Wednesday, October 14, 2015

more on thoreau

I’ve thought some more about the essay on Thoreau that I dissed yesterday. I actually see where Schulz is coming from in her recoil from the idea that Thoreau was a saint, rather than a writer. But Schulz certainly fails to understand Thoreau the writer.
It is a misprison that comes out best, I think, in Schulz’s staging of the gotcha moment. Which is here:
“The book is subtitled “Life in the Woods,” and, from those words onward, Thoreau insists that we read it as the story of a voluntary exile from society, an extended confrontation with wilderness and solitude.
In reality, Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. The commuter train to Boston ran along its southwest side; in summer the place swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, while in winter it was frequented by ice cutters and skaters. Thoreau could stroll from his cabin to his family home, in Concord, in twenty minutes, about as long as it takes to walk the fifteen blocks from Carnegie Hall to Grand Central Terminal.”
This reading of the book can only be held if we think that Thoreau was thinking of his audience as composed of high school and college students one hundred fifty years hence.
But Thoreau did not think of his audience as composed of people reading Walden in a classroom. His audience was composed of people who knew exactly where Walden was. If, as I think is evident from the text itself, this is the case, then Schulz’s idea that the subtitle tells us that “Thoreau insists that we read it as the story of a voluntary exile from society, an extended confrontation with wilderness and solitude” is simply foolish, a denial of the mass of references and ironies that any literary text brings with it, especially one written in the train of an essayistic tradition of crossing the serious and non-serious – in other words, the romantic tradition of the ludicrous. In American culture, as I pointed out yesterday – following in the footsteps of such pioneers here as Constance Rourke and her book on American humor – the ludicrousness of Dequincy or Lamb or Byron (when he was in the mood) becomes the deadpan. By erecting a vision of Thoreau which makes Walden and all his works the direct, unironic expression of Thoreau’s personality, Schulz gives a perfect classroom reading of Thoreau’s work, one in which the idea that Thoreau was talking about Life in the Woods shows how he was throwing dust in our eyes, and hence was no saint, and hence can be tossed in the dump.
But if you are not sold on the the idea that the text can be read with absolutely no attention to the contexts that make sense of the effects it aims for, then Schulz’s piece reads like less of an attack on Thoreau than on some odd poster of Thoreau, with an inspiring quote caption, hung up in a dorm room. The class room, the dorm room – these are very much reading scenes. And of course any text that is worth killing trees for should lend itself to multiple reading scenes. But what is usefully done in a college classroom, or should be done, is to invigorate the text with its material context. If I read Thoreau mentioning dead drowned children cursorily and turning from them to evoke the landscape and I put this in some universal moral place, eliminating the time and place of the writing, I have one reaction – one tracked by Schulz. But putting the writing in the context of the vast amount of sentimental writing about dead children – Thoreau’s was the era in which the death of Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shop became an actual cause celebre, as was famously attested by the anecdote about American readers gathering on the docks when ships from England came in, wanting to know more of Dickens’ story – than you might pause and ask what is going on here. Schulz thinks what is going on here is that a misanthrope – Thoreau – is expressing his hatred of humanity, un point c’est tout. But that an author might devise an image of himself as a misanthrope – in fact, a standard practice in the ludicrous thematic throughout romantic literature – never seems to cross her mind.
Writers lie. Hunter Thompson really probably didn’t take all the hallucinogens he claimed to have taken in his self report in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Writers lie, but they hope to illuminate something larger with their lies and sometimes they do.  Fredrich Prokosch, in his memoir, Voices, wrote that “in order to be truthful, one must always lie a little, just as in order to tell a lie, one must tell the truth a little,” The art of adjusting that ratio is the writer’s business.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

