Pink Lips & Bubbles
21 May 2017
abscence of evidence for god's existence, Atheism, atheism identity, Atheism is NOT a religion it's important to remember that, biological arguments, Book Review, Challenging Faith, Christopher Hitchens, Episcopal Church, Essay, foundation of reality, Gal Gadot, god is not Great, Individual Will, Joshua Jammer Smith, letter, Mrs. Jean Watts, nature, Objections to Religious Faith, Personal Development, Philosophy, Reality, reason, reflection, religion, religious corruption, Skepticism, The Matrix, Wonder Woman
Let me begin by apologizing. Before you protest that I’m always apologizing you’re right but this one does need some explanation. You see over the last few months I wasn’t in a good place. In fact I was in a rotten one, a fucking rotten one. Graduating college wasn’t the entrance into some new golden world as I had thought or dreamt it would be because I discovered the institution I had attended and hoped to teach at wouldn’t hire me. That resulted in a long period of joblessness which, while it saw a blossoming of writing, didn’t see anything in the realm of actual employment. Add to that my wife was bouncing between jobs and encouraging me to consider teaching high school. Now I hated high school and I hated being a teenager so imagine B spending the rest of my life in such an environment. It didn’t get better after that despite the fact I was offered a teaching job at a local college. I was lobbying to teach there but as always no positions were available until one of the professors had a family emergency and needed someone to cover her classes till the end of the semester. I hopped into the gig thinking that I would be teaching college students, when in fact, I wounded up teaching college students who were really just high school students. The students didn’t want to be there and after just a few weeks I realized I didn’t want to be there either. I realized day by day that I was miserable. And then the depression kicked in. Finding yourself huddled up in a ball and crying in a shower twice a week for eight weeks is a hell of a thing B—–, but it gives you some perspective. It was near the end of the that semester that several of my friends, unbeknownst to me, had begun to lobby for me at the Tyler Public Library. One of my friends is a full time employee there, and two others are part time, and because people tend to see something in me that I don’t they continued to lobby for me while I day-by-day began to realize that I actually wanted to work there. I was ready to leave college behind and start a new path. And when a temp job opened up I knew, for my own health that I had to take the library job.
This is a long fucking opening B—–, I know that, but I just wanted to offer explanation as to why I haven’t been writing back, and also why I decided to begin this enterprise that I’m starting with this letter.
You see you’d be surprised how many atheists and agonistics work at the library. One of them is one of the friends I spoke of, and one night while we were closing we were discussing being atheists, the end of our faith, secular humanist mommy groups (that’s a thing, they exist) and of course Christopher Hitchens. We briefly discussed the book god is not Great, because both of us had read the book and credited it as the document which helped us realize we were atheists. I say realize because I distrust people who say they “became” atheists, it reeks of false conviction. But as I was heading up the stairs towards the employee exit, I thought about our talk and I thought about our letters. The first letter I ever sent you B—–, included a quote from god is not Great, and I recommended that you read the book.
What I’m offering now B—–, is the chance to read the book and talk about it chapter by chapter. This could take a year, it could take only a few months, but I like the idea and I want to give it a shot. So this first letter will address the first chapter of Hitchens’s book.
Although before we begin I have to tell you that your current girlfriend looks remarkably similar to Gal Gadot. The Halloween party picture you sent where you were both Wonder Woman was just eerily similar and on an entirely unrelated note I cannot wait for the new Wonder Woman movie. Wonder Woman, World War I, AND Gal Gadot. Jammer be happy.
Picking up god is not Great has been a fascinating reminder of how much I have actually grown in my personal belief B—–, or lack of belief if you want to be specific. I noticed myself reading the opening chapter and feeling somewhat stalled. I feel lousy admitting that, especially about Old Hitch, but I think, to his credit, it’s because I’ve read so much about atheism because of him and so his initial arguments seem, to quote Aerosmith, like the Same Old Song and Dance.
Still if you’re reading this book for the first time, these ideas and declarations are bold and unsparing. The first chapter, if you’ve read it already, starts off with a declaration of his beliefs that he titles “Putting it Mildly.” What I love, from the start, is how Hitch recognizes that he’s going to be attacked the moment he hits the ground running. If you don’t believe me watch how he starts the book:
If the intended reader of this book should want to go beyond disagreement with its author and try to identify the sins and deformities that animated him to write it (and I have certainly noticed that those who publicly affirm charity and compassion and forgiveness are often inclined to take this course), then he or she will not just be quarreling with the unknowable and ineffable creator who—presumably—opted to make me this way. They will be defiling the memory of a good, sincere, simple woman, of stable and decent faith, named Mrs. Jean Watts. (1)
There’s a lot to get into in this first chapter B—–, and I can’t possibly cover all of it, but I wanted to start off with this quote because it provides insight to the reality facing out and about public atheists. I’ve been fortunate in my life that I’ve avoided such treatment by supposed “believers” but that’s usually because I only inform people about my lack of faith to people I know and trust. If a random Christian asks me about my faith I’ll usually just say something like “I was raised in the Episcopal church.” I’ve found though sometimes that when I out myself as an atheist those people who are bothered by it will usually just ignore me and quietly pray for my soul. But just because I’ve had it easy doesn’t mean that other people have. Atheists are some of the most distrusted people on this planet, and I suspect the only reason I don’t have people writing me angry letters telling me to suck dicks in hell is because I’m just some shit-for-shit nobody with a shit-for-shit blog.
How many shits was that by the way, I lost count. Must have been thinking about Gal Gadot again. There’s this one picture of her wearing glasses and this nice hat…
What I like about this opening however is that, while it does acknowledge the tendency of many people of faith to demonize atheists it also reinforces an observation I’ve had, which is that real atheists tend to be those who’ve experienced real religious instruction. Hitchens describes his early teacher Mrs. Jean Watts, as a sweet and kind woman who taught the children about nature and spirituality. Hitchens was raised in this environment and one moment was eventually attributed to his early skepticism:
However, there came a day when poor, dear Mrs. Watts overreached herself. Seeking ambitiously to fuse her two roles as nature instructor and Bible teacher, she said, “So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is. He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color that is most restful to our eyes. Imagine if instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be.” (2)
I suspect B—-, that every atheist has a moment like this. I sometimes refer to it as the “aha” moment, but really it’s probably more accurate to call it the “really, oh for fuck’s sake” moment, because honestly that what you feel when it happens. Or at least that’s what I felt when I experienced mine. Unlike some atheists that will profess having some kind of dramatic realization, real mature atheism occurs, much like religious instruction. It takes time, real study, introspection, and finally just one moment of initial skepticism. I’ll never forget mine.
A preacher from the local Baptist church in town came by to deliver the sermon, and given the fact that I attended an “Episcopal” school I failed to really observe the fascinating dynamic of a Protestant sermonizing at a Catholic-Light institution. He was a charming character and boomed rather than softly spoke, and the lingering sensation of him is the fact that I was wrapped up in his story. It was the Loaves and Fishes tale retold from the position of a boy who happened to be at the scene retelling the event to his mother. I was about twelve years old at the time, but I was transfixed by this man and his ability. I wondered where the story would go, or how it would end, and even after I realized this was the loaves and fishes story I’ll never forget the moment when the man raised a finger in the air and spoke:
“And do you know who that man was Momma? That man’s name? It was Jesus Mama. Jesus Christ.”
Something dropped into my stomach and I suspect it was the angels because that’s what it felt like. It felt like I had finally woken up and seen Christianity for what it was, or at least what it had always been: a cheap sell using a piss-poor story.
