Monday, February 25, 2013

Literature, Art, Death

I started reading Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997) this weekend, and I'm really enjoying it.  I really enjoyed White Noise (1985) as well, so this isn't a huge surprise.  I'm having so much fun, in fact, that I've added Libra (1988) to my list of books to read.

But I don't want to blog about Underworld just yet--or at least, not completely--since I'm only about a third of a way through it (it's a long novel, but so far, it's worth it).

What I do want to blog about is an odd coincidence that I noted in my reading this weekend.  As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I'm rereading Dostoevsky's The Idiot (1869).  I've slowed down in my reading (perhaps because I got side-tracked by another 800-page novel), but one of the things that has remained with me is a crucial scene in the novel in which the protagonist, Prince Myshkin, notes the reproduction of an unusual painting at the residence of the antagonist, Rogozhin.

Here's the image. 

Hans Holbein the Younger, "The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb," 1520-1522

I confess, if I dropped by your place and this was the image you had over your mantle, I might not drop by all that often.  And, if I did, I'd be sure to bring you some baked goods or something, to cheer you up a bit.  (Maybe?)

It's considered an unusual painting because Holbein has depicted the crucified Christ, not in a state of beatific resurrection, but as an actual corpse, complete with wounds, rigor, and decaying extremities.  His emaciated body and his facial expression capture the viewer's attention, precisely because they are so entirely at odds with what we associate with the imagery of Christ.

Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin comments that it is a painting that could cause a man to lose his faith.

In Underworld, DeLillo depicts J. Edgar Hoover, Jackie Gleason, and Frank Sinatra in attendance at the famous October 3, 1951 Giants-Dodgers Playoff Game, in which Bobby Thomson hit the home-run known as "the Shot Heard Round the World" (prompting the famous Russ Hodges' radio commentary, "THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!")

As this scene unfolds, DeLillo represents J. Edgar Hoover as enthralled with the photograph of a Bruegel painting, "The Triumph of Death."  Here is the image:

Pieter Brueghel, "The Triumph of Death," 1562
In both of these novels, there is a fascination with materiality--with death and what it does to the human body--and in both texts, this theme is invoked by a reference to a 16th-century painting.  Why?

I find it fascinating when writers, who are no slouches themselves when it comes to artistry, feel compelled to direct their readers' attention to a visual image.  It creates an odd moment in the text: if we don't know the painting, will we go look for it?  If we do know the painting, how is its imagery invoked and used by the novels themselves?

At one point, one of the protagonists of Underworld comments on the relationship between art and death.  The artist, Klara Sax, is describing what is known as "nose art": during World War II, bomber pilots decorated the noses of their planes with images, often of scantily-clad pin-up girls (you can see reproductions of some 20th-century nose art here).  Why?

When you think about it, it's an interesting gesture: the planes are designed to bring death and destruction to others and, potentially, to the pilots themselves.  No one can see the nose art when the plane is in flight, so why personalize it?  Why invoke sex, in particular, at the moment of death?

Once again, it's a reminder of human materiality, a return to the body, at a moment when the body is most vulnerable and in imminent danger.  As Klara Sax observes in Underworld,
"Because it's all about luck, isn't it?  The sexy woman painted on the nose is a charm against death.  We may want to place this whole business in some bottom pit of nostalgia but in fact the men who flew these planes, and we are talking about high alert and distant early warning, we are talking about the edge of everything--well, I think they lived in a closed world with its particular omens and symbols and they were young and horny to boot."
At another point in DeLillo's novel, the protagonist Nick Shay comments on the spectacle of art itself.  Observing Klara Sax's project, he comments,
"Sometimes I see something so moving I know I'm not supposed to linger.  See it and leave.  If you stay too long, you wear out the wordless shock.  Love it and trust it and leave."
Perhaps this is what writers like DeLillo and Dostoevsky are suggesting in their novels: a way to love and trust and leave the visual experience itself.  To remain with the "wordless shock" in the realm of words, without actually lingering or staying too long.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Odd Jobs

Only a few more weeks (a little over 2, actually) until Spring Break, and I for one can't wait.  Not that I'm not having a blast in my courses--I always do--but because then I can devote an entire week to quietly puttering through life.

That's what I'm doing this weekend, and as I've said before, it's amazing how productive I can be when I'm busy with things that don't really need to get done.

