Thursday, May 29, 2008

New Music: Old 97's, "Blame It on Gravity"

Rhett Miller and company seem to have finally given up the notion that they'll ever be superstars, either with the Clear Channel/Rolling Stone masses or with the myopic MP3 blog indie hitmakers. They're too smart for the first group and too traditional for the second, although the aggravating alternative-country purists would no doubt scoff at using a word like traditional to describe a band who writes pop songs that occasionally (OH MY GOD) don't feature steel guitar or that Johnny Cash rhythm. I remember the band's former home, Bloodshot Records, getting bent out of shape when they released the song "19," one of the best power pop songs ever. Screw Bloodshot Records. Ever wonder why every band worth its salt leaves your lineup?

At any rate, No Depression has finally closed down, and no one cares about Bloodshot Records anymore. The Jayhawks have broken up, Wilco plays '70s AM pop, and Son Volt's last record is floating in my toilet. All that is to say: No one cares about "alternative country" (whatever that is) anymore; no one but the saddest, most pathetic insurgent hipsters (no doubt wearing bowling shirts and dark blue jeans) are interested in criticizing a band like the Old 97's for sounding too much like The Kinks.

And so the Old 97's decided four years ago to forget about filling stadiums or even theaters and to just have a good time. The result was Drag It Up, a supposed "return to form" that wasn't as good as the form it ostensibly returned to. It was still a fine record, mind you, but it lacked the drive that endears me to records like Fight Songs and Satellite Rides. Is it possible for a band to enjoy themselves and to sound like they have to make the best record of their career?

Apparently so. I think that Blame It on Gravity is my favorite thing they've released so far (except for 1999's Fight Songs, my favorite record of all time by anyone). There's a sense of urgency here, but it's philosophic rather than economic urgency. I get the feeling BIOG could sell fifteen copies and the band wouldn't care, as long as everyone who hears it gets what they're trying to say.

And for such a sunny record (the cover is pretty much exactly what the music sounds like), they're trying to say something awfully dark. I haven't heard a record this obsessed with mortality since Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind--and Rhett Miller is half his age. "The Fool" starts with caffeine buzz and a new life, and then the bomb drops less than a minute in: "He will give her what is left of his life in this mess / Which will end in no time at all." The protagonist's life comes to an end on the interstate, and the only lesson we're given is that "There is love everywhere you go / But it's never enough."

Meanwhile, on "No Baby I," the Grim Reaper leaves a frat party early with a foxy blond, and the Latin lover in lead single "Dance with Me" claims that "the dream don't die / But I do." On "The Easy Way," Miller takes a potshot at the violent Deep Elm culture that allowed a couple of skinheads to put a man in the hospital at a 97's concert, and even the seemingly happy-go-lucky car song "Ride" reveals that we only like to drive because it keeps us from the grave. The album ends with an Elmore Leonard-esque heist story, the band robbing a California bank and not caring who they have to shoot.

As for the music, these songs are as rich and complex as anything the band's ever done, frequently deviating from the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-solo-chorus structure and stretching their melodies into something elastic and wonderful. The Old 97's have always basically been guitarist Ken Bethea's show--Miller's solo records fail because Bethea doesn't play guitar on them--and he's in top form here. His riffs are denser and more angular than they've been in the past: Check out how harsh and loud he sounds on "Dance with Me."

But the shining jewel in this album's crown is bassist Murry Hammond's "Color of a Lonely Heart Is Blue." Hammond receives only two slots on this album--just like all the other 97's albums--and while his first song, "This Beautiful Thing," is a treacly throwaway, "Lonely Heart" is probably the best thing the band's ever done. It's a slow burn with obtuse lyrics and a snaky melody I can't quite get my head around, but it's all about delivery: Hammond's vocals are as understated as ever, and Bethea's in full atmospheric mode, not so much playing guitar as leaving a thick mist all over everything. I have no idea what the song's about, but I don't care. I don't want to listen to it--I want to crawl inside of it and live there for the rest of my life.

