Channeling Joseph Campbell

Chapter 1

Hello, I’m an English teacher, so this blog post is about sex.  All English teachers talk about in class is sex.  Just ask any of our students.

Above is a photograph of the finish line of the most important marathon in which you’ve ever competed. That sperm that helped bring you into existence went up against ~ 250,000,000 competitors.  You know that cloying cliché, “we’re all winners.”  Well, in the case of conception it’s true.

The image below is an artist’s rendition of a comet or meteorite’s crashing into our planet, an occurrence that scientists believe set in motion the series of chemical chain reactions that resulted in life.

Chapter 2

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. William Wordsworth.

           The  world is too much with us; late and soon,

          Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

          Little we see in Nature that is ours;

          We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

          The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

          The winds that will be howling at all hours,

          And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

          For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

          It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be

          A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;                         10

          So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

          Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

          Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

          Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

                                                              1806.

The world that Wordsworth laments in the octave of this famous sonnet isn’t the magical world he describes in the sestet.  No, the world of the octave is the dreary quotidian world of getting and spending, the world of the long line at Food Lion where you find yourself because earlier at Harris Teeter you had forgotten eggs, so now you’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic headed home to a mailbox that holds a communication from the IRS.  No wonder as you walk back to the house with that letter in your hand that you don’t notice the hummingbird hovering above the impatiens in the forgotten flower box.

Wordsworth, of course, was big on childhood.  He believed in the pre-existence of the soul and that when children were born they brought with them traces of holy wonderment.  “The child is father of the man,”  he proclaims in “My Heart Leaps Up,” and “I hope my days to be/Bound each to each/By natural piety.”

Of course, what’s separating the Wordsworthian child attuned to the miracle of being and Thoreau’s wretched adult living a life of quiet desperation is school.

Chapter 3

 

Get born, keep warm

Short pants, romance,

learn to dance,

get dressed, get blessed,

try to be success.

Please her, please him,

Buy gifts, don’t steal, don’t lift.

Twenty years of schooling,

and they put you on the day shift.

Bob Dylan “Subterranean Homesick Blues”

By the way, I’m not one of these people who grew up knowing they wanted to be a teacher.  To the contrary, I couldn’t wait to graduate from high school, for the world of school for me was a factory world, very much like the world depicted in the above photo.  Each class, though configured exactly alike in gridlike fashion, was its own little self-contained kingdom.  No teacher ever wandered outside her dominion to help us connect the dots.  For example, in geometry, when we were solving proofs, no one mentioned that we were also using deductive reasoning in the essays we were writing in English across the hall, which, in fact, might has been across the Gobi desert.  School seemed random, a series of disconnected facts and skills taught for the purpose of preparing us for employment – the factory, the day shift.

Now, if ever there was a place that should instill in us a sense of wonder, it is a school.  We should constantly be reminding our students of the mysteries of existence and how all the disciplines we teach are interrelated so that our students don’t end up like poor Charlie Kaufman, whom we’ll meet in the next chapter, a man leading a life of quiet desperation, despite the fact that he’s a bigtime screenwriter.  This clip is from the movie Adaptation, written by Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze. In the film Kaufman – who has written himself into the script – asks the existential questions, who am I and how did I get here.

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

250,000.000 sperm

Now, we’ve seen how Charlie got to where he is, but what exactly the odds of his having gotten there? We’ve established that each ejaculation yields approximately 250,000,000 sperm, but then we need to factor in 300 or so ova an average post pubescent woman carries.  Humans have come up with a language that can compute these odds – mathematics, a sort of poetry in its own right – but what if we extrapolate those individual odds up the family tree to Genghis Kahn, and what if my great-great-great grand pappy hadn’t just ducked out of the way of that musket ball at the Battle of the Second Manassas – I wouldn’t be here in my this particular incarnation.

The odds of our existing are so infinitesimally small, it’s mind-blowing.  The idea that we possess self-consciousness on a pebble swirling around a hydrogen explosion wheeling through a vacuum shouldn’t drowned by the mundane.