Faith and belief was shown for what it was B—-, a club ticket rather than a spiritual tool. It didn’t stop right there, and in fact it wouldn’t truly diminish until I read Hitchens’s god is not Great a year after graduating high school, but that moment of initial skepticism I believe is crucial and one of the reasons Hitchens makes it the start of his book.
Christianity is an institution, one that is wrapped up in almost every level of our culture. I won’t compare the skeptics and atheists and agnostics to Neo in The Matrix because that seems too dramatic a metaphor, but the first moment sometimes does resemble that scene when he wakes up in the gel and looks around the world. You begin to see how the power structure is embedded at every level. It’s important B—-, to have a social network so that one doesn’t feel alone in the world, and while there is Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Blogs, T.V. shows, and the internet in general, books can go a long way in helping someone reassess their beliefs or even just feel validated.
Reading this first chapter again I always remember that preacher and so there is an identification. Christopher Hitchens and I went through the same experience and that makes me recognize that my skepticism isn’t something unnatural, it’s common. That banalization is important for arguments I’ll try to get into later.
But this opening chapter is the first in what can really and should be called a kind of Manifesto. The readers who pick up god is not Great are reading the work of a new generation of atheists who feel free enough to openly declare their sentiments, opinions, and belief without (much) fear of the societal rebuttal. And Hitch, being the man that he was, decides to not spare anything and simply declare his sentiments to his reader:
There still remain four irreducible objections to religious faith: that it wholly misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos, that because of this original error it manages to combine the maximum of servility with the maximum of solipsism, that it is both the result and the cause of dangerous sexual repression, and that it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking. (4).
These four points perfectly sum up my own position for why I believe religion is a dangerous institution. You’ll note B—-, that I said religion and not god. I’ve told you before B—– that the reason I don’t believe in god is not because of religion but from my own observations of reality. Because there is no empirical evidence for the existence of a divine being I cannot in good conscience profess belief or even pretend to believe in one. Likewise talking about the possibilities of such a being, or philosophy about that being’s intentions, from my perspective, is absurd.
It doesn’t matter the extent of god’s power because until there’s evidence for god’s existence there’s no point asking such questions. To put it another way, it’s useless arguing how many angle could fit on the head of a pin, or what is the molecular make-up of a unicorn’s horn. Neither have any solid proof of their existence so there’s no point having the conversation.
I take that back. Unicorns exist. They’re called Rhinos and they’re awesome.
This quote is vital however because it lays the foundation for everything that’s going to follow in Hitchens’s book. He lays out his ideas in the form of a thesis and statement of belief so that the reader can determine what is his ultimate position. Religion, and by extension god, are pollutants because they distract human beings from reality. They make man the focal point, the prime locus of the entirety of creation, and that allows human beings the opportunity to perform vile actions because they are the chosen creation. And, of course, this spawns dickish behavior ranging from murder, torture, rape, pedophilia, genocide, and wearing sandals with socks. (#Never Forget #Never Forgive).
I know the objection B—–, and I’m getting rather tired of it to be honest, but I’ll indulge it in the spirit of fairness. The charge, by the casual believer, is that atheism is a religion too. That atheists turn their godlessness into a kind of faith and that this in turn makes them just as much of self-centered assholes as religious people.
And you know, my problem B—–, is that most public atheists don’t really help me much here. Bill Maher regularly turns his atheism into a merit badge, Richard Dawkins actually has little merit badge pins that are large red “A’s,” and David Silverman has tried to establish an atheist television channel, and Sam Harris is the textbook definition of a giant douche-bag. The real problem is that most of the men I’ve just cited aren’t in fact atheists, but really more of anti-theists. And even Old-Hitch himself fell into this category.
If I can save the man though, at least a little in your eyes, let me offer the second most important quote from this chapter:
And here is the point about myself and my co-thinkers. Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake. We do not hold our convictions dogmatically: the disagreement between Professor Steen Jay Gould and Professor Richard Dawkins, concerning “punctuated evolution” and the unfilled gaps in the post-Darwinian theory, is quite wide as well as quite deep, but we shall resolve it by evidence and reasoning and not by mutual excommunication. (5).
In short B—– it goes back to a point I’ve made before in these letters. Atheism, by it’s very definition, cannot be a religion. It can most certainly be called an “ism,” and therefore should be looked on with skepticism. But anyone who would argue that a lifestyle and philosophy can emerge from this position is fooling themselves. Atheism is simply, or at least the way I’ve executed it in my lifetime, an absence of belief and faith in god. That’s it.
I place whatever “faith” I have in this life, not with a god, but with facts, knowledge, data, and information. I trust these because they are determinant purely upon faith, but by real material reality. A fact is determined by the collection of humanity observing the same phenomena and recording it, doubting it, testing it, and finally resolving it into reality. That’s the way knowledge is produced, coallated, and recorded for posterity.
I live my life now in the absence of god and there’s a lovely freedom to it that I’ll explore in later letters. I just wanted to start here B—– with an understanding of what Hitchens believes atheism is and how he’ll go about arguing it, and whether or not I agree with his points. I agree that Hitch can be abrasive, and there are certain elements of the text that I disagree with, but the quotes I’ve provided here are used because they seem to perfectly reflect my position. They did when I was a nineteen year old kid who had known nothing but the church, and spent most of his time reading with a heavy lump in his chest and crying while turning the pages. It felt like I had finally found the voice I had been waiting for. The person who had made the exact arguments I had been making in my head for years.
Which leads me to the final argument in this letter. There’s a temptation to make the lack of belief and faith into some kind of dramatic affair. It shouldn’t be. And that’s the point. Belief in the foundation of reality is difficult B—–, obviously, and unfortunately the arguments surrounding it have become wrapped up in emotion, politics, and power structures, so much so that, when a man decides to write a book criticizing religion he has to start the book by predicting a pushback. I don’t ever want our letters to be as such, because I know you are a believer. And so let’s hope in this correspondence for further dialogue rather than mutual excommunication.
Besides, even if we disagree about god we can both agree Gal Gadot’s going to be the best part of the new Wonder Woman and Justice League movie. As if there was any doubt of that.
It may be a while till my next letter, but keep writing, I enjoy your responses.
Sincerely, yours in the best of confidence and support,
Joshua “Jammer” Smith
A while ago Cracked.com got into a bit of trouble because they posted an article about the way atheists communicate in public and why their methods were flawed. This, to no one’s real surprise, created a bit of a tizzy by atheists themselves who proceeded to shit all over Cracked. I haven’t gotten a chance to read it myself, but whenever people are offended or bothered by a piece of writing I immediately pick it up and read it because people always get upset for the wrong reasons. Plus, discourse is important. Enjoy:
I’ve also attached a link to a newspaper article from my alma matter UT Tyler. A friend of mine was writing a piece about religion and college students and he wanted to get some of my insight about being an atheist. It is, as far as I know, the only time my name has appeared in newsprint. The article ends on a positive note about faith, which is rather annoying, but it’s still a well written article. If you’re at all interested B—–, simply follow the link below.
I don’t really have anything to add here B—–, I just wanted to gush about the fact that Gal Gadot is playing Wonder Woman again. I’m not obsessed, I promise, there’s just something….something….
Well shit I can’t remember. What ridiculous fool I am. At least I’m cute.
Africa, African History, Apartheid, biography, Biography as Craft, Book Review, Born a Crime, Born a Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood, Father-Son Relationship, fathers, Feminism, history, Hitch-22, Humor, Jim Henson: A Life, Jon Stewart, library card, Masculinity Studies, memoir, mothers, Politics, race, racism, Racism is not logical, Satire, sex, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, South Africa, The Daily Show, Tolstoy, Trevor Noah, Tyler Public Library, violence, What Mothers Give Their Children
I’m pretty sure my mother is using me for my library card.
