A Mathematician’s Apology (Modern Library Nonfiction #87)

(This is the fourteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Six Easy Pieces.)

mlnf87Clocking in at a mere ninety pages in very large type, G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology is that rare canapé plucked from a small salver between all the other three-course meals and marathon banquets in the Modern Library series. It is a book so modest that you could probably read it in its entirety while waiting for the latest Windows 10 update to install. And what a bleak and despondent volume it turned out to be! I read the book twice and, each time I finished the book, I wanted to seek out some chalk-scrawling magician and offer a hug.

G.H. Hardy was a robust mathematician just over the age of sixty who had made some serious contributions to number theory and population genetics. He was a cricket-loving man who had brought the Indian autodidact Srinivasa Ramanujan to academic prominence by personally vouching for and mentoring him. You would think that a highly accomplished dude who went about the world with such bountiful and generous energies would be able to ride out his eccentric enthusiasm into his autumn years. But in 1939, Hardy survived a heart attack and felt that he was as useless as an ashtray on a motorcycle, possessing nothing much in the way of nimble acumen or originality. So he decided to memorialize his depressing thoughts about “useful” contributions to knowledge in A Mathematician’s Apology (in one of the book’s most stupendous understatements, Hardy observed that “my apology is bound to be to some extent egotistical”), and asked whether mathematics, the field that he had entered into because he “wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively,” was worthwhile.

You can probably guess how it all turned out:

It is indeed rather astonishing how little practical value scientific knowledge has for ordinary man, how dull and commonplace such of it as has value is, and how its value seems almost to vary inversely to reputed utility….We live either by rule of thumb or other people’s professional knowledge.

If only Hardy could have lived about sixty more years to discover the 21st century thinker’s parasitic relationship to Google and Wikipedia! The question is whether Hardy is right to be this cynical. While snidely observing “It is quite true that most people can do nothing well,” he isn’t a total sourpuss. He writes, “A man’s first duty, a young man’s at any rate, is to be ambitious,” and points out that ambition has been “the driving force behind nearly all the best work of the world.” What he fails to see, however, is that youthful ambition, whether in a writer or a scientist, often morphs into a set of routines that become second-nature. At a certain point, a person becomes comfortable enough with himself to simply go on with his work, quietly evolving, where the ambition becomes more covert and subconscious and mysterious.

Hardy never quite confronts what it is about youth that frightens him, but he is driven by a need to justify his work and his existence, pointing to two reasons for why people do what they do: (1) they work at something because they know they can do it well and (2) they work at something because a particular vocation or specialty came their way. But this seems too pat and Gladwellian to be a persuasive dichotomy. It doesn’t really account for the journey we all must face over why one does something, which generally includes the vital people you meet at certain places in your life who point you down certain directions. Either they recognize some talent in you and give you a leg up or they are smart and generous enough to recognize that one essential part of human duty is to help others find their way, to seek out your people — ideally a group of eclectic and vastly differing perspectives — and to work with each other to do the best damn work and live the best damn lives you can. Because what’s the point of geeking out about Fermat’s “two squares” theorem, which really is, as Hardy observes, a nifty mathematical axiom of pure beauty, if you can’t share it with others?

But let’s return to Hardy’s fixation on youth. Hardy makes the claim that “mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game,” yet this staggering statement is easily debunked by such late bloomers as prime number ninja Zhang Yitang and Andrew Wiles solving Fermat’s Last Theorem at the age of 41. Even in Hardy’s own time, Henri Poincaré was making innovations to topology and Lorentz transformations well into middle age. (And Hardy explicitly references Poincaré in § 26 of his Apology. So it’s not like he didn’t know!) Perhaps some of the more recent late life contributions have much to do with forty now being the new thirty (or even the new twenty among a certain Jaguar-buying midlife crisis type) and many men in Hardy’s time believing themselves to be superannuated in body and soul around the age of thirty-five, but it does point to the likelihood that Hardy’s sentiments were less the result of serious thinking and more the result of crippling depression.

Where Richard Feynman saw chess as a happy metaphor for the universe, “a great game played by the gods” in which we humans are mere observers who “do not know what the rules of the game are,” merely allowed to watch the playing (and yet find marvel in this all the same), Hardy believed that any chess problem was “simply an exercise in pure mathematics…and everyone who calls a problem ‘beautiful’ is applauding mathematical beauty, even if is a beauty of a comparatively lowly kind.” Hardy was so sour that he compared a chess problem to a newspaper puzzle, claiming that it merely offered an “intellectual kick” for the clueless educated rabble. As someone who enjoys solving the Sunday New York Times crossword in full and a good chess game (it’s the street players I have learned the most from; for they often have the boldest and most original moves), I can’t really argue against Hardy’s claim that such pastimes are “trivial” or “unimportant” in the grand scheme of things. But Hardy seems unable to remember the possibly apocryphal tale of Archimedes discovering gradual displacement while in the bathtub or the more reliable story of Otto Loewi’s dream leading the great Nobel-winning physiologist to discover that nervous impulses arose from electrical transmissions. Great minds often need to be restfully thinking or active on other fronts in order to come up with significant innovations. And while Hardy may claim that “no chess problem has ever affected the development of scientific thought,” I feel compelled to note Pythagoras played the lyre (and even inspired a form of tuning), Newton had his meandering apple moment, and Einstein enjoyed hiking and sailing. These were undoubtedly “trivial” practices by Hardy’s austere standards, but would these great men have given us their contributions if they hadn’t had such downtime?

It’s a bit gobsmacking that Hardy never mentions how Loewi was fired up by his dreams. He seems only to see value in Morpheus’s prophecies if they are dark and melancholic:

I can remember Bertrand Russell telling me of a horrible dream. He was in the top floor of the University Library, about A.D. 2100. A library assistant was going round the shelves carrying an enormous bucket, taking down book after book, glancing at them, restoring them to the shelves or dumping them into the bucket. At last he came to three large volumes which Russell could recognize as the last surviving copy of Principia mathematica. He took down one of the volumes, turned over a few pages, seemed puzzled for a moment by the curious symbolism, closed the volume, balanced it in his hand and hesitated….

One of an author’s worst nightmares is to have his work rendered instantly obsolescent not long after his death, even though there is a very strong likelihood that, in about 150 years, few people will care about the majority of books published today. (Hell, few people care about anything I have to write today, much less this insane Modern Library project. There is a high probability that I will be dead in five decades and that nobody will read the many millions of words or listen to the countless hours of radio I have put out into the universe. It may seem pessimistic to consider this salient truth, but, if anything, it motivates me to make as much as I can in the time I have, which I suppose is an egotistical and foolishly optimistic approach. But what else can one do? Deposit one’s head in the sand, smoke endless bowls of pot, wolf down giant bags of Cheetos, and binge-watch insipid television that will also not be remembered?) You can either accept this reality and reach the few people you can and find happiness and gratitude in doing so. Or you can deny the clear fact that your ego is getting in the way of your achievements, embracing supererogatory anxieties and forcing you to spend too much time feeling needlessly morose.

I suppose that in articulating this common neurosis, Hardy is performing a service. He seems to relish “mathematical fame,” which he calls “one of the soundest and steadiest of investments.” Yet fame is a piss-poor reason to go about making art or formulating theorems. Most of the contributions to human advancement are rendered invisible. These are often small yet subtly influential rivulets that unknowingly pass into the great river that future generations will wade in. We fight for virtues and rigor and intelligence and truth and justice and fairness and equality because this will be the legacy that our children and grandchildren will latch onto. And we often make unknowing waves. Would we, for example, be enjoying Hamilton today if Lin-Manuel Miranda’s school bus driver had not drilled him with Geto Boys lyrics? And if we capitulate those standards, if we gainsay the “trivial” inspirations that cause others to offer their greatness, then we say to the next generation, who are probably not going to be listening to us, that fat, drunk, and stupid is the absolute way to go through life, son.

A chair may be a collection of whirling electrons, or an idea in the mind of God: each of these accounts of it may have its merits, but neither conforms at all closely to the suggestions of common sense.

This is Hardy suggesting some church and state-like separation between pure and applied mathematics. He sees physics as fitting into some idealistic philosophy while identifying pure mathematics as “a rock on which all idealism flounders.” But might not one fully inhabit common sense if the chair exists in some continuum beyond this either-or proposition? Is not the chair’s perceptive totality worth pursuing?

It is at this point in the book where Hardy’s argument really heads south and he makes an astonishingly wrongheaded claim, one that he could not have entirely foreseen, noting that “Real mathematics has no effects on war.” This was only a few years before Los Alamos was to prove him wrong. And that’s not all:

It can be maintained that modern warfare is less horrible than the warfare of pre-scientific times; that bombs are probably more merciful than bayonets; that lachrymatory gas and mustard gas are perhaps the most humane weapons yet devised by military science; and that the orthodox view rests solely on loose-thinking sentimentalism.

Oh Hardy! Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Agent Orange, Nick Ut’s famous napalm girl photo from Vietnam, Saddam Hussein’s chemical gas massacre in Halabja, the use of Sarin-spreading rockets in Syria. Not merciful. Not humane. And nothing to be sentimental about!

