Am reading John Armstrong’s book Life, Love, Goethe, whose short, swift chapters seem to be organized around themes in Goethe’s life, as well as chronology. Ch. 8, “Boredom,” explores how the great writer, in the company of convivial but conventional people, as at the home of a friend, Fritz Jacobi, was bored by the conversation. It was the usual stuff, full of fine and uplifting sentiments — in short, the usual views of the usual people.
Goethe explains what he did in response to such tedious twaddle:
… I was in the habit of making outrageously paradoxical statements in order to provoke the narrow-minded disagreements that people normally get themselves into, and to force them to extreme conclusions. This was, of course, usually offensive to the company and annoying on more than one count….
How often have I found myself in the same position! That is, to stir things up in company, or on Facebook, I’ve taken extreme positions, paradoxical positions, standing or claiming to stand for both A and Z, in order to shake people up, to shape their opinions away from the more tried and true extremes of reactionary self-interest, on the one hand, or PC rectitude, on the other.
Sigh. Provocation is a tough business. Why don’t I let well enough alone and let people ply their dreary platitudes? Maybe because I think that well enough isn’t good enough? Doesn’t provoke interest or thinking of any kind? Or modify our stable, staid, unchallenged opinions?
Because, finally, there’s a value higher than harmony and concord, going along and getting along, for going along and getting along’s sake?
Joined a writers’ group of a dozen odd people about four months ago and have read every week from a novel I’m attempting or a book of short stories I’m finalizing for publication.
It’s a good group, attentive and encouraging, whatever the merits of the particular writer or her particular story. (I’m the only guy in the group, which I sometimes call, tongue in cheek, 12 Old Ladies and 1 Old Man.) There don’t appear to be overt hostilities or agendas. They will see and say what they think about your piece.
But I read a story yesterday, written some years ago, called “The Bathers.” It’s one of a series of stories that involves male voyeurism, if you want to use that word, or, less tendentiously, a man seeing a woman naked. This man may have an artistic interest or vocation, or at least admire painters whose subject matter includes female nudes, for example, Manet, Renoir, Titian.
The protagonist in the story compares himself implicitly to Actaeon, who spied upon the hunter goddess Diana naked at her bath and was ripped apart by her hounds. After I read the story and the women reacted, I joked about the (poor) male writer being ripped apart by feminist readers, and these feminist readers chuckled.
The comments about the story were helpful, most of them. They concerned formal matters I might not have handled convincingly. In the draft I read, why does the protagonist attribute an interest in art to the wife, not himself? (The wife works for an insurance company.) Why is the goddess Diana mentioned early in the story when the reader doesn’t yet know that the protagonist has looked on his friend’s wife naked?
These and other questions of form are fine. They are occasions for learning about your art
— what you have and haven’t done to put together your discrete ideas into a seamless whole.
But questions about life values and morality tend not to be helpful, I think. One of the readers said the male is “objectifying” the female here — the friend’s naked wife is presented as a cut of meat, in effect, the usual banal feminist objection.
First, the comment is not accurate. The female character is seen naked — a plump and muscular woman — but she’s seen also as a friend and as a professional, a zoo vet who knows how to keep animals healthy and repair them when they aren’t, and that may include the male animal.
Second, and more important, objectification is a fact of daily life. We all see each other first, and maybe even last, as objects. We are subjects, and we look out on a world of objects, and that world is defined by what we see: fat or thin, tall or short, fair or dark, hesitant or bold, blonde or brunette, quick-witted or stolid — kind of like the series of choices we’re presented at the eye doctor’s during the exam, “This one? Or this one?” Not simple polarities, finally, but narrowing and defining choices that correct our vision and comprehension too about the objects we’re considering. We also make our worlds via what we hear and through the other senses, all the senses, before we can begin to make a whole of the parts, or an abstract or moral world out of all the puzzle pieces.