Ever since I started working for the Tyler Public Library my eyes have opened to the pettiness of local government, and the pain that can sometimes be public service. The Tyler Library is a significant one: we have one of the few full time Genealogy/Local History rooms that is open full time in East Texas. Along with that we serve a wide variety of people who come in looking for books, DVDs, access to computers and the internet, and a regular series of public speaking events in which people come to listen and watch professionals talk on topics ranging from Rose growing to the future of Nuclear Arsenal Diplomacy on the international stage. The problem with the library, like almost every library I’m sure, is funding. Because only the city of Tyler’s taxes go to fund us, people who live within the county but not the city have to pay a membership fee. My reader may be wondering what this has to do with my mother or Trevor Noah’s wonderful autobiography Born a Crime. I’m sorry, I like to talk, but I’m getting to it.
My mother lives in Smith county but she lives in a small town called Noonday which barely caps 400 people. She then, like many people in Smith county, complain about the fact that their tax dollars are being taken but they still have to pay to use the library. In her defense, she understands the money situation since I’ve explained it to her, but often I have to smile and carefully explain to patrons that the county refuses to pay us and therefore we have to charge a fee to stay in the black. Few people really understand this because of the unspoken maxim that I agree with in principle: Libraries should be free.*
But my mother likes to read and I like my mother, she’s got good taste in music and pays my cell phone bill, so I decided to arrange a system in which I would check out books that she wants to read and loan them to her. The system has worked so far, but as I noted from the start I think she’s enjoying this arrangement because every time I see her she’s asking for another book.
This little anecdote though does serve a purpose because as I noted before this essay is my response to Trevor Noah’s autobiography Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. I didn’t know about Trevor Noah at all until he got in trouble for an offensive tweet, and to be fair that was really only because he was taking over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show and people were looking to disrupt the institution at this supposed moment of weakness. Stewart left, Noah began, I stopped watching for a while. It wasn’t that he wasn’t funny, it just that he was new and I’m one of those obnoxious people who has to settle into things slowly. Still I enjoy The Daily Show and Noah himself has begun to really demonstrate that he’s made The Daily Show into his own and so I’ve become a regular watcher again, and in fact, in the last few months I’ve come to adore Trevor Noah as a comedian, and even more as a writer and Born a Crime is largely responsible.
I checked the book out from the library (my desk is literally right next to the New Books area) and read the first two chapters knowing instantly that my mother would love this book. I know it sounds ridiculous or absurd to suggest that I have anything in common with a celebrity (especially one who’s seemed to have a far more interesting and eventful life than I have), but reading these first two chapters I realized that Trevor Noah and his mother had a relationship that mirrored the relationship my mother and I have. A strange closeness that fortunately isn’t Oedipal.
I told her to read just the first two chapters.
I didn’t get the book back for a week.
Noah’s biography took me completely by surprise because I’ve read the autobiographies of comedians before, and most of them, if I’m being charitable, aren’t worth reading. It’s not that they aren’t funny, it’s just that most of them are just opportunities to track their individual development and show where they’ve come from. I know there’s merit and real humanity in such works, but the problem is too often these books are also just a chance to rap and ramble about everything and anything that comes into their heads. Noah’s book is different however, because his story chronicles not just his awkward puberty and childhood, it also tackles the issues of race, political corruption, domestic violence, crime, and poverty while still managing to be entertaining and well written. Trevor Noah’s very existence was a crime because, growing up in South Africa during apartheid, being the child of a black woman and a white man, he was a crime against the state.
Noah’s book often explores the sheer absurdity of apartheid in small segments between the chapters of the book. One passage which is one of my mother’s favorites, discusses the labeling of Chinese South Africans as black. He explains:
Apartheid, for all it’s power, had fatal flaws baked in, starting with the fact that it never made any sense. Racism is not logical. Consider this: Chinese people were classified as black in South Africa. I don’t mean that they were running around acting black. They were still Chinese. But unlike Indians, there weren’t enough Chinese people to warrant devising a whole separate classification. Apartheid, despite its intricacies and precision, didn’t know what to do with them, so the government said, “Eh, we’ll just call ‘em black. It’s simpler that way.”
Interestingly, at the same tie, Japanese people were labeled as white. The reason for this was that the South African government wanted to establish good relations with the Japanese in order to import their fancy cars and electronics. So Japanese people were given the honorary white status while Chinese people stayed black. (75).
I still can’t read this passage without cracking up. The stupidity is just mind-boggling. Then again the United States Constitution originally labeled black people as three fifths of a human being so I suppose it’s important to remember that racism is a worldly stupidity rather than just a regional one.
One of the joys of reading Noah’s biography is the fact that, as a comedian, his retelling of one of the most truly despicable institutionalized race segregationist policies never becomes dramatic, hyperbolic, or soul-crushingly depressing. Instead of levelling on and on about the atrocities of apartheid, Noah tries constantly to present the small absurdities in his life while observing how they would relate to the wider national community. And in this right, I would argue, Noah succeeds far better in demonstrating the ineffectiveness of apartheid, because while concerted political efforts were what ultimately brought down such an odious system, it’s the power of subverting the institution through laughter that a real victory is achieved.
If you can laugh at something, it’s difficult to take it too seriously.
There so many levels to Noah’s biography in terms of race. One of the most prominent is also one of the hilarious and tragic scenes in the book. Noah describes his early infancy when his mother and biological father tried to take Noah outside for activity.
Where most children are proof of their parent’s love I was the proof of their criminality. The only time I could be with my father was indoors. If we left the house, he’d half to walk across the street from us. My mom and I used to go to Joubert Park all the time. It’s the Central Park of Johannesburg—beautiful gardens a zoo, a giant chess-board with human-sized pieces that people would play. My mother tells me that once, when I was a toddler, my dad tried to go with us, and I ran after him, screaming, “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” People started. He panicked and ran away. I thought it was a game and kept chasing him. (27).
This passage is funny upon first reading, but by the second or third time I’m reading it I wonder (while still laughing) the pain of not being able to even be seen in public with your child.
Before I start the maudlin crap though I really do want to acknowledge how well written this biography is. I’ve observed before that it can be difficult to find truly great biographies. A.N. Wilson’s Tolstoy is always the first that comes to mind, Che: A Revolutionary Life by Jo Lee Anderson comes next, Jim Henson: A Life by Brian Jay Jones (Also look up his George Lucas), Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens, I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai, and recently I’ve begun Life by Keith Richards. This list may seem to contradict my statement before about the scarcity of truly great biographies but in fact it only reinforces it. These books are products of a careful craft (pardon the alliteration) that tries to leave the reader with a real sense of the person under discussion, and rather than try to chronicle every detail of a person’s existence, it instead tries to offer the heart and personality in all its beauty and flaws.
Reading Born a Crime I feel like I know Trevor Noah’s personality, rather than just his facts.
And if I can offer one last sentiment, what is beautiful about the book for me is how much I come to recognize that the pair of us do have one thing in common: we grew up under strong women. The impression of Born a Crime that lingers for me is how Patricia Noah helped shape Trevor into the man he became. One quote is enough to see this because I return to it over and over again:
I grew up in a world of violence, but I myself was never violent at all. Yes, I played pranks and set fires and broke windows, but I never attacked people. I never hit anyone. I was never angry. I just didn’t see myself that way. My mother had exposed me to the books she never got to read. She took me to the schools that she never got to go to. I immersed myself in those worlds and I came back looking at the world a different way. I saw the futility of violence, the cycle that just repeats itself, the damage that’s inflicted on people that they in turn inflict upon others.
