Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Pope/Essay on Man--Part 2

This was a picture of a Bourgeois Surrender-type pretty girl (mousy black hair, black long sleeve blouse, scowling expression) drinking from a bottle of Miller High Life at a dingy bar. But I guess I am not going to be allowed to steal it. Pope takes great pains to press his argument for a supernatural power's having organized the animal kingdom in a manner designed to produce the highest good. There is another long excursion into this line of thought in Epistle III:

"Who bade the stork, Columbus-like, explore
Heavens not his own, and worlds unknown before?
Who calls the council, states the certain day,
Who forms the phalanx, and who points the way?" (ll. 105-8)

Here at least we have the questions prettily put, if angling for answers in a direction that later rigor would find unsatisfactory.

ll. 263-6. On the age of superstition which preceded the Christian era:

"Then sacred seem'd the ethereal vault no more;
Altars grew marble then, and reek'd with gore:
Then first the flamen tasted living food;
Next his grim idol smear'd with human blood..."

A flamen usually refers to a priest of an ancient, presumably false deity, especially Roman. I had to look the word up myself, which is why I note it here.

Epistle IV, ll 127-8. On the immutability of the natural laws recently enunciated by Pope's man Newton:

"When the loose mountain trembles from on high,
Shall gravitation cease if you go by?"

ll. 137-40, on the difference of human opinion:

"One thinks on Calvin Heaven's own spirit fell;
Another deems him instrument of hell;
If Calvin feel Heaven's blessing, or its rod,
This cries, There is, and that, There is no God."

ll. 149-50. It made me laugh:

"'But sometimes virtue starves, while vice is fed.'
What then? is the reward of virtue bread?"

ll. 153-6. An often-forgotten point following up the last one. Note the alpha/beta male comparison used in framing the argument:

"The knave deserves it, when he tempts the main,
Where folly fights for kings, or dives for gain.
The good man may be weak, be indolent;
Nor is his claim to plenty, but content."

ll. 167-9, 173-4. If only I could still believe it:

"What nothing earthly gives, or can destroy,
The soul's calm sunshine, and the heartfelt joy,
Is virtue's prize: a better would you fix?...
Weak foolish man! will Heaven reward us there
With the same trash mad mortals wish for here?"

ll. 219-22:

"Heroes are much the same, the point's agreed,
From Macedonia's madman to the Swede (ed.--Charles XII);
The whole strange purpose of their lives to find
Or make an enemy of all mankind!"

ll 237-8:

"What's fame? A fancied life in others' breath,
A thing beyond us, even before our death."

As I stated in the other posting, I look forward, in a mechanical sort of way, to Pope and other authors of his time even though I don't really study or think about them very earnestly anymore. The early 18th century has become almost a comfort genre for me, like teenager movies of the 1930s and 40s. I still vaguely believe that Pope is good by some standard of goodness--as well as of the significance of that goodness--that was impressed on me years ago and which I cannot yet wholly disavow, though it seems to mean ever less and less in that large part of life that exists outside of my memory. Nonetheless I continue to carry out, mainly now from habit, a form of a persona I once aspired to much and pursued fairly diligently, that of a person knowledgeable about books and European history and culture especially; all of the other models desirable to me seeming at this point even more inaccessible of attainment.

Pope is not one of your universal writers I suppose, though to me he represents an atmosphere through which the English language had the good fortune at one age to pass, especially as my sense of the course of history indicates to me that there was nothing necessitating its taking this particular passage. He has an excellent style, and one that is really not like anyone else's before or since his time, which is a rather remarkable achievement in any language, to say nothing of one with the voluminous literary history that English has. Nonetheless his stature has seemed to be continually in decline, or at least perceived to be in decline, ever since the outbreak of the Romantic era. The internet age, with its love of hard data, and seeming lack of feeling or appreciation for poetic expression, seems especially unlikely to revive the idea of him as any kind of giant. I am beginning to feel more comfortable lately regarding my suspicion (hope?) of the internet's not having a more salutary or improving effect on the intellect compared to reading good books, but the general drift of events does not seem to be towards my position. Pope still endures, albeit in a minor way, such that one isn't sure how many people feel that his poetry has contributed to a meaningful enhancement of their experience of life. I suspect not many, even in comparison to 50 years ago, and this is the main value that literature ancient or modern has to offer. So while I still look forward to Pope, and still can imagine my pleasure in contemplating and sensorially experiencing life enhanced by reading him, I also cannot help but to often suspect that these perceptions of the worlds of life and thought that I have long nourished in this naive and quaintly old-fashioned way are in fact devoid of all living substance and utility, as I have understood them anyway.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Religious Activities Update