And so if there were any justice in the world, the 97's would be at least as big of stars as Wilco, playing Saturday Night Live and getting Spin covers. But they're not, and they won't be, and I'm really not sure they could have made an album this strikingly dark and beautiful if they were.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Plato's Pleasure Principle

Plato's ethics are built on a pleasure system--what is pleasurable is right, and what is painful is wrong, or at the very least, what is wrong causes pain, and what is right causes pleasure. This concept shows up throughout his dialogues, particularly those of the middle period, and they've always rung false to my Presbyterian mind. In Timaeus, however, he gives us a scientific defense of his ethics; in this passage, he deals with the mechanics of taste:
Whenever the composition of the particles which enter into the moist parts is naturally akin to the state of the tongue, they oil its roughened parts and smooth it, contracting the parts that are unnaturally dilated or dilating those that are contracted, and thus settling them all, so far as possible, in their natural condition; and every such remedy of the forcible affections, being pleasant and welcome to everyone, is called "sweet." (66C)
I guess that's not really a defense of his ethics, per se, but we can extrapolate one. What is right has the effect on the soul that sweet things have on the body--it sets it right, and since pleasure is the effect of everything being in its right place, right equals pleasure.

Can the dour Presbyterian mind get behind such a formula? Perhaps, if we tweak it a little. Calvinists believe that everything (yeah, depending on the Calvinist) is predetermined; therefore, God is always already in control of everything; therefore, everything is naturally in its proper place (and proper is always a good word for Presbyterians). Doesn't that produce a certain pleasure (the patriarchs call it joy), even as it may also cause pain? Calvinists are fond of the idea that we do the right thing at the expense of our comfort, but it seems more accurate to say we exchange one (lower) pleasure for another higher one:
Consider it pure joy, my brethren, when you encounter very various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in
nothing. (James 1:2-4, NAS)
St. James modifies Plato, then: Pleasure is not uniformly good, but in its higher, divine form (that knowledge of/faith in God's properly ordering the universe), it can be. It is this knowledge and this faith that properly orders the soul and comforts us, provided we do the right thing through them.

I think this is my first positive post about Plato, and it was going to be negative until I worked this out. Maybe Nathan is right--I should be more open and charitable to him.

Someone in Boston Hates T.S. Eliot

I signed up for a blog tracker, which means I'm now obsessed with figuring out who's reading this. (People from England and Turkey, apparently.) But my favorite thing is seeing what people search for on Google and end up here. Someone, for example, got to my post "T.S. Eliot and the Five Types of Criticism" by searching for "hate T.S. Eliot." My guess: an undergraduate who was assigned "The Waste-Land."

Sunday, May 25, 2008


I'm wrestling with the Egyptians--or at least with representations of them--tonight.

Plato presents us with some third-hand Egyptians in Timaeus, and I'm wondering if they're trustworthy as Egyptians--that is, if the opinions they express are more or less legitimate Egyptian opinions (and then if those opinions are valid). They call themselves not the oldest civilization but rather the only one that's not destroyed by divine floods like the one in Genesis 7. At any rate, we should accept Egyptian views on history because
in our country neither then nor at any other time does the water pour down over our fields from above, on the contrary it all tends naturally to well up from below. Hence it is, for these reasons, that what is here preserved is reckoned to be most ancient; the truth being that in every place where there is no excessive heat or cold to prevent it there always exists some human stock (22E-23A).
I don't doubt that this was a common Greek view of the Egyptians. Herodotus, for example, makes a similar claim in his Histories--against the views of the Egyptians themselves, he claims them as the oldest civilization:
The Egyptians before the reign of Psammetichus used to think that of all races in the world they were the most ancient; Psammetichus, however, when he came to the throne, took it into his head to settle the question of priority, and ever since his time the Egyptians have believed that the Phrygians surpass them in antiquity and that they themselves come second.
Herodotus is clearly not convinced by the bizarre and ridiculous method Psammetichus comes up with for "proving" which race is older--his implication is that the Egyptians were right in the first place and foolish to believe this bit of snake oil.

Herodotus does not exactly bow before the Egyptians, particularly in matters of religion--"I do not think that any one nation knows much more about such things than any other"--but he puts them ahead of the Greeks in science and in the formation of religion, since they were the first to name the gods and to built altars and idols.

I suspect but do not know that 4th-century-B.C.E. Greek attitudes toward Egypt resembled Victorian attitudes toward Asian cultures (some of which, of course, still exist today): "Here's an ancient civilization, in many ways unchanged since the day of its formation, and while it's still largely barbarian, its advanced age gives it access to knowledge--both scientific and mystical--that we don't have." I suspect, that is, that the Greeks orientalized Egypt and that Plato puts the story of Atlantis in an Egyptian's mouth to give it more credence. What I'd like to know is whether or not the Egyptians held this opinion of themselves.

