Ten Literary Riddles

Hoodoo Headquarters

Hoodoo Headquarters

Back in the late 80’s, when academics were more demanding where I teach, I included a section on my exam called “Association.” Students had to match a character or work they had read that semester with an enigmatic phrase I provided — only there was nothing to match the phrase to, no list of possible choices. When they complained, I told them all they needed to do was to read my mind.

Of course, no way I get away with something like that nowadays. Parent-piloted Blackhawks would be raining rockets on my drafty garret, Hoodoo Headquarters.

Just for fun, though, I thought I’d recreate “Association” for this post. See if you can identify these novels, plays, or long poems.  Of course, it’s going to be harder for you since your choices aren’t confined to a limited number of works you’ve read in the last five months.

1. Libidinous Lydia’s Lucky Elopement

2. Doing Dublin in a Day from St Stephen’s to the Quay

3. Idiot Tale, Tick-Tock-Not, Red Neck Rambles, House in Shambles

4.  Loon River, Longer Than a Mile, Portal Through Time, Jungle Fever

5.  Un-Moored, Senator’s Daughter Couldn’t Be Any Poorer, According to O’Connor

6.  Mama’s Boy Outwits Catty Riddler, Wins Crown, Then Goes Down, Down, Down

7.  Echo Chamber: April showers, Tarot readings, Demobbed Husbands, and Neurotic Pleadings.

8.  Jake Lost His Snake in a Trench So He Drinks.

9.  The Black Cat in This Story Is, like, a HG Wells No Show.

10.  Ch-Ch-Changes: Model Son Turns Out to Be a Pest.

Hints: Two plays, five novels, two novellas, one poem. Authors’ home turfs:

Ireland, Germany, USA, Greece, England.

 

 

Six Most Exquisite Literary Suicides

One concept I attempt to convey to students when I teach tragedy is that when tragedy works, it exhilarates rather than depresses the audience. Much depends on the protagonist; he or she must outstrip us in stature, or as my translation of Aristotle puts it, be “better” than we are, i.e., more profoundly human, capable of greater deeds (and greater misdeeds).

However, Aristotle is not my man when it comes to tragedy. My man is Richard Sewell whose The Tragic Vision offers a brilliant description and analysis of the tragic landscape, that bleak Darwinian plain of pre-Christian darkness, an elemental shriek-filled darkness that hearkens to that time in human history before we had mastered fire.

Or, as Yeats puts it, when

The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced our thoughts into philosophy.

Faulkner possessed this tragic vision, and Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying beautifully articulates it:

And then [husband Anse] died. He did not know that he was dead. I would lie by him in the dark, hearing the dark land talking of God’s love and His beauty and His sin: hearing the dark voicelessness in which the words are the deeds, and the other words that are not the deeds, that are just the gaps in people’s lacks, coming down like the cries of the geese out of the wild darkness in the old terrible nights.

asilay_0What has set my mind to such dark contemplations is the penultimate episode of Season 1 of the HBO series Treme, and in the unlikely event if, like me, you’re four years behind and still on Season 1, you might not want to read any further, but then again, a careful viewer would already have noted the not-very-subtle foreshadowings of the character Creighton Bernette’s impending suicide.

Bernette, played by John Goodman, is an English professor at Tulane struggling with his beloved New Orlean’s destruction after Katrina and with the paralysis of writer’s block. Even though he has a loving wife, an early teen-aged daughter, and an intact, lovely house in the city, he pulls a Harte Crane and jumps off a ferry into the Mississippi River and drowns himself. Notably, he had just finished teaching Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, whose protagonist Edna Pontellier, also a New Orleans citizen, drowns herself over a failed extra-marital affair and in essence because marriage and motherhood don’t offer her enough satisfaction — despite the fact she has servants to do housework for her.

These two, Creighton and Edna, fail the tragedy test — they’re merely pathetic, i.e., worthy of pity — but there’s nothing exhilarating about their copping out over problems that pale compared to those of the wretches who follow below — my top six literary suicides, which I catalog in chronological order.

Jocasta

Sophocles oedipus_photopresents us with a perverse and terrible vision of life. The drama takes place in a universe governed by malevolent deities who rain horror upon the otherwise innocent offspring of evil doers (Yes, Oedipus suffers from hubris but is the epitome of integrity and about as well-meaning as any tragic hero out there. He, his wife/mother, half-sisters/daughters and half-brother/sons don’t deserve their fates).

