Paulus Torchus

Nec Spe, Nec Metu

diogenes

I dreamt that a dwarf sycamore tree at my current house (which is not an actual tree at this house, but was in the place of my olive tree) had huge limbs falling from it. I had to chop them up while trying to keep vagrants from entering my garage.

In the morning, I was, again, depressed over the loss of my house. It was one of those mornings where you almost start crying from walking out the backdoor, realizing how limited a number of times you have left to walk out of that particular backdoor in this life. This was my marriage house, what we came home to from the honeymoon nearly seven years ago. I wanted to retire here some day… to an extent. As the quality of the neighborhood disintegrated, that became less joyous of a prospect.

Then, halfway through my workday, I was thinking about the books I’ve ordered with my birthday money. I’m especially looking forward to a book about Diogenes the Cynic, the philosopher of antiquity who lived in a storage container of his own free will and who is reported to have said:

“Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods.”

And I thought, I am a straight, white male, age 18-55, in a First World nation with freedom of religion and, to some extent, freedom of political views. I am sad about losing my three bedroom house to move into a two bedroom house. This is hardly the stuff of high tragedy. This is, more accurately, the description of someone in some of the most privileged circumstances on Earth.

None of the pets will be put down or even rehoused (well, rehoused with us, I suppose. But we don’t have to lose the pleasure of any of their company is my point). We have a realtor who is helping us through the Deed in Lieu process which should make the process as painless/annoyanceless as possible. We haven’t even paid our first month’s rent and we’ve already had more help than either of us have ever had in a move before.

When I was in college, I had a friend with whom I would occasionally play a game called “The Blessing Game.” We would each get a bottle of Merlot and sit on her patio, usually late at night. We would drink our wine and list the ways in which we are blessed.

I had another compass that I recently was able to pass on to a friend who was struggling with some situations. I told him about a concept that I learned from a teacher in the theater (and later learned that he got it from Quentin Crisp). The concept was:

“Accelerate through the chaos.”

For example, if you’re balding, shave your head. In my experience, it’s a way of coping with, and even enjoying, our powerlessness in this world. Sometimes it works out to be the way to solve problems. We saw our financial dire straights about to fall on us, so we set into motion the mechanism of losing our house. This will likely keep us from being foreclosed upon and will move us into a bigger house, with all of our pets, in a better neighborhood, for cheaper. Like grain for the famine years, we store up wisdom in times of calm to prepare us for times of distress. Wisdom is a map to navigate troubled waters.

Of course it will be sad to leave this house. We have a lot of memories in it and we love it. We put a lot of work into it. But there’s really only so sad it can get. And, realistically, we were going to leave it someday one way or another. At one point I just expected that next home to be a small box placed gently into the sod and padded by lilies.

That’s the reality of our situation. Yours too. Don’t let’s get too attached to all of this.

Sonnet no. 2- The Easter Bonnet

The robin’s egg in fabric lights the color of your eyes,

like abysses of clement, pacific pools.

And standing in the front pew singing of the Savior’s rise,

you reflect the mysteries universal.

 

Pale pink of ribbon hugs circumference of the bonnet

like the Spring sun resurrected new each morn.

I deign to dare to wish to have been there when you donned it.

The lilies of the field are not so adorned.

 

The inclusion of a feather has given my soul flight,

to be standing next to Aphrodite’s blessed,

Hat that show you virtuous and erudite,

the model of behavior to a fallen world confessed.

 

Your Springtime beauty deserves renown.

Nature’s flowers never made such a crown.

Finnegans Wake 1.3

Hopefully, after the move, I’ll average more than one chapter a week.

The wading got a bit deep in this section, but it resolved into one of my favorite passages so far. There is a reference to television early on, which was a bit of a surprise as Mr. Farnsworth’s invention came into this world contemporaneously with the composition of this book. There’s also a joke in this section about “Sid Arthar”, a reference to The Buddha and a joke I’ve heard Eddie Izzard tell. I’m afraid one of the effects of reading so much Joyce is beginning to learn where a lot of jokes I’ve heard before came from! Joyce was a brilliant comedian. A bit of a Mozart.

