Posts Tagged ‘Ernest Hemingway’

Myth & History

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

“As the heavens are high and the earth is deep, so the hearts of kings are unsearchable.” Book of Proverbs 25:3

“Have you seen The King’s Speech?” asked a friend.

“Marcia has and loved it,” I replied. “I’m waiting for it to come out on Netflix.”

My wife Marcia and I are on the two-movies-a-month plan, and we often don’t find the time to watch even that many.

“Of course,” continued my friend, “they’ve taken great liberties with the historical facts. I read one article that said the movie isn’t even close to the truth and another that said it has some truth in it, but not much.”

“The only way to speak the truth is to speak lovingly.” Henry David Thoreau

Historical facts. Hmm. When I was attending UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960’s (and I really did do that) Norman O. Brown came to teach at our newborn college. His course Myth & History was open to undergrads, so I signed up to hear what the famous man had to say. Who was Norman O. Brown? Having taken his Myth & History class, and having spent a few hours blabbing with Norman about this and that, I think he would have been amused by the question. Why amused? Because the central theme of his course was that myth and history are inextricably entwined; history being mythologized the moment that highly subjective reporter known as a human being attempts to put into words what he or she thinks may have happened.

Before I tell you a little more about Norman O. Brown, I would like to recount a scene from Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ, the novel, not the movie. The Norman I remember (which is probably a very different Norman than the Norman other people remember) would have appreciated this digression because his lectures were composed entirely of digressions that would then double back on themselves and culminate in conclusions that, depending on each listener’s perspective, made some sort of larger sense. Or not.

“Great things happen when God mixes with man.” Nikos Kazantzakis

So…in The Last Temptation of Christ there is a memorable scene in which Jesus and his disciples are sitting around a campfire after a long day of spreading their gospel, when Matthew, a recent addition to the crew, is suddenly impelled by angels (or so he claims) to write the biography of Jesus. So he gets out quill and papyrus and sets to work transcribing the angelic dictation; and Jesus, curious to see what’s gotten into his latest convert, takes a peek over Matthew’s shoulder and reads the opening lines of what will one day be a very famous gospel.

Jesus is outraged. “None of this is true,” he cries, or words to that effect. And then Judas (I’m pretty sure it was Judas and not Andrew) calms Jesus down with a Norman O. Brown-like bit of wisdom, something along the lines of: “You know, Jesus, in the long run it really doesn’t matter if he writes the truth or not. You’re a myth now, so you’d better get used to everybody and his aunt coming up with his or her version of who you are.”

Kazantzakis, trust me, wrote the scene much more poetically and marvelously than the way I just recounted it, but…

“All good books have one thing in common. They are truer than if they had really happened.” Ernest Hemingway

Back to Norman O. Brown. In the late 1960’s, Norman was among the most famous pop academic writers in the world. Not only had he written Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, which made him famous, he had just published (in 1966) Love’s Body, a mainstream and academic bestseller exploring the impact of erotic love on human history; or was it the struggle between eroticism and civilization? In any case, here is one of my favorite blurbs from the hundreds of reviews that made Love’s Body so famous in its time. I will digress again (thank you, Norman) by saying if any book I ever publish gets a blurb even remotely as stupendous as the following, and said blurb appears in, say, the San Francisco Chronicle or even the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, drinks are on me.

“Norman O. Brown is variously considered the architect of a new view of man, a modern-day shaman, and a Pied Piper leading the youth of America astray. His more ardent admirers, of whom I am one, judge him one of the seminal thinkers who profoundly challenge the dominant assumptions of the age. Although he is a classicist by training who came late to the study of Freud and later to mysticism, he has already created a revolution in psychological theory.” — Sam Keen, Psychology Today

The myth and history web site known as Wikipedia says that Norman was a much-loved professor at UC Santa Cruz where he taught and lived to the end of his days (he died in 2002, or so they say). Wikipedia also reports that Norman had the nickname Nobby, which I would like to say I gave him, but I did not. At least I don’t think I gave it to him. On the other hand, I might have given it to him because that was not his nickname when I knew him, so it must have been affixed after I knew him. Thus we might say, “After I got through with him, he was known as Nobby.” That does sort of sound like I’m responsible for his nickname. You decide.

“Personality is the original personal property.” Norman O. Brown

Here are a few true stories about Norman that might as well be myths.

Norman loved to fool around with the order of letters in words and the order of syllables in words and the order of words in phrases. For instance, he began one lecture by…

But first of all, here’s a snapshot of Norman in 1968: a portly white man of medium height with curly brown hair. I wouldn’t say his hair was unruly, but it was certainly not ruly. Is ruly a word? If not, then from whence came unruly? These were the kinds of questions Norman would ask of us, his audience, and not answer. On second thought, his hair was unruly. In either case, he would cast his questions upon his waters, he the fly fisherman, we the trout finning below the surface of his stream of consciousness, and he would allow the flies (the questions) to drift along above us for a time to see if we might rise to the bait. If no trout rose, he cast again.