After the scandal of the adulterous priests which rocked the (protestant) church which I have found myself maneuvered into attending 15-20 times a year for the sake of various aspects of my children's development, the committee charged with selecting the new head priest evidently determined to hire the least exciting candidate that could be found. I have no doubt that the new reverend is exquisitely well-intentioned, and I should note that she has glorious credentials-- reading over the schools and seminaries she has been affiliated with and the positions she has held briefly provides the brain a jolt of the pleasurable imaginative agitation that her actual presence is incapable of inspiring--and certainly she has succeeded in fostering a nonconfrontational atmosphere, and I suppose a welcoming one, assuming one has the desire to be welcomed into an airless and tomblike community. Everybody besides me who I can find that is willing to offer an opinion on her however claims to think she is 'great'. Great at what? I wish the lady no ill-will, but if there is anyone I know for whom the modifier 'great' does not apply in any instance (including negative ones), it must be she. It has been explained to me that she does not like to preach. Why take up this line of work than? If you like the prestige of the position and what appears to me to be the healthy middle class--maybe even greater--income that comes with it, to my primitive mind the primary visible function of the holder of this position is to display spiritual leadership, to which end, other than a tireless Mother Teresa-like presence performing humble acts of charity, preaching is the most obvious vehicle. One can opine that modern congregations, particularly those holding a substantial number of the well-educated and well-heeled, do not require nor have any taste to be preached at on traditional moral and theological points; but it is still the minister's part in the charade to carry on somewhat as if they do, and to make an attempt at displaying leadership beyond what any stiff from the audience could carry out within the realm of the service. This is especially true if you are still going to exhort people with a straight face to give you money in terms of percentage of their income as if this were 1640 and the minister and the church represent the primary authority and institution in everyone's immediate life by a vast margin. It is almost comic. Jeremiah Wright has fifty times a more serious claim to being a religious leader than these Episcopalian ninnies.

You would think then that I must have been happy when this recent Sunday featured a guest sermon. But of course, I was not. The speaker was a lady, apparently a clergy member of some sort, who happened to be up from Haiti, where she operated a music school in addition to performing spiritual good works and whose sermon was in large part a report of the conditions there. What her connection was to the dust-dry church in Concord, NH or why she happened to be speaking there last weekend was not made clear to me. As is my wont, I took an immediate dislike to this admirable and compassionate servant of God. She was middle-aged, overweight and smug--yes, I know she has devoted her life to hard, real and significant work and recently survived an earthquake which collapsed the building she was working in and killed a hundred thousand people--love comes harder to me to feel as I get holder. She told us about the stoic Haitians singing hymns of praise to God while having their limbs amputated without anesthesia and stated out loud the question that the story already implied--whether we soft, trivial and spiritually undeveloped Americans could imagine ourselves showing such fortitude in a like event--which clumsy didacticism in speaking doubtless distracted me from the substance of her words. The answer to the question, for me of course is no, I would be crying and screaming and cursing and begging to die in the most disgraceful manner conceivable, which everyone knows already, so I probably resented having it asked out loud, as it were egregiously. My reaction then took on the character of muttering that if the Haitians are, as they seem to be, so spritually developed, and indeed, that they are culturally rich musically too, such that most knowledgable people are concerned that an increased exposure to Americans and their methods will destroy this richness and turn the beautiful-souled Haitians into generic, soulless, fat, inarticulate, imaginatively dead, etc--people rather like me and my children, in other words--then why are you there? The spiritual and cultural wasteland, we are always told, is middle-class whitebread America. It is we who need the ministry and the music school most desperately. The Haitians need doctors and engineers and economists and managers and perhaps math and science teachers, and maybe even a language arts/history teacher or so. But priests and music instructors would appear to be the two outside influences they least need.

