A Knight’s YAWP
[24 May 2017]
"wrackers", adultery, Annie Proulx, Book Club, Book Review, Brokeback Mountain, depression, Eraserhead, Family Guy, fathers, journalism, Judi Dench, Kevin Spacey, knots, Literature, Novel, Passive, Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complain, ships, The Gaurdian, The Shipping News, Working Class Men, Writers, Writing
It seems to me I could live my life A lot better than I think I am
–Working Man, RUSH
Anyone who suggests that Family Guy offers no intellectual opportunity clearly hasn’t watched the show. My reader will note I’m making this comment here and not in the YouTube comment section, and that’s largely for my own safety.
I stand by this comment though because recently (if you can call two months ago “recent”) I sat down and watched one of the new episodes on Netflix. It was a typical episode with plenty of cheap sex and fart jokes, but mid-way through the episode Brian was charged by Peter to get Chris (the teenage son) to become more intelligent so that he doesn’t become a big dope like his father. Brian exposes Chris to culture and naturally Chris becomes more intelligent. He even joins Brian at a book club at some nameless coffee shop. It’s during this small scene though, where I managed to flex a bit of my intellectual muscle, because Chris introduces the book The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, and when Brian compares it to Portnoy’s Complaint Chris realizes what every regular viewer of Family Guys knows at this point: Brian is a fraud and a moron.
If the reader has never read Portnoy’s Complaint, the novel is about a neurotic, sex-obsessed Jewish man dealing with his mother issues and complicated sex-life. The Shipping News is a novel about a man who moves to a small New England town after his wife leaves him and sells their daughters to a sex-pervert. If you don’t know either of the plots, or if you haven’t read the books you might almost buy Brian’s bullshit or else you might just laugh and pretend to be in on the joke and just wait for Peter to say something wacky.
But I start with this defense of Family Guy to really get into Proulx’s novel because this scene was enough to get me to sit down and read her book. I had heard of The Shipping News before this, I just didn’t have any real context. Having read Brokeback Mountain several times, and realizing that Proulx’s is probably one of the best proseists since Nabokov, I decided to buy a copy of the book. We had a copy at the library, but I needed to mark in the book and libraries tend to frown upon that. In fact, let me be clear as a library employee, most librarians would like to hire Seal Team Six to track people who mark in books down and destroy them. Just, so the reader knows next time they return a book with dog-eared pages.
The Shipping News hit me in a way I honestly didn’t expect. I recognized, like I said before, after reading Brokeback Mountain that the woman was a brilliant prose writer, but the novel was powerful in the fact that every page had at least some string of words that left me flat. Proulx doesn’t just write a narrative, she manages to craft a menagerie of beautiful yet simple sentences that will remind the reader what great writing is and what can be accomplished when it’s done right. Proulx, much like Vladimir Nabokov, Ray Bradbury or Alice Walker, manages to blend poetics with prose into a style that is never pedantic or self-congratulating. Instead it raises her human characters into something akin to a Byzantine mosaic.
If it isn’t obvious I really, really enjoy her writing. But evidence speaks louder than words, and so looking at just one early passage in which she observes Quoyle (the protagonist) and his character one can see how she is setting up her novel and style:
He abstracted his life from the times. He believed he was a newspaper reporter, yet read no paper except the Mockingburg Record, and so managed to ignore terrorism, climatological change, collapsing governments, chemical spills, plagues, recession and failing banks, floating debris, the disintegrating ozone layer. Volcanoes, earthquakes and hurricanes, religious frauds, defective vehicles and scientific charlatans, mass murderers and serial killers, tidal waves of cancer, AIDS, deforestation and exploding aircraft were as remote to him as braid catches, canions and rosette-embroidered garters. Scientific
journals spewed reports or mutant viruses, of machines pumping life through the near-dead, of the discovery that the galaxies were streaming apocalyptically toward an invisible Great Attractor like flies into a vacuum cleaner nozzle. That was the stuff of other’s lives. He was waiting for his to begin. (11).
This opening description of Quoyle always reminds me of Camus or Dostoyevsky and I use those comparisons carefully. Quoyle as a man is almost the existential anti-hero similar to those masters because, as Proulx carefully lists the great tragedies and struggles facing mankind, Quoyle seems entirely above or below it and so is oblivious to concerns of most of the common humanity. He is almost Raskalnikov creating his own morality; he is almost Meursault oblivious as to whether his mother died today or yesterday. What separates these existential champions from Quoyle though is the fact that, in his own way, Quoyle is simply a pathetic man drifting through life. I would argue he might be what’s sometimes referred to as a Paragon, but the problem with that word is that it implies a strength of character that really doesn’t exist in Quoyle until the end of the novel. He’s hardly a man of great integrity or supreme passion, or even of destiny and this is seen especially as he falls for his wife Petal.
Petal is a bitch. I’m just being honest. Quoyle’s opening act involves falling for Petal, who is a loose woman who marries him despite her own nature, and then proceeds to make the next six years of his life a living hell. In another early passage the reader is given a chance to observe how their relationship operates, and further sees how Quoyle is hardly a man of great passion:
One night he worked a crossword puzzle in bed, heard Petal come in, heard the gutter of voices. Freezer door opened and closed, clink of the vodka bottle, sound the television and, after a while, squeaking, squeaking, squeaking of the hide-a-bed in the living room and the stranger’s shout. The armor of indifference in which he protected his marriage was frail. Even after he heard the door close behind the man and a car drive away he did not get up but lay on his back, the newspaper rustling with each heave of his chest, tears running down into his ears. How could something done in another room by other people pain him so savagely? Man Dies of Broken Heart. His hand went to the can of peanuts on the floor beside the bed.
Quoyle believed in silent suffering, did not see that it goaded. (16).
The reader may be disturbed by this passage, because often in narratives the cheating spouse is interrupted upon. This is the stuff of melodramas and political thrillers, but Proulx is careful to keep Quoyle in the bedroom to bring out a certain point about Quoyle’s nature, and thus also the nature of certain portions of humanity. There are people in this world who prefer to quietly suffer and keep whatever pain is in their hearts. This may seem ridiculous to some, but as someone who suffers from undiagnosed depression this pain is all too real.
