Posts Tagged ‘Herman Melville’

Old Books

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

When Words Become Irrelevant (Kevin O'Day Ballet) ©2013 David Jouris : Motion Pictures

When Words Become Irrelevant (Kevin O’Day Ballet) © 2013 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)

I recently came upon an old book I inherited from my grandmother Goody, The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature published in 1939, a seventy-five-year-old book that has provided me with several days of enjoyable reading. Part of my enjoyment comes from frequently encountering words I have to look up in my trusty Oxford English Dictionary. But the larger part of my pleasure comes from the fascinating details to be found in the hundreds of miniature biographies of once-famous writers who are largely forgotten today.

In terms of my vocabulary, I have learned that a cottar is the equivalent of a sharecropper, a prebend is a stipend derived from a percentage of a church’s profits, a squib is a satirical jab, a suppostitious child is one fraudulently substituted to displace the real heir, and a pindaric is an ode in the manner of Pindar.

Of Pindar, this little old book says, “(c.522-442 B.C.) the great Greek lyric poet, acquired fame at an early age and was employed by many winners at the Games (Olympics) to celebrate their victories.”

I first came upon the word pindaric while reading the two-column biography of Jonathan Swift who was a cousin of Dryden, who also garners a two-column biography. Only Shakespeare warrants three columns, which means Swift and Dryden are thought to be among the most famous writers of all time, according to the editors of this edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature.

Also according to this dictionary, Dryden, upon reading one of Swift’s pindarics, remarked, “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.”

And the last line of Swift’s little biography states, “Nearly all his works were published anonymously, and for only one, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, did he receive any payment (£200).”

Famous writers making little money from their writing is a recurring theme in this dictionary, as is the fact that many noted writers from the 1600’s through the early 1900’s died insane. Syphilis, the cause of madness in most of those cases, is never mentioned in the dictionary, but the editors doubtless assume their readers know about the link between syphilis and insanity in the days before the advent of antibiotics.

Indeed, the editors make a number of assumptions about their readers, which assumptions in 1939 were probably sound. For instance, they assume anyone reading this volume will probably be fairly fluent in Latin and know most of the famous writers of the past three hundreds years by their last names. Scott is Sir Walter Scott, Arbuthnot is John Arbuthnot, Pope is Alexander Pope, and so on. Fortunately for the likes of me, if an author is referred to solely by his last name, he will have a biography in the good book and I can discover why he was so famous.

As one might expect of a book published in 1939 summarizing the history of English Literature, there are few women authors mentioned therein, though Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, George Sand, Virginia Woolf, Anne Bronte, and Emily Bronte all garner tiny paragraphs, with George Eliot and Jane Austen winning half-columns, and Charlotte Bronte nearly a whole one.

Another delightful feature of the book is that for super famous authors—Dickens, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Melville, Thackeray etc.—in addition to their biographies, there are separate entries synopsizing of each of their most famous books, plays, and poems, as well as separate entries for important characters in those works.

What a different culture we had before the advent of television. In that sense, the 1939 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary Of English Literature is a fascinating time capsule from the end of an epoch in our cultural history when literature was of paramount importance and influence, and hundreds of great novels and plays and poems lived for hundreds of years as part of the contemporary cultural fabric.

Have you perchance heard of the book The Old Wives’ Tale? “…a novel by E. A. Bennett (1908) one of the greatest novels of modern times. It is the long chronicle of the lives of two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, daughters of a draper of Bursley, from their ardent girlhood, through disillusionment, to death. The drab life of the draper’s shop, its trivial incidents, are made interesting and important. Constance, a staid and sensible young woman, marries the insignificant Samuel Povey, the chief assistant in the shop, and spends all her life in Bursley. The more passionate and imaginative Sophia elopes with the fascinating Gerald Scales, an unprincipled blackguard, who carries her to Paris, where she is exposed to indignities, and finally deserts her. She struggles to success as a lodging-house keeper in Paris, where she lives though the siege of 1870. The sisters are reunited and spend their last years in Bursley.”