For example, I installed three new, cordless shades in my living room.  I did this because my adorable, loveable grey kitty-cat labors under the misconception that shade-cords are actually just very long strands of dental floss that I conveniently leave hanging near the windows, so that when he sits looking out of said windows at birds, bugs, and neighboring kitty-cats, he can practice good dental hygiene.

Nothing will convince him otherwise.

He is extremely bewildered by my anguished cries of, "SMOKEY!  Noooooo....".  I don't know if you've ever tried to repair the cords on a shade when they've been chewed through.  Even if you succeed, they certainly don't look very nice. 

And if you don't realize they've been chewed through--if, say, your kitty cat decides that he doesn't want to upset you by flossing his teeth right there in front of you in broad daylight (because clearly, you have some kind of "issue" when it comes to that)--and you raise the shade upon awakening one fine morning, only to watch as one side of it drops, well, you're somewhat screwed.

If there's a way to re-thread the cords in a shade, I haven't mastered it.

So, the house now has cordless shades.

I made mustard.  It's actually quite easy and tastes much better than store-bought, and the only drawback is your kitchen will smell like vinegar for a bit.  But the result is worth it.  I make a dijon mustard and a bourbon-and-brown-sugar mustard, and both are quite nice.  The latter is a whole-grain mustard, but I finally figured out a way to get at least some of the grains pulverized, so it isn't quite so... grainy.

It tastes amazing, by the way.  I mix it with some olive oil, chop up potatoes, coat the potatoes with the mustard and olive oil mixture, and then bake them.  It makes the house smell quite wonderful.  Potatoes are the ultimate winter comfort food, in my opinion.

So this gets me to the other part of my puttering.  My copy of Bon Appetit arrived the other day, and it's devoted to pasta.  I have all kinds of homemade pasta, so I'm in heaven.  My plans for this cloudy, rainy, wintry weekend are to test out a spicy pork ragu and a creamy leek and bacon sauce.  I think I'll use the homemade penne for the former and the homemade fettucine for the latter.

Plus, I found a recipe for fig newtons.  Homemade fig newtons.  If they're good, I'm basically set for life. 

All of this will be followed with a trip to the gym and some yard work, to undo the caloric damage done by all of the above.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Cold-Blooded Writing

A friend sent me this February 8th article in the Wall Street Journal about the discovery of long-lost files involving Truman Capote's "non-fiction novel," In Cold Blood (1966).

The discovery of the KBI files, while interesting, is not really "news."  Critics have known for some time that, despite Capote's claims, his account of the Clutter murders in Holcomb, Kansas in 1959 is by no means "factual."

Capote had a flair for the theatrical.  He liked to make sweeping claims that couldn't possibly be true, and then insist on their truth.  He often contradicted himself.  He claimed he didn't need to take notes, because he had 95% verbal recall--he knew this, he said, because he had tested himself at one point.

Capote also drank heavily throughout much of his life.

None of which takes away from the artistry of In Cold Blood.  If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.  It's disturbing and interesting and terrifying and extremely well-written.  Part I of the novel is one of the most compelling pieces of American prose I can name.

If there were world enough and time, I would write a comparative article examining Atwood's Alias Grace and Capote's In Cold Blood.  Both are true-crime accounts, and both grapple with issues of artistry and authenticity.

As I pointed out in my blog post on Alias Grace, however, Atwood's novel is far more up-front in its self-disclosure.  It never claims to be a "factual" account, because it identifies the "facts" in the case it describes as complicated by social context, individual psychology, and the erasures of history.

Capote wrote a brilliant novel while practicing some very dangerous "journalistic" tactics.  I put the quotation marks around "journalistic" because I don't think Capote should actually be considered a "journalist" at all.

If the novel weren't so damn good, he would have never gotten away with what he did.

As the recent Wall Street Journal article suggests, Capote turned the case involving Perry Smith and Dick Hickock into a media circus.  The killers were photographed by Richard Avedon, the American fashion photographer who is best-known, perhaps, for his images of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. (A collection of his selected work is available through The Richard Avedon Foundation.)

If you'd like to see the January 7, 1966 issue of Life magazine that featured the story of the Clutter murders with the Avedon photos, just click on the link, scroll past all of the photos of a much-younger Sean Connery in "Thunderball" and the lovely ads for cigarettes and Tang, and you'll find the story.

Capote made all kinds of questionable statements about his "journalistic" practices in writing In Cold Blood.  He openly admitted that he came to sympathize with the killer, Perry Smith, and in the same breath insisted that this sympathy had no effect on his depiction of the killers, their crimes or their ultimate executions.

