Pink Lips & Bubbles
21 May 2017
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.
"In Heaven Everything is Fine", action, apathy, avant garde, Baby, Catching the Big Fish, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation Consciousness and Creativity, Charlie Chaplin, Clerks II, David Lynch, Eraserhead, fathers, Film, film review, Girl in the Radiator, horror, Individual Will, Industrial Nightmare, Literature, Nosferatu, Parenthood., Philosophy, Seriously What is Eraserhead Actually About?, sex, Sexual Reproduction, Sexuality, sperm, spirit, What is Eraserhead about, Will Power
I get it. Or at least I get that one scene where the little boy sells Henry’s head to a pencil manufacturer to make pencil eraser’s. I have no idea if the title is a reference to the head of erasers or if David Lynch just put that scene in the film to fuck with the audience, but by the end of the movie Eraserhead there’s so much that one is feeling or thinking about that trying to make quick sense of such a movie is just…well, damn near impossible.
To be honest my first initial reaction to the film is similar to Becky’s reaction to the donkey blowjob scene in Clerk’s II:
Becky: I’m disgusted and repulsed and… and I can’t look away.
Comparing David Lynch’s cinematic masterpiece to a man giving head to a donkey may seem ridiculous to some, but honestly I can’t really find a better summation of the film, and most of my friends who have seen the movie report similar befuddlement. My friend Tom who hosts a blog dedicated to short reviews of films (140 words at the most) recently confessed to me that he wasn’t sure if he even could write a review of Eraserhead because it left him so perplexed and sick. I offered my services and as of this writing he’s putting it under review.
Eraserhead appears in my life and I use that word carefully because I’m writing about a Lynch film after all. I don’t remember any situation in which the movie made some kind of blip on my radar. I don’t remember stumbling upon scenes of the movie on YouTube. I don’t remember seeing or hearing any of my friends discussing the movie. I just remember my friend Michael, who’s also a friend of Tom’s and actually showed him the movie first, always mentioning this strange film called Eraserhead and explaining why it was his favorite film. I trust Michael’s opinion in these matters because after all he introduced me to Twin Peaks and that show left me floored. I began Googling images from the film and sure enough the aesthetic seemed right up my alley, but I held back because I was told, by Michael, that it was a hard film to take. So I put it off for a while seeing Amadeus first.
Fuck you Salieri. Just, fuck you bro.
But I knew that I had to watch Eraserhead at some point, so last month when my family made the trip to Half Price Books in Dallas I tried everywhere until I stumbled upon a DVD copy in the horror section. I had a day off from the library. I sat in my kitchen. Popped in the DVD to my computer. Plugged in my headphones. And I disappeared for two hours.
Finishing the movie there was this wonderful sense of happiness. That statement by itself is probably evidence enough to have me committed, but I stand by it because I loved Eraserhead. The film was intense and dark in a way that wasn’t needlessly, or pornographically, gory. The film is built on this beautiful nightmare landscape from which absolutely everything follows, but what is most important is that Eraserhead is quite possibly the most beautiful cacophonous silent film ever produced.
Once I got past the constant darkness and paranoia about sexual reproduction, birth, and fatherhood I saw the film much like the silent movies my little sister is a fan of. The main character Henry, played by Jack Nance who would become a staple of Lynch films, is bumbly the way Charlie Chaplin tended to be and in fact his outfit seems almost a homage to Chaplin seeing as how it is a simple black and white suit. Chaplin was the first silent film I thought of, but the second was F. W. Murnau’s classic film Nosferatu. I don’t have a solid explanation for this latter film except that the score of Eraserhead constantly reminded me of the pipe organs that typically play during Nosferatu which always manages to contribute to the legitimate creepiness of that film.
But the score I think is what sold Eraserhead for me because every second of the film the viewer is constantly assaulted by a bombast of white industrial noise. Henry after all lives in a post-industrial wasteland devoid of any kind of natural wild-life, and so the various groaning’s of machinery and technology leave him in this constant surrounding hum. At one point during my viewing my dog needed to go outside to pee (or else eat more of the honey-bees who are enjoying my oxalis). I paused the movie and removed my headphones and immediately I became drunk on the silence. This sensation though helped me appreciate the film even more while I was watching because I began to see how important the sounds were to the film. Each time a character speaks, or each time a lightbulb breaks, or each time the chicken wiggles it’s legs, or when Mr. X complains about his knees, or when the “baby” cries the words are not so important as the sounds themselves and the way they contribute the general atmosphere of the film.
At this point though the reader probably has one important question: what is the damn film actually about? And why should I give a shit?
Well, to start, that’s technically two questions. Second, the problem with the first question is, there’s no real clear answer. Whatever plot does exist is so buried beneath abstraction and various frame narratives that trying to argue that there is a plot to Eraserhead feels unintelligible, or else just constricting. The most simplest explanation is this: there is a bumbly loser named Henry who lives in an industrial nightmare. He conceives a child with a young woman named Mary who gives birth to a grotesque creature that is referred to as a baby. Mary briefly lives with Henry to take care of it but she eventually leaves leaving Henry alone to try and care for it as it grows sicker and sicker. Henry eventually cheats on his wife with the beautiful woman across the hall, and in a fit of frustration, madness, or curiosity he murders the baby by cutting its swaddling bands with scissors and then stabbing it in the heart.
