gall and gumption

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Seeing Things

I spoke to my brother on the phone last week (he lives in New Mexico) and he told me that one night recently he was outside the house and saw this strange creature about two feet tall. "I thought it was an elf," he said. Now, you know, when a person says a thing like that you think they are kidding. If I said it I would be kidding, and my brother has little patience for that sort of trifling. When he says a thing like this, he means what he says. He doesn't believe in elves, he doesn't go in for fictional creatures, not even fictional people, and he is wary of the sort of people who are into elves. And yet for a couple of seconds, perhaps, he saw this creature and thought it was an elf. He wasn't reporting an elf sighting, you see; he was reporting how his mind allowed him to think he was looking at something he didn't believe in. This is a pretty subtle piece of mental business, if you think about it, but all he said was, "I thought it was an elf." He gets exasperated with me because I do not always understand all of what he means when he says something like that, so simply. He expects me to understand it because I am his sister, and why should you have to explain anything to your sister? Whatever you have to explain is not worth telling or it's a lost cause. This is the philosophy of my family. My father's side. Having to talk about an issue represents a breakdown in communication. (And I must say I'm inclining more and more to that view. I'm still enjoying not having anyone around who says we "need to talk about our relationship.") At any rate, this time I got it. And when he told me that the elf turned out to be a skunk with its tail sticking up -- a real skunk, not an imaginary or fictional one -- it did seem funny, and I was allowed to share a laugh with him.

My father told me that when he was a child living in the country in Jamaica, his Uncle Fonso was staying with them. Uncle Fonso was my grandfather's brother, and, sadly, he only died this summer, aged nearly 100. Anyway back when my father was a boy Uncle Fonso came home late one night in a state of great excitement. He had seen a rolling calf and wanted to go back out and catch it.

What is a rolling calf? An especially nasty Jamaican duppy. From Sacred Texts via Google:

(17) Banbury, l.c., p. 23f. Note:--Charles Rampini in his Letters from Jamaica, Edinburgh, 1873, p. 83, states: "A very mischievous ghost is that known by the name of 'rolling calf,' a spirit who haunts the city by night with a flaming eye, trailing a long chain behind him. To speak to, or to touch the chain of a rolling calf will cause him to turn and rend you. The only way to escape is to stick an open penknife in the ground and run without looking behind you.

(18) Banbury, l.c., p. 25. Note:--According to Professor Beckwith, (l.c., p. 100f.): "Whatever the origin of the rolling calf it is looked upon to-day as the animal form assumed by especially dangerous duppies. Obeah-men often become tolling calves and they 'set' rolling calves upon people. Murderers and butchers and I know not how many other reprobates

{p. 275}

become rolling calves when they die, and go to live not only at the roots of cotton-wood trees and in clumps of bamboos but also in caves and deserted houses, whence they emerge at night to follow sugar wains because of their fondness for molasses, or to break into cattle pens."

(19) Banbury, l.c., p. 26. Note:--A writer in Chambers's Journal, January 11, 1902, asserts: "The rolling calf . . . This is a quadruped with blazing eyes and having a clanking chain round its neck. Like the loup-garou, it prowls at night, and the man whom it touches dies. The only way to escape--so the Negroes say--is to stick a penknife in the ground and turn your back on the monster. Like Mephistopheles held back by the sign of the Cross, it cannot then advance, however malevolent it may be."

Outdoors, Indoors

Yesterday I went with a woman from the life workshop to Brookside Gardens to paint. It was rainy in the morning but then it went to sort of blustery, with dark clouds, lots of them, moving northeast. Then by the time we got to Brookside (about a 40-minute drive for me) it was great afternoon light and the wind had died down. But it was very changing light, and that was OK but then when the sun dropped behind the trees it wasn't going to change back any more. I got home, did a little puttering, and then took the dogs out. As always, as soon as I walked in the door they were ready to go, ready ready ready, watching my every move from the door: "OK she's got the iPod, oh wait, she's going back to the bedroom for her new gloves. She's got the plastic bags Oh Yeahhhh!!!!" By now it was just about dark. We walked about 100 yards, past this one big dumpster. The plastic lid on the dumpster got picked up by the wind and slammed shut which gave the dogs minor conniptions. Then we rounded a corner and got hit by a barrage of stingingly cold raindrops, full in the face, driven by all the force of this roaring gale. The dogs stopped dead in their tracks, appalled. I said, "Would you rather go home?" whereupon they both turned tail and dragged me all the way back to the apartment.