In a 1968 interview for Playboy magazine (sorry, but I'm not including links to Playboy in my blog, ever), Capote argued that he pursued the creation and construction of the novel as a kind of mathematical problem, in which the subject is simply the "x" in the "quadratic equation" of a "stylistic problem."

Capote insisted,"I did identify with him to a great degree.  Never did deny it.  It is also quite true that my portrait of him is absolutely one hundred percent the way he was."  And, "Perry was a character that was also in my imagination ... [he] could absolutely ... [have stepped] right out of one of my stories."

In "Visions and Revisions: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood" (Journal of Modern Literature. Vol 7, 1979, 519-536), Jack DeBellis systematically identified all of the changes Capote made in the few months between the original, four-part serialized publication of In Cold Blood in The New Yorker (beginning on September 25, 1965) and its publication in book form by Random House in January 1966.

There's more.  Capote added scenes that never occurred (the ending of the novel, for example).  He created "composite" characters.  He shaped the events of the crime like the plot of the novel, consciously creating a story-arc that focused predominantly on Herb and Nancy Clutter, two of the four victims.

Capote included dialogue he could not possibly have known, and that it is unlikely any of the individuals involved in the investigation would have recalled.  He included details that were both precise and specific, that coincidentally also "worked" artistically.

In the years following the publication of In Cold Blood, individuals came forward to claim that they had never told Capote the things he had depicted them as saying.

Perhaps most damagingly, one of the witnesses to Perry Smith's execution claimed that Smith never actually apologized for his crimes, as Capote's novel depicts.  It was claimed that, even if he did, Capote was so overwrought, he was standing in the back of the room, too far away to hear anything Smith might have said.

In an April 2005 interview in The Lawrence-Journal World, however, Charles McAtee, the Director of the Kansas State Penal Institutions in 1965, indicated that he believed Capote's account did mirror actual events.

Ultimately, Capote's novel and the context surrounding its composition resonates on multiple levels, I think.  On the one hand, there are the ethical issues it raises.  Given that the text depicts a real crime and real victims, did Capote have "the right" to do what he wanted with the material (as he insisted he did)?

While few dispute the ultimate artistry of the novel (or at least of sections of it), the question remains whether writers can really ever write in cold blood, with an eye for the strictly factual, unbiased by emotion or empathy.  The successes and failures of Capote's novel offer a fascinating litmus test for these questions.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Two Worlds

Well, we busted out of class
Had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three-minute record, baby,
Than we ever learned in school...

Anyone who knows me or talks to me for more than about five minutes knows my roots are working-class and blue-collar.

I've been thinking a lot about that lately, because it's come up more than once in the past couple of months.  The first time, I heard a comment made about how certain people wouldn't be able to understand the kind of big words we English professors use because they were... you know... "firemen."

To say that this comment really chapped my ass would be an understatement.  My dad never went to college and he worked manual labor his entire life.  And let's just say that, in my eyes, if you say anything that even slightly seems to me to be an insult to him, whether you do it directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, well, I can't really vouch for your safety.  I'm going to shoot from the lip, and you may not like what you hear.

You hit a serious emotional nerve.  That's just the way it is.

I did pretty well, though.  I simply commented that I was "uncomfortable" with the assumption that people from a certain social class were marked by a lack of intelligence.

What I wanted to say was, "Well, maybe my dad didn't know any of your high falutin' words, but he taught me the value of people who don't go around judging others on the basis of something as superficial as their job." 

I thought about the time when my thesis adviser told me how, when she first arrived in this country, she worked in a deli.  She had a couple of Masters degrees and a Ph.D., but she couldn't find a job right away, so she took what she could get.

The owner of the deli was convinced that she would rob him blind.  Every time she had to go into the walk-in cooler to get meat to slice for cold-cuts, he'd follow her to make sure she wouldn't take any.  

She's a professor at an Ivy League university now.  Once her visa came through, she was hired away from the deli.

Well I came by your house the other day,
Your mother said, you went away
She said there was nothin' that I could've done
There was nothin' nobody could say.
Now me and you, we've known each other
Ever since we were sixteen
I wish I would've known, I wish I could've called you,
Just to say good-bye...

I think that, when you grow up in one social class and migrate to another, you always live with a foot in each world, never really belonging in either.  The way you respond to life is always shaped by the environment in which you grew up.