I saw, more than anything, that relationships are not sustained by violence but by love. Love is a creative act. When you love someone you create a new world for them. My mother did that for me, and with the progress I made and the things I learned, I came back and created a new world and a new understanding for her. After that she never raised her hand to her children again. Unfortunately, by the time she stopped Abel had started. (262).
This passage is beautiful to me because it perfectly summarizes the home I was raised in, or at least the philosophy that governed it. Both of my parents grew up in homes where physical abuse was not controversial, it was just a common means of discipline. I was raised by parents who disagreed with that idea, who instead wanted their children to see that violence doesn’t check anything, all it does is inspire more of itself. Violence becomes a kind of cancer eating at the people who perform it and suffer from it until there’s nothing left. If anything, this passage seems like the most important in the entire book because ultimately this biography centers on Noah and his mother.
The relationships between mothers and sons can be complicated, because if men profess too much admiration or devotion to them the accusation of Oedipus complex becomes a loud prison sentence. Anyone who needs much evidence of this simply look to the “Martha” controversy of Batman Vs Superman. But mothers are important for a young man’s development because she becomes the first relationship. Mothers, the good ones anyway, teach their sons emotional strength and then eventually how to interact with the world. They teach them the proper ways to speak and act towards women. They teach them about the importance of family. They teach their sons love, and what that word really means against the supposed images and representations of it that crowd the media. This last lesson is important, the most important, because as Noah’s biography demonstrates that love is what helps develop people into the individuals they are and instills in them their ideals and moral constructions.
I had a wonderful mother who encouraged me to create and love rather than destroy. That guidance has led me to where I am today. Likewise, Noah had a loving mother who suffered and endured a pain that would break most people, but through it all endured and taught her son that essential quality.
Born a Crime isn’t just a story about racism, it’s a testament to a mother’s love for her son. And his success is only further proof that she probably deserves some kind of official “Mom of the Year” award, because you don’t get shot in the head and live through that and not receive any kind of accommodation. Spoilers.
Since writing this essay one of the library staff explained, rather effectively, that nothing in life is “free,” and in fact if you look at the way libraries work since their founding, they are most certainly not free. Books, internet access, and DVDs don’t magically appear from thin air and so libraries have to receive fuding of some kind, usually from taxes and grant funding. I’m writing this out because this attitude of “Libraries should be free” is bullshit and it needs to stop being perpetuated.
All quotes from Born a Crime were taken from the Spiegel & Grau First edition hardback copy.
For the record I don’t mind if my mother uses my library card. Shegave birth me and continues to support me financially, philosophically, emotionally, intellectually, etc., and reads whatever I write here. She also, from time to time, recommends great books. So thanks Mom, you rock. Love you.
Book Review, Circles, Edith Hamilton, Edith Hamilton's Mythology, Freya's Unusual Wedding, gods, Heimdall, Humor, Literature, Loki, MJolnir, myth, mythology, Neil Gaiman, Norse Mythology, Odin, Poetic Edda, Prose Edda, Ragnarock, Reimagined Narratives, Sexy Norse Gods, story, The Sandman, The World Tree, Thor, Writing
I believe there is a quote that says, “A fool and his money are soon parted,” but that sumbitch never read Neil Gaiman.
I was annoyed and frustrated with myself a few weeks back because Neil Gaiman and David Sedaris were both giving public readings in Dallas this year, and by the time I discovered the where and when of the venue the performance halls were already sold out. This was painful because not only were two of my favorite authors coming close enough to me to actually hear them read and speak in public, but every person attending these events were going to receive a free signed copy of their most recent books with a purchase of a ticket. So probably not actually free, but it feels free. I have no one but myself to blame for this missed chance, and since I already suffer from undiagnosed depression and give myself a pretty hard time I needed something to lift my spirits.
To Amazon I went.
Now I was aware of the fact that Neil Gaiman had started a new book, and once some of the early advertisements started appearing I knew I had to read Norse Mythology. I was originally just going to pre-order it, but then life happened I forgot, but once I started working at the Tyler Public Library and saw that we had ordered a copy I placed the first hold. Ever since I’ve begun working at the library my compulsive book shopping has, no stopped exactly, but at least dwindled to manageable levels. Why purchase a book when I can simply check it out and know that it’s there just a ten minute drive away? The book came in and I just devoured it, but halfway through reading it I realized that I needed my own copy. And so one night while searching through amazon I spotted, not just a hardback first edition, but an autographed copy. I’m a poor man, but also a fool, and so I proved the philosopher correct and divorced myself from 60 of my hard earned dollars. I don’t regret a thing.
Norse Mythology as a book has been a revelation because, like many people who went through the educational system in the United States I assume, I never learned much, or anything really, about the Norse Gods. Going to the school I did I was steeped in the classical tradition. We read The Odyssey, Oedipus Rex, The Aeneid, Medea, Julius Caesar, and in the seventh grade I was assigned Edith Hamilton’s standard Mythology. This book, which still sits in my shelf today, was a great resource and a wonderful opening to the complicated world of Greek Myth, but I noted at the time that there was a small portion in the back of the book that my teacher never got around to assigning to us. In the back of Hamilton’s book is 24 pages (I counted) dedicated to the Norse Gods and their mythos. I forgie Edith Hamilton for the sparseness of this section since hard written records of Norse myth aren’t as prevalent as Greek or Roman records, but something has always irked me about the way this section of myth feels simply tacked on, when an in-depth reading and study of these myths reveals a great bounty of lore and stories.
As soon as my copy of Norse Mythology came in I showed it to my friend TJ, the founder of the graphic novel book club I’m a part of, and we both briefly compared the book, and it’s ambition, to Edith Hamilton’s work speculating that there now exists the possibility that within a few years it could be assigned in schools for a similar purpose. I honestly believe this, and after completing the book my assessment remains. Neil Gaiman has achieved through his efforts a beautiful book which has made me slap my head repeatedly wondering why it took me so long to read, and enjoy, Norse Myths.
To begin with I have to briefly mention “Freya’s Unusual Wedding” which is the story of how the god Thor lost his now iconic hammer Mjolnir. Though Gaiman opens the book with individual descriptions of each god and their affinities and powers, each story on occasion provides some background material. The chapter that covers the “wedding” begins with such a description of Thor’s Hammer.
Thor’s hammer was called Mjollnir. It has been made by the dwarf’s Brokk and Eitri. It was one of the treasures of the gods. If Thor hit anything with it, that thing would be destroyed. If he threw the hammer at something, the hammer would never miss its target, and would always flay back through the air and return to his hand. He could shrink the hammer down and hide it inside his shirt, and he could make it grow again. It was a perfect hammer in all things except one: it was slightly too short in the handle, which meant that Thor had to swing it one handed.
The hammer kept the gods of Asgaurd safe from all the dangers that menaced them and the world. Frost giants and ogres, trolls and monsters of every kind, all were frightened of Thor’s hammer. (109-110).
As it turns out the giants stole Thor’s hammer one night while he was asleep, and Heimdall, the guardian of Asgaurd who sees all, comes up with a plan on how to infiltrate the giant’s keep and steal the hammer back. The gods are discussing how to retreave Mjollnir when the most hilarious passage in the book is related:
“Well?” said Loki. “What about you Heimdall? Doyou have any suggestions?”
“I do,” said Heimdall. “But you won’t like it.”
Thor banged his fist down upon the table. “It does not matter whether or not we like it,” he said. “We are gods! There is nothing that any of us gathered here would not do to get back Mjollnir, the hammer of the gods. Tell us your idea, and it is a good idea, we will like it.”
