Monday, May 27, 2013

Volume and depth

Over the weekend in New Haven I was talking to my old roommate Gus about the most recent crisis of the humanities and the need for artists to get paid and whatnot, and I found myself thinking about the serialization of the novel in the 19th century. Which is to say, the way that novels were published in journals in monthly installments, with the authors getting paid by the word. This is how we come to have such voluminous and numerous novels from the likes of Dostoevsky, Balzac, Dickens, Trollope, Eliot, and others. These folx were getting paid by the page, so they had strong incentives to crank them out. And with some of these writers (for me, Trollope and Dickens wrote novels that were often too long, and Balzac just cranked out a shitload of them.

Often, particularly with Dostoevsky, who is clearly the most significant writer amongst them, we are tempted to see some sort of tension between the volume and the quality, as if it's some miracle that he was able to delve the depths of the human soul as well as he did while grinding out the pages to book some ducats. But what if the opposite is true, and the need to churn it out in fact drove the process of discovery forward. Think about it, if he coulda just wound it up at 210 pages and still charged $18.95 for the hardcover, would he have needed to create Ivan and Dima and Alyosha and Smerdyakov and Zosima and so on and so forth. What need would he have of the Grand Inquisitor if he could have been over at the Algonquin tinkling ice cubes and trading barbs with Dorothy Parker or, perish the thought, if he had needed to chat up Terry Gross and tour an endless succession of Barnes and Nobles, scribbling in copies while making significant eye contact with adoring readers and subsisting on a steady diet of iced caramel lattes? What then? I for one am glad the guy had a quota, and a bunch of gambling debts he needed to service, bookies to evade.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Happy endings

Graham and I have been watching The Avengers, the animated series.  Lots of gamma radiation, intense battles with aliens and supercriminals, etc. Somehow, despite battling against seemingly insurmountable foes, the Avengers always find a way to win. And if they quarreled in the middle of the show (as they sometimes do), they make up in the end.

Got me thinking about happy endings. Of course kids' stuff always works out well in the end. Thank God for that.  But 98% of the fictional narratives we adults consume also end well, and the 2% that doesn't is usually high-brow in one way or another and hard to make money on.

So we are hard-wired to expect that things will work out in the end.*  And that makes it hard for us to really buy the possibility of things turning out really poorly, as with global warming, the obesity/diabetes epidemic, etc. We just expect a deus ex machina of some sort to swoop in and figure it out.  In fact, that's the conservative argument, if we fuck ourselves badly enough science will be forced to discover a solution. Hey, it always does, right?

*Denis de Rougemont, in his Love in the Western World, makes a pretty good case that we prefer tragic endings in love narratives, from Tristan and Iseult ff, but that's a different story

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Know thy neighbor?

In the wake of the discovery of the 3 abducted women in Cleveland, there has been a good deal of head-scratching and soul-searching about a variety of topics. On NPR this morning, there was discussion of the "missing white woman" issue, in which abducted white women get more attention than women of color do.  That is a worthwhile thread.

Yesterday, however, on the drive in I heard discussions of the "how well do you know your neighbor?" theme. That is a potentially bad path to go down. The more people sit around speculating about their neighbors, the more repressive a society you get.  In its most benign form, you get the world of John Cheever and/or Archie Bunker (where we do, to a certain extent, still live), in which repressive heteronormativity abounds. And it's not just amongst the white and affluent.  Think about how communities of color have voted on things like gay marriage in North Carolina and elsewhere. It's not all good.

In the worst case, you get Stalinism or the Cultural Revolution in China, in which people were really attentive to what their neighbors were up to. Right now Putin is trying to push through very restrictive laws about pornography to "protect children", but which will let the state establish infrastructure that will allow it to watch other things. They're already pretty good at it in China, and look what happens to the Falun Gong.  Organ harvesting by the state.

Don't get me wrong, there is a value to neighborhood cohesiveness, but there's also merit in people having autonomy and privacy.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Home alone

With Mary out of town, and the kids off to school, I'm in the rare position of being in the house 100% alone.  It's quiet and very nice outside.

Organizing to get up with Josh and Niklaus, I was reminded of what my dad did when I told him that Sophie had cancer.  He started crying instantaneously.  There was no pause, tears just rolled down his cheeks.  I was heartened by that.

It's difficult at times, hell, all the time, to reconcile my dad's public and private personae. Ellie K--d, our state senator, noted at the end of a recent note she sent out to everybody who's email address she has that dad "spread joy to everyone he met," or something like that.  But he never really listened to people.  He candidly admitted to Leslie that he was going to address some school group, but that he wasn't interested in hearing what the students had to say or even ask them, he wanted to tell them things.  At least he admitted it.

It was this extreme, heavy-handedness didacticism and self-righteousness that hid behind the ambling jokester that we his kids got to see over the years, and was one of the things that made him difficult.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Deaden my soul

It's grey outside, and I'm grinding away at the book on health care plans that is a requirement for my Certified Financial Planner designation.  And you wonder, perhaps, why I haven't been writing? This is death of the soul kind of material, really freaking dreadful. Written by nimrods, for nimrods.

And will it make me one?  Only time will tell.

At least there's the Cream record I checked out of the library waiting for me on my car stereo.