Friday, November 14, 2014

The Isolato's Desperation

The isolato is a literary character separated from other people, mostly spiritually and frequently physically.  This person is familiar to readers of what has become known as literary fiction (a bemusing phrase, I think), especially by American male authors.  In fact, much of famous American literature is rife with these characters, some tragic-comic, Huck Finn, and some tragic, Ishmael in Melville's Moby Dick.  More (much more) on Ishmael later.

I'm thinking about this today because I stumbled upon a recent blog post in Esquire online.  The author traces the increase in male American separation from other male friends and acquaintances, which ironically parallels an increase in the white male "bro" meme, itself co-opted from a singularly African-American male usage during the 1970s.  The author, however, is less interested in tracing the linguistic trails of the term so much as he is interested in discussing what he contends is the growing phenomenon of American male aloneness (distinguished from loneliness, an entirely different signifier).

The author compares the male experience to the female experience and focuses on the evidence that individual females, whether as a result of nature or nurture, have a far greater propensity to engage with or gather among other females, especially during times of personal stress.  He provides statistics for both males and females that demonstrate that the more stress the females experience, the more they are drawn toward other females, whereas the males do the opposite—the more stress they experience, the more they withdraw into their personal selves, often to the point of self-destruction of one sort or another.

And so we have the male isolato, the literary figure driven to seek relief from a sense of suffering that cannot be resolved by immersing himself in a community of fellow males, but rather turns inward, most often moving toward the very source of the suffering he seeks refuge from.

Let's consider Melville's Ishmael.  He is a curious person, indeed.  As soon as he utters his first three words, we know he is not a regular guy, at least not by our perceived notions of "regular."  Why, for example, this announced subterfuge, "Call me Ishmael"?   That is, he tells us he is someone other than the person he wants us to think of him as.  Many people overlook this in Ishmael, and yet it sets up the entire dramatic dynamic of the story.  In a sense he plays us; call me Ishmael, if you care to listen to me.  He deliberately distances himself from us.  Curious indeed.

Then, he goes on to detail something about himself, which is in fact a set up for why he's about to go to sea, an irrational rationale, so to speak, as well as the profound irony of his story.

"Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

That is to say, when I'm feeling destitute in spirit, associating with all things funereal and contemplating suicide, I think it's best that I join a crew aboard a whaling ship.  Clearly, our storyteller, apart from wanting us to accept his charade, wants us to trust someone who has lost his trust and faith in his fellow human beings in the society from which he desperately seeks refuge.

Critics have made much of the crew as a microcosm of humanity.  And yet few will step back and see that Ishmael adapts to this crew precisely because they are not of the humanity he belongs to.  And the more he seeks to comprehend their customs and mores the less he understands.  The very spiritual salve Ishmael sought for his destitute soul becomes an intense nightmare, an operatic drama of good and evil—if we accept all of Ahab's preaching and Queequeq's mystique.  

The pathetic irony of Ishmael's story is that when he resurfaces (literally), the sole survivor of Ahab's madness, he is no more aware of the meaning of what he has experienced than he was of the mystery of life on land that drove him into his isolation in the first place.  He is not even as aware as Huck Finn is at the end of his story.  Huck knows adults will try to "sivilize" him, but he also knows now that he is confident and competent enough to "light out for the territory."  Ishamel has no such self-assurance.  We can only conclude that he will need to return ashore and most likely resume feeling the drizzly November in his soul.  He becomes as self-pityingly saccharine as the narrator in Gilbert O'Sullivan's 1972 "Alone Again Naturally."  One wonders if that might have been the anthem of some of the men's groups that arose during that period (just wondering).

Like so many of Melville's alone isolatos, the lawyer/narrator of "Bartleby, the Scrivener" is another classic in this form; like Ishmael's story his story functions as an apologia for his aloneness, for his inability to empathetically engage with his male counterparts in a resourceful community.  Their isolation, like a cocoon, simultaneously keeps them protected from the risk of sharing as well as masking their true self.

Likewise, this then is the contemporary mask or cover of the "bro" meme and all its morphs—bromance, broflick, etc.  It provides cover for the aloneness and isolation of being male, a  characteristic that has been very much a part of our culture for a very long time.  I haven't even mentioned Natty Bumppo or Holden Caulfield...yet!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

A Final Act of Courage

The primary existential purpose of an empire is to control and expand its hegemony.  At all costs.  Especially human costs.

The purpose of Veterans Day is to laud those who have served that existential purpose of the United States empire over the past 60 years.  But some of those who have served are unable to bask in the laudatory rhetoric.  Some, actually far too many, emotionally, mentally and physically are neglected to atrophy toward an early death.

Yesterday, one of them, in a final act of courage, spoke truth to the power centers of our empire.  Tomas Young, in his letter to Dick Cheney and George W. Bush, calls them and their enablers out to ask for forgiveness.  In his duress, he is far more charitable than our empire ever was to him or his fellow vets.  May he and they rest in last.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Assume A Common Goal?