Near the close of the play, his wife and mother Jocasta stands on the stage mutely listening as Oedipus bullies an old shepherd in telling him the truth of Oedipus’s origins.

As he undergoes his anagnorisis, the agonizing recognition of his horrible situation, Jocasta runs off stage to hang herself.

Someone called “Second Messenger” fills us in in Dudley Fitts’ and Robert Fitzgerald’s translation:

When she had left us,
In passionate silence, passing through the court,
She ran to her apartment in the house,
Her hair clutched by the fingers of both hands.
She closed the doors behind her; then, by that bed
Where long ago the fatal son was conceived—
That son who should bring about his father’s death–
We heard her call upon [Oedipus’s father]Laius, dead so many years,
And heard her wail for the double fruit of her marriage,
A husband by her husband, children by her child [. . .]

[. . .] For with a dreadful cry
[Oedipus] hurled his weight, as though wrenched out of himself,
At the twin doors: the bolts gave, and he rushed in.
And there we saw her hanging, her body swaying
From the cruel cord she had noosed about her neck.
A great sob broke from him, heartbreaking to hear,
As he loosed the rope and lowered her to the ground.

I would blot out from my mind what happened next!
For the King ripped from her gown the golden brooches
That were her ornament, and raised them, and
plunged them down
Straight into his own eyeballs, crying, “No more.
No more shall you look on the misery about me,
The horrors of my own doing! Too long you have known
The faces of those whom I should never have seen,
Too long been blind to those whom I was searching!
From this hour, go in darkness!” And as he spoke.
He struck at his eyes—not once, but many times;
And the blood spattered his beard.
Bursting from his ruined sockets like red hail.

Othello

Of course, in Shakespeare we have several suicides from which to choose — Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia, Cleopatra — but I opt for Othello, who has just strangled to death his innocent bride Desdemona after having been cruelly convinced by the sociopath Iago that Desdemona had been unfaithful with Othello’s friend and confidant Cassio.

Here’s Othello’s great suicide speech.

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.
[Stabs himself].

Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina

mqdefaultEmma Bovary and Anna Karenina might be considered the great-great grandmothers of Edna Pontellier, but they’re so much more alive, so much richer creations that their suicides, the first by poisoning herself, the second by throwing herself in front of a train, move us more — and they are certainly more terrible.

Here’s Emma’s in Paul De Man’s translation:

Suddenly from the pavement outside came the loud noise of wooden shoes and the clattering of a stick; and a voice rose — a raucous voice — that sang

Often the heat of a summer’s day
Makes a young girl dream her heart away.

Emma raised herself like a galvanized corpse, her hair streaming, her eyes fixed staring.

To gather up all the new-cut stalks
Of wheat left by the scythe’s cold swing.
Nanette bends over as she walks
Toward the furrows from whence they spring.

“The blind man!” she cried.

And Emma began to laugh, an atrocious, frantic, desperate laugh, thinking she saw the hideous face of the poor wretch loom out of the eternal darkness like a menace.

The wind blew very hard that day
It blew her petticoat away.

A final spasm threw her back on the mattress. They all drew near. She had ceased to exist.

Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov

drawing by Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin

drawing by Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin

Of course, with its happy ending, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is not a tragedy. However, its supposed villain Svidrigailov’s suicide near the end of the narrative is so incredibly cool it makes my top six.

Svidrigailov has reached hedonism’s dead end, has been rejected by Dounia, the protagonist’s sister, and finds himself in a mouse-infested flop house suffering through one of the greatest nightmares ever conceived and rendered.(Here, Henry James’s admonition, “Tell a dream, lose a reader,” is proven false).

A description of Svidrigailov’s last few minutes from Constance Garnet’s translation:

“I’ve had nightmare all night!” He got up angrily, feeling utterly shattered; his bones ached. There was a thick mist outside and he could see nothing. It was nearly five. He had overslept himself! He got up, put on his still damp jacket and overcoat. Feeling the revolver in his pocket, he took it out and then he sat down, took a notebook out of his pocket and in the most conspicuous place on the title page wrote a few lines in large letters. Reading them over, he sank into thought with his elbows on the table. The revolver and the notebook lay beside him. Some flies woke up and settled on the untouched veal, which was still on the table. He stared at them and at last with his free right hand began trying to catch one. He tried till he was tired, but could not catch it. At last, realising that he was engaged in this interesting pursuit, he started, got up and walked resolutely out of the room. A minute later he was in the street.