I recognize this is a hazardous comment but depression is in many ways a heightened form of narcissm. The mind becomes supremely focused on the ego, specifically how miserable it is and how disconnected it is to other people. I usually call my spells of depression my “raincloud” moments, because it reminds me of the old bits on the Loony Tunes when a character would walk around chased by a small raincloud that would pour down only upon them. That’s just the way it feels. And most of the time, despite the fact that I have friends who would listen to me and offer their emotional support, I keep my sadness (and suicidal thoughts) to myself because, like Quoyle, I would prefer to suffer in silence. That pain, I assure my reader, is unbearable, but what’s truly pernicious about it is that I know a solution is possible, I just haven’t decided do anything about it.
My own condition is probably why I loved The Shipping News so much, and why I feel it’s painfully relevant. Beneath everything that happens in the plot, the novel is an exploration of love and pain, and how those two are eventually reconciled. Quoyle marries Petal who cheats on him regularly before eventually running away with a man and literally selling their two daughters to a stranger who is caught before he can rape them. Petal dies in a car crash with her lover, and Quoyle, who observes all of this in a kind of daze, eventually moves in with his aunt in Newfoundland where he takes up a job as reporter writing “The Shipping News.” This involves writing about ships, and Proulx is effective in creating the atmosphere of New England, while showing how the people of this region depend upon such structures.
In one passage one of Quoyle’s fellow reporters tells him about the shipping tradition:
“Truth be told,” said Billy, “there was many, many people here depended on shipwrecks to improve their lots. Save what lives they could and then strip the vessel bare. Seize the luxuries, butter, cheese, china plates, silver coffeepots and fine chests of drawers. There’s many houses here still has treasures that come off wracked ships. And the pirates always come up from the Caribbean water to
Newfoundland for their crews. A place of natural pirates and wrackers.” (172).
At first glance I see the reader’s reaction, what does this have to do with depression, heart-ache, and pain in general? This just seems a small local history lesson. At first I would agree with my reader, but looking at this quote in relation to everything that happens I believe this quote actually furthers the idea self-obsession and pain that works throughout The Shipping News, because this quote reveals a human need for self-preservation. The “wrackers” mirror Petal and Quoyle because both people ultimately pursue their own self-interest.
People take what they need, oblivious to the long-lasting pain it will cause other people because they are concerned with their own interests, desires, and needs. Proulx is continuing this idea that human beings are selfish, and that selfishness blinds us to pain that we might be causing others
One more quote should demonstrate this and then I will address my reader’s complaint. Quoyle is talking with a few of the men who work with him in the newspaper office and they are discussing their boss:
“Have you ever noticed Jack’s uncanny use about assignments? He gives you a beat that plays on your private inner fears. Look at you. Your wife was killed in an auto accident. What does Jack ask you to cover? Car wrecks, to get pictures while the upholstery is still on fire and the blood still hot. He gives Billy, who has never married or reasons unknown, the home news, the women’s interest page, the details of the home and hearth—must be exquisitely painful to the old man. And me. I get to cover the wretched sexual assaults. And with each one I relive my own childhood. I was assaulted at school for three years, first by a miserable geometry teacher, the by older boys who were his cronies. To this day I cannot sleep without wrapping up like a mummy in five or six blankets. And what I don’t know is if Jack understands what he’s doing, if the pain is supposed to ease and dull through repetitive confrontation, or if it just persists, as fresh as on the day of the first personal event. I’d say it persists.”
It dulls it, the pain, I mean. It dulls it because you see your condition is not unique, that other people suffer as you suffer. There must be some kind of truth in the old saying, misery loves company. That it’s easier to die if others around you are dying.” (221).
Hopefully my reader has recognized at this point, the social relevance of The Shipping News, but I still understand their reaction. This book sounds like one long depressing read about a mopish guy who is surrounded by other mopish people. Why should I waste my time reading a book that has no hope to it? Where’s the value in such a novel?
This would be a fair concern dear reader, if it was true. In fact The Shipping News has a happy ending as Quoyle begins to realize he has a real ability at writing the events of the day, and also begins to date a woman who helps him internalize his own sense of self-worth. And in fact the final passage of the novel ends with an observation of this dramatic change:
For if Jack Buggit could escape from the pickle jar, if a bird with a broken neck could fly away, what else might be possible? Water may be older than light, diamonds crack in hot goat’s blood, mountaintops give off the cold fire, forests appear in mid-ocean, it may happen that a crab is caught with the shadow of a hand on its back, that the wind be imprisoned in a bit of knotted string. And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery. (336-7).
Hopefully my reader has recognized at this point the real artistic power of The Shipping News, and why Annie Proulx has accomplished something simply incredible. It’s not enough that the novel explores the complicated nature of love and pain and how these two forces tend to intertwine like strands of rope knots. There are men and women like Quoyle that navigate these forces passively, allowing the pain to internalize into something corrosive rather than actively trying to make something of themselves. Quoyle eventually overcomes this passivity and finds a real purpose in life, allowing the pain and tragedy of his past to become just that, the past. And so looking at the larger social relevance, The Shipping News is a beautiful reminder than human life is what you make it.
My depression is something that isn’t going away, but rather than let it define me I actively try to make something out of my existence. This shitty blog is a start. I also listen to Slipknot and Korn. I write fiction that no one reads. I spend time with my family. I work in a library. And, with no ego here, I’m a damn good cook.
The impulse to allow pain to dominate your life and consciousness is a strong one, and I know this from experience. It’s easy to crawl into your head and allow your pain to become the defining attribute of your existence. But that path is ultimately just narcissism and eventual death. Quoyle escapes this and finds a new purpose for living.
Writing about sinking ships may not seem like the way to build your life back, but it’s better than sitting bed devouring peanuts and feeling sorry for yourself.
All quotes taken from The Shipping News came from the Scribner paperback edition.
I didn’t really get a chance to incorporate this quote into the text, but it still felt important to provide it here in relation to this essay:
Benny Fridge sat with his hands folded slightly on his clean desk as though at an arithmetic lesson. His puffed hair made Quoyle think of Eraserhead. (286).
My regular reader, or any David Lynch fan, will understand this reference, and while I love its inclusion in the text, I’m a little bothered by it. Quoyle doesn’t seem like the type who would actually sit down and watch a film like Eraserhead, but at the same time I might be wrong. Quoyle and Henry Spicer are both lethargic men who are largely floating through life passively receiving their existence and agony rather than actively fighting it and making something of themselves.
So. Upon reflection, I think this reference actually works, but only if you’ve actually seen Eraserhead and realized that in Heaven everything is fine. You’ve got yours, and I’ve got mine.
