Adventures in Cultural Consumption, Reading in Progress Edition

Kristin Lavransdatter: There have been two notable effects that have come from the part of my life I spent reading and writing about human rights and their violation. The first is that it definitively ended my interest in the depiction of violence. I was never much of a horror movie person to begin with--or comic-book-violence, or "this is art and not spectacle, no, really"--but I have very little patience for it now. The benefit of this has been missing out on a really large part of the TV renaissance, since "he comes out of the room, and half his face is blown off, but he lights a cigarette before he dies and it's SO COOL" is not appealing, and, apart from being convinced that it has redeeming aesthetic value, is in fact, and objectively, a really weird thing to think is cool.

The other has been a decline in interest in a certain type of narrative, approximately "let me show you the resilience/baseness of the human spirit by having terrible things happen to my main character for a long time." It's taken down a strangely large number of reading projects--Vanity Fair, for one; it's the problem I still have with The Mill on the Floss even though it is quite clear things will end up tolerably well. This is not a requirement that narratives have happy endings, or that nothing bad ever happen to main characters--it's just that the line between "depiction of reality" and "sadism" is remarkably thin. Kristin Lavransdatter was going along just fine--well, even--until the Beautiful Man with a Shady Past shows up, and... the momentum has been lost. I'm sure 800 pages of her learning to reconcile her past mistakes with her faith will be riveting, as will The Trials She Will Inevitably Face, which will lead to Personal Integrity In A Fallen World (word on the street is that there will be a Love Triangle with Beautiful Man and Good Man Who Was Spurned But Still Loves Her). I'm just not sure I'm willing to keep reading along.

The Bostonians: Fine, so far, which is not yet very far.

Biographia Literaria: A 400-page book best known for a famously hard-to-parse structure? Sign me up!
Cut out from a long post on leaving academia and deciding not to be a freelance writer,* best left uncompleted:

This is probably also a decent time to mention my belief that the reason we should divorce judgments of personal behavior from quality of work produced in aesthetic and academic realms is that success appears to correspond to developing unattractive personal qualities. Not that regular people are likely to withstand scrutiny, either--I'm Reformed for a reason--but success requires a kind of Look Out For Number One approach that is not compatible with being an entirely ethical person. You can make your peace with it, and many do, or sacrifice a few rungs of success for being more noticeably a good person, but "everyone is smart, distinguish yourself by being kind" is one of those statements (like "only the even-numbered Star Trek movies are good") that carries its own insult: you can distinguish yourself by being kind because most people are not.

*I have a lot of thoughts on What's Wrong With Academia, which can be perhaps best summarized by the list of "demeaning things that have happened to me at various positions" that I keep mostly for its humor value (the accidental items are, in their own way, worse than the intentional ones). But I'm not sharing that. The short version of not freelance writing is that I could never see a way to make money from it in anything like the short term, and it seemed to involve compromising on certain important features of my interior personal life, such as 'not having to have a take on everything that happens.'


Bull Durham: I hold onto this opinion, rendered two years ago. But note a few other meaningful details: the presence of a grizzled old (actually 32) Kevin Costner falling for a (nine years older) Susan Sarandon, who convincingly play as equals. Note that everyone gets a happy-ish ending, which is less about handing them everything they want than giving them some measure of dignity (Millie getting married, Nuke learning to behave like an adult and realize he doesn't know everything). Note also--very unusual for a comedy these days--the profusion of jokes and humorous moments, which go from runners to dialogue to wordplay to physical comedy. I like its vision of North Carolina, and of Durham, which plays less as "run-down old place nobody wants to be" and more as "the timelessness of these things in the midst of a very specific time functions as a metaphor for baseball itself"; it's definitely the 80s, but you'd never know it.


I'm not much of one for fine-tuning arguments for the existence of God (or any arguments for or against the existence of God, for that matter), but if I were:

the fact that a 12" record being spun at 33 1/3rpm produces enough music to last for exactly one human adult attention span (~20 minutes, according to pedagogical research) would be proof enough.


A Brief Note On Living In the South, Weather Edition

Growing up in the midwest, precipitation was a metaphysical certainty. The wind blows from west to east (if it blows in any other direction, you're in serious trouble). There are no geographic features to slow or disturb a front as it moves through. From the right vantage point, you can watch a storm come in for, literally, hours before it hits. But it will always hit.

In the south, count on no precipitation until it is falling. Has it gone twilight dark at 2:00pm? Do you see endless thunderheads in the sky? Is it raining nearby, as part of a storm that is very clearly headed in your direction? None of these mean anything: in the last week, I have seen all these fail to result in rain. (There has also been a random thunderstorm, not visible on radar, that camped out over our house for 30 minutes.) Why all this happens I could not possibly say.


Books Do Furnish a Room
Temporary Kings
Hearing Secret Harmonies

I agree with much of the standard reception of these three books, the weakest in A Dance to the Music of Time. They condescend to soap opera antics too readily; they contain too much plot and too much emphasis on dramatic turns of event; they require one to believe that Widmerpool, Pamela, X. Trapnel, Murtlock and Gwinnet are interesting figures, none of whom can carry a plot--except perhaps for Gwinnet, about whom the least is said and who remains the most inscrutable.