As I read a review of Bob Herbert's Losing Our Way, a phrase the reviewer, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, used struck hard enough to force me to stop and think about it.  She summarizes Herbert's perspective as being from a time of social cohesion.  She writes:

"America...assumed a common goal and treated the challenges facing its individual citizens as collective priorities we could solve."

She cites Herbert's call to the citizenry to invest "in what we've catastrophically undervalued: our bridges and highways and tunnels, our public schools, our fellow citizens." (emphasis added)

In addition, apparently Herbert shrugs at America's dark shibboleth, its "exceptionalism."  LeBlanc indicates that Herbert is "not interested in exceptionalism mainly because it's a useless frame when you are concerned with the majority.  Winning against the odds ignores the fact that most people are losing."

Full disclosure:  I have not read the book, but this is my second witness to its workings (the other an interview on Moyers and Company)  With that in mind, so much of what seems to be in the book and what Herbert talks about connects with what troubles me almost on a daily basis.  Namely, how did our society move so far off its path of getting done those critical things that make any society, but especially our so-called democracy, function to undergird its people so they can contribute to the fruition of their lives as well as the lives of their neighbors?  The pathetic irony, of course, is that the way back to our path is pragmatically simple: Think of America as everyone's place, not as a store house of particled niches.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Our Soma, Our Pathos

Could it be?  Is there a connection between the slowly emerging acceptance of legalizing marijuana and the acceptance of the malaise and drift engulfing our notions of what governance means?  I'm probably not smart enough or sufficiently motivated to dig into things to find the answer.  But I do try to pay attention to the large and small things that represent significant change in how we "Americans" exercise self-perception.

We see in the post-Midterm Election 2014 people digging for reasons, posturing and just plain blathering a subtext that seems to be asking, How did the electorate move from the roaring approval of 2008's audacity of hope to the "meh" of 2014?  I think the so-called electorate (two thirds of whom stayed home) voiced a "meh" in order to communicate something quite serious—that the DC scrim (capitol, White House, Supreme Court, etc.) serves to mask what actually controls or "serves" the interests of the electorate.  In short, the electorate has no interest in American governance and has voiced this in this cynical game so beloved by media and its sponsors—that elections are important to the future of the United States.  What the electorate has finally come to realize is that what determines the future course of their lives has nothing to do with governance and everything to do with the power centers of wealth. This "meh" is a whimpering utterance, an expression of impotence transmitted through what was once considered a potent mechanism—the ballot.

But people must continue living, and so they plod along.  And the wise people in the power centers of wealth have developed ways to accommodate the malaise and drift of the "meh."  Various forms of entertainment media and its sponsors have provided myriad outlets for surcease of our "meh."  No need to list these, because we are so swamped by them that we consider them to be essentially who we are—dewy-eyed drones of freedom shackled to our subservience to the power centers of wealth.

Something new, however, is creeping into our lives that just might make a slight change in our perception of things.  You probably noticed that Alaska voted to legalize marijuana.  That's the fourth state to sanction legalization, and 15 others have said yes to medical marijuana.  Now, another question—Why bring this specific item into this broad perspective on our drifting malaise of a society?  I think the oxymoronic voting results indicate the anger of the electorate who wanted their views recognized.  Of course, no one is actually recognizing their views, because the people responsible for that (the pollsters, researchers, etc.) are not asking the right questions.  The electorate is angry but not at anyone in particular.  They are angry about their sense of impotence.  If they lived in another kind of society, where if one voted for change, one had a reasonable expectation that someone would at least consider the vote had some viability.   But we live in our society.  Voting as a means of governance has become another form of media entertainment, which leaves us empty at its end.

As I was considering these ideas about what's happened to our sense of governance, I couldn't help thinking of soma, the drug provided by the power centers in Brave New World to quell the anxieties of the citizenry, to keep them somnolent, so to speak.  The gradual but relentless acceptance of marijuana as a mainstream "recreational" drug just might be a way for us to relax and "be happy."  Call it a systemic, neurological regimen.  A cynic might even say that the monetary support for the legislation is coming from the power centers of wealth.  After our original Revolution (which actually wasn't but was rather a rebellion), our history has been marked mostly by our non-revolutionary, civil acquiescence (the Civil War, another rebellion proves the point about our being a revolution averse culture; the end of slavery actually created the beginning of the acceptance of mega capitalism.).   We have mostly accepted the con that the American Dream is real—even though it's a dream! (Please pause and think about that.)  It's our longest lasting shibboleth (besides the virtues integral to capitalism)

Being revolution averse, however, does not mean we do not think change is necessary.  When people lose confidence in their government and see that corruption is acceptable and that lawmakers have become lawbreakers, they can get restless and just might take Jefferson's advice about changing that government.  And the power centers of wealth just can't have that—but they can't appear to be suppressing or oppressing.  So they provide these restless souls with their palliative, their soma and make it not only legal but necessary.   When people can get stoned on a regular basis without worrying about social opprobrium, the power centers of wealth can do pretty much what pleases them.  And that's pretty much what's been going on.  Except up to now, the getting stoned was without the chemical soma; our somahas been our media...up to now.