Never heard of E.A. Bennett, the author of this greatest of novels? “Bennett, (Enoch) Arnold (1867-1931), became a solicitor’s clerk in London and in 1893 assistant editor and subsequently editor of the periodical ‘Woman’. After 1900 he devoted himself exclusively to writing, theatre journalism being among his special interests. His fame as a novelist rests chiefly on ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ and the ‘Clayhanger’ series. ‘Clayhanger’ (1910) ‘Hilda Lessways’ (1911) ‘These Twain’ (1916). The ‘Five Towns’ which figure prominently in these works are Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke-upon-Trent, and Longton, centers of the pottery industry; and the features, often ugly and sordid of this background are skillfully woven into stories of lives which he presents dispassionately, with an infinite delight in significant detail. Among Bennett’s other best-known works are: ‘Riceyman Steps’, ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’, ‘Milestones’, and ‘The Matador of the Five Towns’ (short stories, 1912)”

Then there is John Knox (1505-72) who “…addressed epistles to his brethren in England suffering under the rule of Mary Tudor, and in Scotland under the regency of Mary of Lorraine. It was this situation which led to the publication of his ‘First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women’ (1558), of which the title, Saintsbury remarks, was the best part.”

Saintsbury? “George Edward Bateman Saintsbury (1845-1933), a distinguished literary critic and historian…”

Reboot

Wednesday, February 4th, 2015

twins

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2015)

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Herman Melville

Female-led Ghostbusters reboot gets summer 2016 release date.

Report: Disney is considering Chris Pratt for an Indiana Jones reboot.

Fantastic Four reboot: What do we think?

We think remakes and reboots and sequels and prequels indistinguishable from the previous reboots of remakes have taken over the movie industry along with movies so similar to hundreds of other movies they might as well be reboots or remakes. What’s going on here? We live in an era of cinematic redundancy on an epic scale, and the messages being repeated ad nauseam are so primitive and shallow and false, one wonders, “When was it the Not Very Bright Children took control of everything?”

Who cares? I do. I think our movies and books, those that the corporate overlords allow to reach large audiences, intentionally purvey what our overlords want us to believe and think and feel. There is method to this mad redundancy, and a purpose, which is to keep us captive in what Iain McGilchrist calls “a hall of mirrors wherein we just get reflected back into more of what we know about what we know about what we know.”

 “No man was ever great by imitation” Samuel Johnson

Original art is subversive to the dominant paradigm, and the controlling stockholders in the current dominant paradigm are especially keen on squelching anything that might upset their iron grip on the collective consciousness. Thus they employ their news media to heap praise on the unending flow of wholly unoriginal literature, cinema, and music spewed into our bookstores, movie theatres, radio stations, and our always-on computer pad phone things.

Why? What do they, those in charge of the faucets of media, think will happen if original art is allowed to flourish? What they think will happen is what will happen: they will lose control of our beautiful minds, and human society will change in ways antithetical to the dominant paradigm.

It is not generally known or remembered, but in response to that brief artistic and social revolution known as the Sixties, the most powerful multi-national corporations in the world bought up every independent publisher in America, fired every last open-minded editor, and instituted a system of selectivity that would make the most fascist of dictators envious. Control what people read and watch and you control the foundations of modern culture.

“Men often applaud an imitation and hiss the real thing.” Aesop

As I was pondering this whole reboot phenomenon, I found on Dave Smith’s valuable Ukiah Blog Live, a link to a delightfully animated lecture called The Divided Brain by the above-quoted Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and brain expert. To my mind, his lecture clearly and concisely explains the reboot mania. To grossly oversimplify his lecture: our culture and society have been taken over by those who are entirely controlled by the dominant functions of the left sides of their brains, and, as a consequence, we have become a society and culture dominated by left-brain dynamics.

McGilchrist debunks many of the popular ideas about differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, and he is adamant that the two sides need each other to function optimally. He also has a nifty explanation for the importance of the frontal lobe in mediating the collaborations of the left and right halves of the brain.

I highly recommend this animated lecture (you can find it on YouTube) and suggest you may want to pause the flow occasionally because McGilchrist presents a great deal of information in a short amount of time. I will not try to recapitulate his many startling facts and observations, but I will list some of his characterizations of the two halves of our brains.

Left brain: narrow sharp focus on what is already known, prefers simplified models of reality, chooses virtual over real, static, isolated, fixed, decontextualized, ultimately lifeless.