Below are two articles from the guardian about Proulx’s novel as well as the film about the novel starring Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey
abuse of authority, All the President's Men, Ben Bradlee, chaos, Essay, film review, graphic novel, Happy Birthday, Humor, Individual Will, Joshua Jammer Smith, journalism, Libraries, Literature, metacognition, police brutality, science fiction, Spider Jerusalem, The Left Hand of Darkness, Transmetropolitan, Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street, Ursula K. Le Guin, White Tower Musings, Writer's Social Role, Writing
So much can happen and change over the course of a year. That’s the stuff of sentimental platitudes, but I’m writing my yearly reflection essay since the anniversary of this shitty-blog is today. And, as always, when I write about White Tower Musings and writings, I tend to get either mopey or maudlin. But in this case so much has actually happened over the course of a year and so I wanted to take a moment and really reflect on what has happened.
My regular reader will have determined at this point that I’ve graduated college and started working at the Tyler Public Library. I say this with no hyperbole, this job has saved my life. Part of the life changes that have occurred since last year was graduated from college with my master’s degree and then figuring out what was next. I flourished in graduate school because, I say this without any ego here, I was one of the good students who gave a shit and so I managed to succeed. What I didn’t realize was happening was that I was making myself, in my head, into something I wasn’t. Instead preparing myself for life after college I clung to school never wanting to leave. This in turn created the idea in my head that I was going to be a college professor, teaching English and writing and hopefully literature to freshmen and sophomore students. But that didn’t happen, or at least, not right away, and so for a period of about five of six months I sat in my house, living off the money I had saved from work, occasionally going out and having coffee with friends, desperate for work. When an offer finally came from a local community college I snapped it up imagining that teaching would make me happy, or, to be honest, that I would find a group of people like the one I had in graduate school or the writing center at UT Tyler. This was anything but and I realized quickly that I had sold the idea of teaching college to myself because I was an egoist. I thought that teaching would make me happy because it would be a chance for me to flex my intellectual muscle and that I would change people’s lives. I might have succeeded in the latter, but it became observable fairly quickly that I wasn’t a great teacher, I was, at best, passable.
But these birthday essays are always about metacognition, or, thinking about thinking. While I was teaching I was also still writing for White Tower Musings, and these essays tended to be my lifeboat. They kept me happy, or, at least, they gave me an outlet from which I could focus away from the frustrations of day to day reality. I wasn’t always thinking about the students, and if I was thinking about them it usually wasn’t positive thoughts. And then the suicidal feelings kicked in.
All of these thoughts, all of these feelings are still with me (it’s only been a about seven months since I quit my job at the college and started working for the library) but as I continue to wake up everyday and try to get in my 300 words I realize what this site has really meant for me. But I still think about the students in that class, specifically what I failed to convey and instill in them which is that writing and writers really can enact change.
About a year or two back the graphic novel book club that I’m a part of got around to reading a book entitled Transmetropolitan. It was a science fiction “dystopian” story about a reporter named Spider Jerusalem who has retreated to the mountains where’s he disappeared from society. His publisher tracks him down and informs him that he owes them two books or else they will track him down and sue him into a state of emotional, physical, and psychological poverty. Jerusalem comes down from the mountain and returns to “The City.” This nameless urban territory is impossible to describe largely because Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson manage to assault the reader with near constant bombardments. In “The City” there are advertisements for the President, family cannibal restaurants, the famous kids cartoon show “Sex Puppets,” religious organizations with titles like “fuck the Holy Gut Wound of St. Marc” and “Thor Needs Virgins,” hostels for de-frozen cryogenic patrons, and I could literally fill pages with all the back-ground that Spider Jerusalem encounters.
The book is broken up into a ten part series and, apart from its eerie similarity to the 2016 United States Presidential election, I’ve started reading the books one by one and am currently working through number 7, and while
I would love to sit down and write reviews of every book I’ve come to recognize that such impulses are largely fools errands. These essays come about because of whatever I’m feeling or thinking about at a certain time, and as my “third birthday” comes around Transmetropolitan has reminded me about the power of writing because of one small scene in the first book.
Spider Jerusalem is writing a column about a Police Riot that is attacking a group of people known as Transients, human beings that have blended their DNA with that of aliens. Jerusalem manages to sneak into the riot, get to the roof of a strip-club, and there, surrounded by strippers, he starts to write.
There’s a jungle rhythm beating out below me; the sound of truncheons hammering on riot shields, police tradition when the streets get nasty. I’m in Angels 8, above what will doubtless be called the Transient Riot. History’s only written by the winners, after all, and if the cops want it called the Transient Riot, then that’s how it’ll be.
Because there’s going to be Transient blood all over the place. And you know something? It’s not their fault.
The Transients couldn’t have managed this on their own. They’re just big kids who thought it’d be fun to live inside an alien body. A sane society would’ve tagged them for the waterheads they are and bought them a big playground. But no one even checked to see if their silly claim for succession was feasible. Civic Center just decided to stamp on them instead. They payed a few Transients off to start some trouble, deliberately marring a non-violent demonstration. Spontaneous violence, the only excuse Civic Center would have to send in the riot cops. These people are bleeding down there for a scam.
It’s a show of power. How dare anybody ignore the authority of Civic Center? How dare a bunch of freaks try and think for themselves. So let’s go out and stomp on children, lunatics and incompetent, because by damn it makes out balls feel big. I can see a blatantly unarmed Transient unarmed man with half his face hanging off, and three cops working him over anyway.
One of them is groping his own erection.
I’m sorry is that too harsh an observation for you. Does that sound too much like the Truth? If anyone in this shithole city gave two tugs of a dead dog’s cock about Truth, this wouldn’t be happening. I wouldn’t be seeing a Transient woman with blood on her face huddled in a porn-store doorway, clutching her belly. I wouldn’t be looking down at a dead boy, thirteen, he’s a day, draped over the hood of a police wagon. No one’s eyes would be bleeding from incapacity sprays of the nerve bomblets the cops are launching from Cranberry. I wouldn’t be surrounded up here by the people who have to live and work here, weeping openly.
Enjoying this? You like the way I describe disgusting shit happening to people you probably walked past in the street last week? Good. You earned it. With your silence. You see, here’s how it works; Civic Center and the cops do what the fuck they like, and you sit still. Your boss does what he likes. The asshole at the tollbooth, the bouncer at your local bar, the security guy who frisks you ate the clinic, the papers and feedsites that lie to you for the hell of it. They do what they like. And what do you do? You pay them.
This “riot” here, this terrible shit-rain visited upon a bunch of naïve and uppity fetishists; you paid for it. Lap it up. You must like it when people in authority they never earned lie to you. (62-7).
