Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Happy 176th Birthday, Mark Twain!

I hope you got something real pretty.

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Image (1962)

Author: Daniel J. Boorstin
Title: The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America
Publisher: Vintage
Price: Birthday Loot
LCC: E169.12 B66 1992

The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1962) is Daniel Boorstin's effort to help his contemporaries understand the media environment around them. Anticipating the thought of post-structuralist thinker Jean Baudrillard, Boorstin is preoccupied by the diminishing status of reality and the concomitant rise of what he terms "the image." A self-described "how not to do it" book, The Image hopes to "dispel some of the mists" that surround America so that the reader "may better see the landscape to find whatever road he chooses." Nearly 50 years later, Boorstin's text seems to posses a basic common sense, but it is as unlikely to empower readers today any more than it did in 1962. Despite the fact that it addresses itself to the common citizen, The Image is underwritten by a nostalgic conservatism, tinged by pessimism and hostile to people in the aggregate.

Boorstin's title may mislead readers. He is not concerned with images per se, but with the mirages produced by contemporary media. Rather than produce reports on the world-as-it-is, contemporary communication systems begin to manufacture events in order to serve their own ends. Boorstin traces this development to what he terms the "Graphic Revolution." The term signifies a seemingly endless process that began in the Industrial Revolution when the means of communication became easier. This produced both a tremendous upsurge in the number of communications and a tremendous market for them.  Whether these communications were found in visual media like the newspaper, the book, and the cinema or in audible media like radio does not matter. The rise of the "image" comes about because, according to Boorstin, there has never been enough "real" content to satiate the needs of these communication venues.  In order to serve their respective markets, communication firms have had to produce "pseudo-events." These events all have four things in common: 1) they are not spontaneous; 2) they are planned for the sake of publicity 3) their relation to reality is ambiguous and 4) such events are intended to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Anyone paying attention to our current political affairs must have noticed the prevalence of such pseudo-events. However, nothing seems to demonstrate the pseudo-event as the political career of Sarah Palin. When Palin pretends to be running for president she fulfills all four criteria. Her visits with her family to historic American sites are certainly not spontaneous family trips, but are planned around the production schedules of television news media. Such trips are not spiritual journeys for the Palins--after all, they seem to learn almost nothing from them--but are conducted solely for the purpose of bestowing an air of patriotism to the Palin family name. I think we can all admit, especially at this point, that Palin's presidential run had at best an "ambiguous" relationship to reality. Finally, these trips were intended to make Palin an important political force, and in a sense, they did secure a role for Palin as a prominent political commentator.

Boorstin's focus on the celebrity as "human pseudo-event" also possess a certain diagnostic acumen. Boorstin laments the loss of heroes who achieved their notoriety through great deeds. In their place, came the celebrity who is principally well known for being well known. Perhaps nothing represents this transformation than the career of Hulk Hogan. A former wrestler whose matches were staged, Hogan went on to participate on a reality TV show. Hogan Knows Best, modeled itself after a 1950s sitcom, documented the lives of Hogan and his family as they did. . . well, they didn't do much of anything. Nonetheless, it managed to revive Hogan's career and temporarily launch the career of his daughter Brooke. Boorstin's theories also help explain the careers of movie stars as well. Describing the emerging institution of the late night talk show and the already established gossip magazines, Boorstin writes, "One becomes better known by being the habitual butt of another's jokes, by being another's paramour or ex-wife, or being the subject of another's gossip, or even by being ignored by another celebrity." Could any other sentence better explain the success of Jennifer Aniston's post-Brad Pitt career?