Right brain: sustained broad focus, openness to what is not yet known, interested in the living rather than the mechanical, changing, evolving, comfortable with what is never perfectly known.

McGilchrist concludes his lecture by quoting Einstein—“The intuitive mind (right brain) is a sacred gift, and the rational mind (left brain) is a faithful servant.” McGilchrist then responds to Einstein’s insight by saying, “Our society now honors the servant, but has forgotten the gift.”

I would argue that we have not so much forgotten the gift as it has been wrested away from us by our punitive system of education (left brain), our highly controlled media (left brain) and an economic system that pretends to support innovation but is primarily interested in refining what we already have in place (left brain) while intentionally inciting our deep-seated fears (left brain) to keep us from taking creative risks (right brain).

When I walk around downtown Mendocino on my errands or in search of a sunny perch, I will often encounter people—young, middle-aged, old—who seem to be looking for something they cannot find. They peer down alleyways, frown at buildings they fear to enter, exchange troubled glances, and stumble on until they grow tired and return to their vehicles or find a place where they can sit down and eat something.

I imagine they are doing battle with the left sides of their brains. They have come here, knowingly or unknowingly, to escape their left-brained realities in hope of finding a right-brained reality. Intuitively, they know their spirits are being strangled by mechanized redundancy, and their inner voices have directed them to this place whose name was once synonymous with counter culture.

Self-Loving

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014

When Your Heart Is Strong crayon on monotype:paper Nolan WInkler

When Your Heart Is Strong drawing by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2014)

“Marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department.” David Packard

A friend of mine went to graduate school at Yale in theater management and marketing where his favorite professor was forever reminding his students: “For every hundred queries you send out, you can count on one response. This won’t necessarily be a positive response, but at least it will be a response.”

As a writer and musician who for many years fished, so to speak, in the smallest tributaries of the mainstream before experiencing a few years of success on the cultural Mississippi, as it were, of New York and Hollywood, only to return to the hinterlands where I have continued to cast my line for the past thirty years, I have sent out thousands of queries, stories, songs, novels, plays, screenplays, and music CDs to agents, publishers, producers, directors, DJs, magazine editors, and people randomly selected from the phone book, and in my experience the professor’s estimate of one response per hundred submissions is right on the money.

I was one of those young writers who, for fun and incentive, once papered the four walls of my rented room (from floor to ceiling) with form rejection letters from The New Yorker and Esquire and The Atlantic and Playboy and dozens of other magazines large and small—the collage of hundreds of colored rectangles strikingly beautiful, though the cumulative negativity of the verbiage writ on those disingenuous notes (we carefully considered, we’re very sorry) eventually caused me to burn them all in a bonfire of rage against the machine and in hope of exorcising the demons of self-doubt.

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Nowadays, as a sometimes self-publishing author and musician, I frequently encounter disdain and contempt from all sorts of people for manufacturing my own work. Yes, Mark Twain self-published most of his novels, and countless other revered writers and artists self-published, self-promoted, and self-sold, but the dominant cultural myth remains that self-manufacturing books or musical recordings is pathetic and disgraceful, especially for someone no longer in kindergarten.

This anti-self-publishing sentiment is especially true among people over fifty who were not raised on YouTube, though many people under fifty also make a clear distinction between an artist who brings out his or her own creations and the artist who manages to sell himself, literally, to a subsidiary of a multinational corporation. Is this not a form of cultural idiocy? And from whence does this antipathy to marketing our own creations come from?

“This self-love is the instrument of our preservation; it resembles the provision for the perpetuity of mankind: it is necessary, it is dear to us, it gives us pleasure, and we must conceal it.” Voltaire

So there’s Voltaire, the keen observer of social mores, three hundred and fifty years ago warning against public displays of self-appreciation, regardless of the emotional importance of such self-positivity, thus confirming that self-negation as cultural norm is nothing new. And who in our steep-sided pyramidal society and pyramidal economic system benefits most from this bizarre idea that it is shameful and wrong for a free lance artist to manufacture her own art and then alert the world that her art is for sale?

“Marketing is a contest for people’s attention.” Seth Godin

A Seattle publisher recently reissued my novel Inside Moves in a handsome paperback edition after the good book had been out-of-print for over thirty years, and dozens of people who had previously snickered and snorted in derision at my self-published works wrote and called to congratulate me, a few of these brainwashed peeps actually saying things like, “Must be great to have a real book in the stores again.” How bizarre! I was going to say how fucking bizarre, but that would be crude.

