Six Impossible Things

Solipsism, as a philosophy, has its attractions.  The idea behind it is that since all we can truly know is our self, the self is the only being that really exists.  This outlook is expressed in tragicomic form in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions.  Written in Vonnegut’s characteristic style, there’s confusion and continuity, and almost a mockery of the gullibility of readers.  Kilgore Trout, a penurious science fiction writer, wrote a novel where one character was human amid a planet of robots programmed to act like people.  Dwayne Hoover comes to believe this is true and acts on it, with several other characters ending up in the hospital.  The story ends with the narrator realizing, I think, that he’s the only real human being because he made up this entire novel.

As someone who generally works alone, and whose lifestyle includes early rising and early sleeping, solipsism suggests itself from time to time.  Writers tend to spend quite a bit of time in their own heads, either reading or expressing their own thoughts via their craft.  Anyone who’s been a victim of a solipsist (and we all have) knows that such a viewpoint is wrong, but it does address one of consciousness’ deepest fears—how do we know what others know or experience?  We keep secrets.  We hide our weaknesses and insecurities.  We show others, most of the time, only what we want them to see.  Addressing the individualism of the late sixties and early seventies, Vonnegut takes to task a society that still promotes prejudice and wages war.

Vonnegut experienced war and it’s clear that it haunted him for the remainder of his life.  He tried, and often succeeded, in finding some hilarity in life, but it always seems to stop short with a slap of cruelty.  I’ve been reading quite a few of Vonnegut’s novels over the past few years.  He’s a writer that mixes profundity with frivolousness in such an easy way that it’s beguiling.  Breakfast of Champions is, despite being an easy read, a difficult book.  Quickly finished with its goofy doodles and swift pace, it leaves you feeling as if you’ve been poisoned with an idea, somehow.  Or maybe it’s just me.  For this year’s reading challenge I’ve selected two more of Vonnegut’s novels, but I haven’t decided which ones yet.  I think about asking others, but then I remember that if he’s right in this one, there’s really nobody else to ask.

The Truth of Fiction

The thing about reading is that it’s a lifestyle.  I record books both here and on Goodreads, but I read a lot more than books.  Although I don’t have much time for magazines or even newspapers, I read a lot on the web.  And billboards.  And sidewalks.  I’m quite content doing it.  One thing I’ve noticed in all this reading is that fiction writers tend to be more often cited as experts and intellectuals than do non-fiction writers.  Oh the non-fic practitioners get their footnotes, and other specialists mention them, but fiction writers get analyzed, probed, and explored.  Literary types wonder what they meant by some obscure doggerel they wrote.  When’s the last time a non-fiction writer drew that kind of attention?  It makes me wonder about all the time I’ve been spending on non-fiction lately.

I suffer from graphomania.  There’s no cure.  The other day I went looking for an old, pre-electric typewriter to get my fix in case the power goes out.  I have notebooks, zibaldones, commonplace books.  I carry one in my pocket.  I have one on my bedside stand.  And the thing I’ve noticed is that the ideas that come to me unbidden are often fictional.  You see, I have a hidden life as a fiction writer.  That persona is very poor since he’s never made any money from his writing.  He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize some years ago, but he never won.  That fiction writer has been suffering cabin fever because I’ve been finding publishers for my non-fiction work.  I wonder, however, if maybe I shouldn’t be spending my time on fiction.  It’ll never get me to the point I can make a living on it, but it might get quoted after I’m gone.

Writing, after all, is a stab at immortality.  Those of us who do it are legacy builders.  Even as the web has moved us more and more toward visual, iconic forms of entertainment, it has still left a few dusty corners for the written word.  When I pass the sometimes impressive graffiti on the way into New York I think I know what the vandals are feeling.  We’re kindred spirits.  We don’t want to be forgotten.  Whether with spray can, fingers on a keyboard, or fountain pen (or maybe even an old-fashioned typewriter) we are trying to say, “I was here.”  I used to print out all my blog posts in case the web failed.  It grew to thousands of pages.  I had to stop.  I was beginning to act like a fictional character.

