of its bounty, all the treats squirreled away in its corners. I had never liked Sky Blue Sky much—the prettiness of its guitar solos turned me off, and the lyrics seemed too goofy and earnest—but it's growing on me, especially the first five songs.

A few Wilco-related links: Jay Bennett speaks at length, somewhat self-servingly, about his time with the band. And, as a way of contrasting the fortunes of Tweedy and former Uncle Tupelo comrade Jay Farrar, the Wikipedia entries on Wilco and Son Volt. Finally, two well-written reviews of Sky Blue Sky, one negative, one positive.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Censorship and the Internet

An interesting essay in the Chronicle Review. Here's the thesis:

Now, with almost everything digitized, new communication technologies have led to a global proliferation of censorship agents, methods, and rationales. Ironically for the American pioneers who expected the Internet to foster unprecedented information freedom, its rapid and ubiquitous adoption has created a flexible and effective mechanism for thought control.

De Gustibus Redux

At the Millions there's a link to an interview with Salman Rushdie about the 2008 Best American Short Stories collection. At around 7:30 into the interview, Rushdie mentions some regret at not including a David Foster Wallace story, in light of DFW's death. Presumably he's talking about "Good People," DFW's short, electrifying last piece ever in the New Yorker.

Twenty stories were reprinted in the collection. Rushdie says the DFW story was number 21.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

"Jon" on Stage

George Saunders's story "Jon" is a biblical allegory, a version of Plato's allegory of the cave, an initiation story, a satire (with a heart) of our contemporary, advertising-soaked culture, and one of my all-time favorites. According to Larry Dark's blog, it has also now been adapted into a play. 

Saturday, January 10, 2009

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

From the LA Times' Jacket Copy blog:

Taken together, two anthologies -- "The Best American Short Stories 2008" and "Pushcart Prize XXXIII: Best of the Small Presses" -- provide a guide to the best work in contemporary short fiction.

I'm a bit skeptical. I've read some of the Best American Short Story collections in the past, and I have liked some of the stories in them. Last year's, for instance, guest edited by Stephen King, had a moving story by Richard Russo, engaging ones by Louis Auchincloss and Joseph Epstein, and a devastating one by Alice Munro that I'd read when it came out in the New Yorker. This year's collection is edited by Salman Rushdie; it, too, has some stories I enjoyed. Another Munro story, this one from Harper's, that really got under my skin when I read it in the magazine; and a typically terrific George Saunders story. I wonder about some of the other choices, though. Daniyal Mueenuddin's "Nawabdin Electrician," in my opinion, was a worthy story, but not extraordinary. Steven Millhauser's "The Wizard of West Orange" seemed to me one of the least interesting stories in his collection Dangerous Laughter; at least one of the others would have been eligible and better for inclusion, I think. And I thought Jonathan Lethem's "The King of Sentences" was one of the worst stories in the New Yorker that year.

When it comes down to it, though, there's no accounting for taste, and thus these "best of" anthologies—the Best American, the Pushcart, and the O. Henry—have to be taken for what they are: arbitrary collections of stories that somebody liked for their own subjective reasons.

For my money, the best of the "best of" collections were the O. Henry Prize volumes from 1997 to 2002. The stories were chosen by Larry Dark, whose taste is apparently pretty congruent with my own. It was in these collections that I encountered great stuff like Andre Dubus's "Dancing After Hours," Munro's "The Love of a Good Woman," Lorrie Moore's "People Like That Are the Only People Here," much of Saunders's Pastoralia, Steven Millhauser's "The Knife Thrower," my first introduction to him; Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies," Pinckney Benedict's "Zog-19: A Scientific Romance," Michael Chabon's "Son of the Wolfman," Russell Banks's "Plains of Abraham," Mary Swan's "The Deep," Dan Chaon's "Big Me," T. Coraghessan Boyle's "The Love of My Life," Andrea Barrett's "Servants of the Map," and David Foster Wallace's "Good Old Neon." These are some big names, but I also encountered more obscure gems like Julia Whitty's "A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga," W.D. Wetherell's "Watching Girls Play," Cary Holladay's "Merry-Go-Sorry" and Peter Baida's "A Nurse's Story, John Biguenet's "Rose," Tim Gautreaux's "Easy Pickings," and Don Zancanella's "The Chimpanzees of Wyoming Territory." 

When Dark stopped editing the series after 2002, it no longer felt the same. Yesterday, though, I was pleased to find that he's got a blog, part of his gig as director of something called The Story Prize.

In the end, I suppose, these annual collections are only the first round of a long-term process, no less arbitrary, of literary valuation. Some works will be canonized, anthologized, read in schools, studied and written about, while others will be forgotten, maybe temporarily, maybe forever. As Barbara Herrnstein-Smith argues in Contingencies of Value, there's no objective standard of merit that will determine their fate. 