“What do you want here?” [a soldier] said, without moving or changing his position.
“Nothing, brother, good morning,” answered Svidrigailov.
“This isn’t the place.”
“I am going to foreign parts, brother.”
“To foreign parts?”
“To America.”
“America.”
Svidrigailov took out the revolver and cocked it. Achilles raised his eyebrows.
“I say, this is not the place for such jokes!”
“Why shouldn’t it be the place?”
“Because it isn’t.”
“Well, brother, I don’t mind that. It’s a good place. When you are asked, you just say he was going, he said, to America.”
He put the revolver to his right temple.
“You can’t do it here, it’s not the place,” cried Achilles, rousing himself, his eyes growing bigger and bigger.
Svidrigailov pulled the trigger.

Quentin Compson

Too bad Treme’s Creighton Bernette wasn’t teaching The Sound and the Fury instead of The Awakening because pathetic, doomed Quentin Compson’s self-drowning would add some literary heft to Bernette’s own pathetic situation. Interestingly enough, although fictional, Quentin has a commemorative plaque on the Anderson Bridge over the Charles River that reads

186868_m“QUENTIN COMPSON
Drowned in the odour of honeysuckle.
1891-1910”

Here’s the first paragraph of the Quentin Section:

When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciatingly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

This is Quentin’s last day. He wrenches the hands from this watch that once belonged to General Compson, CSA, but the watch keeps ticking.

Here is the last paragraph:

The last note sounded. At last it stopped vibrating and the darkness was still again. I entered the sitting room and turned on the light. I put my vest on. The gasoline was faint now, barely noticeable, and in the mirror the stain didn’t show. Not like my eye did, anyway. I put on my coat. Shreve’s letter crackled through the cloth and I took it out and examined the address, and put it in my side pocket. Then I carried the watch into Shreve’s room and put it in his drawer and went to my room and got a fresh handkerchief and went to the door and put my hand on the light switch. Then I remembered I hadn’t brushed my teeth, so I had to open the bag again. I found my toothbrush and got some of Shreve’s paste and went out and brushed my teeth. I squeezed the brush as dry as I could and put it back in the bag and shut it, and went to the door again. Before I snapped the light out I looked around to see if there was anything else, then I saw that I had forgotten my hat. I’d have to go by the postoffice and I’d be sure to meet some of them, and they’d think I was a Harvard Square student making like he was a senior. I had forgotten to brush it too, but Shreve had a brush, so I didn’t have to open the bag any more.

Lots of, if not most, people try to avoid tragic works because of the reasonable idea that the world is so full of woe — ISIS, Ebola, tornadoes, head-on collisions, etc. However, in great tragedies like Oedipus and Lear we can take solace in our shared humanity with these great figures, our shared woe. Antigone is my sister and Hamlet my brother. After hanging out with them, I can agree with Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god!

 

Flat Footed journalists

Scott Walker

Scott Walker

Please, please, please, can we find one journalist out there who can think on her feet and come up with an impossible-to-dodge follow-up question?

For example, someone recently asked presidential candidate Scott Walker if he considered Obama a Christian, and Walker essentially said he had no idea.

No, Walker has not spent the last decade in a Iron Lung battling polio.

Suggested follow up question: “Governor Walker, have you ever heard of Jeremiah Wright?”

This is a yes or no question. Walker would be forced to answer. If he hemmed and hawed, my theoretical journalist could prompt, “You know, Jeremiah Wright, the radical preacher of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, the church Obama attended in his senatorial days?

Walker could say, “I’ll have my people follow up on that,” or, “Oh yeah, now I remember!” or “No, never heard of him.”

(BTW, in one sermon, Wright famously thundered, “God damn America for treating our citizens as less than human. God damn America for as long as she acts like she is God and she is supreme.”)

Obviously, if Scott claimed he’s not heard of Wright, there’d be negative consequences: Walker’s unfamiliarity with Wright would suggest that Walker, a college dropout, was too intellectually lazy to have followed the first 2004 campaign, an odd incuriosity for someone aspiring for the highest office in the land.

