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“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, May 27, 2017

De Quincey: our goth

- You like structure, right? Says the woman in the line ahead of me at the grocery store, laying down a fistful of coupons.

I, like her, like structure. But I like it not only for what it does, but for presenting itself to be undone. The first stage could be called realistic – the second stage is definitely gothic, in the broadest sense. There’s living structure, and there’s the undead. There’s Johnson, and there’s De Quincey.
De Quincey, in English literature, introduced the gothic moment into essay and autobiography. He reinvented the most gothic thing of all, the murder story: where the usual Newgate version was sensationalist and moralizing, De Quincey parodied the moralizing and introduced an element of suspense that we now consider to be natural to the genre. Suspense is inherently anti-mythic – myth, with all its dramas, follows a program its audience already knows.

However, unlike the creators of Frankenstein and Dracula, DeQuincey’s place in the Gothic tradition has not gained him the kind of recognitionhe deserves.  It is always nice to seehim get a little publicity, as he  did inthe last issue of the London Review of Bs, in a review of a new biography byNicholas Spicer. – Warning: invidious comparison ahead – The NYRB featured a review of a biography of another “gothic” writer, Wilkie Collins, by Robert Gottlieb that was sort of astonishing, in that Gottlieb apparently thinks Dorothy Sayers is the last person who wrote about detective novels. It is like Gottlieb wandered out of the club, noticed it was later than 1940, and wandered back into the club to write a gentlemanly review. Sometimes the NYRB is so old that it is actually older than its founding, in the  1960s, when it was young. I distinctly heard some snoring in the back row of some of the sentences in the Gottlieb review.

But to return to our onions: Spicer is good about what a horrific family life the De Quincey’s endured. It wasn’t just opium – it was the poverty. As in the life of Karl Marx, money, in De Quincey’s life, or the lack of it, was an ever present menace.   

“As the debts piled up behind them, the family lurched close to utter destitution. De Quincey was repeatedly ‘put to the horn’, a practice native to Edinburgh, whereby a debtor was publicly denounced and made eligible for arrest. In October 1832, he was briefly imprisoned and only avoided further arrests by taking refuge in the Sanctuary of Holyrood, out of the reach of his creditors. Margaret was often ill and De Quincey suffered continually from the effects of his addiction and his attempts to break it – typically, periods of constipation alternating with debilitating bouts of diarrhoea. He sold or pawned everything he could, including most of his books. Two days before the birth of his eighth child, he filed for Cessio Bonorum, a kind of bankruptcy proceedings. In September 1833, his three-year-old son, Julius, died: he had to flee the child’s wake to give the slip to a creditor who’d discovered his whereabouts, "

Like the sound of this? It’s the ardent dream of Trumpians everwhere to make this kind of thing more common. But I digress…

 Spicer has some great comments about De Quincey’s rhetoric, his bizarrie, which was what captured Baudelaire’s admiration (Baudelaire translated De Quincey) as well as, evidently, Poe’s – Poe uses a similarly mix of essayistic seriousness an parody.  Spicer is right here:
“Making fun of others, he idealises himself, but, whether consciously or not, his writing always presses at the limits of seriousness, where solemnity cracks up in a snort of poorly supressed hilarity. His style tips his grander effects into self-parody.
Spicer doesn’t like De Quincey’s sentimentality, or his romantic flights; and it is true that De Quincey tends to weep at his own misfortunes, and endow himself with an irritated sensibility that is easy to read as mere rationalization. But we can’t take De Quincey in pieces to really appreciate him. It is that pressing towards the non-serious, the blind spot in our hierarchized sense of occassions, in which all these things find their necessity. Spicer quotes a lovely bit from De Quincey’s essay on astronomy.

"Lindop recounts an exchange between De Quincey and Pringle Nichol, professor of astronomy at Glasgow University, in which De Quincey confessed himself baffled by the professor’s attachment to the consequences of observable fact. De Quincey’s imagination had taken flight in an essay inspired by a particular theory of the nebula, which the professor pointed out had been disproved by subsequent astronomical findings: ‘Nichol apparently misunderstood the case as though it required a real phenomenon for its basis,’ he wrote."