The old Latin saying, De gustibus non est disputandum, has it only half right in saying that taste is beyond dispute. Taste may be subjective, but it is eminently disputable. That's how culture is created—in the dispute over taste, in the battles over value, in the winners and losers and runners-up.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Even More on New Yorker Fiction 2008

My New Yorker fiction spreadsheet, updated for 2008, posted at the Millions, with commentary by Max.

My own comments on the magazine's year in fiction.

Justice Under God

I found this image, painted by Edward del Rosario, the brother of a friend of mine, fascinating. You can't stop looking at it because you can't quite figure out what it means.

Here's a whole gallery of del Rosario's work.

Lawrence Wright on Obama and al-Qaeda

A great post from Wright, beginning with this:

Pity Al Qaeda as it tries to recover from the bursting of the great Bush bubble. Their greatest asset was the polarizing figure of George W. Bush and the almost automatic loathing he elicited throughout the Muslim world. Demonizing America and rallying disaffected Muslims to the cause of international jihad was never so easy. Now the Bush era is passing into history. Americans have powerfully demonstrated the peaceful route to social revolution. Nothing else we have done since 9/11 has made such a profound and favorable impact on peoples who are themselves often buried under repressive regimes with little idea of how to escape their fate. Al Qaeda offered them one model, made of blood and vengeance. Democracy has just presented them with another, comprised of reason and hope.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

All This Useless Beauty

From Wyatt Mason's blog:

Listening to writers explain themselves can be disconcerting. Often, what is said about their work is not very illuminating. Elvis Costello said in concert many years ago, as he strummed the introductory chords to a song, that he had been asked by a reporter what the lyrics in that song meant. Costello said he told the reporter that if he had meant for the song to mean anything other than the words he had written for it, he would have written a different song. Less a stance than a pose, Costello’s answer only goes so far. What I do like about it, though, is its idea that the questions we might ask of poetry, or of prose, are better directed at the made thing than its maker.

What Wyatt Mason and Elvis Costello are both rejecting here is called the intentional fallacy by New Critics: the belief that the author's intentions have primary significance in understanding the meaning of a work of art. 

It's something that I think about as a high school English teacher, because I think students innately believe this fallacy. I remember feeling it as a high school student myself: Did the author really intend these things, really encode them for my teachers to spin out with such intricacy? 

Not till college and graduate school did I realize that it doesn't matter, and it's impossible to say anyway. It's the difference between finding meaning and making meaning as a reader. It's why I shy away from questions like, "What do you think Homer is trying to say here?" and from words like "symbolizes." Instead, I like to use the word "suggests."

Who is to say what Mark Twain intended in this or that chapter of Huckleberry Finn? A work of literature is so complex, its implications so wide-ranging and multifarious, that it would be impossible for an author to have control of them all. And that's part of what makes literature so exciting. A reader's job is not to deduce what sort of meaning the author intended, but to use the details of the work to construct a coherent meaning that is grounded in the work itself. That's why I like the word "suggests"; especially to students, "symbolizes" implies authorial intent, whereas "suggests" is, in a sense, a judgment by the reader. 

My favorite book is The Tender Land, by Kathleen Finneran. Over the years, as I've taught it, I've slipped interpretations and little pieces of writing about the book to Kathleen, and she has sometimes responded with surprise and pleasure to ways of thinking about the book that have never occurred to her. Does that mean that she is a sloppy writer? Not at all: it means that the subconscious mind is powerfully at work during the process of writing, imbuing the text with pattern. It means that a good work of art has layers of complexity that can be explored and stretched and reconfigured. It means that such works have a kind of artistic integrity that can support multiple interpretations and that can nourish thought.

Mason is quite right to say that questions about the meaning of a work are better directed at the thing itself than at its maker. Elvis's point should not be taken as a dismissal of the project of interpretation (though that's the lesson many a high school student, frustrated by the difficulties of reading well, would like to draw). Instead, his point is simply that his own work is done. He's written the song, given us the pleasure of listening to it, experiencing it. We're responsible for whatever meaning we choose to make of it.

The Elvis reference, by the way, is to the version of "All This Useless Beauty" on Costello & Nieve, a boxed set of five discs, live recordings from the first tour Elvis and Steve (the brilliant piano player from the Attractions) did together as a duo. It's great stuff, stripped down versions of songs from Elvis's vast back catalog. I saw the two of them at the American Theater in St. Louis on their second tour together, and I have a bootleg recording of the show, which can still give me shivers when I listen to it. 

The song's refrain, now that I think of it, seems like the perennial question that art prompts:

"What shall we do, what shall we do, with all this useless beauty?"

Here's Elvis and Steve doing the song:

Words, Words, Words

Check out this website where people write briefly about their favorite words.

(Via the Book Bench.)


At one of St. Louis Magazine's blogs, Bryan Hollerbach succinctly skewers Jay Leno, lamenting his continued presence on the air. 

