Saturday, April 28, 2012

Pinkwater's Blue Moose

Blue MooseBlue Moose by Manus Pinkwater

" 'Dave is very shy,' the moose said. 'He would appreciate it if you didn't say anything to him until he knows you better, maybe in ten or fifteen years. He knows about your gingerbread and he would like to try it.' While the moose spoke, Dave blushed very red, and tried to cover his face with the owl, which fluttered and squawked."

This is a telling of that timeless old story of a man who owns a restaurant in the woods, serves clam chowder to a moose, and inspires the moose to volunteer as his head waiter. The man is named "Mr. Breton"--Andre, perhaps?

Daniel Pinkwater has a wonderfully unique and funny style that's at once absurd and deadpan (as my wife says of the moose, and that's exactly what he is, a deadpan moose--and if you think about it, if a moose were to have a sense of humor, it would have to be deadpan, wouldn't it?). Even his name, Daniel Pinkwater, has a deadpan absurdity about it. Others have tried to pull off what Pinkwater does with lesser results, and Pinkwater himself can be a little uneven, occasionally following creative freedom into a cul-de-sac. But generally speaking, he's inspired. I remember him well and fondly. He writes for a range of ages; this title works for kids as little as 3 or 4, but is probably more completely appreciated once you're at least 6 or 8.

"The next night Dave was back, and this time he had a whistle made out of a turkey bone in his hat." You could see that coming.

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Friday, April 20, 2012

Faulkner the World-Builder

Absalom, Absalom!Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

Biographer David Minter relays a fitting anecdote about Faulkner in Oxford, Mississippi, when Faulkner was less than ten years old. Young William and his grandmother, who he called “Damuddy,” liked to build “miniature villages in the family’s front yard,” Minter writes, “using sticks, grass, stones, and glass.” As an adult, Faulkner carried on building imaginary worlds: he invented a fictional Mississippi county named Yoknapatawpha, a hand-drawn map of which appears in the back of Absalom, Absalom, and he wrote many novels detailing the interwoven family histories of its inhabitants, the Sutpens, the Compsons, the Sartorises, and others. You sense the childlike pleasure of creation in this adult project when you notice that the grown-up Faulkner has written on the map: “Yoknapatawpha County, William Faulkner, Sole Owner and Proprietor.”

Faulkner thinks like God, in about as much detail as God, and his goal is to create a second universe standing aside our own, as persuasively real, complex, and unyielding, but more saturated with meaning and beauty. Through characters embedded in this second reality as we are in ours, he recreates subtilitas naturae (“the subtlety of nature”), nature’s intricacy, its fineness of shade and texture, the baroque complexity of forms and change found in nature and in the way our own natures observe, absorb, record, and even add to this complexity.

Conrad Aiken praised Faulkner’s “sheer inexhaustible fecundity” (quoted in Robert Alter’s illuminating chapter on Absalom, Absalom! in his 2010 book Pen of Iron, p. 84). Alter adds that Faulkner has two nearly opposite stylistic modes at his disposal: the “labyrinthine-poetic” and the “pungently vernacular.” (p. 83) From the beginning Faulkner was also hugely ambitious; he once said his collegiate poetry suffered because “he had one eye on the ball and the other eye on Babe Ruth.” (Minter, p. 37) All these attributes enabled Faulkner to assemble an oeuvre that on the whole recreates the world and its characters with more breadth and depth than any oeuvre since Shakespeare’s, and Absalom, Absalom! may be his most world-like novel unto itself. Alter calls it “arguably one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century, as Moby Dick is of the nineteenth century.” (p. 79) Cleanth Brooks called it the greatest Faulkner novel—and the “least well understood.” (Brooks, William Faulkner: The Yoknapatawpha County, p. 295) “Admittedly,” Brooks wrote, “the novel is a difficult one, but the difficulty is not forced and factitious. It is the price that has to be paid by the reader for the novel’s power and significance.” (p. 324)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez said Faulkner “walks blindly through his biblical universe, like a herd of goats loosed in a shop full of crystal.” (Marquez, NYT, July 26 1981). There is after all a 23-page parenthesis in Absalom, Absalom (from p. 152 to p. 175), and there are many pages in the book where a reader confronts paired rectangles of opaque, unindented, and under-punctuated text. There’s also a funny self-conscious scene on p. 225 where chief narrator Quentin Compson’s roommate Shreve criticizes Quentin’s storytelling, but Faulkner tells us that “Quentin did not even stop. He did not even falter, taking Shreve up in stride without comma or colon or paragraph....”