The  essayist’s contract is with truth – but truth as essai, truth as partial – and even more than that, truth as always partial, never, in the end, forming a whole. Truth as something ultimately more fundamental than the law of non-contradiction. Truth as non-serious.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

styles of saying nothing: the new york times editorial

I open to the NYT site today and find this thing that looks like a sentence under EDITORIAL: 
 -- Too much indulgence in impeachment notions could prove to be a distraction.

There are reasons to think of it as a sentence. For instance, it does have a subject – which is, sort of, ‘indulgence’, or more comprehensively, ‘impeachment notions’  – and it does have a verb, ‘be’, set resolutely in the conditional  - under ‘could’ – and modified like the cough of a high priced lawyer – which is the role played by ‘prove’  - and finally it slips out of the side exit in a finagling  bit of murk – ‘a distraction’.

Such are its parts. Its gestalt is what interests me. Just as margarine is a chemical imitation of butter that can pretty much function as butter functions – you can spread it on toast, you can melt it in a heated pan – but misses one of those functions – that of tasting like butter – so, too, this sentence misses out somewhere in the sensory scale. If you came upon this sentence in laboratory conditions, detached from its source, and were forced to guess its source, I’d wager that you’d say, this must be from an editorial. Because editorials are constructed of these weirdly margarine like phrases. They avoid attachment to any living  subject (a lacuna that is usually filled in with a “we” that, far from being inclusive, operates to exclude as marginal any living creatures outside the special zone of the editorial office), and they never go straight to their objects, bur rather sidle to them through the equivalent of hmms and haws. Except that even a hmm or a haw is throaty – it is a creation of phlegm and hesitation – whereas these hesitations seem detached from any bodily function.  The “could prove to be” litigiously melts down the “are” into an absolute vacancy, in which any statement is true. If we are hit be a meteor tomorrow, it would be true If impeachment never comes in the more normal course of human events, it would be true. If impeachment happens, it would still be true.
Partly this omni-veridical (and omni-empty) 'could prove to be' hangs, essentially, on the oddness of the object –a distraction. Distractions don’t just get up and crawl through the physical world – they require attention. Which in turn requires a brain, or a collectivity of brains. To put these brains in time and space – to frankly situate them in history – seems to be an exercise that exhaustis the sentence before it is even halfway to its target. This is not a string of words that will ever turn over and actually express itself in a human, oh too human way.  

We all are familiar with that ultra American thing – an attraction. As in coming attractions, the slogan of the movie trailer. A distraction is the negative of an attraction, and perhaps we can envision it as a Zen movie trailer, showing nothing.  But… this can’t be right, for then distraction would lead to concentration, at least in all the ascetic  traditions  I am aware of. Instead, these coming distractions are notions of … coming attractions.
Hmm

This style of saying nothing seriously has a history that is intertwined with the history of liberalism in modernity. That history, in turn, is entwined with the history of critique – both in the reactionary vein, and in the revolutionary one. I myself rather like, stylistically,  both ends   of the spectrum of critique, but I am also aware that critique doesn’t seem to have made a dent in this anonymous, liberal elitist style of saying conditional nothings seriously, in order that nothing serious really happen.     

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Burying history under its monuments: the new confederacy

The NYT article on the monuments to the Confederacy by Gary Shapiro tries to be thoughtful, but it struggles with a larger thoughtlessness. While Shapiro is right that confederate monuments have a historical value, he seems oddly oblivious to that history. These monuments were raised by the same people who either participated in or condoned lynching and terror. Slavery does not exhaust our inventory of American evils. To say that Jim Crow was "nasty" shows at the least an inadequate conception of how Jim Crow came about. To quote Bob Marley, a better authority here, 'half that story has never been told." These monuments were part of a process, and that process existed not in ante-bellum times - which seems to be Shapiro's main concern - but in the bloody post-bellum times that allowed the white establishment to, in essence, reverse the verdict of the Civil War. In other words, these are not just monuments to the Civil War past, they are emblems of the Jim Crow present. Since Shapiro shapes his essay around Richmond, let's contrast the monuments to Lee and Davis with, for instance, this map of Virginia lynchings. It is poetically pertinent that as marble statues of Confederate generals were being raised in the capital of the state, a more human, struggling monument was being raised in the state's countryside - with tar and feathers, with castration, with hanging. And so far as I know, noon of those advocates for "preserving" our history have ever advocated for preserving this history. Every confederate monument is an instrument to get us to forget the history being enacted around its base: lynching, mass imprisonment, mass disenfranchisement, wholesale economic fraud.