(By the way, the attitude I suspect Greeks had toward Egypt would reappear in the 1820s, when Jean-Francois Champillon found the Rosetta Stone and hieroglyphics became a cultural big deal. You can read all about it in John Irwin's excellent American Hieroglyphics.)

It's an important question for biblical scholars, who are all but expressly told by the Book to distrust Egypt but who are faced with ancient evidence that suggests that Egyptian sources are pretty reliable, maybe the most reliable. Plato's Egyptians, for example, condemn the Greeks (and by extension the Hebrews and the Babylonians) because "you remember but one deluge, though many had occurred previously" (23B). In some ways, this condemnation still jives with the biblical account; after all, much of Egypt was built on the Nile's flood plain, and so you'd expect them to get a whole load of floods--and all the better if you accept Higher Criticism's hypothesis that Noah's flood was local rather than global.

But Israel does not even register as a civilization--or even as a partial civilization--with Herodotus, even though he devotes quite a bit of space to their oppressors like Babylon and Egypt (among others). What's more, he assigns to Egypt rites and beliefs we associate with Israel:
Pigs are considered unclean. If anyone touches a pig accidentally in passing, he will at once plunge into the river, clothes and all, to wash himself, and swineherds, though of pure Eygptian blood, are the only people in the country who never enter a temple.
I'm not sure why a civilization that holds pigs to be unclean would even have swineherds, but no matter--this next passage is even more damning in its way:
They practice circumcision, while men of other nations--except those who have learnt from Egypt--leave their private parts as nature made them.
It's not as though passages like these spell the end of Judeo-Christian faith--after all, they've existed longer than Christianity has, and generations of believers and scholars have dealt with them--but they do complicate it, cast doubt on it. What does it mean that the Egyptians practice circumcision, the outward sign of YHWH's covenant with Abraham? Are we to believe the Egyptians took genital fashion tips from their slaves? Isn't it more likely that Moses took parts of his law from his oppressors--as he took "articles of silver and articles of gold, and clothing (Exodus 12:35, NAS)--and then justified both theft and sudden exit with a cock-and-bull story about Abraham?

I'm not sure either of these views can be proven; like most aspects of biblical scholarship, it's a matter of willful faith, of reading the hieroglyphics and deciding which Rosetta Stone to translate with.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


I don't remember actually buying Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, although I suspect my purchase was prompted by my viewing of the Michael Douglas film Wonder Boys, adapted from an earlier Chabon novel. But I remember reading it at a fever pitch, including one long, hot October afternoon in which I sat on my back porch, smoked an entire pack of Camel Turkish Golds, and polished off the last 300 pages of it.

Kavalier is a contemporary masterpiece--it takes that whole "hysterical realism" thing you see in people like David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Jonathan Lethem, in which the books are incredibly long and peppered with legitimate historical research and facts, and takes it to its artistic peak. Chabon seamlessly integrates a fictional story with real characters and events from the 1940s and 1950s comic-book world, and it does so so well that when I watched a history of superheroes on the History Channel a few weeks ago, I was a little surprised not to see The Escapist included.

(Note: I've not read Wallace, so I suppose I'm not really qualified to call Kavalier and Clay the artistic peak of hysterical realism. I've read Franzen, though, and I enjoy both his nonfiction essays for The New Yorker and his massive, Oprah-approved novel The Corrections. I've also read Lethem's horrible The Fortress of Solitude.)

At any rate, when I went to Jackson Street Books on Monday, I poked around for awhile and found a relatively inexpensive first edition of Chabon's 2002 follow-up to Kavalier, Summerland, and of course I bought it. It's an odd book so far (I'm about 50 pages in), and not odd the way Kavalier was. For one thing, it's written on the level of juvenile fiction, not too far removed from the Harry Potter books and similar to them in that it speaks on an eleven-year-old's level without talking down to him at all. And there's magic here, too--a talking fox/monkey who can jump from branch to branch on the Great Tree of Existence; a mystical corner of the earth where it was always summer and now isn't; an evil coyote. And the list goes on.

