Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Detroit of higher learning

In the NYT this past Sunday, Mark Taylor coins a provocative phrase, and reminds everybody that the crisis in graduate education has been going on almost as long as Detroit has been building bad cars. He makes a good case that tenure itself is part of the problem, and not just because it results in fewer job openings. Tenured faculty (not all, mind you, but a good portion of them) tend to produce clones of themselves in their grad students, so succeeding generations become ever more specialized and atomized. Taylor proposes abolishing tenure, an idea I hesitate to endorse. For all the problems it causes, I can't think of another way to safeguard academic freedom. If professors' contracts are renewed every seven years, market forces--by which I mean external market forces--will drive their work much more powerfully. On the other hand, a little exposure to the elements might be good. One thing's for sure: universities could not function without the cheap labor of graduate students, and those who sign up for grad school need to know this going in.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Overcoat: Cordon off the Sentiment

Oh, hell, let's do The Overcoat, by Nikolai Gogol. (On Project Gutenberg, it's part of a collection of Russian short stories, and the title is translated here as "The Cloak." Just search for "cloak" or "Gogol.") I've been resisting this one a little, since my story, "An Eye for Alicia" (in the current issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review) is patterned, so to speak, on this story. The whole business started with an exercise in a class I took with Julie Orringer many years ago, in which we read "The Overcoat" and talked about fiction as a way of dispensing justice. So talking here about "The Overcoat" as a model for fiction somehow feels self-serving and self-sabotaging at the same time...but enough about me and my issues. The story is a great model for those of us who aspire to surrealism and satire, in part because it walks that delicate line between satire and cruelty. The story's oddball narrator invites us to mock the hapless protagonist, Akaky Akakiyevich--but lest we indulge ourselves too much at his expense, the narrator, every so often, calls us out.

Early on in the story, after several amusing paragraphs recounting the history of his ridiculous name, his unfortunate physical appearance, his tedious labors as a copying clerk, and so on, comes this passage:

The young officials laughed at and made fun of him, so far as their official wit permitted; told in his presence various stories concocted about him, and about his landlady, an old woman of seventy; declared that she beat him; asked when the wedding was to be; and strewed bits of paper over his head, calling them snow. But Akaky Akakiyevich answered not a word, any more than if there had been no one there besides himself. It even had no effect upon his work. Amid all these annoyances he never made a single mistake in a letter. But if the joking became wholly unbearable, as when they jogged his head, and prevented his attending to his work, he would exclaim:

"Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?"

And there was something strange in the words and the voice in which they were uttered. There was in it something which moved to pity; so much so that one young man, a newcomer, who, taking pattern by the others, had permitted himself to make sport of Akaky, suddenly stopped short, as though all about him had undergone a transformation, and presented itself in a different aspect. Some unseen force repelled him from the comrades whose acquaintance he had made, on the supposition that they were decent, well-bred men. Long afterwards, in his gayest moments, there recurred to his mind the little official with the bald forehead, with his heart rending words,

"Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?"

In these moving words, other words resounded--"I am thy brother." And the young man covered his face with his hand; and many a time afterwards, in the course of his life, shuddered at seeing how much inhumanity there is in man, how much savage coarseness is concealed beneath refined, cultured, worldly refinement, and even, O God! in that man whom the world acknowledges as honourable and upright.

I love this brief pivot into the consciousness of a minor character, the "young man," who will never be heard from again in the story--and the way this leads to the narrator's sudden cry from deep in his heart: how much inhumanity there is in man! Through the young man's brief appearance, all of Akaky's suffering, and the narrator's sympathy for him, get compartmentalized and distilled. Thus there's no need to lard the whole story with ineffectual calls for sympathy (otherwise known as sentimentality): there's a black hole of human suffering right here, narrow but infinitely deep. Kind of like the LaBrea tar pits, cordoned off but still dangerous, containing eons of suffering, in the middle of downtown LA. In other words, hem in the emotion; keep it tight, fleeting, and intense.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Walden: Wildness

(What is Borrowed Fire?)

The text of Walden from Project Gutenberg.