Chapter 6

This is essentially the first lecture I delivered each year to my Honors tenth grade British Lit survey course when I was a teacher. To try reawaken student wonder of the world, I turned to mythology, and my guide was Joseph Campbell, he of the famous admonition – “follow your bliss.”  I used the word mythology, instead of religion, because, I know all too well that another person’s religion is a mythology.   However, as Campbell has eloquently demonstrated, myths are what make the world come alive for us, so each year, in British Literature, I began by talking about mythology and establishing science as the preferred myth of the class.

At first, students balked at the idea of science being a myth, but through the Socratic method, I led them to the idea that myths can be defined as symbolic configurations that attempt to explain the mysteries of Being – Being with a capital B – how the universe came to be and how we came to be.  I stressed, however, that although myths are not literally true, they can be metaphorically true.

But science is literally true they claimed.

Well, I said, let’s hop into my time machine.

Chapter 7

The year is 1970, and I’m in Mrs. Ballard’s physics class.  There I am center-right standing, tilting towards a desk (obviously, Mrs. Ballard’s classroom management left something to be desired).  Anyway, Mrs. Ballard asks, “What do we call the smallest component of an atom,” and my hand shoots up.  “A quark!”  I proclaim.   Mrs. Ballard frowns.  “No Rusty,” she explains, “we’ve been over this time and time again.  An electron is the smallest particle of an atom.”

Atom 1970’s style

Atom 2010’s style

 

Actually, though, I’m right.  Quarks are smaller than electrons, but in 1970, they hadn’t made their way into science books. By the way, Murray Gell-Mann, the discoverer of the quark didn’t know what to call it until he ran across the word in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, a novel so difficult it makes quantum mechanics seem like child’s play.

Three quarks for Muster Mark!

Sure he hasn’t much of a bark

And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

But O Wreneagle Almighty, wouldn’t un be a sky of a lark

To see that old buzzard whooping about for runs shirt in the dark

And he hunting round for runs speckled trousers around by Palmerstown Park?

Hohohoho, mounty Mark!

Of course, we could take this idea of science not being literally true back even further to Aristotle who had scholars convinced for two thousand years that the earth was the center of the solar system.

However, science does possess a significant advantage over older myths because it’s self-correcting, and that’s why it was the chosen myth of my British literature class.  I found myself needing to establish this standard because in past years I had had folks who took the Genesis myth literally, wasting class time challenging Darwin, whose theories had created a crisis of faith in Victorian England, a crisis that profoundly affected Victorian poetry and fiction.  In Wordsworth at the turn of the 19th century nature is paradisal; in Hardy you can hear the shriek of the raptors; nature is coldly indifferent to him.

Chapter 8

So on the first full day of class, I offered my students a history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present, according to the myth of science.  In doing so, I hoped to engender in them a sense of wonder, but also to underscore the importance of science, how it is central in understanding the mechanics of the world, and how it informs the other disciplines they study.  I had a timeline that ran from left to right at the top of one of my white boards board, starting with the Big Bang.  The only two historical events (i.e. non-biological) I had listed on the timeline were the discovery of agriculture and the detonation of the hydrogen bomb at Hiroshima, eye-blinks apart in our species’ past. I would choose a student and ask her to plot the Eden myth on the timeline.  Of course, it comes after agriculture, right before Hiroshima.  Adam’s curse was farm labor.

Chapter 9

But what about the older myths – how can they be true?  Obviously the Greek myths are mere fantasy.

Well, let’s take a peek at the Greek creation story – Uranus the Sky mated with Gaea the earth to produce the first living creatures, which is more or less the current scientific theory a comet (sky sperm) impregnates earth to produce life. See, it’s true! The Greek creation myth and the scientific creation myth are essentially the same.

Chapter 10

Students love connections like this – love the integration of our disciplines, and, of course, what happens in outside of the realm of literature affects literature and the rest of the arts.  After Freud, the novel goes inward; after the invention of the camera, painting goes abstract; after Planck, poetry goes atomistic.