“You won’t like it,” said Heimdall.”
“We will like it!”
“Well,” said Heimdall, “I think we should dress Thor as a bride. Have him put on the necklace of Brisings. Have him wear a bridal crown. Stuff his dress so he looks like a woman. Veil his face. We’ll have him wears keys that jingle, as women do, drape him in jewels—”
“I don’t like it!” said Thor. “People will think…well, for a start they’ll think I dress up in women’s clothes.” (115-6).
I noted that this passage was one of the most hilarious passages, rightfully so I would argue, and that distinction is important for too often in myth there seems to be an absence of humor. Perhaps it’s just the education I received growing up, but myth seems to be steeped in relentless tragedy, violence, rape, depravity, or anguish. I cannot recall any real humor in the Greek Pantheon, and seeing as how that was the only real pantheon apart from the Egyptians I was exposed to, the fact that a moment of humor could exist in mythology was a breath of fresh air. Thor eventually gets his hammer back after a long series of jokes and gags that rely on the uber masculine worldview of the ancient Nords, and promptly slaughters the giants. Still no word though on whether the catering was good or not.
Gaimans Norse Mythology relates the world and the gods and creatures that inhabit the world of the Nordic mythos, however unlike Edith Hamilton, who seemed to retain a kind of academic distance from her topic, Neil Gaiman allows his retelling of myth to be imbued with a little more character. Gaiman has explored these characters before and so this gives him a great edge. Any and all readers who have ever taken the time to read his graphic novel The Sandman Season of Mist is sure to remember the blustering oaf that is Thor and the sly demonic figure of Loki who would aid the Dream King in a way that would not be made entirely clear until the later Sandman volumes. I’d relate more but I’m preparing myself mentally to review those books one by one by one so the reader will have to be patient.
Now I can hear the contester. By the sounds of it Gaiman is taking a self-indulgent exercise by simply retelling the stories of the Norse Myth, why should I bother with that? If I want the stories of the Norse gods I should just read the Poetic Edda or the Prose Edda if I hate myself and life in general?
I should first remind my contester that if you hate yourself, you should really be reading the collected works of James Patterson. There’s a great difference between crap and art, and then there is work which tries to be neither because it is really nothing at all.
But as to the real complaint Neil Gaiman himself provides some response in his introduction to the work as he notes the fate of the original written materials and oral tales:
We have lost so much. (14)
He goes on to say:
I’ve tried my best to retell these myths and stories as accurately as I can, and as interestingly as I can.
Sometimes details in the stories contradict each other. But I hope that they paint a picture of a world and a time. As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside the small hours, awake in the unending lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight or midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from. (14-15).
Gaiman’s book is not an academic reproduction of the Norse Myths, and if the reader is truly interested in such a work translations exist and are constantly being produced. Gaiman is honest in the fact that he just wants to retell these stories, and that’s all the creative justification he needs. Because he is working with myth, and not a more contemporary story, he can rewrite these stories and incorporate more personality and dialogue into them, and while some might argue that that is “corrupting” the original myths they fail to see that this is a fallacy. Myths by their very nature are fluid beings that have shifted and altered over time. They adapt and change depending on the teller, and while written documents are considered sacred, it’s important to remember that when readers encounter such written documents, particularly ancient ones, the conflict of authorial intent becomes tricky and messy. I’m trying to say, sloppily, is that because these are myths Gaiman doesn’t have to make these a new Prose Edda. Instead he can, like Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, simply tell the stories that have been told over and over again, but bring a new life or light to them that feels relevant to the age he’s writing in.
That’s what’s marvelous about myth is that it can change.
I was taught in school, briefly, that Norse Myths were dark, gloomy, depressing stories in which every god was ultimately doomed to die. This eventual end, referred often to as Ragnarock, is inevitable and Edith Hamilton briefly describes this reality in her Mythology:
The World of Norse mythology is a strange world. Asgard, the home of the gods, is unlike any other heaven men have dreamed of. No radiancy of joy is in it, no assurance of bliss. It is a gave and solemn place, over which hangs the threat of an inevitable doom. The gods know a day will come when they will be destroyed. (443)
She continues this gloomy description a few days later:
All the best Northern tales are tragic, about men and women wh go steadfastly forward to meet death, often deliberately choose it, even plan it long beforehand. The only light in the darkness is heroism. (446).
This being my only real exposure to these myths at first I honestly thought that Norse Mythology was going to be a dark read of nothing but hopelessness. Obviously, I forgot every Neil Gaiman story I had ever read. Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse Myths can be dark, but each story is told in such a way that the reader is able to see Gaiman’s passion and dedication to these stories and that energy translates into a beautiful story that, even at it’s most grotesque or horrifying, still manages to sound lovely.
But what’s important ultimately is the way in which Neil Gaiman completes his book. Rather than end on Ragnarok, and end with death and destruction, Gaiman demonstrates his lasting importance as a story teller for he leaves these characters not with death, but a circle.
After the final battle in which Odin, Thor, Loki, Heimdall, and all the gods of Asgard are destroyed there is left a small party including the gods Balder and Magni who are looking over the battlefield. Balder spots something:
They go down on their knees in the long grass, the gods like children.
Magni, Thor’s son, is the first to find one of the things in the long grassm and once he finds it, he knows what it is. It is a golden chess piece, the kind the gods played with when the gods still lived. It is a tiny golden caring of Odin, the all father, on his high thrones: the king.
They find more of them. Here is Thor, holding his hammer. There is Heimdall, his horn at his lips. Frigg, Odin’s wife, is the queen.
Balder holds up a little golden statue. “That one looks like you,” Modi tells him.
“It is me,” says Balder. “It is me long ago, before I died, when I was of the Aesir.”
They will find other pieces in the grass, some beautiful, some less so. Here. Half buried in the black soil, are Loki and the monstrous children. There is a frost giant. There is Sutr, his face all aflame.
Soon they will find they have all the pieces they could ever need to make a full chess set. They arrange the pieces into a chess game: on the tabletop chessboard the gods of Asgard face their eternal enemies. The new-minted sunlight glints from the golden chessmen on this perfect afternoon.
Balder will smile, like the sun coming out, and reach down, and he will move his first piece.
And the game begins anew. (280-283).
At the end of this review I think back to the conversation I had with my friend about the future readers who find Gaiman’s book. I was assigned Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, but I’ve never gotten rid of my copy of the book, because no matter how many times I’ve tried I’ve yet to find someone who made the Greek myths so accessible. Having a book like Mythology allowed me the chance to actually understand and process the myths that have inspired thousands of years of writers, poets, playwrights, and artists who have shaped our culture. The Norse Myths have often, it seems, fallen upon deaf ears, but in the last few decades I have observed new legions of people discover and invest themselves in the characters and stories of Thor, Loki, Balder, Freya, and the old clever Odin. Gaiman’s book then is a boon to a new generation, and humanity period because it, like Mythology, will expose a generation to these myths which have too often been ignored or written off as hopelessly bleak.
Yes the gods die, and yes their stories are filled with bloody mahem, but the final image reveals, to me at least, a far more final conclusion than the Greek pantheon. Rather than simply live on a mountain and occasionally step down to rape the local girls, the Norse gods are aware of their ultimate end, but as Gaiman reveals it there is no real end. The gods die but are then ultimately remade. Their stories end and then start anew meaning that there is no true end or true beginning.
The stories continue ever afterwards, and there is no better testament to the quality of myth.
All quotes taken from Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman were taken from the W.W. Norton & Company hardback first edition. All quotes from Mythology by Edith Wharton were taken from the Little, Brown & Company Paperback.