Last time my brother was here he looked at one of Sweetie's toys (a stuffed squirrel with all its insides torn out) and said, "Jesus, that thing looks like roadkill." It's true. This represents a sort of compromise. If it were up to Sweetie alone we'd have actual roadkill.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Brad of Sadly, No, writing at The American Prospect has summarized the connection between the taste for science fiction and "dorkofascism":

Sadly, Santorum was only the latest in a slew of right-wingers to base policy arguments on shameless dorkery. Last year, a Star Trek rerun inspired Minnesota Star-Tribune columnist and warblogger James Lileks to concoct a plan that would eliminate any liberals who opposed abusing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. “It’s time to institute Disintegration Chambers in our major American cities,” wrote Lileks, referring to a Star Trek episode that featured two tribes who preferred to fight wars by disintegrating their own people rather than sending them into live combat. Even though the episode was actually an allegory about the perverse methods governments use to shield their people from the brutal costs of war, Lileks took quite a fancy to the idea of forced disintegration, especially for his ideological foes.

“Here’s the deal,” he wrote. “We decide what constitutes torture, and identify it as the following: insufficient air conditioning, excess air conditioning, sleep deprivation, being chained to the floor, and other forms of psychological stress … Those who disagree with these techniques must sign a record that registers their complaints. When a terrorist finally spills the details on a forthcoming attack on, say, Chicago, the people who signed the register and live in Chicago are required to report to the disintegration chamber.”

But of course Lileks is just kidding hahaha. What's the matter, you can't take a joke?

What I Hate

Writing job application letters. It is one of the growing list of small things I hate, but my hatred of this particular thing is nearly hysterical.

If you wanted to see me completely lose my mind and become a gibbering wreck you would set me to write a job application letter with a person at the next table chewing gum noisily.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Jerry Lee Lewis -- II

That's who I listened to at drawing today. I've already mentioned the songs I like. I listened to those, they still seem as brilliant as they ever did. I think what I love about these songs is this combination of qualities: the speaker is highly self-aware but unable to stop screwing up.

It's late and she is waiting
And I know I should go home
But every time I start to leave
They play another song.
Then someone buys another round,
And wherever drinks are free
What's made Milwaukee famous has made a fool out of me.

I love the simplicity of this, how quickly it gets into the story. That's pretty much the whole thing. In the next stanza she tells him "Love and happiness can't live behind those swinging doors," he doesn't listen and she leaves him. Two stanzas tell it all. He's got all these songs, too, about men in midlife crises doing foolish things. "He's thirty-nine and holding/Holding everything he can."

You don't even know if that line is supposed to be funny. It could go either way. And the idea that these sorrows have something ludicrous near their core is one of the unsettling things about Jerry Lee Lewis. It's like how he keeps stamping little personal signatures on things -- referring to "Ol' Jerry Lee" or "The Killer," for example.

Or, God, when he does a cover of "Over the Rainbow." It's such a pretty little song, catchy, simple, you can imagine little girls singing it in kiddie beauty contests and talent shows, can't you? But adults can do magic with it, too. Like Willie Nelson, who made it completely fresh and new in his cover of it. It's a song that makes everybody look good.

Jerry Lee Lewis does it his way, of course, and we know he can sing a ballad; he's even got these sort of Lawrence Welky-sounding backup singers, and it is all very nice with just a few touches of Killerism except that the piano seems to be possessed by an entirely different spirit, an irrepressible spirit that offers its own zany commentary. It suggests complete ownership and identification with the piano; it's his speaking voice as much as any other voice he has, and that voice is original, wild, devilish. It's like he's singing this sweet old show tune and the piano keeps sneaking in to give you this honky-tonkish leer, or to pinch you on the butt, or just to remind you how thoroughly Jerry Lee Lewis enjoys being Jerry Lee Lewis at the piano. it's just totally unselfconscious and brilliant.

I suppose Hank Williams is the guy who wrote the book on taking bad judgment in women, combining it with one's own pigheadedness, and spinning the pathetic and the ludicrous out of it into wonderful songs. Even in the same song.

But I'm not sure even he can beat George Jones at that piquant mix. In "The King Is Gone (And So Are You) the guy sits at home alone after his woman has left him having taken with her everything except one beat up little old table, a unopened Jim Beam decanter shaped like Elvis, and a Flintstones jelly bean jar.
I pulled the head off Elvis,
Filled Fred up to his pelvis
Yabba dabba doo
The King is gone and so are you.

By the end of the song he has drunk of the entire bottle. Elvis and Fred Flintstone are talking to him about women, and he breaks Elvis's nose trying to get the last few drops out of the bottle. I like the economy of the storytelling. None of this "Hold on baby we can make it" crap. Mostly they don't make it.