There is also, in this section, a reference to Oscar Wilde. I think the introduction mentioned that this is one motif in the book. I would imagine the theme of older to younger sexual disgrace which would be familiar to Joyce’s contemporaries. But I also hear that there was a strange book released as Joyce was writing Finnegans Wake which was some occultist conjuring the words of Oscar Wilde from beyond the grave. One of the things the undead Wilde saw fit to comment on was the work of James Joyce, which he was not in favor of. Joyce seems to have been familiar with this book and this may have been the catalyst to the inclusion of this motif! Stranger and stranger.

In this dream state, the rumor mongers all come to a bad end while Humphrey is also assaulted at his home by them, or attempted assaulted possibly. The angry mob is at once dying over time and actively lynching, much like how Finnegan is dying as HCE is doing whatever HCE did.

Language plays a daunting role in this text. While Joyce runs roughshod over English, he also does not hesitate to employ quite a few other languages. Latin, French, Gaelic, but especially in this section Italian. Laurie and I were discussing Joyce on the phone on my lunchbreak the other day (or, rather, I was raving about Joyce while she may have been listening) and I mentioned that I don’t know a lot about Joyce as a person (this because I’m excited to purchase a collection of his essays and opinion pieces). Then I began to think and realized that I do know more than I thought I had. Irish, never entirely recovered from his Catholic upbringing, ended on a religious sour note with his mother, stepped out with Nora first on June 16th 1904, the famously salacious love letters, lifelong poverty, loans, patrons, moved around a lot, obscenity trials (even in countries that are supposed to have free speech), daughter-a magnificent giant of a modern dancer who became schizophrenic, son-an alcoholic, drinking with Hemingway and making him finish fights for him, scared of dogs and thunder, went blind and wrote a good deal of this book in huge letters on a chalkboard as Nora copied it down, died of an ulcer or something and his last words were begging them to call his wife. But I still don’t know what he was like as a person really and I find myself increasingly… well, a Joycean. I find myself fascinated by this author and keen to learn more.

I also know that he spoke Italian and seemed to have preferred to do so at home. I don’t know Italian. Or Gaelic. And my Latin’s pretty rusty.

There’s a long section in the middle that I found to be obscure, but I think was an elaboration on the theme of lecherous older men preying on young women OR the story of another particular lecherous older man preying on the same young girl(s?) involved in the HCE incident. And this may have been a courtroom testimony.

We have the first reference to HCE’s wife’s (ALP) letter in his defense. I also know enough about this book that the contents of this letter close the book and are striking. The letter may or may not turn into a coffin in this section.

Right, all of which, believe it or not, I’ve made less confusing here than it is in the text. But then there is a German man who either barges in as an uninvited guest to HCE’s home OR HCE has suddenly become the bartender at a pub and has cut him off. There follows a list of insults that the German hurls at HCE. They are Joycean insults. The list goes on for a few pages. I’ve underlined my favorites and plan to start using them as insults in life:

1. Old Fruit

2. Wheatears

3. Bogside Beauty

4. York’s Porker

5. Cainandabler

6. Moonface the Murderer

7. Acoustic Disturbance

8. Thinks He’s Gobblast the Good Dook of Ourguile

9. Burnham and Bailey

10. Artist

11. Unworthy of the Homely Protestant Religion

12. Lobsterpot Lardling

13. Leathertogs Donald

14. Luck Before Wedlock

15. Twelve Months Aristocrat

16. Lycanthrope

17. Stodge Arschmann

18. Sleeps with Feathers end Ropes

19. Wants a Wife and Forty of Them

20. Plowp Goes his Whastle

21. Sower Rapes

22. Sickfish Bellyup

23. Edomite

24. Bad Humborg

25. Woolworth’s Worst

26. Fast in the Barrel

Near the end of this section, in keeping with the “too much to drink” skit, there is a reference to Dog-an-Doras. I had an excited moment where I thought “Hey! I get that reference!”

