Category Archives: Literature

Childhood’s End

I believe it was C. S. Lewis who wrote that in reading autobiographies he always found the earliest years the most interesting.. In my experience the same applies to biographies; what made the person famous enough to merit a biography—auto or not—started in the innocent years. I try not to extrapolate from my own case because I never read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass until I was in college. (It was only in college that I first saw Mary Poppins as well.) Beloved childhood classics weren’t really part of my childhood. Like many adults, then, I wonder who was Alice, really? Everyone knows there was an Alice but what do we know of her inner life? What’s the story with Lewis Carroll?

In my mind Simon Winchester is an historian associated with large pictures. Maps of the entire world, huge volcanoes, big oceans—the meaning of everything. I only discovered his The Alice behind Wonderland by accident. As soon as I spied it I knew I’d have to read it. As I expected, the younger years are most intriguing. Those of us who cut our classical teeth under the tutelage Liddell and Scott may not realize said Liddell was the father of Alice. But it’s not the father that impresses so much as the daughter. And Charles Dodgson himself—the cast of characters is compelling even with little action beyond photography and story telling. Yet we’re riveted. What was the dynamic that led a bachelor cleric to write a world classic for children?

Who doesn’t, even in less-than-ideal circumstances, long for the carefree days of childhood? Looking at photos of our younger selves evokes a world accessible only in our heads. The world that made us who we’ve become. Winchester bases this brief study on perhaps the most controversial photograph of Alice Liddell that Charles Dodgson ever took. Even the story of wet-plate collodion photography allures the reader with its promise of stories untold. We know little of why the Liddell family grew apart from Dodgson, so much so that the adult Alice didn’t even attend the funeral of the man who’d made her an immortal. What happened here? When we find out we’ll perhaps be a step closer to finding out why becoming an adult means sacrificing a child. We may be a step closer to finding a girl known to most of the world simply as “Alice.”

The New Neighbors

Apartment dwellers often ponder new neighbors. If anything gives the lie to being in control of your own destiny, renting your domicile does. Still using the old, aristocratic terms landlord or landlady, we know that we are under someone else’s authority. “As long as you’re under my roof,” my bully of a step-father liked to huff, “you’ll obey my rules.” When you rent, you can’t choose your neighbors. Those who own the property have final say. If they play the stereo too loud (“game” is probably the modern equivalent, but I was born before Pong even came alone) and won’t listen to your plea for a more monastic setting, you throw yourself on the mercy of your lord or lady. We got new neighbors this week. Not just us, but the whole galaxy. Seven new earth-like planets—surely ruled by Trump-like dictators—have been discovered. Let’s hope they’re early to bed, early to rise types.

During the Bush administration I often fantasized about the aliens landing on the White House lawn. I thought, with a president so obviously lacking intelligence, what would our new neighbors think of us? Would they complain to the landlord? You’d think that after that long trip across cold, vast interstellar space they’d maybe have the right to expect to find the brightest and the best in charge, right? Mission accomplished. The sign says so right there. Or to put it in a modern key, “Earth first, Earth first.” If they’ve got their intergalactic television on, I hope it’s switched to a different channel.

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Contact, the novel by Carl Sagan, suggested the first contact from the aliens would be of Adolf Hitler. Among the first poisoned radiation this planet flung off into space was the fascist propaganda of 1930s Germany. Earthlings, not yet tempered by the Trump brand, were shocked. Surely this is a sign of hostility! Unless, of course, you control both the legislative and executive branches. Then you can just decide not to show up at the town hall and tell everyone you’ve got more important things to do. So, what will our new neighbors think? Do they just want the bodies of their compatriots from Roswell back, or is it a more serious discussion to be held behind closed doors? After all, African slaves were merely chattels in a negotiation between a more powerful culture and unhuman indigenous dullards with nothing better to do. On the spaceship back to their extraterrestrial slave mines, I do hope they have the common decency to keep the music down to a reasonable level.

Dreaming Reality

The problem with monsters is that they’re not easily reduced to a lowest common denominator. This becomes clear in an article about the under explored (from a western perspective) monsters of Australia. Christine Judith Nicholls, in “‘Dreamings’ and place – Aboriginal monsters and their meanings” (sent by a friend), describes many of the scary creatures of the outback. The article title references Dreamtime, a kind of aboriginal journey that ties into indigenous Australian religion. The division between imagination and reality isn’t as wide as we’re sometimes taught. (More on this is a moment.) Nicholls’ article demonstrates that many of these monsters impress on children the dangers of wandering away from parents. Indeed, that is clearly part of the socializing function of monsters. The question, however, is whether that’s all there is to monsters or not. (Nicholls doesn’t use reductionistic language—she does note this is a psychological explanation.)

In an unrelated article in The Guardian, by Richard Lea—“Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds”—researchers suggest that fictional characters seem to appear in “real life” from time to time. All those who read fiction know this phenomenon to a degree. Just because someone is completely made up doesn’t mean that s/he doesn’t exist. Since our minds are the ultimate arbiters of reality, fictional characters and monsters may indeed be “real.” This isn’t to suggest that physical, flesh-and-blood imaginary beasts lurk in the dark, but it isn’t to suggest that they don’t either. Reality is something we haven’t quite figured out yet. The more we think about it, the more it appears that both hemispheres of our brains contribute to it.

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When the morning newspaper raises alarm after alarm about the frightening tactics of the Trump administration the temptation is to give up to despair. That’s not necessary, actually. Reality requires our consent. Imagination can be a powerful antidote to the poison spewed by politicians. What fictional character—or monster—might step into a situation such as this to make it right? If the power of millions of smart minds were concentrated on such a being, would it not become real? Friends have suggested over the past four months that the arts—creativity—are going to be especially important in the coming years. If we are to survive evil we’ll have to use our imaginations. That’s something that the aboriginal peoples can teach us, if only we’re willing to believe.

Ode to Zibaldone

Scribbling. All it takes is a margin of an agenda paper or the back of an envelope. I don’t remember when I started doing it—I’ve been writing my own blend of fiction, facts, and philosophy since I was in elementary school—but I would find a relatively clean piece of paper, fold it up, and put it in my pocket. I’ve carried a pen around with me for decades. Why? You never know when an idea might strike. There’s nothing like the discovery of a new idea. Lifelong learning is like that. So it was when I was reading Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events to my daughter that I learned about commonplace books. A commonplace book is a notebook where you jot all kinds of things down and you know where they are, unlike that piece of paper in my pocket that long ago started to rip apart at the folds, the ink becoming illegible as the paper grew softer and more pliable. A commonplace book seemed like a great idea.

This all came back to me when a friend send me a story on zibaldones. I’d never read the word before. A zibaldone, according to the story by Cara Giaimo on Atlas Obscura, is an Italian commonplace book. They used to be part of every thinking person’s accoutrements. A blank book where you could write down anything of importance. Giaimo suggests that the internet has taken the place of the zibaldone—blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest—we’re spoiled for choice where to put our thoughts. I still carry a commonplace book, however. Too many, in fact. Next to my writing chair rests a stack of notebooks. There’s one for each non-fiction book I’ve written, whether published or not. There are several filled with fiction. Some with poetry. My most recent zibaldones are Moleskines, which I purchased—as many as I could afford—when Borders sadly went out of business. Ideas. They just keep coming.

Some of my notebooks.

Some of my notebooks.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the zibaldone is that, if one survives, an historian gets a glimpse at what someone who was not famous saw. Observations about the world scribbled down. The most proficient of scribblers organized their commonplace books in advance. As for me, I still scribble things on scraps of paper. I carry a notebook and pen at all times, but sometimes an idea is so slippery I don’t have time to pull a formal zibaldone from my pocket. I tape scrapes of paper into my notebooks. Right next to new words I’ve learned. Somewhere among today’s scribbles you’ll find the word zibaldone along with the hope that some day some of this might be significant.

Animal Ways

nightofanimalsNoah’s Ark has a way of showing up in many literary forms. Familiar to many from Genesis, it actually predates the Good Book by hundreds of years. On the backside, it keeps recurring in literature as diverse as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love, and Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. It also shows up in Bill Broun’s debut novel Night of the Animals. Set in a future that’s becoming present faster than Broun likely anticipated, the story revolves around an addict who hears animal voices. The story stubbornly refuses to let you get any grip on a slippery reality, so the reader’s left guessing even at the end. In the 2050s Britain is under a fascist regime that seeks to keep the wealthy happy and everyone else servile. (Keep reminding yourself this was written before 11/9.)

Cuthbert, the protagonist, believes the animals—most of which are extinct in the wild—are calling him to release them from the London zoo. As an addict his perception of reality is constantly in question. His sense of mission, however, is not. One of the stranger elements in the tale (and that’s saying something!) is the revival of Heaven’s Gate. This cult, instead of wiping itself out, has gone international. The approach of a comet sets the Neuters (as they’re called) on a mission to wipe out earth’s remaining animals. Many of them are in the London zoo, which brings Heaven’s Gate into direct conflict with Cuthbert, who is busy trying to release as many talking animals as possible. London literally becomes a zoo and Heaven’s Gate openly attempts a coup.

All of this sounds wild and fantasy-prone, but like 1984, fiction sometimes peers deeper into reality than science. Is it science fiction? It’s set in the future, but it’s difficult to say. What has all this to do with Noah’s Ark? The novel itself draws the parallel—the zoo that preserves the last of their kind is, by default, an ark. The Ark. Floating on a world-ocean of irrational turmoil where might (read wealth) makes right after all. Religious imagery interlards the story. Cuthbert becomes St. Cuthbert. His possible granddaughter (the reader is never sure) manifests as the Christ of the Otters. There’s even a kind of Second Coming. This is a novel that feels like altered reality. That illusion is given the lie when you close the book and turn on the news.

Theoretically Speaking

lit-theory-vsiI’ve been brushing up on my literary theory. All writing tends to get classified as fact or fiction, and we don’t stop to think, generally, about what “literature” is. Those of us who write fiction and non know that a well-placed hyperbole might throw us from one camp into the other. Such is the power of rhetoric. So it was that I found myself reading Jonathan Culler’s Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Witty and insightful, Culler acknowledges the elephant in the room for many of us—theory, in a literary context, is often impenetrable. I’ve often wondered what one had to do to be considered a theorist, and this little book actually addresses that. Nobody has time to read all the theorists, though, and come up with their own creative things to say. Chose your poison.

The Bible, of course, is literature. That’s one reason I was reading Culler. I found one of his assertions immediately applicable: people in nineteenth-century England saw literature as a unifying principle. The British Empire encompassed the world, and to make diverse peoples a part of it, literature might be used, they thought, to do the trick. Culler suggests that it might have been a substitute for religion, which, he notes, was no longer holding society together. This gave me pause. Religion—at least official religion—began as social glue. The earliest recorded religions were state sponsored and served to cast the monarch in the role of the special appointee of the gods. There’s no arguing with that, right? Elaborate, expensive temples were erected. Financed by tax-payers’ dollars. This worked fine since priests declared the rule of the king as sanctioned by the gods. Nations warring against each other were thought of as rival gods fighting.

When science began to take the universe literally, religion lost its stickiness. How do you hold a society together when the gods no longer exist? You see, scientists didn’t think out the whole picture in advance. Scientists, like most academics, work in silos (that’s a metaphor). The discovery of a scientific truth can dissolve a social epoxy quite efficiently. Recognizing the slippage in the British Empire, theorists (I suppose that’s who noted such things) considered literature the great uniting force of a diverse people. We’re kind of facing that same dilemma today as literature is becoming, for many, as irrelevant as religion was a century-and-a-half ago. At the same time, people don’t understand science well enough to assess it for themselves. What are we supposed to do? Is there a theorist in the house?

An Anatomy of Lies

I had an email from Mike Pence. Mike Pence doesn’t know me from Adam, but if he met me he surely wouldn’t like me. His email tried to explain, in tottering logic, why he voted for Betsy DeVos. When I finished wiping the vomit from my mouth, I began to think about someone America needs again: Mark Twain. I’d just been reading about some of Twain’s classics and I recalled his famous quip (which he attributed to Disraeli): “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” We now live in an era so surreal that it requires a fourth kind of lie: alternative facts. Government communications are full of them. Not one word from the White House can be trusted with the common decency that you’d attribute to a Boy Scout innocently helping an elderly person across the street. One hand is held out for you to shake while the other is picking your pocket.

The volume of the lies has grown louder. I’m sorry Nigel Tufnel, but this amplifier goes up to twelve. Some time back I blogged about the overuse of superlatives. When everything’s the ultimate, nothing’s the ultimate. We need a new anatomy of lies to apply to our Addamsesque government. Since the only people who believe in Hell are the ones who elected Hell’s own party to the White House, you can’t even tell them where to go any more. There was a day when telling someone to go to Hell brought real consternation. These days all you have to do is buy a ticket to the District of Columbia. People listened to Mark Twain. Here was an educated southerner who told the truth, no matter how fictionalized. Truth no longer exists, and I should just get over it. Problem is, the country I was born in now only supports the rich and I can’t afford to live in a cardboard box.

We all know what a lie is. If we’re honest we’ll all admit to telling one once in a while. All humans do. Damned lies are those we used to condemn. The exegesis of the word “damned” these days is perhaps euphemistic for “good for government.” Statistics, as 99 percent of people know, are made up. Then come “alternative facts.” Even after being called out repeatedly for making things up, Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, and now even Mike Pence, continue to rationalize their own reality.

Mr. Clemens, what do you call fabricated detritus so filthy that “lie” is hardly adequate to make an impact in its dense, brown verbiage? The kind of thing we might expect from an individual incapable of distinguishing truth from fantasy? Don’t take it personally, Mike, but I’ve assigned you to my SPAM list. You’ve just been made an alternative fact in my personal reality. How’d you even get my email address? Mark Twain may have been a pen name, but his fiction was fact. He was a man ahead of his time.

Image source: Qwertyxp2000, Wikimedia Commons

Image source: Qwertyxp2000, Wikimedia Commons