Early Morning & “The Evil Empire”
February 26, 2016
"Lost Generation", A Moveable Feast, biography, Book Review, Eraserhead, Ernest Hemingway, Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Garden of Eden, Gertrude Stein, Gore Vidal, James Joyce, Kevin Birmingham, Leley M.M. Blume, Literature, masculinity, memoir, Novel, Palimpsest, Paris, Sylvia Beach, T.S. Eliot, The "Lost" Generation, The Great Gatsby, The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, The Old Man and the Sea, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Sun Also Rises, Ulysses, World War I, Writers, Writing
So, what I told you was true… from a certain point of view.
–Obi-Wan, Return of the Jedi
Memoirs can be damned frustrating, mostly because they avoid outright classification. There’s some impulse to distrust the memoir, because it’s not objective like the biography, likewise there is even more distrust than the kind one saves for autobiographies, for even though these books are largely one sided affairs there is still some level of objective aesthetic goals. This is all just a fancy-pants way of saying that you can’t trust memoirs completely because the writers writing them are remembering impressions and feelings from events in their life rather than trying to write out a purely factual narrative of what was going on in their lives.
A good example of this is when Gore Vidal in an interview on Charlie Rose once remarked on his own memoir Palimpsest, which for the record is a term for a manuscript which original writing has been effaced or scrubbed out for later and newer writing leaving only traces of the original, that his book wasn’t an autobiography because of the way memory works. He gives the example that when you break your leg when you’re younger and look back on the experience at a later age you don’t remember the actual trauma, you just remember your earliest remembering of the trauma and so the writing becomes like a palimpsest stacking upon itself. This idea is intriguing when considering human memory, and I’m tempted to think of the explanation for the foundation of reality where all of existence is really just a disk resting on the back of a turtle which is standing on another turtle’s back till it’s “turtles all the way down,” but that would be getting rather poetic and cosmological and since my focus in this essay is Ernest Hemingway, poetics really isn’t all that necessary.
In fact I’m sure Hemingway would say “Bull to that” and tell me to shoot straighter.
I tried once to read A Moveable Feast when I was still in my Hemingway phase. It was a phase I think every young man who wants to become a writer goes through at some point, because Hemingway commands such respect, or disrespect, and the man has an aura of firm masculinity that I think beckons the young men who are trying to figure out who they want to be as men. You’re told by teachers and Hemingway afficiando’s, and your conservative uncle at Thanksgiving, that Hemingway was a man’s-man, and one of the last “great writers.” For the record I have yet to read anything that gives the model of this species known as “great writers” and have come to the conclusion that they’re like blue whales or the movie Eraserhead. You know it when you see it.
When I was younger I was told that Hemingway was great and so I read him thinking that if I read enough of his “great” prose then maybe I would become great.
Well, I read it. I read The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, a few of the Nick Stories, the Garden of Eden, and started For Whom the Bell Tolls. And here I am. Greatness isn’t exactly what happened. Really I’m just a guy who read Hemingway when he could have been talking to girls. Eventually Hemingway’s luster faded and I moved to Stephen King who promised me swear words, sex, monsters, and average everyday people encountering the supernatural.
A Moveable Feast has always beckoned though and so when I had the chance between starting my first teaching job and graduating with my masters I sat down and read about his days in Paris. The memoir is in fact just a small moment of Hemingway’s life, and was written long after he had moved from Paris and had become the writer he became. In 1956 Hemingway was bouncing between several manuscripts and during that time of creative shoots and ladders he managed to retrieve two chests he had had stored in the basement of Hotel Ritz Paris. Both chests contained notebooks which themselves contained notes about the period of 1928 when Hemingway was a young man, newly married (to his first wife, let’s be clear), and working on the manuscript that would become his first novel The Sun Also Rises. During this time Hemingway encountered people who would, in their own right, alter the world through their writing and that isn’t poetics on my part. Again the little Hemingway on my shoulder is jabbing me with his pitchfork whenever I try to be pretty in my writing. In the book Hemingway meets and comes to develop friendships with Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Silvia Beach and Adreienne Monier, and two little unknown people called Francis Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
The little Hemingway poked me again for that last one.
I came to the conclusion, while reading it, that A Moveable Feast was the most enjoyable Hemingway book that I had ever read, but that pleasure came after years away from the man. Hemingway, and it’s easy to forget this because of the miasma of chauvinism that surrounds his work, is a damn fine writer and can create beautiful moments that resonate because of their simple quality. A Moveable Feast isn’t just a long series of musings about the power of creativity, it’s about just meeting the odd and wonderful people who were making the art that helped shape the creative literary stage of the 20th Century.
Part of that company were two women who owned a small bookshop called Shakespeare and Company, and while they themselves did not achieve literary greatness, they at least helped the ones who would. Early in the book Hemingway discusses, visiting the bookshop:
I was very shy when I first went into the bookshop and I did not have enough money on me to join the rental library. She told me I could pay the deposit anytime I had the money and made me out a card and said I could take as many books as I wished. (35)
For the record “she” is Sylvia Beach, the woman who would eventually publish James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. Hemingway continues this initial encounter with a bit of dialogue which only further demonstrates this woman’s selflessness
“You won’t be back very soon if you read all that,” Sylvia said.
“I’ll be back to Pay,” I said. “I have some money in thee flat.”
“I didn’t mean that,” she said. “You pay whenever it’s convenient.”
“When does Joyce come in?”
“If he comes in, it’s usually very late in the afternoon,” she said. “Haven’t you ever seen him?”
“We’ve seen him at Michaud’s eating with his family,” I said. “But it’s not polite to look at people when they are eating, and Michaud’s is expensive.” (36)
At the start this exchange does not seem terribly important, but I would argue that in fact that it is. The simplicity of the exchange reveals what kind of life Hemingway was living in Paris at the time, and the casual way he asks about Joyce while remarking about the proprieties of eating out only furthers this sensation. I’ve written before about the aura that surrounds authors and writers in culture, and so when A Moveable Feast tries to deconstruct that aura, showing the writers and artists of the day as a group of struggling, hungry people it goes a long way in deconstructing that myth. There is I think a little romanticism going on in this book, and probably in this exchange, but reading it I got the sense of Hemingway as a young man who’s looking forward and looking to a life that could be his.
Paris becomes a creative landscape where a great number of people are trying to build the foundations of a great literary career. This especially becomes apparent when Hemingway briefly discusses his relationship with Ezra Pound:
Ezra was the most generous writer I have ever known and the most disinterested. He helped poets, painters, sculptors, and prose writers that he believed in and he would help anyone whether he believed in them or not if they were in trouble. He worried about everyone and in time when I first knew him he was most worried about T.S. Eliot who, Ezra told me, had to work in a bank in London and so insufficient time and bad hours to function as a poet. (110)
Pound is the poet who has suffered in recent times because his Anti-Semitism has been made more and more apparent. You’ll note that I’m only furthering this problem by making that my first point about the man. As always when dealing with great artists who have shitty-personal opinions (whether it be John Wayne’s Racism or Christopher Hitchens’s chauvinism) I’ll always defend the art first. If I can at least make one defense for the man, Hemingway certainly demonstrates that Pound was a man who cared deeply for art and artists. I suspect every creative community has a figure like this, the successful father-mother artist who watches out for the aspiring younger crowd desperate to achieve some kind of success. I’ve experienced some element of this character when I was part of a creative writing class, and I understand the importance of having such a person near you. While on one level there is a competition to “out-art” the other person at the same time there is a parental dynamic where you also don’t want to disappoint them.
Pound was not the only guardian and mentor Hemingway had in Paris for Gertrude Stein, a novelist and art collector, helped him, as well as the other writers of his generation, establish their creative locus. Early in the book Hemingway visits Stein in her house and she tells him plainly:
“That’s what you are. That what you all are,” Miss Stein said. “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”
“Really” I said.
“You are,” she insisted. “You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death….” (29)
Now before I get to the long lasting social significance of that line I should note that Hemingway later explains part of that problem when he addresses the fact that he wasn’t eating much at the time. He writes,
When you are twenty-five and are a natural heavyweight, missing a meal makes you very hungry. But it also sharpens all your perceptions, and I found that many of the people I wrote about had very strong appetites and a great taste and desire for food, and most of them were looking forward to having a drink. (101)
On another side note this partially explains the sensation of reading Hemingway’s first novel The Sun Also Rises because the book is largely nothing but people drinking, eating, fishing, eating, drinking, fishing, and eating some more. For that reason alone A Moveable Feast Goes a long way in validating much of Hemingway’s work, or at least his early books when that hunger was both literal and metaphorical.
But if I can return to Stein’s comments it’s worth noting how crucial that line was for generations of scholars and general fans of the ex-patriot American writers. Stein’s dismissal can at first appear to be nothing more than the typical generational disagreements which form between people. The Baby-Boomers complain about Millennials lack of [X] while Millennials complain about Baby Boomers wrecking the [Y] and the passive aggressive shit-fit continues. Moving past this obviousness however Hemingway I think isn’t just recording this moment to make Stein look like a grumpy woman who sees her artistic generational influence passing on, rather, at this moment, Stein is helping Hemingway as best she can.
The phrase “Lost Generation” came about largely because Hemingway used it as an epigraph to The Sun Also Rises, and the term stuck as generations of historians and literary theorists looked at the writing and general atmosphere of the time and realized that it worked as a functional classification. That’s all just a fancy-pants way of saying that World War I fucked Hemingway’s generation hard and left them wondering what anything, or everything, really meant.
It was in this atmosphere that Hemingway would meet one of the most important writers of his age: F. Scott Fitzgerald. And reading Hemingway describe the man after a while I came to the conclusion that there was no creature so pathetic as F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I had taken his pulse, which was seventy-two, and had felt his forehead, which was cool. I had listened to his chest and had him breathe deeply, and his chest sounded alright.
“Look Scott,” I said. “You’re perfectly O.K. If you want to do the best thing to keep from catching cold, just stay in bed and I’ll order us each a lemonade and a whiskey and you take an aspirin with yours and you’ll feel fine and won’t even get a cold in your head.”
“Those old wives’ remedies,” Scott said.
“You haven’t any temperature. How the hell are you going to have congestion of the lungs without a temperature?”
“Don’t swear at me,” Scott said. “How do you know I haven’t a temperature?”
“Your pulse is normal and you haven’t any fever to the touch.”