Summerland was apparently written as a piece of juvenile fiction, but I'm waiting to see if it's meant for adults as well, if it utilizes the form and conventions of that genre in order to make its point. I'm not sure what that point is just yet, but I know it's deeply immersed in American mythology: baseball, an innocent small-town stuck in the 1950s, people making a living through the imagination--even Native American tricksters. In the meantime, I'm not enjoying this the way I enjoyed Kavalier and Clay. It lacks that book's sense of urgency, of deep existential need. It's replaced by whimsy, which isn't bad, but it's never the same.

It may be that I've moved past the point where I can enjoy young-adult literature--I've never really liked the Harry Potter books either. I hope my readers don't take that as some sort of proclamation of my maturity and a statement on how I've moved beyond your vulgar tastes. I'm pretty sure it's really a self-indictment.

Friday, May 16, 2008

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love 'The Scarlet Letter'

Well, I've come around, but it's not because of any identification with Hester Prynne or Reverend Dimmesdale--it's because of a dizziness of meaning, a multiplicity of interpretation, that Hawthorne sews into the fiber of his novel.

The most interesting and difficult scene in The Scarlet Letter involves the interpretation of symbols. Meteors, Hawthorne tells us, were considered "revelations from a supernatural source," but he cautions us that such revelations are necessarily given to the community rather than to the individual:
But what shall we say, when an individual discovers a revelation, addressed to himself alone, on the same vast sheet of record! In such a case, it could only be the symptom of a highly disordered mental state, when a man, rendered morbidly self-contemplative by long, intense, and secret pain, had extended his egotism over the whole expanse of nature, until the firmament itself should appear no more than a fitting page for his soul's history and fate.
The narrator here critiques what Robertson McQuilkin calls the "existential hermeneutic"--the application of all texts to one's personal history--but does Hawthorne? The description he gives above echoes Poe's morbid characters--Egeus or Roderick Usher or Auguste Dupin--whom I've elsewhere argued are Kierkegaardian prophets, possessors of a subjective "acute religious sensibility." Would Hawthorne disagree?

Here's a more concrete question. The entire community sees an "A" in the clouds from a meteor one night. Dimmesdale, who has fathered a child out of wedlock and kept it a secret for seven years, sees "adulterer." Everyone else sees "angel," in the wake of the death of Governor Winthrop, who after all is now an angel (I'm not sure what theologians these folks read). Anyway, here are the options, as I see them:

(a) Dimmesdale, who himself has an acute religious sensibility, interprets correctly, and the rest of the community, who after all do not know the facts, are wrong; God is out to get Dimmesdale;
(b) The narrator's voice is Hawthorne's, and so only the community has the authority to interpret revelations; God is not out to get Dimmesdale;
(c) Both interpretations are valid, since religious signs are by nature shifting and subjective; in this case it is Dimmesdale's conscience that is out to get him, although God likely works through that conscience;
(d) There is no God or He is silent, and Hawthorne mocks all attempts at finding meaning in natural phenomena.

It's an important question because the novel is in some sense about signs, the most prominent being the "A" that gives it its title. The letter is meant to stand for ignominany, which it does, but only for awhile; after a few years have gone by,
The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her,--so much power to do, and power to sympathize,--that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength.
Later, the transformation is even more radical: "The scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun's bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness."

In fact, even the characters themselves become signs ripe for reading--Hester Prynne is sin for the townspeople and freedom for the reader; Dimmesdale is holiness and guilt; Chillingsworth is evil and monomania (pretty much for the townspeople and for us). Hawthorne even calls Pearl a "symbol" and a "hieroglyphic." The Scarlet Letter is a novel of signifiers, and we're led to believe that they are easily interpreted--almost allegorical. That's why the book is assigned in high schools, and that's why I hated it. But every step of the way, Hawthorne confounds our interpretations--he multiplies and destroys signifieds, but leaves the signifiers in tact. He presents us with a world of signifiers with infinite signifieds, the type of world Barthes and Derrida would praise more than a century later. And he does so in antiquated and conventional language and under the guise of morality--a kindhearted old man gently telling us that there's no such thing as meaning.

Color me impressed.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Musical Loose Ends

Hopefully this post will be less controversial:

Locust Street has a great post about early Dylan material, including an interview in which he claims to have been raised in the carnival.

It took me a long time to warm up to Dylan's solo acoustic material, having started with the mid-'60s rock records and moved on to the warmer and moodier 21st-century material pretty quickly. But I picked up The Times They Are A-Changin' on the cheap and listened to it while walking the cold 32 Nebraskan blocks to work one morning, and something about the record struck a chord with the bleakness and grayness of the Omaha morning. Now, if I'm not mistaken, that's the highest-ranked Dylan record on my list.