Why, the hypothetical reader would be asking by now, am I sitting there so hateful and petty--for I admit that I was. Doubtless part of it was resentment at my own failure to make people turn to me for leadership, or to impart instruction or wisdom; part the sense that other people had figured out how to do substantial and interesting things with their lives and brains while I was tied down with a bunch of children and deteriorating in intellect more and more every week; doubtless a third part was that I was feeling a fat middle aged woman who had an obvious chip on her own shoulder had gained ascendance over me, or the generic type of me, and was in some degree revelling in it, while I had to sit there and take it. I knew even at the time that under the circumstances the response I was having was neither the mature nor the appropriate one. I admit I have still not sure what, in the ultimate sense, the object of the talk on Haiti really was--there was not any great pitch to donate money that I can recall, and these usually take on such a predominant character that I do remember them--but I have no good reason to automatically assume the basest motives merely because I operate that way myself. I need to let go of my need to be deeply respected, and looked to for leadership and instruction. No one has done this, and no one is going to do this, because the qualities which inspire this confidence and admiration in other people are not there. They failed to develop. I do not understand why they failed to develop so completely and spectacularly, and I would like to find out to some extent what different things I might have done because I do have 4 sons and I do not want them to find themselves in middle age in the unpleasant state of consciousness that I am in currently. For myself however the usefulness of the religious discipline may be in teaching me how to accept living in a condition of humility and worldly subordination to my better-trained and realized fellow citizens, which is the main struggle I have been dealing with for the past several years. I would do well to stop trying to impose my own dubious importance and insight onto both formal and informal settings, and listen to and follow the lead and good advices of others. Nietzsche of course was correct in asserting that the teachings and habits of religious life are primarily crutches for the feeble-minded, but none of these scientists and philosophers who have no use or need to learn humility in their own lives address the circumstance that denying the rituals of religion to the weak will not make them strong, it simply renders their position and state of existence even more inscrutable. It gives them no model to fall back on which holds out the possibility of dignity. I suppose the master and inferior strictly secular model can be conceived as a way to offer dignity to the inferior in the outstanding discharge of his particular function, but that entails a certain grandeur of attitude and vision on the part of the superior both to create and appreciate the role of the lesser, which is a level of cultivation and development that I do not think most contemporary superior people possess.

My current task is to cease craving and pretending to a status that I have not earned, and do not understand how to even go about earning.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Alexander Pope--Essay on Man (1733-4)

Time has softened much of the edge of Pope's misanthropy. We are no more happy among our fellow men than Pope was, but his talent, the beauty of his literary age with its strong, precise sentiments, and the targets of his contempt belong to a remote and particular enough milieu that I usually take a good deal of pleasure in his poetry. The world, as doubtless Pope himself knew, is not even in its delusions so neatly defined and comprehended as it is presented in this poetry. This however is its primary appeal, and the appeal of much classical art of high technical accomplishment, however short of the highest rank among human productions it falls on intellectual grounds. When I read it it takes me back to various of my own previous and now rather fondly remembered mental states, when things like existence, art, history and the like seemed real and comprehensible, which is not a confidence or attitude I have had towards anything in probably 7 or 8 years.

Like most of Pope's work this is good in parts. I found a lot of the metaphysical conceits difficult to decode and follow to their logical conclusion. This is may be because I am too distracted at this point to do so, though it may also be because Pope is not as great of a metaphysician as he is a poet. This is the poem in which he set out to "vindicate the ways of God to man", by the way, for the benefit of anyone who had forgotten. My notes are unfortunately once again very sloppily written, and don't look as if they will be much help to me. There are a lot of great rhymes though that I want to commisserate over with my worldwide network of unknown but sympathetic spirits. Before diving right into the humorous lines, I feel I ought to establish some philosophical context against which to set them. Here then to start are some highly pleasing images of early rationalistic and mathematical-inspired Deism (ll 57-60):

"So man, who here seems principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
Tis but a part we see, and not a whole."

From this relative seriousness we go right into an examination of man's confusion regarding the potential purposes of various beasts and how that where his own purpose is concerned must be so many times greater (63-66):

"When the dull ox, why now he breaks the clod,
Is now a victim, and now Egypt's god:
Then shall man's pride and dulness comprehend
His actions', passions', being's use and end..."

I do find these verses and images genuinely clean and pleasing.

ll. 81-2, on the wisdom of God's grand plan:

"The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed to-day,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?"

l. 95 is one of the dusty immortals in English poetry's Hall of Fame, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast" (its rhyme is "Man never Is, but always To be blest"), which I must confess I had thought was from Shakespeare and did not recognize as Pope's.

ll. 193-4. This is veering on absurdist territory:

"Why has not man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, man is not a fly."

This is in section VI of Epistle I which attempts to explain why it would not befit man to have a higher sensitivity to nature. I would have assumed that an improvement in perception would result in a proportionate adjustment of all of the other faculties in league with it, though I suppose experience suggests that increases in intellectual capacity in man actually result in decreases in that of physical attunedness.

ll. 225-8. Epigram for me:

"Remembrance and reflection, how allied;
What thin partitions sense from thought divide;
And middle natures, how they long to join,
Yet never pass the insuperable line!"

ll. 291-2. Not a modern sentiment, though probably essential for a sentient person's achieving any kind of religious acceptance:

"All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good."

Epistle II. My unintelligible note: Time (of history) generally bullish on (ceperites?)/feats(?) of man.