Norman had voluptuous lips and frequently wept in front of us, moved by something he felt, or moved by inner demons we could only guess at, or moved by God knows what (if you subscribe to the myth of God.) I knew several people (mostly guys) who were so freaked out by how fragile and vulnerable and weird Norman seemed to them that they dropped the class after the first couple lectures.

“Freedom is poetry, taking liberties with words, breaking the rules of normal speech, violating common sense. Freedom is violence.” Norman O. Brown

One day (getting back to Norman’s playing with the order of letters in a word) he stood (wearing a brilliant white Mexican wedding shirt tucked into fine purple corduroy trousers, his feet shod in black sandals, his toenails painted red) with his back to the audience for the first five minutes of his presentation. People began to squirm; a few walked out; and several more were about to walk out when Norman turned to face us. He ran his fingers through his unruly hair three or possibly four times, took three (I’m absolutely sure it was three) tentative steps forward, touched the tips of the fingers of his left hand to the tips of the fingers of his right hand, and gazed at this collision of digits as a lover might gaze at her beloved, or as an autistic person might stare at her fingers, and then he pursed his voluptuous lips, raised his eyes to the audience, and said so quietly we had to strain to hear, “Roma.”

Then he swallowed, licked his lips, touched his fingertips together again as described above, licked his lips once more, and repeated, “Roma.”

I looked down at my notebook and saw that I had written Roma twice. And between the first and second Roma I had unwittingly drawn a heart.

Then I looked at Norman (I usually sat in the seventeenth row, having a particular fondness for that number) and he said, “Roma spelled backwards is…”

He waited a moment for us to begin to figure it out for ourselves, and then concluded, “Amor.”

“‘Tis as human a little story as paper could well carry” James Joyce from Finnegan’s Wake

Norman began another of his lectures mid-thought and mid-sentence referencing James Joyce’s novel Finnegan’s Wake. I could not, for the life of me, discern when Norman’s sentences ended or began or even if he was speaking in sentences. People ran for the exits as if a fire alarm had sounded. Soon there were only a few of us remaining in the vast lecture hall, Norman rambling on, his tired face alight with what might have been happiness or possibly incredulity to have struck such a rich vein of…something; and I gave up trying to understand him. I simply surrendered to his sound and subtle fury, and fell into a trance from which I did not emerge until…Norman’s voice rose to a girlish crescendo, fell silent for a momentous moment, and finished basso profundo with: “Finnegan’s Wake. Fin! Again! Wake!”

“Hearasay in paradox lust” James Joyce from Finnegan’s Wake

It was following Norman’s fifth or sixth or seventh lecture that I went to his office to show him a four-page play I’d written, a dumb show, a drama without words inspired by something he’d been harping on for a couple lectures. “The slave becomes the king becomes the slave.” In my dumb show, which, come to think of it, might have been choreography for a ballet, I was exploring passive aggression and aggressive passivity and the pitfalls of passion and the pratfalls of sexual positions, and (being nineteen) I thought the play was way cool, and I suspected that if anyone on earth would appreciate my play it was Norman.

I went to his office. He was sitting at his desk, weeping. He dried his eyes, rose to shake my hand, and invited me take a seat. I told him I was taking Myth & History. He said he recognized me. He said I often frowned ferociously at things he said, after which I would scribble furiously in my notebook. He said he often wondered which part of what he had just said made me frown. I said I was unaware of my ferocious frowning but wasn’t surprised to hear I frowned ferociously because ferocious frowning was my father’s habit, too. Norman said the older he got the more he reminded himself of his father, and also of his mother.

I then blurted that I found him captivating and perplexing and thought I was probably not consciously getting most of what he was trying to convey but I was apparently unconsciously getting some of it because he had inspired me to write a short play, which I then handed him. He read the pages, avidly, or so I like to think, then read them again. Then he looked at me and blinked appreciatively. “Yes,” he gushed. “The violence of Eros the inadequacy of the nuclear family to accommodate the sexual divergences of male and female energies of young and old I love the mother becoming lovers with her daughter’s lover only to discover her daughter’s lover is her father transformed. You’ve read Graves, Durrell, Duncan, Camus, Beckett. What do you want to do?”

“I want to write epic poems disguised as novels.”

He frowned gravely and pointed with the fingers of his right hand at the air just above my head. “A path of great danger,” he intoned, wiggling his fingers to incite the spirits. “Don’t be afraid.”

Todd lives in Mendocino where he prunes fruit trees, plays the piano, and writes essays and fiction. His web site is Underthetablebooks.com

Scholar Jim

Thursday, January 6th, 2011

“There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous.” Mark Twain

I wonder how Mark Twain would feel if he knew his novel Huckleberry Finn has been rewritten in such a way that the meaning of his book is entirely changed, and that such an execrable mutation of his work is about to be afflicted on the next generation of American schoolchildren. I ask because such a crime has just taken place. Yes, it’s true, and I quote from The New York Times:

“Throughout the book [Huckleberry Finn]—219 times in all—the word nigger is replaced by slave, a substitution that was made by NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama, which plans to release the edition in February.