Nevertheless, I was grateful to argue with this book on my second read, which occurred a little more than two weeks after the shocking 2016 presidential election. I had thought myself largely divested of hope and optimism, with the barrage of headlines and frightening appointments (and even Trump’s most recent Taiwan call) doing nothing to summon my natural spirits. But Hardy did force me to engage with his points. And his book, while possessing many flawed arguments, is nevertheless a fascinating insight into a man who gave up: a worthwhile and emotionally true Rorschach test you may wish to try if you need to remind yourself why you’re still doing what you’re doing.

Next Up: Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life!

Six Easy Pieces (Modern Library Nonfiction #88)

(This is the thirteenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.)

mlnf88Richard Feynman, exuberant Nobel laureate and formidable quantum mechanics man, may have been energetic in his lectures and innovatively performative in the classroom, but I’m not sure he was quite the great teacher that many have pegged him to be. James Gleick’s biography Genius informs us that students dropped out of his high-octane, info-rich undergraduate physics classes at a remarkable rate, replaced by Caltech faculty members and grad students who took to the Queens-born superstar much like baryons make up the visible matter of the universe. The extent to which Feynman was aware of this cosmic shift has been disputed by his chroniclers, but it is important to be aware of this shortcoming, especially if you’re bold enough to dive into the famed three volume Feynman Lectures on Physics, which are all thankfully available online. Six Easy Pieces represents an abridged version of Feynman’s full pedagogical oeuvre. And even though the many YouTube videos of Feynman reveal an undeniably magnetic and indefatigably passionate man of science who must have been an incredible dynamo to experience in person, one wonders whether barraging a hot room of young nervous twentysomethings with hastily delivered information is the right way to popularize science, much less inspire a formidable army of physicists.

Watch even a few minutes of Feynman firing on all his robust cylinders and it becomes glaringly apparent how difficult it is to contend with Feynman’s teaching legacy in book form. One wonders why the Modern Library nonfiction judges, who were keen to unknowingly bombard this devoted reader with such massive multivolume works as The Golden Bough, Dumas Malone’s Jefferson and His Time, and Principia Mathematica, didn’t give this spot to the full three volume Lectures. Did they view Feynman’s complete lesson plan as failed?

Judging from the sextet that I sampled in this deceptively slim volume, I would say that, while Feynman was undeniably brilliant, he was, like many geniuses, someone who often got lost within his own metaphors. While his analogy of two corks floating in a pool of water, with one cork jiggling in place to create motion in the pool that causes indirect motion for the other cork, is a tremendously useful method of conveying the “unseen” waves of the electromagnetic field (one that galvanized me to do the same in a saucepan after I had finished two bottles of wine over a week and a half), he is not nearly on-the-nose with his other analogies. The weakest lesson in the book, “Conservation on Energy,” trots out what seems to be a reliably populist metaphor with a child named “Dennis the Menace” playing with 28 blocks, somehow always ending up with 28 of these at the end of the day. Because Feynman wants to illustrate conservational constants, he shoehorns another element to the narrative whereby Dennis’s mother is, for no apparent reason, not allowed to open up the toy box revealing the number of blocks and thus must calculate how many blocks reside within. The mother has conveniently weighed the box at some unspecified time in advance back when it contained all 28 blocks.

This is bad teaching, in large part because it is bad storytelling that makes no sense. I became less interested in conservation of energy, with Feynman’s convoluted parallel clearly becoming more trouble than it was worth, and more interested in knowing why the mother was so fixated on remembering the number of blocks. Was she truly so starved for activity in her life that she spent all day at work avoiding all the juicy water cooler gossip about co-workers, much less kvetching about the boss, so that she might scheme a plan to at long last show her son that she would always know the weight of a single block? When Dennis showed resistance to opening the toy box, why didn’t the mother stand her ground and tell him to buzz off and stream an episode of Project Mc²?

Yet for all these defects in method, there is an indisputable poetic beauty in the way in which Feynman reminds us that we live in a vast world composed of limitless particles, a world in which we still aren’t aware of all the rules and in which even the particles contained within solids remain “fixed” in motion. Our universe is always moving, even when we can’t see it or completely comprehend it. Feynman is quick to observe throughout his lessons that “The test of all knowledge is experiment,” which again points to my theory that Feynman’s teachings, often accentuated by experiment, were probably better experienced than read. Nevertheless, even in book form, it is truly awe-inspiring to understand that we can still not accurately predict the precise mass, form, and force of all the cascading droplets from a mighty river once it hits the precipice of a waterfall. Such mysteries capture our imagination and, when Feynman is committed to encouraging our inventiveness through open and clear-eyed examples from our world, he is very much on point. Thanks in part to Feynman reminding me just how little we silly humans now know, I began to feel my heart open more for Tycho Brahe, that poor Dane who spent many years of his life refining Copernicus’s details and determining the elliptical patterns of planetary orbits. Brahe worked out his calculations entirely without a telescope, which allowed Johannes Kepler to sift through his invaluable measurements and forge laws that all contemporary astronomers now rely on to determine where a planet might be in the sky on any given night of the year. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle hasn’t even been around a century and it’s nothing less than astounding to consider how our great grandparents had a completely different understanding of atoms and motion in their early lifetime than we do today.

Feynman did have me wanting to know more about the origins of many scientific discoveries, causing me to contemplate how each and every dawning realization altered human existence (an inevitable buildup for Thomas Kuhn and paradigms, which I will take up in ML Nonfiction #69). But unlike such contemporary scientists as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Alan Guth, or Brian Greene, Feynman did not especially inspire me to plunge broadly into my own experiments or make any further attempts to grapple with physics-based complexities. This may very well be more my failing than Feynman’s, but there shall be many more stabs at science as we carry on with this massive reading endeavor!

Next Up: G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology!

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Modern Library Nonfiction #89)

(This is the twelfth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Golden Bough.)

“Either this world, my mother, is a monster, or I myself am a freak.” — Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I was a sliver-thin, stupefyingly shy, and very excitable boy who disguised his bruises under the long sleeves of his shirt not long before the age of five. I was also a freak.

bedroomI had two maps pinned to the wall of my drafty bedroom, which had been hastily constructed into the east edge of the garage in a house painted pink (now turquoise, according to Google Maps). The first map was of Tolkien’s Middle-earth, in which I followed the quests of Bilbo and Frodo by finger as I wrapped my precocious, word-happy head around sentences that I’d secretly study from the trilogy I had purloined from the living room, a well-thumbed set that I was careful to put back to the shelves before my volatile and often sour father returned home from the chemical plant. In some of his rare calm moments, my father read aloud from The Lord of the Rings if he wasn’t too drunk, irascible, or violent. His voice led me to imagine Shelob’s thick spidery thistles, Smeagol’s slithering corpus, and kink open my eyes the next morning for any other surprises I might divine in my daily journeys to school. The second map was of Santa Clara County, a very real region that everyone now knows as Silicon Valley but that used to be a sweeping swath of working and lower middle-class domiciles. This was one of several dozen free maps of Northern California that I had procured from AAA with my mother’s help. One of the nice perks of being an AAA member was the ample sample of rectangular geographical foldouts. I swiftly memorized all of the streets, held spellbound by the floral and butterfly patterns of freeway intersections seen from a majestic bird’s eye view in an errant illustrated sky. My mother became easily lost while driving and I knew the avenues and the freeways in more than a dozen counties so well that I could always provide an easy cure for her confusion. It is a wonder that I never ended up working as a cab driver, although my spatial acumen has remained so keen over the years that, to this day, I can still pinpoint the precise angle in which you need to slide a thick unruly couch into the tricky recesses of a small Euclidean-angled apartment even when I am completely exhausted.

mlnf89These two maps seemed to be the apotheosis of cartographic art at the time, filling me with joy and wonder and possibility. It helped me cope with the many problems I lived with at home. I understood that there were other regions beyond my bedroom where I could wander in peace, where I could meet kinder people or take in the beatific comforts of a soothing lake (Vasona Lake, just west of Highway 17 in Los Gatos, had a little railroad spiraling around its southern tip and was my real-life counterpart to Lake Evendim), where the draw of Rivendell’s elvish population or the thrill of smoky Smaug stewing inside the Lonely Mountain collided against visions of imagined mountain dwellers I might meet somewhere within the greens and browns of Santa Teresa Hills and the majestic observatories staring brazenly into the cosmos at the end of uphill winding roads. I would soon start exploring the world I had espied from my improvised bedroom study on my bike, pedaling unfathomable miles into vicinities I had only dreamed about, always seeking parallels to what the Oxford professor had whipped up. I once ventured as far south as Gilroy down the Monterey Highway, which Google Maps now informs me is a thirty-six mile round trip, because my neglectful parents never kept tabs on how long I was out of the house or where I was going. They didn’t seem to care. As shameful as this was, I’m glad they didn’t. I needed an uncanny dominion, a territory to flesh out, in order to stay happy, humble, and alive.