“To the touch,” Scott said bitterly. “If you’re a real friend get me a thermometer.”
“I’m in my pajamas.”
Send for one.” (165).
I deliberated on this quote before using it because some part of me wanted to be fair to Scott Fitzgerald, especially since several long chapters are dedicated to Hemingway describing their friendship and the various events these men experienced alongside one another. But honestly this is perhaps the best quote upon reflection because, as Hemingway describes the man, Fitzgerald becomes a whiney little tool who doesn’t appreciate his friends or else his own talents. This, of course, is everything. Hemingway beat Fitzgerald out in the end, not only by living longer, but also eventually in terms of critical recognition. The Great Gatsby was largely ignored during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, while Hemingway’s work achieved great notoriety eventually earning him a Nobel Prize. Because of this Hemingway gets to write the record of their relationship and so repeatedly during A Moveable Feast, Fitzgerald appears to be nothing more than sickly whiner who doesn’t appreciate the gift he has.
While I’m sure some would take this as an opportunity to explore Hemingway’s possible fear of failure, I prefer focusing on the work as an exploration of writing. Hemingway is writing a book about the people he met in Paris and how those people helped shape those experiences into the writing that would bring him tremendous success.
As a book A Moveable Feast isn’t just Hemingway taking the opportunity to re-write who was and wasn’t nice to him in Paris, instead it’s akin to Gore Vidal’s memoir Palimpsest where Hemingway is reliving the memory of memories while figuring out how he has become the writer he is. And that to me is the far more important relevance of reading this document. Even if the reader does not like Hemingway they cannot, and should not, underestimate the man’s influence upon prose and literature.
I read A Moveable Feast because at one point I went through a Hemingway Phase and wanted to see if Hemingway still had the aura that he originally had for me. While it wasn’t the same, I still felt, while reading, that I was observing an older writer writing his past and observing his own self in relation to others.
And so another small quote about Fitzgerald is necessary. Before Fitzgerald succumbs to his psychosomatic illness he is driving with Hemingway:
I was enthusiastic about the trip. I would have the company of an older and successful writer, and in the time we would have to talk in the car I would certainly learn much that it would be useful to know. It is strange now to remember thinking of Scott as an older writer, but at the time, since I had not yet read The Great Gatsby, I thought of him as a much older writer. (153).
The shift that takes place is everything. A Moveable Feast is written in small exchanges between people, and as the reader observes these people they also observe Hemingway observing himself. This style of writing is what good memoirs, great memoirs, should do. Rather than cold autobiography, which is almost always so much about “settling the score,” the memoir allows a writer a little more breathing room to just reflect on a few experiences and try to understand what they have come to mean to them personally. When Hemingway pauses to reflect on the fact that he once looked up to Scott Fitzgerald, a man he would eventually come to, not despise, but pity at least, there’s a great observable and human growth.
In my own life I’ve seen men and women who I looked up to as if they were gods, but as I’ve grown and come to know them better they’ve since fallen from the pedestal. This is sometimes a tragedy (often in the case of father figures), but often it’s simply part of growing older and recognizing that people are people and trying to paint them as anything else is silly and asanine.
The final impression then I guess is that reading A Moveable Feast is a great book because it affords the reader more than a chance to see Hemingway as a young writer who was about to publish A Sun Also Rises and begin an exceptional literary career, it’s the opportunity to see a great author as a young human being who was still learning, observing, and figuring out what life was. Even if the reader is not a fan of Hemingway’s creative work I do believe they would find a satisfaction in reading his memoir because it might afford them the chance to wonder about their own life, and question some of the experiences they’ve had or known. Life is about such small moments, when we allow ourselves to look back and realize so-and-so really was an asshole rather than a brilliant genius, and whats-her-name could have been great if she had just dumped so-and-so, and my god F. Scott Fitzgerald was such a d-bag and a whiner and I’m not just saying that because he stole my girlfriend.
He did but that’s not the point.
The point is A Moveable Feast is a great work of art, and a wonderful reminder of the miracle of growth. Time makes fools of those people we were and used to be, but in those recollections of people there’s still a burning truth of your own humanity. Those memories of memories are worth keeping, if only for the chance to figure out where you’ve come from and what was possible.
I found the Gore Vidal/Charlie Rose interview, which is actually a memorium for the life and work of Gore Vidal. You can find the man’s remarks about memoirs at about 7 minutes 30 seconds into the actual video, or about that range.
I originally intended to provide a few quotes from these books, because they deal with Paris during the time when Hemingway was writing, but I didn’t get around to them. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kenneth Birmingham is wonderful and Hemingway appears quite often throughout the work (he smuggled copies of Ulysses into America). Another great book which was just released is Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M.M. Blume.
I mention these books because, as I noted several times throughout the essay, Hemingway is writing from his own perspective and as he writes in the Preface of A Moveable Feast:
For reasons sufficient to the writer, many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book. Some were secrets and some were known by everyone and everyone has written about them and will doubtless write more. (ix).
As such, it might be a good idea to get an outsider’s opinion if you’re looking for a more objective view of the writer’s community in Paris during the 1920s.
My good friend who often writes to me and sends me bits of his poetry was in a rather sour mood several months back, and during this malaise of spirit he felt a burst of creativity that manifested in a rather pathetic Facebook post. He decided to write it down and send it to me, hopeful that I would publish his work. Given the fact no one else will publish it, and because I’m generally in favor of people having some kind of outlet, and because no one I know ever seriously considers my offer to publish their work on this site, I decided to give my friend’s work a chance. Given the fact that I am also trying to find a publisher for my work, I can sympathize. So here it is, my friend’s brief reflective poem on a prophecy concerning the fate of an unfortunate writer.
–Joshua Jammer Smith
Here I am. Ink on my fingertips. Alkaline has chalked crystals on the inside of my stomach. I sat on the corner of Paluxy and Main, holding my book in my hands. Holding it out to any that would pass me by. As my friends and gods passed me by, laughing in their revelry’s they looked to me for a moment. Light reflected on their tortoise shell glasses. Neglected the empty frames.
–Please, I know it’s-.
–Jesus man what happened to you?
My critic, who was once my best friend, passed me by, and I fell back upon the concrete that held me. Begrudgingly it supported my imploding form. Pages fell from my hands. Leaves of empty grass fell through my fingertips. Spirit left. Alkaline bit at me more.
And my pages and words scattered back into the stardust of mediocrity. Not even the eyes of T.J. Eckleberg would bear my failure, and I passed this earth wanting for just—.
9/9/2016, 11:30 p.m.
My friend is a bit of a drama queen, so please forgive his mawkishness.
For the record my friend has, since writing this dreary poem, published two works, so, yeah, he needs to lighten up.
American Gods, Ananssi Boys, Art, Book Review, Daytripper, Fabio Moon, Gabriel Ba, graphic novel, How To Talk to Girls At Parties, masculinity, myth, Neil Gaiman, Neil Gaiman's Guide to Getting Girls to Like You, Novel, Sandman, Science, science fiction, Sexuality, Short Story, speculative fiction, Take a chance and ask that girl to dance you won't regret it, teenage boys, The Doll's House, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
It’s a lesson I’m not sure if I’ve learned yet, which might explain why I bought the book. It’s not that I have problems talking to women, I’m married so obviously I have some skill (though my wife might say otherwise to spite me) it’s just that I never really learned how you actually talk to girls when you’re at a party. Because of this I figured I would learn from Neil Gaiman how exactly you do this, and instead I got a rather odd, wonderful, beautiful book about a boy who meets goddesses, suns, and universes.
Amazon is the ultimate temptation for me, and minutes, sometimes hours, that should be spent reading or writing are instead spent following the trails of recommendations of books I was just looking at. The Sandman: The Doll’s House leads to the graphic novelization of The Graveyard Book which leads to American Gods which leads to Anansi Boys which leads to Coraline which leads to Endless Nights which leads eventually to an odd book with three beautiful women on the cover (more about them later) beneath the title How to Talk to Girls at Parties. As I said, wrote, before, I wasn’t a social creature growing up, and the only reason I acquired any confidence was because I had to get out of my shell for a job, also I got a girlfriend that tends to help. Still despite when I was looking at the cover I had an odd moment of reincarnation when I began to recognize I had become a teenage boy again. Not only that, one of my favorite authors had written a guide for me so that, should it occur, if I was invited to a party I could now just follow a guide.
I bought the book and read it mystified by the experience because it was nothing of what I thought it was.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties is a story about a young teenage boy named Enn who is dragged to a party by his friend Vic. Enn is the kind of boy that is obviously just the younger avatar version of the writer, or else the every-man nerd that eventually grows up and becomes an accomplished author who writes about every-man nerds growing up to become accomplished authors. I recognize that that sounds like I’m being bitter and that the work is good but you misunderstand me, I write out of hope. If Neil Gaiman was the nerdy loser who got lucky there’s still a chance for me. Enn and Vic arrive at a house that isn’t the party they’re going to, but when the door opens a beautiful girl answers the door, and when she invites them inside the party is nothing but beautiful women. Vic is the go-to suave, confident jock who immediately hits it off with one of the girls and Enn is left to himself wandering through the house where he meets and “talks” to three women who, while they talk, speak as if they aren’t really women, or human for that matter. The exact word one of the girls uses is “tourist.” As the book goes on it’s clear that these women are either aliens, goddesses, or even universes made manifest into human form. Enn eventually talks to one and begins to kiss her, realizing that the girl is using him as a conduit so that her “story” will live on when Vic grabs him and tells him they have to leave. The girl he was going to sleep with glares after them, her head become an exploding sun, and as soon as they’re out of the house it’s clear that Vic became terrified once it was clear that the girl was using him and not the other way around. As for Enn, he forgets the “poem” almost as soon as they leave the house, and as they walk away it disappears slowly becoming as fleeting as music.
This plot description is important because anyone who buys the book thinking what I thought originally should know what they’re really buying, and while this isn’t just a lecture series by Gaiman (“Neil Gaiman’s Guide to Scoring Babes” is currently in development as a Great Courses series by the way) by the end the book had taught me exactly how to talk to girls.
You don’t talk, you just listen.