But the plotting was always going to be a problem, because what could possibly follow on World War II? What could be as dramatic, what could earn that drama? Especially since the main character cannot be young, or in too close contact with the young, and therefore is in no position to experience what was new in that period.

I think there's a more general problem of age and experience, which is to say that one's life becomes in certain respects more meaningful as one ages, but less eventful*; if you are conventional and succeeding at conventional life, the days are a succession of variations on the same theme, and if one decides, as Powell had Jenkins decide, that family life is not a fit subject for discussion--Isobel becomes slightly more of a visible presence in the last three novels, but their children are never discussed at all--there simply isn't very much to say. The only people who make waves at this point are the ones who have made a mistake of some or another kind, and given the novels' attitude towards people who remarry--"sometimes it doesn't work out, oh well, and sometimes it takes three or four tries to find one that sticks"--who live together but don't marry, etc, it's going to take a significant amount to make waves. For goodness' sake: Jean Templer goes off and marries a South American dictator, and it barely gets discussed.

The writing of the novels themselves belies the excuse that there's nothing left to talk about: Anthony Powell begins the series at approximately the same age and life experience as Nick Jenkins in Books Do Furnish a Room when he takes up an interest in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. The man who is behind the times and to whom nothing of particular interest happens anymore is the one who is just about the same as the one who writes so engagingly of the pre-war world. One may say, of course, that this is just so: one should expect that a large and self-contained chunk of life that had a very definitely end-point should submit itself to narrative quite easily, while the portion Powell lived while writing his books, lacking anything like a point or thrust, proves more difficult to write. The decision to omit the family from discussion as life might most intensely circle around family deprives one of obvious material. Nevertheless, it's hard not to leave the cycle wanting something more from its end than the explicit details of the Widmerpool-Pamela marriage; even "talking with the neighbors about the difficulties of the local quarry expanding" seems more promising.

*I had the very definite feeling several weeks ago of realizing that the large majority of internet controversies-of-the-day are being written about by people distinctly younger than me; I think the moderately self-aware person reaches a point at which they realize these controversies repeat themselves endlessly in only the most minor variations, none of them resolving one way or the other, and no one changing their mind. (Time changes most minds, but they don't realize that yet.) The energy wasted on these seems tragic, in its own way, but everyone finds a sustainable balance eventually, I suppose.

I remember a few years ago talking with an undergrad about what she was reading--Steven Pinker and the usual aspirant undergrad literature adventures--and realizing Pinker was just a placeholder for 'vaguely social-scientific book that promises to explain in excruciating detail some major aspect of being human, but fails to attain the needed rigor,' of which I have seen a dozen come and go since I was myself an undergraduate. That nothing original is likely to befall you is either a comfort or a curse, once you recognize it, but very intelligent people can go for a very long time without realizing it.


There are three active possibilities for Go Set a Watchman. In order of likelihood:

1. Everyone forgets about it in a few years. By all accounts, it is not a good novel, and what makes it notable is only the fact that it differs in tone and characterization from To Kill a Mockingbird. The book is properly considered either as juvenilia or as something close to a last novel/posthumous novel/unfinished novel. If the former, people will recognize that it is not particularly interesting on its own: Trimalchio to The Great Gatsby, or "The Waste Land" before Ezra Pound edited it. If the latter, it will go into the same camp as The Last Tycoon or Hemingway's last novels: for completists only. I mean, Jane Austen has juvenilia and posthumous fiction, and no one pretends like either is part of her mature work.

2. It kills off To Kill a Mockingbird in high school curricula, and thus kills the novel altogether. The complications to "Atticus" as a character deprive him of his moral force in Mockingbird, and it's an awkward thing to try and explain to cynical teenagers. The novel can't serve as a simple (not to say simplistic) morality tale, and it becomes a historical curio of a particular time and approach to racial issues, a mid-20th century Uncle Tom's Cabin, to speak of once-influential works on race in America that are no longer widely read.

[A wide distance of probability]

3. The attractions of a novel wherein the narrator is a thinly disguised version of the author who moves to New York City and discovers that even the nice-seeming southerners are terrible racists and her father's not the hero she once thought he was, is a perfectly fine sentiment of the moment, no matter how cliché it is in all details. It feels more real, which is to say dirtier and more degrading of the human spirit, and thus will be taken for the 'adult' version of the children's story. Assuming she is of sound mind (a big assumption, where all people with opinions have vested interests in those opinions being true), then it seems to indicate that Lee didn't understand the value, importance and meaning of her own book. This would hardly be the first time such a thing were true, but it'd be sad all the same.


I'm not sure what, not quite 20 years ago, sent me off on the idea that I should spend my life reading too much and otherwise attempting to work my way through culture (I blame my parents), but I am fairly certain that today's experience was the sort of thing I had in mind: reading the first chapter of Foucault's The Order of Things, an extended interpretation of Velazquez's Las Meninas, and not needing to refer to the image because I have looked at it enough times to be able to follow the interpretation without additional reference to it.