The maps opened up my always hungry eyes to books, which contained equally bountiful spaces devoted to the real and the imaginary, unspooling further marks and points for me to find in the palpable world and, most importantly, within my heart. I always held onto this strange reverence for place to beat back the sadness after serving as my father’s punching bag. To this day, I remain an outlier, a nomad, a lifelong exile, a wanderer even as I sit still, a renegade hated for what people think I am, a black sheep who will never belong no matter how kind I am. I won’t make the mistake of painting myself as some virtuous paragon, but I’ve become so accustomed to being condemned on illusory cause, to having all-too-common cruelties inflicted upon me (such as the starry-eyed bourgie Burning Man sybarite I recently opened my heart to, who proceeded to deride the city that I love, along with the perceived deficiencies of my hard-won apartment, this after I had told her tales, not easily summoned, about what it was like to be rootless and without family and how home and togetherness remain sensitive subjects for me) that the limitless marvels of the universe parked in my back pocket or swiftly summoned from my shelves or my constant peregrinations remain reliable, life-affirming balms that help heal the scars and render the wounds invisible. Heartbreak and its accompanying gang of thugs often feel like a mob bashing in your ventricles in a devastatingly distinct way, even though the great cosmic joke is that everyone experiences it and we have to love anyway.

So when Annie Dillard’s poetic masterpiece Pilgrim at Tinker Creek entered my reading life, its ebullient commitment to finding grace and gratitude in a monstrous world reminded me that seeing and perceiving and delving and gaping awestruck at Mother Earth’s endless glories seemed to me one one of the best survival skills you can cultivate and that I may have accidentally stumbled upon. As I said, I’m a freak. But Dillard is one too. And there’s a good chance you may walk away from this book, which I highly urge you to read, feeling a comparable kinship, as I did to Dillard. Even if you already have a formidable arsenal of boundless curiosity ready to be summoned at a moment’s notice, this shining 1974 volume remains vital and indispensable and will stir your soul for the better, whether you’re happy or sad. Near the end of a disastrous year, we need these inspirational moments now more than ever.

* * *

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.” – Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Annie Dillard was only 28 when she wrote this stunning 20th century answer to Thoreau (the subject of her master’s thesis), which is both a perspicacious journal of journeying through the immediately accessible wild near her bucolic Southwestern Virginia perch and a daringly honest entreaty for consciousness and connection. Dillard’s worldview is so winningly inclusive that she can find wonder in such savage tableaux as a headless praying mantis clutching onto its mate or the larval creatures contained within a rock barnacle. The Washington Post claimed not long after Pilgrim‘s publication that the book was “selling so well on the West Coast and hipsters figure Annie Dillard’s some kind of female Castaneda, sitting up on Dead Man’s Mountain smoking mandrake roots and looking for Holes in the Horizon her guru said were there.” But Pilgrim, inspired in part from Colette’s Break of Day, is far from New Age nonsense. The book’s wise and erudite celebration of nature and spirituality was open and inspiring enough to charm even this urban-based secular humanist, who desperately needed a pick-me-up and a mandate to rejoin the world after a rapid-fire series of personal and political and romantic and artistic setbacks that occurred during the last two weeks.

For all of the book’s concerns with divinity, or what Dillard identifies as “a divine power that exists in a particular place, or that travels about over the face of the earth as a man might wander,” explicit gods don’t enter this meditation until a little under halfway through the book, where she points out jokingly how gods are often found on mountaintops and points out that God is an igniter as well as a destroyer, one that seeks invisibility for cover. And as someone who does not believe in a god and who would rather deposit his faith in imaginative storytelling and myth rather than the superstitions of religious ritual, I could nevertheless feel and accept the spiritual idea of being emotionally vulnerable while traversing into some majestic terrain. Or as Pascal wrote in Pensées 584 (quoted in part by Dillard), “God being thus hidden, every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden, is not true, and every religion which does not give the reason of it, is not instructive.”

Much of this awe comes through the humility of perceiving, of devoting yourself to sussing out every conceivable kernel that might present itself and uplift you on any given day and using this as the basis to push beyond the blinkered cage of your own self-consciousness. Dillard uses a metaphor of loose change throughout Pilgrim that neatly encapsulates this sentiment:

It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

This is not too far removed from Thoreau’s faith in seeds: “Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” The smug and insufferable Kathryn Schulzes of our world gleefully misread this great tradition of discovering possibilities in the small as arrogance, little realizing how their own blind and unimaginative hubris glows with crass Conde Nast entitlement as they fail to observe that Thoreau and Dillard were also acknowledging the ineluctable force of a bigger and fiercer world that will carry on with formidable complexity long after our dead bodies push against daisies. Faced with the choice of sustaining a sour Schulz-like apostasy or receiving every living day as a gift, I’d rather risk the arrogance of dreaming from the collected riches of what I have and what I can give rather than the gutless timidity of a prescriptive rigidity that fails to consider that we are all steeped in foolish and inconsistent behavior which, in the grand scheme of things, is ultimately insignificant.

Dillard is guided just as much by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as she is by religious and philosophical texts. The famous 1927 scientific law, which articulates how you can never know a particle’s speed and velocity at the same time, is very much comparable to chasing down some hidden deity or contending with some experiential palpitations when you understand that there simply is no answer, for one can feel but never fully comprehend the totality in a skirmish with Nature. It accounts for Dillard frequently noting that the towhee chirping on a treetop or the muskrat she observes chewing grass on a bank for forty minutes never see her. In seeing these amazing creatures carry on with their lives, who are completely oblivious to her own human vagaries, Dillard reminds us that this is very much the state of Nature, whether human or animal. If it is indeed arrogance to find awe and humility in this state of affairs, as Dillard and Thoreau clearly both did, then one’s every breath may as well be a Napoleonic puff of the chest.

Dillard is also smart and expansive enough to show us that, no matter where we reside, we are fated to brush up against the feral. She points to how arboreal enthusiasts in the Lower Bronx discovered a fifteen feet ailanthus tree growing from a lower Bronx garage and how New York must spend countless dollars each year to rid its underground water pipes of roots. Such realities are often contended with out of sight and out of mind, even as the New York apartment dweller battles cockroaches, but the reminder is another useful point for why we must always find the pennies and dare to dream and wander and take in, no matter what part of the nation we dwell in.

Another refreshing aspect of Pilgrim is the way in which Dillard confronts her own horrors with fecundity. Yes, even this graceful ruminator has the decency to confess her hangups about the unsettling rapidity with which moths lay their eggs in vast droves. She stops short at truly confronting “the pressure of birth and growth” that appalls her, shifting to plants as a way of evading animals and then retreating back to the blood-pumping phylum to take in blood flukes and aphid reproduction more as panorama rather than something to be felt. This volte-face isn’t entirely satisfying. On the other hand, Dillard is also bold enough to scoop up a cup of duck-pond water and peer at monostyla under a microscope. What this tells us is that there are clear limits to how far any of us are willing to delve, yet I cannot find it within me to chide Dillard too harshly for a journey she was not quite willing to take, for this is an honest and heartfelt chronicle.

While I’ve probably been “arrogant” in retreating at length to my past in an effort to articulate how Dillard’s book so moved me, I would say that Pilgrim at Tinker Creek represents a third map for my adult years. It is a true work of art that I am happy to pin to the walls of my mind, which seems more reliable than any childhood bedroom. This book has caused me to wonder why I have ignored so much and has demanded that that I open myself up to any penny I could potentially cherish and to ponder what undiscoverable terrain I might deign to take in as I continue to walk this earth. I do not believe in a god, but I do feel with all my heart that one compelling reason to live is to fearlessly approach all that remains hidden. There is no way that you’ll ever know or find everything, but Dillard’s magnificent volume certainly gives you many good reasons to try.

Next Up: Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces!

The Silver Lining: A Potential Bipartisan Senate Blockade to Stop Trump

Many agonized observers have been so paralyzed by the shocking appointment of white supremacist Steve Bannon as Trump’s key strategist, to say nothing of a potential paleoconservative Cabinet and the renewed commitment to xenophobia, deportation, and anti-choice sentiments that Trump expressed in an aloof appearance on 60 Minutes, that it has been difficult to remember that politics is a game that Trump may not quite know how to play. Sure, he can whip up the fury of a thoughtless mob to reenact Nuremburg, win votes, and inspire a spate of hate crimes after the election. But being a successful demagogue does not necessarily make one a successful politician. And while the House of Representatives and likely the Supreme Court appears to be on a fearsome rightward trajectory, there is one silver lining to this despotic cloud that Trump and his cohorts have not considered: the power and dynamics of the United States Senate.

As it presently stands, the Senate is likely to be composed of 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats. However, that number could change. There remains a chance to reduce that number to a 51-49 split in favor of the Republicans. The opportunity presents itself with an experienced Louisiana fighter for the people named Foster Campbell. Campbell is running for a Senate seat in Louisiana in a runoff race with Republican State Treasurer John Kennedy (no relation to the 35th President) that is scheduled to take place on December 10, 2016. If Campbell can win, that means the Republicans will only have one majority vote.