II. 31-34. Pope loves to make Newton references--Remember 'All Nature's secrets lay hidden in night/God said 'let Newton be!' and all was light'?--This one is even more outrageous.

"Superior beings, when of late they saw
A mortal man unfold all Nature's law,
Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape,
And show'd a Newton as we show an ape."

ll. 61-64. On self-love (61) and reason (62):

"Man, but for that, no action could attend,
And, but for this, were active to no end;
Fix'd like a plant on his peculiar spot,
To draw nutrition, propagate, and rot..."

Much like Crabbe's "The Village", Epistle II is not as strong as Epistle I, and indeed Epistle I is the only part of the poem reprinted in most anthologies. The ideas are not as clear and generally weaker throughout the rest of the poem.

221-224: "But where the extreme of vice, was ne'er agreed:
Ask where's the north? at York, 'tis on the Tweed;
In Scotland at the Orcades; and there,
at Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where."

261-262. I don't know that everyone finds his bliss:

"Whate'er the passion, knowledge, fame, or pelf,
Not one will change his neighbor with himself."

Epistle III now, ll. 27-30. More comedy:

"Has God, thou fool! work'd solely for thy good,
Thy joy, thy pastime, thy attire, thy food?
Who for thy table feeds the wanton fawn,
For him as kindly spread the flowery lawn..."

43-44. More absurdity:

"Know, Nature's children shall divide her care;
The fur that warms a monarch warm'd a bear."

65-70. The animal rights advocates would take issue with Pope's argument that even though many animals end up as men's dinner, they are in fact treated little less beneficently than men by God:

"Nay, feasts the animal he dooms his feast,
And, till he ends the being, makes it bless'd;
Which sees no more the stroke, or feels the pain.
Than favour'd man by touch ethereal slain.
The creature had his feast of life before;
Thou too must perish when thy feast is o'er!"

He is straining to make this case, methinks, even before you factor in the necessity of shaping it into heroic couplets.

Maybe I'll do one more short post on this. I only have a few more quotations, but I want to try some kind of essay vaguely related to the various subjects suggested by this particular book.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Favorite Town, or Town I Would Most Like to Visit, In Every State?

This is sort of my own internet game, though the idea came to me because one of my co-workers was trying to win tickets online to some kind of show, participation in which contest required one to make a short statement about his favorite town in New Hampshire and why it was thus. My co-worker, being unable to think of a favorite town, asked me for help, and, not wanting to think too long, I came up with a solid, if obvious choice, which she proceeded to use (she did not win the contest). I thought it would be amusing to consider the question with regard to other states, and make a record of it (No, I admit, I really did have that thought). Major (as in pro-sports size market) metropolises are not eligible for recognition here. These are going to be provincial towns as much as possible.

Alabama--Montgomery. I've never been to Alabama and don't know much about it. I know Montgomery is the capital and that F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald had a house there, and that's about it. Still, that is enough to give me the impression that there must be some vestige of elegance there. The other major cities--Birmingham, Selma, Mobile--still conjure up very negative connotations, without much, if any sense, of redeeming qualities about them.

Alaska--Never been, naturally. Fairbanks? I have a memory of reading back in the 80s that the girls at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks were rated the ugliest of any college in the country, which actually made me consider going there for a few weeks, to give you an idea of how bleak the chick situation at home was looking at the time. It's also large enough and so rigorously isolated as to make, I would think, for a very intense impression of the Alaska experience.

Arizona--I don't know. Probably one of the university towns (Tucson?). Word identification for Arizona for me: desert, cactuses, rocks, poor and exploited Mexican underclass, Route 66, national parks, really spectacular looking girls especially in the Phoenix and Tucson areas that are especially not well situated however to be picked up for a traveler's fling by strangers passing through town.

Arkansas--Nothing in Arkansas much excites me. Little Rock seems like one of the blander of the state capitals that has a substantial population. Even the university town (Fayetteville) doesn't really tempt me, though I'm sure if had a more definitive sense of what the typical Arkansas babes look like, I would be more raring to go.

California--I would be feeling a lot more confident about my list if it were 1950. I think of Berkeley, Santa Barbara, Monterrey, Salinas, but the impression is that these are somehow irretrievably altered, either by sprawl, or excessive wealth, or overmanipulation by tourist industry interests. Hollywood sort of counts as a smaller city, doesn't it? And Glendale and Pasadena and all those famous towns in SoCal. This state is too hard.

Colorado--Boulder is consistently rated the most militantly health & fitness-obsessed municipality in the entire country, and Colorado Springs is supposed to be something of a right-wing take on this same ethos. I'd probably stick to the National Parks if I went there.