 “Self-love is a big part of golf.” Lewis Black

Nine times. Think of the Beatles song Revolution 9 with that annoying voice in the background intoning interminably “Number Nine, Number Nine.” Recent marketing research indicates that busy publishers, editors, DJs, and other persons bombarded with press releases and poems and screenplays and songs and cries of “Look at me jumping!” by millions of Baby Roos (see Winnie-the-Pooh) need to be loudly informed about something nine times, on average, for the thing to penetrate their overloaded cerebrums and get them to take notice. Oy vey. Such postage and envelopes and mailers for the struggling artist!

Speaking of postage, over the last seven years I have sent out rafts of copies of my four piano CDs and the two music CDs Marcia and I made together, these rafts going to radio stations around the country, with one response for every hundred submissions a close approximation of my success rate, whether that means actual airplay for Incongroovity or Mystery Inventions or a terse: Go Away! We Only Play Music Recorded By Famous People.

I hasten to add that these are not large radio stations I apply to, but small ones kin to our own KZYX whereon you will be lucky, indeed, to hear our music, though not for lack of my sending them our CDs. Jamie Roberts, bless him, occasionally plays my recorded fiction, and Joel Cohen has played a few cuts of my piano music—local exposure a special thrill for us. The good people at KMUD are so stoutly unified in their indifference to my offerings, I have ceased to bother them.

But I have managed to win over a handful of daring and prescient DJs who now regularly spin my tunes in Warren Vermont, Bloomington Indiana, Arcata California, Fort Collins Colorado and Astoria Oregon. Mazel tov!

“Well, I think everyone struggles with self-love.” Philip Seymour Hoffman

When I was a preschool teacher’s aide, one of my favorite things about the three and four-year-olds I had the pleasure of overseeing was their unabashed love of their own artistic endeavors and creations: crayon drawings and finger paintings and block towers and sand castles and somersaults and dances and impromptu songs—everything! Countless times an excited little kid would show me his or her creation, and in response to my saying, “That’s wonderful!” the little Picasso or O’Keeffe would confidently reply, “I know!”

But something happens to most American children in the years following kindergarten and continuing for the rest of their lives, some multi-level, multi-layered reprogramming goes on at home, at school, on television, at work, in life, so that by the time children are six and seven-years-old they are much less likely to share their creations with an adult, and by ten-years-old most kids cease to create anything.

From happy self-loving declarations of “I know!” to complete emotional and creative shutdown in just a few short years—the result of our horrifying and incredibly effective system of mass repression.

What are you talking about, Todd? Look at the millions of people making YouTube videos of themselves and their kids and cats and stuff, and the millions of people taking pictures of themselves with their smart phones to go along with their tweeting and sexting.

“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Herman Melville

In my perusal of sports highlights on my computer, I am required to sit through commercials in order to see brief snippets of games I’ve missed for lack of a television. Thus I have seen many ads for razors, cars, big-budget movies, computers, running shoes, and Disney vacation resorts. In the latest series of Disney ads, people are shown publicly acting out in spontaneous and imaginative ways, and then being judged idiotic or crazy by their families and friends.

In one such Disney ad, a father and his two children are in a hardware store when the father gets the wacky idea of donning a welding helmet and picking up a fluorescent light tube and pretending to be Darth Vader wielding a light saber. In his excitement, the father gets carried away and knocks over a display, a heinous act that embarrasses his well-behaved children and dismays the other people in the store. But in a twinkling, the father and children and their mother are transported to a Disney resort where the father is allowed to duel with real (fake) light sabers and a Disney employee dressed up as the real (fake) Darth Vader—the children no longer embarrassed by their impulsive father.

The Voice accompanying this vomitous series of ads declares, and I paraphrase, “So if you want to be even just a little bit creative and spontaneous and playful without punishment and censure, you must give large quantities of your hard-earned money to the Disney Corporation and we will allow you to be slightly more carefree than you are allowed to be in real life, though we know that even when you come to this totally artificial place, you will be too inhibited to act in ways that will necessitate our having to punish you.”

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.