Friday, March 28, 2008

Walden revisited

Just before I quit academia in 1995 (to return eight years later in the odd hybrid form I now occupy), I had a paper accepted at American Quarterly. The paper was my dissertation chapter on Walden. AQ wanted some revisions, which I never did because I had decided to sever all ties to my old life. It was an interesting time, when something that seemed supremely important one minute--publication in a major journal--meant nothing to me the next.

For a long time I couldn't bear even to look at Walden, because it was so closely woven into all my academic work. I couldn't read it outside of that tense, grinding mindset--must find more ways Thoreau is a masochistic fascist! While I think the Thoreau piece is my best work from that era, I'm glad it wasn't published. I can see in my marginal notes on the pages how aggressive I was as a reader. My goal seemed to be to prove myself superior to this great, influential, and brave (yes, I know the cabin was in Emerson's backyard) thinker. So lately I've been rereading Walden as more of an aspiring kindred spirit.

I doubt I'll do any more academic writing beyond the occasional half-baked thought on this blog. But if I did, I'd like to write on this bit from the first section of Walden, "Economy":
I took down this dwelling the same morning, drawing the nails,and removed it to the pond-side by small cartloads, spreading the boards on the grass there to bleach and warp back again in the sun. One early thrush gave me a note or two as I drove along the woodland path. I was informed treacherously by a young Patrick that neighbor Seeley, an Irishman, in the intervals of the carting, transferred the still tolerable, straight, and drivable nails, staples, and spikes to his pocket, and then stood when I came back to pass the time of day, and look freshly up, unconcerned, with spring thoughts, at the devastation; there being a dearth of work, as he said. He was there to represent spectatordom, and help make this seemingly insignificant event one with the removal of the gods of Troy.

So much going on here. Thoreau has bought and dismantled another Irishman's cabin to reuse the boards for his own. We've just seen that Irish family walking off into the unknown, all except their cat, who "took to the woods," became wild, but then died (Thoreau has heard) in a trap set for woodchucks. I'd like to say more about these vanishing scenes at some point. I'm sure this very scene has inspired similar ones in my fiction.

But what I'm most interested in here is the way Thoreau leaves the stage and lets someone else, young Patrick, and Seeley also, take over the narrative. It's like the line in To the Lighthouse, the boiling-down of Mr. Ramsay's philosophy: "think of a kitchen table when you're not there." It's a moment when the first person narrator, a stand-in for all of us, who are always the first-person narrators of our stories, sees himself as peripheral. Life goes on in our absence, our plans and our cabins quietly dismantled. Thoreau returns to claim Seeley's thefts as lending grandeur to his little project; he's joking and not joking at the same time. Still, that doesn't change the fact that he has left both his boards and his story in others' hands, "in the intervals of the carting."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Another ending, another beginning

I just turned in my grades for winter quarter and am feeling blue. The students did fine (as usual) and reading their final papers was painful only because I realized this was the end--the last official exchange we would be having. Almost everyone's gone for spring break, the campus silent except for a few echoing footsteps on the arcade. The weather is beautiful, so it feels like it should be summer, but it's not; in a week everyone will be back, and I'll be back to my old afternoon work schedule. I'll have more time to write, which is nice, which is the point, in fact... But I'm really going to miss teaching. I haven't applied to teach again next year, which will be a first in five years. During the eight years before that, when I wasn't teaching--when I had what I thought were "real jobs" in industry, which I wouldn't take now if you paid me a whole lot--I used to dream about it. Usually I was teaching a huge class in some high-ranking but chaotic community college (De Anza, I think), but sometimes I did dream about Stanford itself (where I had taught briefly in 1994). I always woke up feeling like I'd been to an exotic place, or like I'd done something wild and exhilarating, like ski-jumping. Now I've been able to do that for real at Stanford, and it's been marvelous.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obama's speech on race

It's a fairly sad commentary that Obama had to make the speech in the first place. As one letter to the NYT said this morning, a black man shouldn't have to reassure whites that responsibility for 300 years of oppression won't be laid at our feet. That said, I have a question: can anyone picture either Hillary Clinton or John McCain making a similar speech about, say, gender, or religion, or race, for that matter? Can anyone imagine them not equivocating, pandering, playing small ball, and blaming others for the conflict--even if that blame was well founded? Would they ever attempt to address our better instincts, long dormant during the Bush years; would they even know where to find them?

Monday, March 17, 2008

How the right controls language

This is a question to which I've never received a great answer. Why does the right have such a complete lock on our national discourse? If the left is the party of writers, artists, intellectuals, shouldn't we be the best word-slingers? The New York Times Magazine attempted to address the first part of that question again this weekend, with an article by Farhad Manjoo. (Digby's comments on the article are here.) Basically the right repeats every slur relentlessly, until it becomes something everyone thinks they know. People don't even know where the slander comes from, or whether or how often it's been debunked. Because they've heard it so many times--even from the same person--it seems familiar, and familiar (according to psychological testing) = true.