Connecticut--The first state on the list I've been to. The problem is I can't think of what my favorite town is. Greenwich and Litchfield are reassuringly and handsomely well-preserved, but I don't have any particularly prized memories of them. The same, to a slightly less degree, can be said of East Haddam and Mystic. I went to a wedding in Waterbury once, but remember nothing about the town other than that there appeared to be an unusually high number of active Catholics there. Hartford and New Haven I found to be not as bad as anticipated, but still not places I would eagerly look forward to hanging out in again. The position is still open.

Delaware--Another state I have lived very close to and passed through probably 100 times but have spent hardly any real time in. I stopped at a Wawa in Wilmington recently when I went down to Maryland. It looks to have become somewhat less ghetto since the 70s & 80s; whether that is an improvement or not I suppose depends on the attitude of the reader. I'd be willing to check out Dover sometime--I've never been to that part of the state. New Castle is supposed to be like Annapolis--both are in the top 5 cities in America for preserved 18th century buildings I think--so maybe I'd like to go there sometime.

Florida--I am partial to Sarasota even though it is entirely artificial and overbuilt. I have pleasant memories of going there however. I also liked St Augustine, though I wish I could go sometime when it was about 1/10 as crowded as it was when I was there, which probably never happens. I like the central part of the state where the orange and grapefruit groves are quite a lot also, though there are not any particular towns which stand out. I would still like to go to Key West sometime too, even though I know it's a tourist trap and the people who live there hate outsiders. I've come to accept that I'm probably going to be relatively unpopular pretty much everywhere I go for the rest of my life, so I'm going to learn to revel in that.

Georgia--I've only passed through on I-95 en route to Florida. Savannah seems to play off that New Orleans kind of we're-wild-and-eccentric-and-we-have-awesome-and-challenging-food-too-vibe that I actually find kind of a turnoff (i.e., I'm feeling warned in advance that I'm not really cool enough to hang there), and unlike, say, New York, there doesn't seem to be anything to do there that doesn't require acknowledging someone else's coolness and eccentricity, which I hate doing. The state is quite large, so there are probably a few dusty crossroads still around that evoke the past of Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy and people like that. I am aware obviously that was largely a bad past but the memorably evoked literary aspects of it appeal to the imagination more than the modern commercial and residential landscape.

Hawaii--Waikiki Beach, baby. That was the place back in the 40s so it's got to be cool right? Barring some unforeseen development, like one of my children moving there, I don't see myself ever going to Hawaii. Being forty and still having never been to Spain or Greece or Turkey yet, among myriad other interesting places, it's not high on my list of priorities.

Idaho--The stereotype in the east is that this state has more than its fair share of antisocial and uneducated white supremacist types. Ketchum, where Hemingway killed himself, is part of a posh resort area. I don't know enough about it.

Illinois--Haven't seen much of it, but I did like Oak Park (outside Chicago) a lot.

Indiana--Haven't seen much of it, either. The north seems better than the south. I liked Notre Dame when I visited it.

Iowa--Haven't been. Iowa City and Ames have a lot of book-loving, journal-keeping, memoirist types. I'd probably like them.

Kansas--No idea. You're supposed to look at the wheat, aren't you?

Kentucky--Nothing jumping out here either.

Louisiana--Natchitoches. I thought this place had a full on old south vibe going on, but I may be confusing that with Natchez, Mississippi.

Maine--Portland, of course. I liked it better in the 80s before it was "revitalized", and began to attract self-conscious hipsters with various personal missions--it's not 'my' city anymore, goddammit--but it's not like it won't always be important to me. Runners-up include York, the Kennebunks, Belgrade Lakes & Augusta, the Freeport/Brunswick/Bath area. The far north, Presque Isle and Caribou and all that, aren't terribly exciting in themselves, but at the time (1988 or so) they felt remote & not really a part of the world everybody else was living in, which was an interesting sensation.

Maryland--Annapolis, of course. The runner-up is Middletown on the Eastern shore, because its tiny downtown is kind of old & shabby, and when I stopped there for gas one freezing night on the Annapolis-Philadelphia run, there was an attractive artsy-looking girl working inside at the counter whom obviously I still remember many years later. This gives you an idea of what I think of most of Maryland too.

Massachusetts--Concord. One of the true all-time all-American towns. Only 16 miles from Boston but a very great deal of it feels and looks nothing like a suburb, which it is.