This was a rather long passage and partly because it was so long my contester will interrupt. What relevance does this passage have to anything or anyone? It just sounds like a bunch of sci-fi bullshit that doesn’t have any real connection to real life. Why should I give a damn about Spider Jerusalem or a bunch of alien-human hybrids?
My reader has a good point, and while I could answer it directly I’d prefer to let another writer do most of the work for me. Ursula K. Le Guin is an author I’ve only recently discovered but already she’s secured a place in my heart for her essays about the craft of writing and the importance of science fiction. In the introduction of her novel The Left Hand of Darkness she explores the idea of science fiction and what it can do:
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 show that the “future,” on the quantum level, cannot be predicted- but to describe reality, the present world.
Transmetropolitan is a science fiction story because it predicts a future where technology has led to opportunity and comfort, but by and large Warren Ellis writes the world in such a way that capitalism and urbanization has led to a kind of cultural explosion where every conceivable taboo is relinquished and human beings are a mass of apathetic sensualists who are either dead inside or else completely oblivious to the suffering of other people.
And where does metacognition come into it?
In the last three years I’ve watched my country change into something odd. Protests are becoming far more common, and tragically so is police action against such protests. In the last three years the social role of journalists seems to have improved, but by that same token the populace is splintered by their “news preferences” which has led to some institutions being labeled “fake news.” In the last three years the issue of race has become something that has invigorated social rights activists, and by the same measure “white-lashing” has increased as bigots have warped and twisted political slogans and mantras into something that benefits their own ideologies. In the last three years there have been enormous political and social strides for queer people, and at the same time political actions hellbent on labeling queer people as perverts and cretins has never been stronger.
Absorbing my culture I think back to the image of Spider Jerusalem perched on the roof writing his column. It’s a simple image, but one that has become iconic. The writer and their typewriter, or laptop if you prefer something more contemporary, represents intellectual activity, but it also tends to become synonymous with change and power. Writers observe and absorb their cultures before writing their take which can often translate exactly what people are thinking or feeling and inspire change.
Looking at the last lines in the film All the President’s Men you get a sense for what’s possible when writer’s do their job right:
Ben Bradlee: You know the results of the latest Gallup Poll? Half the country never even heard of the word Watergate. Nobody gives a shit. You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up… 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. We’re under a lot of pressure, you know, and you put us there. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters, but if you guys fuck up again, I’m going to get mad. Goodnight.
But what does any of that have to do with my shitty blog?
I don’t enact change, real change anyway. Most of my stats demonstrate that most the people who find this site are people looking for pornography or else help writing papers for their English 1301 course. I’ve said this all before in previous Happy Birthday essays, but it warrants repeating because after three years I realize I fucked up tremendously with those students because of my selfishness. I’ve bought into the idea that I’m a great writer, and while I do have some talent, the reality is what I’ve said it is: I’m just another nobody with a shitty blog.
But even if I haven’t accomplished something of great merit, I can rest on the fact that I’ve written and brought attention to other great writers whose work has and will continue to inspire the next generation of young thinkers and skeptics and journalists and novelist who will look at the world and see something wrong or beautiful and want to write about it.
I’ve thought more and more that I would love to publish the essays here as a book and title it The Work Thus Far. It seems fitting. No matter how many books I read, no matter how many essays I write, it never feels like there’s a real end. The writer, the Great Man, sits at his keyboard typing words out and throwing them into the great sea of the internet hoping somebody out there will care. The writer writes, and in the end that’s all I could ever really ask for.
Thanks for three years dear reader.
All quotes from Transmetropolitan Vol 1 were taken from the Vertigo paperback edition. The quote from All the President’s Men was provided by IMBD. The quote from Ursula Le Guin’s Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness can be found by following the link below:
Alec Baldwin, Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump's Skin, Barack Obama, Catch-22, Chris Jones, Colonel Cathcart, Colonel Korn, Donald Trump Alec Baldwin, Essay, fart jokes, George W. Bush, Humor, Joseph Heller, Literature, Lorne Michaels, Novel, Political Cartoon, Political Discourse, Political Satire, Politics, President Donald Trump, Presidential Satire, Satire, Saturday Night Live, SNL, television, The Atlantic, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Kimmel, Yossarian
“Things could be much worse,” She cried.
“They could be one hell of a lot better,” he answered heatedly.
–Catch-22, Joseph Heller
I am not a political writer, and the only real political identification I’m comfortable with is alcoholic. It’s an honest position, and it tends to get you far more friends than any partisan group or congregation. You buy some beer, or maybe some top-shelf booze, you bring your deck of Cards Against Humanity, and then you spend an evening googling bukkake and object permanence while your wife eventually beats you with that card about two midgets shitting into a bucket. I’m currently on the wait-list to add stoner to my political resume, but only because it seems a far more dignified title than republican or democrat.
This is why it irks me to write about President Trump, or really the version of Trump which seems to possess the only real power: Alec Baldwin’s version of Trump.
The last few decades have been a wonderful time for political satire largely because of Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show. Both of these institutions have educated the American populace about what’s going on in government, but they’ve done it in a way that doesn’t bore, or cause nauseous indigestion. Dana Carvey’s George Herbert Walker Bush became iconic with the “it’s bad, it’s bad,” Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin virtually eradicated her political ethos, and Will Ferrel’s George W. Bush is still in effect the satirical portrait of the last century, that is until Alec Baldwin starred as Trump in a cold open of the Presidential debate.
But this essay is not so much just about Trump himself, it’s in fact about an essay which was recently published in The Atlantic: Alec Baldwin Gets Under Trump’s Skin. My regular reader will remember that I work at the Tyler Public Library, and part of my job is making the rounds and making sure the magazines are in order. Everyday someone has picked up seven copies of the Dallas Morning News and scattered them over a table before leaving, someone has left copies of The Economist in the areas reserved for Red Book or Seventeen, and of course on the other side of the library someone has left an enormous stack of magazines and decided not to return them to their original space. Working this gig has left me sympathetic for people who work in retail who have to deal with this crap every second of every day. While I was rearranging the magazines however I noticed that the new Atlantic was out and on the cover was Alec Baldwin, holding his Trump wig, and being dressed in the nameless orange hue make-up. I would have checked the magazine out right there (because you can check out magazines at the library) but unfortunately it still had the “new” blue sticker on it so I had to wait a month.
It should be noted I apparently forgot that magazines publish in print and online these days. Hindsight and all that. I read the article in under half and hour and I was left so impressed by it I knew that I had to write about it.