Jeremiah Wright

Jeremiah Wright

(Of course, not picking up on Wright’s name could merely mean that Scott doesn’t think very well on his feet — Wilbur, Orville, Jeremiah? — but we could perhaps see confusion on his face and learn at least something).

Or Scott could have answered, “Yes,” I know Wright and Obama’s association with him. Scott could then explain why he thought Obama’s regular church attendance didn’t necessarily make him a true Christian, which, though impolitic, if not politically suicidal, seems more honest than his pretending not to know. He could also use Wright to support the question Scott had been asked before the Christian one — if he thought Obama loved his country.

Or, Scott could have simply avoided the never-asked follow-up question, “Yes, I think Obama is a Christian,” which strikes me as the most charitable (i.e., Christian) answer he could make, but because we never get penetrating follow-up questions, all we get it is scripted bullshit.

What this country desperately needs are journalists willing to risk non-access by asking meaningful questions.

What good is access if you’re only parroting the candidate’s messages?

Journalists, it ain’t your job to smooze or to fellate but to poke.

Those Rainy Days of Yore

No way I'm descending these treacherous stairs leading from my house when the temperature is hovering a mere 5 degrees above freezing!

No way I’m descending these treacherous stairs leading from my house when the temperature is hovering a mere 5 degrees above freezing!

One of the peculiar aspects of living in the South that Northern transplants have to acclimate themselves to is our inability to cope with the slightest manifestation of winter precipitation — including rain. Here, in Charleston County, the schools are closed today, even though my outdoor thermometer reads 3 degrees (38F). True, it is raining, the highways are slick, but folks in Boston might just perceive the driving conditions as optimal.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m okay hanging out at home. I can sit with a steaming cup of Jameson-laced coffee hot cocoa and grade my essays without interruption, or better yet, I can waste time by recalling the not-so-halcyon days of my youth and how we entertained ourselves on miserable rainy days like today.

Although I liked to read as a pre-and-early teen, I spent most days outside playing unsupervised with the neighborhood kids. We built forts or played whatever sport was in season — football in the fall, basketball or field hockey in the winter, and softball on summer evenings when the temperatures became bearable.

If the weather precluded playing sports outside, I often sought out an indoor sport substitute.

For example, on a rainy February day like today, I might break out my electric football game. For the uninitiated, these games consisted of a metal gridiron that vibrated and tiny plastic men – linemen, wide receivers, and quarterbacks with arms cocked – whose plastic foot flanges responded to the vibrations by putting the men in motion. Unfortunately, more often than not, the men moved in circular paths, making the spectacle seem less like a football game but more like a Greek tragedy where the plague-smitten citizens of Thebes nonsensically stumble blindly, bumping into one another, wheeling in senseless circles of crazed despair.

The football itself was a molded-spongy manmade cotton-like oval. You’d line the men up, your opponent would line his up, and then you’d hit the switch and set the Thebans to their inchoate ramblings. Not surprisingly, I could rarely find anyone willing to play with me, so I played myself, having one team be Clemson and the other be Michigan State or some other detested Northern powerhouse.

Oedipus as Electric Football Halfback

Oedipus as Electric Football Halfback

That electric football set ended up being destroyed by a brother in a well-deserved act of revenge I’d just as well forget about.

But then there was always auto racing.

One Christmas, seduced by commercials, I asked for a slot car set, which I received, and it would have been the ideal toy for a miserable rainy day; however, for whatever reason, we could never get the goddamn thing to work properly. The metal brushes beneath the cars never made contact, and if they did, one car was so much faster than the other, it was sort of like Usian Bolt racing Orson Wells. The attached video shows two cars actually flying through the air and landing successfully on the track, a feat I suspect took thousands of takes.

By far, my favorite rainy day sports substitute was a hockey game that required no electricity. You and your opponent operated sliding men with rods you pulled out and twirled to manipulate a puck. It was fun, if not very much like hockey.

All in all, I’m not sorry in retrospect these toys were mostly lousy, nor do I lament not having the realistic games like John Madden Football or Forza Motorsport 3 because that’s all I would have done for hours. No doubt my vocabulary and imagination would have suffered.