So, the more we can cross-pollinate across the curriculum, the more engaged our students will become, and the more connections they’re able to make, the more likely school will be a positive experience for them, and not the drag that Wordsworth bemoans.

Dr. John’s Dr. Johnston, Mad Props for the Malaprops

 

 

Polonius:  What do you read, my lord?

 Hamlet: Words, words, words.

 

Samuel Johnston in 1755-ish published the first ever dictionary in English.  He accomplished this Herculean feat single-handedly.

Imagine, idle reader, the enormity of the project.  How would you go about collecting words and defining them with no dictionary to consult? Would you start with aardvark and work your way alphabetically to zygote or start with verbs, assembling the gamut, so to speak, from states of being to acts of doing, and once you’d worked your way from is to zapped, would you then turn to the vast realm of nouns?

I ain’t know cause my mind be blown.

In 1994 with the help of a writer named Jack Rummel, Dr. John (nee Mac Rebennack) published an autobiography entitled Under a Hoodoo Moon.

Like Samuel Johnson, Dr. John, who just now died June 6, was a lover of locutions.  Like James Joyce, Mac, the Dr. (also known as the Nite Tripper) found the English language inadequate for his needs.

“So weenybeenyveenyteeny.”   James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake

“Posilutely honorifficatedly medicatedly doctoratedly yours thank you.  Dr. John, from the liner notes of Desitively Bonneroo.

Sam Johnson was an eccentric. Obsessive, compulsive.   Before crossing the threshold of door, he’d go through a series of ritualistic gesticulations and when walking down the street feel compelled to touch every single post he passed.

Mac Rebennack was also an eccentric and was no stranger to wild gyratin-i-ficatin’,  as he might put it.

I’m now reading Under a Hoodoo Moon, and it occurs to me that I could honor these two doctor heroes of mine by doing a little lexicography myself, i.e., by compiling a Dr. John dictionary, a handy go-to reference when you run across a term like junk-a-dope-a-nals  or marygeranium.

The project is underway, and of course, I’ll publish it here, free of charge, despite Dr. Johnson’s oft-quoted observation: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

But, as Dr. John says, “You can’t shut the fonk up.  No, the fonk got a mind of its own.

Caricature of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell. — Image by © Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

Dr Seuss on the Juice (as performed by Dr. John)

 

 

When I read Kafka

I get wasted on Vodka,

 

Though Mr. William Faulkner

Go better with Johnnie Walker.

 

Can’t do Proust

With no gin in my juice.

 

Obviously, Guinness be the choice

When I open up my Joyce.

 

(Finnegan’s Wake sober

Mean a walloping hangover).

 

Never do Virginia Woolf

Unless the bottle say 100 proof.

 

Nobel Laureate TS Eliot

Requires an even stronger inebriant.

 

And remember,

if you want to stay alive,

Don’t read and drive.

 

 

 

Jonathan Franzen, Literary Piñata

Looking at the Thing

I guess I was one of the last English majors to be trained to look at literature through the supposedly un-tinted lens of what used to be called New Criticism.

Back then, we were taught not to factor biography into our assessment of artistic products. According to this way of judging art, the fact that Cormac McCarthy’s ex-wife pulled a “gun out of her vagina and threatened her boyfriend with it when a sex act/argument about the existence of aliens [. . .] took a turn for the weird” does not shed any light on McCarthy as an artist.

New Criticism demanded we look at and judge a poem, play, story, or novel according to its architectonics and organic synthesis. In other words, it was the imposition of the scientific method upon the creative product, a detached analysis of how parts fit into a whole to highlight some sort of significant statement about what it means to be human.   Call me hidebound, but I prefer New Criticism, which now goes by the moniker of “formalism,” to reader-response criticism, semiotics, new historicism, etc.