As I noted before, the entertainment industry has hit a golden stride in the last few decades with wonderful political satire that often feels more real than the actual people it’s mocking and the American people have been better off for it. These characters and impressions have allowed common people to laugh at their representatives, which is, I would argue, a healthy power dynamic. Chris Jones, the writer of the Atlantic article, briefly notes this:
Michaels has long vowed to keep the show politically agnostic. Whatever the leanings of its stars and hosts, Saturday Night Live is an agent of chaos, as victim-blind as a bomb. It can seem these days that the show is single-minded in its pursuit of the Trump administration, but SNL has always gone after presidents, beginning with Chevy Chase staging some remarkable pratfalls as Gerald Ford. A grinning Dan Aykroyd was the principal Jimmy Carter (“Inflation is our friend”); no fewer than seven performers took their shots at Ronald Reagan, Joe Piscopo most reliably; Dana Carvey’s George H. W. Bush (“Not gonna do it”) became synonymous with the man himself. Phil Hartman jogged into McDonald’s as Bill Clinton, and Darrell Hammond played him as a glad-handing hound. Will Ferrell made for the best George W. Bush, an innocent, distractible child. The show sometimes struggled with Obama—his single most memorable Saturday-night incarnation was arguably Dwayne Johnson’s “The Rock Obama”—but it’s hard to satirize competence.
Trump just makes comedy easy.
Before I dig into this I just had one comment concerning Obama. I don’t deny that I liked, and continue to like, former President Obama, however the last eight years was rather disappointing in terms of political satire because no one could ever make fun of the man. Key and Peele provided the only real substantial character parody, but the problem there was that their parody was based on the fact that Obama was competent and paid careful attention to being eloquent, patient, and intelligent only occasionally letting his inner self out. This absence of satire though created an issue because there were plenty of problems with the Obama administration, like there are in every administration.
Watching the first 100 days of the Trump administration however has been akin to watching…well, I’m a writer and I can’t even come up with an effective metaphor. I was going to come up with something clever and revolting like a rotting frog sucking it’s own festering erection while babies crawl out of it’s back and fall into the “drained swamp” already dead, but my lawyers informed me that this would probably somehow warrant copyright infringement. The only word that feels accurate is tiring. There’s been relentless displays of incompetence, and as Jones notes, this only makes it easy for comedians to parody the man and the people who work for him.
Perhaps the most pathetic aspect of the Trump Presidency however has been its reaction to the public image, or perception of the administration as something corrupt, self-parodying, and completely inept. Every week Alec Baldwin’s performances seem to garner reaction from President Trump, and it’s telling when the man making fun of him notes how easy it would be to kill that image:
Playing Trump is physically demanding—watching footage of his longer performances, Baldwin can sometimes see his mouth begin to droop, his Trump face requiring a combination of contractions that can be hard to sustain—but it’s a psychic challenge, too. Jokes are supposed to provide an escape, for the listener and the teller. Instead Baldwin lives in a state of constant reminder. His country is so far from his hopes for it, and now people won’t stop asking this liberal New Yorker to portray the primary vessel of his disappointments. Baldwin sometimes wishes that Trump would appear next to him on SNL, the way Tony Bennett did years ago, reclaiming his own voice and in the process maybe helping Baldwin do the same.
“If he was smart, he’d show up this week,” Baldwin says. “It would probably be over. He could end it. If he showed up.”
That’s it. That’s really all it would take. It may seem like a simplified analysis, but this action would in fact speak volumes, and at the start of Trump’s campaign for President this seemed the case of what would be. Trump appeared on the The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and he did a guest spot on SNL alongside two actors portraying him. However, at some point the comedy stopped and President Trump no longer seemed to appreciate the parody, and not long after he began his public bemoaning of being mistreated by the modern media. And even after winning President Trump could do nothing but talk about the size of the crowd at his inauguration or complain that the press was mistreating him.
While I was reading Jones’s article, and thinking about the last few weeks this idea of a leader wanting nothing more than to be liked was eerily similar to Catch-22. Now my regular reader may remember, then again it’s been a while, that I read and reviewed Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 observing how the work is a wonderful satire about the abuse of authority. The novel is about a group of fighter pilots in World War II who are required to run “bombing runs” that are, by their nature, suicide missions. The pilots have to fly a certain number of missions before they’re released, and after that trying to explain is ridiculous and so I’ll let Heller’s characters try to explain it to the reader:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he has to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and he let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” He observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.” (46)
The Catch of Catch-22 has lingered so efficiently in the culture that it’s an actual word now, and Heller’s novel has also lasted as one of the funniest books ever written along with being one of the most tragically accurate presentations of what happens when there is an abuse of authority. Soldiers are expected to follow the orders of their leaders without question, but this creates a conflict because not every leader is going to be intelligent, sly, or even sympathetic. Reading Catch-22 the reader is constantly reminded that the protagonist Yossarian is a sane man living in a world of bloody madness and that it could stop at any time if someone would just recognize that the commanders in power were morons and bullies.
My reader may object at this point, wondering what Heller’s novel about World War II fighter pilots has to do with the Trump Administration and Jones’s article. If my reader will allow me one more quote from the book hopefully my thesis will become clear.
Near the end of the novel Yossarian has rebelled against the leaders and commanders of the squadron, at one point sitting naked in a tree refusing to go on any more missions, and he is confronted by Colonels Korn and Cathcart, the bumbling commanding officers. The two men confront Yossarian about his rebellious impulses and offer him a way out of the war. In its own way, it is deceptively simple, but a close examination reveals it’s anything but:
“—and we have to send you home. Just do a few little things for us and—.”
“What sort of things?” Yossarian interrupted.
“Oh, tiny, insignificant things. Really, this is a very generous deal we’re making with you. We will issue orders returning you to the States—really, we will—and all you have to do in return is…”
“What? What must I do?”
Colonel Korn laughed curtly. “Like us.”
Yossarian blinked. “Like you?”
“That’s right,” said Colonel Korn, nodding, gratified immeasurably by Yossarian’s guileless surprise and bewilderment. “Like us. Join us. Be our pal. Say nice things about us here and back in the States. Become one of the boys. Now, that isn’t asking too much, is it?” (426).
I’ve avoided words like autocrat, dictatorship, and totalitarianism because the internet and media are already awash with voices screaming such words at the current administration, and while some of those voices are coming from rational and thinking people, this constant call is reducing the power of these words and the realities that they express. The problem with dictatorship is not that the citizens are living in a system where power is controlled in one central office, it’s that the populace at large can easily become prey to inept or ridiculous leaders who may demand adoration and affection. The platitude that “power corrupts absolutely” can be tiresome to hear, but human beings are narcissistic creatures by nature, and providing some of them opportunities where their ego can fester into something corrosive and brutish only adds to the problem. Dictators, autocrats, emperors, Kings, and even Presidents can allow this power complex to become something terrible, and at the heart of it all there is a desire to be liked.