the wrong question to ask about Thoreau

Kathryn Schulz’s attack on Thoreau is not very convincing. She quotes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s essay on Thoreau, and basically she simply develops his line of attack. At the bottom, of course, Schultz’s problem is the person, Thoreau. She thinks of him as a fanatic, a narcissist, a this and a that. It is the moralizing approach. Bad Thoreau, wandering like Maldoror along the beach at Cape Cod. And – implicitly – good us, who would weep decorously over the bodies of children who are drowned. Schulz treats this passage as though Thoreau had no idea that weeping decorously over the bodies of children was to be expected – this, in the great era of sentimental literature about same.
What is lost when one gets immersed in the moralizing approach is, well, almost everything. For Schultz, for instance, Thoreau is an absolutely humorless person. Thus, she reads Walden as an absolutely humorless text. In the process, she seems to have ignored completely the long tradition of American deadpan. But to read Thoreau’s account of how a man could drill some holes in a crate by the side of a railroad and live there like a lord is not the result of narcissism or fanaticism – Schulz takes Thoreau’s phrase that he isn’t jesting as obvious, without raising the question of why he would feel he had to offer it - but of the deadpan that informs the work.

Walden has a lot of boring patches, patches in which detail or quotation simply don’t come to life. But mainly, its life comes out of the portrayal of Thoreau at odds with the maxims he throws out, as well as with the side observations he drops along the way. Walden’s nearest relatives are not the naturalist’s books that came after, like Muir, but Buster Keaton’s movies. After all, the book begins with an absurd question that is supposedly being posed by the entire community – how Thoreau lived at Walden. Which is like supposing that the entire community of Santa Monica is wondering how the clochard with the cough that I hear at night is doing camping in the local park. Thoreau well knew that his writing, into which he threw accounts of his life, was not popular. He was not a seller.

And in fact this is where the Economy section in Walden is interesting, and where the – to Schultz – inexplicable popularity of certain of its phrases, for instance, that most men lead lives of quiet desperation, comes from. Schulz doesn’t sound like she has ever had a single day in her life where she didn’t have lunch money, but such was not the case for the Irish immigrants that she begins with, or indeed, for most of the 80 percent in the US at the moment who make below 75 thou a year.
It is here that Thoreau lands a lot of great punches – in as much as a maxim is a line with a punch – related, as it is, to the punchline. When Thoreau writes that the cost of a thing “is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it”, he does a lot to explain the central fact of the economy from the point of view of how we experience it – or fail to. It is the stick man of the rational calculator who has forgotten what rationality is that makes the chapter interesting, gives it a dialectical flow.

I understand Schulz’s impulse, here, to counter the image of Saint Thoreau. But in so doing, she unconsciously concedes to the enemy the idea that the importance of Thoreau was whether he was a saint or not. And really, it isnt.

Monday, October 12, 2015

gun control as a foreign policy issue - not that the "adults" care

Democracy is still a great instrument of popular control, which means that it has to be constantly policed and the issues at stake rigorously trivialized by the “serious” people (who have now taken to calling themselves the adults lately – perhaps the unrelenting riducule aimed at the serious people during the 00s on the internet, which has been echoed by Paul Krugman, has been taking effect). Thus the role of the email scandal that surrounds Clinton’s years as secretary of state. It is a zero of a scandal – I mean, in contrast with the scandal that has not arisen because Dick Cheney erased 30,000 of his emails. One of the great unknowns of the Obama years is whether we would be in much better shape, politically, if the Obama Justice department hadn’t taken that massive dose of oxycodine and decided to give a pass to all Bush administration officials and Wall street, occasionally waking up to jail some journalist for publishing unclassified material about this or that random atrocity. In any case, Clinton’s emails are a red herring’s red herring.
However, unless Bernie Sanders brings it up, the press will never ask a question about the real scandal of Clinton’s term of office, which is the unprecedented amount of weaponry sold, under the State Department’s aegis, by the US to forces around the world. Unprecedented except for WWII – one has to go back that far to find comparable numbers for the 160 billion dollars worth of arms the US has sold. It is the equivalent of a nuclear bomb, but more dispersed. The 400,000 people dead so far in the Syrian war? Look at the bullet holes, and you will see a lot of American pride there, eviscerating their flesh. All to stop that evil terrorism! Although, of course, what it does is sow chaos, thus allowing more terrorism, thus allowing more arms sales. A truly virtuous circle.
That is a scandal. That should be a crime. And that is, of coursde, a non-lieu – something that will not come up in the presidential campaign at all. Gun control at home will come up – gun control abroad will only come up as a good thing for our industry. After all, the “adults” know that this is only of interest to fringe groups, probably on the extreme left or something.
After all, what could go wrong with selling bombs to the Saudis?

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...