In hindsight I wish someone had just told me that when I was thirteen that this is the way you talk to girls, it would have made high school a far easier experience than it was, but we all must fight through the slough of despond that is puberty and emerge victorious. Part of that struggle is finding your own path through it.**
Most, if not all, of Gaiman’s books on some level tackle the nature of stories and narratives, and you could make the argument that his entire creative ethos is simply an effort to tell one really long story about stories period. Whether it’s the stories of myth in American Gods, the stories of old houses and children who find themselves caught in them in Coraline, or whether it’s the very story of the narrative existence in his Sandman series, Gaiman’s creative writing, and even his non-fiction, all seem dedicated to telling, unravelling, and then recreating the structure of narratives period while telling amazing stories.
At this point my reader will interrupt and ask what’s so damn special about How to Talk to Girls at Parties then? If Gaiman isn’t bringing anything new to the table, why bother with the book at all? And what if I already know how to talk to girls at parties, what then smarty-pants?
To begin with let’s avoid the name calling. Greg.
Second there are at least two significant reasons for reading this slim graphic novel and the first is Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon. My regular reader may recognize those names, and if you have never read any of my work you still might have heard about them. Moon and Ba are the creative team behind the book Daytripper, a graphic novel which has won several Eisner awards (basically the Oscars of graphic novels) and a wonderful story about a man who wants to be a writer. Apart from the spectacular writing of Daytripper the lingering impression of the book is art which, and I know I’ve used this word several times already but it’s the best word that works, is simply beautiful. Daytripper is illustrated and colored with the stuff of dreams, and while reading that book I was struck by the thought that such work couldn’t possibly be replicated, I found myself fortunately corrected in How To Talk to Girls at Parties.
Gaiman’s words make the Moon and Ba’s colors, lines, and girls become some of the most radiant images collected into one small book. As Enn travels from room to room listening to the three women tell their story I felt as if I had left the world I knew, and as the women told their story I carried their words, and beings, long after I had closed the book. Ba and Moon are what helps make the book what it is, because their colors make each woman unique, and quite possibly the most beautiful women in comics I have ever seen.
As for my second response to my contester I would remind my reader that even if Gaiman is continuing his process of anthropomorphizing stories, gods, feelings, emotions, or non-living beings like stars or the internet, this is no reason not to read his work. In fact, given the fact that it’s Neil Gaiman this should only provide more impetus to actually read it. Gaiman is a writer who does not half-ass his reader, and even in his most esoteric (Sandman Overture was about something, I’m still working on not drooling while staring at the art) he manages to write characters and settings, and events into being that feel true. Normal human beings with their own lives, who are trying to figure out the oddity of mundane reality become swept up by supernatural events or creatures. Ultimately his characters are forever impacted by these experiences, and while most forget the sights and wonders the way a person might immediately lose a dream when they awake, they still feel the experience long after. His prose is where this wonder takes place, and as he wraps his reader in their dream he leaves the lasting impression.
Looking at the exchange between Enn and the last girl, a Grecian red-head named Triolet, the reader hears her story and is carried away to a different realm:
“We knew that it would be soon over. We knew…so we put it all into a poem…to tell the universe who we were and why we were here and what we said and did and thought and dreamed and yearned for. We wrapped our dreams in words and patterned the words so that they would live forever, unforgettable. Then we sent the poem as a pattern of flux, to wait in the heart of a star, beaming out its message in pulses and bursts and fuzzes across the electromagnetic spectrum, until the time when, on worlds a thousand sun systems distant, the pattern could be decoded and read, and it would become a poem once again.” (43-45)
If I can break the fourth wall for a moment, while transcribing this passage I have a video playing titled “underwater whale songs.” Humpbacks and the sound of the ever roaring waves echoing through the infinite abyss of the ocean just seemed to make the words feel real.
Aside aside, moving on.
This small exchange, rendered magnificently by Moon and Ba, is the typical anthropomorphizing that Gaiman fans are used to, but looking deeper into the passage I realized at this moment that Gaiman had achieved a miracle for blending science fiction with myth. Myth as a term has fallen on hard times, and shows like Mythbusters have only perpetuated this tragedy (and it is a tragedy because the show is great and a wonderful way for people to become interested in science), but at its core myth is about explaining reality through narrative rather than empirical means. Triolet may be a goddess, or a star, or an alien, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because at this moment what matters is that she’s telling the story of her people, what they used to be and were and what they believed. The act of speaking to Enn, and having him listen, is in essence recording her culture. And while the reader may immediately question why that is so important I would remind them of the necessity of recording history, myth, culture, philosophy, history, science, and stories. It’s a romantic thought, but crucial to remember, that nothing in this world ever really matters until someone has written it down.
Record seals memory and so Gaiman achieves something really interesting by not only telling a story about an alien race keeping themselves alive by telling their stories to young men looking to get laid, there’s also a fascinating possibility for the future.
In the introduction to her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin writes about science fiction as a genre and what is the ultimate creative goal. She also tries to clarify the idea that science fiction is a genre trying to “see into the future.” She writes:
This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens…. In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed. The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future – indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to shwo that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.
My reader may be getting impatient at this point, but hopefully this quote will explain one of my lasting impressions of reading How to Talk to Girls at Parties. Science fiction isn’t about predicting future technology, or predicting how the world will eventually die. As Le Guin says, the entire genre is built upon the concept of the “thought-experiment.” Imagine a set of conditions and let it just go. Explore an idea through imagination. And so listening to Triolet’s story I see a beautiful science fiction possibility. Already humanity is moving more and more towards a paperless system of record keeping, in which every action, thought, belief, and art product is contained in formless data streamed through wires and eventually through waves. Ba and Moon’s art shows the species collecting their culture into a “poem” before containing it in a sun and sending the signal out to be discovered by some new race that might study their species and carry their memory on.
How to talk to Girl’s at Parties isn’t just about learning how to speak to that girl across the room who keeps smiling at you, it offers a deeper understand of what such an interaction actually is. Walking across the room, feeling your tongue swell up and your palm getting sweaty as you think of something to say to the girl you’ve seen everyday in Algebra I for the last year is like encountering a new world. You’ll never be the same after you ask her a question, and you’ll never be the person you were when you see her smile and listen to her talk about finding her blouse at Goodwill. The small act of listening to a girl tell you about her clothes or day may not be the grand thought experiments of writers like Le Guin, Clarke, Dick, Adams, Asimov, or even Gaiman but in its own way it does forever leave what you knew behind.
So long story short, take the chance, talk to the girl, and just listen carefully. You’ll find yourself in a different world.
The quote from Le Guin’s introduction can be found ACE Science Fiction paperback copy, as well as by following the link below:
Upon finishing the essay I remembered that my father had actually taught me this lesson, but like most young men receiving advice from their dad’s I didn’t listen to it. So thanks dads, and sorry I didn’t pay attention.
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Two men of little consequence who happened to be friends met at the mall. They hadn’t seen each other for some time. One friend looked at the other and said, “Hey Man(1).” The other friend, overcome with the complexity of his introduction shrugged and they walked off in different directions. After considering it, the second friend’s thought about his friend’s statement, and the next day went out and bought Infinite Jest at Barnes & Noble.
I’m positive that Infinite Jest is about something.
When I asked one of my previous professors, who’s also become a friend in the last few years, if she had read it she said yes. When I asked her what it was about her response began with “uhhhhh…well, shit.” It took a moment but the most she could give me was: “It’s about drugs and tennis and that’s about all I can give you.”
Having read and completed the book for sure it’s about drugs, but it must also be about counter-culture, but what counter-culture exists seems to be really anti-culture because the individuals in third camp seem borderline psychotic, and of course it has to be about drugs, but it could also be about entertainment because that seems to wrap everything together, the title of the book is a film made by one of the character’s great uncle who was supposedly a film auteur, and the endnotes in the back of the book seem terribly distracting from the novel that actually seems to be about something.
There are names of magazines, periodicals, newspapers, and accredited authors all over and inside the introductory pages of Infinite Jest for publicity purposes and they wouldn’t put those names there if they didn’t mean something. Names in or on books are supposed to give a book street cred to the common reader, and if someone from The New York Times slaps their name on a novel that must mean it’s good. If Playboy’s on or in the book then maybe not so much, and if I see the name of authors who are terrible, or else people who I’m told are terrible, or people I’ve never heard of, then maybe not so much. Infinite Jest is covered with names of people and papers, and so it must be important, but after 200 pages I found myself terribly frustrated because I was still struggling to figure out what the damn book was actually about.
So in order to figure out this 1000-page monster I hopped into another David Foster Wallace book which wasn’t a David Foster Wallace book actually but which is often advertised alongside David Foster Wallace books. Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself is an odd and beautiful book that is fact just one long interview that reads more like eavesdropping. David Lipsky was sent to spend the last few days of Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest to write a piece about Wallace who was becoming more and more recognized for his work. Lipsky himself was a published author, and reading the book was an experience I had never felt before. I felt as if I was listening to two people I had known, or wished I had known my entire life. Throughout the book Lipksy asks Wallace about his feelings of Infinite Jest, and looking back over the scores of passages I’ve underlined or marked with circles or stars there was one admission by Wallace that seemed important:
I think probably, what I’ve noticed at readings, is that the people who seem most enthusiastic and most moved by it are young men. Which I guess I can understand—I think it’s a fairly male book, and I think it’s a fairly nerdy book, about loneliness. And I remember college, a lot of even the experimental stuff I was excited by, I was excited by because I found reproduced in the book certain feelings, or ways of thinking or perceptions that I had had, and the relief of knowing that I wasn’t the only one, you know? (273).
Looking back upon an experience can be illuminating, I just want to avoid the awful platitude that “hindsight is always 20/20” because it makes me think of a Megadeth song. Reflecting on the sensation of reading Infinite Jest I agree that the book is largely, almost absolutely male in its design and presentation. This is not a weakness just a reader’s, and writer’s supported, observation. Neil Gaiman has a marvelous essay entitled [THE GENDER OF BOOKS] in which he explores this, but the simplest explanation is that certain creative works will have appeal to particular genders over others because of the way the artists constructs the text. But that identification is the most revealing because as I’ve grown older I’ve become more and more accepting, or perhaps more condemning, or my former self and what that young man was all about. He was rather isolated, believed himself to be creative, he didn’t care for too many people, the only real people in his life outside his family were in books he either read or was writing.
This is doesn’t get us any closer to understanding what Infinite Jest as a novel is about however, so I should admit some hesitation to move forward.
