Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fluid Myths

This Daniel Mendelsohn piece eloquently confirms what I tell my students when we're discussing the Odyssey and they try to pin me down on this or that Greek myth:

Shaped as we are by printed literature, we tend to think about myths as texts as immutable as, say, “Anna Karenina.” In the same way we know that Anna Karenina is the woman whose passion leads her to the underside of a railway carriage, we think of Oedipus as a man who unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, Jocasta, and then, after the ghastly revelation of what he has done, blinds himself and goes into exile. (Jocasta hangs herself.) If the name Helen of Troy comes up, we think of the adulterous Greek wife whose passion for a handsome house guest started a world war. But for the Greeks—whose culture was, even in classical times, still a largely oral one—myth was a great deal more fluid. Not twenty years after Sophocles put on his “Oedipus Tyrannus”—whose huge popularity from ancient times on has crystallized the self-blinding-exile-hanging version of the story—Euripides presented his tragedy “Phoenician Women,” in which Oedipus and Jocasta are still shuffling around the palace long after the revelation of incest and adultery. As for Helen of Troy, some people may be startled to learn that she might not have run away with Paris at all—and that, therefore, the decade-long Trojan War, like some other wars through the ages, was based on a fatal hoax. In his play “Helen,” Euripides dramatized a tale that had been in circulation since not long after Homer. Here the woman whom Paris takes home is just a phantom spun from clouds; the real Helen, virtuous and loyal, is spirited away to Egypt, where she weeps for her sullied reputation and mourns her husband, Menelaus, who eventually turns up and rescues her.

To us, brought up on the D’Aulaires’ “Book of Greek Myths,” all this may seem odd. It’s as if Tolstoy’s novel were only one of many possible “Anna Karenina”s, and there was a version in which the heroine acts on her final, panicked moment of hesitation, climbs back from underneath the train in the nick of time, and goes home to squabble with Karenin. But the Greeks had no “Book of Greek Myths”; they just kept tampering.

Of course, this is also a convenient way for me to dodge the fact that some of my students may know Greek mythology more thoroughly than I do.

Monday, March 29, 2010

It's About Us

Today I finished reading Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father. One of the remarkable things about this fine book is its heteroglossia, to use a 25-cent grad school term. Obama lets the people in his memoir speak at length, bringing a multiplicity of voices and viewpoints into his narrative.

His Indonesian stepfather's rather brutal view of power, for instance: "If you can't be strong, be clever and make peace with someone who's strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always."

Or the strident black nationalism of Chicago businessman Rafiq al-Shabazz: "It's about blood, Barack, looking after your own. Period."

Or the despair of a counselor at a Chicago public school: "The first thing you have to realize is that the public school system is not about educating black children. Never has been. Inner-city schools are about social control.... They're operated as holding pens—miniature jails, really."

And, in a fascinating section near the end of the book, nearly thirty pages long, Obama gives the narration over to his Kenyan "Granny," who tells him the life stories of his grandfather (her husband) and his father (whom she raised).

Obama doesn't necessarily agree with all of the voices that he incorporates into his memoir, but neither does he set them up as strawmen to mow down with his own answers. Instead, Obama lets their words stand, using them as landmarks while charting his own thoughtful ruminations.

Near the end of the book, Obama has dinner with a Kenyan history professor, who asks him if he's been disappointed by his first visit to her country. "I told her that I hadn't," he notes, "although I was leaving with as many questions as answers."

Obama stays true to the complexities of identity, race, class, politics, colonialism, meaning, and more by avoiding easy answers, remaining "wary of expedient conversion, having too many quarrels with God to accept a salvation too easily won."

Dreams From My Father takes on an added dimension of significance, of course, now that its author is the 44th president of the United States. And it struck me today, reading this Atul Gawande piece about what lies ahead in implementing the recently passed health care bill, that Obama's governance reflects the same temperament as his memoir.