I said, before the quote, that Colonel Korn and Colonel Cathcart’s questions was deceptively simple,
and that’s true. It’s an easy request at first to “like” somebody, but beneath comes a deeper implication. “Liking” an individual can sometimes blind you to their faults. I mentioned before that I “liked” and “still like” former President Obama, and at times that blinded me to problems in his administration that became clearer as time when on. Each reader has their own experience, that may or may not even be political. It might be a family member who’s abusive, a friend who’s an alcoholic, or a celebrity crush that blinds them to the fact that the person they adore is an egoist or an outright moron. The “simple request” to like the person who can bring you to harm is in fact a test of integrity.
Those in power will always desire citizenry beneath them to like them or to be sympathetic to their cause, because that approval allows them more power to accomplish their personal and political goals. It’s for this reason that “liking” someone in politics can often lead to ruin or disappointment because human beings are fallible and tend to fuck-up a lot.
I’ve done my best to avoid the outright politics because I don’t want this site to be a political site, but at 2000 words it’s best not to bullshit. So I’ll be clear:
I wrote this essay because watching the Trump administration I’ve become more and more concerned that the United States has elected an irrational egoist who can’t take a joke.
That’s probably why Jones’s article has the appeal that it does. Looking back to his article the character of Trump and his persecution complex only seems more and more clear:
So much of Trump’s popularity hinges on his image as a self-made miracle, a winner, a strong and successful man who is the best at everything and always gets his way. Baldwin has become our deflator in chief, a weekly pinprick in Trump’s balloon. Every time Trump tweets a wounded Sunday-morning response, every time Spicer laughs off McCarthy’s portrayal but then tries a little harder to bury his rage, every time Conway shows up on TV looking a little more challenged and broken, Baldwin can tell himself that SNL is not just making laughs but effecting change.
“Any administration wants the opposite of what Trump is getting now: They want to be saluted for what they’re doing,” he says. “They want to do their job and have people blow trumpets and worship them and throw confetti. They’re like movie stars in that way.” Trump lashes out at Hollywood, but it’s his dream to belong there. “I think that the comedy is effective—I believe that it’s absolutely, 100 percent effective—in that it’s achieving the opposite results,” Baldwin says.
Jones’s article is an important insight into the current zeitgeist, and as time goes on it may not seem as terribly relevant as a literary document. Nevertheless it felt important to bring attention to the essay because the cartoon character of President Trump, that Alec Baldwin brings to life week after week, is something timeless.
Throughout history human beings have mocked and parodied figures of power and influence (often through excellently timed fart jokes)* and it’s been the mark of great leaders who managed to laugh alongside them. Theodore Roosevelt was known to adore every cartoon parody of himself, even at their most biting. Former President George W. Bush opened up a presidential themed hour of SNL alongside Al Gore. And if nothing else, former President Obama invited Kegan Michael Key to play his “anger translator” Luther at the White House Correspondent’s dinner. Politicians need to be laughed at so they, and the citizens they govern, don’t take themselves too seriously.
Humor and jokes bring people back to reality, and it’s rather tragic when reality is somehow only a fraction less goofy than the cartoon image.
On one final note I find it rather disappointing that few people have taken the time to make fun of President Trump using flatulence. Fart jokes have unlimited potential for reducing the ego, because it’s difficult to take anyone seriously when they’re farting. Put President Trump on a golden toilet eating a bean burrito, and I shall show you the stuff that comedy gods are made of.
Please find below this text every video of Alec Baldwin’s performance of President Trump to date. My reader may wonder why I’m including these. The best answer I can give, is fuck him that’s why.
Before I get accused of partisanship, it’s important to remember something. President Trump IS the President, and Democrats are partly to blame for that. There’s been plenty said about the results of the election, but what is important to remember is that Democrats consistently screwed themselves by fucking with the Bernie Sanders campaign which was drawing mass appeal from young voters, veteran’s groups, Black Lives Matter organizations, and white working class voters, the last group who would eventually go to Trump. They are also to blame for the fact that they allowed themselves to get cocky and smug during the campaign which only instilled in them the idea that they had already won which allowed the Trump Campaign to move through rural areas which won them the election.
Democrats fucked themselves, hard.
I just wanted to make sure my reader, who may be a self-righteous liberal or conservative, knew exactly where I stand before they share my article on Facebook or twitter.
My political position remains firm by the conviction: fuck democrats, fuck republicans, fuck liberals, and fuck conservatives. And just to be safe fuck libertarians too.
All quotes from Catch-22 came from the Simon & Schuster paperback edition. All quotes from Alec Baldwin Gets Under Donald Trump’s Skin came from The Atlantic.
If the reader would be interested in reading the article for themselves I’ve included a link below that they can follow to it. Enjoy:
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, animal cruelty, apathy, arthropoda, Arthropods, bacon is amazing and if you disagree you're a goddamn communist, biology, Birthdays, Boiling Lobsters, Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace, empathy, Essay, ethics, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Gourmet, Infinite Jest, Jason Segel, killing animals for food, Literature, Lobster, Lobsters are Bugs, Maine Lobster, Maine Loster Festival, metacognition, mortality, PC, Philosophy, preference, Science, segmented joints, self preservation, selfish acts of violence, Shogun's, suffering, will to survive, Writing
Is it right to boil lobsters? I’m seriously asking.
Four months back was the most wretched of holidays, a day of the year that I dread more than anything else: my birthday. This isn’t me trying to be cute, I legitimately hate my birthday. Part of this is because of my depression and self-loathing. I’ve trained myself to consider myself worth less than dog-shit, and so when you live in a culture that reinforces a narrative that birthdays are about taking a day to celebrate someone and extol their virtues and just celebrate their existence it becomes, difficult isn’t the word, fucking agonizing. Put it simply, how do you appreciate your existence when you often consider your existence to be a waste of other people’s time? Still I’m fighting this bullshit in my head, partly because last year’s birthday was quite possibly the worst day of my entire life. This year I wanted it to be different. Part of what helped was having to work on my birthday, it kept me occupied, but the other half was about a week later my family took me to one of my favorite restaurants, Shogun’s a Japanese Steakhouse. I’m sure places like this exist around the country, but if the reader doesn’t know what this is it’s a place where patrons sit around a stove and a chef comes out and cooks their food in front of them usually performing by lighting fires, throwing bits of food into their mouth, and performing incredible stunts with knives, spatulas, and other cutlery.