I’ll admit I’m terrified to write this this “review,” it’s really more of a reflection, because I’m positive there is somebody on the internet who knows everything about Wallace, or else wears thick glasses and pretends to know everything about Wallace, and who will try and contact me and inform me that he needs to either explain it to me, or else that I’m an idiot and should feel bad. Still Infinite Jest is interesting to me because I didn’t hear about it through friends, family, The Daily Show, Family Guy, or even by stumbling across it in a book fair or hidden chest in the Negative Zone: Section 3-z. I discovered the book through Charlie Rose.
Before I went to work I would eat apples and peanut butter and I would watch an interview on Charlie Rose with some famous celebrity and one day it was with David Foster Wallace. He was promiting A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll never do again and at one point the discussion turned to Infinite Jest and just as quickly it turned to David Lynch. That was it. The title was there in my brain and in that little pocket it was allowed to fester until my intellectual curiosity finally compelled me.
On June 9th 2016 I found the book at Barnes & Noble, bought it, and began reading it. On October 14th at 11:19 PM I finished it. And when I finished Infinite Jest I felt a sensation I had not felt in ages: a tremendous sense of presence in the moment, and perhaps here I’m able to make a real argument for taking the time to read a book like Infinite Jest.
The way I, or any reader, finishes any experimental novel or any 1000 page novel, is through sheer insanity. You have to want it above the pleasure that would come from reading a genre’d novel.
Reading Infinite Jest, much like reading Ulysses or Don Quixote, is like swimming next to a blue whale.
I don’t mean a porpoise at sea World or a beluga whale, or even a humpback, it has to be a massive Blue whale for that animal dwarfs all beings on this earth until we discover those space whales from Dr. Who. A Blue whale is a sublime animal because it possesses such frightening power of being that humans will never obtain, yet still we’re mystified. The reader who approaches the whale will approach a moving animal as well, and so the power is magnified for they are forced to encounter a living breathing being that is oblivious or apathetic to its existence. They will pass the whale, but in fact they will only float in one space, wondering how close the boat still is that will lift them up from the ocean once this experience is done. The whale will approach and the human floating, protected only with their scuba gear and oxygen tank will then feel the whale swimming by them, and while it passes they will start at the tip of its nose and from there it will feel the water pressure change, and their sensations are beyond the rest of us for they will feel nothing and see nothing and know nothing in that observation but the whale. It will take what seems like an eternity for the whale to pass, and while the reader is watching it they will observe only a few details, and that will fuck with them more than anything because they will regret later that they did not observe anything but they couldn’t possibly compartmentalize every last detail of the gargantuan beast. They’ll remember a few details and sensations of the whale as it passed them, and of course they’ll never forget the tremendous sense of accomplishment and closure once it’s tail has passed pushing them further away into the water while it’s seemingly infinite body somehow passes into the haze of empty infinity into the deeper ocean and the blue swallows up every last bit of the creature and the reader finds themselves alone in a great empty space. That they have seen and, in a way, touched this creature that only a handful of people in the world will actually ever even see outside of a Google Image search is humbling. They’ll have a few details that stand out to them, and a few sensations, but trying to describe every last detail of the whale is impossible because it was an experience unlike anything but unto itself.
That is the idealization of the 1000 page novel, but also the reality.
That’s why I can only offer one or two quotes from the massive book because my sensation of the whale will completely different than anyone else’s.
In the research done for this article I found one quote that was regularly repeated by bloggers, writers, and reviewers of the book. The protagonist Hal Incandenza is speaking with someone about the game of tennis, and they discuss the groove of the game, the kind of dance that certain atheletes have been known to enter as they perform miracles,
“But you never know when the magic will descend on you. You never know when the grooves will open up. And once the magic descends you don’t want to change even the smallest detail. You don’t know what concordance of factors and variables yields that calibrated can’t miss feeling, and you don’t want to soil the magic by trying to figure it out, but you don’t want to change your grip, your stick, your side of the court, your angle of incidence to the sun. Your heart’s in your throat every time you change sides of the court.’ (243).
Wallace actually played tennis while he was a live, and one of the essays in the collection A Suppoedly Fun Thing I’ll never Do Again is an actual article about the Tennis player Michael Joyce. Tennis is part of the aesthetic of Infinite Jest and long passages are dedicated to games or practice or following the players. What I personally remember of tennis is always being the last or second to last player to play because I sucked at it. That’s partly the reason why when I read this quote I didn’t think about Tennis at all, but in fact I thought about a good swing of creativity. There are times while writing when the exact right words come onto the page and you’re able to concoct your fiction or essay in just the right way so that the inspiration which compelled you to the word processor in the first place is actually transcribed, translated, and transplanted onto the page in a kind of glory. Every writer has had one of these moments, and when they are writing on a day like this it really does feell like magic, and in those moments there is an intense desire to shut out the world completely because the world will distract with commercials, or social obligations, or house hold chores. And later when youre reflecting on the groove that you rode while writing you won’t want to understand where that feeling came from because that would ruin it. It would take the magic out of the moment, or at least the illusion of magic.
A second quote occurs much later in the novel when Hal is relating about some events in his family history and he stumbles upon an observation of humanity:
It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or Philately –the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games to needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of plunging into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat? To what purpose? This was why they started us here so young: to give ourselves away before the age when the questions why and to what grow real beaks and claws. It was king, in a way. (900).
I’ve remarked in several essays how absurd human existence is, and while many would protest and claim that life is rich with meaning, Hal’s observation seems terribly true. It might just be because I’ve begun teaching and found almost immediately that I don’t have the stomach for it, but looking at some of my fellow Millennials, and those that came before me I see the trend of those who are willing to dedicate what little existence they have to an idea, cause, organization, or path. Their life goals while largely humble, are a dedication. And before I put myself above others I myself follow this “black miracle.” My life is about writing and encouraging others to write. Looking over my life, and the decisions I have made now and for my future there is not component in which writing does not play some crucial element, and so for my own part I recognize that in what short amount of time I have I’ve already selected my “black miracle” which, as I write it out, sounds like a perfect title for a novel.
There’’s one more quote worth mentioning because it’s too important to miss:
Human beings came and went. (972)
It’s simple, and the reader may immediately object “so what?” but looking at the page number they need to remember that the novel is 981 pages long with around 80 pages of endnotes that themselves can be anywhere from a single word to thirty pages long. By the time the reader encounters this small quote in the heavy meat of the body of the novel it’s deceptively simple. Infinite Jest follows the life of Hal Incandenza as he progresses through an elite college and its tennis program, however it also follows the actions of a Canadian terrorist group, and lengthy portions are about the Boston area Alcoholics Anonymous or other Drug related rehabilitation programs. In such moments the reader is offered a glimpse of the people who wind up in such places, or other times they are offered the viewpoint of those people who work regularly in such programs and the truth is human life filters through such halls and while some find peace, often it happens that people don’t make it.
Looking at my teaching right now I have groups of students that I recognize will not make it through college, and some will most certainly succeed, and others will simply pass and enter society. Looking at the time I spent in graduate school working in the Writing Center of my college I would see students come and go, and also fellow tutors who meant the world to me or else people I wanted to strangle with my bare hands. Looking at my life I have encountered a wide crowd of people. And so this simple sentence, while it is directed towards a Rehab clinic becomes far more potent concerning the human experience by the time one has managed to slough through the dense book up to this point.
There is unbearable pain in reading Infinite Jest, for if you try it, as I did, by reading just 10 pages a day, eventually they’ll come to the end of their tenth page and the last word of the last sentence of the last paragraph of their page will have a footnote, and when they flip to the back they’ll discover Wallace has written twenty pages for one footnote, and while the book is flying through the air surrounded by the shattering glass of the reader’s window they used to own until they cast the book through it, they’ll never be able to mistake the faint sound of David Foster Wallace’s unspeakable laughter cackling in each shard and tingle, and the final onomatopoeic “thlumpul” of the dense tome landing against the concrete or grass will be a temptation to just let the book alone and leave it where it is. These three moments might be a guard against such an impulse because in the heavy lectures about the history of pain prescription medication, or long passages dedicated to the jargon ladened descriptions of failed sexual escapades there are moments where the reader can see the whale. That doesn’t mean they won’t doubt themselves and wonder why they’re bothering with this long book.
But it’s worth it. Damn if it isn’t worth it. And not just for bragging rights.
Any idiot can brag, but if the action is undertaken just to brag then it’s an empty gesture. I was happy when I reached page 500 because it a reminder I haven’t given up on my goal which compelled me in the first place to pick the book up: I wanted to know David Foster Wallace better because he seemed like a person I wanted to know and understand.
In an article published in The New Yorker titled The Unfinished, D.T. Max provides a brief glimpse into Wallace’s dedication to the book:
He was still interested in the warping power of media culture. And he had a new appreciation of addiction and its lethality: it gave him something to warn against. He created a character named Hal Incandenza, who bridged two worlds Wallace knew well—Incandenza is a pothead and a talented high-school tennis player. He goes to an academy run by his family, which his older brother, Orin, also attended. Their father, James, a filmmaker, committed suicide after making a short movie called “Infinite Jest,” recorded in a format called a “cartridge,” which is so engrossing that anyone who watches it loses all desire. Wallace writes of one viewer, “He has rewound to the beginning several times and then configured for a recursive loop. He sits there, attached to a congealed supper, watching at 0020h, having now wet both his pants and the special recliner.” The action is set in the near future: a Qué-bécois separatist group tries to get hold of “Infinite Jest,” copies of which are extremely rare, to use as a terrorist weapon.
Wallace worked quickly in the house that he shared. He filled page after page of grade-school notebooks and then typed what he’d written with two fingers on an old computer. In a letter to Nadell, he had made a promise: “I will be a fiction writer again or die trying.”
It’s becoming more and more apparent, with every essay I write, every book I finish that while the goal of acquiring and maintain the title of intellectual was once the stated goal, the reason I keep reading is to understand people more. The “Wallace Explosion” I’ve ridden over the past few months has been more and more revealing to me because I recognize in the man a similar burning. I want to be a writer, not for bragging rights, but to simply influence someone the way Wallace has influenced me. There’s a strength of will to finishing a 1000 page novel, or a lunacy, but I do believe that like Infinite Jest there is a desire of curiosity. I wanted to see the whale and report back what I’ve found to someone else. So here it is: I have no idea what it was that I saw, but when it passed and was behind me I felt alive and present in the world in a way I haven’t felt in years.