Drawn from Life

My mother gave me a camera. Tonight I took this photo of one of my drawings from the Sunday life workshop, of the splendid model Alan who even heterosexual Latin men call an Adonis. He is not only splendid looking, he's as solid as a rock, can't, apparently, put his body into any pose that is not beautiful, and is of such serene good nature that he really is a model on more than one level. This is actually an old drawing of him but I like it better than the one I did today.

And by the way this drawing is not actually on a red background. It is this color because the flash on my camera bleached out all the color so I covered it with my finger and this was the result.

When I go to these sessions -- I have my pick of Saturday or Sunday morning or both -- I carry all my art supplies of course, and I also carry my iPod. And I carry something to read.

I’m reading Volume II of John L. Motley’s The Rise of the Dutch Republic. There may be a more objective and modern narrative of this amazing and terrible period in European history, but I doubt that there is one more movingly told. And the hero of it, William of Orange (not the one who various things in Virginia are named after, but an ancestor of his), is a real hero. The villain of it is Phiip II, who Marvin Mudrick called “a double-dipped dirtbag from hell,” which on this, my second reading of the book, seems a bit of an understatement.

Anyway that’s a tale for another day I hope. My point in mentioning it is only to indicate that I travel heavily fortified against boredom and anxiety. So during a model I was on my way outside for a wee smoke and I grabbed the book of course. Various other people from the group of about eight were out in the hall and one was this woman named Y., shall we say? She is Anglo-Irish I think. She has taken a great liking to me and apparently regards it as a great compliment to me. There was an old man in the hall also, who asked me what I was reading. I handed him the book. He glanced at the spine and handed it back.

“I don’t read books,” he said. “I get all my reading from newspapers.”

I nodded politely.

“I read the New York Times of course, and the Forward, and The New Yorker.”

I nodded politely.

“My wife gets the Washington Post on Fridays and Sundays.”

“Well that’s certainly enough reading to get you through the week,” I ventured at last.

He looked blankly at me and I thought, “What did I say? What am I supposed to say? What did I miss here?”

Not a moment too soon, Y. intervened. “I went to see that movie The Queen with Helen Mirren,” she announced to me rather breathlessly. “Did I tell you I went to see it? It was marvelous. You must see it.”

She had told me that once that morning. And last night when I got home from Tower Records my father said “Y. called. She said she saw the movie The Queen and it was marvelous.” He had written it down, too.

When I checked my email there was a message from Y. “I’ve just been to see that movie The Queen, with Helen Mirren. It was marvelous.”

“Yes, you did tell me,” I said. I said it nicely OK? Suppose I had lied (which occurred to me for a moment to spare her finding out how many times she had told me), then later she would remember that she had told me. I can’t keep all that sort of thing straight so now I just say the truth on a Need to Know basis.

At any rate hearing about that movie The Queen with Helen Mirren was very timely. It was like she threw a rope and sort of rescued this old man from the bog of self-consciousness in which he was apparently sinking. He departed from the conversation the way people do at cocktail parties when they have listened to you long enough and now they see someone else coming that they have to be interested in for exactly 10 minutes. (More if they are bigger social fish of course.) Not that there was anyone coming, but perhaps The Void was preferable to my mute reproaches on his literary taste.

But you will note, won’t you, that I did not initiate this conversation with the old man. I did not put him in any difficulties. I never said or implied a word of about his reading habits, I didn't ask him to explain them to me. All I did was answer a question that he asked me, a question, by the way, he showed not the remotest interest in hearing the answer to.

The thing is for months after I started coming to these workshops in January I would hear these people talking to other people and they sounded sane enough. But apparently when I come near, all the bats start swooping and flapping about in the belfry.

Is it something about me, I wonder? The answer is yes. I am a loony magnet. I inherited it from my grandmother. But I am not sure what makes some people loony magnets and others loony proof.

And then maybe, you know, I sound nuts too. I leave that to you to judge.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Jerry Lee

Every single fact I have ever read about Jerry Lee Lewis is interesting. I'm not saying I am an expert on the subject, but such has been my experience. On the basis of that experience, therefore, I'm going to pick up the latest copy of Rolling Stone which has a profile of the Killer that you can sample here

The Lewis Ranch, as it is called, or Disgraceland, as it is also called, is a racquetball court, two jet planes and a graveyard short of Elvis' former mansion, which is about twenty-five miles away, in Memphis. All the rooms are on one floor, all the rooms are piled high with swag from fifty years in the music business, and large portions of it have been painted gold. Jerry's sixth wife in his seventh marriage, Kerrie Lynn McCarver Lewis, blew through the place like King Midas. Painted the walls, painted the floors, painted the grand piano, painted the cupboards, painted her Cadillac Fleetwood - all of it gold, gold and more gold. Except the kitchen, which she covered with Coca-Cola wallpaper.

"She was a horrible bitch who was possessed by the devil and only shopped at Wal-Mart - we've just now begun stripping the walls," says Phoebe at the kitchen counter in late afternoon. Born to Jerry and his third wife, Myra, in 1963, she grew up tall and blond and has the Lewis vibe in all ways. After singing blues and rock around Memphis for a number of years, she moved back in with her father to help him through an arduous divorce. "Kerrie told me she was leaving him, but I was going to run her ass off anyway," she says. "I was born to take care of my daddy. I never married, don't want to have kids. I'm not going to steal his money or give him drugs"...

I think he has actually tried to live up to that bit in the Bill of Rights about the pursuit of happiness. Nobody can guarantee that it will turn out well, of course, but at least it has been his own mess and that's freedom.

I love his country songs: "What Made Milwaukee Famous Has Made a Loser Out of Me;" "She Still Comes Around to Love What's Left of Me." Great stuff by a genuine original.

(One of my favorite Jerry Lee facts is that he is the cousin of the old bible-thumping reprobate Jimmy Swaggart.) What is it with this demographic and painting everything gold, anyhow, by the way?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Satire III

I've been thinking about Donne's Satire III since it came up a few days ago. Really you should just spend some time with it, it is such a remarkable poem.

This professor at the University of Maryland has put Satire III up with glosses that pop up when you roll your mouse over them, which is handy. And if you prefer yours offline then the edition of Donne's poems to get is the Penguin Books one edited by Elizabeth Story Donno.

The same prof reads it out loud here, which is also nice. I listened to about half of it and mostly heard how hard it is to read Donne out loud. When I say it's hard I mean you should try. I've been taking it to bed with me every night trying to read just this poem. I get the sense of it of course, in detail, but what I'm after is what it is supposed to sound like, how you are supposed to speak it. It was written to be spoken.

It's a little harder to scan Donne's lines than it is to scan, say, Pope. In fact Pope did rewrites of Donne's Satires because he recognized that the content was so good, but he believed that the meter needed to be modernized. They were both writing iambic pentameter couplets, but what a world of difference between the two. If you can track that difference over the two centuries that separate them, you will know a lot about the history of English poetry at its most interesting period.

But ultimately you can know all that, and still, when you sit down with a writer like Donne you simply have to get the poem to speak to you. I can read this poem for the sense of course, and I can scan it, but these poems were meant to be spoken out loud, to be heard. And with Donne, it's really difficult.

Are not heaven's joys as valiant to assuage
Lusts, as earth's honor was to them? Alas,
As we do them in means, shall they surpass
Us in the end? and shall they father's spirit
Meet blind philosophers in heaven, whose merit
Of strict life may be imputed faith, and hear
Thee, whom he taught such easy ways and near
To follow, damn'd? O, if thou dar'st, fear this;
This fear great courage and high valor is.

You try to arrive at the second line of this passage without allowing undue stress to fall on the word "Lusts." You find that this is almost impossible, but you try to subdue that word anyway, I mean, in spite of the fact that it is a subtituted trochaic foot. If you aren't careful you will hurry through the rest of that line. But slow down, start at the beginning again, and you'll find that to balance the rest of the line against that first emphatic syllable, you've got to turn up the volume on all of it, you've got to notice that the speaker is asking questions. The relations among the syllables stay the same but you've turned up the overall volume, you are giving extra stress to it.

And that increased stress keeps raising the volume of the whole passage. You also have to slow down. From "Alas" the voice builds up again. You have that rhyme between "spirit" and "merit" and it's so odd, somehow, but you could lose the line that follows it, again, if you don't raise the stress on all of it and slow down.

Which all sets you up for the enjambment that sets you up for the bomb at the end of this figure: "Thee, whom he taught so easy ways and near/To follow, damn'd?" If you can hear the voice that the meter creates, if you can hear those rises and falls, those increases and decreases of speed you will see that he's doing about three things simultaneously. He's imitating the sound of natural speech, but it's passionate, argumentative, intimate, insinuating natural speech, that has laid hold of the reader/listener with irresistible emotional force. By infusing it with all this warmth he has taken the question from being merely theoretical or abstract; he has made it personal, reminding you that passion belongs in these matters, must find its place there. He knows you; he knows all your dodges. That's the effect. It looks rough and crude, but it's actually very sophisticated; he is already pushing the boundaries of the form as far as anyone can go and still hold the meter, but he's doing it in order so that you hear this voice.

It is the opposite of what Pope does. Pope is the master of making speech fit into his favorite form, the heroic couplet. You can almost believe that people naturally speak in heroic couplets. This is because Pope's facility with that particular use of verse was simply unmatched. You are really responding to how easy it is and to the incredible polish of the surface.