I asked originally about lobster because on this night I had what I usually do when I go to Shogun’s: chicken, steak, and lobster. The lobster, it should be noted, wasn’t boiled alive in front of us, the chef simply brought out two tails, coated them with butter and seasoning, and then baked it under a steel bowl while he cooked the chicken and made jokes about me and my sister both working in libraries.
He picked up the bowl, dropped the lobster on my plate, and started with the filet mignon. I ate the lobster, and I’ll admit it without shame, it was delicious. I also, on one small side note, got my wife to try lobster for the first time ever.
This may at first seem like an opening that will then switch over into a long monologue about how I regretted it later, and how I have since made a vow to never eat lobster again. Well, fortunately, this isn’t the case. I didn’t regret ordering or eating the lobster. The only guilt I felt was a remembrance of a documentary that aired a few years ago about lobster catchers in the Caribbean who are being manipulated by big seafood providers, but I ordered a Maine lobster so that didn’t even come into the equation. I honestly don’t feel any guilt about eating lobster, unless they’re boiled. And this development, like most things in my life, has to do with reading, specifically a wonderful essay by David Foster Wallace called Consider the Lobster.
My regular reader will remember that over the last year I’ve experienced an explosion of interest in the writing of David Foster Wallace, buying up most of the books he ever wrote. I’ve read Infinite Jest (and survived) and in-between reading that book and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again, I bought a hardback copy of another one of his essay collections Consider the Lobster. It’s impossible to forget this book with it’s pure white cover, and a red lobster raising its right claw up in a kind of grim welcome to the reader. I remember seeing the book before whenever I would encounter David Foster Wallace’s writing, and my amazon account was always recommending it to me. When I asked a professor friend of mine, who I originally consulted for Infinite Jest, about it her answer was an unequivocal, “Yes, I fuckin loved that book.”
I bought a copy and started reading it the moment it arrived.
The essay was originally a field piece Wallace was assigned to write by Gourmet magazine. I wonder briefly what they knew what they were getting into when they hired Wallace because the man never just wrote about his topic, he managed to write about the philosophy and spirit of whatever material he was writing about. Wallace is specifically writing about the MLF (Maine Lobster Festival), and while he explains the significance of the event in terms of food connoisseurs and Lobster enthusiasts, the essay eventually becoming a moral conversation about the nature of being a gourmet period.
And part of that is providing a taxonomic, biological background of the lobster which, if the reader honestly believes I won’t provide a quote for you clearly have never read any of my work:
Taxonomically speaking, a lobster is a marine crustacean of the family Homaridae, characterized by five pairs of jointed legs, the first pair terminating in large pincer fish claws used for subduing prey. Like many other species of benthic carnivore, lobsters are both hunters and scavengers. They have stalked eyes, gills on their legs, and antennae.
And arthropods are members of the phylum Arthropoda, which phylum covers insects, spiders, crustaceans, and centipedes/millipedes, all of whose main commonality, besides the absence of a centralized brain-spine assembly, is a chitinous exoskeleton composed of segments, to which appendages are articulated in pairs.
The point is lobsters are giant sea insects. (237)
Part of the joy for in including that quote is knowing that somewhere out there in the world someone who has just recently eaten lobster will start to gag as they realize that cockroaches, beetles, and centipedes are related to lobsters and that they, in principle, recently ate a sea-roach. But after I get over my juvenile habit of grossing people out with facts about bugs (it’s the main reason why I never get invited to parties), there is a purpose to including this quote because it’s also part of the reason Wallace includes this background material in his essay. Shortly after this he provides a brief historical account about how lobster was seen a lower-class food, how it was often fed to criminals, and after this he explains that the principle means of cooking lobster is to boil it alive. All of this ultimately moves towards his central thesis, or, really, the central question of Consider the Lobster:
So then here is a question that’s all but unavoidable at the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker, and may arise in kitchens across the U.S.: Is it right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure? A related set of concerns: Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does “all right” even mean in this context? Is the whole thing just a matter of personal choice? (243).
This question is an important one to ask, especially when you live in a society that has become more and more divorced from the reality of food. Individuals who live in the twenty-first century, specifically people who live in urban areas, tend to live in artificial environments where the reality of killing creatures for meat is a somewhat alien concept, actually, let’s be real here, it’s damn near abstract for them. Probably one of the best examples is the hog-killing scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall where Jason Segel has to kill the hog which is screaming and grunting and then spends most of the time on the way to the party crying.
Before I get into my analysis of Wallace’s argument though I do want to take a moment to just note the previous quote and observe the man’s ability as a writer. Part of a writer’s job is not just coming up with catchy hookers that grab people’s attention and then being cute and smart and funny until you reach your word limit. Which, you’ll note, is pretty good summation for everything I do on this shitty blog. The writer’s principle job, to sound archetypal for a moment, is simply to observe humanity’s character and behavior and then to show it right back. As Wallace observes his own question he notes immediately what the reaction will be, and having asked this question in real life I understand why he prepares for a reaction. I asked my wife one night the same questions and she responded with a quick and precise “no.” Now in her defense she’s a biologist; she’s been trained to study animals and that often includes capturing them, killing them, and then cutting them up to see how they work. I tried to make my argument but she threw back plenty of facts about arthropods in general the most obvious one being that, unlike humans, they lack a real nervous system, or at least one as centralized as human beings.
That brings me back to bugs and Wallace again.
No one is really sure whether or not bugs, or arthropods feel pain. I took a few weeks of an etymology course before I realized the class wasn’t for me (I don’t think the other students liked me) and while I was there the professor of the class noted that it’s difficult to measure “pain” in arthropods. Wallace himself observes the complications of pain when he writes:
Since pain is a totally subjective mental experience, we do not have direct access to anyone or anything’s pain but our own; and even just the principles by which we can infer that other human beings experience pain and have a legitimate interest in not feeling pain involve hard-core philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics. (246).