Monday, January 5, 2009

Hey, Mama, Rock Me

Cleaning up the kitchen, listening to my iPod, I was struck by the beauty of these Greg Brown lyrics, from "Ring Around the Moon":

The picking of these strings, the tapping of your feet
These are age-old things, but who can say how sweet.

They made me think of my favorite part of New Years Eve, playing "Wagon Wheel" in my living room with my friends, who sang along and accompanied on percussion with my daughters.

Then on YouTube I found this wonderful and bizarre video, which features Old Crow Medicine Show, dancing girls in burlesque get-ups, a county fair, and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings selling tickets.

More on New Yorker Fiction 2008

Max at the Millions surveys the year in New Yorker fiction, including a link to Perpetual Folly, where you can find even fuller responses to each story.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Wire

In a previous post, I suggested pairing the films Wall-E and Koyaanisqatsi. I just finished watching another film that I think might be even more interesting to hold up against Koyaanisqatsi: Man on Wire. It's a documentary about Philippe Petit, who in August of 1974 performed for 45 minutes on a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers. 

My wife and I wanted to watch it because we had read Mordicai Gerstein's great children's book about the incident, The Man Who Walked Between the Towersto our daughters many times. The film obviously adds much more detail and background, but it also offers a powerful refutation of the message that I took from Koyaanisqatsi. That film presents humans as destructive insects whose intelligence serves only to despoil the beauty of nature. In contrast, Man on Wire looks at an individual (and his friends and collaborators), vividly dramatizing their ingenuity, originality, courage, and visionary sense of beauty. By the end, it had me (and at least one of the people interviewed in the film) in tears—of joy, recognition, appreciation.

Big Bad Wolfe

In the current New Yorker, Tom Wolfe's snarky, unconvincing reply to Alex Ross's suggestion that Wolfe presented Leonard Bernstein unfairly in Radical Chic.

Seems like Ross really got Wolfe's goat.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Brave New Year

At they asked a bunch of smart people this question: What will change everything? 

Their answers make for fascinating reading (or skimming)—the raw materials for a whole science fiction library. 

This passage, for instance, reminded me of Cormac McCarthy's The Road:  

Accidental nuclear war between two superpowers may or may not happen in my lifetime, but if it does, it will obviously change everything. The climate change we are currently discussing pales in comparison with nuclear winter, and the current economic turmoil is of course nothing compared to the resulting global crop failures, infrastructure collapse and mass starvation, with survivors succumbing to hungry armed gangs systematically pillaging from house to house. 

And then Brian Eno (whose name I was surprised to find among all the scientists and philosophers), mentions the book explicitly in his ominous wonderings about what would happen if a general sort of pessimism took hold:

... suppose the feeling changes: that people start to anticipate the future world ... as something more closely resembling the nightmare of desperation, fear and suspicion described in Cormac McCarthy's post-cataclysm novel The Road. What happens then?

The following: Humans fragment into tighter, more selfish bands. Big institutions, because they operate on longer time-scales and require structures of social trust, don't cohere. There isn't time for them. Long term projects are abandoned — their payoffs are too remote. Global projects are abandoned — not enough trust to make them work. Resources that are already scarce will be rapidly exhausted as everybody tries to grab the last precious bits. Any kind of social or global mobility is seen as a threat and harshly resisted. Freeloaders and brigands and pirates and cheats will take control. Survivalism rules. Might will be right.

This is a dark thought, but one to keep an eye on. Feelings are more dangerous than ideas, because they aren't susceptible to rational evaluation. They grow quietly, spreading underground, and erupt suddenly, all over the place. They can take hold quickly and run out of control ('FIRE!') and by their nature tend to be self-fueling. If our world becomes gripped by this particular feeling, everything it presupposes could soon become true.

Not all the predictions are this gloomy, by the way.

The Choice of a New Generation

Over the summer, I read an article in the paper about the Presidential election. It concluded by comparing Obama to an iPod and McCain to a Walkman. If Americans wanted to stick with something old and reliable, they'd vote for McCain; if they wanted something sleek and new, they'd vote for Obama. At the time, I thought, If that's how the electorate frames their choice, then Obama has it in the bag. And, arguably, that's exactly what happened.

Last night, some friends of mine noted that the new Pepsi logo looks a lot like Obama's logo. 

Even the zero on the Diet Pepsi looks like an "O." 

It turns out that other people have made this comparision. Some suggest that Pepsi began working on this new look up to two years ago; others wonder if Obama's logo is actually patterned after Pepsi's more traditional logo.

In any case, I think the point is that, right now, Obama is cool. He's the iPod, the new design, the future. That's a pretty remarkable thing for a President—and it's well beyond the whole Clinton-plays-the-sax-on-Arsenio thing. Obama has been able to tap into the power of youth marketing and hip graphic design, and even if Pepsi developed their logo long before Obama's came around, I don't think they mind if people subliminally connect the two.