I've noticed that the white-collar world of academia often seems to operate on the assumption that the blue-collar world and its assumptions are things to be ashamed of.  In a conversation with someone this week, that point was really driven home to me.

It was assumed that I needed--that I wanted--to rise above the circumstances of my childhood.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  It was assumed I must be ashamed of my upbringing, that I must have baggage that I can't get rid of--a "temper," a "mouth," a lack of "polish"--whatever you want to call it.

I felt a strange double-consciousness while I listened.  I think this is always what happens, when you live in two worlds like this.  On the one hand, I was very aware of what I wanted to say, and on the other hand, I was very aware of what I was expected to say.

Two very different reactions, vying for my voice.  In the end, I bit my tongue, because I decided that it wasn't worth it.  When someone makes sweeping assumptions about you, it often isn't worth the energy to try and disabuse them of those assumptions.  They aren't really interested in listening to or learning about you.

They think they already know.  So, let them.

In such moments, I tell myself to listen instead to what their claims and assertions will ultimately reveal about their own selves.  Recognizing that they know nothing about me (and aren't willing to learn) doesn't mean that I can't learn something about them.

In Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations, the protagonist Pip comments that, "It is a most miserable thing to be ashamed of home."  In my experience, that shame often begins in an odd intersection of the public and the private, when we begin to realize that what we live is not what other people live, and therefore, not what we think we should live. 

That realization, unquestioned and unchecked, can quickly blossom into a painful sense of personal inadequacy.  That's what I always hear when I hear people insist that they've risen above their background.

I remember feeling this way as a teenager.  I remember wanting to leave, wanting a different place to call my own, wanting to be someone other than who I was.

And then, a funny thing happened.  I grew up.  I realized my background was precisely what could keep me grounded.

Now, you hung with me when all the others
Turned away, turned up their noses
We liked the same music, we liked the same bands, we liked the same clothes.
And we told each other that we were the wildest, the wildest things, we'd ever seen
Now I wish you would've told me, I wish I could've talked to you
Just to say good-bye...

Part of growing up is realizing that, for everything you could be ashamed of in your past, there is a good chance that there's something in it you can be proud of, if you just look for it.

My background taught me the value of being frugal.  The value of working hard.  It taught me that manual labor isn't easy, and that doing it doesn't make you any less intelligent.  Instead, it gives you a perspective that can be an advantage, if you know how to apply it.  You have an angle on the world that other people around you might not have, and there's no way that can ever be a bad thing. 

It can be a way of connecting with people in ways that others can't even conceive of.

Now we went walkin' in the rain
Talkin' about the pain that from the world we hid
Now there ain't nobody nowhere nohow gonna ever understand me
The way you did...

It taught me that the lessons from one world can benefit life in another.  And that life itself may be best lived as a constant movement between two worlds--that this kind of mobility offers constant opportunities to learn, to grow, to connect and reconnect.

Being a snob never taught anyone anything. 

As I grew up, I also had to face the realization that, in order to live the life I was pretty sure I wanted to have, I would have to leave some things behind. 

So that's been my experience of living a life of two worlds: that there's always a strange kind of pride--something that occasionally borders on defiance--coupled with a bittersweet sadness at the fact that I couldn't simply stay in one place and be one kind of person and be content with that.

Now maybe you'll be out there on that road somewhere
On some bus or a train, that's travellin' along
In some motel room, there'll be a radio playing
And you'll hear me sing this song.
Well if you do, you'll know I'm thinkin' of you
And all the miles in between
And I'm just calling, one last time, not to change your mind
But just to say, I'll miss you, baby. 
Good luck.
Good-bye...

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Bureaucracy and Principle

"It takes no compromise to give people their rights...it takes no money to respect the individual.  It takes no political deal to give people freedom.  It takes no survey to remove repression." --Harvey Milk

It has been an exhausting week or so.  My brain has been so busy with things it never wanted to be busy with, that I'm afraid the writing and blogging wheels have grown rusty.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the interrelationship of bureaucracy and principles.  To many, bureaucracy seems petty and insignificant, the very opposite of the actions and ideals that characterize principled  behavior.

I think the relationship is more complex and more fraught than one of simple opposition.

The quotation from Harvey Milk that stands as the epigraph to this post is, to my mind, one of the most compelling statements of the conflict between bureaucracy and principle.  Too often, the machinery of bureaucracy (its compromises, money, political deals and surveys) hinders the promotion of one's principles--the rights, respect, freedom and elimination of repression we want to advocate.