While we have all experienced the lack of reality that Boorstin describes there are a number of problems with the arguments he lays out in The Image. With his concern for "reality" and "experience," Boorstin may seem to fall into the American tradition of philosophical pragmatism. However, Boorstin is in fact an idealist and this gets him into trouble when he tries to imagine alternatives to a public life dominated by the image. Instead of calling for a return to "reality"--whatever that might mean--Boorstin calls for a return to ideals. For Boorstin these ideals can be located in religion, in history, and more problematically in the world around us. Boorstin is aware of the vagueness in his definition of "ideals," and he tries to minimize this difference by saying that searching for ideals is a difficult process than manufacturing "images." However, I think Boorstin recognizes that if he pressing his definition of ideal further he'll find that he has come very close to his definition of "image" as "the un-real." The real problem with Boorstin is that he cannot recognize that all social situations and institutions are constructed. He is, at his root, an essentialist.

Boorstin's appeal to religion and history of course mark Boorstin as a deeply conservative thinker. Boorstin is not the type of conservative currently represented by the Republican Party, but he is a conservative in the Burkean sense of the term. (George Will, however, does provide the book's glowing afterword). Boorstin longs for a time before industrialization and capitalist market relations. The problem of the image is, after all, the problem of the Graphic Revolution and the markets it produced. Latent throughout The Image is a nostalgia for a time when writing was restricted to an aristocratic manuscript culture and the rest of us had an oral folk culture. This is a romantic vision but I imagine few of us would leave the comforts of the present for the brute simplicity of feudalism. Ultimately, a kind of austerity underwrites the entire project. Although it is an austerity very different than the one currently advocated by European elites, it nonetheless seems to support the interests of the wealthy few while castigating the many.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Widow (2011)

Author: Michelle Latiolais
Title: Widow: Stories
Publisher: Bellevue Press
Price: $14.95
LCC: PS3562.A7585 W53 2011

In "Hoarding,"  Michelle Latiolais describes an emotionally adrift protagonist.  Driving around Los Angeles, Latiolais's heroine hears on the radio that a new study has determined that aging does not make one smell. The news does not come as a relief. The story's nameless protagonist thinks differently. "We smell of longing. . . we smell of desire; we smell of how unseemly these desires are at our age." She tries to console herself. "You're not really old," she thinks. But the effort is halfhearted and she knows regardless of her age that her heart is weak and wounded and she feels pain in her chest.

Widow is Michelle Latiolais's meditation on loss, pain, and trying to capture that experience into words. Although the titular widow is not Latiolais herself, the author lost her husband seven years after a bout of depression led him to take his own life. Widow collects Latiolais stories from the past fifteen years, some written before her loss and some after the fact. Literary theorist Elaine Scarry has written that pain entails the destruction of language, but as Latiolais made clear on KCRW's Bookworm, these stories attempt to defy Scarry's proclamation. Rather than capitulate to the idea that pain entails the loss of meaning, Latiolais shapes language in order to express the somatic experience that grief entails. It is a careful record of grief and of loneliness and it is scientific in its accuracy.

In her effort to capture these experiences, there is a type of quiet lyricism that permeates throughout  Widow. Rather than tell straightforward continuous narratives, most of Latiolais's stories record small moments in time: the stupid comments of a gynecologist, the color of a tea cup, the feeling of boredom at church, the awkward chatter at a dinner party, the feel of a cotton napkin, an awkward date with a speed reader instructor. In a mode reminiscent of Joan Didion's novels, these experiences are recorded in a sometime fragmentary or associative manner, however the total adds up to more than the sum of the parts. There is an indirectness to these stories, but Latiolais meditates on the minute in order to address emotions of a greater magnitude.

While many of the characters are obviously inspired by Latiolais, only once is the primary character unquestionably the author. More often than not, Latiolais refuses to name her central characters. Sometimes her protagonist is "the young woman," sometimes she tells her own story in the first person, but more often than not she is simply "she." I imagine that relying on the third person feminine pronoun made it easier for Latiolais to write these stories. By not having to produce a named character--someone with a whole biography--it may have made it easier for her to focus on those small moments that constitute the characters' widowhood. This lack of specificity also has an effect on the reader (or at least this reader). For the vagueness of the word "she" produces a text that is more open to reader participation. It becomes easier for the reader to enter into the text, perhaps to accept the experiences of the protagonist as his or her own. This is not to say that Widow presents the reader with the short-story-as-therapy. While therapy is important, it gives the reader a much more valuable experience: communion.