While looking for images I found a link to an article on Buzzfeed I believe you will appreciate. Enjoy:
Here also are some essays about the book, either people’s impressions or…you know I’m not really sure there is another word for encountering Infinite Jest, it just is…
Here is also a link to the D.T. Max article The Unfinished if the reader is at all curious:
Read the book, there’s nothing like it. And if the page count daunts you just remember, 10 pages a day everyday and you’ll be done in just a few months.
biography, Book Review, Brett Witter, cats, Christopher Lloyd, Deathclaw, Dewey, Dewey Readmore Books, Dewey the library cat, Dewey: The Small Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, Fall Out 4, Farm Crisis 1980s, Farm-Aid, history, Libraries, Library as Civic Center, Library's Social Function, Pea Picker Books, Spencer, Spencer Public Library, The Pagemaster, Vicki Myron
I’ve given up hope trying to buy my wife gifts, specifically books. I suspect that all bibliophiles have the same problem when they try to shop for their loved ones. They assume that their wives, husbands, parents, siblings, nephews, nieces, etc. love to read as much as they do and so when they find a book that covers a topic that their loved one is fascinated with they snatch it up, alongside three or four books they tell themselves they’ll save for Christmas. It eventually happens that said loved ones will open the present, have to quickly hide their dissatisfaction, and then wait until you’ve left to place the book on a shelf somewhere wondering why you didn’t just take the hint and buy something off of their Amazon Wish List. Much like this rotten scenario I decided one year that
I would buy my wife a birthday present, but being a self-centered man I figured that she would enjoy a book. I was buying my father, mother, and sister a book for Christmas though in my defense they actually want books for Christmas. There’s a local bookstore in Tyler known as the Pea Picker. It’s a little hole in the wall place, half the store is nothing but Harlequin romance paperbacks, but there’s a real charm to the store and I’ve spent hours and several paychecks supporting this local business. After scouring through the classics section I decided I would look for something for my wife, and while I scanned the shelves an image of a cat struck my eye and I plucked the book up at once.
On the cover was a handsome ginger cat that reminded me of my own previous cat Sylvester, and later of an actual ginger cat my wife would adopt after he literally walked up to our front door. I read the title Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World. It was enough for me, so I bought the book, wrapped it up, gave it to her, and watched as the book collected dust on the shelf in our living room for close to two years. I didn’t realize then that my wife no longer reads books, but chooses instead to read articles, blog posts, Tumblr posts, and scientific essays on her phone instead. As such Dewey remained on the shelf, unread and unappreciated until a few month ago when I picked the book up.
While I’ve finally gotten a job teaching English at a local college, over the last month I’ve found myself thinking more and more about the local library and how much I would actually love working there. Part of this is gross romanticizing on my part, I grew up watching The Pagemaster and almost every weekend my mother would take me for story-time, but I do believe the great appeal of working there is the opportunity to participate in my community and help the library grow into something relevant and important. I love the library and what it can be. Perhaps this desire and ambition is what led me to pick up Dewey; I’m preparing myself and trying to understand what it is that a library actually does and what I would actually be doing if I actually got the chance to work there.
And what better way to find out than reading a story about a cat?
Dewey is mostly about Dewey the cat but it’s also largely about the author Vicki Myron. In the small town of Spencer, Iowa she worked as a librarian for about 25 years, and one morning while she was walking into the library a coworker mentioned hearing sounds coming from the book depository. It was the coldest day of the entire year and so they tried to be quick about their investigation. When they opened it up they found a small kitten
It was huddled in the front left corner of the box, its head down, it’s legs tucked underneath it, trying to appear as small as possible. The books were piled haphazardly to the top of the box, partially hiding it from view. I lifted one gingerly for a better look. The kitten looked up at me, slowly and sadly. Then it lowered its head and sank down into its hole. It wasn’t even trying to appear tough. It wasn’t trying to hide. I don’t even think it was scared. It was just hoping to be saved.
I know melting can be a cliché, but I think that’s what actually happened to me at that moment: I lost every bone in my body. I’m not a mushy person. I’m a single mother and a farm girl who has steered her life through hard times, but this was so, so…unexpected. (10).
This is largely the reader’s introduction to both Dewey as well as Vicki and from there the relationship is established. The reader might immediately question why they should care about a cat who lived in a library or a book which seems already to be a poorly written sentimental sob story, but I would caution them against judging the book on this initial impression.
I’m tempted to tell the reader, “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” but that’s just…too…well, yeah too pathetic even for my humor. Besides the cover is a picture of Dewey who was a cat
It’s true that cats have skyrocketed to the top of culture in the last decade largely due to the internet, but trying to ignore them, or their impact upon culture is a mistake for as long as humans have kept the company of domesticated animals, cats have held some spiritual, religious, or philosophic significance to said community. It’s this last observation that makes Dewey the odd and wonderful book that it is.
Cats, much like libraries, are unique creatures, and they occupy an odd territory in the community that houses them. Dewey is a book that, while it does chronicle the life of the cat who took up residence in the Spencer Public Library, it’s also often an autobiography of Vicki Byron who in her time saw trials and tribulations both for herself as well as her community. Near the start of the book she describes the Farm-Aid crisis:
Those who lived in larger cities may not remember the farm crisis of the 1980s. Maybe you remember Willie Nelson and Farm Aid. Maybe you remember reading about the collapse of family farming, about the nation moving from small growers to large factory farms that stretch for miles without a farmhouse, or even a farm-worker in sight. For most people, it was just a story, not something that affected them directly.
In Spencer you could feel it: in the air, in the ground, in every spoken word. We had a solid manufacturing base, but we were still a farm town. We supported, and were supported by, farmers. And on the farms, things were falling apart. These were families we knew, families that had lived in the area for generations, and we could see the strain. First they stopped coming in for new parts and machinery, making do with bootstrap repairs. Then they cut back on supplies. Finally they stopped masking mortgage payments, hoping for a booming harvest to set the account books tight. When a miracle didn’t come, the banks foreclosed. Almost half the farms in northwest Iowa went into foreclosure in the 1980s. Most of the new owners were giant farming conglomerates, out-of-state speculators, or insurance companies. (22-3).
The casual reader hoping to open the book and find nothing but cute pictures of Dewey the adorable ginger library cat must have been stumped when they were greeted with the history of a local economic agricultural disaster, and later when they read about the storm of locusts that descended on Spencer and the fire which burned down most of the town in June of 1931 they may wonder what these events have to do with Dewey the cat. If it’s not clear at this point Dewey is not a book purely about a cat, it’s in fact an autobiography of a woman who is also chronicling the history of the town in which she grew up and prospered. Spencer is a town which, were it not for the book and Dewey himself, might have largely gone unnoticed to the rest of the United States, or the rest of the world for that matter. The crises that affect that community become something important to read about because, rather than just following Dewey, the reader is able to appreciate the struggles that face small agricultural based cities in the Midwest; communities that, it should be noted, often are left unobserved by the culture of the nation because they are “out there” and “away” from the glamour of big cities.
And, if I can segway back for a moment, Myron does an incredible job of demonstrating how similar that apathy for that Midwest small town mirrors apathy to the library and why that apathy is misplaced. She says in a later passage:
A great library doesn’t have to be big or beautiful. It doesn’t have to have the best facilities or the most efficient staff or the most users. A great library provides. It is enmeshed in the life of a community in a way that makes it indistinguishable. A great library is one nobody notices because it is always there, and it always has what people need. (116)
Further on in the book Myron continues this point:
A librarian clerk’s job used to involve filing and answering reference questions. Now it’s understanding computers and imputing data. To keep track of usage, the clerk working the circulation desk used to make a hash mark on a piece of paper every time a patron entered the library. You can imagine how accurate that system was, especially when the library was busy and the clerk was answering reference questions. Now we have an electronic clicker that records every person who comes through the door. The checkout system tells us exactly how many books, games, and movies come and go and tracks which items are the most popular and which haven’t been touched in years. (163)
I could, and will at some point, gush on and on about the benefit a library has to its community in terms of resources and morale boosting, but that would be getting away from Dewey and Myron who, as I read the book one chapter every morning before work, began to grow on me. Each morning I could look forward to reading small anecdotes of Dewey eating rubber bands or Arby’s sandwiches, pointed with small sections like the previous quote which would remind me why libraries matter so much, especially to small communities, and finally there was a simple joy in reading the life of Myron who suffered with her own demons including an early marriage to a man who suffered from chronic alcoholism. Along with this Myron also eventually underwent a hysterectomy (Removal of the uterus).
Myron doesn’t hold back her feeling as she describes this last event and she describes giving birth to her daughter and the complications that ensued:
I had always wanted a daughter named Jodi Marie. I had dreamed about it from a young age. Now I had a daughter, Jodi Marie Myron, and I was dying to spend time with her, to hug her and talk to her and look into her eyes. But the surgery had knocked me flat on my back. My hormones went haywire, and I was racked with headaches, insomnia, and cold sweats. Two years and six operations later my health hadn’t improved, so my doctor suggested exploratory surgery. I woke up in the hospital bed to discover he’d taken both ovaries and my uterus. The physical pain was intense, but worse was the knowledge that I couldn’t have any more children. I had expected a peek inside; I wasn’t prepared to be hollowed out. And I wasn’t prepared to enter sudden and severe menopause. (88)
As a man, there are ailments that I will never understand. This does not mean I don’t try and develop empathy however, and this impulse has helped me in life. Working in the Writing Center at UT Tyler, most of my co-workers, in fact nearly all of my co-workers were women and so between the sessions when it was just the tutors, conversations would spring up and sometimes the issue of periods and menstruation came to dominate the conversation. Unlike most of the men I have met in my life who practically shriek at the mere mention of menstrual blood, I simply don’t care, and this in turn allowed me to listen as my female coworkers discuss the “pain in the ass” or actual physical and psychological pain associated with their vaginas and the complications other women have. It doesn’t hurt either that my wife reads me testimonies of women online who discuss freely and frankly their personal horror stories with uterine problems, often when I’m trying to kill raiders or Deathclaws in Fallout 4.
This is all a way of saying reading this passage I was properly horrified by Myron’s personal loss and didn’t just tune out because it was “lady-problems.” Myron’s book, as I’ve said before, is a personal biography of what the library, and what a stray cat she found one morning while working at the library meant for her. Though I recognize my reader is getting impatient and has to ask the inevitable question.
So what? Why should I spend my time reading about a cat and a woman from the Midwest who worked in a library that nobody ever heard or cared about?