Gawande notes:

The most interesting, under-discussed, and potentially revolutionary aspect of the law is that it doesn’t pretend to have the answers. Instead, through a new Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, it offers to free communities and local health systems from existing payment rules, and let them experiment with ways to deliver better care at lower costs. In large part, it entrusts the task of devising cost-saving health-care innovation to communities like Boise and Boston and Buffalo, rather than to the drug and device companies and the public and private insurers that have failed to do so. This is the way costs will come down—or not.

That’s the one truly scary thing about health reform: far from being a government takeover, it counts on local communities and clinicians for success. We are the ones to determine whether costs are controlled and health care improves—which is to say, whether reform survives and resistance is defeated. The voting is over, and the country has many other issues that clamor for attention. But, as L.B.J. would have recognized, the battle for health-care reform has only begun.

As Obama said during the campaign, "It's not about me; it's about you," and Gawande suggests that in large measure the health care bill leaves it up to the American public to work out various solutions to the health care conundrum, solutions that are appropriate to community needs and resources, solutions that acknowledge the vexing complexity of our country's challenges.

Friday, March 26, 2010

DFW in the Margins

Here you can look through David Foster Wallace's comments on a student paper about Cormac McCarthy's Suttree.

One highlight: Wallace underlines the word problematize and notes, "This is a bullshit academic word. Shun it. Fly it. Trust me," a comment that wittily alludes to the final line of Suttree. In his later comments, Wallace at least twice uses the word problematize himself (though he puts scare quotes around it) to critique the student's own assertions.

Overall, I like the image of Wallace that comes through his comments. He seems like a decent human being with a good sense of humor, and I'm impressed that he gave such time and attention to this guy's paper—balancing criticism with lots of encouragement. He also balances grammatical corrections with commentary on the content of the paper.

In the end, Wallace pronounces the essay "Magnificent" and gives it an A+++. He then assigns a penalty for "syntax, grandiloquence" and knocks the grade down to an A+.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Dark Chapter in American History

Jane Mayer's swift and thorough takedown of Marc A. Thiessen's Courting Disaster, a new book that tries to defend the Bush Administration's use of torture, includes this trenchant point, among many others:

Tellingly, Thiessen does not address the many false confessions given by detainees under torturous pressure, some of which have led the U.S. tragically astray. Nowhere in this book, for instance, does the name Ibn Sheikh al-Libi appear. In 2002, the C.I.A., under an expanded policy of extraordinary rendition, turned Libi over to Egypt to be brutalized. Under duress, Libi falsely linked Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s alleged biochemical-weapons program, in Iraq. In February, 2003, former Secretary of State Colin Powell gave an influential speech in which he made the case for going to war against Iraq and prominently cited this evidence.

Talk about an epic fail.

Mayer ends, however, with a criticism of Obama:

The publication of “Courting Disaster” suggests that Obama’s avowed determination “to look forward, not back” has laid the recent past open to partisan reinterpretation. By holding no one accountable for past abuse, and by convening no commission on what did and didn’t protect the country, President Obama has left the telling of this dark chapter in American history to those who most want to whitewash it.

Nevertheless, I can imagine why Obama didn't convene a commission. Doing so would be an expenditure of political capital to further discredit an abandoned policy that has already been amply investigated, perhaps most effectively by Mayer herself. I'm not sure that a government commission would prevent partisan reinterpretation now or prevent more torture from happening in some distant future.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pushing in the Other Direction

From an interesting NY Times article that analyzes the meaning of the new health care bill:

For all the political and economic uncertainties about health reform, at least one thing seems clear: The bill that President Obama signed on Tuesday is the federal government’s biggest attack on economic inequality since inequality began rising more than three decades ago.

Over most of that period, government policy and market forces have been moving in the same direction, both increasing inequality. The pretax incomes of the wealthy have soared since the late 1970s, while their tax rates have fallen more than rates for the middle class and poor.