There is a certain sure-handedness, however, to this jungle of narrative. The characters stand fixed as Kapok trees in this jungle. That’s because Faulkner's modernist cubist obscurity, like Joyce’s, serves to represent the aforementioned complexity of the universe and the self, not postmodern, gnostic uncertainties. I’d add that if Faulkner is messy, he’s messy in a distinctly Shakespearean way. Like Shak, he creates “a cloud of alternative or overdetermining explanations round his figures” that imply a reality so complex it can only be approximated in words (as A.D. Nuttall says of the Shakespearean trope “variatio,” Nuttall, A New Mimesis, p. 180). You might say that where Hemingway persuades by punching you in the ribs, Absalom, Absalom! attacks you like a thinking ape, it pins your wrists and ankles and licks your forehead all at once until you cry, “I believe!”

It took me over two years of fits and starts to read this greatest of modernist American novels, and my paperback’s scratches, white flames of wear at the spine, stray pen marks, and water damage are together like a photogravure recording the many abuses it’s been subjected to. This is somehow fitting for a book whose lofty goal seems to be to crawl into the belly of human history and feel it digest time.

The chaos Marquez noted reflects the disordered experience of time through memory, experience that Faulkner nicely captures with the objective correlative of “a big flat river that sometimes showed no current at all and even sometimes ran backward” (p. 184). Robert Alter sees the book as a dialectic between two time-obsessed books of the Hebrew Bible—2 Samuel (featuring Absalom) on one hand, which values aspiration even when catastrophe endangers dynasty, and on the other, the despairing book of Ecclesiastes, which disavows progress with its sense of futility and eternal repetition.

This dialectic of attitudes to progress unfolds on the scale of family drama—between the unforgettable Thomas Sutpen, ambitious yet without vanity, and his son, the disinherited Charles Bon, worldly yet na├»ve, confident yet in need of a father. (As Quentin Compson speculates on p. 222, “a man never outlives his father.”) And it also unfolds on a national scale. Faulkner’s South has fallen because it lost the Civil War, but also because of its sins. Slavery is the original sin in the historic memory of the South, the sin that disorganizes the mind, a self-inflicted wound that anchors the mind among the mysteries of the past. There, the War never ends but is always ending at a gallop with “the shot-torn flags rushing down a sky in color like thunder” (p. 231).




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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sea Changes

Richard III Richard III by William Shakespeare


Richard III was Shakespeare's first great play, and it casts its touchstones across his oeuvre all the way into the forms of his last great play, The Tempest. Seas, storms, and a misbegotten devil are the ensigns that bookend the greatest literary oeuvre of all time like components of a recurring dream.

Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this sun of York;

And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

The deformed body of Richard, a "bunch-backed toad," "rudely stamped" by nature, reminds me more than a little of The Tempest's deformed Caliban, the "freckled whelp, hag-born" to a storm-wracked island. And what else should the toad Richard speak of in the play's first lines but sea and storm? Furthermore, the references to the sea in Richard III do not stop there.

In Act I scene iv of Richard III, Shakespeare delivers one of his most beautiful set pieces--the Duke of Clarence's dream of the bottom of the sea, which seems to be a virtual first draft of Ariel's song in The Tempest. Both use naturalistic description to convey the splendor of the physical world and simultaneously to represent the geography of human thought and feeling in symbolic form. Here is the imprisoned Duke of Clarence telling his keeper the dream in the Tower of London shortly before his brother Richard has him murdered:

Into the tumbling billows of the main.
...
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;

Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon;

Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,

Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,

All scatter’d in the bottom of the sea:

Some lay in dead men’s skulls; and, in those holes

Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,

As ’twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,

Which woo’d the slimy bottom of the deep,

And mock’d the dead bones that lay scatter’d by.

And here is Ariel singing in The Tempest.

Full fathom five they father lies,
Of his bones are coral made:
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

In both plays, the treasures and the horrors that lie at the bottom of the sea--"the secrets of the deep," as Clarence's keeper Brakenbury puts it in Act I scene iv--are psychological treasures, psychological horrors; they are secret thoughts. Richard says so directly in Act I scene i: "Dive, thoughts, down to my soul: here Clarence comes." Later, in Act III scene iv, Lord Hastings denies knowledge of Richard's hidden motives with a nautical analogy: "I have not sounded him." In Act IV scene ii Richard refers to a councilor he suspects of treason as "deep-revolving, witty Buckingham"--as if a person were an ocean. The burial of things rich and strange in the sea, Shakespeare suggests, mirrors the burial of rich and strange feelings in our hearts that we would not show to others, or in some cases would not show even to ourselves.

Similarly, the strange transformations and unfamiliar forms under the sea mirror the metamorphoses of feeling underneath our social exteriors. Ovid's Metamorphoses--from which Shakespeare quotes directly in The Tempest--were the clear inspiration for Shakespeare's interest in transformation; but Shakespeare treats metamorphosis as an explicitly psychological phenomenon. Literal metamorphoses (like "sea change") only represent psychology. Like fish, wishes and fears enter that shadowy, aquatic simulacrum of the outer world that we keep in our heads and they go to work on it--they change it. The mind (and the tongue) change a winter of discontent into glorious summer and bury louring clouds in secret depths. In Act I scene iii, Queen Margaret observes how the mind may even turn self-hate outward, into hate:

What were you snarling all before I came,

Ready to catch each other by the throat,

And turn you all your hatred now on me?