The problem dear reader is that the world did care about it. Dewey became an international celebrity and Myron describes tourists from Japan, Germany, and even parts of the United States who came to the Spencer Public Library because of the story of Dewey. In his time the cat became a celebrity and brought attention to a small town that otherwise would have just become another part of “Out There” for the rest of the United States. And if I can reflect some of this back at the reader, the very attitude reveals a larger fundamental problem. Libraries, and the people who work there, fill a real social function, and for most of their efforts they largely go underappreciated. It took a cat, granted a gorgeous charismatic one, but a cat nonetheless for people to give a shred of a shit.
As humans have evolved, certain organisms have evolved alongside us shifting and changing their biological niche to fit their environment. Dewey, much like Vicki Myron herself, and much like libraries in general come to embody the fundamental component of life which is change. Change is neither good nor bad, it all depends on the method and ultimate result of change. Dewey is a book that is worth the reader’s time because it a great personal narrative about how a life can undergo dramatic and minuscule changes.
And really, I should be as real here as humanly possible, Dewey is a largely sentimental book about a cat in a library in a small town, and while I detest sentiment as an aesthetic tool, Dewey is rich with small moments that leave the reader feeling generally happy. One such moment is when Myron describes Dewey waving at her whenever she would arrive at the library:
Every morning since his first week in the library, Dewey had waited for me at the front door. He would stare at me as I approached, then turn and run for his food bowl when I opened the door. Then, on one of the worst mornings of that terrible two years, he started waving. Yes, waving. I stopped and looked at him. He stopped and looked at me, then started waving again.
It happened the next morning, too. And the next. And the next, until finally I understood this was our new routine. For the rest of his life, as soon as Dewey saw my car pull into the parking lot, he started scratching his right paw o the front door. The wave continued as I crossed the street and approached the door. It wasn’t frantic. He wasn’t meowing or pacing. He was sitting very still and waving at me, as if welcoming me to the library and, at the same time, reminding me he was there. As if I could ever forget. (192).
Normally somebody telling another person about the eccentricities of their cats is the stuff of nausea and bad sitcom writing. Social media and the internet is inundated with pictures of cats, and gifs (jif? gif? xif?) of cats performing outrageous stunts, and yes we have all seen the video of the kitten having his tummy tickled. Despite all of this, life is built up of small, seemingly random and meaningless experiences that collect over time to build a life. Take a moment to appreciate something like the story of a cute ginger cat being saved outside a library, or the life story of a woman who overcame great personal loss to find meaning in her life, or else just reading about how a library came to mean so much to the people of the world who often forget about the small little towns is worth your time.
Little moments in libraries can endure in memory and lift us when we need it most. And if your grandmother gets you a book about a cat who lived in a small library in Iowa for Christmas instead of that new Galaxy phone that you wanted, don’t be in such a rush to shelve it and forget about it. You might discover like I did what your true calling may be.
All the President's Men, Blogging, Blogs and Ethos, David Simon, Democracy, Derek Thompson, Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore?, Education, Essay, free speech, Free Working Press, Freedom, Full Frontal, Halcyon, John Oliver, journalism, Last Week Tonight, News, Newspapers, NPR, patriotism, Politics, Reporters, Republic, Satire, television, The Atlantic, The Daily Show, The Nightly Show, The Wire, Walter Cronkite, Watergate, We Are Mired in Stalemate, Why Do Americans Distrust the Media, Writing
I believe in newspapers and the power of a free working press.
That sentence sounds like it should be immediately followed by “Journalists of the World UNITE” which itself is then followed by a fanfair of trumpets and people dancing in revelry while waving the banners of revolution, but in fact the only response I should, and would hope for, is for the reader to nod their head and agree. Such is the dream, yet not always the reality, and in fact, it seems the last real refuge for real reporting seems to be in cinema or “parody” news programs like The Daily Show, Full Frontal, or Last Week Tonight. On one side note The Nightly Show is no longer running which is unfortunate because it seems every time Comedy Central puts up a show that tries to present news and information from a black perspective it only ever lasts a few episodes before it gets canceled. That’s an entire article or online lecture by itself, but I’ll have to get to that later.
A few weeks back Last Week Tonight did a piece about the state of Journalism, specifically the Newspaper industry in the United States and the sentiment expressed by John Oliver mirrored Gerald Ford’s now classic statement during his first State of the Union Address. The State of Newspapers in the United States is “not good.” That’s a simple way of saying print news in America is either dying or plagued by bias. The complex way is saying that newspapers in America are on the decline due to the rise of digital news, low sales of printed newspapers, lack of trust by the readers, and the general apathy of readers due to the fact that most people get their “news” via Facebook or Google. There isn’t much, if any money, going into newspapers and this a conflict because a free media is responsible for monitoring for corruption and ensuring that the public of a democracy are informed to what is actually going on in their government.
I recognize immediately that my position can immediately become one of obnoxious preaching or else a nauseating mourning of an industry that possesses an “inherent nobility” and so I’m going to try and maintain a professional distance from emotion. My point in bringing this topic up is not to wail and bemoan the tragedies that are taking place in the journalism industry, but instead to allow these tragedies to illuminate the importance of the media and two articles which shed an revealing light on this subject.
In September of this year, The Atlantic put out an article by Derek Thompson titled Why Do Americans Distrust the Media, and while it’s a short essay it manages to point out several of the reasons why Journalism in general is becoming so suspect to citizens of the United States. Early on in the essay Thompson explains what is happening to that trust:
With these enormous caveats out of the way, the fact remains that Americans’ “trust” in “the media” is falling steadily, according to Gallup. Even if the precise definitions of these terms is debatable, the overall decline is clear and noteworthy.
This collapse in trust is not evenly spread across all demographics. The drop has been most dramatic among young and middle-aged respondents and, most recently, within the GOP. Together, it seems reasonable to conclude that the recent decline in media trust has been concentrated among middle-aged Republicans, a key part of the Trump constituency.
It should be made clear that the article is not Anti-Trump, it simply relies regularly on Trump and Trump supporters denying the legitimacy of newspapers when scandals appear which tends to happen a lot. Still the facts remain that more and more citizens are beginning to recognize or perceive flaws in reporting, and when you take into account that perception tends to create reality far more often than facts it begins to become clearer why so many Americans distrust news. Thompson’s article goes on to list out five reasons why this distrust exists, and the fourth reason, that it’s easier to find news that confirms bias rather than challenging it, he manages to make an important point about how this distrust forms:
Today’s journalists are more comfortable taking strong positions on partisan issues than they used to be. This is often a good thing. But the increased partisanship of large news outlets might feed a public perception that neutral objectivity doesn’t exist, and therefore, people are entitled to scream “partisanship!” about any viewpoint that they disagree with. The Pittsburgh-Tribune Review recently asked Donald Trump Jr., how he felt that the Pulitzer Prize-winning team at PolitiFact found that 70 percent of his father’s claims were false, more than twice the ratio of Hillary Clinton. Trump’s response: “I would argue that PolitiFact is a very liberal organization.” The shocking thing about this claim is that it’s not shocking, at all. It has become acceptably normal for a politician to call a Pulitzer-Prize winning organization “very biased” if it disagrees with him. There is also no risk in saying so.
Several weeks back I wrote about the speech Walter Cronkite gave on CBS news entitled We Are Mired in Stalemate. Part of the ongoing appeal and interest of this speech is that it was one of the first times a newsman like Cronkite allowed his personal opinions or assessments to come through in his reporting. This is not so uncommon today, in fact it’s so common it borders on obnoxious. Watching programs like Hannity, The O’Reily Factor, Legal View with B & B, or even anything involving Keith Olberman that isn’t about sports, one becomes buried beneath the weight of personal opinions of newscasters that it becomes so nauseating one has to change the channel or turn off the T.V. and meditate to Stomp to reclaim one’s sense of composure. Watching these shows in bulk is about the equivalent of a years’ worth of self-inflicted papercuts to the webs between the fingers, yet despite this I still find myself watching the news and reading the newspaper.
At the core of this is always my romantic patriotism.
I worry sometimes that I wrap myself up in the American flag, and that despite my supposed dedication to pure, unfettered reason I am actually an emotional gerrymanderer. In my own defense I tend to read a lot of Walt Whitman a man who also had a rather large hard-on for liberty and the inherent nobility of the American populace, identity, and territory. But if I can strip everything down though, and find the purest kernel of honesty to explain the reason why I believe so much in the importance and dedication to a free press is because I really do believe democracy is the best we, as a human species, have got philosophically.
The ages of man have been a constant effort and experiment to co-exist as peacefully as humanly possible and in our time we have constructed governmental-philosophies which have ranged in form from totalitarianism to a level of republic bordering on hippie communes. At the end of this democracy is the one system that, while it doesn’t make everyone happy, leaves at least a modicum of equilibrium. Before I start to sound like fucking NPR, which I appreciate as a news media source, my point is that by studying history it becomes clear that if human beings want a society in which people are equally protected by the law and from the government which is supposed to execute the law, the republic and democracy have been the most successful in accommodating that environment.
But in order for that to exists there has to be a system which monitors government because, to use an old platitude, power corrupts absolutely, or to put it another way, politicians are butt-fucking cowards and thieves and they need to be monitored and transparent because corruption is easily acquired and can quickly become a comfortable vice.
While I was considering this idea, and watching the Journalism episode of Last Week Tonight, I remembered a consistent impression, one moment in the video which kept gnawing at me because it seemed as best as I could describe as “right.” In the video John Oliver introduces a clip from CSPAN which appeared to be some panel or news coverage over the state and future of newspapers and in the clip a man by the name of David Simon explained that the next decade will be a “Halcyon Error” for local and state political corruption due to the pronounced lack of journalism covering simple governmental activities likes zoning board meetings. It wasn’t the diction that sold me on Simon as an important figure in this particular argument however, it was his level of confidence. Interested in the man I did a little digging, starting on Wikipedia. I know I’m supposed to hate that website because it’s the scourge of academic integrity but in reality it has helped me discover sources I never would have. Including the article David Simon wrote for The Washington Post entitled Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore?
I read the article in one sitting, it’s not that difficult to finish in one session due largely to the fact that Simon is a fantastic writer for his ability to weave gorgeous prose without going up his own ass. Simon begins his article with a personal and effective opening:
Is there a separate elegy to be written for that generation of newspapermen and women who came of age after Vietnam, after the Pentagon Papers and Watergate? For us starry-eyed acolytes of a glorious new church, all of us secular and cynical and dedicated to the notion that though we would still be stained with ink, we were no longer quite wretches? Where is our special requiem?