Louisiana, whose representative recently shed tears for the good old confederate days and who voted to provide more aid to their marble concrete monuments of racists than they provide to sick living human beings, could do with hundreds of monuments to the brave band of African Americans and white reconstructionists who were assassinated or killed in pograms, such as that which occurred in Colfax. How many people have heard of Colfax? Its obscurity is a measure of the success of the raisers of the Confederate monuments, who wanted less to memorialize history than to bury it.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colfax_massacre

Thursday, May 04, 2017

aspects of rumor

 

If in one direction, pheme/kleos moves towards the universal knowledge vested within the people – towards common sensem towards the "public opinion" well beloved by nineteenth century liberals – in another direction, it moves towards rumor, the “angel of ruin”, the fama of Virgil’s Aeneid, the beast perched on the gates of the city:   “Furth she quicklye gallons, with wingflight swallolyke hastning,/A foule fog pack paunch: what feathers plumye she heareth,/so manye squint eyeballs shee keeps (a relation uncoth)/So manye tongues clapper, with her ears and lip labor eevened./ In the dead of nighttime to the skyes shee flickereth, howling/Through the earth shade skipping, her sight from slumber amooving./Whilst the sun is shying the baggage close lodgeth in housroofs,/or tops of turrets, with feare towns loftye she frighteth,/As readye forged fittons, as true tales vayneley toe twattle.” [101, Translation by Richard Stanyhurst, ed. 1895 by Edward Arber, p.101] Such an image could as well be applied to the kind of “rumor panics” in Borneo in 1979, as reported by anthropologist Richard Allan Drake. In the longhouse of the village of Sungai Mulae, he was told that the government was building a bridge nearby, and that of course, they would send out kidnappers to snatch somebody and sacrifice them to the bridge. The village was, ostensibly, Christianized, yet rumors like these “flew” about often; in fact, Drake establishes that the form of this rumor was recurrent in Borneo. It was recorded on the North coast of Borneo as early as 1910; it was recorded in Sandong River region in 1949; and in 1981, it was recorded in the Meratus mountains. In fact, if we extend our search from Borneo to other regions of the world, we find that, for instance, in pre-Revolutionary France, there were rumors about the kidnapping of children and women by the government of King Louis XV; and there was the persistent rumor in Czarist Russia of Jews kidnapping Christian children to use their blood.

Although the circumstances and meanings of these rumors are different, their reappearence puts them in the category of “Tauchgerüchte”, diver rumors – they dive up and they dive down – that was so named by L.A. Bysow, a Russian sociologist who wrote a seminal analysis of rumors that appeared in the twenties, and then disappears from sociological literature. Like many one article authors, Bysow’s position in the construction of the sociology of rumor suffers, itself, from odd distortions – for instance, he is often quoted as D.A. Brysow (for instance, by Curtis Macdougall in his book, Understanding Public Opinion (1952). Bysow borrows the late nineteenth century notion of contagion to model rumors according to an epidemiology, thus continuing a very old analogy between logos and seed. The invisible microbe that replaced the miasma model fit comfortably with the word as organic – and indeed, the word is the product of an organism. In fact, the analogy between sickness and rumor is encoded even in Virgil’s image, for this monstrous bird of ill or true fame conveys the word from mouth to ear in the city bears a visible likeness to the winged demons who shoot the arrows of sickness in the city. Both sickness and rumor “fly”. And both are mass phenomena, often leading to panic. And, in a quiet division between true fame and false, rumors have, over time, been associated exclusively with distortion. The rumor is often treated by the sociologist as though, by definition, it must be false. As often happens, the sociologist is simply following the cop, here – for the justification of using police action against rumor is precisely that it falsifies, as though there were some connection between hegemonic power and the truth

Rumor is the illegitimate sibling – at least mythopoetically – of public opinion. Drake connects rumor in Borneo to the dominance of the “oral”. The logic of evidence here feeds on itself, engages in an act of supererogatory nutrition, is, at the core, exaggeration. Unlike the written, which requires a process of mediation that engages the body as scriptor, the medium as the object inscribed, and the eye as reader, rumor, like the word itself, springs directly from the tongue and flies to the ear. Bysow speaks of its chain-like characteristic – depending on face to face communication, it creates a public of a sort out of haptic space – the kind of public that Gabriel Tarde, writing in the late nineteenth century, classified as essentially the primitive form of the public: the crowd.