Care and Keeping of Books

I take good care of books.  It’s my personal goal that after I’ve read a book you won’t be able to tell.  I used to mark books up, but it occurred to me that I want the books to outlast me and if someone else is to get the full benefit of them I shouldn’t be doing such scribbling.  Of course, when a book has to commute with you there’s bound to be some scuffing from being put into a briefcase along with other necessities.  On the days I don’t commute, I try to replicate bus time for reading.  I curl up in a chair with my book and a cup of coffee to warm my fingers, and read.  The other day as I did this, a drop of coffee made its way from my mug onto the open page.  I was aghast.

Reading a marred book page is eternally distracting.  My eye is immediately drawn to the imperfection and I sometimes can’t even make sense of the sentence in which the blemish occurs.  Not because I can’t read it, but because I can’t get beyond the hurt.  Coffee rings are chic, I know, on the cover of a book or a notebook page.  It’s one of the truest clichés of the literary crowd.  Coffee and a good book.  Not coffee in a good book!  I tried to get back into the flow of the narrative.  My eye kept wandering back to the spot I’d unintentionally marred—I’d violated my own principles.  Unintentionally of course—this isn’t Starbucks where the heat is set at a reasonable level and you don’t have to scrunch up to keep warm.  But still.  But still.

After many minutes of feeling like I’d shot a friend, I managed to move on.  I kept turning back to my coffee page to see if the damage was as distracting as I thought it was.  After work that night when I picked my book up again—commuting is a twice a day activity—I turned back to the damaged page and frowned.  Books are, to some of us, friends.  I want to treat them right.  I line them up in order on their shelves, knowing just where to find them when I need them again.  One careless drop of coffee had taken its eternal toll on an innocent tome.  I realize this world lacks perfection; I’m not naive.  Still, this book, which wasn’t cheap, now bears a scar that I dealt it.  Will I ever comprehend what that one page says?  I hope my silent friend will forgive.

Playing Piano

It must be very difficult to write books that make the future believable. With the speed of technological change, it’s getting more difficult all the time. Some exceptions are modern dystopias that take civilization back to square one. We’ve come close enough in reality already to be able to imagine such things. While not really a dystopia—although it kinda is—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano extrapolates what a future in the service of machines might look like. Some elements are incredibly 1950s—everyone still smokes, all communication is on paper, computers run by punchcards, and attitudes are hopelessly parochial—while others are on point for today. The world has been mechanized and an even more obvious class system than our current one has been established. Of course, those top few reap all the rewards and wonder why those below them are dissatisfied.

What’s really noteworthy, though, is that Vonnegut uses religion to address the situation. In this, his first novel, he has a minister leading the revolution against the system. This clergyman does so by finding and nominating a “messiah”—a figure around whom the dissatisfied might coalesce. In a world many characters characterize as evil, the solution is offered by religion. Well, not exactly. Vonnegut’s famous satire is beginning to appear even here and the revolution that religion fuels can’t overcome the human love of machines and gadgets. In many respects, this book is an extended parable. I can’t help but think that Vonnegut would’ve recognized our love of devices as a symptom of his humanity being declared useless by machines.

Kurt Vonnegut isn’t a religious writer, but like many authors he recognizes the motivating power of belief. There are agnostics aplenty in Player Piano, Indeed, the protagonist is never sure of what he believes. The larger questions, however, still persist: do we advance human potential by making things easier? All of us now have to be varying degrees of experts on computers to find even the most rudimentary jobs. There is really no opt-out anymore, and what’s more, few would take it if there were. The phone in my pocket has changed my life in ways I can’t call entirely good. As we get closer and closer to our media, we’ll want more intimate contact—implants are already starting to exist. Vonnegut, in his sardonic way, was asking even in the early 1950s if we had really improved our lot via such invention. In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter because for better or worse, our tech is here to stay.