Bright and shiny we were in the late 1970s, packed into our bursting journalism schools, dog-eared paperback copies of “All the President’s Men” and “The Powers That Be” atop our Associated Press stylebooks. No business school called to us, no engineering lab, no information-age computer degree — we had seen a future of substance in bylines and column inches. Immortality lay in a five-part series with sidebars in the Tribune, the Sun, the Register, the Post, the Express.
What the hell happened?
It’s an honest question and after reading Thompson’s article I’m tempted to answer it quickly. The simple answer is the American public became disenfranchised with newspapers and news organizations. While on some level this is largely attributed to people simply believing the news is boring or else just really depressing (for the record I’m almost quoting verbatim a friend of mine here) perhaps the largest reason is because journalism has become subject to the pitfalls of capitalism, or really hyper-capitalism. John Oliver expresses and analyzes this far better than I ever could, and so I would recommend my reader actually take the time to find the video on YouTube, but the simplest explanation is that because newspapers are looked on more and more as, and Simon even calls them such in his articles, an anachronism people are looking more to digital content for information and that’s a problem because anyone can contribute to digital media. And I mean Anyone.
I’m an example of this. The reason I began White Tower Musings was because nobody would publish my creative work and so I began writing “essays,” really a charitable word for my early diatribes about power and freedom and Orwell, and publishing them here on WordPress for free. I pay nothing to host my site apart from internet provider, and my wife pays that bill so in fact I really do pay nothing. I can write whatever I want, when I want, and publish it, and while I personally try to make sure each article is well thought out and well researched and written to the best of my ability the real unbiased truth is I’m just some jackass with a blog. And with that knowledge in hand I remember that there are dozens of jackasses with blogs who can write and say whatever they want about current events without having to worry about any kind of oversight or editorial board to make sure their writings are supported by solid sources and facts.
This isn’t meant to be morbid self-loathing, which is my usual same old song and dance, but instead just an honest reflection upon the institution of the news as a force in this country and how a writer like Simon makes it seem not just important but necessary even as it’s dying. Simon offers a glimpse at the contemporary position:
In Baltimore, the newspaper now has 300 newsroom staffers, and it is run by some fellows in Chicago who think that number sufficient to the task. And the locally run company that was once willing to pay for a 500-reporter newsroom, to moderate its own profits in some basic regard and put money back into the product? Turns out it wasn’t willing to do so to build a great newspaper, but merely to clear the field of rivals, to make Baltimore safe for Gremlins and Pacers. And at no point in the transition from one to the other did anyone seriously consider the true cost of building something comprehensive, essential and great.
And now, no profits. No advertising. No new readers. Now, the great gray ladies are reduced to throwing what’s left of their best stuff out there on the Web, unable to charge enough for online advertising, or anything at all for the journalism itself.
Simon wrote Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? in 2008, and I can already sense the reader’s objection. This seems like a moaning diatribe of whining about American Newspapers that doesn’t reflect reality. Plenty of newspapers are writing material old-school journalists would be proud of. And this is a fair objection which Simon actually acknowledges in his article before pointing out the flaw:
Is there still high-end journalism? Of course. A lot of fine journalists are still laboring in the vineyard, some of them in Baltimore. But at even the more serious newspapers in most markets, high-end journalism doesn’t take the form of consistent and sophisticated coverage of issues, but of special projects and five-part series on selected topics — a distraction designed not to convince readers that a newspaper aggressively brings the world to them each day, but to convince a prize committee that someone, somewhere, deserves a plaque.
Newspapers are not just about heroism and I recognize how I sound writing that out after preaching about their inherent necessity and nobility. Newspapers are first and foremost about community. Simon points out that often newspapers are in the market for young, hungry, and most importantly cheap employees to produce media content and the conflict with this position is the divorce from their reality. If you don’t have any history with a town, it’s going to be difficult to understand the dynamic and history of the city when you have to report on it. There is a local paper in my own home city but I never read preferring instead to read articles on NPR or else the Washington Post and this in itself reveals the larger bad habit of certain readers. I should not say that I represent a microcosm, but I do believe it’s fair to admit that a portion of news readers in this country take a rather abstract view of news because the news that we do receive tends to concern the larger national or international events, and while these most certainly possess real relevance the problem is that the real impact of such occurrences is always felt at the local level and manifests in different ways.
A question emerges and Simon writes it out plainly and perfectly:
What I don’t understand is this:
Isn’t the news itself still valuable to anyone? In any format, through any medium — isn’t an understanding of the events of the day still a salable commodity? Or were we kidding ourselves? Was a newspaper a viable entity only so long as it had classifieds, comics and the latest sports scores?
It’s hard to say that, even harder to think it. By that premise, what all of us pretended to regard as a viable commodity — indeed, as the source of all that was purposeful and heroic — was, in fact, an intellectual vanity.
Newsprint itself is an anachronism. But was there a moment before the deluge of the Internet when news organizations might have better protected themselves and their product? When they might have — as one, industry-wide — declared that their online advertising would be profitable, that their Web sites would, in fact, charge for providing a rare and worthy service?
This final point is reiterated by John Oliver in the Last Week Tonight Special, and echoes in my own summation of the “service” I provide my readers for this site (the difference being that what journalist provide possesses a more immediate utilitarian purpose than my intellectual musings). Freedom of the press is not just a given by the first amendment because the individuals who provide the information citizens need to be informed do not work for free. Reporters are working people who need food, living space, and entertainment commodities the same as every and any citizen of the United States and the problem is their line of work is increasingly being dwindled by the hyper-capitalist system in which media too often given away for free.
The reason people enjoy free internet pornography is because people have grown accustomed to having it at their fingertips, but beneath that is a deeper understanding that the media they’re consuming isn’t worth their money. The conflict with the internet is that too often the content being generated is rarely designed to be a valuable physical commodity from which the consumer can acquire some kind of emotional or personal investment. It’s something to be consumed and then abandoned. My reader may argue that newspapers, even when they weren’t purely digital, existed in the same way for after all a newspaper is produced for one day and then would often be thrown away and in fairness that is a fair criticism.
However even before newspapers moved to a digital market, consumers and readers were willing to pay for the paper. Some of them, and I include myself in this crowd, simply read the paper for the comics or the sports pages, but there are consistent readers who are genuinely concerned and should be genuinely concerned about what is taking place in their local government: whether public money is being used for nefarious purposes, whether or not public projects have actually benefitted their community, and simply to figure out whether their elected officials are crooks.
Simon, Oliver, and Thompson have all offered me a chance to decide whether or not my local newspaper matters or not. In all honesty my local paper probably doesn’t because anyone willing to actually write anything negative about local politics or history would either be silenced or exiled, but that shouldn’t be the norm. It may be my clinging to the romanticism of the Watergate-era, but I do believe the news, whether it’s digital or paper-bound, does matter, and should be trusted, and does play a crucial role in our democracy.
I am just some asshole with a blog, but like Simon I know a great newspaper from a good one. And those few gems are worth reading, and more importantly worth paying for.
Below the reader can find links to the sources for this article. The first is Thompson’s article published in the Atlantic:
The second is the Last Week Tonight special over journalism:
And finally here is the article Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? Published originally in The Washington Post on January 20, 2008. I hope you enjoy:
Burt Renyolds, Cuba, Cult of Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway, Fish, Fisherman, Jammer Talks About, Jane Tompkins, John Lennon, Literature, Man-Stache, Manhood in America: A Cultural history, Manolin, masculinity, Michael Kimmel, Novel, Novella, Physical labor, Ron Burgundy, RUSH, Santiago, Short Story, Spencer Tracey, Swordfish, The Old Man and the Sea, Tom Sellick, West of Everything-The Inner Life of Westerns, Working Class Hero, Working Class Men, Working Man
A working class hero is something to be If you want to be a hero well just follow me
–Working Class Hero, John Lennon
Well, they call me the working man I guess that’s what I am
–Working Man, RUSH
Apart from John Wayne and Ron Burgundy, Ernest Hemingway is still the embodiment of the man’s man. This is in no small part because, apart from Tom Selick, Burt Reynolds, and Ron Burgundy, Hemingway was the only man I’m aware of who could pull off the man-stache look and not look like a porn star. Then again, Rule #34 exists and…that, actually, will lead us down a dark road I’m not willing to explore in this particular essay.
My original idea was to just go ahead and review The Old Man and the Sea for White Tower Musings given the fact that school season just started up again and it’s usually during that time that I get the most number of hits from students looking for aid on their reading assignments. I figured I would help out a few high schoolers who were too lazy to look up the South Park summary on YouTube. However, before I could even come up with one of my clever, but not really clever, opening lines my best friend Kevin made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Poorly executed Godfather references are graveyard dead. I really out to take my own aphorisms to heart.
About the time I started up White Tower Musings he began a YouTube channel dedicated to making videos about Biochemistry. He continued this project even after he met his fiancé and a few weeks back he asked if I wanted to make some videos about literature for students. His long term goal was to make an education channel similar to Khan Academy, and given the fact that I’m a shameless attention whore I said yes and began making a few videos. Now to be fair I had already made one for the book Walden for a former professor who was looking for online lectures for her summer Graduate Level Thoreau course, and since I already had the video made up it wasn’t difficult to make up one, two, and eventually fourteen videos, two of which were about a novella by Ernest Hemingway.
The Old Man and the Sea was relatively easy to talk about given the fact that I’ve read the book once a year every year for almost a decade. The first time was during a trip to Galveston during a summer break, and the combination of sea gulls, salt air, and the crinkling of my flesh with the thick saline of the slime green water of the gulf all just made it the perfect place to read the book.
The novella, a term I actually despise, is set in Havana, Cuba during the early 1900s. Santiago is an old man and used to be one of the most respected fishermen of the port until, when the story opens, he has gone 87 days without catching a fish. The young boy he usually fishes with has been moved by his parents to a more successful fishing ship, but the man and the boy still talk and it’s clear that Manolin still loves him deeply. One day Santiago decides to prove his mettle and boards his small ship sailing out farther than any of the other fishermen. There he lays out his lines and thinks about the baseball player Joe DiMaggio and lions sunbathing on the shores of Africa. While he’s dreaming Santiago lands a bite, and he discovers soon that he has caught a massive fish, most likely a marlin or some other species of sword fish. He fights the fish for hours before finally reeling it in and killing it. He ties the fish to the side of his ship and begins to sail back to Havana but before long sharks begin to attack his fish, and by the time he returns to port they’ve devoured all of the flesh from the carcass leaving only skeleton and a few chunks of meat. Santiago retires to his hut, defeated, but in his own way he’s reclaimed his honor in the eyes of the other fishermen.