6a00d8341c630a53ef0134862b33e8970cSo I’m not much interested in Jonathan Franzen’s biography, his Midwestern roots, his literary heroes, his divorce, his love of birds and disdain for predatory house cats. I’m not interested in judging him as a human being; I am, though, interested in his art, his novels’ architectonics, character development, and entertainment value – not necessarily in that order. Even if Franzen himself in an essay on Edith Wharton claims that “a fiction writer’s oeuvre is a mirror of the writer’s character,” I’m not interested in writers’ characters or personalities; I’m interested in their books.

Why Creative Artists Frequently Hold Critics in Disdain

I’ve started to write I don’t know how many novels but only finished two, both of which were comic and featured adolescent protagonists, so I didn’t have to wrestle with the complexities of adulthood nor fear the consequences of failing at trying to create a serious work of art. Nevertheless, even in the construction of those piddly narratives, I suffered a bit in that I ended up spending hour after hour locked in the sordid little garret of my own unconscious, not a very pleasant or healthy place.

Writing a novel is hard. Faulkner, who cranked out As I Lay Dying in 6 weeks, said writing a novel is like “trying to nail together a henhouse in a hurricane.” Of course, the English form has its roots in the 18th Century and especially flourished in the 19th when middle class people needed something to do during those long, gaslit but wirelesses nights. Back then, many considered novels unhealthy, the way my father thought my reading comic books was unhealthy, the way some parents think playing video games is unhealthy. Another oft-employed metaphor in this context is junk food. Think of Paradise Lost as a banquet and Monk Lewis’s The Monk as a big bag of licorice jellybeans.

According to Marc McGurl’s The Novel Art: Elevations of American Fiction after Henry James, before James no one thought of a novel as a work of art, and, of course, James Joyce’s Ulysses demonstrated not only that a novel could be a work of art, but it could also be high art. So I say J. Joyce and H. James have made the serious novelist’s work more difficult because now this genre that has its origins in entertainment and costs a lot to produce and market needs to be ideally both high art and entertaining, and when’s the last time you’ve seen someone on the subway reading a paperback edition of Absalom, Absalom?

When critics do their jobs and judge books and find them lacking, so-called creative writers sometimes mock the critics as functionaries (muse-less hacks), or worse, vampires (parasites living off of someone else’s creativity).

Not surprisingly, Yeats has expressed these sentiments as well as anybody:

The Scholars

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,

Old, learned, respectable bald heads

Edit and annotate the lines

That young men, tossing on their beds,

Rhymed out in love’s despair

To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

 

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;

All wear the carpet with their shoes;

All think what other people think;

All know the man their neighbour knows.

Lord, what would they say

Did their Catullus walk that way?

Christian Lorentzen’s Review of Jonathan Franzen’s Latest Novel

Despite my being a mere dabbler in writing fiction and poetry, I have to admit I felt a little like Yeats when reading Christian Lorentzen’s review of Purity in New York magazine.

Don’t get me wrong. Lorentzen’s review is in many ways brilliant and unequivocally very entertaining. The cat is a superb stylist and, as we say on Folly Beach, knows his shit. In fact, I laughed out loud in the bar where I was reading the review when I read this sentence:

Franzen proves adept at telling an old-fashioned murder story, even if he pounds the notes of guilt and shame a little too hard with his Victorian hammer.

However, despite his protests otherwise, you can’t help get the impression that Lorentzen really dislikes Franzen the man. I’ve added the italics:

Prisoner of a too-early, too-idealistic marriage premised on mutual artistic success, a taste of which he got and she didn’t. En route to a divorce colored by his wife’s failure to sell a book, confusing the end of love with rage against environmental devastation, trying in vain to sell out with a dud of a screenplay that sublimated his marital crack-up. Depressed and penniless divorcé, coping with writer’s block and his own competitive instincts in the face of his friend’s magnum opus, Infinite Jest, by trying to figure out what it means to be a reader. Resurgent literary champion, reaping the rewards of a decade’s struggle but always prone to media gaffes. Advocate and lover of birds, even if it sometimes seemed the ornithologist-novelist was copping a move from the lepidopterist Nabokov. Time cover boy with a net worth reported to be in the eight figures, but always generous to younger writers as well as select literary forebears. Failed television writer (when HBO preemptively canceled a series adapted from The Corrections) and pained bystander to his brilliant friend’s suicide, an awful thing to endure, however muddled Franzen’s public response (“suicide as career move”?) has sounded. Scourge of online culture, an endearingly Sisyphean self-appointment. I confess I find Franzen the man sympathetic at every turn. I only wish that next time he returns with a novel that isn’t a bad date.