Much critical fuss is made about the "loon" passage.*
As I was paddling along the north shore one very calm October afternoon, for such days especially they settle on to the lakes, like the milkweed down, having looked in vain over the pond for a loon, suddenly one, sailing out from the shore toward the middle a few rods in front of me, set up his wild laugh and betrayed himself. I pursued with a paddle and he dived, but when he came up I was nearer than before. He dived again, but I miscalculated the direction he would take, and we were fifty rods apart when he came to the surface this time, for I had helped to widen the interval; and again he laughed long and loud, and with more reason than before. He manoeuvred so cunningly that I could not get within half a dozen rods of him. Each time, when he came to the surface, turning his head this way and that, he cooly surveyed the water and the land, and apparently chose his course so that he might come up where there was the widest expanse of water and at the greatest distance from the boat. It was surprising how quickly he made up his mind and put his resolve into execution. He led me at once to the widest part of the pond, and could not be driven from it. While he was thinking one thing in his brain, I was endeavoring to divine his thought in mine. It was a pretty game, played on the smooth surface of the pond, a man against a loon. Suddenly your adversary's checker disappears beneath the board, and the problem is to place yours nearest to where his will appear again. Sometimes he would come up unexpectedly on the opposite side of me, having apparently passed directly under the boat. So long-winded was he and so unweariable, that when he had swum farthest he would immediately plunge again, nevertheless; and then no wit could divine where in the deep pond, beneath the smooth surface, he might be speeding his way like a fish, for he had time and ability to visit the bottom of the pond in its deepest part. It is said that loons have been caught in the New York lakes eighty feet beneath the surface, with hooks set for trout—though Walden is deeper than that. How surprised must the fishes be to see this ungainly visitor from another sphere speeding his way amid their schools! Yet he appeared to know his course as surely under water as on the surface, and swam much faster there. Once or twice I saw a ripple where he approached the surface, just put his head out to reconnoitre, and instantly dived again. I found that it was as well for me to rest on my oars and wait his reappearing as to endeavor to calculate where he would rise; for again and again, when I was straining my eyes over the surface one way, I would suddenly be startled by his unearthly laugh behind me. But why, after displaying so much cunning, did he invariably betray himself the moment he came up by that loud laugh? Did not his white breast enough betray him? He was indeed a silly loon, I thought. I could commonly hear the splash of the water when he came up, and so also detected him. But after an hour he seemed as fresh as ever, dived as willingly, and swam yet farther than at first. It was surprising to see how serenely he sailed off with unruffled breast when he came to the surface, doing all the work with his webbed feet beneath. His usual note was this demoniac laughter, yet somewhat like that of a water-fowl; but occasionally, when he had balked me most successfully and come up a long way off, he uttered a long-drawn unearthly howl, probably more like that of a wolf than any bird; as when a beast puts his muzzle to the ground and deliberately howls. This was his looning—perhaps the wildest sound that is ever heard here, making the woods ring far and wide. I concluded that he laughed in derision of my efforts, confident of his own resources. Though the sky was by this time overcast, the pond was so smooth that I could see where he broke the surface when I did not hear him. His white breast, the stillness of the air, and the smoothness of the water were all against him. At length having come up fifty rods off, he uttered one of those prolonged howls, as if calling on the god of loons to aid him, and immediately there came a wind from the east and rippled the surface, and filled the whole air with misty rain, and I was impressed as if it were the prayer of the loon answered, and his god was angry with me; and so I left him disappearing far away on the tumultuous surface.
Like the tortoise in The Grapes of Wrath, the loon is known to be highly symbolic and Cliff-notable. For instance, I read on Yahoo's homework help site (who knew?) that "In the loon, the integration of the animal and the spiritual is also seen. The loon in Walden Pond is certainly wild, and that he is more than merely wild is revealed by the narrator's word choices." To think people actually hate English class! All right; I sort of see the integration of the spiritual and the animal, although none of these words have any meaning. And yes, the loon is "more than merely wild."

What I'm interested in here is not the loon as a symbol (god help us) of wildness, but a definition of it. In other words, the loon does not represent wildness, he is wildness itself. And by "wildness" I don't just mean nature vs. human, but complete otherness. The loon is a complete outlier, not just to Thoreau, but to the everyday life of the pond--his "looning" is the "wildest sound that is ever heard here." He makes the woods ring. He's in complete command of the place for the time he's there. He cannot be caught, but he also doesn't really belong there in the first place. All this makes him the very opposite of a symbol, because he can't be interpreted. He eludes and resists--that's what he does, and is.

I'm fascinated by these kinds of uninterpretable figures in literature. Bartleby the Scrivener, whom I have a feeling we'll be talking about soon, is another one. He's simply there, inscrutable, which drives his boss, the narrator, crazy.

A fun exercise (yes, we're there at last) would be, I think, to create a similar type of figure--a kind of fascinating and impenetrable visitor, human or otherwise. This being can be the center of the story--and may inevitably turn out to be that--or a sort of thread that runs through it, popping up at strange times.

Oh--and no, you can't have Bigfoot; he's mine. But here are some other possibilities:
--Some non-copyright-violating version of the Joker from The Dark Knight. Not necessarily evil, though.
--Mini black holes created by the Large Hadron Collider
--Mark "The Bird" Fidrych

*Possibly revealing note: doing a search for "loon" in Walden, I get the following results: pantaloons (at least thrice), balloon, and saloon--along, of course, with just plain loon.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sea kayaking in Mendocino

Heading out to sea and trusting in our guide, Jeff, from Liquid Fusion Kayaking. That's me in the giant yellow helmet, and my cousin Dana doing the hard part.