That one vote may seem like Trump can push anything he wants through a Republican-controlled Senate, but don’t be so certain. Liberals (myself included) may be looking at this situation the wrong way. Because we keep forgetting that the American political landscape isn’t what it was last week. The new normal isn’t Republican politics as usual, but old Republican politics locked in a potent and quite volatile struggle against the alt-right extremism that Trump and his willing lieutenants will usher in, a strain that a good chunk of the population, including those who voted for Trump, will come to reject once they realize that the “outsider” is a man hobnobbing with insiders and a man who may be unable to deliver on his promises. This brand of right-wing politics is so utterly beyond anything we have seen before, even with Mitch McConnell’s hijacking of the Merrick Garland nomination or anything plotted by Grover Norquist, that we have failed to consider that some Republicans may very well reject it, especially if their phone banks are jammed with constituents regularly calling them.

Politics, as we all know, makes strange bedfellows. And while a moderate Senator created gridlock with Democrats in pre-Trump times, there’s a greater likelihood that moderates will side with Democrats if the full monty of Trump’s extremism streaks through the Senate chambers. There may be some bipartisan options to not only deadlock the Senate on key bills, but that could prevent the Senate from confirming one quarter of the 4,000 new positions that the Trump administration needs to fill before January.

Senator Susan Collins may be a Republican from Maine, but her positions resemble a more conservative Democrat. (Indeed, Newsweek called her one of the last moderates in the Northeast.) She’s pro-choice, willing to raise taxes on any income bracket, supports gun restrictions and same-sex marriage, and, according to someone who called her, was willing to support the DREAM Act (a key piece of legislation for immigrants) as a standalone bill. Senator Harry Reid has cut bipartisan deals with her in the past. So there may be a possibility to work with her in the future.

Another dependable moderate Republican-Democratic alignment may be with Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, who expressed dismay over the radical direction of the Republican party in 2012 and has also expressed a desire to do something about climate change. Like Sen. Collins, Sen. Murkowski has some progressive positions. She supported the DREAM Act and she did reject Trump’s call to deport Muslims last year. She also had tough words for Sarah Palin and Joe Miller.

Politics is a numbers game. And if Senators Murkowski and Collins are willing to work with the Democrats in an age of Trump extremism (and I think they will, provided the alt-right doesn’t get to them), then there’s a possibility that many Trump-inspired bills and confirmations will receive a 51 nay with 49 Democrats in the Senate. This does leave Collins and Murkowski in positions of great influence, and they will certainly use this to their advantage, possibly playing both sides against each other, but it’s a two year buffer that may just hold somewhat if the Democrats can succeed in winning back the Senate during the 2018 midterm elections. Historically speaking, there hasn’t been a tie-breaking vote cast by a sitting Vice President since March 13, 2008. (Joe Biden never cast a tie-breaking vote.) It’s possible that Vice President Mike Pence will overturn John Adams’s 28 tie-breaking vote record under a Trump Administration. This is, after all, an unprecedented moment in American political history in which anything can and will happen. But if Pence does this, this may create friction and animosity between the White House and the Republican Senators, who in turn may revolt against the Trump Administration’s autocratic tactics.

Everything I’ve suggested here is contingent upon Foster Campbell winning the Louisiana Senate seat. A Senate composed of 48 Democrats will create stalemates. A Senate composed of 49 Democrats will create possibilities for a formidable blockade with one or two moderate Republicans on their side.

So can Foster Campbell become Senator? For one thing, he’ll need donations. But here’s the math based on the November Senate race:

Republican candidates received the following votes:

John Kennedy (25%); Charles Boustany (15.4%); John Fleming (10.6%); Rob Maness (4.7%); David Duke (3%); Donald Crawford (1.3%); Joseph Cao (1.1%); Charles Marsala (0.2%).

TOTAL REPUBLICAN PERCENTAGE: 61.3%

Democratic candidates received the following votes:

Foster Campbell (17.5%); Caroline Fayard (12.5%); Derrick Edwards (2.7%); Gary Landrieu (2.4%); Josh Pellerin (0.4%); Peter Williams (0.4%); Vinny Mendoza (0.3%).

TOTAL DEMOCRATIC PERCENTAGE: 36.2%

This is quite a margin of voters for Foster Campbell to win over. Trump won 58% of the state in the election. However, the Times-Picayune reported that there was a dropoff this year in African-American voter participation. Polling expert Edward Chervenak pointed out in the article that voters in overwhelmingly white precincts were more likely to vote than voters at overwhelmingly black precincts. If African-American voters (and other Democrats) show up to vote for Campbell in droves during the December 10, 2016 election, then Campbell may stand a chance of winning this seat and creating a quasi-blockade in the Senate. And if it can be done, and it does appear to be a Hail Mary pass at this point, then there remains a very good possibility that the Democrats can stop Donald Trump from enacting his extremist policies with the help of a few moderates.

The Golden Bough (Modern Library Nonfiction #90)

(This is the eleventh entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: Shadow and Act.)

mlnf90It is somewhat difficult to obtain a decent print edition of the Third Edition of The Golden Bough without getting fleeced by some squirrely operator working out of a shady storage unit in the middle of nowhere. For nobody seems to read the whole enchilada anymore. This is hardly surprising in an age, abundantly cemented last week, when most people are more inclined to celebrate regressive stupidity, melting their minds in any self-immolating pastime rather than opening a book. But I was able to find an affordable edition with the help of a British antiquarian. I had no idea what I was in for, but some initial research suggested very strongly that I should not settle for the abridged edition that is much easier to acquire. Certainly the sheer time-sucking insanity of the Modern Library Reading Challenge, one of the many dependable bastions I have left in a bleak epoch, demands that I go the distance on all entries, even if it means becoming ensnared by a particular title for several weeks, often answering texts from pals checking in on me with fun little snippets from Estonian folklore quebraditaing somewhere within a “Fine. How are you?” Such is the life of a book-loving eccentric with a ridiculous self-imposed mandate that involves refusing to let terrible setbacks get in the way of happy rumination. We find hope and courage and new ideas and fierce fortitude in remembering that not a single authoritarian entity or pernicious individual can ever crush the possibilities contained within our minds, our hearts, and our souls.

The thirteen volume set landed at my feet with a promising thud after a month-long voyage by boat across the Atlantic Ocean, where it occupied my reading time for many months and proceeded to change my life. I realize that such a claim may sound trite in light of the devastating and life-altering results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but, if there’s anything we can learn from Stefan Zweig’s suicide, we must never forget the importance of patience, of working long and hard to fight and endure while steering humanity’s promising galleon back on the right course even as we look to culture’s power to sustain our spirits in the darkest times.1

James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough proved so galvanizing that I began to marvel more at trees and desired to spend more time beneath their magnificent branches. I began picking up the junk that other New Yorkers had so thoughtlessly deposited under their glorious leafy crowns. I began naming some of the trees I liked, saying “Hello, Balder!” (styled after the Norse god) to a beloved maple near the southwestern edge of Central Park. I started paying closer attention to the modest superstitious rituals that most of us take for granted, wanting to know why we feared black cats crossing our path (it started in the 1560s and originated with the idea that black cats were witches who had transformed their corporeal state) or worried ourselves into years of bad luck from walking under a ladder (it goes back to the Egyptians, who believed that walking under any pyramid would attenuate its mystical power). And, of course, I began to wonder if other superstitious rituals, such as voting for a vicious sociopathic demagogue to make a nation “great” again, originated from similar irrational fears. Despite being a secular humanist, I was stunned to discover that I had modest pagan proclivities and started to ask friends to engage in rather goofball offshoots of established rites in a somewhat libertine manner, much of which is unreportable. And if you think such a reaction is idiosyncratic (and it is), consider the strange takeaway that D.H. Lawrence memorialized in a December 8, 1915 letter:

I have been reading Frazer’s Golden Bough and Totemism and Exogamy. Now I am convinced of what I believed when I was about twenty — that there is another seat of consciousness than the brain and the nerve system: there is a blood-consciousness which exists in us independently of the ordinary mental consciousness, which depends on the eye as its source or connector. There is the blood-consciousness, with the sexual connection, holding the same relation as the eye, in seeing, holds to the mental consciousness. One lives, knows, and has one’s being in blood, without any references to nerves and brain. This is one half of life, belonging to the darkness. And the tragedy of this our life, and of your life, is that the mental and nerve consciousness exerts a tyranny over the blood-consciousness, and that your will has gone completely over to the mental consciousness, and is engaged with the destruction of your blood-being or blood-consciousness, the final liberating of the one, which is only death in result.

When I finished Frazer’s final volume, I certainly wasn’t prepared to suggest that any part of my consciousness was tyrannizing the others because of some eternal human connection to myths and rites enacted to answer and make sense of the presently inexplicable. But Lawrence did have a point about the way humans are naturally drawn to unusual ceremonies and celebrations that go well beyond Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera wearing the same shoes on game days, with the impulse often defying any steely rationalism we may use to make sense of our inherently animalistic nature, which any glance at a newspaper reveals to be quite frighteningly present.

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More importantly, The Golden Bough changed everything I thought I knew about storytelling and myth. It forced me to see commonalities within many cultures. To cite one of Frazer’s countless comparative examples, consider the way that humans have approached the bear hunt. After the Kamtchatkans had killed a bear and eaten its flesh, the host of the subsequent dinner party would bring the bear’s head before the assembled guests, wrap it in grass, and then conduct a panel of sorts where the host, serving as a moderator only slightly less ballistic than Bill O’Reilly, would ask the bear if he had been well-treated. Much like many wingnut “journalists” irresponsibly publishing claims in Slate today without robust evidence (and failing to tender corrections when pwned), the Kamctchatkan host would blame the Russians. The American Indians likewise implored the dead bear not to be angry for being hunted and would hang the bear’s head on a post, painting it red and blue rather than donning it with vegetation. They also addressed it, much in the manner that dog owners chat with their uncomprehending pets when nobody’s around. The Assiniboins also held feasts after a hunt and also mounted the bear’s head, shrouding it in strips of scarlet cloth, and respected the bear so much that they offered the head a pipe to smoke, not unlike the poor dog who sits outside Mets games with a pipe in his mouth. And looking beyond Frazer, one finds in Alanson Skinner’s Notes on the Eastern Cree and Northern Saulteaux a similar bear’s head ceremony that involved sharing a pipe before the participants took a bite from the bear’s flesh and, with the old Finnish custom of karhunpeijaiset, a bear’s head mounted upon a young tree, venerated and addressed as a relative or the son of a god. And according to the Russian ethnographer Vladimir Arsenyev (and I found this bit by sifting through James H. Grayson’s Myths and Legends from Korea), the Udegey people of the Russian Far East also had a bear ceremony and believed, “To throw the head away is a great sin….The cooked bear’s head is wrapped in its own skin with its fur outwards and tied up with a thin rope,” with a communal ceremony quite similar to the Finns.

I could go on (and indeed Frazer often rambles for pages), but there’s an undeniable awe in learning that something so specific about bears (head mounted, party organized, head covered, bear respected), much less anything else, arose independently in so many different parts of the world. It proves very conclusively, and perhaps this is especially essential for us to understand as we reconcile a vast and seemingly incurable national division, that humans share more in common with each other than we’re willing to confess and that the seemingly unique rituals that we believe define “us” are quite likely shared many times over in other parts of the nation, much less the world.

The reason it took me so long to read The Golden Bough was not because of its many thousand pages (aside from some sloggish parts in the Spirits of the Corn and of the Wild volumes, the books are surprisingly readable2), but because my imagination would become so captivated by some tale of trees esteemed above human life or a crazed orgiastic release (see Saturnalia) that I would lose many hours in the library seeing how much of this was still practiced. It has been more than a century since Frazer published the Third Edition, but his remarkable observations about shared rituals still invite us to dream and believe and to perceive that, Frazer’s regrettable references to “savages” and “primitives” notwithstanding, we are not so different from each other.

Frazer’s explanation for these common qualities — epitomized by the famous J.M.W. Turner painting (pictured above) sharing the same name title as Frazer’s capacious opus — rests in the sylvan lake of Nemi and an ancient tale in which a priest-king defended a singular tree. The priest-king, who was an incarnation of a god wedded to the world, could only be overpowered by a fight to the death and, if he was slain, he would be replaced by his victor, with the cycle perpetuating ad infinitum. Frazer believed that nearly every story in human history could be traced back to this unifying myth, with most of the tales triggered by our imagination arising out of what he called “sympathetic magic,” whereby humans often imitate what they cannot understand. So if this meant building effigies or participating in elaborate and often unusual rituals that explain why the sun scorched the crops to an unsustainable crisp in the last harvest or helped more animals to multiply for grand feasts next season, magical thinking provided both the bond and the panacea well before Robert B. Thomas came up with the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

There are two components to sympathetic magic: the first is Contagion, or physical contact, which involved a transfer of “essence” by physical contact (among other things, this would account for why humans have been especially careful about bear’s heads, as described above); the second was Similarity, whereby “the magicians infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not.”

One of The Golden Bough‘s most fascinating volumes, The Scapegoat, reveals how a human belief in “essence” may be the root of our most irrational fears. Contagion often led to humans trying to transfer their disease and miseries to other people, if not reinforcing their own biases about people or groups that they disliked. I am indebted to the terrific podcast Imaginary Worlds for steering me to the work of Carol Nemeroff, whose psychological considerations of Frazer’s findings are are especially constructive in understanding disgust. Nemeroff and her colleagues conducted a series of studies in which they placed a sterilized dead roach in a glass of juice and asked subjects to eat fudge that resembled dog feces. The natural reactions (recoiling at the roach and the shit-shaped fudge) showed that sympathetic magic is still very much a mainstay of our culture.

Indeed, sympathetic magic drives most of our cherished rituals today. In one of his most controversial (but nevertheless true) observations, Frazer observes in Adonis Attis Osiris that, although the Gospels never cited a hard date for Jesus Christ’s birthday bash, Christians have adhered to their churchgoing rituals with the same practiced regularity one sees in fundamentalist homophobics holding up cardboard signs that misquote the Bible to reinforce their hate. The original celebration date of Christ’s alleged birth was January 6th. But because heathens celebrated the birthday of the Sun on December 25th, and this was often a draw for the Christians because the heathens were more fun, the Church agreed to set December 25th as the official day. If Christmas did not exist, it would be necessary for humankind to invent it. For such useful observations, The Golden Bough is incredibly handy to have in one’s library, if only to remind us that most of our beliefs, the recurring rituals we are expected to adhere to, are predicated upon some ancient explanation that we failed to shake from the Magic 8-Ball of our daily existence. So Colin Kaepernick really doesn’t need to stand for the national anthem. While this conformist rite is admittedly improved from the Nazi-like Bellamy salute, standing for The Star-Spangled Banner is little more than a quaint superstition that one is pressured to participate in to “belong.”

Frazer’s scholarship, while impressive, is sometimes inexact in the effort to find a Theory of Everything. Midway through putting together the Third Edition, Frazer was challenged by Dr. Edward Westermarck, who pointed out that fire festivals did not originate from fire reinforcing the sun’s light and heat, but rather a need to celebrate purification. Frazer did correct his views in Balder the Beautiful, but it does leave one contemplating whether sympathetic magic served as Frazer’s knee-jerk goto point in his noble quest to reconcile several folkloric strands.

Still, one cannot disavow the conclusion that much of our behavior is not only similarly ceremonial across cultures, which would indeed suggest a common source. Frazer managed one last volume, the Aftermath, in 1937, just four years before his death. While this volume is little more than a collection of B-sides, it does have leave one wondering what Frazer would have made of Nuremburg rallies or even our current default mode of walking like zombies in the streets, heads down, eyes bulging at the prospect of another chapter in a Snapchat story. The gods and the sympathetic magic may be a tad more secular these days, but we still remain seduced. Myths and stories and rituals are as old as the Chauvet Cave paintings. One cannot imagine being human without them.

Next Up: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek!

Loser: A Report from the Trump Tower Protests

On Thursday, November 10, 2016, I attended the protests that had unfolded across the street from Trump Tower after Donald Trump had been elected the 45th President of the United States. I talked with anti-Trump activists, people who voted for Gary Johnson, people who voted for Trump, and people who didn’t vote at all in an attempt to understand how these unfathomable election results happened. (Running time: 32 minutes, 9 seconds)

Loser: A Report from the Trump Tower Protests (Download MP3)

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Shadow and Act (Modern Library Nonfiction #91)

(This is the tenth entry in The Modern Library Nonfiction Challenge, an ambitious project to read and write about the Modern Library Nonfiction books from #100 to #1. There is also The Modern Library Reading Challenge, a fiction-based counterpart to this list. Previous entry: The Power Broker.)

mlnf91When I first made my bold belly flop into the crisp waters of Ralph Ellison’s deep pool earlier this year, I felt instantly dismayed that it would be a good decade before I could perform thoughtful freestyle in response to his masterpiece Invisible Man (ML Fiction #19). As far as I’m concerned, that novel’s vivid imagery, beginning with its fierce and intensely revealing Battle Royale scene and culminating in its harrowing entrapment of the unnamed narrator, stands toe-to-toe with Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March as one of the most compelling panoramas of mid-20th century American life ever put to print, albeit one presented through a more hyperreal lens.

But many of today’s leading writers, ranging from Ta-Nehisi Coates to Jacqueline Woodson, have looked more to James Baldwin as their truth-telling cicerone, that fearless sage whose indisputably hypnotic energy was abundant enough to help any contemporary humanist grapple with the nightmarish realities that America continues to sweep under its bright plush neoliberal rug. At a cursory glance, largely because Ellison’s emphasis was more on culture than overt politics, it’s easy to see Ellison as a complacent “Maybe I’m Amazed” to Baldwin’s gritty “Cold Turkey,” especially when one considers the risk-averse conservatism which led to Ellison being attacked as an Uncle Tom during a 1968 panel at Grinnell College along with his selfish refusal to help emerging African-American authors after his success. But according to biographer Arnold Rampersad, Baldwin believed Ralph Ellison to be the angriest person he knew. And if one dives into Ellison’s actual words, Shadow and Act is an essential volume, which includes one of the most thrilling Molotov cocktails ever pitched into the face of a clueless literary critic, that is often just as potent and as lapel-grabbing as Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

For it would seem that while Negroes have been undergoing a process of “Americanization” from a time preceding this birth of this nation — including the fusing of their blood lines with other non-African strains, there has been a stubborn confusion as to their American identity. Somehow it was assumed that the Negroes, of all the diverse American peoples, would remain unaffected by the climate, the weather, the political circumstances — from which not even slaves were exempt — the social structures, the national manners, the modes of production and the tides of the market, the national ideals, the conflicts of values, the rising and falling of national morale, or the complex give and take of acculturalization which was undergone by all others who found their existence within the American democracy.

This passage, taken from an Ellison essay on Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, is not altogether different from Baldwin’s view of America as “a paranoid color wheel” in The Evidence of Things Not Seen, where Baldwin posited that a retreat into the bigoted mystique of Southern pride represented the ultimate denial of “Americanization” and thus African-American identity. Yet the common experiences that cut across racial lines, recently investigated with comic perspicacity on a “Black Jeopardy” Saturday Night Live sketch, may very well be a humanizing force to counter the despicable hate and madness that inspires uneducated white males to desecrate a Mississippi black church or a vicious demagogue to call one of his supporters “a thug” for having the temerity to ask him to be more respectful and inclusive.

Ellison, however, was too smart and too wide of a reader to confine these sins of dehumanization to their obvious targets. Like Baldwin and Coates and Richard Wright, Ellison looked to France for answers and, while never actually residing there, he certainly counted André Malraux and Paul Valéry among his hard influences. In writing about Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Ellison wisely singled out critics who failed to consider the full extent of African-American humanity even as they simultaneously demanded an on-the-nose and unambiguous “explanation” of who Wright was. (And it’s worth noting that Ellison himself, who was given his first professional writing gig by Wright, was also just as critical of Wright’s ideological propositions as Baldwin.) Ellison described how “the prevailing mood of American criticism has so thoroughly excluded the Negro that it fails to recognize some of the most basic tenets of Western democratic thought when encountering them in a black skin” and deservedly excoriated whites for seeing Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson merely as the ne plus ultra of African-American artistic innovation rather than the beginning of a great movement.

shriversombreroAt issue, in Ellison’s time and today, is the degree to which any individual voice is allowed to express himself. And Ellison rightly resented any force that would stifle this, whether it be the lingering dregs of Southern slavery telling the African-American how he must act or who he must be in telling his story as well as the myopic critics who would gainsay any voice by way of their boxlike assumptions about other Americans. One sees this unthinking lurch towards authoritarianism today with such white supremacists as Jonathan Franzen, Lionel Shriver, and the many Brooklyn novelists who, despite setting their works in gentrified neighborhoods still prominently populated by African-Americans, fail to include, much less humanize, black people who still live there.

“White supremacist” may seem like a harshly provocative label for any bumbling white writer who lacks the democratic bonhomie to leave the house and talk with other people and consider that those who do not share his skin color may indeed share more common experience than presumed. But if these writers are going to boast about how their narratives allegedly tell the truth about America while refusing to accept challenge for their gaping holes and denying the complexity of vital people who make up this great nation, then it seems apposite to bring a loaded gun to a knife fight. If we accept Ellison’s view of race as “an irrational sea in which Americans flounder like convoyed ships in a gale,” then it is clear that these egotistical, self-appointed seers are buckling on damaged vessels hewing to shambling sea routes mapped out by blustering navigators basking in white privilege, hitting murky ports festooned with ancient barnacles that they adamantly refuse to remove.

Franzen, despite growing up in a city in which half the population is African-American, recently told Slate‘s Isaac Chotiner that he could not countenance writing about other races because he has not loved them or gone out of his way to know them and thus excludes non-white characters from his massive and increasingly mediocre novels. Shriver wrote a novel, The Mandibles, in which the only black characters are (1) Leulla, bound to a chair and walked with a leash, and (2) Selma, who speaks in a racist Mammy patois (“I love the pitcher of all them rich folk having to cough they big piles of gold”). She then had the effrontery to deliver a keynote speech at the Brisbane Writers Festival arguing for the right to “try on other people’s hats,” failing to understand that creating dimensional characters involves a great deal more than playing dress-up at the country club. She quoted from a Margot Kaminski review of Chris Cleave’s Little Bee that offered the perfectly reasonable consideration, one that doesn’t deny an author’s right to cross boundaries, that an author may wish to take “special care…with a story that’s not implicitly yours to tell.” Such forethought clearly means constructing an identity that is more human rather than crassly archetypal, an eminently pragmatic consideration on how any work of contemporary art should probably reflect the many identities that make up our world. But for Shriver, a character should be manipulated at an author’s whim, even if her creative vagaries represent an impoverishment of imagination. For Shriver, inserting another nonwhite, non-heteronormative character into The Mandibles represented “issues that might distract from my central subject moment of apocalyptic economics.” Which brings us back to Ellison’s question of “Americanization” and how “the diverse American peoples” are indeed regularly affected by the decisions of those who uphold the status quo, whether overtly or covertly.

Writer Maxine Benba-Clarke bravely confronted Shriver with the full monty of this dismissive racism and Shriver responded, “When I come to your country. I expect. To be treated. With hospitality.” And with that vile and shrill answer, devoid of humanity and humility, Shriver exposed the upright incomprehension of her position, stepping from behind the arras as a kind of literary Jan Smuts for the 21st century.1

If this current state of affairs represents a bristling example of Giambattista Vico’s corsi e ricorsi, and I believe it does, then Ellison’s essay, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” astutely demonstrates how this cultural amaurosis went down before, with 20th century authors willfully misreading Mark Twain, failing to see that Huck’s release of Jim represented a moment that not only involved recognizing Jim as a human being, but admitting “the evil implicit in his ’emancipation'” as well as Twain accepting “his personal responsibility in the condition of society.” With great creative power comes great creative responsibility. Ellison points to Ernest Hemingway scouring The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn merely for its technical accomplishments rather than this moral candor and how William Faulkner, despite being “the greatest artist the South has produced,” may not be have been quite the all-encompassing oracle, given that The Unvanquished‘s Ringo is, despite his loyalty, devoid of humanity. In another essay on Stephen Crane, Ellison reaffirms that great art involves “the cost of moral perception, of achieving an informed sense of life, in a universe which is essentially hostile to man and in which skill and courage and loyalty are virtues which help in the struggle but by no means exempt us from the necessary plunge into the storm-sea-war of experience.” And in the essays on music that form the book’s second section (“Sound and the Mainstream”), Ellison cements this ethos with his personal experience growing up in the South. If literature might help us to confront the complexities of moral perception, then the lyrical, floating tones of a majestic singer or a distinctive cat shredding eloquently on an axe might aid us in expressing it. And that quest for authentic expression is forever in conflict with audience assumptions, as seen with such powerful figures as Charlie Parker, whom Ellison describes as “a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos…served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public which had but the slightest notion of its real significance.”

What makes Ellison’s demands for inclusive identity quite sophisticated is the vital component of admitting one’s own complicity, an act well beyond the superficial expression of easily forgotten shame or white guilt that none of the 20th or the 21st century writers identified here have had the guts to push past. And Ellison wasn’t just a writer who pointed fingers. He held himself just as accountable, as seen in a terrific 1985 essay called “An Extravagance of Laughter” (not included in Shadow and Act, but found in Going with the Territory), in which Ellison writes about how he went to the theatre to see Jack Kirkland’s adaptation of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. (I wrote about Tobacco Road in 2011 as part of this series and praised the way that this still volatile novel pushes its audience to confront its own prejudices against the impoverished through remarkably flamboyant characters.) Upon seeing wanton animal passion among poor whites on the stage, Ellison burst into an uncontrollable paroxysm of laughter, which emerged as he was still negotiating the rituals of New York life shortly after arriving from the South. Ellison compared his reaction, which provoked outraged leers from the largely white audience, to an informal social ceremony he observed while he was a student at Tuskegee that involved a set of enormous whitewashed barrels labeled FOR COLORED placed in public space. If an African-American felt an overwhelming desire to laugh, he would thrust his head into the pit of the barrel and do so. Ellison observes that African-Americans “who in light of their social status and past condition of servitude were regarded as having absolutely nothing in their daily experience which could possibly inspire rational laughter.” And the expression of this inherently human quality, despite being a cathartic part of reckoning with identity and one’s position in the world, was nevertheless positioned out of sight and thus out of mind.

When I took an improv class at UCB earlier this year, I had an instructor who offered rather austere prohibitions to any strain of humor considered “too dark” or “punching down,” which would effectively disqualify both Tobacco Road and the Tuskegee barrel ritual that Ellison describes.2 These restrictions greatly frustrated me and a few of my classmates, who didn’t necessarily see the exploration of edgy comic terrain as a default choice, but merely one part of asserting an identity inclusive of many perspectives. I challenged the notion of confining behavior to obvious choices and ended up getting a phone call from the registrar, who was a smart and genial man and with whom I ended up having a friendly and thoughtful volley about comedy. I had apparently been ratted out by one student, who claimed that I was “disrupting” the class when I was merely inquiring about my own complicity in establishing base reality. In my efforts to further clarify my position, I sent a lengthy email to the instructor, one referencing “An Extravagance of Laughter,” and pointed out that delving into the uncomfortable was a vital part of reckoning with truth and ensuring that you grew your voice and evolved as an artist. I never received a reply. I can’t say that I blame him.

Ellison’s inquiry into the roots of how we find common ground with others suggests that we may be able to do so if we (a) acknowledge the completeness of other identities and (b) allow enough room for necessary catharsis and the acknowledgment of our feelings and our failings as we take baby steps towards better understanding each other.

The most blistering firebomb in the book is, of course, the infamous essay “The World and the Jug,” which demonstrates just what happens when you assume rather than take the time to know another person. It is a refreshingly uncoiled response that one could not imagine being published in this age of “No haters” reviewing policies and genial retreat from substantive subjects in today’s book review sections. Reacting to Irving Howe’s “Black Boys and Native Sons,” Ellison condemns Howe for not seeing “a human being but an abstract embodiment of living hell” and truly hammers home the need for all art to be considered on the basis of its human experience rather than the spectator’s constricting inferences. Howe’s great mistake was to view all African-American novels through the prism of a “protest novel” and this effectively revealed his own biases against what black writers had to say and very much for certain prerigged ideas that Howe expected them to say. “Must I be condemned because my sense of Negro life was quite different?” writes Ellison in response to Howe roping him in with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. And Ellison pours on the vinegar by not only observing how Howe self-plagiarized passages from previous reviews, but how his intractable ideology led him to defend the “old-fashioned” violence contained in Wright’s The Long Dream, which, whatever its merits, clearly did not keep current with the changing dialogue at the time.

Shadow and Act, with its inclusion of interviews and speeches and riffs on music (along with a sketch of a struggling mother), may be confused with a personal scrapbook. But it is, first and foremost, one man’s effort to assert his identity and his philosophy in the most cathartic and inclusive way possible. We still have much to learn from Ellison more than fifty years after these essays first appeared. And while I will always be galvanized by James Baldwin (who awaits our study in a few years), Ralph Ellison offers plentiful flagstones to face the present and the future.

SUPPLEMENT: One of the great mysteries that has bedeviled Ralph Ellison fans for decades is the identity of the critic who attacked Invisible Man as a “literary race riot.” In a Paris Review interview included in Shadow and Act, Ellison had this to say about the critic:

But there is one widely syndicated critical bankrupt who made liberal noises during the thirties and has been frightened ever since. He attacked my book as a “literary race riot.”

With the generous help of Ellison’s biographer Arnold Rampersad (who gave me an idea of where the quote might be found in an email volley) and the good people at the New York Public Library, I have tracked down the “widely syndicated critical bankrupt” in question.

sterlingnorthHis name is Sterling North, best known for the children’s novel Rascal in 1963. He wrote widely popular (and rightly forgotten) children’s books while writing book reviews for various newspapers. North was such a vanilla-minded man that he comics “a poisonous mushroom growth” and seemed to have it in for any work of art that dared to do something different — or that didn’t involve treacly narratives involving raising baby raccoons.

And then, in the April 16, 1952 issue of the New York World-Telegram, he belittled Ellison’s masterpiece, writing these words:

This is one of the most tragic and disturbing books I have ever read. For the most part brilliantly written and deeply sincere, it is, at the same time, bitter, violent and unbalanced. Except for a few closing pages in which the author tries to express something like a sane outlook on race relations, it is composed largely of such scenes of interracial strife that it achieves the effect of one continuous literary race riot. Ralph Ellison is a Negro with almost as much writing talent as Richard Wright. Like his embittered hero (known only as “I’ throughout the book, Mr. Ellison received scholarships to help him through college, one from the State of Oklahoma which made possible three years at the Tuskegee Institute, and one from the Rosenwald Foundation.

If Mr. Ellison is as scornful and bitter about this sort of assistance as he lets his “hero” be, those who made the money available must wonder if it was well spent.

North’s remarkably condescending words offer an alarming view of the cultural oppression that Ellison was fighting against and serve as further justification for Ellison’s views in Shadow and Act. Aside from his gross mischaracterization of Ellison’s novel, there is North’s troubling assumptions that Ellison should be grateful in the manner of an obsequious and servile stereotype, only deserves a scholarship if he writes a novel that fits North’s limited idea of what African-American identity should be, and that future white benefactors should think twice about granting opportunities for future uppity Ellisons.

It’s doubtful that The Sterling North Society will recognize this calumny, but this is despicable racism by any measure. A dive into North’s past also reveals So Dear to My Heart, a 1948 film adaptation of North’s Midnight and Jeremiah that reveled in Uncle Tom representations of African-Americans.

North’s full review of The Invisible Man can be read below:

sterling-north

Next Up: James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough!

A Conversation with Ottessa Moshfegh

I stepped off the plane at LAX. As I waited for my suitcase to roll up from the airport’s deepest bowels, observing a faintly funereal mist smelling vaguely sulphuric and subsuming all emerging valises, a cadaverous man with thin eyes, a sinister frown, and frightening olive livery — one who later identified himself as “Ottessa Moshfegh’s senior aide-de-camp” but never divulged his first name — grabbed me by the throat and tackled me onto the floor. I wondered if he believed me to be a benevolent and objective reporter covering a Trump rally.

“Are you the interviewer?” he rasped.

He had a peppermint breath that was somewhere between Altoids and ForeverMints and I could hear the crack of his jaw biting upon a pesky capsule that had stubbornly refused to dissolve in his mouth. The aide-de-camp drooled fine rivulets of spittle onto the 2005 Coachella T-shirt that I was wearing, one that I hadn’t remembered purchasing because someone had suggested at the time that I ingest mildly illicit narcotics.

“Uh, yes?”

The aide-de-camp then demanded that I produce my credit history, my blood type, my social security card, and my genetic lineage dating back six generations. Then he rolled me over and shoved a retina scanner into my eye.

“I’m sure you understand,” said the aide-de-camp. “Miss Moshfegh only talks with high-class people.”

“But I’ve done more than 550 interviews,” I replied.

High-class only.”

It was apparently easier for me to get a job with law enforcement than to go through with an interview that had been scheduled three months before.

I told the jostling gentleman that I had attended a state school because I didn’t have any money in my younger years. He snickered at me and then gave me a beef stick. Even though I hadn’t eaten anything on the plane and was feeling a bit peckish, I knew that this was a test and resisted biting into the tantalizing Slim Jim that might have fueled me for another fifteen minutes.

I had heard rumblings about Moshfegh’s eccentric vetting process for interviews, which she’d initiated ever since being shortlisted for the Booker Prize. In the previous week, Moshfegh had humiliated a Guardian reporter named Paul Laity, demanding that he conduct his conversation shirtless while being flogged by a a bell hooks volume. As part of the deal, Laity had been asked by Moshfegh’s entourage to name his next child “Ottessa” in deference to the World’s Greatest Living Author. I have been unable to corroborate this detail, though a shellshocked Laity did croak “Run while you still can” near the close of our tense ten minute telephone conversation.

There had been no such bargains tendered towards me, perhaps because the prospect of me reproducing seemed less likely than Laity passing out cigars sometime in the next few years outside a hospital room, but the publicist informed me that under no circumstances should I ever paint Moshfegh’s novel, Eileen, in a negative light.

“Well, no novel is perfect,” I said.

“No,” said the publicist. “This one is.”

“Come on. Even the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ chapter has a few dull spots. And I love Ulysses.”

“I don’t think you understand how lucky you are to be here.”

Lucky? I had only accepted the gig because some editor had at long last taken pity on me. I was nevertheless grateful for the opportunity.

“This way,” said the aide-de-camp.

He proceeded to blindfold me and affixed my head with leather foam earphones that played the most terrifying glitch-pop I have ever heard. I felt my body being buffeted into the inside of a car. I felt someone taking my hand and fingerprinting me. Nearly an hour passed. All the Skrillex that had decimated my brain had nearly wiped me out. Then the earphones were removed.

“Good news,” said the aide-de-camp. “Miss Moshfegh has agreed to speak with you for fifteen minutes. She doesn’t mind being inconvenienced by the Booker or any press that will ensure her God-given talent is finally approved by the Literary Forces of the Universe. But only after you have written a note of loyalty to her undisputed genius in your own blood.”

Since I had a little spare blood kicking around in my veins, I figured no sweat. In hindsight, it may have been a tad foolish of me to agree to this after refusing the Slim Jim, which stared mockingly back in the stretch limo’s armrest, which was composed of rich Corinthian leather.

Finally, I was asked to recite passages from Eileen to prove my fidelity to Moshfegh.

“Cite the third sentence in the second paragraph on Page 26,” ordered the aide-de-camp.

“Uh…They were forbidden to do most things children ought to do – dance, sing, gesture, talk loud, listen to music, lie down unless they were given permission to?”

“Good. You’re remembering the right sentences. Does that resonate with you?”

“Can I plead the Fifth?”

“Mr. Champion, this is not a court of law.”

“Okay. Maybe we should call my therapist then?”

“No, Mr. Champion, that won’t be necessary. You have passed the test, despite your shaky pedigree, your deplorable education, your three-days stubble, and the undisputable fact that you are a very terrible person indeed.”

“Didn’t you read the character reference letters I submitted?”

But this question went unanswered as the spotless Tesla Model S arrived at the Moshfegh compound.

“Get out of the car, you journalistic cur!”

“Alright, already. Can I get my microphones at least?”

“No. If you can commit Miss Moshfegh’s prose to memory, you will remember every quote accurately and be sued if even a stray comma is discovered to be out of place.”

I was led into a sprawling two-floor home with a four bay garage just off the edge of Little Arabia, overwhelmed by the smell of overly groomed grape vines and a meticulously landscaped front garden with a large sign reading YOU WILL BE SHOT ON SIGHT IF YOU STEAL A BERRY. SEE CASTLE DOCTRINE.

Ms. Moshfegh, 35, was seated at a large refectory table in a spacious living room, cutting bits of sentences from old Dorothy Sayers paperbacks for her next project.

“I’ll tame you, you shoddy pulpy sentence! I deserve riches beyond the dreams of avarice! Instant success! No less!”

This was a typical creative act for Moshfegh, although it was a curious form of self-affirmation. But I have to hand it to her. Moshfegh had indeed pulled a fast one on a number of Booker Prize judges who were not, in fact, in the habit of familiarizing themselves with genre.

The aide-de-camp gently explained to me that the Moshfegh philosophy involved pretending that mysteries confronting troubling ideas about women had never been written, even as she ripped off entire sentences from novels that had, in fact, done just that decades before. And I am only reporting this tidbit here because it was one of the few details that had somehow not been earmarked by Moshfegh’s otherwise fastidious quote approval team.

“Miss Moshfegh?”

“Is my process making you uncomfortable?”

“No, but I wouldn’t mind an apple if you had one.”

“I’ve had eating issues since adolescence,” replied Miss Moshfegh. “There’s nothing in my work that I haven’t researched privately.”

“Even homicidal desire?”

“Man up and deal.”

I was feeling a bit faint, but it was hard to argue with someone who had been shortlisted for the Booker.

Moshfegh described herself to me as a person who has a long history as an unreported thief. If she isn’t absconding passages from Sayers novels, then she’s probably sneaking a package of pork loin roast underneath her overcoat.

“My family’s values seemed very different from the values of the world I was living in,” said Moshfegh. “They never acquiesced to my genius, but I’m heartened to see a bald loser like you see the light.”

At this point, Moshfegh asked me to kneel on the floor and pray to her. I told her I was an atheist. She said she was a novelist-god. I asked for a mat. When the interview was over, I had terrible scrapes on my knees.

Moshfegh described the humiliation of once having to wait longer than fifteen minutes for a cab when she lived in New York.

“It was a living hell. Didn’t they see my raised arm? There was a brief period in my thirties when every cab stopped for me in less than ten minutes. My hell is my life. My hell is my work. Now you see why I have a stretch limo always on call.”

She tracks the beginning of her writing career to checking out random books from the library while a student at Brown University, scanning the frontispiece, and then replacing this with a Photoshopped copy of the page listing her as author.

“The books were all so mediocre. I was better than all these authors even before I had written my first short story. If I could do this for every book, I would.”

Moshfegh says that she sustains a deep connection to her character, who she claims lives in a basement located just underneath her refectory table. When I asked if I could meet Eileen, she demurred.

“When I first discovered that the character I had created lived in my basement, I sent an email to my agent reading ‘Holy shit.'”

“Isn’t that a bit ineloquent for a writer of your apparent literary talent?”

“How dare you speak that way to a hip young writer’s writer!”

“Terry Southern called Henry Green a writer’s writer’s writer. Beat that!”

The aide-de-camp then tied a rope around me and threw me into the stretch limo. I passed out due to hunger and my shortage of blood. I woke up in some shady alley somewhere in East Hollywood. But the aide-de-camp had been nice enough to leave me the Slim Jim at my side, which I wolfed down with the force of a deprived animal. It gave me the fifteen minutes of energy to run to the nearest convenient store and sob to a clerk who didn’t understand what had just happened to me. But I did make it back to New York. Yes, I had lost blood, been manhandled, and had my privacy invaded. But I had also been in the presence of the World’s Greatest Living Author. I smiled on the plane ride home, knowing that the aide-de-camp was at least dimly aware of the Geneva Conventions.

How to Spot Lines That Reveal Bad Storytelling, Part One

This is the first in a series of occasional posts in which I will identify dialogue that reveals bad storytelling. I’m writing this because I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the many rookie mistakes that I continue to observe from storytellers who should know better, whereby the artifices of an otherwise convincing narrative are swiftly exposed because the writer hasn’t thought out character motivation or has missed out on opportunities to create a memorable work of art.

“That’s interesting!” Imagine that you just watched your best friend turn into a werewolf or that the spouse of your best friend revealed that he was in love with you. Would you say “That’s interesting!” or would you respond with something a bit less general and more heartfelt? A writer should never have to telegraph to the audience that an action is interesting. If an action is interesting to a character (and thus interesting to an audience), then a character will react to it in a way in which we know that it’s interesting. For example, here is an exchange from Preston Sturges’s wonderful film The Lady Eve:

Gerald: What I can’t understand is how he finished fifth!
Jean: There were only five horses in the race. What do you expect when you bet on a goat called After You?

If Jean had reacted to Gerald’s observation with “That’s interesting,” then we would have missed this great opportunity to see a con artist who observes all the specifics of a situation and who has no illusions about the way the world works. And when Jean falls in love with Hopsie, this transformation attracts our interest.

Even the person who questions another character doesn’t have to say “That’s interesting!” during the exchange. From The Big Lebowski:

The Big Lebowski: Are you employed, sir?
The Dude: Employed?
The Big Lebowski: You don’t go out looking for a job dressed like that? On a weekday?
The Dude: Is this a… what day is this?
The Big Lebowski: Well, I do work sir, so if you don’t mind…
The Dude: I do mind, the Dude minds. This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man.

We see how The Big Lebowski is appalled, but genuinely interested, with the way in which The Dude can spend his unemployed life not doing much. The Dude, in turn, responds with his philosophy, which is parroted from George Bush’s 1990 speech on Kuwait. And the result is a deservedly famous, very funny, and referential exchange.

Indeed, it’s no surprise that “That’s so interesting! Tell me more!” has turned into an Internet meme, often introduced sarcastically into forum threads, that is largely identified with the late great Gene Wilder playing Willy Wonka. Although that line did not appear in the movie, it nevertheless reveals how audiences are aware that saying “That’s interesting!” may represent the heights of condescension or artificiality.

So instead of having a character say “That’s interesting,” why not delve into her philosophy? Why would she feel that the situation is interesting? Moreover, when a character states her philosophy, it can be wonderfully revealing. In Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, for example, the title character says that she “helps young girls out,” not that she performs illegal abortions. And it is this simple reframing that not only allows Vera to be tremendously fascinating and complex, but permits the audience to empathize with her persecution.

“I hope I’m not interrupting.”: Very often, a writer will have a character intrude upon two other characters who are talking and deliver this very common line. It will never occur to the writer that there could be a more interesting dynamic if the interrupting character is either clueless about the intrusion or has willfully interrupted. Indeed, interruption is often better conveyed through subtext rather than an explicit pronouncement.

One of my favorite interruption moments comes from John Cassevetes’s extraordinary film Faces. There’s an incredible scene in which Richard (John Marley) and Freddie (Fred Draper) are competing for the attentions of Jeannie (played by Gena Rowlands), with the three all dancing around a living room. Jeannie increasingly drifts towards Richard. Freddie attempts to get Jeannie’s attention, but is rebuffed. He is very much a third wheel. And this fascinating scene unfolds with all of the characters singing “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.” This creates an incredible tension which sets up some emotionally revealing moments that follow. If Freddie had explicitly remarked, “I hope I’m not interrupting you two dancing,” it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

“Start from the beginning. Tell us what happened.” Bad storytelling often involves characters calling attention to the fact that they are asking for story details within a story. But that’s usually not the way storytelling works when you hang out with people. In real life, people hear a modest detail, maybe about something wild that the storyteller did the previous night. And that detail may beget another detail. The person listening to the story may try to persuade the storyteller to spill the whole tale, especially if the other person has said something curious or unusual. If you’re going to tell a story within a story, then it needs to be motivated by human curiosity or the story needs to reveal the character, such as Quint’s famous Indianapolis speech from Jaws. “Start from the beginning. Tell us what happened” is what a programmer with Asperger syndrome is likely to say. “Come on, man! You’ve gotta spill!” or “Wait! You swam in the water with a knife in your mouth?” Isn’t that more like it? Dialogue must sustain the illusion that it is natural. And if the audience senses that storytelling is being shoehorned into a story to advance plot details that the writer didn’t have the chops to convey through action, then it will start to catch on that a script is, well, more of a programmed script (especially if the dialogue is solely Q&A, the telltale sign of bad storytelling) rather than something that should be revealing the human condition. Nobody wants to be mansplained when watching a TV show or listening to an audio drama.