Only 6 of the 21 paragraphs of the review deal with Purity, and given the above, it’s not surprising that Lorentzen finds the novel lacking. Its “execution is shoddier” than that of The Corrections and Freedom, its “[b]its of sociology break the spell of a convincing present.”

Franzen in 1977

Franzen in 1977

For whatever reason, lots of people seem to have it out for Franzen, people like Matt Yglesias, whose writing I dig.  They tend to develop a real animus for Franzen. Do they find him smug, too contemporary, too ambitious? Was Franzen that kid in school whom everyone picked on?

All I know is that I find his novels entertaining, and I care about his characters. From The Corrections I know what having Alzheimer’s feels like, and I also know that creating realistic characters and placing them in three-dimensional spaces is really, really difficult, like, um, “nailing up a henhouse in a hurricane,” so I’m inclined to give novelists more slack.

I know, I know, creative and analytical intelligences are very different (I suspect that Mrs. Harold Bloom isn’t packing heat, even in her purse), and critics must do their jobs, but every once in a while, before they start gathering their stones, they ought to at least sit down and try to write a sonnet.

Let’s Get Real

A few years back, I contemplated moving to western or southern Ireland for retirement, maybe to the Beara Peninsula down in County Cork or up to County Mayo on the coast, perhaps purchasing a rustic cottage with a glimpse of distant mountains or of the sea.

3229244181_a516f6ab0d_zHave you ever witnessed a rainbow in Ireland? I don’t know if it’s the air up there or the angle of the sun, but the rainbow Judy Birdsong and I saw in ’79 mesmerized us. It was so misty-shimmering wonderful that it could almost make you believe in leprechauns, in magic, in Lir.

Beara’s and Mayo’s landscape is gorgeous, their people gregarious. The Irish and my kinsmen, folk from the South Carolina Lowcountry, share a love for the oral tradition of story-telling. We’d get along fine I think. The Irish love music and poetry and literature. For example, before the Euro, James Joyce himself appeared on Ireland’s ten-pound note, which would be like having Walt Whitman on a US fifty. We Americans might put our beloved authors on stamps, but they don’t rank high enough in our estimation to appear on legal tender. Of course, Irish currency doesn’t have “In God We Trust” printed on it, which would not go all that well thematically with Mr. Joyce’s bespectacled mug nor with Herman Melville’s otherwise presidential countenance.

IEP-banknote-10-irish-pounds-james-joyce

melville fifty

 

 

 

 

But I digress. When I mentioned this silly romantic notion to Judy, she reminded me that my three trips to the Emerald Isle occurred in May or June, not December or February, and she reckoned that in those dark and dreary months the odor of burning peat might very well lose its allure as building a fire transitioned from exoticism to drudgery.

Miss Birdsong knows all too well that dreary weather and Wesley don’t get along. In fact, a shrink back in the day suggested that I could very well suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (which I have immortalized in a poem you can listen to me read in my golden Lowcountry baritone HERE). No, day after day of leaden skies, the sun setting by three or four, would be bad for my state of mind.

Take this winter, for example. We might as well be in Ireland — or Ingmar Bergman’s Sweden. A glance at the five-day forecast, more often than not, has yielded a succession of cartoon clouds, dark, with resiquite raindrops slanting down.

Max Von Sydow

Max Von Sydow

My neighborhood “pub,” Chico Feo, roofless as it is, has been closed for days at a time, often for rain, less often for cold, but closed nonetheless. As I have driven to work morning after morning through fog, I have half expected to see Max Von Sydow and/or Liv Ullman trudging along the side of Folly Road.