This, of course, is a dystopian view.  But think about it.  Would you have thought that the United States could ever move along its path and ignore a dysfunctional government?   If you think this midterm election has provided a resolution of that dysfunction, you are mistaken.  Obama is now relieved that he will not need to get into the haggling and dealing that are all earmarks of a worthy president.  He will play nice with the Congress and fall back into his cocoon, diddling here and there with his executive options and thumbing his nose at the impeachment enraged idiots in the opposition.  The Congress will set about its task of dismantling government, making certain, however, that it does nothing to interfere with the power centers of wealth.  The hoi polloi of "meh" will happily get stoned, one way or the other, kick back and watch how dysfunction has become the new normal.  And we will believe fervently that we are happy.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Query: Farther & Further: Whither Goest?

Because I spent my adult life trying to explain the vagaries of American English language usage, when these vagaries become annoyingly uncertain, I want to shout.  Consider this my shout.

If, as the standard contemporary dictionaries agree, that "further" and "farther" can each be used to designate both measurable distance and immeasurable degree, then why do we keep the alternate—in this case, "farther."

 If you listen and read carefully, you will notice that conventional usage these days, indicates that "further" suffices for both.   This means that "farther" is relegated to secondary usage status, at best,  familiar to old sticklers like me.  We sticklers are left to wonder why we keep the charade alive for "farther" if no one feels compelled to use it?

Liberal etymologists and grammarians will tsk-tsk the sticklers, wondering why they get so upset.

My response to their wondering is that if you look at the links between the dilution of a language and the nuanced crumbling of its native society you can become a bit alarmed.

Has anyone come across an Italian speaking or writing Latin lately?  How about ancient Greek?  And what happened to the primacy of the Greek culture?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

RIP: Galway Kinnell

He died this week.  And he never lost faith in his role.  As the NYTimes obituary tells us, "he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness. 'To me,' he said, 'poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.'"

He also said that poets should "write verses that...could be understood without a graduate degree."  And that is why I think we should pause and appreciate what he did.  He rekindled  an American poetic experience that flares up only occasionally among American poets during the 20th and 21st centuries.   This is also why you won't find Kinnell in many anthologies used in high schools and colleges.   His poetry is not academic, not an amalgam of literary allusions and historical images.  His poetry is highly sensory, sensual and personal.  In his focusing on daily life, he makes us aware of how exquisite and frightening it can be.

Like the few others of his kind—Whitman, Hart Crane, Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich—he belongs to no school, but rather, as he said, he stands alone, bearing witness.  And I think we would be improved by listening to his voice, not only because it sounds familiar, but also because it can remind us of how intrinsically valuable each of us is, something easily drowned out in the cacophony of our mediated lives.

Some of my favorite Galway Kinnell poems are herehere here and here

And finally, 
"Blackberry Eating"

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry -- eating in late September.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Language and Its Uncanny Ways

In this past weekend's NYTimes "Book Review," as I read a review of a book on the history of American political corruption, I suddenly became aware of something I hadn't realized all these long years dealing with language.  I suppose one might call it a declension experience, but I think it has more to do with the way we bastardize language as we stumble through disconcerting and disastrous times.  We want a word to fit our subjective purpose, and, even though it doesn't actually fit, we mangle and maul it so that it might fit, we hope, that is, depending on the reader, we hope.

So there I was, reading along in the 19th century syntax and semantics of a Supreme Court justice's 1854 opinion on lobbyists, their contracts and how they defile and debase democracy.  He wrote about lobbyists, "Speculators in legislation, public and private, a compact corps of  venal solicitors, vending their secret influences will infest the capital of the Union and of every state, till corruption shall become the normal condition of the body politic."  (emphasis added, and he goes on to associate this corruption with the fall of Rome by using a Latin phrase.)

What shocked me was that I had never made the obvious bond between venal/venality and vending/vendor.  This led me to my handy Online Etymology Dictionary, where I discovered how the closeness in meaning had come to be a bit distanced.  Indeed, "venal" and "venality" in 1650 had all the salacious associations that we think of today, and its association with "vending" or "vendor" had a secondary usage.

The point made in the article and in the Justice's statement was that political corruption is motivated by venality, and is executed by vending.  The venality is about power and money, and the vending is about the sale of integrity.  We assume that vending and the vendor have the consumer's interests and welfare at heart, and the only time we even consider accusing them of venality is if it is exposed.

The sad part of my personal enlightenment and its connection to the uncanniness of language is that I immediately became aware of how much we take corruption for granted in our political culture.  How much politicians expect us to wink and nod at the pay-offs and pay-backs that are the key strokes of governance.  I suppose we accept that as the cost of being Americans.