The Big Shill

Once in a while I have to shill. As an erstwhile academic I’m aware of the cachet my employer bears for colleagues and the elite among the general public. Still, I find articles on the Oxford Dictionaries blog irresistible. I don’t work for the Dictionaries division, but I sometimes wish I did. A recent post by guest blogger Rebecca Teich discusses pulp fiction neologisms that have made their way into mainstream vocabulary. It’s not so much the individual words that interest me as much as does the phenomenon itself. Pulp fiction is antithetical to the sophisticated literature of the cultured class. Yes, there is status snobbery involved in such an assessment—we know those who find anything “common” to be vulgar and indicative of a lack of good breeding. The fact, however, that pulp fiction words make it to the mainstream belies the singular direction of cultural influence.

Many of us who grow up in working class families aspire to better things. We see (or used to see) on television and in movies how other people live. They have things and experiences that we covet. We work hard for many years to try to get there, often being kicked back down the stairs along the way. And yet we find some of our cheap, common vocabulary creeping into the consciousness of those who can afford better. There’s even a phrase for it. Guilty pleasures are those enjoyable books or other media that are really “beneath us,” but which we secretly enjoy. I post once in a while about Dark Shadows novels which are, quite literally, among the pulp fiction I grew up reading. They reached cultural cachet with a decidedly disappointing Tim Burton movie based on that universe, but regardless, they reached mainstream respectability.

Respectability. I suspect that’s what it’s all about. We want to be shown that our dirty collars and rolled-up sleeves mean something in this world of billionaire playboy presidents and congress that aspires only to greater wealth for itself. My first job, which I started when I was 14, involved physical labor. Brooms, paint rollers, and sledge hammers. I spent my evenings watching television and some of my weekends writing fiction. Pulp through and threw. Part of me finds its bliss in knowing that other rough-hewn writers have stamped their hallmark on the literary world by pounding out gritty stories of authentic human experience. Yes, I may be a corporate shill in this respect, but then, the shill is a respected member of the pulp fiction community.

Autumnal Ashes

I once told someone that a book I was reading was a “good autumn book.” The friend looked at me quizzically and asked what I meant. Seasons have a feel to them, even as books do. When the days grow shorter and the chill seeps in through the storm windows, I start looking for a book that matches the mood of a year that’s dying beautifully. So it was I came upon An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet. While I like Amazon just fine, the magic of the brick-and-mortar bookstore is finding that book face out that you’d otherwise never have seen. I read a lot of fiction—more than I post about on this blog—and a great deal of it come from the unexpected find in the local indy.

The story’s difficult to classify. Set in a future that sounds quite a lot like post-Civil War days, two sisters, Marthe and Hallie, try to keep a living at Roadstead Farm. The last of the soldiers have made their way back from the war where the Wicked God was killed. We never see the Wicked God clearly. He’s from a parallel world and is championed by his prophet. The death of the Wicked God was largely thought to be the end of the war. The passage between worlds, however, isn’t as secure as they armies thought. Religion doesn’t play a strong role here, but it was the cause of the war that has devastated the nation.

Fictional worlds require believers. Stories need not be religious to include religion. Without it, many tales lack verisimilitude. People are religious creatures by nature. Belief drives us, whether secular or sacred. This novel about a family trying to pull together in the aftermath of an evil god’s death. There’s a purgatory here from which those who believe can be rescued. And Hallie, who believes, ends up saving her own entire world. Religious? Not really, but it is all about belief. We need books that encourage faith in dark times. Indeed, An Inheritance of Ashes is about a dark period of uncertainty. What used to be true is open to question in these days when one belief system is determined to wipe out all others for good. Not so much live and let live as it is give and not give back. Ashes, whether literal as in Bobet’s world, or figurative as in our own, are appropriate reflections as the year begins to die.