I got it because, when I was in high school, I inherited a record collection which included some records by Sir Harry Lauder, the famous turn of the century Scottish music hall singer (other kids were into Nirvana. This is what I was doing). I’ve sang this song for nearly 20 years:

I love the musicality of this book. I love that I’ve read three chapters and had a song to associate with each response so far.

The book is peppered throughout with little references like this. I’m noticing myself, in writing about this and, indeed, in reacting to this book, reflected heavily on my personal experiences and thought-life. I don’t think this is entirely inappropriate. I seem to remember reading someone in preparation for this book, which would make Hercules run back into the horse stalls, say that the real hero of Finnegans Wake is the reader. I think there is truth to this. While the book does have an obscured plot, I feel like the complex machinery is aimed at providing the reader with a crowbar to take to one’s own subconscious. Or maybe I could put it like this: The beautiful thing about a book is that one, as a reader, can have a conversation with the author. In Finnegans Wake, Joyce does not just record a dreamlike environment, rather he builds a dreamscape. It is Joyce’s dreamscape, his subconscious, but the book allows the reader to enter with their own mind and interact. Thus, indeed, elevating the act of reading to a heroic act.

One theory less than 1/6th of the way through, but there you go.

More soon.

 

Finnegans Wake 1.2

One erratum from last week’s post: HCE is not the Dublin common man. He, rather, seems to be one of the elite (at least in this section), sort of a Pere Ubu type of character, some sort of dignified figure. He also seems to be in the rotund side as we shall see anon. I have a great appreciation of Joyce’s tendency to shy away from conventional lead actors. I mean, think about it. Channing Tatum and Jennifer Lawrence as Leopold and Molly Bloom? No, Joyce has a Fellini-esque realism and this, I assume, is why Virginia Woolf found him vulgar. Well… that and the swears and Onanism I guess.

First, I would like to say a few words about having pierced the membrane of the first 29 pages. I am finding that, in a way, it worked! What I mean to say is, everything I’ve said previously about the book (the important of help material, the crucial “plot” outline) stands, but I am finding myself having a much easier time with it. Custom hath made it in me a property of easiness. Well, that’s a bit of an overstatement actually, but I am finding the comparison of learning how to read this book to learning a new language apt. Right now I feel a bit like I did watching Run, Lola, Run right after my first year of German. I could kind of sometimes not look at the subtitles!

In this section we are finally introduced to HCE (I’ll use the initials for the sake of clarity as his name seems to shift, but the initials stay the same). He encounters a common man who seems to be accusing him of a sexual indiscretion (the nature of which also shifts. In the dreamscape of Wake, I sense that the indiscretion amounts to general sexual guilt and HCE’s claimed innocence seems like it might indicate the sense of sexual guilt when one hasn’t actually done anything wrong).

The man is first identified as a “quidam.” This took me back to my teenage years when my older brother worked in the ticket booth of a Cirque du Soliel show of that name. I remember him telling me about an affluent man who came to the ticket booth and sneeringly asked, “What’s Quidam supposed to mean?”

My brother said, “You know that guy walking down the street who you don’t know and who you don’t care if he lives or if he dies? That’s ‘Quidam!’”

Not a story that Joyce would have known, but I feel that this sort of free association is not out of line in response to this text.

HCE is accused of the indiscretion by the quidam (another moment where I audibly laughed was when, for simplicity, Joyce suggests we call him “Abdullah Gamellaxarsky.” And then proceeds to never call him by that name again). HCE denies it, and goes on his way. The rest of the chapter is an account of the rumor spreading. It comes to the ear of a priest. We hear a stutterer commenting on it. We see it pass through a pub (the wonderful term “alcoherently” is coined) of hunters, ladies, ne’er-do-wells, professionals, and thence to a group of waggish parody song writers. They take it upon themselves to write a satirical ballad.