I asked Hayden White a similar question a few years ago, and he said the problem is that the right has mastered "normative" language--in other words, they speak to our deep, collective desire to be "normal." The left may not even know this language, because (as artists, intellectuals, etc.) we are outsiders. We spend our lives extolling and defending the different. I suppose by making something sound familiar by repetition, one also makes it normal--something everybody who is normal knows. And how do we cut through this falsely comforting haze of familiarity? The familiar, after all, is the primal urge of conservatism.

I think one step would be to associate that need for familiarity with fear. The right manipulate fear, but we should constantly call them on it. Not just by saying they're fear-mongers, but that they are afraid themselves. They are scared little boys and girls quivering in their caves, while the rest of us want to go out and become better. The American self-improvement imperative could help here.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tips for SF and other short stories

From io9, "8 Unstoppable Rules for Writing Killer Short Stories." These are rules for SF, though the article suggests that SF writers pretend they're writing for the New Yorker. It's interesting to compare these rules to the ones we learn in Creative Writing (literary) workshops. Should world-building be "quick and merciless"? Should characters be "a little fucked up," but mostly positive? Is the character-based / plot-based dichotomy a hoax?

As for io9 itself, I quite like it. They post constantly and I don't always have the patience to read the actual articles, but they have awesome pictures and the tags (Triviagasm, Steal This Pitch, Retro Futurism, Tanks...) are entertaining in and of themselves.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Plum tree redux

For those of us worried about climate change, it's somewhat reassuring that the plum tree across from our balcony is in bloom as it was at exactly this time last year. At this point the blooms are past peak, and most of the petals are floating in the building's communal pool. Unlike last year I am not resisting spring. I need it. I want it. Although spring in California, for the transplanted Midwesterner, always brings guilt. My hometown of Rocky River, Ohio, is under twenty inches of snow. Meanwhile I look through my office window at a cobalt sky, and will walk to the train station this evening with my jacket tied around my waist. In Ohio you really feel like you've accomplished something when those first crocuses push through the crust of blackened snow; here, the plum tree has been bare for a mere six weeks. On top of that, we're back to daylight savings time, which must be bizarre for Ohioans staring through the bright evening at another Arctic clipper. Anyway, I feel I should be suffering more. Fortunately, I have hay fever from all these blooming trees.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Werner Herzog at Stanford

Last week Trev and I fulfilled a dream we did not know we had, which was seeing Werner Herzog live in conversation. We've watched many of his films on DVD and listened to the commentary, so we already knew his basic philosophy--"Nature is hostile"--and the more famous stories about trying to film Klaus Kinski and drag a ship over a hill in the jungle at the same time. So what did we learn? First, that Grizzly Man is possibly the most brilliant film ever made. Seeing it on the big screen (before the interview with Herzog) was stunning. I kept seeing parallels with To the Lighthouse, which I happened to be teaching last week. I doubt Herzog, the most macho of filmmakers, would appreciate the comparison; I'm also not sure my students bought it. But I tried to make a connection between the way Herzog "brackets" the audio recording of bears mauling Timothy Treadwell and Amy Huguenard to death with the bracketed sentence describing Mrs. Ramsay's death in TTL. "[Mr. Ramsay, stumbling along a passage one dark morning, stretched his arms out, but Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, his arms, though stretched out, remained empty.]" In the film, we find out that Treadwell's camera was rolling, but the lens cap was on, when he was killed. Herzog refuses to play the recording for us, the audience. Instead, he listens to it through headphones, and we see him from behind while Jewel Palovak, Treadwell's friend, watches Herzog's face and reacts. Here's a still, after he has just asked her to turn off the tape. In both cases there's a kind of privacy for the dying, and death becomes present through stumbling or wincing by the living. (For more about grief and the sense of a "phantom limb," see "Doubtful Arms and Phantom Limbs: Literary Portrayals of Embodied Grief" by James Krasner (PMLA 119:2, March 2004).)

What else did we learn? We did not love Rescue Dawn, the film screened on Tuesday night. Despite Herzog's protestations, it really did seem like a straight-on adventure (he hates the word "adventure") with no attention to moral complexities or the curious meanderings of his other films. It seems like he was too close to the subject, Dieter Dengler, and wanted to memorialize him as an ingenious hero; Dengler was dying while the film was being made. Also the actors playing prisoners, especially Jeremy Davies, lost way, way too much weight for their roles. Really, I am willing to suspend disbelief. Put some dirt on the guys' faces, give them some baggy clothes, and I'll happily believe they are prisoners. I'm not interested in weight loss as extreme film-making stunt.