For the record Red of Overly Sarcastic Reviews still probably has the best rendition of Norse Mythology after Gaiman and most of what I knew before reading his book came from this video.
While looking up images to include in this article I stumbled upon, what appears to be a sexy pin-up calendar using the Norse Gods, all of them men. I couldn’t find a good place for them in the article, so I included them here. Enjoy…how could you not?
Alice Walker, Black Sexuality, Black Woman Sexuality, Black women's narratives, Breasts, Celie and Shug, clitoris, Description of the Female Body, Everyday Use, Female Masturbation, Feminism, Hermoine Didn't Masturbate and Neither Did Jane Eyre, Homosexuality, Lesbian sex, Lesbianism, Literature, Masturbation, Novel, Personal Development, Poetry, Purple, race, sexual Education, Sexual identity, Sexuality, Sexuality of Women in Literature, The Color Purple, Women in Literature
My first thought was why the hell did it take me so long to read this wonderful book? My other thought was that the rain was probably soaking into my coffee, but momentary discomfort was worth it.
I had known about the existence of The Color Purple ever since I was in the sixth grade and had to do a book report over a biography of Steven Spielberg. I delivered my report in my dad’s Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap and I still remember being the only kid who went ten minutes over the required time. While mostly reading about the films Jurassic Park and JAWS, which tended to interest me far more than any of Spielberg’s other movies, there was a brief mention of the film The Color Purple. That was it for a few years until eventually I arrived in eleventh grade and got into American Literature. It was there that the book made another passing appearance because we read Alice Walker’s short story Everyday Use. Somewhere during the lessons on the short story there was a brief biography of Alice Walker and mention that she had published a book which was banned. When asked why the book was my teacher carefully explained that the book was about, or contained, lesbianism. Given the fact I was a teenage boy that should have been enough for me, but again, for whatever reason Miss Walker’s book remained background noise to real concerns like memorizing every episode of Family Guy and beating my friend at Smash Bros. For the record I achieved only ever the first task.
In the end my wife and tweed became the way I finally got around to reading the novel. My wife, for some accurate reason, thought I would good in tweed blazers. Being a poor man, Men’s Warehouse is out of the question and so I get most of my blazers at Goodwill which also usually has a book section. To be fair most of its crap Christian inspirational books, but sometimes you’ll find a real treasure. Having grabbed a nice blue blazer with elbow patches I spotted the novel tucked between Sarah Palins crap memoir (I can’t even remember the title) and a Chicken Soup for the Soul was a clean, crisp paperback copy of The Color Purple.
On a nice rainy day I sat out on my back porch in a fold out lawn chair with my pile of books and a cup of coffee, and in between the long periods where I would just watch the rain soak into the grass and dirt, I opened Walker’s novel and disappeared.
Walker is poet, and that’s not just a cute metaphor for her abilities as a writer, she’s actually a published poet and her prose benefits from this ability. Reading The Color Purple, even though it is written first hand as a series of letters, is like reading a novel written purely in poetry. Some of that might simply be the fact that her characters write in a southern dialect, but I believe the main reason for the beauty of the book is the fact that, the protagonist Celie, as she experiences one heartache after another, writes plainly and honestly about her emotional being so that her story becomes a song. Celie is raped by her father, essentially sold to her new husband, receives beating after beating, and eventually falls in love with a woman named Shug Avery, a jazz singer who actually defies her husband and who manages to help Celie find her own spirit and sense of self-worth.
The relationship between Celie and Shug is what lasted after reading The Color Purple for me, partly because it was a lesbian relationship. My regular reader will remember, as if I’d let them forget, that most of my reading and writing explores human sexuality, and while most of the time that is centered on sex between men, I try to balance it by reading stories of women so I’m not lop-sided. I’m not sure if that metaphor works, or if it’s a metaphor at all. Point is, while reading the novel I focused my attention on the queer relationship between Shug and Celie because it lied at the heart of her personal transformation.
Walker’s writing is still impressive for the fact that she doesn’t hold back when describing sexuality. Unlike other authors who try to veil sex beneath metonymy and color descriptions of flowers “opening,” Walker presents a woman feeling her desire in her body. In one passage Celie is watching the men watching Shug and noticing her own reaction:
All the men got they eyes glued to Shug’s bosom. I got my eyes glued there too. I feel my nipples harden under my dress. My little button sort of perk up too. Shug, I say to her in my mind, Girl, you looks like a real good time, the Good Lord knows you do. (81).
This continues later on when Celie narrates the first morning after she and Shug make love:
Grady and Mr. ______ come staggering in round daybreak. Me and shug sound asleep. Her back to me, my arms round her waist. What it like? Little like sleeping with mama, only I can’t hardly remember ever sleeping with her. Little like sleeping with Nettie, only sleeping with Nettie never feel this good. It warm and cushiony, and I feel shug’s big tits flop over my arms like suds. It feel like heaven is what it feel like, not like sleeping with Mr. ______ at all. (114).
Speaking of breasts, I’ve been fortunate in my life to spend most of my life surrounded with women. There was a dark period when puberty started where I couldn’t speak with them without mumbling, drooling, and/or generally speaking in tongues, but over time I got over this. To this day I work mostly with women, and most of the people I regularly interact with are women. Because of this I’ve become aware a strange fact: women tend to describe and talk about their bodies differently than men describe them. I believe the word “duh” is appropriate after this statement. The word “suds” and “flop” demonstrate this. When women describe their breasts, either in conversation or writing, it’s almost always different than when men do it. Male writers often use pretty words like “slope” and “rise” when describing ripe, perky breasts or “bubble-boobs” if you prefer. Whereas Walker as a woman describes breasts as “suds” that “flop,” and while a male author might use such language to describe flaccid and therefore grotesque breasts, Walker still manages to present a genuine eroticism.
I don’t want this essay to be nothing but discussion of breasts, but when the opportunity arises, well, I’m still pathetically male.
Reading this brief passage I was struck by how honest Walker paints the body, and how while reading Celie seems to find some kind of happiness in her life. It’s not simply that Celie enjoys having sex with Shug, it’s that the love making and the conversations they share as women help her develop into a more mature person who is more aware of her body and what it can give her.
No passage reveals this as much an early exchange between Shug and Celie when they discuss sex with men and Shug gives Celie one of the most important gifts one woman can give to the other:
She start to laugh. Do his business, she say. Do his business. Why Miss Celie. You Make it sould like he going to the toilet on you.
That what it feel likem I say.
She stop laughin.
You never enjoy it at all? She ast, puzzle. Not even with your children daddy?
Never, I say.
Why Miss Celie, she say, you still a virgin.
What?” I ast.
Listen, she say, right down there in your pussy is a little button that gits real hot when you do you know what with somebody. It git hotter and hotter ad then it melt. That the good part. But other parts good too, she say. Lots of sucking go on, here and there, she say. Lot of finger and tongue work.
Button? Finger and Tongue? My face hot enough to melt itself.
She say, Here, take this mirror and go look at yourself down there, I bet you never seen it have you?
I lie back on the bed and haul up my dress. Yank down my bloomers. Stick the looking glass tween my legs. Ugh. All that hair. Them my pussy lips be black. Then inside like a wet rose.
I look at her and touch it with my finger. A little shiver go through me. Nothing much. But just enough to tell me this the right button to mash. Maybe. (77-8).