 

One of the beautiful tools of this modern age is Youtube. Whenever you approach a piece of literature that includes music, you can rest assured that one of the billions of users on Earth have attempted to record the song. Usually you’ll have your choice of versions. While I have a bare-bones enough music education to sight read, my imagination is not so great as to fill in what a song sounds like just by looking at the notations. I like this performance, although I’m not so crazy about his commentary. He says this song is an outline of the plot of the book and I don’t think it is. Also, he’s settled on one version of HCE’s indiscretion and I don’t think the book does that. However, bravo for performing the whole droning thing in front of a live audience! So I’d recommend starting the video when the music starts at 1:07.

More soon.

Finnegans Wake 1.1

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

Yes, it is a dense work. Yes, it is slow reading. Yes, it does not make conventional sense nor is it in conventional English. But about ten pages in, as I was struggling with the text in the way I’m sure everyone struggles with the text, I thought to myself, “Yes, but am I enjoying it?”

And I found that I was. Much like Ulysses, in spite of the overly reported difficulty of the book it also strikes me as a highly joyful book. The wordplay is sweeping, cosmic, immense, sublime. The comparison I imagined was Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach, another overly reported difficult work. If one were to buy a ticket to that opera, one finds one’s self in the opera house for around five hours observing a piece that is famously both minimalistic and abstracted. People have made all sorts of accusations against the work of Philip Glass, some of which I can intellectually understand where they are coming from, but I’ve never been able to shake the fact that I simply enjoy his sound. When one realizes this, one can settle back into enjoying the next five hours or six hundred pages.

Well, I guess that remains to be seen.

As I predicted, the Oxford World’s Classics edition has proved invaluable. There is one passage early on:

“This is camelry, this is floodens, this is solphereens in action, this is their mobbly, this is panickburns. Almeidagad! Arthiz too loose! This is Wellingdone cry. Brum! Brum! Cumbrum!”

What on Earth is Joyce on about? Well, in the introduction there is a Chapter by Chapter Outline of the, as it were, plot. In regards to this section “Finnegan’s ‘mild indiscretion’ projected onto the battle of Waterloo”. These sections, these plot fragments, flow not nearly so neatly as they are delineated in the introduction, but, having read this and knowing it was coming, at one point I realized “Oh! The Duke of Wellington!”

YOU HAVE TO HAVE THIS! You cannot travel this land without a Virgil! I am convinced of it and I think Joyce meant for it to be. I think he meant to open a deep deep mine and throw the reader into it, leaving it up to the reader to find the tools to mine anything from it or even a lantern. I think I read someone somewhere compare the first 29 pages to learning a new language. It is daunting, but I am assured that it’s also rewarding. I’ve also heard it compared to a dream, the night-twin of the day of Ulysses. Considering the intersections between the lives of Joyce and Jung, this interpretation has a rather startling edge to me.

Also, onomatopoeia is one of Joyce’s chief playthings in this work. Famously, at the beginning, he makes a joke about The Fall of Man:

“The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonner-ronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthur-nuk!)”

The “word” in parenthesis is, perhaps, the thunderclap of God’s wrath over Adam’s sin or, an option that made me chuckle when I read it, the written sound of someone falling down a flight of stairs. The book is brimming with this kind of “joke.”

This book does require a great deal more digging than Ulysses required. Indeed, people can spend a lot of time and energy… well, I suppose a better way to put it might be to say that what one gets out of it depends upon what one puts into it, much like life (and, as Tom Lehrer observed, a sewer). I discovered that someone actually put this moment to music:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/45858399″>Thunderclap for Six Kinetic Light Drums + Finale</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/jennfigg”>Jenn Figg</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

People have devoted a lot of time and energy to this book. I am thankful for so many civic minded individuals who have traveled this path and left landmarks.