It does so, I think, by advocating a "play-by-the-rules-or-else" mentality.  If you speak out, you'll be labeled "wrong" or "a bully" and people will try to silence you.  If you seek change, you're impractical.  You refuse to recognize the extent to which compromises and political deals are necessary.

You're inconvenient, obstructionist, difficult.  The well-oiled machine can't function efficiently unless it silences your squeaky little protests.

So often, we think of resistance as a dramatic act, but more often than not, in our day-to-day lives, resistance is comprised of a series of small acts or gestures of unwillingness.  They often seem quite ineffective; in they end, they are not.

A refusal to accept the status quo.  An unwillingness to sit by and say, "It's not my problem."  The decision to call things as you see them, even if you get called on the carpet for doing so.

We all fear change.  We all risk losing sight of the big picture.  And yet, as George Eliot once observed, "Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together."  So perhaps bureaucracy can be a mechanism of change, if it is conceived of as a means of promoting progress within a framework of stability.

More often than not, though, bureaucracy functions as a rule-bound means of ensuring collective conformity.

Last week, I stumbled upon the German word, "korinthenkacker."  Literally, it means "raisin-pooper."  It refers to a bean-counter, someone so obsessed with trivialities that she or he literally poops raisins.

I think everyone compromises his or her ideals, some day, in some way.  It's only a question of when and how much.  

But even so, it is always worthwhile, I think, to examine the extent to which we have capitulated and grown comfortable--if only to measure the extent to which we wish we could make things a bit more uncomfortable, to shake things up a bit.

If we stop asking and wondering and speaking out, we risk total conformity.  We risk losing our voices in the din of bureaucratic conformity.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Come in from the Cold

It is absolutely atrocious that I haven't been able to blog for an entire week. Again. What is up with that?

It was very cold in the Northeast for about a week, then it warmed up to a disturbing degree, then got "cold" again. Of course, "cold" now seems a very relative term: do you mean single digits kind of cold?

Because if you're talking temps in the 20's and 30's, that no longer seems like much of anything. That's just January.

I've been reading Bill Streever's Cold: Adventures in the World's Frozen Places (2009).

It's extremely interesting, and it makes you respect and appreciate the phenomenon of cold--and its effects.

Streever organizes the book month-by-month, taking the reader to various cold (and not-as-cold) places and describing biological, geological and historical events involving the experience of cold. It isn't a series of autobiographical "adventures," per se (and really, so far, that's my only "criticism" of the book: the title strikes me as a bit of a misnomer), but a fascinatingly wide range of observations about human relationships with cold weather.

He talks about late-19th and early 20th-century Arctic and Antarctic explorers. I have no idea what they were thinking, heading to the frozen poles with nothing that even remotely resembles the knowledge and technology we have today.

What they endured (and accomplished) is beyond comprehension. They're the reason we now know what we know.

For example, Streever describes what U.S Army Lieutenant Adolphus Greely experienced over the course of a nearly three-year exploration of the Arctic. They ate caterpillars. They ate shoelaces. They boiled their sleeping bag covers into a broth and ate that.

As Streever points out, the colder it gets, the more calories you need to simply stay alive. Your body burns energy at an astronomical rate, trying to stay warm (that's why you shiver: your body is generating movement in an effort to warm you up). Streever notes, "A diet of six thousand calories per day is not unusual for explorers in the polar regions."

If you're wondering, "How on earth could you transport that much food with you on an expedition?", the answer is, you generally can't. Many died of a combination of hypothermia and starvation.

When a rescue party found the surviving members of Greely's expedition in 1884, this is what they saw:

It was a sight of horror. ... On one side, close to the opening, with his head toward the outside, lay what was apparently a dead man. His jaw had dropped, his eyes were open, but fixed and glassy, his limbs were motionless. On the opposite side was a poor fellow, alive to be sure, but without hands or feet, and with a spoon tied to the stump of his right arm.

Not all of Streever's accounts are so graphic and disturbing, obviously. His focus is on the ways in which humans and animals not only cope--but in some cases adapt and even thrive--in the cold.

Streever shows that what we tend to think of as an all-encompassingly single entity ("the cold") is actually a highly complex natural phenomenon.

Streever's book is a wonderfully informative and surprisingly engaging read, and if you've ever been in the cold, felt cold, or think you might be cold some day in the future, you should definitely read it.

His book Heat: Adventures in the World's Fiery Places (2013) is next on my list.