This brief plot synopsis is necessary to observe the themes of The Old Man and the Sea, but honestly the traditional interpretation tends to leave me flat. Most teachers and casual readers will look at the novella and come away with a kind of platitude interpretation you might find at the end of an episode of He-Man:
Santiago lost, but in a way it was a kind of victory, and isn’t it great that even in failure you can still find some kind of personal win?
This conclusion of the book tends to nauseate me, but I can’t find any other final conclusion to contest it. Looking through the sea of books in my office, and that sea metaphor wasn’t intentional when I first wrote it out, I looked to Manhood in America: A Cultural History by Michael Kimmel wondering if perhaps Hemingway was even mentioned. My reason for this is rooted in what I observed at the start of my essay. Ernest Hemingway is remembered first for his creative work, but over time the man has come to exemplify masculinity, particularly that model of man when “men were men, and men were strong.” The idea that masculinity is in crisis is a well beaten drum and Hemingway typically serves as the sacrificed cow of a violent feminism which is ruining men.
For the record, this is a fallacy but I need to stay on point.
Michael Kimmel’s book is everything the title suggests and when I looked through the index I discovered Hemingway had not only one but three mentions in the book one of which was almost an entire page dedicated to the man. Kimmel observes that the period between World War I and II was a period of transition and discomfort for many men and he notes that:
There were rumblings of discontent among American men between the wars, and the fiction of the era expressed it eloquently. Some suggested that the traditional methods for self-making were unreliable in a modern world. For example, Ernest Hemingway’s novels suggest the brittleness and vulnerability of male bonding, even as his impulse is to trust homosocial intimacy, especially when compared with relations with the opposite sex. Personally, Hemingway eschewed the upper-class gentility into which he had been born and embraced a rough-hewn artisanal manhood demonstrated and tested in the most highly ritualized ways—boxing matches, bullfighting, hunting, soldiering. His novels are also always about men’s relationships with one another—fathers and sons, battle companions, friends on a fishing trip, fellow patients in a hospital, a couple of waiters preparing to close up shop, a bullfighter and his manager, a boy and a gangster. (155).
The Old Man and the Sea was published in 1952 and remains the last work of fiction published during Hemingway’s lifetime, and while the novella certainly leads the reader to the conclusion that Santiago finds a kind of victory in losing, a far more fascinating avenue for discussion is the fact that Santiago achieves the failure/victory through a physical working-class act that validates his masculinity.
After he has actually hooked the fish and is fighting him Santiago has a moment of admission:
Then he said aloud, “I wish I had the boy. To help me and to see this.” (48).
Santiago is not Melano’s biological father, but even if he was this admission is enough to support Kimmel’s idea that homo-social bonds between men are a way of reinforcing masculinity. Santiago wishes to prove not just to himself, or the village, but to the boy that he is strong and still capable. Fathers, I suspect without being one yet, want always to remain strong in the eyes of their sons because they want to embody the ideal of what being a man should be. I note however, returning to that dreaded theme, that ultimately all men fail in that regard sooner or later.
The issue of talking aloud also brings me back to this idea of masculinity though, because while linguistic studies have proven that men tend to talk more than women do in conversations, Hemingway most certainly was attuned to the idea that men do not talk. As such there appears to be a weakness in Santiago, but this is explained out in an early passage:
He did not remember when he had first started to talk aloud when he was by himself. He had sung when he was by himself in the old days and he had sung at night sometimes when he was alone steering on his watch in the smacks or in the turtle boats. He had probably started to talk aloud, when alone, when the boy had left. But he did not remember. When he and the boy fished together they usually spoke only when it was necessary. They talked at night or when they were storm-bound by bad weather. It was considered a virtue not to talk unnecessarily at sea and the Old man had always considered it so and respected it. But now he said his thoughts aloud many times since there was no one that they could annoy. (39).
This is an old stereotype that actual research has since disproven, but at the same time I’m hesitant to relinquish the idea that, at least in the company of other men, a man would avoid chattering. My own life provides some support to this idea. To this day I’ve found myself alone with my father-in-law on at least three occasions and each of those moments there has been utter and complete silence. Alright on one occasion I asked him how his work was going and he said “fine” and that’s about it. Now here I’m supposed to offer up the cliché that I’m afraid of the man, but that’s not true, I’m just afraid of failing in front of the man. Much like my own father, and just about every intellectual father I’ve encountered in my life, I’ve found myself tongue-tied and unwilling to speak because that violates the “man-code.” Now this situation has changed over time, and he’s actually talked to me on a few occasions but whether it’s him, my dad, or many of the male professors who I revere and respect, I note there’s a hesitancy to really open my mouth and talk.
I can’t really explain this out and that’s why I’ll let a brilliant woman do it for me.
I’ve referenced West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns in several of my essays, but that is simply because Tompkins is an impressive, insightful, and incredibly beautiful writer. Now The Old Man and the Sea is not a Western in the same way Blood Meridian, The Virginian, or Riders of the Purple Sage are Westerns, but Tompkins book is not just about the genre of the Western but about why men composed them in the first place. Westerns were often efforts to escape women and feminine behavior.
As for talking Tompkins offers a keen insight:
“To speak is literally to open the body to penetration by opening an orifice, it is to mingle the body’s substance of what is outside it” (56).
She follows this several pages on by noting:
The gesture of sweeping the board clear may be intended to clear away the reminders of emotional entanglements that cannot be dealt with or faced. Men would rather die than talk, because talking might bring up their own processed pain or risk a dam burst that would undo the front of imperturbable superiority. (67).
Santiago only confirms this when he says:
“What a fish,” he said. “He has it sideways in his mouth now and he is moving off with it.”
Then he will turn and swallow it, he thought. He did not say that because he knew that if you said a good thing it might not happen. (43).
This last sentiment is what is sometimes called “Tempting the fates;” it’s the idea that if you speak aloud what it almost assuredly going to happen the “fates” will decide to make sure that you fail in your endeavor just to spite you and teach you the lesson of rejecting vanity. Since Santiago isn’t well educated it’s fair to assume that he’s superstitious, but the fact remains that he recognizes again and again that talking weakens him in some way, at least in the ways of men. It is not through emotional, intellectual, or philosophical development and discussion that a man finds a sense of himself, it is through the physical demonstration.
It’s hard to argue with this on a practical level because of beer.
On several occasions I’ve helped my father with a termite job. He’s an exterminator and termite jobs involve drilling holes in concrete, dragging lengths of hose around stretches of property so that the holes can be filled with pesticides, and once the job is done these holes must be filled with concrete. It’s a long complicated job, but I what I tend to remember most about these gigs is the fact that once we were done we made the drive home and once there, Dad would open up two beers, and the taste of a beer after a long day’s physical labor tasted different than any other time before or after. The beer finishes the act because ingestion, like the act that lead you to the beer in the first place, is a purely physical action that doesn’t require much introspection. That’s all a fancy-pants way of saying that it’s nice and satisfying to simply enjoy a physical act and not think sometimes.
It’s this last sentiment that seems to be missing from the way Hemingway is taught, or at least the way Hemingway was taught to me. While the man has been butchered by Feminist critics, and let’s be fair here I’m a feminist too and even I admit Hemingway can be an ass sometimes, there’s an unfortunate development that teaching Hemingway’s model of masculinity is either outdated or inappropriate, but this always seems on some level to be both political and classicist. Santiago is a poor fisherman trying to prove himself, and even if his model of masculinity is outdated or sexist or ignorant it’s ridiculous to expect anything else out of the man because he doesn’t know anything else.
Santiago looks to his memory and his self to be strong, and in one memory in particular he looks once again to his past, specifically a physical demonstration of strength to bolster his courage. It’s a long quote, but necessary to really get at the heart of what I’m saying:
As sun set he remembered, to give himself more confidence, the time in the tavern at Casablanca when he had played the hand gave with the great negro from Cienfuegos who was the strongest man on the docks. They had gone one day and one night with their elbows on a chalk line on the table and their forearms straight up and their hands gripped tight. Each one was trying to force the other’s hand down onto the table. There was much betting and people went in and out of the room under the kerosene lights and he had looked at the arm and hand of the negro and at the negro’s face. They changed the referees every four hours after the first eight so that the referees could sleep. Blood came out from under the fingernails of both his and the negro’s hands and they looked each other in the eye and at their hands and forearms and the bettors went in and out of the room and sat on high chairs against the wall and watched. (68-9).
It continues on the next page:
But the Old man had raised his hand up to dead even again. He was sure then that he had the negro, who was a fine man and a great athlete, beaten. And at daylight when the bettors were asking that it be called a draw and the refer was shaking his head, he had unleashed his effort and forced the hand of the negro down and down until it rested on the wood. The match had started on a Sunday Morning and ended on a Monday morning. (70).
I recognize that I have not much explored the actual scenes in which Santiago fights against the fish, but without resorting to the maudlin of He-Man moral lessons from Saturday Morning Cartoons, the book really isn’t about the fish at all. The Old Man and the Sea is first and foremost about Santiago’s struggle to prove himself, and by extension his masculinity, to the fishermen of Havana. Because Working class men are not prone to metacognition or reflection, they express themselves through physical gestures, and there falls the tragedy of old men. As we age our bodies and minds tend to atrophy, and men who make their living solely using their body face the inevitability of eventually becoming useless. It might be a cliché, but Santiago has to prove to himself, to the people of Havana, but most of all to the boy that he is not useless and he most certainly succeeds in that endeavor.
Santiago’s story is as much about class and masculinity as it is about victory in failing because it’s these considerations that make his failure/victory so potent. A Poor Old Man entered the sea hoping for a catch, and while he returned all of these things, he had found for himself what both of these identities meant for him.
Men throw their lines into the sea, neither hoping nor praying, but silent and waiting for the gifts of Mother Ocean.
I’ve included a link to the Jammer Talks About segment for Catalyst University that started this essay. If you’re at all interested: