Is a Pile of Legal Pads the Same as a Book?

February 28, 2008 § 2 Comments

Before I actually get into The Confessions of Nat Turner, I wanted to briefly discuss the weirdness of reading a book while simultaneously digging through the personal papers of that book’s author to put together an exhibit on his life. I suppose I should state the obvious up front: my views are mine alone, and not my employers’. I don’t plan on impugning or libelling anyone, or revealing any “secrets,” but hey, you never know. And I suppose for those who don’t know (if there are any of you out there), I should explain that I’m a librarian at Duke University’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, which holds a large chunk of the William Styron Papers (meaning manuscripts of his works, correspondence, and lots of other things. Here’s a finding aid for the collection, if you wanna see what’s in it.)

It doesn’t sound that weird, I guess, but it is, at least for me. Scholars do it all the time, but in a very different way — typically they’ve already read through a text (most often more than once, if they’ve gotten to the stage of needing to consult its author’s manuscripts) and are consulting a well known source as they work in an archive. I’m reading Nat Turner for the first time, both as research and as personal reading. Duke doesn’t have the manuscripts for Nat Turner, although it has the galleys and a lot of other related material. And it has manuscripts for many of his other works, like Sophie’s Choice.

What’s weird about it is perhaps not what you’d think. Nat was an enormously controversial book when it came out, and there’s a lot of correspondence (mostly supportive; would you write someone whose work you didn’t approve of?) and other materials on the controversy, but that isn’t what’s causing the kind of dissonance I’m getting. It’s not a matter of knowing too much about the book beforehand to read the book on its own terms. No, it’s more the effect of the body of materials as a whole, and especially the drafts themselves of his works.

As you might imagine, working in an archive is an enormously personal, even intimate activity. It can also be extremely misleading: you’re seeing whatever survived, the remnants of a career and a life and not a life in its fullness. Nevertheless, you get a sense of a person when you work with their stuff.

Styron mostly wrote his early drafts on long, yellow, legal-pad-sized sheets of paper, in pencil, with extensive corrections, additions, notes to himself in the margins. He’s got a nice hand, easy to read for the most part, with idiosyncratic t‘s that look like s‘s. He’s said how much of a labor writing was for him, how painful it was; you can kind of feel that in the manuscripts: something about the slant of his hand conveys it, as does the worn, rubbed feel at the margins of some of the pages. That feeling of hard work being done, hard thinking delivered through all those leads of varying sharpness, and rethinking and rewriting being done, the writer handling the pages over and over.

I’m not a “death of the author” person, but I tend to maintain quite a bit of separation between an author and his work. Although I enjoy a good literary biography (and a good biography in general — something very appealing about capturing the arc of a lived life) I tend to care, personally (not professionally), about an author’s biography only insofar as it illuminates the work itself. (I also think that a work that requires biographical info to engage me is probably not something I’m interested in. Plus I am generally disinterested in memoirs, as a genre, although there are exceptions.) I don’t want to get too lit-critty here, but when I’m reading Nat Turner I’ll find myself thinking of how Styron’s hand looks on those long yellow sheets, and I’ll remember all the intermediate stages that come between a first draft like that, fresh from the author’s pencil, and the published work (in ugly library binding, no less!) I have in my hand: all the minds it passed through, all the work by early readers (family, friends), editors, fact checkers, publishers, designers, typesetters, critics, etc. before it reached the published form. The finished book, I guess, seems less like a work of art and more like a… well, a product, produced for practical, business reasons; but also a phenomenon, a thing reaching the world after great travail and continuing through great travail (all those reviews, criticisms, discussions; all its varying manifestations in the separate minds of separate readers!) in both its physical and intellectual forms. The author’s work, all those wild, scrawled yellow pages, domesticated between two covers.

There’s something pleasurable about all this, in one way. And, on the whole, I certainly feel that my working life has informed my reading in lots of interesting ways. To have a better sense of the processes both of publishing and of reception of texts is necessary to many kinds of literary thinking. Thinking about these issues has enriched my reading and has exposed in some works facets I would’ve otherwise overlooked. But in this particular instance of reading an author while exploring his archive, there seems to be something both nearsighted and farsighted about the experience. I feel, just a little, simultaneously estranged from and embarrassingly connected to the work. It’s like a relative you never talk to but with whom you shared a room for a summer. I’ve not quite captured exactly what I mean, but that’s close.

Shakespeare, Owen Hart, Zeitgeist

February 25, 2008 § Leave a comment

Finished last Saturday: Bear v. Shark.

A couple of tidbits from this and then I’m putting it to bed. Really a fun read, even if I do think it’s no great shakes as literature goes. Hey, I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll enjoy, at least at some level, any book that includes a functioning index that is also a parody of an index, and appears not at the end, but as a chapter of the book itself. I’m a sucker for index humor after taking a class on “Indexing and Abstracting” in library school.

Tidbit #1: Chapter 58, “Textual Evidence,” is a radio interview with a poor doctoral candidate trying to build a career on the hypothesis “that Shakespeare had bear sympathies” based on the relative number of appearances of the words “bear” and “shark” in his works. There are some truly hilarious lines in here. E.g.: responding to the charge that most of the “bear”s in Shakespeare are verbs, not nouns: “You know sometimes it’s like Freud never happened.” And there’s the host’s rejoinder of the “negative evidence hypothesis”: the theory that Shakespeare didn’t use the word “shark” because he was so respectful and terrified of them.

This would be silly if people weren’t constantly trying to do this kind of thing with Shakespeare (and a few others), and for similarly ludicrous reasons.

Tidbit #2: Chapter 68, “In Superhero-Type Fashion,” juxtaposes “Long Story Short ed.” recaps of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast and the death of pro wrestler Owen Hart to point out the strange ways in which fiction—artifice, illusion, spectacle—now seems more real, normal, and expected than “real life.” This is really quite brilliant, I thought.

It’s the most explicit statement of a theme that runs throughout: entertainment, pounding hype, repetition, and contrived narrative as a kind of soup we now live in, all around us, absorbing practically everything in sight. (This appears elsewhere in detached snippets of televised/radio broadcast dialogue, commercials, sports talk, etc., and in the whole chapters that detach from the novel’s own narrative arc (such as it is) to describe one program or another.) We expect story and packaged narrative: it’s the moments of unexpected things actually happening that are hardest for us to understand, now. We spend a really inordinate amount of time parsing the details of, and coming to grips with, these “real” occurrences, intrusions of action (alternative narratives, or alternate realities, if you will) into the narratives that have been built around us. (See the chapter “Non Sequitur,” here. See 9/11, and the almost instantaneous growth of a subculture believing it was heavily stage-managed or at least planned to appear on TV. Better yet, read “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” DFW’s 9/11 piece. Now I promise to leave the shrine of DFW alone for at least a month.)

No great insight here, right? This is practically the ur-narrative of this whole school of writing (which is really a lot harder to define than it seems: call it postmodernism and you’re lumping in a bunch of writers to whom it doesn’t so much apply. Maybe we should just call it the Barth/Pynchon school and leave it at that). In other chapters Bachelder, writing (I speculate, based on pub date of 2001) in 1999-2000, throws the Internet into the mix. His particular hobby-horses are the easily detachable, easily misunderstood, easily convoluted bits of info and trivia available there. It’s a little early. He’s still dealing with small-fry conspiracy theorists and poor spellers. Just wait for the well-meaning, ill-informed listserv poster, wikifier, or blogger, my friend! Then you’ll have some serious clusterfucks of rumor, hysteria, outdated information and skewed statistics!

Reading Other People’s Dreams

February 23, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Joseph Cornell’s Dreams, ed. Catherine Corman.

One of the things I like to collect are dream narratives: peoples’ descriptions of their own dreams, literary renderings of dreams, etc. I’ve been reading before bed a slim volume of the dreams of the artist Joseph Cornell as recorded in his diaries.

Partly I like reading dreams because I think those old dicta that other people’s dreams are always boring, and long descriptions of dreams should always be avoided in writing, are stupid and have never been followed anywhere by any writer of merit. Dreams are interesting. Dreams are complicated and dumb and profound and wildly divergent from one another. Plus I love the challenge of capturing the feeling of a dream in words–an impossible task.

Anyway, Cornell was a great dream-recorder. Sometimes they’re just little 5-word snippets of imagery, sometimes they seem like descriptions of his own creations, sometimes they are nice little narratives. This is one of my favorites:

July 31, 1964

old photos of childhood come to life–self come to life…

as tho seeing self from a raised ledge in a sheltered area looking out + down upon costumed self moving across lawn…

upturned of self with its awkward (movement) across the lawn

I also love this sad, touching dream. How he comes close to the experience of a dream in which identities are confused and mingled:

August 24, 1965

–dream of shopping for taking home to Robert [his brother, deceased prior to this dream] 2 items for a meal–bag of pot. puff balls + 10 cent indiv. coffee cake (round) rationalizing abt pancakes if he could digest them early (confusion) after someone’s passing (his own–confusion) shadowy image of him at desk no one else in house–

Cornell would hate this publication, with his love of privacy and squeamishness about his personal life. But of course, he was also a glamour-hog, and in a way he was always creating his own dreams to share with the world.

Paging Dr. Wallace to Chapter 66…

February 22, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: Bear v. Shark.

See the previous post for the beginning of this head-hurting argument. To dive back in:

Only there are more layers of jokes, see. Bachelder makes a joke near the end of chapter 51 about “apologiz[ing] for the whole bear porn thing” in reference to his next chapter, a hucksterish promo for a skeevy porno site about bears. And he also, near the end, goes over the top: he makes his argument about satire into a plea for a connection between writer and reader on a personal level, wishing the reader could come over for a chat and a cup of coffee.

This is deliberately, manipulatively over the top. I would fear that Bachelder is trying to skewer DFW here. I would fear he intends this whole quiz interlude as a satire on DFW’s bedrock hopes for a less ironic, better informed, more engaged populace, and on DFW’s stated hopes that he can connect with his readers in a meaningful way through/despite all his rhetoric. But, instead of (or along with) these fears, I suspect that Bachelder doesn’t have enough control over his material to be conscious of this apparent critique. And I think that just perhaps it is simply intended to be, um, funny.

Just a few more points to reference here. Chapter 62, “We Know You Know,” is a “commercial” for Sexy Pants. It’s the kind of inspection of consumer culture’s motives that DFW does in his sleep. It’s a funny chapter, although it falls a bit flat at the end and is a bit more basic than you’d hope. (It’s no “Mister Squishy,” let’s put it that way.) In the aftermath of Infinite Jest, you could also read this chapter as a meta-narrative on DFW’s desire to show the inner workings of marketing schemes. The tag line for Sexy Pants–“Savvy is Sexy”–could be seen as referring not just to the pants, but to the marketing of DFW and the whole cult of the hip-young-author in general.

And then we get, in chapter 66, “Entertainment Exhaust,” direct quotes from DFW himself. The form of this chapter is a kind of command-and-response. So we get:

Tell about irony.

It’s tyrannical.

Tell what else D. F. Wallace says about it.

It’s bigger than ever after 30 long years as the dominant mode of hip expression. It’s not a rhetorical mode that wears well.

Tell about the new rebels.

They won’t be scared of sentimentality or melodrama.

Now, lemme tell you something: this book is an orgy of irony. In the very next chapter, the youngest son of the Norman family, Curtis, is shot in a grocery store when he does not hit the deck–because “it’s so embarrassing to get duped, to fall for the old fake gun trick.” There is a tender scene–the only one thus far–in which Curtis confesses to his father that he is afraid to die. So: melodrama. Sentimentality. Pathos, even.

This chapter is entitled “Bear v. Shark: The Rising Action.” Ironic much?

Well, so how does Bachelder refute those original arguments of Calvino that we started with–that satire places the author in a position of moralism and mockery? My view: so far, he doesn’t. He confirms them. He’s mocking and he’s moralistic. Advertising is bad: it ruins our quality of life! Slow down, don’t watch so much TV! Can’t you see I have a plan for you? Look how stupid you look! Look how stupid so much of our culture is! That’s what I’m getting here. I’m not getting any of the heart of the matter that I get from DFW.

The funny thing is, Bachelder clearly adores Wallace, pretty much based this entire book on “E Unibus Pluram,” and just about says so in a Bookslut interview a few years back. I actually don’t think he intended these counter-currents. I think he was a young author who wasn’t quite in control. Unconscious Rule #1 of the young fiction writer: When all else fails, be clever. I think Bachelder was trying to write a smart book about TV, media saturation, modern American life, in a way that would impress his peers. And he may do that–I haven’t finished the book yet, after all. Don’t get me wrong–it’s been a very funny book, I certainly appreciate his rendering of the consciousness of the manipulated boys, the lonesome father. But I think what chapter 51 and its aftermath (which includes another quiz chapter, a more seemingly straightforward one, btw) shows us is the dangers of influence and appropriation. Because I suspect Bachelder has written the exact book he didn’t want to write: duplicitous, self-serving, contrived, counterproductive. Which is what all experimental fiction is when it fails to grasp its own point.

Question 8: Why is Chapter 51 a Quiz?

February 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Bear v. Shark.

SPECIAL BONUS PREFATORIAL COMMENT: From now on, I’ll be advertising my next book a couple of days before I think I’ll get done with the book I’m reading now, as a service to my ginormous reading public. Something to whet your appetite, maybe even get you to pull the book off your shelf or out of your local library to look it over (if you’ve read it before). All 3 of you, get excited!

So, Reading next: The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron.

But for now, the wacky world of Bear v. Shark.

Today’s class: pop quizzes in postmodern literature. Chapter 51 here, “Discussion Questions,” takes the form of 7 essay questions intended to mimic (but not really) the kinds of things on high-school English tests. And it ends with a long, self- (and literary-) referential, 21-part question in reaction to this quote by Italo Calvino (or so Bachelder says–I haven’t looked it up): “Satire is not the approach [to comedy] that I find most congenial. One component of satire is moralism, and another is mockery. Anyone who plays the moralist thinks he is better than others, whereas anyone who goes in for mockery thinks he is smarter. In any case, satire excludes an attitude of questioning and of questing.”

Now, Bachelder is self-consciously mimicking at least two authors here: Donald Barthelme and DFW. My Barthelme is tragically trapped in boxes right now, so I can’t look this up, but the ever-so-reliable Internet tells me the quiz in his work appears in “Snow White.” (I feel like there’s another one. I could be wrong.) And in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, the story “Octet” takes the form of “pop quiz” questions appearing after presentations of moral dilemmas–only it kind of spirals out of control, in DFW’s typically awesome spiralling-out-of-control-but-really-completely-in-control-but-no- seriously-spiralling-out-of-control fashion, and becomes a meta-narrative on a fiction writer debating the merits of trying to be completely honest about and in his work while also engaging the reader and not screwing around with form for screwing around with form’s sake and not just being a dick. It’s a great story. It totally pays off whereas, for an example from the same work, “The Depressed Person” makes you want to off yourself. (I recognize the merits of “TDP,” by the way–it’s a great piece of work–but it is brutal to read. I mean, just hard to put up with. I’d love to reread everything in BIWHM but that.)

Point being, Barthelme pretty much cornered the market on using pop quizzes solely as a formal pyrotechnic–that is, “lookit me, I’m writing a quiz in a work of fiction, inviting my readers to participate and engage with literature in new, exciting ways!” And DFW interrogated the form into bloody chunks, and specifically addressed the fact that the form and his metafictional tricks were neither new nor all that exciting in and of themselves anymore, but had to be put to a purpose, had to have a use. So where does Bachelder get off with using it again, a mere two years after BIWHM? And, especially, where does he get off using the same reflexive devices DFW used–i.e., using the final question to address the questions the reader has probably been asking about him, Bachelder, and his motives–“Aren’t satirists just sentimental and oversensitive cranks who just wish the world were a kinder place…”–and his sources–“Didn’t Barthelme do this quiz stunt back in like 1965 or something?”

Well, here’s the thing: DFW is a master. You come out of a DFW story which has interrogated itself to bloody chunks and you somehow feel that those bloody chunks have been rehabilitated, remade, somehow made whole. Now anyone who’s read him knows DFW goes on too long to furnish any kind of quotable snippet–the man is firmly anti-quotable-snippet, I’m guessing. You will have to take my word for it and please, please read the story for yourself. The thing is, in “Octet,” he (er, the fictional fiction writer–but come on) lays out the reasons for using the form in such interesting ways that you feel, at the end, “Well, yes, it was a very complicated, but very worth it. I’m glad I read this. I’m glad there was this weird quiz-story with a trademark gargantuan footnote acting as the story’s superego.” (Or at least that’s how I feel about it. You really should read it, if only to learn about “The Carson Maneuver.”)

Wow, that took a while. What we’re talking about here, I’m afraid, is rhetoric. The reasons for exposing the tricks as tricks (as Bachelder tries to do here) v. using the tricks in the first place (and my, are there tricks in this book) v. spurning the tricks for a Hemingwayish bare-bones prose (but then that’s a trick, ain’t it?). Bachelder meant his quiz to be read in the refracted light from Don B’s and DFW’s quizzes.  I am guessing he thought his quiz would a) be thought of as mind-blowing and edgy by the kids who hadn’t read DFW or Barthelme yet, especially in that it acknowledges that it isn’t mind-blowing or edgy anymore, b) provide a useful form for critiquing education (“how does this make you feel?” is a recurring phrase in the questions), and c) allow rubes like me, who’ve read DB and DFW and Barth and a whole mess of others, to feel superior and supposedly see through the “layers of jokes,” as he says, and see that he’s using this quiz form because it is so artificial, and so used-up that it comments on our constant need to be entertained by newness especially in avant-garde literature, supposed bastion of non-commercial motives and higher critical faculties, and so it provides a safe place to tell the honest truth as the author sees it about his own motivations and his reason for writing the book.

Wait, there’s more!  I’m going to break this into two parts for both of our sakes.

The Split-Screen Stand-Up

February 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Bear v. Shark.

One of my favorite chapters so far–well, besides the cake-mix-commercial chapters, anyway–is “Question-and-Answer Period,” in which “Upstairs [on the Norman household TV], a bright-toothed, square-jawed young man in a hooded raincoat shares a split screen with a button-cute Television Personality. They’re both going places, you can just see it.” As Trevor reports from a rainy revival meeting, and Lee Ann in the studio responds to the banter, another “unclear moderator”–maybe the author, maybe an authorial surrogate for the reader, maybe the author himself, maybe (my fave on first reading) Mr. Norman, but likely, in Bachelder’s mind, intended to suggest all of these–comments on the relationship between the two: “All I want to know is, are these two doing it or not?” This moderator expresses a mix of prurience and tender compassion–pulling for Trevor and Lee Ann, for the relationship he/she speculates they have to work out.

Here’s a question: is this a “public” expression of interest? Does Bachelder intend this to be seen as comments intentionally inserted into the narrative, a discourse between–um, someone–and the reader? Or are we eavesdropping on thoughts, catching stray brain-waves from Mr. Norman or the author or The Hypothetical Viewer? As written, it’s a strange mix of cliched public platitude–“they still have feelings for one another”–and crass thought–“Damn, you know they’re doing it.” I speculate that Bachelder is intentionally ambiguous here in order to point out how these awful banal turns of phrase–hell, turns of thought–get used and used and used and work their ways into our addled brains. We can’t tell the difference, sometimes. These awful non-relationships we have with the people on TV; the thoughts we find ourselves thinking, the things we find ourselves saying. (See also: the difficulty Mr. Norman has remembering whether his memories of young love with his wife are actually scenes from a movie or show.)