But as PB Shelley famously put it, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Sure enough, the sun peeped out on consecutive days this week, so I popped in at Chico Feo. On the first day, I got to witness a book burning and on the second some low wattage police brutality.

Perhaps I underestimate Folly as a retirement locale.

bookiburning 2But, before I go, let me assure you that the book burning wasn’t Fahrenheit 451.1.0 but part of a very indie film noir murder mystery starring the Chico crew, my hobo hero Greg, and prolific Chris, a graphic artist and novelist who works at Bert’s.

And the “police brutality” merely consisted of a very, very, very drunk man having his arms twisted behind his back and then being slammed rather roughly to the pavement of Second Street. Alas, I had absentmindedly left my phone at work, so I didn’t get to capture the disturbance, which was quite a spectacle taking place as it did in front of the mural of Bert done up like a smiling, squinting, dismembered pirate.

IMG_0004

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Won’t Believe These Killer, Innovative, Somewhat Offensive Halloween Costumes

[cue puppy ahhhhhhh]

[cue puppy ahhhhhhh]

As far as I’m concerned, Halloween should have an “AKA Mental Health Day” attached to it. I’m sure there are several studies out there that argue being reminded of your own mortality in a jocular way is a healthy thing. Plus, children get to transform themselves into princesses, Ninja Turtles, or adorable zombies.

Adults, too, can disguise themselves, don costumes that project their dearest archetypes (pirates) or mock creatures/institutions they despise (Jehovah Witnesses/The Chamber of Commerce).

Plus, in disguise, it’s almost like you got a license to get Dionysianly drunk but somehow forgiven for that extra-marital flirting, that making an ass of yourself in general..

So with that in mind, I thought I’d share with you five innovative, inexpensive, costumes that you can whip together in no time — just in case you get that last minute invitation (I’m still waiting for mine).

Ebola Heath Care Worker

backpack optional

backpack optional

Okay, before you start flailing away in a tizzy of outrage, remember that Halloween’s all about death and mayhem. Admit it, you don’t know anyone who has ever died of, much less contracted Ebola. If it’s okay to dress up like a hobo/homeless person, what’s so wrong about dressing up like an Ebola health worker? I bet more homeless people freeze to death on the streets of Detroit this winter will die of Ebola in the next decade.

Assembling the Costume: Go to Walmart and buy a disposable paint overalls, wading boots, rubber gloves,  goggles, and a breathing mask. Bingo!

Charlestonian

slider-21-1170x683bucksThanks to global warming, we’re no doubt looking at another sweltering Halloween, so the regulation seersucker Charlestonians sport will be not only comfortable, but, let’s face it, slimming. Fellows, a bow tie is a must; ladies, I suggest some sort of hat. Both sexes need to always have a drink in both hands.

Dr, John, the Night Tripper

If you don’t know whom I’m talking about, shame on you. Skip to the next costume. For the cognoscenti, this costume comes in two vintages, the Old Dr. John, which, though fun, is complex. See illustration.

DRJOHN11 drjohn200-341bc5b44a7808bf984e964aac6c68f09c0340a5-s2-c85

I suggest the contemporary Doctor John with pasted-on van dyke (if you’re not sporting one already), purple blazer, green shirt and matching funky fedora, necklaces, etc.

Ladies, don’t let this look be off-limits. It’s easier for you to pull off than a “Gertrude Stein.”

zurich james joyceJames Joyce

Of course, no one is going to know who James Joyce is, but that should make you feel even more superior than these bourgeois losers who decided to invite you only at the last minute..

All you need are glasses, an eye patch, a suit, some sort of a hat, and a cane. Presto.

Hassidic Jew

7e1e17e7ada66b3d8256c61cd03c2416A last minute desperation choice and in as poor taste as dressing up like Aunt Jemima but nevertheless covered by the First Amendment.

Just add a hat and braids to last year’s Hamlet costume.

Here’s a LINK where you can cop a hat with braids.  Better overnight it.