Novelty Religion

Religion is dead. So they say. They have been wrong before. One of the great things the web has given us is book fan sites. There are a number of them, and my wife frequently sends me stories from BookRiot. Often they are lists, and the most recent one is Teresa Preston’s “100 Must-Read Novels about Religion.” As I scanned through the tons of tomes to see which I’d read, it struck me once again just how many novels touch on—at the very least—religion. Many are based on it. That’s because religion is an inherently fascinating phenomenon. We don’t really understand it, and even the staunchest of atheists believe something, no matter how secular. Novelists are those who, successfully finding a publisher, express their views of living on this planet in terms of fiction. It’s often factual fiction.

One of the best bits of advice I can give to academics who want to write for a wider readership is this: read fiction. There’s been a time-honored stigma, of course, outside literary studies, of academics reading fiction. Once, at a conference, I was awaiting an author meeting. It was a small conference so I had taken a book to read between appointments. When my author came up, he asked what I was reading. (I’d cautiously removed the book jacket before taking my novel along, not wanting this topic to come up.) “Just some fiction,” I explained. His eyebrows shot up and he questioned why an academic should be reading fiction at all. I have known academics successful in the fiction market, but they’ve had to use a pseudonym because their real name might discredit their scholarship. We are a divided, perhaps schizophrenic, society.

Not all academic novels, of course, are cases involving religion. Still, it’s often there. I recently finished Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both involved religious themes at various points. This is so much the case that unless it’s really obvious or unusual I don’t always discuss such tropes on this blog. (Although I do register the books I read on Goodreads, yet another excellent book fan site.) If they want to appeal to the deepest of human needs, novels must address religion from time to time. Paying respect to the dead is, after all, a very human thing to do. And should it prove true that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like they say, reading is fundamental.

Revisiting Frankenstein

There’s nothing like going back to the classics. Many people don’t realize that one of the best-selling books of the nineteenth century was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It has never been out of print. As a novel it has its issues, but the tale strikes something deeply responsive in readers. And the story may not be what you think. You see, the movies have made Frankenstein’s monster into something Shelley never intended. Indeed, today’s Frankenstein monster is pieced together from various monster images, just like the mad doctor’s original creation.

After a lapse of many decades, I decided to read Frankenstein again. It must’ve been in my tweenage years that I’d last done so. I recall putting the book down thinking how sad it was. Something happens, however, when you return to a book after a span of many years. This time I was looking for the mad doctor and hoping to determine if the monster deserved that title at all. The story won’t let any easy answers come. Victor Frankenstein is a young, impulsive man carried away by an idea. He doesn’t contemplate the consequences of what he’s doing. It’s like buying a dog without considering that you’ve just realigned your priorities for several years. Not noticing that his growing creation is hideous to the eyes until it’s too late, he simply abandons the creature without a word. (The parallels with an absentee father should be obvious.)

The creature—monster is a bit harsh—wants acceptance. He isn’t a mute brute with bolts in his neck. He’s not a robot. He is Adam kicked out of the garden with no Eve. He doesn’t start out evil. The rejection of his creator forces him to murder in a desire for revenge. Shelley’s world was deeply influenced by the Bible as well as Milton. Religious concepts are constantly under evaluation. The child of radical parents—her mother was one of the first feminists on record—Shelley questions everything here. No doubt in Victor’s mind he’s created a demon. Or has the monster created Frankenstein? Until the very final pages nobody else actually sees his monster, or at least hasn’t seen him and lived to tell about it. What fuels the creature’s fury is rejection. Evil doesn’t just happen in the world of the mad doctor.

Sympathies are divided in Frankenstein. We feel for the monster. His creator never apologizes. Never reflects that he somehow shares (or completely owns) the blame for the sad fate of that which he’s created. Living under a Frankenstein presidency, these unanswered questions hang thickly in the air. Lack of foresight seldom ends well. The monster isn’t always who you assume it to be.

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?