I still haven't picked up his debut, and the few songs I've heard from it are interesting mostly as a historical curiosity, but that post is a must for Dylanphiles.

David Remnick of The New Yorker asked jazz expert Phil Schaap to come up with 100 Essential Jazz Albums. Nothing too surprising, although when a particular genre hasn't really moved forward in thirty years, that's kind of by necessity. After my concerted effort last year to get into jazz, I'm pleased that I have tracks at least by 70-80 percent of the performers on the list.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Loose Ends

Anybody want to defend Nathaniel Hawthorne to me? I've always hated him (and I've read his three major novels--The Scarlet Letter, House of the Seven Gables, and The Blithedale Romance).

When I described my loathing to Dr. Boudreau, the graduate coordinator of UGA's English department, she asked if I'd read The Scarlet Letter since high school. I sheepishly admitted that I had not. "Give it another try," she said. "You need to read that book when you're old enough to imagine your life falling apart."

And so here I am, plowing through the book again. I do like it more than I liked it eight years ago--but I still don't connect with it the way I connect with Hawthorne's contemporary Herman Melville, who is frustrating in a totally different way. Melville's problem, as I've discussed elsewhere, is that he's a mess; his books never seemed planned at all, but instead they're Darwinist approaches to literature. He tosses everything in by chance and the cream of each reader's crop rises to the surface.

Hawthorne, on the other hand, seems to have planned every comma of The Scarlett Letter. It's masterfully controlled, but it seems to me as though that control has suffocated the book. I'm so aware of Hawthorne's intentions and his artistry that the characters can't breathe, and he won't allow me to really feel anything for them. Do any of you have a similar experience? Meredith, aren't you a Hawthorne fan?

Meanwhile, the latest trend seems to be to question John Steinbeck's place in the literary canon. In an interesting and personal piece for the Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley wrestles with the ghost of old Tom Joad, finally coming down on neither side of the love-him-or-hate-him fence. A few thoughts on that article:

- Yardley notes that the Nobel Prize committee privileges "political orthodoxy" over "literary distinction." No kidding. Take a look at this list of Nobel Prize winners for literature; you've never heard of most of them. Look at the reasons the committees give for their choices; they will not out-and-out state that "we like this person's opinions rather than their art," but that's the subtext behind phrases like "lofty idealism" and "spiritual perception." The Prize was originally meant to go to "the most outstanding work of an idealistic tendency," and if the World Wars killed that notion, the committee still loves "correct" opinions.

- He also says that his love for Steinbeck abated at about the same time his love for Faulkner grew. I've always been told that's a natural progression--Steinbeck and Faulkner are never in vogue at the same time, taking as they did completely opposite (political vs. impressionistic) attitudes toward what was essentially the same mileau: poor people in the 1920s and '30s. I wonder if we'll see a rash of Faulkner-bashing ten years from now when Steinbeck re-enters the Academy.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Stooge

I avoided reading Tom Wolfe for some time because of his fifth-grade reaction to criticism from John Updike (whom I love), John Irving (whom I like), and Norman Mailer (whom I've never read). So now that I'm finally reading Bonfire of the Vanities, I'm wondering if their criticism was fair.

Updike said that Wolfe's "A Man in Full still amounts to entertainment, not literature, even literature in a modest aspirant form. Like a movie desperate to recoup its bankers' investment, the novel tries too hard to please us." Updike is usually not such a bloodthirsty critic; in my fairly extensive reading of his nonfiction, I've been struck by how magnanimous he is, always trying to find good things about books he doesn't like. So I'm going to assume that either (a) He really, really hates A Man in Full; or (b) He is somehow personally threatened by Tom Wolfe.

Mailer was a little more veiled in his criticism, calling Wolfe ""the most gifted best-seller writer to come along since Margaret Mitchell" and coyly noting that "Extraordinarily good writing forces one to contemplate the uncomfortable possibility that Tom Wolfe might yet be seen as our best writer. How grateful one can feel then for his failures and his final inability to be great--his absence of truly large compass."