For this reason, Widow might not always be breezy reading. But it possesses an honesty and an intimacy that we encounter only too infrequently. For that alone, it's worth sitting down with it and reading, however slowly, however carefully.

Friday, November 11, 2011

If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem (1939)

Title: IF I Forget Thee, Jerusalem
Author: William Faulkner
Publisher: Vintage International
Price: Full (Barnes & Noble)
LCC: PS351.A86 W5   

William Faulkner's If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem consists of two thematically-linked stories that are told in alternating chapters. The first of these short stories, "Wild Palms," documents a torrid love affair between Harry, a lonely medical student, and Charlotte, a woman so devoted to the idea of love that she abandons both her husband and her children to be with Harry. The second story, entitled "The Old Man," focuses on an unnamed convict who is impressed into saving a pregnant woman during the 1927 flooding of the Mississippi.

Given the lack of continuity between the stories, some publishers have released them as separate novels. During the Pulp Age, these editions often appeared with hilariously lurid covers. While it certainly is possible to enjoy the two stories separately, Faulkner did not intend his readers to do so. In an interview for Paris Review, Faulkner spoke about how he came to write two stories within the same novel:

When I reached the end of what is now the first section of The Wild Palms, I realized suddenly that something was missing, it needed emphasis, something to lift it like counterpoint in music. So I wrote on the Old Man story at what is now its first section, and took up The Wild Palms story until it began to sag. Then I raised it to pitch again with another section of its antithesis, which is the story of a man who got his love and spent the rest of the book fleeing from it.
In making this statement, Faulkner nearly guaranteed that the critic's task would be to determine the exact relationship between the two stories.

Faulkner, himself, says that the relationship between the two stories has to do with the different types of love they depict. Harry and Charlotte are bound by a passion that seems out of control. Both are willing to sacrifice the comforts of middle class life to be with one another. Indeed, they convince themselves that if they are going to be truly devoted to one another, they must sacrifice everything. Thus, they enter into a picaresque romance where they travel around the South and the Midwest, moving from job to job, trying not to put down roots. Their affair, governed solely by Eros, however cannot last. Charlotte gives up her life to the idea of love. Harry, his freedom. When Charlotte becomes pregnant, she becomes convinced that if they have a child they will be forced to live a bourgeois lifestyle. Harry is willing to let this happen, but Charlotte convinces him to perform an abortion, a procedure he bundles. Devastated by his lover's death, Harry willingly goes to prison. (I'm not spoiling much here; so much of what I have just said is revealed in the opening chapter).

In contrast, the convict of "Old Man" has given up on even the concept of the desire. Long ago, before he was imprisoned, the convict had been inspired to rob a train after reading one to many pulp story. The convict had a girlfriend at the time, and she would go down to the prison to visit him, but after awhile she abandoned him to marry someone else. Now, the convict has no use for women. The sight of the pregnant woman only makes him think of "female flesh" and disgusts him. The convict is certainly without Eros in the Freudian sense of the term. However, we might also say that the convict is also without Eros in the way that Hannah Arendt means it. In her essay "Thinking and Moral Concerns," Arendt follows Socrates when she states that Eros is the love for what we do not know. Although he travels up and down the Mississippi--a traditional site of romantic adventure in American literature--the convict longs for the solitude of the prison he has, quite against his own will, escaped. Rather than encounter the world, the convict embraces life in the prison barracks.