Wallace also notes that the conversation itself is uncomfortable as he notes just a few lines later:
The more important point here, though, is that the whole animal-cruelty-and-eating issue is not just complex, it’s also uncomfortable. It is, at any rate, uncomfortable for me, and for just about everyone I know who enjoys a variety of foods and yet does not want to see herself as cruel or unfeeling. As far as I can tell, my own main way of dealing with this conflict has been to avoid thinking about the whole unpleasant thing. I should also add that it appears to me unlikely that many readers of Gourmet wish to think about it, either, or to be queried about the morality of their eating habits in the pages of a culinary monthly. (246)
This last point seems to be the most poignant element of the entire essay, and all the more important. Wallace’s essay really becomes what it is in this paragraph for me because it stops being about the experience of lobster and instead becomes an opportunity for meta-cognition. If the reader doesn’t remember that word it literally means “thinking-about-thinking,” or to put it another way “thinking about the way that you think about things.” I suspect many readers of Gourmet were rather pissed at Wallace for making them revaluate choices that he himself admitted he didn’t think about, but if I can dust off a platitude, the unexamined life is not worth living.
Now I know my reader’s objection immediately: You’re a hypocrite sir, you admitted yourself that you ate lobster recently and you felt no qualms about it, so why should I feel lousy for simply enjoying lobster?
The reader makes a good point, and the only sufficient rebuttal I have is that this essay, this reflection, is a not a condemnation of people who eat lobster in general. My only aim is to ask a question which can start a moral argument, which, by it’s nature, is never going to have a clear answer for each person’s morality is subjective.
For my own part I have no intention of stopping eating lobster, however I refuse to eat boiled lobster because it seems unnecessarily cruel.
My reader will almost assuredly rebut this point and again cite Wallace himself on the issue of pain, but Wallace provides a few moments of sobering clarity for me when he observes the actual process of boiling lobsters alive by noting their reaction to the process. He writes:
However stupourous a lobster is from the trip, for instance, it tends to come alarmingly to life when placed in boiling water. If you’re tilting it from a container into the steaming kettle, the lobster will sometimes try to cling to the container’s sides or even to hook it’s claws over the kettle’s rim like a person trying to keep from going over the edge of a roof. And worse is when the lobster’s fully immersed. Even if you cover the kettle and turn away, you usually hear the cover rattling and clinking as the lobster tries to push it off. Or the creature’s claws scraping the sides of the kettle as it thrashes around. The lobster, in other words, behaves very much as you or I would behave if we were plunged into boiling water. (247-8).
Some might continue to object, but allow me to offer one more quote before they negate this behavior:
To my lay mind, the lobster’s behavior in the kettle appears to be the expression of a preference, and it may well be that an ability to form preferences in the decisive criterion for real suffering. (251).
I tried, when I made the argument with my wife, to make this point, but I have a damn difficult time expressing my opinions and intellectual positions clearly in conversation. That’s the main reason why I write; it gives me control and a focus I lack in real life. To my wife’s credit she observed but stuck to her argument, and in fact I’m sure there are many who will do the exact same after reading my review and Wallace’s actual essay. Nobody’s going to really stop eating lobster if they don’t have any such qualms about the lobster’s potential suffering because it’s just, as I and Wallace noted before, a sea-bug. There’s no reason to observe much empathy because they’re an other.
But hopefully the reader has observed that Consider the Lobster is NOT about lobsters at all. In fact the essay is nothing more than a chance for Philosophic reflection about the way human beings act about their food. Wallace concludes his essay with two keen observations:
Why is a primitive, inarticulate form of suffering less urgent or uncomfortable for the person who’s helping to inflict it by paying for the food it results in? (252-3).
And then in closing paragraph he notes:
I’m not trying to bait anyone here—I’m genuinely curious. After all, isn’t being extra aware and attentive and thoughtful about one’s food and its overall context part of what distinguishes a real gourmet? Or is all the gourmet’s extra attention and sensibility just supposed to be sensuous? Is it really just a matter of taste and presentation? (254)
Empathy is a tricky a word to throw out because it’s so wrapped up in morality, and morality itself tends to be clouded in religious discourse that discussing empathy for animals makes one seem naïve or “soft” or even worse, a vegetarian. For the record, vegetarians are not the scum of the earth, those are vegans. No eating cheese my ass. I fuckin love cheese.
But all this reflection reminds of a moment years ago that gave me pause for thought. I was in a biology 1201 lab course and we were waiting to start our Mid-term Practicals. I looked down and crawling beneath my feet was a small field cricket. Without thinking I slammed my foot down, enjoying the hard crack and wet crunch. I had killed crickets before, dozens of times. My father was an exterminator so killing insects really wasn’t an issue for me, it was literally just business. But when I lifted my foot and looked at the carcass I felt instantly that I had done something wrong. The cricket hadn’t bothered me. It hadn’t bitten me. Crickets aren’t known for spreading disease. Nor do they usually bite. A cricket is about the closest thing you can get to a puppy in terms of insects. It’s ridiculous to fret about wantonly stepping on a bug, but is it?
It’s easy to negate another creature’s potential suffering for the sake of your own comfort, and it’s just as easy to establish rhetoric to justify that worldview. There’s nothing wrong with killing lobsters, and if you do believe there is that means you’re either just another insane animal rights activists, or else you’re just soft bodied and want to ensure that other people don’t have a good time. I worry about this, because narrative, as I’ve demonstrated in previous writing, matters more than anything. It’s easy to spin this rhetoric and just stop asking questions about the need for a moment of empathy and reflection and that can lead to consequences. It may start as lobsters, but then it may shift to cats, dogs, dolphins, whales, and even people.
I have no business with slippery-slope arguments. Humans aren’t going to eat people anytime soon (unless they taste good with butter I suppose, but then again what doesn’t?). But fostering a lack of empathy can lead to real problems because it negates that suffering can exist in multiple forms. Once one stops caring about whether lobsters may be experiencing pain it might be easy to forget that people are dying in Syria, that the state of Israel acts like a bully and gets away with it, that women across the globe face regular sexual harassment, that workers in the meat industry tend to be illegal immigrants who are used and exploited and then quickly tossed aside once they become injured on the job, that in the united states there is a 14% illiteracy rate, and the list can go on until one becomes with numb to tragedy.
Consider the Lobster is an important essay because it asks the reader to perform a simple task: consider. This act can make people uncomfortable because most of the time people would rather not consider that their actions may be wrong, or, more appropriately, that the way of life that they’re enjoying may be at the expense of another. But asking that question is a valuable endeavor because it can foster the behavior of self-reflection and empathy for other beings which is worth more than all the lobster in the world.
And besides, there’s always bacon.
All quotes from Consider the Lobster in this essay were quoted from the hardback Little, Brown & Company edition. However, if the reader is interested, I have also provided a link to the original article published on Gourmet’s website. Enjoy:
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.