No, back then I had to turn to books to occupy my time indoors, and the Hardy Boys certainly allowed me the vicarious thrills of road racing:

Frank and Joe Hardy clutched the grips of their motorcycles and stared in horror at the oncoming car. It was careening from side to side on the narrow road . . .

[. . .]To their amazement, the reckless driver suddenly pulled his car hard to the right and turned into a side road on two wheels[. . . ]

[. . . ]The boys scrambled back onto their motorcycles and gunned them a bit to get past the intersecting road in a hurry [. . .]

On their right an embankment of tumbled rocks and boulders sloped steeply to the water below. From the opposite of the road rose a jagged cliff. The little traveled road was winding and just wide enough to pass.

“Boy, I ‘d hate to fall off the edge of this road,” Frank remarked. “It’s hundred-foot drop.”

“No shit, Sherlock,” Joe said smiling. “We’d sure be smashed to bits before we ever got to the bottom.”

Who needs kinesthetic stimulation when you’re hanging with Frank and Joe.

Hbtt1rev

A Lenten Folly Gras

Despite USA Today’s designating Folly’s celebration of Mardi Gras as one of the top ten in the USA, New Orleans and Mobile have nothing to fear from us. Folly Gras still has a way to go, and by a way to go, I mean a long way, like a couple of light years.

One particularly glaring deficiency of our local version of Fat Tuesday* is a paucity of people of color. Call me racist, but when I think of Mardi Gras, I think of ragtime, Dixieland jazz, plain ol’ kickass jazz, and funk, and when I think of those genres, I think of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Coleman Hawkins, Vic Dickenson, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, the Meters — you know, black people.

Calling out around the world, we'll go shagging in the streets

Calling out around the world, we’ll go shagging in the streets

And even though yesterday’s 4th Day of Lent/Folly Gras boasted the biggest crowds I’ve seen in the 8 years it’s been around, I could count the number of African Americans I saw on one hand. Though Charleston did have a history of jazz back in the day, that tradition has gone the way of the trolley car. Ain’t no second line funeral celebrations round here. And even though the Godfather himself was born just a couple of hours northwest of the Edge of America, funk’s not a Lowcountry staple either.

bead fling 2Not that yesterday’s street party wasn’t fun. You could stand on the sidewalk and listen to decent rock-n-roll. You could watch folks throw beads from balconies and pretend that the ladies below were exposing their breasts. You could sip hurricanes from elongated glasses and jostle among the crowd . You could shag and sport funky clothes.

Or you pedal your bicycle home and take a two-hour-and-forty minute nap and awaken to the sun setting on another Lenten Saturday.

*That fact that it occurs during Lent screams inauthenticity.

 

Reading Fiction as a Utilitarian Exercise in Self-Improvement

I’ve always been contemptuous of commercial self-improvement because it so smacks of the time clock — protestant fear of predestined damnation meets hedonism lite.

On the one hand, who but a churl would be against sharing good advice?

On the other hand, who but a charlatan — a snake oil salesman — would seek pecuniary profit from enlightening the masses?

buddhaAndJesusAnswer to above question (in chronological order): not Siddhartha, not Jesus.

After all, in the age of the Internet, good advice can be disseminated at no cost. No longer is it necessary to decimate acres of loblollies to inform the huddling masses of the magic steps/habits/protocols that successful/happy/thoughtful people take/inculcate/follow to achieve a less fucked-up state that they have been muddling through.

So in the spirit of altruism, here’s the title of my unwritten masterpiece in the genre:

7 Steps That Sentiment Beings Sick with Desire and Fastened to Dying Animals Take to Get the Most out of the Ever-Foreshortening Days Left to Them.

Climb aboard!

Here are the 7 Steps in chapters:

MetamorphosesOvidChapter 1: Step 1: Sunday

Sequester yourself for an hour — especially you non-church/temple types — and read from various myths — good translations of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Native American trickster tales, Irish folklore, e.g. — and think about how what you’re reading relates to the universal human condition.

Chapter 2: Step 2: Monday

Take a half-hour off after having done something you have dreaded but have completed –e.g. gone to work, to court, to hell in a hand basket — and then listen to thirty minutes of the Blues, and by listen, I mean not only to the instruments, but also to the lyrics.

 Delia, Delia.

Poor girl, she’s gone.

With all I hate, she done left me all alone.

She’s all I got; it’s gone.

Blind Willie McTell by R Crumb.