Michigan--There is actually a lot of cool stuff in Michigan. Some rarely-visited island National Park lands in the Great Lakes, the U.P., the Henry Ford Greenfield Village in Dearborn, which I know is probably considered kitschy by hipsters, but I would probably enjoy it, Battle Creek, the Keisler Archaeology museum in Ann Arbor (I don't know if this museum is any good, but they once lent out to my wife an enormous box of multimedia materials, games, reproductions of artifacts, slides, books, etc, on ancient Greece, so I have an association with them), Saginaw.

Minnesota--Duluth (wish the Eskimos could have outlasted the Packers for the NFL's small city slot--talk about frozen tundra; in my youth much-maligned as America's answer to Novosibirsk), Sauk Center (Sinclair Lewis's Gopher Prairie, the fate of the [female] protaganist of which story I too sadly identify with), Mankato (more earnest, library-going, memoir-writing, Midwestern good girls of my fond imagination), Grand Marais.

Mississippi--Oxford and Jackson both interest me because of the literary associations. Jackson I picture still as a sleepy old style southern capital--looking at the map every important two lane highway in the state still converges on it from, doubtless, the surrounding cotton fields--but apparently it is more like Atlanta now, a modern administrative center full of parking garages which is apparently and alienating outside business hours. I would probably go to see Natchez if I ever made it down there. I'm not a big music fanatic so I probably would be able to resist the temptation to hunt down authentic blues.

Missouri--I have been to Hannibal (Mark Twain's hometown), which does have the great location on the Mississippi River, and I enjoyed seeing the sites there, but the town itself is pretty dead. Most of Missouri that I saw seemed quite dead actually, including St Louis itself.

Montana--After my research and post of a month or so back regarding the changes in various states' largest cities, I've adopted Billings as one of my places I keep an eye peel for news items on, since there are a number of things about that are very different from typical American cities (its geographical setting, its being--at about 90,000 people--the largest city for 500 miles in every direction, its wholly natural and uncontrived western/cowboy character). I was especially disturbed therefore to see that one of the American soldiers accused of murdering civilians for sport in Iraq--it may even have been the leader of that group--was a native of this city.

Intermission. I'm at the point in the post now where I'm no longer interested in going on. But I will, for a while anyway, to try to complete the set.

Nebraska--Red Cloud. Where the Willa Cather historic site is. As you know, I liked My Antonia. I don't have any other emotional connection to Nebraska.

Nevada--I would still kind of like to see Las Vegas, though it can't see it interesting me past age 50, so I'm running out of time. The other four cities in Nevada--Reno, Carson City, Henderson, etc--I feel more or less the same about.

New Hampshire--On the original question which 'inspired' this whole exercise, my reflexive, two second response was "Portsmouth". I'll stick with that. New Hampshire has lots of sober and responsible citizens. Cities that could in any way be described as lively, on the other hand, are in exceedingly short supply.

New Jersey--I was in Rutherford once and found the old downtown part of it at least surprisingly attractive and compatible to my despondent mind. I have never been to LongBranch, but it is the birthplace of at least three well-regarded writers that I am familiar with (Dorothy Parker, Norman Mailer, & the critic M. H. Abrams) so I am curious to see how this phenomenom might have come about. I was in Princeton once. The school looked genuinely beautiful to my easily awed and manipulated senses, but nothing happened to induce any kind of intense emotional response on the occasion so my memory of it is rather vague.

New Mexico--I've been to Santa Fe--I flew out there, and it's the only place west of Missouri I've managed to get to. It seemed O.K., and of course there is another St John's College there which helps you feel somewhat at home, but on the whole I think I would need more than a week to get used to it. I will say that when I was there I felt incredibly healthy, I presume from walking around a lot in the thin air, and my skin cleared up and my hair turned blonder, so maybe if I had hung around and lived for a few years as this physically improved person my life would have taken a wholly different turn. The population of Los Alamos is frequently said to possess the highest mean IQ of any city in the United States. And while I confess to not being much of a science guy, I have always found the Manhattan Project and the atomic energy researches to be of somewhat greater interest than most of the other stuff. So I might be curious to go there too.

New York--I'm still looking for it. It was long one of my stranger convictions that upstate New York, in contrast to almost everywhere else, was dotted with reasonably attractive women who would be interested in having sex with me after a very short term acquaintance, and that my only real task was to find them, which, however, I never managed to do. This song does a excellent job expressing something of the feeling I was overcome with.

North Carolina--I have some OK memories of Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, et al from my childhood. We went there because at the time it was still quaint and not horrendously overbuilt like the Jersey shore was, but I don't think that's the case anymore. I haven't been either to Asheville or the Raleigh/Durham area, though both are rather insistently hyped as being cool places so much as to make even me wary of them.

North Dakota--Minot. I'm all about the geographic center of North America.

Ohio--I've been to Dayton. It was pretty crummy. I've also been to Toledo and Akron, which were even worse. I'll need to get out among the people for this one.

Oklahoma--Good question.

Oregon--My perception of the crowd in Portland would lend itself, if I let it, only too easily to a prominent role in my waking fantasy life.

Pennsylvania--On the surface the depressed towns in Eastern Pennsylvania look at least as bad as those in Ohio, but, perhaps because it is roughly my native area, they don't seem so bad to me. I have only liked Bethlehem, and Scranton was another one of those cities I marked out as potentially holding romance for me within its limits. When you say such things of course people always want to point out that the women are 500 times better looking in say, Santa Barbara. To which I say, of course they are, but what good is such hotness to us if we haven't a prayer of possessing it? Which we haven't. The percentage of women in Scranton who are somewhat attractive is not very high, but it is not impossibly low, either, and formerly at least there was a pretty solid middle class Catholic population base, which, though unconscious of the fact I must have sensed it, is within the socio-cognitive-economic range wherein I can at least pray to compete. In short, the co-ordinate where acceptable attractiveness, education, etc, and approachability intersected in decent quantities I always perceived to be higher for me in Scranton than in most cities; which naturally put me in a light-hearted mood whenever I happened to stop in there, even though nothing ever came of it.

Rhode Island--Pawtucket used to give me a similar vibe as Scranton. Which indicates I guess that I am more comfortable around people of a slightly lower social class (i.e. non-professional, intelligent but under-sophisticated) than that which I have mistakenly spent most of my post-adolescent life trying to ape the forms of.

South Carolina--Columbia. I've heard there are a lot of well-groomed, professional and driven babes with a hard-partying past there. Even if they are hardly my type and are in fact would probably be kind of scary in their impeccably dressed out self-assuredness, I confess myself intrigued.

South Dakota--Sioux City. I have no idea why. Just a feeling.

Tennessee--It will take a lot to dislodge Gatlinburg from the #1 position. I'm not saying it can't be done. But it will take a lot.

Texas--My romantic image of Texas is the endless flat, treeless, tumbling tumbleweed, long way from nowhere Last Picture Show kind of scene. The areas around Abilene, Amarillo, that sort of thing. I know they're supposed to be boring as hell, but if I'm going to Texas I want space, I want boredom, I want bleakness, and then, maybe, catharsis will not require such a high and difficult degree of agitation and excitement to be achieved, which seems to me to be at the crux of all of our problems in life.

Utah--Utah is probably another National Park state, although Salt Lake City seems like it might be weird enough to be worth hanging out in for a day or do if one knew where to go.

Vermont--Brattleboro. I love Brattleboro. There's no pressing reason to--it's on the river, and has some pretty old buildings, and the same pizza and sub shops and blues bars and falafel stands as every other wannabe hip town in New England--it's just my place. I own it.

Virginia--I've never liked northern Virginia very much. I have a soft spot for Williamsburg, as we used to go there quite a bit when I was young. My father worked on some archaeological excavations there during the summers with Ivor Noel Hume, who is evidently well-known in the field and the author of many books. Supposedly Hume, or somebody, offered him a full-time position down there but my mother refused to move, or so the story goes. So I could possibly have grown up there, which I'm not sure I would have liked. Charlottesville seems like it would be reasonably pleasant. On the way home from Tennessee I had dinner in Staunton, which was not exciting, though they were trying to create an illusion of vitality at least. As it is only about 20 miles from Charlottesville there were a lot of UVA types hanging around in the gourmet pizza bar/restaurant we went to (Here I was going to reveal one of my big travel tips regarding finding non-chain places to eat off the highway, which can be tough, especially once one gets out of the Northeast. However I forgot that most people have GPSs or internet access in their cars which are perfectly capable of addressing this problem should it arise. My tip on further consideration was weakly conceived anyway).

Washington--What is up there that I would like? Those Pacific Northwest states--Washington and Oregon--seem to be somewhat similiar to upper New England in that they have a mix of coffee and carbon emissions and fresh greens-obsessed earth people hives along with a somewhat more disaffected and longer-rooted white working class. It has decided possibilities. One associates Seattle as having the more pointedly ambitious and purposeful population of the two major metropolises, though perhaps under a more relaxed and politically and environmentally engaged veneer than we are used to having to deal with in the east, while one imagines Portland as having more people who are primarily interested in the depth of their being with simply being cool, with political and especially financial concerns subverted to a certain extent to the attainment of the previously stated goal.

West Virginia--As I believe I have written elsewhere, I twice went to basketball camp at the University of West Virginia at Morgantown, and I kind of liked the place. I went to camp another time at the aforementioned University of Virginia, but evidently they didn't take the basketball players anyway near the parts of it where the ghosts of Jefferson and Edgar Allan Poe can doubtless be channeled by an active imagination, because I don't have any memory of it being nicer than WVU (and that isn't because I played terribly either; I had much better game at UVA than at the other place). The food was better at West Virginia and I liked the dorms we stayed in better too. I also remember more cute girls from the West Virginia camp (obviously they were housed and fed in a separate building), though I have no reason to believe that was really the case.

Wisconsin--Madison, though I don't know much about the rest of the state. There was a Madison-based poet, William Ellery Leonard, who was active most prominently in the 1910s, whom I am fond of who often used the city as a setting for his work.

Wyoming--Wyoming is probably the state, along with Hawaii and maybe Idaho, in which I have the least general interest. However, I have no doubt that it is beautiful, and that I would very likely be taken with it if I ever made it out there.

End of Post.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Richard Wright--Native Son (1940)

Another slow week on the site. The days when I don't feel like writing seem to grow ever more frequent, and ever more likely to run together in sets of twos or threes and fours. Yet there is still no contending passion or interest, such as cheesemaking or boatbuilding, or even political activism, that is taking its place. It is not unfathomable to me that this should be happening, but I wish I were experiencing it as the result of increasing, or at least deepening, rather than rapidly diminishing, mental strength.

As the copy of this that I read was an old first edition, albeit not one in very good condition, that I found on some neglected shelves at the Vermont cabin, I did not write my notes in the book itself, but on separate slips of paper, which I have happily lost, meaning that this will not be the typical bloated and torturous literary appreciation characteristic of this site.

White readers have always liked this book, even though it is certainly condemnatory of them and the society that they have built. As literature, it may almost in a sense be too good; I often found my admiration for the literary composition distracting me from the social questions which the book one assumes is primarily intended to raise. The scenes and atmosphere in this are among the most vividly depicted, or at least impressed, that I have ever come across. Part of that, doubtless, is that much of the physical atmosphere and mental consciousness of an American city in 1940--Chicago in this case--is not entirely remote from certain aspects of my own experience, especially in my childhood in the 1970s and 80s. However I find the vividness here to be much greater than that of other books with an urban American setting from the same time period or later. I can instantly call up myriad concrete impressions and images from its pages two years after reading it with no reference to the *text*: The jail-like apartment with its little iron beds and irons all together in one room, the adults fornicating in full view of the children; the constant grayness and whiteness of the winter sky, both as felt outside and seen from various windows throughout the book; the particular wind-whipped deep cold of the northern American winter; the classic prewar four leveled gabled and porched and bow-windowed house where the wealthy white people lived; the effect of the mass newspapers and advertisements of urban American life on the thought process even of the seemingly disaffected and isolated impoverished black population; the trial and jail scenes. These effects are created in a most matter of fact style, which in no way calls attention to itself except in the extraordinary vividness with which one recalls them later. While the book was a calling out of white America for the destruction it perpetrates on the souls of Bigger Thomas and millions of other human beings just like him, there is a sense of hopelessness about it that probably has a soothing effect on any kind of threatening edge that even the most sensitive white readers might have perceived. In 1940 America white domination--and extreme racism--are depicted in numerous instances as being so omnipotent as to be probably beyond hope of contending against in any significant way. White society may be hated to an extent, but it is also feared, and the stinging contempt and ridicule and genuinely heartfelt expressions of black vitality and strength against white sterility and weakness that were to come later and which undoubtedly grabbed the attention and shook the self-confidence of wide swathes of the white literary/humanistic intelligentsia at least are not yet able to convincingly assert themselves here.

Back to considerations of literary technique...Almost all of the characterizations in this are also outstanding, again using a remarkably understated and unassuming manner of writing, but the people and their come 'alive' on the page, as odd a choice of word as alive may seem to be for this book. Bigger and the other people in his life, his mother and the gang he runs with, but especially Bigger himself, are not easy characters to write the way that they are. By the usual conventions of literary writing, Bigger is not bright, he is almost wholly inarticulate, he participates in crimes, about which he has a confused sort of conscience, though not so much to effect the general course of life. In short there is not a lot of pretense that he has a prodigious amount of unrealized potential. Richard Wright himself was about 85% not this character, and the character does not superficially offer a lot to the reader other than a pain and sensitivity that he cannot express in any language to any person but which is conveyed very forcefully to the reader. It is an example of writing of which I think a lot.

That is enough for now.