Instead of making speech fit into verse, Donne is forcing verse to sound like speech, as far as he can go without breaking the form. The aim is not simply to show off, but to get that voice.

It is probably the closest thing to Donne's preaching voice that you will ever get to experience, and as such it's pretty great.

Update: I fixed a couple of typos and added a couple of small things that I meant to add earlier. I had it saved in draft form and accidentally published it, now it's more like what I meant to publish.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


In the car today I listened to my Howlin' Wolf album. When I listen to Howlin' Wolf I understand what made Rock 'n' Roll happen. But I have no idea what made Howlin Wolf happen. And I'm not even that crazy about most Rock 'n' Roll. But I love Howlin' Wolf. You know how gospel music can be rousing, like the Five Blind Boys of Alabama or Rev. James Cleveland? I put Howlin' Wolf with Bessie Smith among the great blues musicians who rouse you to do other things Robert Johnson is brooding and very lyrical. But Howlin' Wolf makes you want to shake that thing.

I am a backdoor man...
Well the men don't know but the little girls understand

I'm built for comfort, I ain't built for speed


We're gonna pitch a wang dang doodle all night long.

Saab, Saab, Saab

When I moved from New York back to California I needed a car in a hurry. I bought a 1971 Datsun Roadster from my cousin, and drove it for about six months. I had moved into an apartment about halfway between downtown Oakland and East Oakland. My relatives all lived out in the suburbs: my Uncle Tony, who died not long after I moved there, lived in a hilltop subdivision in Castro Valley, the sort of place I loathe. When I told him I was moving to East Oakland he said, "You'll get killed over there," and I said, "I'd be more of a danger to myself over here where you live."

The Datsun made an impression wherever it went: it was a convertible, cute as could be. An SUV could have run over it without even knowing it had hit anything.

My Aunty Fay, who lived in Hayward, went behind my back and told my mother that one day the Datsun would break down in some part of dreadful part of Oakland and I'd get kidnapped by an axe murderer and cut to pieces. I did not know about this conversation until my mother said, "I'm sending you some money. Buy a Saab."

It was the first nice car I had ever owned. It was a 1988, so it was already an older car, but it had been well cared for and had low mileage for these Swedish cars that just go forever. It was the first car I ever fell in love with, that it was fun to drive for the pleasure. I learned what the word "handling" met driving that car. I got four years of good service out of it, better, it appears, than I had a right to expect from a Saab. It didn't have to go in for repairs often but when it did, boy, you felt it. For two of the six years I've owned it it was in Indiana with my father. I retrieved it from him and drove it out to California when I came back from Nevis, and when I left California to come to what we shall call the D.C. Metro Area or Exurbs I drove it all the way. Well, Tom did at least half of the driving and put up with my nagging and my dark dark silences.

After a six-month bureaucratic ordeal and various other hitches I finally got temporary Maryland tags and took it to be inspected and as I expected it did not pass. I can put $1000 into it and buy some time with it, or I can unload it somehow and go get a new car. My mechanic here is one of those Saab maniacs. You can spot them because they always have a bunch of old carcasses of Saabs around the yard of the shop, because they strip them down to the bare body, or else they live in hope of resurrecting them. My mechanic told me he had the same model and year as mine -- the 1988 9000 Turbo (you gotta have the Turbo) -- and put 300,000 miles on it. I'm up to 176,000 but I am not a mechanic.

The thing is I want another Saab. Friday after I dropped it off the assistant mechanic drove me to the Metro station and we chatted along the way. "The Saab is a less than ideal car to have," he said. "They're unreliable and expensive to repair."

"But you seem to like them. You're driving one," I pointed out.

"I have six of them," he replied.

The greater fool etc. etc.

So other possibilities are a Volvo, a Subaru (not particularly fun to drive), a Honda (bo-ring!). I've been window shopping used cars on Craig's list and as I drive around I see things I covet. Most of what I covet has one consistent feature: lots of trunk or back space so I can load it up with my belongings and drive back to California. So of the alternatives a Volvo wagon is the most appealing. They seem to go forever, and maybe the newer ones are more comfortable.

Or I can defer this whole question till I get permanent work and just go ahead and buy another year or so with this one. Of course the new car is what I want. I really want it to be a Saab, too, even though that is very foolish of me.

Meanwhile I have about a month to putter about in the old thing and make up my mind.

This is terribly boring isn't it? This is the sort of thing that people mean when they say, "I don't want to read about a bunch of personal crap."

Well, I'm sorry, but some days it feels like my inner life is withering away. This is one of those days. Just so you know.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Not it Either

The preceding was not the... etc. etc.