Evil That Men Do

the-demonicTheologians, for the most part, gave up studying demons a long while ago. With the advent of modern medical science, the descriptions of demonic possession in the New Testament seemed pretty clearly to be cases of epilepsy. Since people in antiquity had no means to study brains electro-chemically, there was no recourse for them to understand the sudden changes in behavior that often accompany seizures. They drew on what their culture knew—malevolent spirits—to explain this disturbing behavior. Ewan Fernie takes a different approach in The Demonic: Literature and Experience. As an English professor, he looks at both demons and the demonic in mostly English literature, often focusing on the adjective more than the noun. There is a great deal of insight in this study and characters the reader may or may not recognize seem to fit fairly easily into the category as described by the author. Indeed, God and the Devil appear much closer than many religious readers would feel comfortable seeing them.

Although I enjoy reading about literature, my favorite chapter in this book was the treatment of Martin Luther. Not having grown up Lutheran, I feel that I don’t know the great reformer well enough. The anniversary of his 95 Theses is coming up next year and there’s a lot of attention being paid to the former monk right now. Even despite this, he was a fascinating figure who firmly believed in diabolical activity in the world. Indeed, much of what science would eventually strip away he saw as evidence of the demonic. Other theologians who’ve followed him built on these same ideas. The Dark Ages were the high point of official demonology, after all.

Writers since Luther, many of them touting fiction, also latched onto the concept of the demonic as a great explanation for “the evil that men do.” Quite often Fernie traces them to Shakespeare, the anniversary of whose death is quickly drawing to a close. The Reformation would’ve been much closer to the Bard than it seems to us. Demons were still around and available for all varieties of nastiness against human beings. Fernie makes the point that the association of the demonic and sexuality became more pronounced over time. We see this even today in possession movies. The origins of the ideas, however, are more complex than they might seem. The Demonic will give the reader plenty to think about in this season of long nights and short days and the basic confusion running rampant over what is good and what is evil.

Biblical Literature

HB as LitIt must be difficult to write a Very Short Introduction. Although the series is published by Oxford University Press, I’m not being a shill. As someone who writes the equivalent of several of these little books a year, I imagine it must be nearly impossible to confine what you need to say to such a small space. I recently read The Hebrew Bible as Literature: A Very Short Introduction, by Tod Linafelt, and I imagined the anguish of my colleague as he had to decide what to leave out. Professors these days appreciate short books because there is an actual chance that students might read them. The Bible itself is intimidating as a textbook—massive and brooding as it is. Then, in addition to the Ding an Sich, the instructor also has to provide interpretive tools. One of the most common these days is that of the Bible as literature.

This obvious assignment is not without dispute, however. Literature is defined by some as a secular category. The Bible, as a set of one, is a holy book. That is to say, it can’t be considered literature at all. As a collection of written texts, however, the Bible can be understood as a literary venture as well as a sacerdotal one, and for many schools this is the only way the Bible can be legally taught. Not only that, but almost all scholars now realize that, protestations aside, the Bible is literature. It is one of the great books of the western canon. Civilization for huge swaths of the planet was based, in some way, on this book (the Bible, that is). Understanding it as literature is the venture of a lifetime, and condensing that down to an easily digestible Very Short Introduction is no mean task. Linafelt performs his duty admirably. The basics of prose and poetry are covered, as well as their interaction. The examples he chooses are compelling and I learned quite a bit myself, even having taught the Bible many years.

As I read, it struck me that the main objection to the Bible as literature revolves around the concept of truth. Linafelt raises this question early, and it stayed with me throughout the book. In a kind of sacred exceptionalism, “Bible believers” treat literature literally. Ironically, this can lead to grave misunderstandings. Truth, however, is a difficult concept to pin down. Many people equate literature with fiction and truth with fact. Truth is actually a bit more fluid than that. As any poet knows, some truths can’t be expressed in prose. Or history. Or philosophy. And some truths are best expressed in fiction. That brings us back to literature as a form of truth. I suppose that’s a good thing too, because were I to write much more I might be in danger of accidentally composing a Very Short Introduction. As long as I’m being a shill, just consider this a very short introduction to a Very Short Introduction.