Conversely, hate and sorrow turn to self-hate in the metamorphic waters of the mind. In Act II scene ii, after King Edward IV dies (apparently of guilt--he allowed the death of his brother Clarence), Queen Margaret says: "I'll join with black despair against my soul,
 / And to myself become an enemy." And in Act II scene iv, the Duchess of York comments that her sons "Make war upon themselves; blood against blood,
 / Self against self...."

It is the conscience that directs these oscillating reversals of hate and self-hate like a conductor with a baton. And this is where the deformed imp enters the metamorphic seascape.

In the first place, Richard III and Caliban are caricatures like those in moralizing political cartoons. They are drawn as fanged animals, literally. In accord with Thomas More's famous account of the historical Richard III, Richard's fellow characters make much of his having been born with teeth. Hallett Smith meanwhile observes that the name 'Caliban' derives, by way of anagram, from 'cannibal'.

And everywhere in Richard III Shakespeare depicts conscience as a mouth that not only bites the self but tells distorting stories to the self, about the self, on behalf of shame and guilt.

In Act V scene iii, in the most moving soliloquy on guilt in all Shakespeare to my mind, Richard tongue-lashes himself with painful cycles of self-recrimination:

I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.

Fool, of thyself speak well: fool, do not flatter.

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,

And every tongue brings in a several tale,

And every tale condemns me for a villain.


This dark confrontation with conscience brings to fruition Queen Margaret's curse from Act I:

The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!
Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest,

And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends!

The many-tongued conscience gnaws on men as the fishes gnawed on men in Clarence's dream, and as it gnaws it transforms. (J.R.R. Tolkien plainly borrows his treasonous councilor Wormtongue from Richard III.) The wormtongue of conscience creates paranoid distortions and inspires this fantastic riff on conscience from Clarence's Second Murderer:

I’ll not meddle with it: it is a dangerous thing: it makes a man a coward: a man cannot steal, but it accuseth him; he cannot swear, but it cheques him; he cannot lie with his neighbour’s wife, but it detects him: ’tis a blushing shamefast spirit that mutinies in a man’s bosom; it fills one full of obstacles: it made me once restore a purse of gold that I found; it beggars any man that keeps it: it is turned out of all towns and cities for a dangerous thing; and every man that means to live well endeavours to trust to himself and to live without it.

For the rest of his career Shakespeare thought hard on the wily ways of this mental faculty so near to the pulse of human identity and imagination. In later plays he ventured so far along the path of realism as to show figures like Lear, Othello, and Hamlet who mutinied against themselves even without having stolen or cheated. By the end of his life's work, he had in mind a character who had mastered the inner cannibals of desire and conscience and their sea changes--a magician named Prospero whose imagination responded to his command and not the other way around. Prospero is a man of subtle power like Shakespeare himself, who wielded a quill like a wand with phoenix feathers.

Yet Prospero's final words are, like Puck's, an entreaty for forgiveness. The couplet at the end of Shakespeare's long and glorious career reads: "As you from crimes would pardon'd be, / Let your indulgence set me free."

What was Shakespeare's crime, I wonder? What could it have been except a life of art, a life spent in London perhaps, away from his family in Stratford? Power, even "good" power, makes people nervous. And Shakespeare attained a conjuror's imperial power over the knowledge, imagination, and expression that course through the written word.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lemme Tell You Something!

The Essential Lenny BruceThe Essential Lenny Bruce by Lenny Bruce

I think Lenny Bruce probably changed my uncle Zack's life. Without the precedent of Lenny Bruce, I don't think my uncle could have said #$%* and @&*! nearly as much as he did. From Lenny Bruce to my uncle Zack to me has descended the sacred right to say #$%* and @&*! when you stub your toe, or when your kid falls on his face, or when you forget how many scoops of coffee beans you put in the grinder. From Lenny Bruce to my uncle Zack to me has descended the sacred duty to say #$%* and @&*! more or less continuously while driving. And I believe I have passed these traditions on to my own children.

I'm sure Lenny Bruce changed the lives of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and every other stand-up comic who ever stood up in his wake. Bruce was such a smart comedian he was almost a philosopher, and this oft-quoted statement sums up his philosophy:

"Lemme tell you something. If you believe there is a God, a God that made your body, and yet you think that you can do anything with that body that's dirty, then the fault lies with the manufacturer."

I think Plato's Republic would be immensely improved if Plato prefaced his wisest comments with "Lemme tell you something."

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