Nearly every major aspect of the health bill pushes in the other direction. This fact helps explain why Mr. Obama was willing to spend so much political capital on the issue, even though it did not appear to be his top priority as a presidential candidate. Beyond the health reform’s effect on the medical system, it is the centerpiece of his deliberate effort to end what historians have called the age of Reagan....

The bill is the most sweeping piece of federal legislation since Medicare was passed in 1965. It aims to smooth out one of the roughest edges in American society — the inability of many people to afford medical care after they lose a job or get sick. And it would do so in large measure by taxing the rich.

This is the real reason that Republicans were so outraged about the bill. They argue that this legislation is socialism, that it's un-American to provide medical care to the less-well-off by taking money from the well-off. Some nutjobs around my school even argue, seemingly counterintuitively, that it's un-Christian to do so—since it forces individuals to give to charity, an act that should be chosen freely.

Such criticisms are grounded in a central misconception (and perhaps a willful one) about the nature of our society and our economy. Republicans love to talk about the free market, as if it's simply a state of nature that government interferes with at its peril.

But in fact the "free market" is a human construction that has evolved over centuries and is constantly being tweaked and manipulated by human beings. The invention of money, the system of lending, the Federal Reserve bank—all of these types of things are specific human inventions that have been designed to engineer an economy. There's no such thing as the "free market." There's just a series of rules and practices that have been set up to encourage individuals and corporations to make exchanges in order to provide our society with what it wants and needs. And those rules and practices are constantly being refined and adapted.

At various points in our history, the government has stepped in to refine the rules of our economy when the wealthy get too powerful. The most stark instance of such an intervention, as I discussed here, was when the government abolished slavery, thus taking away much Southern wealth and delivering it to former slaves.

Southerners, some of whom didn't even own slaves, considered this transfer of wealth to be tyranny. John Wilkes Booth, after shooting Abraham Lincoln, referred to him as a tyrant. Plenty of Tea Party types these days are calling Obama a tyrant.

It wasn't tyranny, though. Our society, through its elected leaders, made a decision to shape our economy this way—guided as well, perhaps, by moral principles. And we've made other choices over the decades: child labor laws, public schools, Medicare, tax breaks for homebuyers. The recent Supreme Court decision about corporations and campaign contributions was a decision that affects the economy as well.

The "free market" is constantly being shaped and re-shaped. Politics is mostly about how it will be shaped. Contrary to the ridiculous demagoguery of the Republicans in the final hours of the health care debate, all that's happened here, really, is American politics as it was designed to operate: after years of leaders who chose to shape the economy to concentrate wealth toward the top, the American public elected a group of leaders (Obama most powerfully) who wanted to tip things back the other way.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Adventures at QT (5)

Yesterday I was putting lids on sodas at QT. At the fountain were several teenaged boys.

"Should I get a Suicide?" I heard one of them ask the group.

I turned around. "What's a Suicide?"

"That's when you mix all the sodas together."

"It's awesome," chimed in another of the boys.

I Googled it, and sure enough, the Suicide is an established part of fountain soda culture. Here's a demonstration:

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wade School

Wade School was built in 1929, named for Festus J. Wade, a prominent St. Louis banker. It was designed by famed architect Robert Milligan. In 1995, it was renamed the Meda P. Washington Education Center. It's on Vandeventer, in between Shaw and Kingshighway.

This building is in my neighborhood, and in an alternate universe—one in which it was still used as an elementary school, and in which every school in the district was a solid educational environment—it would be where my kids go to school. They could walk there in about ten minutes.

I'm not really complaining. The SLPS school that my daughter attends is only a five-minute drive from our house, and it's a great place.

But Meda P. Washington, nee Wade, does have a place in my heart. My grandma worked here as a school secretary decades ago. And I taught my wife to drive a stick shift in the parking lot.

It's a handsome building, part of St. Louis's rich heritage of educational architecture, yet also a reminder of the often sundered connection between our built environment and our lives in this city.

A Different Tradition Altogether

Christopher Benfey's piece on Raymond Carver makes a number of points similar to those I made here and here. But it also adds this very nice insight:

[Lish] thought that Carver was in the tradition of Hemingway, that he was a “minimalist” of some kind, an artist of radical abbreviation; in short, a writer of “short stories.” Lish certainly “improved” Carver’s stories by the standards of that tradition, giving them extra point, concision, suggestiveness, and climax.

But in fact, as we can now see from the original versions of his stories in this important Library of America volume, Carver was part of a different tradition altogether—the tradition of orally based storytellers such as Mark Twain and Sherwood Anderson. One could even argue that the abbreviations of the “short story,” as taught at Iowa and elsewhere, are fundamentally opposed to the oral nature of the kind of storytelling that Carver was practicing.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Ralph as Obama

I'm teaching Lord of the Flies right now to my freshmen. Yesterday we talked about the scene in which Jack and his hunters let the fire go out. They miss a chance at rescue because they're busy killing their first pig.

Afterward, when Ralph, the elected chief of the boys on the island, accuses Jack of dereliction of duty, Jack apologizes. His Cheneyesque apology draws a positive response from members of his own party:

The buzz from the hunters was one of admiration at this handsome behavior. Clearly they were of the opinion that Jack had done the decent thing, had put himself in the right by his generous apology and Ralph, obscurely, in the wrong.

One of my freshmen asked, "Why do they side with Jack? Can't they see that Ralph is right?"

Ralph is right, of course, that the first priority of the boys on the island should be keeping the fire going as a signal to possible rescuers, and that the second priority should be building shelters. But the lure of the hunt is too great, especially in comparison with the drudgery and labor of fire-tending and shelter-building. The kids don't understand the truth of the situation, so they get caught up in political theater.

I thought of this today as I read George Packer's fine New Yorker article (subscription required) about Obama's first year. Packer quotes a congressional senior aide who suggests that part of Obama's difficulties have stemmed from his disinclination to play simplistic, flashy political games like Jack's, and his desire to think long-term about what's best for the nation.

"One of the problems with this Administration is it has tried to have a grownup, sophisticated conversation with the public.... The country doesn't want to have the conversation he wants to have."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

DFW's Copy of Suttree

The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has acquired David Foster Wallace's papers. Here you can look at some books from Wallace's library, along with the notes he's scribbled into the first page.

Check out Wallace's copy of Suttree (he's drawn fangs, mustache, and glasses on Cormac McCarthy's face) at the bottom of the list.

I would consider driving down to Texas if I could flip through the rest of Wallace's copy of this book. Anybody wanna go with me?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Tendencies That Deserve to Be Ignored

Sasha Frere-Jones's nice piece on Bill Withers points out the amazing fact that "Ain't No Sunshine" was the first song Withers ever wrote, and makes these perceptive observations about that song as well:

Withers says that he is an untrained musician, and his songs bear him out, not because they lack sophistication but because they ignore tendencies that deserve to be ignored more often. “Ain’t No Sunshine” is a two-minute song with only three verses, a bridge that repeats two words twenty-six times—“I know”—and no chorus to speak of.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Stoicism and Optimism

From an interesting Richard Rodriguez piece about Cesar Chavez:

If you would understand the tension between Mexico and the United States that is playing out along our mutual border, you must understand the psychic tension between Mexican stoicism— if that is a rich enough word for it— and American optimism. On the one side, Mexican peasants are tantalized by the American possibility of change. On the other side, the tyranny of American optimism has driven Americans to neurosis and depression— when the dream is elusive or less meaningful than the myth promised. This constitutes the great irony of the Mexican-American border: American sadness has transformed the drug lords of Mexico into billionaires, even as the peasants of Mexico scramble through the darkness to find the American dream.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Evolution of an Urban Landscape (Charlotte)

Via Dotage (it's best if you make it full screen, with sound):