OK, I picked one of the most ominous looking photos. Paddling around the rocks was great fun and not very scary, especially because we had real experts in our tandem boats with us, and guides as well. It was also a little exhausting and a little cold, but nothing two pints of beer afterwards couldn't cure.

When we weren't kayaking or biking on a gorgeous trail, we were gorging ourselves on the vegan cuisine at the Stanford Inn. (No relation, or none advertised.) A wonderful spot.

Why do we live on the Peninsula, again?

RIP, Bird

This is sad. I remember Mark Fidrych. My dad and I used to really get a kick out of him.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Walden: Two Fishes, One Hook

(What is Borrowed Fire?)

Here's the text of Walden from Project Gutenberg.

In earlier posts, I've suggested some parodic modes of dealing with Walden. Now here's a passage that I think is just straight-on gorgeous:

Sometimes, after staying in a village parlor till the family had all retired, I have returned to the woods, and, partly with a view to the next day's dinner, spent the hours of midnight fishing from a boat by moonlight, serenaded by owls and foxes, and hearing, from time to time, the creaking note of some unknown bird close at hand. These experiences were very memorable and valuable to me—anchored in forty feet of water, and twenty or thirty rods from the shore, surrounded sometimes by thousands of small perch and shiners, dimpling the surface with their tails in the moonlight, and communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below, or sometimes dragging sixty feet of line about the pond as I drifted in the gentle night breeze, now and then feeling a slight vibration along it, indicative of some life prowling about its extremity, of dull uncertain blundering purpose there, and slow to make up its mind. At length you slowly raise, pulling hand over hand, some horned pout squeaking and squirming to the upper air. It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element, which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes as it were with one hook.

From "The Ponds," this is my favorite passage in the book, partly because I've had similar experiences. I recall fishing at night, once, with my father, although I sometimes think I've imagined it. Especially because I also recall seeing the aurora borealis that night, which I suppose could have happened in northern Michigan but would have been exceptionally rare. I don't fish now, and regret all those bluegill and perch and pike we killed back in the day. But the line extending from air to water, the mysterious communication from some unseen thing below--I find these images fascinating. I'm especially drawn to the disorientation in this passage; the idea that sky and water could change places, just as thoughts and waking dreams change places with fish. Thoreau's line connects the abstract to the concrete, and somehow that flips the world on its head.

We're told in writing workshops to be very careful when writing about dreams and mystical experiences. Too often they come out overblown, laden with obvious symbolism, and somehow boring. But that doesn't happen here, and I think it's because of that horned pout--a fish I've never seen, but which must be as ungainly as its name--squeaking and squirming in the middle of the dreamscape. The precise, mundane and inelegant detail constrasts (as Thoreau himself notices) with the "vast cosmogonal themes," setting them both in relief. In fact, the pout represents detail here.

So go ahead and write about dreams or moments of transcendence or drug trips. But be sure to throw in the horned pout, who'll keep you tethered to earth while you're flying.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Walden: The TOC

(What is Borrowed Fire?)

Here's the text of Walden from Project Gutenberg.

There's nothing like a list for making wacky juxtapositions and bringing obscure concepts to the fore. McSweeney's online has a section entirely devoted to lists. Some of the greatest finds in Found Magazine are lists. Lots of contemporary poems and stories are or contain lists.

Looking at the Table of Contents for Walden, I'm reminded of how much I love it as a work in itself:

Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
The Bean-Field
The Village
The Ponds
Baker Farm
Higher Laws
Brute Neighbors
Former Inhabitants and Winter Visitors
Winter Animals
The Pond in Winter

The juxtapostions are striking: Reading / Sounds; Solitude / Visitors; Higher Laws / Brute Neighbors. And then the oddly specific outlier, Baker Farm. I also like how the titles circle around the concepts of "warming" and "winter" toward the end--almost like an animal circling before lying down, perhaps in a pocket in the snow. There's a story in the titles themselves, complete with an arc. "Conclusion" puts a weird, dull damper on the whole thing, even though the actual conclusion turns out to be quite lyrical ("The sun is but a morning star" is the last line of the book).

So there are a couple of things we might do with this list. One is to come up with a similar list or lists, inspired by this one--combinations of the abstract and the concrete, seeming opposites which are not quite opposites, with puzzling insertions. Another would be to take the list as a starting point and fill it in with our own stories of "Brute Neighbors" and "Baker Farm," whatever we think those are. Or we might fill in this list with sub and sub-sub lists, using the MS Word outlining tool, which everyone adores so much.