“Alan Gribben, a professor of English and a Twain scholar at Auburn University, approached the publisher with the idea in July. Mr. Gribben said Tuesday that he had been teaching Mark Twain for decades and always hesitated before reading aloud the common racial epithet, which is used liberally in the book, a reflection of social attitudes in the mid-19th century.

“‘I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer,’ he said. ‘And I don’t think I’m alone.’

“Mr. Gribben, who combined Huckleberry Finn with Tom Sawyer in a single volume and also supplied an introduction, said he worried that Huckleberry Finn had fallen off reading lists, and wanted to offer an edition that is not for scholars, but for younger people and general readers.

“‘I’m by no means sanitizing Mark Twain,’ Mr. Gribben said. ‘The sharp social critiques are in there. The humor is intact. I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone.’ (The book also substitutes Indian for injun.)”

Should we be outraged? I suppose the publication and widespread dissemination of degenerate versions of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer pale next to the unending crimes against humanity perpetrated by military forces around the globe, but still, removing nigger from Huckleberry Finn and replacing it with slave is not only immoral, it is grossly stupid. For one thing, the word slave already appears many times in the original text. Clearly, Twain did not want Jim to be known as Slave Jim. Might not this so-called scholar have changed nigger to negro or some African-sounding word like jomo or kumbaya? Or better yet, why not change nigger to scholar? Scholar Jim. Yes. I like the sound of that.

“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Ernest Hemingway

Ernest who? Wrote some book called For Whom the Bell Tolls. Now there’s a title in need of updating. Nobody uses the word whom anymore. Or the archaic verb toll. The new title should be Who Is That Bell Ringing For? Don’t you think?

But, Todd, the word nigger taken out of the context of a novel set prior to the Civil War is offensive and racist. Never mind that Huckleberry Finn is about racism and the dawning awareness in the mind of an extremely appealing everyman (Huck) that slavery and racism are deeply wrong and need to be abandoned by anyone purporting to be a decent human being. Never mind that the word nigger is to Huckleberry Finn what garlic is to good Jewish, er, Hebrew chicken soup.

“Only one thing is impossible to God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.” Mark Twain

Indeed. Why is it even legal for this so-called scholar to rewrite Huckleberry Finn? Oh, because the book is in the public domain, meaning Twain and his heirs are long dead, so anyone who wants to fuck with, I mean, amend the original text may do so without fear of legal action against them. Fine. In that case, I want to change the ending of Huckleberry Finn, which has always struck me as weak and something of a copout. I think the novel should end with Huck coming out of the closet and admitting that he and Tom [Sawyer] have a serious thing for each other. You know what I mean by thing, don’t you? And Becky will be exposed as a cover for Tom and Huck’s, you know, hanky panky. And Jim (Jomo) should be like this totally wise prophet kind of guy who helps Huck and Tom emigrate to France where they adopt three children, a Hebrew, an Italian, and an Irishman. Yascha, Luigi, and Sean. Scholars all.

“What are the three great American things? Jazz, the Bill of Rights, and Mark Twain.” Roy Blount Jr.

What about Moby Dick? Goodness, dick will never do. Dick means, you know, the male thingy. Perhaps the Auburn scholar would like to go through Melville’s massive tome and change all the dicks to, I don’t know, Jason? Moby Jason. No, I’m thinking scholar might be the best choice here, too. Moby Scholar. Yes. Perfect.

“There are three kinds of people—commonplace men, remarkable men, and lunatics.” Mark Twain

There goes Mark (Samuel) again, using an inappropriate word. He used the word men synonymously with people. What a sexist! What a male chauvinist pig. I’m sending a letter to that Auburn scholar demanding he rewrite all of Twain’s nineteenth century writings to bring them into accord with twenty-first-century political correctness. Just think how women today must feel when they read quotations like that. How could Twain have been so blind and ignorant and arrogant not to know that our language would continue to evolve after his death. Some genius he turned out to be.

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” Mark Twain

The best thing for me about this Auburn University scholar, or the damn idiot, as I’m sure Twain would have called him, blithely ruining Huckleberry Finn and making boatloads of money in the process, is that his deplorable actions have now freed me entirely from my last shreds of regret about dropping out of college in 1969 after two inglorious years of academic nonsense. There have been times in my life when money and gainful employment were hard come by, and in those dire straits it crossed my mind that it might have behooved me to earn a degree or two, but now I am confirmed in my long ago decision to remove myself from the psychic influence of that Auburn scholar and those of his kind, for they are surely bad for the mind and the heart, and most definitely toxic to the soul.

“The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Mark Twain

Seriously folks, I do mourn for our culture as I mourn for our society, the lunatics having taken control of just about everything now. But comes the revolution, we will find all the copies of Huckleberry Sawyer wherein nigger has been replaced by slave, and we will burn those copies, but not wastefully. We will ignite those useless pages in woodstoves to heat our homes, the flames providing extra heat for the double good they are doing.