While this psychological reading of the novel provides an ample understanding of how the two parts work together, I want to suggest tentatively that the novel functions as a parable to Faulkner's relationship with mass culture. At the same time that Faulkner was working on his modernist classics, he was also co-writing screenplays for MGM and Warner Bros. and churning out short stories for the slicks. I haven't figured how this parable works in its entirety yet, so what follows is a rough sketch of something that I may, some day, want to say in a more formal context. Here goes: I have a feeling that the bifurcated nature of If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem provides some insight into the bifurcated nature of Faulkner's divided career. "Wild Palms" seems at home with the conventions of such "low" genres as romance or film noir. The two heroes are amoral for love and they suffer the consequences, but not before readers have been able to indulge in the sensationalism of their story.  In contrast, "Old Man" seems more like a traditionally modernist text. Much like the modernist work of art, the convict shuns the world at large. He is closed off--almost mute in his answers. He does not indulge popular taste. When his fellow convicts suggest that he may have been intimate with the pregnant woman, the convict refuses to embellish the story for their sake. He has also, much like the modernist artist, been hurt by mass culture and has rejected it.

Next week: Michelle Latiolais's new collection of stories Widow (2011).

Monday, November 07, 2011

"Why Trilling Matters"

Close reading.
In Sunday's New York Times Book Review, Michael Kimmage reviews Why Trilling Matters by Adam Kirsch. Kimmage is enthusiastic about the new book (Yale UP, $24) and gives it high praise. At the end of his review, Kimmage writes:

“Why Trilling Matters” is not simply the best book yet written on Lionel Trilling. Its subject, an austere man previously tethered to the age of Eisenhower and Kennedy, is the pretext for an invigorating magic trick. With Trilling’s help, Kirsch transforms a backward glance into a forward step.
This is no small compliment. Kimmage himself wrote a book on Trilling, The Conservative Turn: Lionel Trilling, Whittaker Chambers, and the Lessons of Anti-Communism, and that book is nothing to shake a stick at. The small cottage-industry known as Trilling-criticism is an insular world, a world that I may still be a part of, and so I wanted to add my two cents. I haven't had the opportunity to read Kirsch's book, but I wanted to write about why I thought Trilling still matters.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Lionel Trilling was perhaps the most important public intellectual and literary critic in the western hemisphere. He appeared on radio and television where he discussed books and literature and the big ideas of the age (mostly Freud).  Trilling began his career in the 1930s as a graduate student in Columbia. His dissertation, which later appeared as his first book, was a critical biography of Matthew Arnold. In many ways, Trilling's Matthew Arnold would set the path for his entire career. Like Arnold, Trilling believed that literature "is the criticism of life" and had the purpose of making readers more moderate and less likely to blindly follow an ideology.

By the time of The Liberal Imagination (1950), his major collection of criticism, Trilling had enlisted this critical humanism in the cultural Cold War. While Trilling flirted with communism in the 1930s, he became a committed member of the center-left once the excesses of the Stalinist regime became public.Trilling set out to attack the remains of Popular Front culture, a culture that Trilling felt was too ideological and too associated with the Soviet Union. Along with his fellow New York Intellectuals and their Southern analogues, the New Critics, Trilling set about reshaping the canon of American letters. While Progressive intellectuals and Soviet-influenced critics held up figures like Theodore Dreiser and proletarian authors such as Mike Gold, Trilling was a devoted follower of Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald. These writers were either apathetic toward progressive social movements, or, in the case of James, suspicious of their motives. Despite the fact that James and Fitzgerald didn't seem to advocate a cause, Trilling thought they did something political all the same. In examining the culture of their time writers like James and Fitzgerald allowed readers to see the constructed-nature of all institutions. They allowed readers to see that society operated under certain assumptions, but that these assumptions were often little more than what Trilling called "manners." However, in pointing out this fact, Trilling did not want to make readers feel superior to society; rather, he implicated them in society's folly. Trilling's audience learned that their own attitudes were just as constructed by society as those characters depicted in the works of James and Fitzgerald.

Certainly, Trilling is a product of his time and many of us would find his Cold War politics to be reactionary. For many, Lionel Trilling might seem like a relic, a stodgy, old, neo-Victorian in an age that has long since been postmodern. However, we should not be so quick to judge. If we heed Trilling's words we might manage to avoid the extremes of our own ideology and the false comfort of easy assurance. If Trilling still matters it is because he teaches us to avoid hubris and that reading the right type of literature might be the way to do it.

Come back on Friday when I try to figure out Faulkner.

