Friday, January 28, 2011

Meaning and Sound

More than two years after David Foster Wallace's death, his reputation continues to grow and the conversation about his work only increases in its intensity and pervasiveness. You see his name popping up all the time. For example, he gets mentioned briefly in this Ken Auletta article about the CEO of America On-Line, and in this Adam Haslett review-essay about Stanley Fish's new book, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One.

Haslett argues that "Wallace’s anxious, perseverating sentences are arguably the most innovative in recent American literature":

Take the first sentence of David Foster Wallace’s story, “The Depressed Person”: “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.” By mixing heightened feeling and unrelenting repetition (“pain”, “pain”, “pain”) with a Latinate, clinically declarative voice (“component”, “contributing factor”), Wallace delivers his readers right where he wants them: inside the hellish disconnect between psychic pain and the modern means of describing it. The rhythm of the sentence is perfectly matched to its positive content. Indeed, from a writer’s point of view the two aren’t separate. If we could separate meaning from sound, we’d read plot summaries rather than novels.

I particularly like Haslett's final point. It's one that I try desperately to make to my freshmen when I see them furtively reading their Sparknotes before a class on the Odyssey or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Huck Finn or Romeo and Juliet: if you're just trying to cram information from a pre-digested summary, you're missing the biggest reason for reading in the first place—to learn how to experience a book.

Thursday, January 27, 2011


From Dan Chiasson's review of The Anthology of Rap in the January 13 issue of the New York Review of Books:

Only in hip-hop is the age-old comedy of grown-ups trying to understand young people yoked so uncomfortably to the American tragedy of whites trying and failing to understand blacks. Age incomprehension is comic, since everyone eventually grows old; race incomprehension is tragic, since nobody knows what it is like to change races.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chronicling Parenthood

From an interesting article by Libby Copeland at Slate, about the way that Facebook and the Internet may increase loneliness by exacerbating our tendency to underestimate other people's unhappiness:

Any parent who has posted photos and videos of her child on Facebook is keenly aware of the resulting disconnect from reality, the way chronicling parenthood this way creates a story line of delightfully misspoken words, adorably worn hats, dancing, blown kisses. Tearful falls and tantrums are rarely recorded, nor are the stretches of pure, mind-blowing tedium. We protect ourselves, and our kids, this way; happiness is impersonal in a way that pain is not. But in the process, we wind up contributing to the illusion that kids are all joy, no effort.

As I paste this passage, however, I think of all the counter-examples: the Facebook posts in which friends of mine ruefully recount their parenting misadventures, mini-disasters, and truly scary moments; or my friend Steve's blog, Our Three Oranges, which he uses to keep relatives and friends informed about his family, including developments both encouraging and discouraging with his son James, who has Down Syndrome.

I often don't comment on these posts—although I appreciate when people comment on similar posts of mine—but I do find that, far from increasing my loneliness, they have the opposite effect: they give me a sense of the day-to-day struggles of other people, a sense of shared vulnerability, and simply a wider sense of the lives of the people I know than I would probably get without the Internet and Facebook.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Brody on The Hurt Locker

Richard Brody's interesting argument about The Hurt Locker, which I enjoyed watching last night, confident that I'd be off school today (as indeed I was, thanks to six or so inches of snow):

Sure, the bomb-planters come off as monsters. But the movie’s wider implications emerge with the recognition that the world is full of monsters—but that it would be self-destructive for the United States to assume the right and the responsibility to rid the world of them (and would also suggest precisely the kind of war-addiction that the movie dramatizes). So, yes, “The Hurt Locker” is definitely a liberal movie—especially in the general sense of suggesting that wisdom and justice consist in learning to accept the existence of evil. But it’s a very particular kind of liberal movie: it suggests that the United States faces dangers that are indeed self-destructive; the question of Iraqis and their well-being is secondary to the story. It is, in effect, a liberal movie without guilt; and, I think, this fact accounts, at least in part, for its widespread acclaim.

Take a Village

Ray Hartmann demolishes the Ballpark Village, a bad idea that continues to resurface:

The latest incarnation of the project promises “a plaza for concerts,” which St. Louis—overrun with concert venues (even before the old Kiel Opera House is restored)—most certainly does not need.

It also proposes “unique stores and restaurants” for which there is no demand. If there were demand, they would already have existed around the old Busch Stadium, or the new one, since St. Louisans have been going to the same place downtown for the same purpose (to watch baseball) for 45 years.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that the average family spends hundreds of dollars and takes several hours out of the day to attend Cardinal games. Spending still more money and time in “unique” stores seems a uniquely unattractive idea.

So, too, does the notion of constructing a new, 12- or 13-story office building that would use city-government subsidy to compete with a downtown core that it is already plagued with a 25-percent vacancy rate. Adding insult to injury, the new building’s prized tenant—Stifel Nicolaus—would be lured from an existing downtown skyscraper, leaving it with a devastating six-floor hole.

Monday, January 17, 2011

A Riff for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Odyssey begins not with Odysseus, its eponymous hero, but instead with his son, Telemachus, whose journey to manhood occupies the first four books of the poem and is brought to fruition in the final books.

After some years of teaching this epic, I was startled to realize something obvious: that most of Telemachus' maturing, especially in the first four books of the Odyssey, is accomplished through public speaking: his address to the assembly of Ithaca, his public accusation of the suitors, his conversations with great kings like Nestor and Menelaus. As he faces these difficult rhetorical situations, the prince gains confidence and experience.

Odysseus also faces challenging rhetorical situations. The most memorable may be when he has to beg for help from the virginal princess Nausicaa on the beaches of Phaeacia. He has to win her sympathy after he's crawled out of some bushes, naked and filthy, with only an olive branch to cover his privates. Yet throughout his rhetorical trials, Odysseus performs brilliantly. In contrast to his fledgling son, he is a full-fledged master.

Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is another story of a boy becoming a man—and its narrator's trajectory is also mapped out along a series of speeches: the Booker T. Washington-esque one he naively delivers at the end of the bloody battle royal; the one he gives on a Harlem sidewalk as an old couple is getting evicted from their apartment; a speech at a Brotherhood rally in a large auditorium; and another at the funeral of his fellow organizer Tod Clifton.

Except for the first one, each of these speeches—like those of Telemachus and Odysseus—is extemporaneous, jazz-like, born of intense moments when the speaker feels out his audience and adapts his message to fit their needs and the needs of the occasion, discovering his own identity along the way.

Today, on Martin Luther King Day, as we recall, among other highlights in this modern hero's life, his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, it struck me how King's speech at the March on Washington fits into this rhetorical tradition of momentous change brought about by a well-made and at least partly improvised speech.

In Parting the Waters Taylor Branch explains how on August 28, 1963, King recited his formal speech as written until near the end, after he said the line, "We will not be satisfied until justice runs down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream":

The crowd responded to the pulsating emotions transmitted from the prophet Amos, and King could not bring himself to deliver the next line of his prepared text, which by contrast opened its lamest and most pretentious section....

There was no alternative but to preach. Knowing that he had wandered completely off his text, some of those behind him on the platform urgd him on, and Mahalia Jackson piped up as though in church, "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin." Whether her words reached him is not known. Later, King said only that he forgot the rest of his speech and took up the first run of oratory that "came to me."

Like the speeches given by Telemachus and Ellison's narrator, this improvised speech—delivered as part of what was essentially another of the mass meetings so common during the Civil Rights Era, but this time on a gigantic scale and broadcast to the nation—catapulted King into a new stage of his life. Like those given by Odysseus, the speech exemplified the work of a master who had been honing his craft for years, sharpening his oratory in preparation for a hugely challenging situation such as this. As Branch notes:

What quickly swept the press of both races was the "Dream" sequence, which stamped King's public identity.... More than his words, the timbre of his voice projected him across the racial divide and planted him as a new founding father. It was a fitting joke on the races that he achieved such statesmanship by setting aside his lofty text to let loose and jam, as he did regularly from two hundred podiums a year.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Budding Mammonism

Eugene Robinson's very interesting new book Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America asserts that the African American middle class—which according to him represents a slight majority of all African Americans—is doing pretty well:

Socially, economically, and culturally, the black Mainstream is part of the American mainstream. Middle-class African Americans buy too much on credit and save too little for the future, they burden their children with high and often unrealistic expectations, they drive automobiles that are excessively lare and wasteful, they become emotionally attached to professional sports teams made up of wealthy, spoiled, indifferent athletes—in short, they behave just like other Americans. Even though there is still ground to be made up, it is fair to say that for all intents and purposes, Mainstream African Americans have arrived.

They have arrived, in Robinson's view, because they've become just like other Americans. This account makes me think of something W. E. B. Du Bois writes in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), in a chapter on the economic rise of Atlanta, in which he worries that African Americans will lose sight of their higher ideals as they buy into the general American worship of riches:

What if the Negro people be wooed from a strife for righteousness, from a love of knowing, to regard dollars as the be-all and end-all of life? What if to the Mammonism of America be added the rising Mammonism of the re-born South, and the Mammonism of this South be reinforced by the budding Mammonism of its half-awakened black millions?

It's important to note that Robinson also reports that he's met few Mainstream blacks who don't feel a responsibility to help "the Abandoned," Robinson's term for those blacks who have not seen much benefit from the gains of the Civil Rights Movement and affirmative action.

But it also seems to me that this could be an interesting topic for discussion in my African American Voices class next time around. Have Du Bois's fears been borne out to some degree?

Friday, January 14, 2011

Krugman and Two Sides of American Politics

Paul Krugman hits the nail on the head:

One side of American politics considers the modern welfare state — a private-enterprise economy, but one in which society’s winners are taxed to pay for a social safety net — morally superior to the capitalism red in tooth and claw we had before the New Deal. It’s only right, this side believes, for the affluent to help the less fortunate.

The other side believes that people have a right to keep what they earn, and that taxing them to support others, no matter how needy, amounts to theft. That’s what lies behind the modern right’s fondness for violent rhetoric: many activists on the right really do see taxes and regulation as tyrannical impositions on their liberty.

There’s no middle ground between these views. One side saw health reform, with its subsidized extension of coverage to the uninsured, as fulfilling a moral imperative: wealthy nations, it believed, have an obligation to provide all their citizens with essential care. The other side saw the same reform as a moral outrage, an assault on the right of Americans to spend their money as they choose.

This deep divide in American political morality — for that’s what it amounts to — is a relatively recent development. Commentators who pine for the days of civility and bipartisanship are, whether they realize it or not, pining for the days when the Republican Party accepted the legitimacy of the welfare state, and was even willing to contemplate expanding it. As many analysts have noted, the Obama health reform — whose passage was met with vandalism and death threats against members of Congress — was modeled on Republican plans from the 1990s.