To call a character or author “objectifying” is a remark out of a moralistic system. And whether the system is feminist or Marxist or Christian or whatever, a system manufactures labels which are applied then, lazily, to the objets d’arts at hand — you know, those art objects that are objectified by criticism.
A system, in the hands and mouths of most adaptors, becomes rigid and derivative. It uses and reinforces cliches. If I’m a feminist, I don’t need to know more than the few standard phrases produced by feminist criticism. If I’m a Marxist, I will trot out “The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.),” to use the now rather dated examples supplied by Orwell in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language.”
But it’s Orwell who hits his bloody head against the nail of the trite and predictable. It’s politics in his view, and other forms of ideology, that corrupts language, that makes thinking in any new, fresh, significant way impossible. We belong to a political party and speak its language, its code, its cliches, its drivel. And if we do, we are in the service of that political party, in fact, not art or truth.
There’s another, prior problem too. How can any criticism of a creative piece be other than derivative? Doesn’t criticism, vis-a-vis creativity, tend by its nature to be incommensurable? It speaks another language and, in fact, another system. It appraises, evaluates, judges. But can it be creative in itself? (This is a big question, and I’ll come back to it.)
“The Bathers,” at any rate, belongs to a collection of my short stories called “Not Calling Margaret and Other Tales without Redeeming Social Value.” Redeeming social values are matters for churches and political parties to promulgate, not art. Not my art, anyway. If I want morals or politics, I’ll go to church or a party meeting. If I want art, I’ll make it — by the sweat of my brow, the blood in my veins, the pride even hubris that I take in my originality.
I have a bad habit, on the Internet and in real life, of deliberately nudging or testing people, usually when their beliefs and mine are at variance. This, I learned recently, is called “trolling.”
Sometimes the habit is innocent enough. Too many Facebook posts I’d characterize as “pious,” whether of a religious or psychological nature. Cliches, really, or maxims from deservedly obscure self-help gurus (not to be confused with writers like Shakespeare, Goethe, or Ambrose Bierce). If people can’t recognize the difference between a genuinely profound idea, or sentiment, and something superficial or bogus, I’ll be glad to call their attention to the matter, though it wins me no popularity contests.
In real life, as we say, in the quotidian, where we live and exercise and breathe, I will troll my alt-right acquaintances at the gym I attend. These are the dumbbells that love guns, hate minorities, and have no room at all for reading or thinking. So I’ll say stuff like “I sure hope Pres-elect Twatwaffle will put an end to welfare!” And when they rail against the lazy moochers — welfare mothers with many mouths to feed, fathers with multiple baby mamas — I’ll say, “You mean niggers?” And they’ll say, “That’s what I was thinking.” And I’ll say, innocently enough, “Well, let’s call a spade a spade!”
And if they say, anent the latest violence on the news, “They kill students at Ohio State?,” I’ll respond, “Yeah, it’s another crazy Somali. Why don’t they restrict immigration to white Europeans?” And they’ll say, “Sounds like a good idea to me.”
Meanwhile, the world whirls on, and if we aren’t getting any smarter in the “first post-literate presidency,” we can at least get sassier.
Took Ruby to her school this morning and, so, decided I’d just mosey down the road to do some headwork at the coffee house and work out at the gym.
Went to Mama Carmen’s, on College Ave, a hangout I like, for its good coffee, friendly ambiance, and ample work space. But this morning, I couldn’t get comfortable, either for reading or working on the computer. The first seat I took, a sofa before a coffee table, next to a lamp, was too wallowy and too shallow for working on my laptop. The second seat, at a counter hidden behind a brick wall, was fine for reading a book and marking it up, as I usually do. (Am reading colonial American captivity narratives for their relation to a novel I’m researching.) But in both places loud pop music was driving me mad.
Most Mama Carmen customers are young ‘uns, in their teens or twenties, including I think many U of A undergrads. If they mind the music, they give no indication, as they calmly go on chatting with others or listening to whatever they prefer via headsets. But I’ve never been able to do much headwork with music playing, however soothing or otherwise enticing it might be.