This is a long passage, but necessary because it was a moment that I had never experienced before while reading any “literary classic.” Oliver Twist never discovered the joys of self-love with his friend Master Bates (that name is real by the way, look it up). Hamlet never touched himself. And looking at other women in fiction there’s a pronounced absence of self-discovery. Jane Eyre never masturbated. Neither did Elizabeth Bennet. Neither did Jo March. And neither did Hermoine Granger. I understand that each of these women were working with different times and paradigms governing women’s body’s in literature, but looking at the literary tradition I was raised on what becomes obviously missing from it to the point of being galling is sexuality. Specifically, exploring sexuality in order to become a more well-rounded person.
Celie, from her experiences with Shug, begins to recognize her own innate strength enough to challenge her husband and discover that he has been hiding her sister’s letters from Africa from her. This discovery prompts the next wave of her emotional development, but this could never have happened if she hadn’t learned to even look at her vulva.
This last act assumes great importance to my reading largely because I’m a guy. If the reader doesn’t realize it, and I’d be terribly sad for them if they didn’t, men and women are different anatomically speaking. Because the penis is on the outside of the body boys never grow up not knowing what their genitals are or what they look like or how to navigate them. Because of this, boys eventually develop into men who are able to master their sexual exploration far easier than women. Put it simply, I never as a boy had to worry about whether I had anything down there because I had been using mine since before I could walk.
But this also creates a real ignorance about women’s anatomy and physiology. Being a boy you don’t recognize that some women struggle to find their clitoris, or that some women can go their entire lives without ever having an orgasm. Reading this passage was illuminating because it was one of the first real instances of a woman discovering her body, and it’s joys, in a real literary novel. As I noted in the previous list women like Elizabeth Bennet, Jane Eyre, Hermoine Granger, and Jo March were women I knew from my literary training, and while they all are wonderful characters with great personalities, they’re all, for the most part, sexless creatures.
I’m not saying that we need to read about Jane’s masturbatory habits or Hermoine seeing her vagina for the first time for a novel to be truly great. The Harry Potter series is wonderful, and Pride & Prejudice is one of the most beautiful novels in human history. But Celie’s story remains an important opportunity for women’s literature to grow and develop because it explores a new territory by introducing a real sensuality that isn’t just veiled or hidden behind pretty words.
The Color Purple is a novel that shows a woman discovering her body, and seeing her sex for the first time Celie can use words like “pussy” and “button” and still leave the reader with a feeling that they have read a beautiful passage about self-discovery. When I finished The Color Purple I realized that I had finished a beautifully written novel, but I had also read one of the few fictional works that was willing to honestly and unashamedly portray a woman’s personal discovery that her sexuality was not simply a procreative act, it could be, in the worlds of the nameless philosopher, “a bit of fun.”
Lesbianism and female masturbation are still new and developing territories in fiction, and so when a novel like Walker’s comes around which manages to explore the territory and make it beautiful is the reader’s time.
Though it should be noted that Pride & Predjudice & Vibrators should be held off until the reader’s taken the time to figure out the position Maryanne and Ginger. Google it.
All passages from The Color Purple were taken from the Harcourt Paperback copy.
While researching this article I found this small blog post which briefly explores how the lesbianism in this book helps shape Celie as a woman. Enjoy.
And, because this it the person I am, I decided to look up some articles about women, sexuality, and masturbation.
Finally, on one last note, shortly after finishing this essay I checked the Poem of the Day for PoetryFoundation.org, and I found this gem which made me think about the nature of purple and thus reflect back on Alice Waker’s beautiful novel. Hope you enjoy:
Appalachia, Book Review, Deliverance, farting, folklore, fuck, fucking, He did it with a bucket, Hillbillies, Humor, Literature, mythology, Orgasm, Pissing in the Snow, procreational, pyramus and thisbe, sex, Sexual identity, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Short Story, The Baby Lost Weight, Vance Randolph
I distrust someone who admits to not enjoying sex or fart jokes. Part of this is because the individuals who profess such opinions typically reveal themselves as elitists. There’s an attitude that only uneducated people enjoy hearing stories about people fucking or farting or farting while fucking, and of course nothing like that would ever happen in real life. Anyone who has actually had sex before however knows that that’s simply not the case. Beer exists and seeks to make fools of us all.
Speaking of beer, it’s partly because of that that I stumbled across the book Pissing in the Snow & Other Ozark Folktales. Two years ago I attended an academic conference for members of Alpha Chi, an academic fraternity that spans the entire United States. Students from chapters all across the country came to give lectures and presentations from virtually every field. Lecture topics could range from Pre-Med students discussing the nature of telomeres in DNA to discussing the Indian Boy in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For my own special I brought in a lecture about Mark Twain’s No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger which was rather eventful given the fact that one of my slides dealt with blackface and one of the moderators in the room was black. It was a fun couple of days when I wandered through the streets of Chicago (feeling the mean bite of “The Hawk”) with a few friends and a man name Jim Koukl.
Somewhere between the Jazz Bar (where I wrote the start of poem that would eventually get published) and on the ride home, Dr. Koukl mentioned a book. I admit freely that part of the impulse to look the book up was some kind of fan-boy on my end. Most of my friends new Koukl and had dozens of fun stories about him and so I think I just wanted him to like me. In the car, tucked between the driver and a fellow SI leader I pulled up a story called “He did it with a Bucket.” Describing the story wouldn’t do it justice, so instead here’s the whole story:
One time there was a boy got arrested for screwing a girl, and they claimed he done it standing up, behind the door at the schoolhouse. But the girl stood pretty neat six-foot-tall, and the boy was a little bit of runt. The Justice of the Peace says he don’t see how the boy could reach high enough. The people said he done it with a milk bucket. The constable fetched the biggest bucket in the town and made the boy stand on it, but he still lacked a foot. So the Justice of the Peace says the whole case looks fishy to him, and they turned the boy loose for lack of evidence
After the whole thing blowed over, the girl told some of her friends what really happened. “We was both standing up,” she says, “and it was the damndest fucking I ever had in my life!” The ladies all wanted to know how little Johnney could reach that high. The girl just laughed. “The little booger put the bucket on my head,” she says, “and then he hung onto the handle like a woodpecker!” (14)
There wasn’t anyone in the car who wasn’t laughing and I scrambled to Amazon to immediately buy a copy.
Pissing in the Snow is the work of Vance Randolph, an American folklorist who published around five books over the course of his life. All of his books dealt with the Ozark region, an area of hilly forest region found in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri (pronounced Mizz-ur-ee or Mizz-ur-uh depending on what part of the state you’re from). This region is probably familiar to the reader who has ever watched the film Deliverance and believed that that is a good representation of entire South of the United States. For the record Deliverance took place in Georgia, however it has unfortunately come to embody the imagery of the “hillbilly” who is in fact not a gap-toothed lunatic who enjoys raping people in the woods. Well, okay, there’s probably one of those out there, but I promise you that ass-clown is in the minority. Also ass-clown was probably the wrong word to use there and now I’m going to have nightmares.
Randolph’s work is important because it collects the sentiments, moods, feelings, and general humor of a people who lived and made a life in the woods of Ozarks. The reader may wonder what value such stories have to the general culture given the fact that most of them are nothing but stories about people fucking, talking about fucking, or horny priests, prostitutes, or men measuring their dicks. I suppose this concern is a fair criticism and the first story from the collection doesn’t necessarily help that much:
One time there was two farmers that lived out on the road to Carrico. They was always good friends, and Bill’s oldest boy had been a-sparking one of Sam’s daughters. Everything was going fine till the morning they met down by the creek, and was pretty goddam mad. “Bill,” says he, “from now on I don’t want that boy of yours to set foot on my place.”
“Why what’s he done?”
“He pissed in the snow, that’s what he done, right in front of my house!”
“But surely, there ain’t great harm in that,” Bill says.
“No Harm!” hollered Sam. “Hell’s fire, he pissed so it spelled Lucy’s name, right there in the snow!”