Of course, the futility of this kind of deep, complex reading is another point of a lot of postmodern fiction.  Ah well.

Anyway, Trevor, due to some “technical difficulties,” ends up swearing and insulting and complaining on air. Plus there’s Trevor’s actual reporting on the Reverend Marty Munson’s special address and predictions on Bear v. Shark II. (All of this happens in about a page.) The one major flaw here, and one which might be addressed later: if you’re trying to actually depict the workings of the media, this incident–Trevor unfiltered on air–should be replayed and replayed as end-of-newscast filler, blooper reel fodder, etc. etc. The fetishization of the spontaneous, unplanned, and “real” is unlimited on TV. Replaying and moderating removes the pungency of such human moments. Bachelder surely knows this.

TV Fiction

February 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Bear v. Shark: The Novel by Chris Bachelder.

I felt the need for something completely different. And something short. So I’ve picked this up.

I remember reading about this when this came out, in 2001. I consciously avoided it for years, because it seemed so obviously derivative of David Foster Wallace and such a grad-school book. And I still think that’s true: this is a book, I suspect, written under the strong influence of Wallace’s seminal essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” (only the best lit crit essay I’ve ever read) and of Infinite Jest (only the best American novel of the 1990s). It is giving me a definite jones, again, to reread IJ. (That will happen eventually–it will!)

But, what the hell: how could I resist, forever, any book of metafictional intrusions, descriptions of cereal boxes, and speculative slang? A book made of sentences like “In short: Is this a postmodern stick?” and “It’s an example of what they refer to essentially as an unclear moderator.” (this in reference to unclear modifiers, but playing on the fact that the sentence occurs in one of the occasional chapters composed of pseudo-dialogue between unidentified participants, and which seems basically intended to represent the book (the author) talking to itself (himself)–a moderator as in a narrator, maybe, and we’ve had one unclear “I” in 70 pages so far)?  Made of short chapters of commercial play-by-play, middle-aged-American ennui, and examinations of the TV viewing habits of the future?

It’s been a lot of fun so far. Bachelder certainly has the ear and the eye: chapter 4, “Lady v. Cake,” is a dead-on description of a cake-mix commercial set in a courtroom. Excellent line: “The lady lawyer says, ‘If it is indeed true that you are from a mix, would you mind telling the jury just how you got to be so creamy?'”

So, yes, it’s a media novel. It’s very late-Clinton. It reminds me that I still haven’t read My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, one of the key texts in the “E Unibus Pluram” essay.  It makes me wonder what the hard-core English majors are into these days.

Beautiful Absurdity

February 17, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

Having just finished this, and with a great deal to process and look into, I’ll say that the book is clearly a masterpiece, and no wonder Ellison had such trouble finishing a second novel: where do you go from here? Two things nag at me, the way small flaws in otherwise perfect constructions do. One is the opening paragraph, which, after the power of the first sentence–the famous “I am an invisible man.”–is stiff and verbose in ways the rest of the book avoids. The other is chapter 24, very near the end, which is weirdly tedious, annoying, and overlong in its explication of a drunken night between the narrator and one Sybil. There’s a point to all of this, too, of course–the constant fear of miscegenation that’s haunted America, the superstitions of sexual power this fear has assigned to black men, and the comic debunking of same–but the tone and the tedium seemed all wrong to me for a chapter so near the end, and it seems wildly out of place. At times it seemed to me simply an excuse to have drunken Sybil call the narrator “boo’ful,” with its potential to signify beautiful, boogieful, and boo-ful (as in, ghostly, invisible, scary) all at once.

There’s far too much going on near the end of this book to go into all of it–the final chapter, with its surreal race riot and the fascinating image of Ras (now Ras the Destroyer) on his black steed, holding a spear and spiked shield, leading his warriors against a police troop while stores are looted around him; not to mention the narrator’s dream, on an underground coal pile, of a bridge brought to life as an “iron man” by the transplant onto it of the narrator’s castrated testicles–but I wanted to focus on one small phrase near the end. The narrator says, in the midst of the wild riot:

“I looked at Ras on his horse and at their handful of guns and recognized the absurdity of the whole night and of the simple yet confoundingly complex arrangement of hope and desire, fear and hate, that had brought me here still running, and knowing now who I was and where I was and knowing too that I had no longer to run for or from the Jacks and the Emersons and the Bledsoes and Nortons, but only from their confusion, impatience, and refusal to recognize the beautiful absurdity of their American identity and mine.”

Beautiful absurdity… this is the phrase that Ellison chooses to sum up American identity. And he includes all of us in it–black and white, rich and poor, revolutionary and reactionary. It’s a phrase the narrator enacts himself, in previous chapters, in his impersonation of one Rinehart–equally rind and heart–who turns out to be a popular preacher promising to make “the invisible visible” (there’s a handbill shown here reminiscent of the famous J.A. Dowie handbill in Ulysses) but also a numbers-runner, womanizer, and general sleazebag.

And it’s a phrase that might also be the key to understanding the contents of the narrator’s pocket. Throughout the book he collects these somewhat talismanic objects in his pocket: first the leg iron given to him by Brother Tarp, a kind of symbol of slavery, and used as a kind of brass knuckles to escape from a couple of jams; then one of Brother Clifton’s “Sambo” paper dolls; then the dark, green-tinted glasses he bought to hide his identity and which convinced passers-by that he was Rinehart. These are all symbols of identity: of identifying who he is, who his people are, how they are perceived or not perceived. This strikes me as a beautifully absurd collection of objects to carry around in a pocket.

But so what’s meant by “beautiful,” anyway? Is it tied to the fact that, as the narrator says in the epilogue, “one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray”? This is an appealing theory, to me, but if so, why does this description of American unity-in-diversity use ugly words like “dull and gray”? Is it because of the struggle against this becoming? The “absurdity” is more obvious: no one seeing who they are, where they came from, where they are going; no one taking the time to delve into their connections to others, or their own motives for the actions they take or do not take. Plus, of course, there’s the absurd distance between America’s foundational principles and the actions of the ones we entrust to uphold and enforce those principles. Hard to find beauty in that, though.

And it’s the “beautiful” in that phrase, I think–a phrase which is very close to a self-summation of the book–which keeps the book from being a polemic, a manifesto, or (only) a “social” novel. “Beautiful” is open-ended, subjective, ambiguous, personal. Because Ellison is concerned with the aesthetic, and is concerned with the individual. It’s a book about individual perception and awareness, as much as anything–about self-discovery and its power, and the beauty of those things.

Plunging Outside of History

February 14, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

Just finished watching Yes, a deeply weird, deeply beautiful movie in which all the dialogue is in a lovely, Shakespearean iambic pentameter–some rhyming, some not. (You know I’m a sucker for this kind of thing. Bonus points for an antiquated outlandish formal conceit.) There’s an Irish-American biologist, a Lebanese cook, a chorus of housekeepers, an English blues aficionado, and much much more. I’d spoil the plot but want you to go ahead and watch the movie, so I won’t.

Anywho, this coupled with IM finds me thinking about history. The place of the individual in it, out of it, or near it. What we think of as history and what we think of as life. Etc.

Chapter 20 felt an awful lot like the core of this book. In chapter 17 the narrator and his compatriot, Brother Tod Clifton, have a run-in with their nemesis in Harlem, the black militant Ras the Exhorter. And Ras does not approve of their working in the Brotherhood (as their organization is called) with and for white people. After their confrontation, Clifton says of Ras, “I don’t know…I suppose sometimes a man has to plunge outside history….Plunge outside, turn his back…Otherwise he might kill somebody, go nuts.”

By chapter 20 Clifton has abandoned his post in the Brotherhood. The narrator, reassigned to the Harlem beat, tries to track him down and finds him hawking small, paper-and-cardboard dancing dolls. They’re black, they’re called Sambo, and the narrator sees them as a betrayal of everything he and Clifton had stood for. Clifton ends up shot dead by a cop he’d punched in anger. And the narrator is left to ruminate on Clifton’s sudden plunge outside history, into the black marketplace, selling the world’s image of himself.

I won’t pretend to understand everything in the narrator’s ruminations, but there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here about history and time. He sees three black boys in the subway, and thinks, “These fellows whose bodies seemed–what had one of my teachers said of me?–‘You’re like one of these African sculptures, distorted in the interest of a design.’ Well, what design and whose?” And going on, continuing to talk about these “transitional,” extra-historical (because not recording their own histories, and sure to be forgotten in the traditional textbooks) boys, he says, “What if Brother Jack were wrong? What if history was a gambler, instead of a force in a laboratory experiment, and the boys his ace in the hole?”

What does it mean, exactly, to plunge outside history? To turn one’s back on the narrative of “progress,” or destiny, or fate? To what end? Are the downtrodden in any sense free agents–or does the narrator insinuate the exact opposite–that history is gambling on those boys (all of us), thinking they might lead to some big payoff (the Brotherhood, writ large) but never quite knowing? A kind of determinism lite?

More Humanity

February 11, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

The narrator, the invisible man, has stumbled onto the eviction of an old black couple from their home, and has, in spite of himself, made a speech (beginning as a call to law-abiding behavior and long-suffering) leading to an act of violent uprising. This catches the eye of a socialist group, led by Brother Jack, which grooms him to work for them and speak for them.

In chapter 16 he makes another speech, this time in a crowded auditorium of proselytes, and has similar impact. He says, at one point, after “a stillness so complete that I could hear the gears of the huge clock mounted somewhere on the balcony gnawing upon time” that he feels “more human” before them. He makes a powerful, emotional appeal to them, telling them that they will rise up, and they react powerfully, and he sobs.

He is, of course, being used. The words had poured out of him and it is unclear whether or how deeply he meant them, and where they came from. Immediately after leaving the stage, he meets up with Brother Jack and the other party leaders. In a funny scene, the head socialists are cold and disgusted by his appeal to emotions–his “antithesis of the scientific approach,” his stirring up of the common people. But the organizers, the ones on the streets–they loved it, loved the enthusiasm he generated.

Ellison is opposed to both sides, I think, and is most bothered by all those eyes on the surface of his invisible man, by the enthusiasm of a crowd witnessing the baring of a soul and thinking it mere rhetoric, merely the talking points of their agenda. The narrator himself is troubled by “more human,” and what he might have meant by it. He wonders if he heard it in the literature (Irish Lit?) class he was in, taught by a Dr. Woodridge, who said, of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, “Stephen’s problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals.” Ellison does want us to move past race, I think, without neglecting it–to become more human without making anyone become “less of what I was, less a Negro.”

To digress: it all (and maybe obviously) reminds me of Barack Obama. I remember watching his speech at the Democratic Convention in ’04; I remember it was amazing, beautiful, powerful, star-making (maybe more so after all the clunky, wooden verbiage of Kerry and Bush’s utter lack of anything like a believable rhetoric). And obviously it was. And it seemed realer, somehow: you got the sense that he felt it, not just that he knew it was his chance to make a name for himself. We’d gotten to like him, in Illinois, and I was actually excited for him, and about him, and to see him showing it to the rest of the country. I remember the analysts on PBS after it ended. They were clearly very impressed, clearly thought highly of this kid from Illinois–and I caught a whiff of dismissal, a sense that he might amount to something after three or four terms in the Senate. Putting him in his place; bemoaning his lack of the scientific approach.

Anyway, I digress. “More human” is clearly an ambiguous, dangerous, problematic phrase for Ellison and his invisible man, but I do think it’s a perfect statement of what I (we all?) want to end up with in this election. More humanity, for God’s sake. We’ve got no choice but to vote for an operator, but let’s at least vote for someone with a sense of what they’re operating for, and who they’re operating on.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for February, 2008 at The Ambiguities.