So I packed up and drove to the Pat Walker Center for Seniors, which includes a medical clinic, a meeting room, a lounge, administrative offices, and a gym. I sat, all by myself, in the lounge, which has several long tables with chairs, a few armchairs, and a sofa, plus vending machine and small library. Launching again into the captivity narratives, I was formulating some helpful ideas for my project, when I thought suddenly of the “Magna Silentia” enforced at the Catholic seminary I attended in the 9th grade. Talk about a long time and long space away! The Latin phrase occurred to me vividly: “Magna Silentia,” or the Great Silence.
This was sleep time, after the lights went out in our dormitory and before the alarm sounded to wake us, loud and shrill, for morning mass. No talking, no trivial noise was tolerated. We turned in, prayed, meditated, and conked out.
A lot of water over the dam since Catholic boyhood — personal water, I mean, and cultural. I’ve grown, and aged, and become both more thoughtful and more voluble, able to enter into or initiate conversations with just about anyone, often with a joke to break the ice. But our culture too has gotten louder if not more thoughtful. Just about everywhere we go these days we get Muzak or other pop music designed, I suspect, to fill the ever increasing emptiness in our heads. God forbid we should have to fill that space with something of our own. Let’s just turn on the noise!
So imagine my distress, then, when a troupe of white-hairs shuffled into the lounge and started setting up an event. (I saw tchotchkes on a table, doilied dollies and self-help brochures.) And not content to work in silence, these old folks began discussing, what else, their medical maladies. Their various gastrointestinal distresses, their prophylactics. Oh my god, save me from such twaddle.
Whether juvenile or geriatric, noise is not the natural, or welcome, accompaniment of thought. But then, it could be, thinking, like silence itself, is a rare bird these days. Inhabiting pop culture might be compared to birding: you go out, in camo, and look for hours and hours, patiently, meditatively, for that one rare bird we call thought.
Today the Washington Post is running portraits of the victims of the massacre last weekend in Paris. Beside each name, usually matched with a photo, is a stifled litany of these young people’s accomplishments and promise (the big majority of victims were in their 20s and 30s):
Alban Denuit, 32, a French sculptor and Ph.D.
Amine Ibnolmobarak, 32, an architect and teacher of architecture, “the quintessential young Muslim intellectual”
Anna Liefrig, 24, a graphic designer, “a cheerful and brilliant young woman”
Djamila Houd, 41, who worked in the fashion industry
Elodie Breuil, 23, a design student who’d marched in the Charlie Hebdo rallies last January
Fanny Minot, 29, an editor at a TV show who “just loved life”
Kheireddine Sahbi, 29, an Algerian-born “virtuoso violinist … involved in all forms of traditional music”
And the list, like others lists before it, goes on and on.
So many young lives snuffed out, so inexplicably.
Unless we accept as an explanation the fear and hatred of a paranoid religious ideology that can not tolerate any deviance whatsoever.
Deviance from its own deviance, that is.
No love of the things of this earth, its earthly pleasures, its wine (swirled in the bowl), women (uncovered), song (uncensored).
How easy, then, to pick up a gun and fire indiscriminately into a crowd?
An AK-47, say, which is takes how long to learn to play, compared with the violin that Ms Sahbi mastered?
With Mr Denuit’s sculptor’s chisel and hammer?
With the years of study and dedication that the big majority of victims had put into their careers and contributed to society?
Never mind all that, the terrorists would say. You infidels. You dogs. Now you shall die.
If ISIS is in fact looking for an end-time game, an apocalyptic battle in Syria, they may soon have their hands full, as the Western powers gather for a showdown. And if this battle doesn’t materialize, so what? The ignorant and violent will have their day again, shedding blood, which is so much easier to do that learning sculpture, or design, or words, or loving your fellow man despite all differences.