“The boy shouldn’t have done that,” says Bill. “But I don’t see nothing so terrible bad about it.”
“Well, by God, I do!” yelled Sam. “There was two sets of tracks. And besides, don’t you think I know my own daughter’s handwriting!” (5).
It took me three readings of this one before I realized Lucy used Bill’s son’s penis to spell her own name. This story at first appears to be a simple joke, just a random story about two teenagers engaging in a little debauchery for the sake of it, but upon reflection I’m struck by the fact that my first thought is the myth of Piramus and Thisbe. Growing up in a private school I was exposed to mythology early. Despite the fact it was a Christian school it was also a college prep institution and so they wanted you to excel. Once we hit eighth grade we were assigned Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. That dense tome that can always be found in your local college book-store or else the book section of Goodwill, and of course always bent back with a broken spine and riddled with doodles or highlighting. Before my teacher assigned us A Midsummer Night’s Dream to read in class she covered the myth of Piramus and Thisbe, and I was already familiar with the book because I had read Romeo & Juliet the year before and we had gone over the myth. To those who don’t know there are two warring families with a son and a daughter named Pyramus and Thisbe respectively. The pair fall in love but can only communicate by sending messages through a crack in the wall that separates both families. Eventually overcome with lust Piramus arranges to meet Thisbe and tun away with her. She says yes, but of course because this is myth everything goes wrong. Thisbe spots a lion and runs away dropping her sash, Pyramus comes upon it later and spots lion tracks. Believing his lover is dead he drives his sword into his side, and when Thisbe discovers him slain by his own hand she removes the sword and kills herself with it.
My reader may read this and wonder immediately: how the fuck do you get Piramus and Thisbe from a story about Pissing in the Snow? That’s absurd.
My response: Is it though. Folk-lore and myth and divided by time and repetitive story-telling. Looking at Hamilton’s Mythology in hindsight I was also taught at the time the legends or folk-lore of Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, John Henry, and Johnny Appleseed. Unfortunately, these heroes have not lasted the way Zeus, Aphrodite, and Hera have, nevertheless both pantheons linger on in their own way. The stories of Pecos Bill, like the stories of Zeus, and also the stories contained in Pissing in the Snow are perpetuated by story-tellers who were inspired by some original action. Was there ever a god named Zeus? Of course not, but there was a storm where a man was struck by lightning. Was there ever a Pecos Bill, of course not, but there was most likely a man who was a sure-fire shot and who was great at breaking horses. Were there ever two kids who spelled their names in the snow using piss?
Yes there was, that one probably happened, but over time the names and situation changed.
Stories develop over time to fit the world views of the audience that preserves them and enjoys hearing them. Jokes then follow myth, however the fundamental difference being they are often designed to reaffirm or subvert reality. Pissing in the Snow isn’t interested in that however, for even if the stories are imbued with humor their aim is to present human beings at their most fallible.
The stories almost all center around sex in some form or fashion, and while some border on the crude there are others which are fascinating from a feminist perspective. Take for instance the story Have You Ever Been Diddled:
One time there was a town girl and a country girl got to talking about the boys they had went with. The town girl told what kind of car her boyfriends used to drive, and how much money their folks has got. But the country girl didn’t take no interest in things like that, and she says the fellows are always trying to get into her pants.
So finally the town girls says, “Have you ever been diddled?” The country girl giggled, and she says yes, a little bit. “How much says the town girl.” “Oh, about like that,” says the country girl, and she held up her finger to show an inch, or maybe an inch and a half.
The town girl just laughed, and pretty soon the country girl says, “Have you ever been diddled?” The town girl says of course she has, lots of times. “How much?” says the country girl. “Oh, about like that,” says the town girl, and she marked off about eight inches, or maybe nine.
The country girl just set there goggle-eyed, and she drawed a deep breath. “My God,” says the country girl, “that ain’t diddling! Why, you’ve been fucked!” (110-11)
A story like this is an excellent opportunity for folklorists to dig into the rhetoric of everything. The use of the words “town-girl” verses “country girl” as a way of expressing familiarity with the world. Then there’s also the class element as the “town girl” seems to enjoy high priced objects. And of course there’s the linguistic opportunity to observe how the scene culminates in the “fuck” to deliver the powerful finale to this brief exchange, but that gets into far more academic territory than I’m willing to explore here, and besides why should I put rhetoricians and folklorists out of a job? They’re good people with great unions but lousy tippers.
This story seems to present the total essence of Pissing in the Snow, partly because it’s the least fantastic. There are stories ranging from the dick measuring contests of locals, the horny priests being wooed by windows, prostitutes enacting vengeance, and endless stories of young lovers winding up embarrassed or mocked by the community they live in but the final component is everything. Pissing in the Snow feels communal while the reader actually reads it, and in fact the only real way to read it is out loud. These are recorded stories by average everyday people who had these stories memorized, who lived with these stories that had most likely been passed down by generations. Their earthiness and near-constant crudeness reveals a people who lived and interacted with sexuality without any kind of real shame, and while some would suggest that this is wrong, Pissing in the Snow shows a people who wouldn’t really care about this response.
And to be honest I don’t care much about it either.
These stories show a people who were able to find a beautiful absurdity in the body. Penises, vaginas, breasts, and butts are what drives these narratives, and while this at first doesn’t seem to reveal much intellectual potential, I would argue otherwise. Reading Pissing in the Snow is a chance to see how another culture has framed sexuality in its own paradigm. The people of the Ozarks are not prudes about it, they recognize that people fuck, and, clearly, they enjoy doing it. While some members of the community sometimes suffer from it, what is constant is that the people of the Ozarks recognize sex as something natural and more important, a source of amusement.
Take for instance the story The Baby Lost Weight:
One time there was a young woman fetched a baby into Doc Henderson’s office, and she says it is losing weight. Doc examined the baby awhile, and asked the woman about her victuals, but she says, “What I eat ain’t got nothing to do with the baby being skinny.” Doc figured she must be kind of stupid, so he didn’t ask no more questions.
Doc examined her mighty careful, anyhow. And he pulled her dress open, to see if something is the matter with her tits, first one and then the other. There wasn’t no milk at all. Finally, she says, “That’s my sister’s baby, you know.”
Old Doc Henderson was considerable set back when he heard that, because he never thought but what it was her baby. “Hell’s fire,” he says, “you shouldn’t have come!” The young woman just kind of giggled. “I didn’t,” she says, “till you started a-sucking on the second one.” (130).
I honestly found myself laughing while I read this book, and too often it becomes undervalued that reaction. Books are an intellectual exercise, and if I wanted to I could sit down and find real intellectual merit beneath the endless penis and fart jokes in this book, and in fact I already have. Human beings have progressed in their evolution and that is partly because of the way sex has become something recreational rather than simply procreational.*
That’s a fancy-pants way of saying people enjoy having sex not just because they want to make a baby.
Because our species has developed an imagination, and because that imagination is often employed constructing sexual fantasies, it makes sense that a rural people, people who lived off the land and would know the proper way of breeding livestock, would eventually come to see sex as something funny and absurd, but ultimately uniting because in the end these stories helped shape a community’s, as well as a region’s, attitudes about sexuality.
Laughing at sex is the sanest way to begin talking about it and teaching it. And if you can start by telling a story about an old man masturbating while across the way a young man is porking a rabbit, it’s gonna be a whole lot easier telling people about condoms later.
For the record “procreational is NOT a word, but I liked the way it sounded. If you are repulsed by this invention of mine petition Websters and Oxford to add the word to the dictionary so that your disgust is unmerited. Prude.