Friday, November 04, 2011

The Day I Turned Uncool (2002)

Title: The Day I Turned Uncool: Confessions of a Reluctant Grown-up
Author: Dan Zevin
Publisher: Villard
Price: Received as a gift
LCC: PN6231.M47 Z48 2002

I turned 30 recently. The big THREE-OH. THIR-DEE, as in pretty much middle-agish. Shortly after my birthday, I twisted my torso too quickly and immediately experienced crippling back pain that brought me to my knees. I haven't had my hair fall out and I haven't had a prostrate exam yet, but I am  awaiting my inevitable slow decay.

However, now that I am facing my own mortality, I thought it was finally time that I take Dan Zevin's The Day I Turned Uncool off the shelf. I had received this as a gift from my then-girlfriend/now-wife in college and had never gotten around to it. Reading it did not seem pressing at the time, but now I approached it as if it were Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed.

Zevin's book consists of a series of brief confessions that examine what it means to be a "reluctant grown-up." Zevin finds himself increasingly doing the things that grown-ups are supposed to do--lawn care, investing in retirement, golf--but he's surprised to find that part of him actually enjoys these things. The confessions themselves are breezy. Depending on your fiber intake and your reading speed, you may be able to read a confession during your morning BM. That's not bad, really, when you think about it. Consider this sentence from Gertrude Stein's Everybody's Autobiography:
He told about how you had to know that you should never stop before a red light signal, anybody in an automobile is too impatient not to lose any time starting if the lights should change to take anybody up so you want to stop behind the crossing because then having made the start anybody is good-natured and willing to take yo up, you should also always think about hills in the same way, you should never stand with any one and above all not with a woman, some one might take up a woman alone but they would never take a young man with any kind of a woman, and as he went on and he made those long roads so real Picasso got scared, it is a funny thing but knowing so much about what people are going to do on the part of anybody always scares people who are occupied in creating they like to analyze and talk about what people are going to do but they never like that anybody can known what anybody will do, really know and act successfully act upon what people are going to do.
I've already flushed and I haven't even finished the sentence. Oh Gertrude, as bathroom reading this will never do. Advantage, Zevin!

Zevin is at his best when he describes the dwindling of his male friendships. In a confession entitled "My Social Circle Has Shrivled and Shrunk: Why I Have No Friends," Zevin reveals how a combination of work, children, and geography have caused his friendships to erode. This may make Zevin's 2002 book seem like a forerunner to the bromance comedies of Judd Apatow. Both Zevin and Apatow revel in their lack of maturity. But Zevin's is a very different sensibility than Apatow. Zevin is far tamer. His brand of humor is closer to Dave Barry or Ray Romono. His is a very CBS-sitcom style of comedy. It's acceptable to everyone.

Many of the confessions feel like they could be the premises for individual episodes. "The One Where Dan Plays Golf," "The One Where Dan Hires a Cleaning Lady," "The One Where Dan Gets a Massage," etc. Indeed, reading the book I wondered if I wasn't so much reading a humor book, so much as I was reading a pitch for a sitcom: Seinfeld with a moral conscious, or Mad About You meets Dave's World. According to Zevin's website, he's sold the rights o the book to Adam Sandler's production company. So, ready yourself to hear "ADAM SANDLER IS . . . DAN ZEVIN" some time soon in movie theaters. 

The jokes might be sweet-natured, but there's also a kind of navel-gazzing entitlement that runs throughout most of the book. What makes Zevin a "reluctant" grown up is that his new status symbols make him feel uncomfortable. This doesn't lead to much soul searching on Zevin's part about what it really means to be an adult. His is less the life examined, so much as it is the life shrugged off. In light of the current economic crisis, Zevin seems to be living the good life, but he just can't enjoy it because to do so would supposedly be a mark of maturity. So when I read Zevin complain about how weird it is that he has a cleaning lady or that as a part-time community college instructor he's distressed by his new found authority, I can't help roll my eyes both on behalf of the cleaning lady and myself. Boo Hoo! Now grow up.