Bang Endings

Barry-White-Soul-SeductionA while back, I posted a piece called “First Impressions,” which celebrated killer opening sentences from various novels like [cue Barry White] this here delicious, obsessive echo chamber of a love song from Mr Baddass himself, Влади́мир Влади́мирович Набо́ков:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

However, as Franz Kafka once told me, “Starten eines Roman ist eine verdammt viel einfacher, als Abschluss einer“* so I decided to lay 5 of my favorite closing lines on you, lines that rat-a-tat-tat the novels’ themes in sound and sense. (BTW, the actual quotes themselves should be read aloud).

*Starting a novel is a helluva lot easier than finishing one.


1. The Sound and the Fury: “The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and façade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.”

If Mr. Faulkner were employed by SparkNotes, he might “summarize” that last sentence like this: A description of Benjy — christened Maury — Compson, idiot grandson of the Confederate General patriarch of that fallen family, the drooping and broken flower an emblem of Ben’s beloved lost sister’s honor, Maury/Benjamin just having gone apeshit because the black tween servant Luster had swung the wagon bearing the family on their ritualistic visit to the grave of General Compson’s alcoholic son Jason Sr. to the left of the monument, provoking sounds of ”horror; shock; agony eyeless, tongueless, just sound,” from the that thirty-three-year-old with the mind-of-a-three-year-old, bellowing until the “only sane” Compson brother, Jason Jr., catches the reins to swing the horse Queenie in the opposite direction, calming Benjy, the sentence itself capsuling the fall of the House of Compson, the disappearance of the Old South, its doomed fetish for tradition.

joyce mainUlysses: O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down Jo me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Riding the rapids of Mrs. Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness as she contemplates her hubby Leopold, heroic cuckold, who has come home again, home again, jiggedy jig, and who lies in bed next to her, his feet facing the headboard and his head facing the footboard, and what can you say to the life-affirming ending of that concluding sentence but yes sir ree bob tail– Yes!

Y’all ready now for a slow dance?

The portrait of Abert Camus by Haeree Choi

The portrait of Abert Camus by Haeree Choi

3. The Stranger: For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.

Mon Dieu, is smoking a cigarette during the absurd ritual of sitting up all night with your mother’s corpse or having casual sex the night after her funeral so wrong? How absurd! These acts by our narrator Meursault seem to shock his all-white Algerian jury more than the offing of a mere native (which in Colonial Africa is tantamount to jaywalking).  You might say that Meursault’s jail sentence has been a Godsend – i.e., you might say that if he didn’t exist in an arid, godless abyss of a universe — but the good news is that in the fleeting ever disappearing now in which he types the concluding paragraph, he has discovered that he and the indifferent universe are one. OM.

4. The Sun Also Rises: A taxi came up the street, the waiter hanging out at the side. I tipped him and told the driver where to drive, and got in beside Brett. The driver started up the street. I settled back. Brett moved close to me. We sat close against each other. I put my arm around her and she rested against me comfortably. It was very hot and bright, and the houses looked sharply white. We turned out onto the Gran Via.

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”

Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”fiesta-sun-also-rises-ernest-hemingway-paperback-cover-art

Who knows if Viagra would have worked on narrator Jake Barnes. Did his war injury render him a gelding or sever his penis? No crisp declarative sentences answer those questions. Certainly, as a man Jake is the opposite of what the vulgar call “dickless.”  Whatever, all I really care about is that mounted policeman raising his baton is an invaluable tool in convincing skeptical students that phallic symbols aren’t perverse illusions engendered by English teachers’ diseased minds .

5. “Midnight Rambler”: I’ll stick my knife right down your throat, baby, and it hurts!

Okay, as Condoleezza Rice’s and Colonel Kurtz’s lovechild might say, “Strictly speaking, ‘Midnight Rambler’ isn’t exactly a novel, but it is a narrative, sort of, and this post is getting too long, and goddammit, that last line of the Stones’ classic absolutely nails the sound and sense of the sort of narrative, and it‘s literally “killer”, so fuck you and your rigid mind-forged manacles.”  

Let_it_Bleed