Monday, October 09, 2006

"Reader, I Slapped Him," or "That's Just Your Opinion"

A year ago when I was getting over the last breakup my friend Tom and I discussed various turns of phrase that we agreed, if we ever heard them in a relationship-type situation, would be like red lights flashing make us head for the exits.

One of them was "pity party." Another was "playing the blame game." I am also quite prepared to live without a certain style of apology: the one in which the other person very handsomely apologizes to me for my faults. "I'm sorry you misunderstood my intentions," or "I'm sorry you were hurt." Best not to be in the same room with me when you try one of those out. The outrage that this particular strategy causes me is not just because I can't "get over" things and childishly insist on being made whole by an apology -- though I will point out to you that the statue of Justice carries a scale in her hand. It's more that I sort of borrow justice's scale for a minute. I pile truth and trust and the possibility of friendship on one dish. On the other I put the gnat-sized piece of self-importance that the faux apologist is willing to trade these for. I peek over his shoulder for the cheering crowds, the loving public that wants to see him win this one. I don't see them. Just me and him in the room. "Spare me this apology and I'll give a homeless person a dollar?" I'd listen to a proposition like that, sure. But no. And then I know I am looking at the very definition of chickenshit.

I may let you have this wretched point of vanity. But I will never allow you to enjoy it. Whatever you hoped to gain by it, whatever little access of respect you hoped to gain or keep, maybe you can go get it off someone else but you will not get it from me. I can't help myself. That is the beast in me.

If you want to make me head for the exit swearing, just say, as a way of wrapping up an argument, "Well, that's just your opinion."

I have hated this expression since the first time I ever heard it, back in my teens. I mean, simply, what is the asshole who just said it speaking from? Is he channeling God? He’s speaking his opinion too, isn’t he?

Why am I thinking about this? Had a discussion about opinions with someone at work. He said most people's opinions are worthless. Well, that is probably true. But for some reason I didn't want to agree with it too readily; I prefer my own generalizations to other people's generalizations, generally, though I try to keep an open mind. But something about the statement itself made me reluctant to sign on. Of course if something is so general and it's not said by a close personal friend I don't know what I am agreeing to so I will inquire rather sharply into it.

Now I am accustomed to people attacking my generalizations as if I have no right to them. With a sort of "What could you possibly know about it?" or "Who are you to say...? " implication. And immediately it takes a bit of the wind out of me. But not for long. Because sooner or later I realize that the person who changed the subject from my question to my status is an idiot. No, let me put that more precisely: a pathetic effing idiot.

My sharp inquiries to people about their opinions are not intended to suggest that they don't know what they are talking about or that they don't have a right to an opinion (they do, but they don't have a right to bore me: if I let them, that's a favor). They may not know what they are talking about but it is not polite to begin there. I just want to understand what they mean. They don't always know. I know this from teaching and from yakking with people.

Marvin Mudrick said that you should make and discard generalizations freely. That is, you throw something out, see how far it will carry you, and in the course of revising it or discarding it you move forward a few real steps further. He did this all the time. And he encouraged his students to do it too. You learn faster if you are not afraid to be wrong. (Intellectual integrity is assumed: that is, when you find out you are in error you want to fix the error, not cover it up or blame somebody else for it or downplay its significance.) But I do occasionally meet people who take my disagreement with them as my somehow putting them personally in the wrong and it’s a frightful violation of propriety to expect them to think on their feet.

Kicking things around, for me, gives me a chance to look for errors (of knowledge, of reasoning, judgment, of priorities) and to freshen my principles. Experience tests your principles, and that's good if it doesn't kill you or make you depressed. Short of bitter personal experience, then, there is knocking your ideas against other people's ideas, or having someone way way way smarter than you open a window.

But this man at work had thrown this generalization at me and I don't know why I'm still thinking about it. When a person says "Most people's opinions are worthless," think what a great opportunity it is to say, "That's just your opinion." Not me, though. I was interested in knowing, "What is he after when he says something like that?"

Of course I immediately felt a bit weak and small with all my curiosity about other people's opinions. I felt like an Oprah fan, a Dr. Phil fans. Yes, I really ought to concern myself with more serious matters. Well, uh, what serious matters? Then I started wondering, "And how has he placed himself above the fray, then? How did he get up into that little perch and how does he pass the time?” I did not believe he was above the fray. In fact I believed at that moment that he had thought up this generalization just to irritate me. No, wait, not to irritate me, but to do something that along the way happens to irritate me -- which is nearly the same thing. He explained, as an example, that that was why he didn’t read blogs. This was not a conversation about blogs. Here was this new medium, he said, and all people did was just dump their useless opinions on it.