I'm going to avoid dealing with Updike's criticism of Wolfe, mostly because doing so would involve defining "literature," which Updike is probably happy to do but which I am not. But I think Mailer is on to something here. Bonfire is enormous, fiction (or literature, whatever) on a grand scale--other critics have noted a similarity to Dickens (as they have with Irving), and that's fair enough. But at the beginning, the book gave me the impression that it will be a Percyan novel ideas, wrapping Wolfe's wordy prose around guilt and sin and bigotry and a million other issues.

But Wolfe can't control this for long; like Mailer, I think he lacks a "truly large compass." Less than halfway through, Bonfire of the Vanities turns into a potboiler, plot-driven and hurried. That doesn't make it bad--it just makes it less permanently interesting. It's a page-turner, but I don't think I'm going to remember much about it next year. On the other hand, other than its length, the novel is custom-made for a film adaptation, whereas something like Lancelot is less immediately engrossing but has more permanent value, at least for me.

The same is true of Irving, although I'll argue that Irving's prose is better-written. Lisa Simpson introduces Wolfe to Moe the Bartender by saying "He uses more exclamation points than any other living author." I'll vouch for that and add to it, elipses. Nearly every paragraph features ten-plus exclamation points and at least five aggravating dot-dot-dots. In this, he reminds me of that most overrated of 19th-century authors, Edgar Allan Poe (who himself plays a minor role in Bonfire of the Vanities). I come close to hating Poe, and I hate him because of the stagy melodrama of his prose. Like Wolfe, he's plot-driven, despite his fan base's concerted attempts to prove otherwise, and like Wolfe, he's a fan of exclamation points, italics, and dashes. Too many of Poe's short stories end with a frenzied interjection: "I had walled the monster up within the tomb!"; "[he]--was the man that was used up"; "These are the full, and the black, and the wild eyes--of my lost love--of the lady--of the LADY LIGEIA!" It's the stuff of B-grade horror films, and it's no wonder Vincent Price adapted so many Poe stories.

Wolfe is better than Poe, though. While he cannot sustain a philosophical theme through the course of his enormous novel, he at least has grand ambitions (I am still not convinced E.A.P. did), and his prose is never less than enjoyable, while any trip through Poe is like slogging through the streams of vomit and urine that so populate his stories. Literature? Who cares? Cohesive? Probably not. But Wolfe's worth reading--if not for the questions he halfheartedly raises . . . then at least for the way he ignores them!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Sherman McCoy Fulfills Lance Lamar's Quest

How odd that I decided to read The Bonfire of the Vanities, which has been languishing on my bookshelf for six months, directly after Lancelot. It seems fitting, since Wolfe, in his overblown and occasionally hamfisted way, wants to answer the question Percy asks.

Wolfe's characters live in the same amoral wasteland that Percy sets up in Lancelot; a combination of Rousseauian Romanticism ("You're good--it's society that corrupts you") and pop psychology ("It's not your fault--you were made this way") has created a world in which no one has any faults, let alone sins. For example, one of the book's protagonists, Sherman McCoy, gets caught in flagrante delicto by his wife and manages to successfully convince himself none of it is his fault:
It was in the air! It was a wave! Everywhere! Inescapable!...Sex!...There for the taking!...It walked down the street, as bold as you please!...It was splashed all over the shops! If you were a young man and halfway alive, what chance did you have?
By the end of the chapter, Sherman has convinced himself that his wife is a "bitch" and had it coming to her. Bad faith reigns, and we're responsible only for our successes--if, that is, we have any failures at all.

But Sherman's undebateable sin is not his adultery--after all, he slips right out of that one--but his complicity in a hit-and-run. As he and his mistress, Maria, are lost in the Bronx, his Mercedes stalls, and two young black men approach him and ask if he needs help. Without warning, he attacks them, and as he jumps back into the car, Maria gets it started and backs into one of the men, putting him into a coma. The pair speed away and decide not to say anything to the cops, not wanting their adultery to be discovered.

Sherman is a bonds trader at Pierce and pierce, a wealthy and successful man (he calls himself a "Master of the Universe" when he's not naming his erection "King Priapus") whose life and selfhood are subsumed by his work. No pangs of conscience are allowed through the gates of his 50th-floor fortress, not even when his wife discovers his adultery. But his role in this possible homicide makes it impossible for him to work; he can only think about the damage his sin may cause to his life and reputation.

Now, I realized that's not exactly redemption and is still full of the selfishness that characterizes the rest of his life, but this event has shocked him and made him aware of his own responsibility for what appears to be the first time ever. The old world is shattered, and perhaps he can build a new one. He even develops, as Lance Lamar suggests, as newfound need for God; one section closes with Sherman (who once considered praising his grade-school-age daughter for doubting the existence of God) begging the Almighty for assistance--financial assistance, sure, but assistance.

I'm only about 170 pages into this 700-page novel, though, so I'm sure all this is going to be complicated.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

I am Deaf-Mute, Eye of a Statue

Lancelot is the only Walker Percy novel that I haven't read in the past couple years, and now that the vague rumblings of an idea for my dissertation have begun popping up in the back of my mind, I'm giving it another chance. It's simultaneously like and not like his other novels--there's a plot in there somewhere, but it's buried in a mental patient's mind, and like Notes from Underground (the novel Percy clearly wants us to think of when we read it), we shift rapidly from trust to skepticism when Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says something.

Language has always been important for Percy. At least half of his nonfiction essays deal with language in some form, building off of Charles Saunders Peirce and forcing linguistics into existentialism. In "The Delta Factor" (from The Message in the Bottle, his first anthology of non-fiction), he goes so far as to claim that language is what makes human beings human beings, and says that it's the key to understanding man in an age where we simultaneously believe we're the image of God and just another animal.

But here the most important things are ones that can't be vocalized. I'm reminded of Kierkegaard's Either/Or, in which our young aesthete, "A," declares the musical to be the erotic and the demonic (and of Melville's Pierre, which has a strikingly similar theme). But here, the unspeakable seems neither musical nor demonic. Lance connects it with innocence--his plan for a new society involves the girl in the room next to him in the insane asylum, who cannot speak but communicates vaguely through taps on the wall. (When Lance attempts to create a code to have an actual conversation, she can't follow it.)

But a new society is necessarily because of an unspeakable evil, the evil that Lance makes it his quest to find. He sets himself up as a knight-errant on an unholy quest, a "quest for evil," a quest to find "one sin, one pure act of malevolence." Doing so would shatter the complacency of the psychiatric age, in which "mothers and fathers who beat and kill their children have psychological problems and are as bad off as the children." Lance finds himself surrounded by "good" people, people whose faults are either not faults at all or at least not their fault, and he's disgusted. Finding one pure, unspeakable sin would destroy the modern world and allow him and Anna to build a new and superior one.

In doing so, he modifies Kierkegaard--the musical-erotic-demonic is a stage (like Kierkegaard's aesthetic sphere) that must be passed through in order to reach something better. I hated Lancelot when I first read it five years ago, but now that I've read the existentialists (and Percy's other novels), it makes perfect sense and has a strange and sinister beauty.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Alice Walker Is an Unfit Mother

The Times online just ran a piece on Alice Walker's estrangement from her daughter Rebecca. Walker does not come out smelling like roses. She apparently ignored her daughter for years, running off to writer's retreats and Tracy Chapman's house, while her daughter languished ignored at home, pregnant at fourteen and high on God knows what. Then, a few years ago, she sent Rebecca an email formally ending their relationship. That's dark stuff.

But it's just another example of why we should trust the art and not the artist--the feminists who call John Updike (and many others) a sexist pig should keep Walker's example in mind. We don't canonize authors because they were good people but because their books are beautiful/important/moving/deep. I've got no doubt that The Color Purple should be in the canon--not just the "African-American" or "female canon," but the big one, alongside Homer and Shakespeare and Hemingway, and Walker's being a terrible mother or a terrible person has no bearing on that decision.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Open Question

I'm too busy and brain-dead to write an actual post, but I'd like your thoughts on the following question (based, of course, on the horrifying tenth book of The Republic):

What is the purpose of art?

Okay, so I won't leave it at that. Plato says art is horrible in part because it allows us to express the worst parts of ourselves. We appreciate it when grown men cry on the stage but GOD FORBID we ever do that at home; we laugh at jokes we'd never tell; etc. Aristotle, whom I've not read yet (this summer, depending on how the Summer of Hamlet and my Milton course go), says that that catharsis is good and necessary. Why? Does art serve a function beyond emotional manipulation? Is it meant to be a lesson? (Should we then censor all art with an immoral lesson?) Is beauty in and of itself good?

I feel like I'm teaching a Comp class here, but I wanted to post something, and I'm out of ideas for a week or so.