In the early modern period in France, as Arlette Farge shows in Dire et Mal Dire, the word on the street was as much a vehicle of news as any official chronicle. Indeed, news was subdivided between the official histories, the private journals, and the gazetins of the police – police reports composed from the reports of the mouchards, the spies, that the police planted in the population. Louis XV enjoyed having these gazetins read to him. The relation of those in power to those underneath is mediated by a concern, on the part of both parties, with what is thought by the other – a concern in which the police can act as brokers. In World War II, there devolved upon some sub-officers the duty of filling out rumor reports – for officers and the upper management of the security apparatus were obsessed with the damage rumor could do. It was during the war that Allport and Postman studied rumors through a series of experiments, in which an image, seen by some subject, was then described by that subject to someone who couldn’t see the image. Then a chain of accounts is produced as the second person tells a third person (who also can’t see the image) about it, and so on. The sadistic element in the experiment (for psychology experiments almost always contain some element that displays the gratuituous power of the experimenter) is that these accounts are made in front of an audience that can see the slide on the screen, while those describing the image have to keep their backs turned to the screen.

Notice two things about Allport and Postman’s experiments. The first is the idea, which forms the whole basis of the experiment, that the story communicated by the rumor is – in contradiction to that reported by, say, the experimenter – essentially distorted. The distortion here is given to us in the frame of the report – although we who read the report cannot ourselves examine the slides, we are told, without any shadow of a doubt, what they depict by the researchers. In fact, of course, these descriptions often carry with them descriptors that are not “contained” in the images. In an experiment made in Britain following Allport’s line after the war, for instance, we are told that one slide is of “students throwing eggs” – which depends for its truth value on, among other things, describing the thrower as a student. But can true and false fama be so easily separated? Does distortion really mean untruth? Whose protocols are in play, here?

The second thing to notice about the Allport/Postman experiments is that they impose an identity on the group of subjects by giving them certain functions, in opposition to another group. Allport and Postman were not concerned with the function of rumor in maintaining the group so much as they were concerned with the transmission of rumor, which meant studying how a distortion generates a story pattern. A distortion like mistaking L.A. Bysow’s name, on the other hand, does not generate a story, although it occurs in the literature of rumor. Indeed, it would be petty to pick at it. However, we are again led to question the provenance of these assumptions. The atmosphere in which Allport and Postman worked reflected the war. As identity was imposed on the mass of draftees and volunteers in forces around the world as a topdown matter, the powers in place in armies and government bureaucracies became obsessed with information control – and thus, with fighting rumors. 

It is worth asking, then, whether rumors can be, among other things, attempts to wrest away that identity power by those upon whom it has been imposed. It is one of the surprises of literature it is shown such respect by the powers that be that they are continually trying to police rumor, or in other words, stories, narratives. The history of the policing of rumor shows a surprising sensitivity by those in power to the view of the ordinary outcasts and non-entities over whom they rule.

The mouchards of the Ancien Regime lead us, etymologically – that science that tracks the rumor of sound and sense behind the current word – to a sort of totemic animal who presides over the contagious rumor: the fly. According to an etymological dictionary of 1856 (Noel, Carpentier), the word mouchard “is not an old one in our language, [it] … derives from the word mouche [housefly], flies going out to search their food everywhere, changing places in the wink of an eye; and what appears to confirm this opinion is that one said and one says still moucher for spy, mouche for a spy. “It is useless, says M. Ch. Nodier, to search there (in the name of the father of Mouchy) this etymology, which presents itself naturally in musca, which had the same figurative acceptation in Latin, as one can see often in Plautus and in Petronius.” [374]

However, there is another story about the word in question here – for the housefly is not, according to Greenburg and Kunich, at the root of musca. Musca derives from the Sanskrit, mukshika, which describes something more like a gnat – the eye fly, musca sorbens, which feeds on secretions of the eye. The fly is shown in lists kept in Mesopotamia, and the gods are compared to flies when they gather around a sacrifice, or fly through the streets. In Lucian’s Praise of the Fly, the connection between the fly and gossip is made part of an origin story:

“Legend tells how Myia (the fly's ancient name) was once10 a maiden, exceeding fair, but over-given to talk and chatter and song, Selene's rival for the love of Endymion. When the young man slept, she was for ever waking him with her gossip and tunes and merriment, till he lost patience, and Selene in wrath turned her to what she now is. And therefore it is that she still, in memory of Endymion, grudges all sleepers their rest, and most of all the young and tender. Her very bite and blood-thirst tell not of savagery, but of love and human kindness; she is but enjoying mankind as she may, and sipping beauty.”

In Steve Connor’s book Fly, there is a wealth of associations culled from literature and life – the life, for instance, that is recorded in the trials of witches - between the fly and devils. The fly as a familiar possesses a number of qualities – its metamorphosis from the worm, its feeding on excrement, its omnipresence as a camp follower of human habitations, its quickness, its flight, its prominent eyes, its buzz – that go into the notion of Fama as well. Oddly, Connor doesn’t touch on the subject of the spy as fly, perhaps because the spy in English is free from the fly’s taint that finds expression in  French. 

Rumor, the reporters of rumor, and the makers of rumor are three faces of the myth of what sociologist Shibutani calls “improvised news”. Shibutani proposed a quantitative model in which a certain demand for information is not met by “official channels”. Rumor, in this view, is a kind of overflow of the demand for news. Thus, Shibutani does not identify rumor with distortion, but instead, with an enduring will to truth – in as much as the demand for news is taken as a will to truth. But is it? Is the news about portraying the world? And does this realistic view of the  news work any better than realism in any of the arts?
The social time of rumor is, ideally, simultaneous.  Rumors connect those who spread them, and create among those who are “in the know“ a sense of the ‘latest’. Because rumors are primarily oral, however, their simultaneity is limited. Observers are surprised by it – surprised by how fast rumors spread. Partly this is because rumors fall on the side of the pre-industrial and the oral. In the early modern period and enlightenment, rumor coexisted with print as the literate coexisted with the illiterate, and as the ideology of progress coexisted with the dying gasps of the image of the limited good – the ideology of Nemesis, of the wheel of fortune. But this period, we can see, looking back, is premonitory of the industrial experience even if it is separate from it. One might say that symbolically, from the moment that Fontenelle noted the ingenuity of Paris’ artisans and Defoe noted the accounting methods of English traders, literature filled with intersignes and prophecies of the industrial future. The great novelists of the first half of the nineteenth century – Balzac, Stendhal, Dickens, Gogol, etc., are all unconsciously prophetic, for in the monumental spasms of negative capability they absorbed, in the experiences they diversely lived, the intersignes lying about, cast up to the surface of society by the great capitalist transformation at work underneath. 

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

o pioneers!

Searching for Mom's old farm
The various unconscious overloads of habit, the disorder at the end of the week, the work undone, the escape hatch bolted: it is to escape this circle that we travel. We? Well, myself, my always overintellectualizing self. Escape, last week, was to St. Joseph, Missouri.
First, we stayed at the Elms Hotel, a vast, fortress like pile located in Excelsior Springs, Missouri, a good twenty minutes from Kansas City. A good forty minutes from St. Joseph, if you don’t go the highway route. The Elms at one point was a premier resort, one of the Midwest’s finest, the haunt of Al Capone, the famous Kansas city boss Tom Pendergast, and Tom’s protégé, one Harry Truman. Harry Truman received word that he’d beat Dewey here, where he spent the night in 1948. Jack Dempsey, in 1920, had swum laps in the famous “European” lap pool, which you reach by going down three flights of stairs from the lobby to the very nadir of the place. He’d even done an exhibition round there. I imagine Brenda Joyce might have swum there too. She’s the actress that played “Jane” in the Tarzan movies in the 30s. She was born in Excelsior Springs. I am related to this semi-glorious company that I, too, have wallowed in the pocket hot tub and languidly paddled myself in the pool.
Of course the Springs and all of North Missouri was the stomping ground of Jesse James, one of the more curious hero/antiheros to have his legend spawned in the Volkgeist, such as it is. A bankrobber and murderer, who I know about mainly as the poor goof in the song, shot in the back by that ‘dirty little coward’ Robert Ford. Poor Jesse had a wife, too. According to the song. Poor Jesse.
As for other crimes, well, there’s the usual racial ones. In 1925, a crowd of 500 lynched Walter Mitchell, a black man accused of raping a white woman. Unusually, according to the Chicago Tribune, the man who tried to photograph the event was knocked down and his camera broken. Usually, white Americans were right proud of their lynchings, and made picture postcards of them, which they traded. You can see any variety if you look this up on google images, or read Without Sanctuary.
The first night, we came in late and tired and gobbled down our dinner by the fire. I had a couple of beers: farm ales, our waitor told me. They were filling. Missouri food generally tries to be filling. Perhaps it is all the land that sends a sort of panic fear of starvation through the masses, as though maybe one will be forced out on the steppe with no vittles on a cold night. Plates arrive at the table with every damn square inch of ceramic covered with whatever you ordered.
The next day, we set out to find my relatives. My Mom was born in St. Louis, and raised on a farm outside of Albany, Missouri. I believe the county of Gentry was more populous then – if the Jollys are any indication. George and Ola Jolly, my grandfather and grandmother, stuck it out through the Great Depression, but when their five kids all moved to the Washington D.C. area, they followed. This was in 1945, 1946. In 1930 there was 14,300 some people. Now there is less than half that number. The depopulation shows. We drove around for miles and miles without seeing another human being.
Eventually, we drove past the Fairview Church, reversed, and parked in front of it. I had read that some Jollys were buried in the Fairview graveyard. The church, an impeccably white clapboard structure that was pure Midwest gothic, went from hosting a standard denomination of Methodists, I believe, to hosting the Freewill Baptists. My mother in law asks me what distinguished the Freewill Baptists, and I couldn’t say. Mom was never particular about the Baptist varieties. She attended Northern Baptist and Southern Baptist churches alike. But my Mom loved Jesus and didn’t think he made too much fuss about methods of Baptism or certain amusements, like dancing. We went through the graveyard. It was a beautiful sunny day, the rolling hills falling away in all directions. Northern Missouri is beautifully treed – I was told that the arboricity was due to the settlers, who’d found this country a grassy sea, no trees in sight. I have to tip my hat to those settlers. There were thousands time more green trees than people in all this countryside.
Finally we came upon the Jolly family plot. Here was the sturdy monument to James Perry Jolly, 1846 to 1942 (I think. I didn’t take a note on the spot, alas). He is, I believe, my great great grandfather. Or is that one too many greats? I found a geneology in a history of Gentry county, which claims that James Perry and his wife, May nee Schaffer) begat George, my grandfather. However, the dates in the book seem to either conflate James Perry and his father, Samuel, or, more likely, have the wrong date for his birth, which it puts at 1894, but which it places in Breckenridge County, Kentuck. Since the Jollys left Kentucky according to the same history in 1852, I incline to the latter supposition. In any case, the conspectus of James Perry’s adventures enroll him among the pioneers. Not, perhaps, the sodhut pioneers of Willa Cather’s stories, since the book claims for the Jollys a double log house. I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds a little above the peasant grade. James Perry was apparently a lieutenant in the Civil War. Since he was a Republican, I think we can assume he served on the right side, which is a relief. I have no confederate blood in my veins, peeps! And he seems to have been a successful raiser of livestock.
After Fairview, we went on to Albany, which has the great good fortune to have retained an old Carnegie Library in the heart of it. The librarians were gracious. They showed me the geneology room, and I read a bit from the Albany Ledger – searching out mentions of the Jollys.
But I was searching for something other than geneology, I admit. I wanted to know what Mom saw and breathed. She left Missouri when she was 19 years old, and by the time she had me, she hadn’t been back in some time. I don’t know that she ever went back once she married Dad. It was all a fleeting memory. Did it contain such sunny/rainy spring days, such hills and dales? Well, surely. I am not strong for the idea that we are such isolated individuals that we are each blocked up one to the other. This strikes me as a bourgeois way of looking at things. But I am old, I have chased what I chased in my particular tracks, and I can’t say that I felt that I saw what Mom saw, though I stood on spots that she stood on. I carry in my voice, in my accents, some tiny bit of this Missouri soil – the voice is where our histories repose. Voice is compound. In fact, of the people I met in St. Joseph latter on, none of them quite matched the accent I remember my aunts and uncle having, save for one woman whose mode of speech brought into my mind the way Aunt Georgia talked – tart, angular, with a certain skepticism. My tongue doesn’t have those tribal resonances, but it is what I have, barely, that I share with these men and women gone to earth in the Fairview Cemetery.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Spirit airlines would like its customers to know they aint worth shit.

Note to self and all within hearing. Spirit airlines is one of those discount airlines whose motto is, treat people like pigs and count on their impotence to rebel. Operating on this principle, which has solid bottom line proof, the company bumped our whole flight yesterday evening at Kansas City. After bumping the time to 911 from 7 p.m., they announced at 9:11 that there was techical difficulties and the whole flight was cancellled. Of course, stranding 200 some people in an airport at almost the last flight time of the night required not calling up a single additional employee. Instead, 200 people stood in line for six hourse until, at 2 am, we learned that we could either get a voucher for 300 dollars or we could get a ticket on Spirit for, maybe the day after the next. But they were generously throwing in a seven dollar voucher for food and a voucher for the nearby Ramada, which may or may not be full. There was no information given to the line at all, so we relied on rumors. One of the rumors, seemingly confirmed by the news, is that the technical difficulties did not inhibit our plane: rather, a plane going from Cleveland to Vegas had to make an emergency stop here, due to its technical problems, and they simply bumped us. Why the lie? To avoid having to pay us the amount of our round trip tickets, or even three times that amount, which happens when it is the airlines choice to bump you. As we desperately looked for a way out of the airport at two a.m., feeling miserable about Adam, we approached an airport cop and related our tale, and his partner thought it was hilarious that we wanted a taxi or van to take us out of the airport. It was a riot! A. told him politely that it wasn't funny.
Pigs, ruled by pigs. That is the spirit of Spirit! Like United or American, the aim is to produce maximum discomfort and, in emergencies, humiliate you as much as they can get away with!
This morning, we got an email with a smiley emoticon, the word sorry, and a big 50 dollar voucher from Spirit, which we can use whenever we feel like being abused for five hours at some strange airport. Fun!
But of course we have no choice. Who ever heard of the government enforcing regulations that would prevent the airlines from treating their customers like pigs. Because free enterprise.


And hey, for those mooks out there who say, yeah, but deregulation democratized airplane travel, here's a knockdown essay that shows no, that's bullshit that's been churned out by airline associations. In reality, the lowering of ticket prices has everything to do with the price of gas, little to do with de-regulation.  

Friday, April 21, 2017

the prose conscience

Hemingway, in some interview, said that he liked to begin the day by reading a page of solid English prose. This, I believe, is where he picked up the phrase from Donne that graces For whom the Bell Tolls.
At least, I believe this was Hemingway. I came across this quotation in my teens, and I have such a bright memory of it that it could be false, fool’s gold, not the real ore. However, similar spiritual exercises were recommended by Flaubert, and Flannery O’Connor in midcareer said that read Henry James because she hoped he’d have an effect on her, although she hadn’t seen any result yet.
The prose conscience, that is what these people were trying to create. I suppose there is one for every specialization, from plumbing to neurosurgery. What makes the arts a bit different is that the writer, painter or musician is building this conscience on a practice of reading. The plumber and neuorsurgeon are, I suppose, acquiring the elements of professiona integrity from experience – even if they also swear by their mentors.
Myself, in the track of Hemingway, I too read some of Donne’s sermons (challenge the person who claims to have read them all – reading them gave me a vast appreciation for the patience of our pew seated ancestors). I’ve read a number of writers as much for their putative music as for, well, what they are trying to say. Sir Thomas Brown, Samuel Johnson, Edmond Burke, John Ruskin. I know that the music can creep upon you and turn up where you least expect it. It would certainly have astonished Pascal to know that his most ardent pupil in the style department was to be Edward Gibbon, who modeled his prose on the Provincial Letters. Gibbon of course was an old reprobate. On the other hand, Pascal owed Montaigne, who was a seignorial reprobate. And the beat goes on.
It is for this reason that every oncet and a while I dip into Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying. I am not going to be persuaded by any Anglican arguments to hie me to a chapel, but the rush of the first paragraph is a sort of natural wonder. Here it is:
A man is a bubble, (said the Greek proverb,) which Lucian represents with advantages and its proper circumstances, to this purpose; saying, that all the world is a storm, and men rise up in their several generations, like bubbles descending a Jove pluvio, from God and the dew of heaven, from a tear and drop of rain, from nature and Providence; and some of these instantly sink into the deluge of their first parent, and are hidden in a sheet of water, having had no other business in the world, but to be born, that they might be able to die: others float up and down two or three turns, and suddenly disappear, and give their place to others: and they that live longest upon the face of the waters are in perpetual motion, restless and uneasy; and, being crushed with a great drop of a cloud,sink into flatness and a froth; the change not being great, it being hardly possible it should be more  nothing that it was before. So is every man: he is born in vanity and sin; he comes into the world like morning mushrooms, soon thrusting up their heads into the air, and conversing with their kindred of the same production, and as soon they turn into dust and forgetfulness - some of them without any other interest in the affairs of the world, but that they made their parents a little glad and very sorrowful: others ride longer in the storm; it may be until seven years of vanity be expired, and then peradventure the sun shines hot upon their heads, and they fall into the shades below, into the cover of death and darkness of the grave to hide them. But if the bubble stands the shock of a bigger drop, and outlives the chances of a child, of a careless nurse, of drowning in a pail of water, of being overlaid by a sleepy servant, or such little accidents, then the young man dances like a bubble, empty and gay, and shines like a dove’s neck, or the image of a rainbow, which hath no substance, and whose very imagery and colours are fantastical; and so he dances out the gaiety of his youth, and is all the while in a storm, and endures only because he is not knocked on the head by a drop of bigger rain, or crushed by the pressure of a load of indigested meat, or quenched by the disorder of an ill-placed humour: and to preserve a man alive in the midst of so many chances and hostilities is as great a miracle as to create him; to preserve him from rushing into nothing, and at first to draw him up from nothing were equally the issues of an almighty power. And therefore the wise men of the world have contended who shall best fit man’s condition with words signifying his vanity and short abode. Honour calls a man “a leaf,” the smallest, the weakest piece of a short-lived, unsteady plant. Pindar calls him “the dream of a shadow:” another “the dream of the shadow of smoke.” But St. James spake by a more excellent spirit, saying, ‘Our life is but a vapour,’ viz, drawn from the earth by a celestial influence; made of smoke, or the lighter parts of water tossed with every wind, moved by the motion of a superior body, without virtue in itself, lifted up on high, or left below, according as it pleased the sun, its foster-father. But it is lighter yet. It is but appearing; a fantastic vapour, an apparition, nothing real; it is not so much as a mist, not the matter of a shower, nor substantial enough to make a cloud; but it is like Cassiopeia’s chair, or Pelop’s shoulder, or the circles of heaven, φαινορενα, for which you cannot have a word that can signify a verier nothing. And yet the expression is one degree more made diminutive; a vapour, and fantastical, or a mere appearance, and this but for a little while neither, the very dream, the phantasm, disappears in a small time, “like the shadow that departed; or like a tale that is told, or as a dream when one waketh.” A man is so vain, so unfixed, so perishing a creature, that he cannot long last in the scene of fancy: a man goes off, and is forgotten, like the dream of a distracted person. The sum of all is this: that thou art a man, than whom there is not in the world any greater instance of heights and declinations, of lights and shadows, of misery and folly, of laughter and tears, of groans and death.” 
The bubble and trouble of that meditation, which leaps from image to image and pulls the argument, what there is of it, after, infests all his instances of the fleeting status of human life. To me, though, the image that most startles me, and is most in concord with the liveliness of raindrops annd the deadliness of admonition is that drowning in a pail of water. It delivers a shock, on the heels of the careless nurse. But it is a carefully hedged about shock, not dwelt upon but let loose in the stream of fluid and watery instances and pictures – for after all, the thing about water is that no shock really disturbs it, or is preserved in it. Unless of course it be ice – the one form of water Taylor doesn’t mention.

So here I am. The morning is over. Time to work.