I wasn't prepared with an argument but that didn't shut me up, it hardly ever does. I pointed out that he didn't know the good books from the bad books when he went into a bookstore or a library either. Or when he turned on the TV. He agreed. And he also admitted that he had never read any blogs, he was just repeating what he had heard journalists say about blogs.

Well the answer to that was easy. I showed him, in about two minutes, three blogs that were better sources of news and commentary than most newspapers. But that little display of fact was not really speaking to the main point.

When I have totally unfounded opinions about things I do take some pride in the thought that at least I didn't get them from other people. No, I make up my own unfounded opinions.

Later I thought, well, that wasn't entirely fair to him. Judging media does take time. I was remembering what happens to me when I go to a movie rental store. It takes me hours. I go in there loaded with criteria: "I need something funny and a little scary and edgy but not gory and not sentimental NO ROMANTIC COMEDIES but not too heavy, I don't feel like being challenged tonight now here's something I know I should watch no no no no no no not that not that not that not that why do they even bother to make these?" That's what is in my head but if I'm there with, say, a boyfriend, I end up saying something stupid like, "I hate documentaries about primitive people." [Oh, just don't even bother to ask.] But I can waste an hour and a half trying to choose a film that won't waste my time. Why? Well, I'm working on an answer to that...

So we must allow something for the time factor. But I don’t want to go along with the "Opinions are worthless" proposition. I mean, there are good opinions and bad opinions, and it is possible to choose among them.

My mind also went to Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism.

'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill,
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense:
Some few in that, but Numbers err in this,
Ten Censure wrong for one who Writes amiss;
A Fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose.
'Tis with our Judgments as our Watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In Poets as true Genius is but rare,
True Taste as seldom is the Critick's Share;
Both must alike from Heav'n derive their Light,
These born to Judge, as well as those to Write.
Let such teach others who themselves excell,
And censure freely who have written well.
Authors are partial to their Wit, 'tis true,
But are not Criticks to their Judgment too?

Yet if we look more closely, we shall find
Most have the Seeds of Judgment in their Mind;
Nature affords at least a glimm'ring Light;
The Lines, tho' touch'd but faintly, are drawn right.
But as the slightest Sketch, if justly trac'd,
Is by ill Colouring but the more disgrac'd,
So by false Learning is good Sense defac'd.
Some are bewilder'd in the Maze of Schools,
And some made Coxcombs Nature meant but Fools.
In search of Wit these lose their common Sense,
And then turn Criticks in their own Defence.
Each burns alike, who can, or cannot write,
Or with a Rival's or an Eunuch's spite.
All Fools have still an Itching to deride,
And fain wou'd be upon the Laughing Side;
If Maevius Scribble in Apollo's spight,
There are, who judge still worse than he can write....

The rest of it (and you should read the rest of it) is a catalog of all sorts of errors of literary judgment, with their origins. What an interesting exercise! And don't imagine that just because it's literary judgment that it has no wider application. I suspect that every field of knowledge has its mental hazards. And there is probably a fair amount of overlap among them.

Of all the Causes which conspire to blind
Man's erring Judgment, and misguide the Mind,
What the weak Head with strongest Byass rules,
Is Pride, the never-failing Vice of Fools.
Whatever Nature has in Worth deny'd,
She gives in large Recruits of needful Pride;
For as in Bodies, thus in Souls, we find
What wants in Blood and Spirits, swell'd with Wind;
Pride, where Wit fails, steps in to our Defence,
And fills up all the mighty Void of Sense!
If once right Reason drives that Cloud away,
Truth breaks upon us with resistless Day;
Trust not your self; but your Defects to know,
Make use of ev'ry Friend--and ev'ry Foe

Well, now that you've read all of the Essay on Criticism (you did, didn't you?) you might still have the question which it really doesn't answer: Why? Why care about people's opinions? Because we are social animals? So we don't have to die from trying to learn everything from experience? So we can test our judgment? So we can learn how to be better at making distinctions? Because soemtiems they are funny? What is an opinion exactly?

When John Donne wrote his Satire III, on Religion, choosing rightly or wrongly affected your chances of getting a job, maybe could get you a slow and excruciating public death at the hands of the executioner. So there were material reasons for having to judge of, say, religious opinions.

Donne’s point was that as a matter of conscience you couldn’t take for granted what group you belonged to any more. The person addressed in this poem has to make a conscious and deliberate choice. Already, you see, your competence and autonomy as a judge (however imperfect and uncommitted) are assumed. (They were not always assumed in those days.) It’s a profound business that that is assumed. Here in this poem you see the person who chooses. So how do you choose?

Religion is the subject matter in this poem but it’s really about thinking. So he opens by making a contrast between the preChristian heroes who didn’t have religion (religion for Donne is, of course, Christianity) but did take virtue more seriously than his contemporaries took religion.