And speaking of music, it is helpful to know the song from which the work takes its title. In the first 29 pages, I think the lyrics of the song have cropped up nearly a dozen times:

The Fall of Man seems to be a motif. Since this is Joyce, it is transposed over a common Irishman with a problematic relationship with religion whose sin is succumbing to sexual urges. In this we see both an indictment of and an attraction to the baser instincts, which reflects the nature of Original Sin, that is to say the inclinations towards impurity. Also since this is Joyce, these themes are going to go into the high speed blender. As form meets content, we are warned of this. The first lines seem to reference the beginning of Tristan und Isolde and we who read the introduction know that the daughter of the… I suppose we should call him the title character although Finnegan morphs into a man named HCE for most of the book (I think), anyway the daughter is named Isolde. Also knowing that Joyce’s daughter Lucia, upon whom he doted, was descending into schizophrenia as he was writing this, we are prepared to see this theme of Original Sin in this form permeate every human in the story like sunlight through glass.

And looking back on the sentences I just wrote makes me keenly aware of how difficult it is going to be to talk about this.

I suppose one of the hotly debated, polarizing questions surrounding this book is whether a work of literature should demand this much of a reader. I would hazard a guess that out of nine billion people, only a thousand some people on Earth have read it at any given time. I have six hundred daunting pages to go still and I’m wary of making any hubristic statements at this point (picturing myself as Stephen Icarus), but I think that this is a fine use of the form. If I wanted everything presented to me on a silver platter, Western Civilization is chock full of entertainment outlets happy to provide for a fee. Should a book be difficult as this? Sure! Should a book be simple as Hemingway? Sure!

Am I going to make it through this book?

Am I going to make it through this book?

Anyone?

Virgil?

Is this thing on?

On Losing My Home

So, Laurie and I are moving.

We have known for some time that our ability to keep the financial ball in the air is unsustainable under current circumstances. There are a number of reasons for this: our financial situation has changed drastically and unforseeably since we bought this house, the whole world of home-ownership in America has changed in the past 7 years to the point where the axiom “safe as houses” is unavoidably laced with bitter irony, exterior forces and a smattering of ill advised choices, an impending balloon payment which we once had a plan for that has since fallen through, etc., etc.

We have seen this coming for a long time.

We wanted to be proactive, not to simply allow nature to run its course. Neither of us is comfortable with hunkering down to wait for a foreclosure and we still have not hit that point. The incitement to move now came in the serendipitous offer of a house to rent, larger than the one we live in now and significantly cheaper, permission for all pets and as much gardening as we like, in a nicer and quieter neighborhood, and I even like the decor (I keep describing it as “retro-1950s with full PeeWee’s Playhouse potential”). 

The bad news is we are returning to the world of renters, the dream failed, we are losing a home that we love and in which we’ve had some of the happiest memories of our lives. And a home that we dumped barrels of money into. C’est la vie.

The good news is that we will have new memories, a new home to decorate, and, for the first time in our marriage, to live below our means, giving us the opportunity to possibly do some good rather than doing nothing more than constantly flailing to keep our noses above water.

If you’re local and want to help, you can start saving boxes and/or block out some time in the first weekend of May to help us move. If you’re not local… well, thanks for your kind attention and expect any further pictures of us at home to be in a different location.

As you were.

 

 

Approaching Finnegans Wake

By reputation of all that I’ve read, one of the most difficult books in the (disputably) English language. As far as I know, no one I know in real life has made it through the book.

I had planned for this to be the year in which I finally read The Russians, but it’s turned into the year in which I read James Joyce. Ulysses and Portrait were so brilliant, some of my favorite reading experiences of all time. In spite of what I’ve heard from people who have taken a stab at this book, I simply can’t believe that the man who wrote those two books then went on to spend 16 years writing utter jibberish.

While waiting for Finnegans Wake to arrive, I picked up a Samuel Beckett anthology that’s been sitting on my shelf for years. I noticed a piece titled Dante…Bruno.Vico..Joyce (the periods seem to indicate centuries between the authors named). It turned out to be an essay about Finnegans Wake and turned out to be quite helpful… I think. Beckett gave me two expectations which I think will serve as valuable tools: 1) that most literature divorces form and content, but Joyce is attempting to make form and content inseparable. In this book, form is content, which rather reminded me of a photo I saw recently of Marshall McLuhan’s marked up copy of the book. That’s pretty much McLuhan’s thing in a nutshell, innit? 2) Joyce has, in this book, created a Purgatory (like Dante), but rather than it ascending to Paradise, it is cyclical, never-ending, a “return of same” situation (like Vico. Which I know by way of Spengler).

I bought the Oxford World’s Classics edition. In my experience, they are excellent in highly helpful supplementary material. Again, as synchronicity would have it, they were the edition that helped me to read Dante for the first time, as well as the works of St. Anselm. It has become one of my favorite imprints and if they had an option to subscribe to their publications, a book of the month sort of situation, I would be all about it. Their edition of Finnegans Wake has about 50 pages of introductory material. The long introduction was written by a Wakehead who unpacks some key points (describes the shifting characters, defines the symbols, give an overview of the “story”). There is a chapter by chapter, sometimes line by line summary of what is happening. There is also a timeline of the life of James Joyce. This might seem like a point of general interest, but I also have this suspicion that Joyce’s daughter Lucia might be a key to the book. I doubt Joyce would appreciate me analyzing him like that.

So, did all of this prep work prepare me? Well, I’m four pages in now and my step-daughter just asked me what I think of it so far.

“Um… Well… It’s very dense. You really have to dwell on every word and phrase. You have to read things out loud and sometimes you’re laughing at things that don’t make sense. But I have the sense that it really is brilliant.”

Laurie came in from the other room and said, “Promise me something. If you find you’re just reading this to prove a point, please stop.”

“I’m not just reading this to prove a point. I really think there’s something here. I think there’s a lot here actually. I believe in Joyce. He’s earned it.”

But while Laurie has grave doubts about the mental health of James Joyce, I feel that anyone can understand the music of Johann Strauss, but you have to work to mine appreciation from Arnold Schoenberg (my two year old grandson danced immediately to the former, left the room over the latter). Everyone understands a cheeseburger, but some people have to work to acquire some tastes for, say, sushi or Vegemite. I don’t think it is invalid to have to work for something (nor am I saying that the immediately understandable is “low brow.” I think both have their place in a rich human life). One of the introductions I read (I forget which) compared the book to a complex machine, like a nuclear reactor, which takes some time to learn how to operate, but which is highly useful once you do. They seem to suggest that the usefulness lays in the unique variety of perception afforded to those wading in the seas with St. Tristam.

There is also this thought by Harold Bloom (about whom my feelings are about as mixed as they come):

“Devote an inordinate part of your lifetime to “Finnegans Wake”, and it will reward your labors; that is its design.”

I have one more book planned for this year. If I read anything else, I’ll consider it a bonus.

Also, probably needless to say, I plan to liveblog the experience of reading this book. So stay tuned for that.

 

Sans Dents

That look the first time their aged mother

is too far gone to cover anymore.

Secreted within the arms of the armchair

the all embracing arms of Death.

The Romans had a curse:

“He will die an old man in his bed”

turned virtue in our winds over shifting sand

foundations on medicine, insurance, credit,

the furnace god into which we throw second infancy.

Our desire is for our antithesis

with antithesis removed.

The readiness is all

covered by the din of daytime tv and bingo.

Ouroboros life

to get from A to B

without attaching wisdom.

Native Son, by Richard Wright

What a brilliant and harrowing work of literature! I devoured it. Although it is half the length of Ulysses it took me about 1/8th as long to read. I found the storytelling to be masterful. I hardly know where to start.

I suppose I should start with personal experience. I am a white male, raised on the cusp of upper middle class who, through life choices and economic forces, grew into a man on the cusp of lower middle class. My “poverty” is, “I might lose my three-bedroom, two-bath house” or “I can’t take more than four days worth of vacation at a time.” Which is to say that my poverty is not very, and I’m well aware of it, like a tactful thin woman when she gains five pounds.

I have been, since my youth, a literature person, and I managed to get through public school and private university without ever even hearing that Harlem had a Renaissance. One of the richest periods of American literature was not even mentioned! Why? And yet the morally reprehensible Beat Generation were, in the 1990s, front page news in literature curriculum. Here we have a symptom of the systemic disease addressed by this book.

Bigger Thomas, the novel’s protagonist, is a young black man in 1930′s Chicago. The book is in three sections and I don’t suppose it would be a spoiler to cover the inciting incident in the first section, especially as the back cover blurb on my copy reveals it. Bigger has all of the self-actualizing handicaps that one would anticipate a young black man in abject poverty in 1930s Chicago would have. He is given the opportunity to have a job as a chauffeur to a wealthy white real estate baron who fancies himself magnanimous to Negros by virtue of his charitable donations to specific causes. His daughter, much to her father’s chagrin, has taken to associating with Communists. The Communists fancy themselves magnanimous to Negros by virtue of their treating them as equals and encouraging them towards revolutionary aspirations.

Bigger is trying to keep his job to keep his family from starving. He has never shaken hands with a white man before and, out driving the Communist and the daughter, is called upon to do so. He has never eaten with white people before, but these two young people fancy themselves so revolutionary and hip that they want Bigger to take them to a Negro restaurant and eat with them! And drink with them. Heavily.

All of which is terrifying to Bigger, unbeknownst to the young white people. He is horrified that, at every turn on that first night, this young couple seem as if they are about to get him into trouble by no fault of his own. And I see that the story, again, is so excellently crafted that I am inclined to retell the whole thing here in my blog post. I did that the other night to Laurie in great excitement over this book I was reading. She made me stop when I got to the moment where Bigger is trapped in the room, having carried the drunken daughter to her bed, when the blind mother enters the room and, in panic that it will somehow be revealed through sound that he, a black man, is in the bedroom of a white woman, he tries to keep the young woman from making any noise, first by pushing her to lay down, then, in desperation, by putting a pillow over her face.

And it all spirals downward from there.

One of the questions I came away with was: Did Bigger have to kill? And commit the series of crimes that follow? The answer is far more complex than it appears on the surface. At one point, I think during the trial, it is mentioned that he could have simply gone to the parents and said, “Hey, your daughter is too drunk to walk up to her room.” It was a physical possibility for him to do that, but as a young black man in abject poverty given a chance at a decent job and on his first night…

Which brought to mind the theological concept of Total Depravity and individual responsibility. Can one not sin? Well, yes and no really. It would appear that it is a physical possibility, but all of human existence is inclined in sin’s direction. Is Bigger responsible for committing the crimes? Yes, of course. Is the entire structure of our culture, where a black man in the presence of a lone white woman, where people of a certain skin color are not allowed to live outside of a certain neighborhood, have a certain level of income, is that structure responsible? I think if we’re answering honestly, the social structure begins to look an awful lot, extending our comparison, like the Principalities of Darkness.

One of the only critiques I found myself having towards the book’s perspective was the dim view it took of religion. It seems to have the Marxian “crutch” view of Christianity, the “There’ll be pie in the sky when you die” view. I feel like sin nature is an explanation to so many of these problems in the world, but I also feel that many people mistake this interpretation as a defeatist view, almost a resignation towards the inevitability of man’s inhumanity to man.

Slavery does come up, naturally. When our forefathers brought forth this nation, they were faced with the choice of true freedom and democracy or to preserve the institution of slave labor. They went with money. One version of the story is that, about a hundred years in, a great President triumphed in abolishing this blot on the history of our nation. Another version of the story is that the Industrial Revolution had grown to the point of pushing slave labor closer and closer to obsolesce anyway.

Another serious question/problem posed by the story is what is one to do? One white character who is sympathetic gets murdered, another is revealed to be profiting off the backs of the very people he claims to be sympathizing with, another is accused of the crime, another is demonized by his peers. Not to add spoiler upon spoiler, but I don’t think it’s a surprise ending to find that those who seek to overthrow this institutionalized racism are not successful. I have a couple of Hispanic friends, who are as American citizen as I, who visited the Grand Canyon last week. They came back with a disturbing story of an encounter with some of the Arizona police as they were simply visiting the national monument. This encounter would not have happened to me if I were in the same circumstance.

This is hard to write about because it is so huge. I see that things have changed a bit since the time of the novel, even since the time of Richard Wright’s highly suspicious death (hounded by the CIA and then happens to have a stomach ailment/heart attack sort of thing and subsequent quick cremation, which should send a shudder of recognition through any reader of this book). I also see that things have not changed, but seem to be given lip service of having changed. I see these things and I see my own displeasure at these things and I think, “so what, should someone pin a medal on me?” This seems to be one of the key problems to the sympathetic white characters in the story. 1) The order does not change because .5% of white people feel sympathy, and 2) so you’ve come to realize what any base-level decent human being should realize. There is a well known event in the life of Malcolm X when a blonde white college girl came up to him and asked what she could do to help, he replied tersely “Nothing.” He later came to regret that moment, but I think there’s a truth to it too. It’s really that bad.

I am faced with another alarming question: am I part of the problem? I certainly want all humans to be equal. I agree that our economic and political structure as it stands excludes some and inclines towards inequality. Which is evil. And certain uncomfortable questions arise like, I am not a real estate baron, but from whence came the clothes I’m wearing, the coffee in the mug next to me, the gasoline in the car my wife drives (I bike, so there’s one good thing at least)? Or from whence came the opportunities that I have had? To the exclusion of whom?

And the final question, the important question, the question that I’m still chewing on, the question, I assume, that had the CIA up in arms: What can I do? I have some good ideas as to what I shouldn’t do, which is to contribute in any way to the culture of occlusion. Indeed, this is a bit of a proof text to incite one towards ways of thinking, demanding ways of living, for any moral person revolutionary to the current order.

In the end, there are no easy answers. I leave this reading experience deeply bothered. And I feel like I ought to be. I feel like we all ought to be. I am bothered in my cozy, warm little house with my tea and Mahler symphonies playing. How does that compare with how Bigger Thomas was bothered? How does that compare with how Richard Wright was bothered?

Let’s All Write a Lyric Poem!

A Lyric Poem is, simply, a poem which sounds like it might be sung. So says Ron Padgett. In days of yore, it is thought, these poems were sung, but we do not have the music. Think of the Psalms.

The word comes from the “lyre.” A lot of poetry is composed to be sung and a great deal of poetry that seems to have been composed for that purpose exists without any indication of what the original music may have been. William Blake is said to have sung his poems and we have no musical notation. Allen Ginsberg put out a remarkably awful album of how he thought Blake’s poems may have been sung. Indeed, one could put these poems to music.

This was a tricky form for me. I don’t think I’ve ever written a poem intended to be a lyric piece in my life, save for that one time I started writing an opera libretto (which is another item on my bucket list by the way). I found myself writing in a sort of “patter” which reminded me of Gilbert and Sullivan or, oddly enough, hip-hop. I learned that this specific form of simplicity is not my strong suit.

Any attempt by anyone out there to put this to music is highly encouraged. I picture verse 2 as a chorus, I suppose.

 

 

Late February Song

by Paul Mathers

 

February, when the coats are on the rack in readiness.

Vapo-rub and lavender in all of their headiness.

Earliest mosquitos tap the window to my room

and the bare, first twinges of what is soon to bloom.

 

And all the hemisphere begins to reboot.

The dead get buried, the vine spits out new shoots.

And I’m laying speculating the next verse to my song

If I should live so long.

 

Blindly fumbling through the path of life, we so often lose our way

with no compass, map, or blind man’s staff we weave our parquetry,

Anything that’s keeping falling sparrows calculating

is a force complex enough to keep my blood pump palpitating.

 

It’s all vanity: your panicky attempts to speak some pathos

when your only navigation’s acceleration through the chaos.

So I pull on my pants, each foot I put a shoe in,

drag myself into the kitchen and get the coffee brewing.

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