Blind Willie McTell by R Crumb.

Chapter 3: Step 3: Tuesday

Put down for at least an hour your cell phone, joystick, remote control, and unhand that mouse.

Get into a non-escapist novel. When’s the last time you’ve read Huck Finn? If you’re reading this blog, I goddamn guarantee you’ll enjoy Huck (not to mention it’s time better spent than reading any blog).

Chapter 3: Step 3: Wednesday

Read slowly, carefully and out loud a ballad, which shouldn’t take up any more than 15 minutes.

I’d start early with folk ballads like “Lord Randall” and steadily work my way up chronologically to literary ballads like XJ Kennedy’s “Down in Dallas.”

Down in Dallas, down in Dallas,

where the wind has to cringe tonight,

Lee Oswald nailed Jack Kennedy up

on the cross of a rifle sight.

Chapter 4: Step 4: Thursday

Spend 45-minutes to following up on something you’ve discovered so far in your reading.

Chapter 5: Step 5: Friday/Saturday

Watch a universally acclaimed motion picture or attend local theater (and by that I mean see a play).

* * *

If you were to so regulate your animal spirits, it would cost you ~6 hours of time you otherwise squander lost in social media, trapped in the repetitive sturm und drang of video games, or seated in front of the flat screen.

Of course, I’m being facetious by suggesting this regimen. This regulation of dabbling in the arts would be destined to fail for the same reason diets fail. After a while, the spirit rebels against the assembly line sameness of eating healthy vegetables or reading outloud every Wednesday quatrains of tetrameter.

However, I can tell you this, reading good fiction can provide invaluable vicarious experience because it creates characters true to life. Cynical Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, despite his delightful wit and clever putdowns, suffers mightily for his detached parenting and refusal to listen to good advice, and his suffering certainly could have been catastrophic if not for Mr. Darcy.

This ARTICLE my friend Ed Burrows sent me scientifically supports the idea that good fiction can also increase your “moral intelligence.”

Dig this:

A 2013 study by the psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano explored the causal relationship between reading high-quality literary fiction and the ability to take the perspective of others, as measured by one of several well-tested tools, such as judging others’ emotions and eye-gaze directionality for interpreting what someone is thinking. The researchers found that participants who were assigned to read literary fiction performed significantly better on these “mind reading” tests that measured where subjects were looking and how they judged the emotions of others than did participants assigned to the other experimental groups, which did not differ from one another.

Think of reading good fiction and poetry as discovery, not escape.

Fat Tuesday

history1It’s Fat Tuesday in the Protestant State of South Carolina, so not much is going on carnivalwise except on Folly Beach, which celebrates Fat/Shrove Tuesday not in the context of the Christian calendar but as another excuse to lure consumers onto the island so they can get rip-roaring drunk. This lack of a Catholic context is underscored by Folly’s postponing its big celebration — Folly Gras — until the more pecuniarily advantageous weekend, this Saturday, the fourth day of Lent.

The origins of Carnival are obscure; some anthropologists tie the festivities to the ancient Italian tradition of Bacchanalia (see Livy for some hyper-ventilated descriptions of the festivities) while others dismiss the connection as spurious. Etymologically, most agree that carne — meat — comprises to the root for the celebration, which features feasting and in some cases nudity — chili con carne and carnal knowledge.

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria

Sophie Tucker

Sophie Tucker

The ancient celebration of Bacchanalia embraced — if Livy can be believed — a leveling of the social playing field, allowing plebeians to run free through the streets mixing with their so-called social superiors, and Carnival’s tendency for disguise might be akin to this earlier democratization of social hierarchy. Who is that behind that elaborate mask, Jeb Bush or the Leatherman, Queen Victoria or Sophie Tucker?

Although I’m not Catholic nor have given up anything for Lent since the ’60’s, I like the counterbalancing of Carnival and Lent as mythic antitheses — each in its way helping us to come to terms with death and therefore life.

Between extremities

Man runs his course;

A brand, or flaming breath.

Comes to destroy

All those antinomies

Of day and night;

The body calls it death,

The heart remorse.

But if these be right

What is joy?

 Yeats “Vacillation”

So, on that bright note, I’m headed down to Center Street to see what’s going down.  Who knows, maybe the Leatherman will show up.

The Leatherman

The Leatherman

.