Is not our mistress, fair Religion,
As worthy of all our souls' devotion
As virtue was in the first blinded age?
Are not heaven's joys as valiant to assuage
Lusts, as earth's honour was to them? Alas,
As we do them in means, shall they surpass
Us in the end? and shall thy father's spirit
Meet blind philosophers in heaven, whose merit
Of strict life may be imputed faith, and hear
Thee, whom he taught so easy ways and near
To follow, damn'd? Oh, if thou dar'st, fear this;
This fear great courage and high valour is.

The next passage is a little sketch of the times in which he lived. The “mutinous Dutch” were the people of the Netherlands who were fighting the armies of Philip II of Spain for their very lives. He was running a large-scale Inquisition there that he himself considered worse than the Spanish Inquisition. By the time this war was over, about half the population of the most prosperous, peaceful and liberal country in Europe was either dead or in exile. It’s an amazing story. The war had been going on since the previous century. It was in a battle related to it that Sir Philip Sidney died.

The other thing that was happening was more and more ships were going out to explore the Americas.

The little vignettes of life that you find throughout both his secular and devotional writings are vivid and wonderfully observed; if they seem fantastic it’s because Donne lived in a time of extremes and of wonders.

Dar'st thou aid mutinous Dutch, and dar'st thou lay
Thee in ships' wooden sepulchres, a prey
To leaders' rage, to storms, to shot, to dearth?
Dar'st thou dive seas, and dungeons of the earth?
Hast thou courageous fire to thaw the ice
Of frozen North discoveries? and thrice
Colder than salamanders, like divine
Children in th' oven, fires of Spain and the Line,
Whose countries limbecs to our bodies be,
Canst thou for gain bear? and must every he
Which cries not, "Goddess," to thy mistress, draw
Or eat thy poisonous words? Courage of straw!
O desperate coward, wilt thou seem bold, and
To thy foes and his, who made thee to stand
Sentinel in his world's garrison, thus yield,
And for forbidden wars leave th' appointed field?

And after presenting this tumultuously busy world, Donne comes up with my favorite description of the search for truth.

Be busy to seek her; believe me this,
He's not of none, nor worst, that seeks the best.
To adore, or scorn an image, or protest,
May all be bad; doubt wisely; in strange way
To stand inquiring right, is not to stray;
To sleep, or run wrong, is. On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill's suddenness resists, win so.
Yet strive so that before age, death's twilight,
Thy soul rest, for none can work in that night.
To will implies delay, therefore now do;
Hard deeds, the body's pains; hard knowledge too
The mind's endeavours reach, and mysteries
Are like the sun, dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.

What he is describing is not dogma, not fixed opinions or views, but movement, inquiry, effort: activity. Which may explain why this is more about the criteria he rejects than about the ones he finally embraces. (He had a long career as one of the greatest preachers of his time to work all that out.)

There is the result (the ultimate choice) and there is the process of thinking, sorting, reflecting. The aim of this activity is not to produce an opinion but to be able to act better and have better judgment and perceptions. The process is growth. Much more interesting than opinions I think. But opinions are one way to get to that, they are like one of the traces of that kind of activity. Good poetry and fiction are better. But that’s a tale for another day.

I take it for granted that most of what people have to say about most things is opinion. To say “That’s just your opinion” is to say nothing at all, except maybe “shut up.” David Hume said that if you were having a conversation with someone and they said, “Oh, well, there’s no objective reality,” or some other version of the “that’s just your opinion” dodge, you were to stop and demand to know, “What is your intention, Sir?”


Monday, October 02, 2006

Pushkin's Friend

In 1825 Pushkin was in his fifth year of exile, living alone (except for his old nurse and a couple of servants) in a house in the village of Mikhaylovskoe. Ivan Puschin was his closest friend from the days when they were students together at the lycee in St. Petersburg. "Braving the threat of official displeasure," as Elaine Feinstein's biography puts it, Pushchin decided to visit his friend in the course of a long winter journey. He arrived at about eight in the morning, to find Pushkin standing in the doorway in his nightshirt.

I grab hold of him and drag him into the room. It is bitterly cold outside, but in such moments a man does not catch cold. We look at one another, we kiss, we remain silent. He forgot that he should put something on, I did not think of my fur coat and hat covered in frost. It was about eight in the morning... The old woman who had run up found us in each other's arms in the same condition as we were as we came into the house: one almost naked, the other covered in snow. Finally the tears broke (even now, after thirty five years, tears make it difficult to write in glasses) and we came to our senses.

They talked and read to each other, drank and ate, and parted at three in the morning. Pushchin resumed his journey. A year later he was permanently exiled to Siberia, and the two friends never saw each other again.