This is the simplest explanation for Eraserhead because, as I’ve stated before, the film is odd and has no obvious structure. The film was David Lynch’s first movie and was shot over a period of five years. This was partly because Lynch didn’t have enough money to make the film in one sitting. But despite this the movie manages to feel cohesive even after one realizes that you’re watching a series of pieces and sequences that are connected under one entire whole.
For my part I think about the constant industrialization and the morbidity that actual organic life seems to have. Lynch sets his character Henry in a world that isn’t dying because it’s clear the world is pretty much dead. One only need look at the scene in which Mr. X brings out the dinner:
Mr. X: I thought I heard a stranger. We’ve got chicken tonight. Strangest damn things. They’re man made. Little damn things. Smaller than my fist. But they’re new. Hi, I’m Bill.
Henry Spencer: Hello there. I’m Henry.
Mrs. X: Henry works at LaPelle’s Factory.
Mr. X: Oh. Printing’s your business? Plumbing’s mine. For 30 years now. I’ve watched this neighborhood change from pastures to the hell-hole it is now!
Mary X: Dad!
Mrs. X: Bill!
Mr. X: I put every damn pipe in this neighborhood. People think that pipes grow in their homes. But they sure as hell don’t! Look at my knees! Look at my knees!
This scene isn’t terribly depressing or horrific, but it is Lynchian and weird and only contributes the general atmosphere of hopelessness that pervades the characters and it only grows worse during the actual dinner.
Mr. X: Mary usually does the carving but tonight since you are our guest, you could do it, Henry.
Henry Spencer: Of course. I’d be glad to. So I just, uh… I just cut them up like regular chickens?
Mr. X: Sure, just cut them up like regular chickens.
Henry cuts into the chicken which proceeds to bleed from between the legs which also start to wiggle making little squeaking sounds. This scene would be bad enough if not but a minute later Mary’s mother confronts Henry about the affair and the baby which ends in an ominous line:
Mrs. X: Henry, may I speak to you a minute? Over here. Did you and Mary have sexual intercourse?
Henry Spencer: [stammering] Why?
Mrs. X: Did you?
Henry Spencer: Why are you asking me this question?
Mrs. X: I have a very good reason, and now I want you to tell me.
Henry Spencer: I’m, I’m very… I love Mary!
Mrs. X: [interrupting] Henry, I asked you if you and Mary had sexual intercourse!
Henry Spencer: Well, I don’t… I don’t think that’s any of your business!
Mrs. X: [interrupting] Henry!
Henry Spencer: I’m sorry.
Mrs. X: You’re in very bad trouble if you won’t cooperate…
[nuzzling at his neck]
Henry Spencer: Well, I…
Henry Spencer: Mary!
Mary X: [grabbing her away] Mother! [sobs]
Mrs. X: Answer me!
Henry Spencer: I’m too nervous.
Mrs. X: There’s a baby. It’s at the hospital.
Mary X: Mom!
Mrs. X: And you’re the father.
Henry Spencer: Well, well that’s impossible! It’s only been…
Mary X: Mother, they’re still not sure it is a baby!
And the baby itself remains for me the most horror inducing aspect of Eraserhead because of one key scene. Henry is constantly watching his radiator and seeing in his mind a young woman with grotesque puffed up cheeks who stands on a quasi-vaudevillian stage. In one shot she is dancing and stepping on small sperm creatures that fall from the ceiling and later she sings a song that, I shit you not, remains one of the most creepy and catchy tunes you will ever hear. And because I’m feeling monstrous, here it is:
Following the blinding light Henry finds himself alone on the stage. A tree begins to emerge from one side and he steps off, holding a small bar before his head literally bursts from his shoulder and the “baby’s head” slowly emerges crying while the tree bleeds over the stage and around Henry’s severed head. The sound of the baby crying gave me chills and I legitimately had to stop the film for a moment to breath. But this small scene seems to illuminate a theme that numerous bloggers and vloggers and writers and critics have touched on which is that Eraserhead is a film about the paranoia of becoming a parent.
David Lynch was about to become a father as he was finishing up Eraserhead and most people have latched onto that idea as the explanation-de-jure of why the film is doing what it’s doing. I think there’s certainly plenty of evidence for this reality, the fact that the film opens with a sperm creature coming out of Henry, and later the grotesque “baby” itself all lends great weight to this argument.
But I’m always cautious when I hear that everyone seems to have the same interpretation of a work of art because then it feels like there’s nothing left to do in terms of personal understanding or interpretation. Something else is bothering me: a small book by David Lynch. I received the book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity as a birthday present last year. It’s not the normal kind of stuff I read because I find spirituality books tedious and usually boring as fucking-fuck, but because it was written by David Lynch I made an exception. Reading the book there was one small passage that stuck out to me:
Eraserhead is my most spiritual movie. No one understands when I say that, but it is. (33)
It’s a small quote, but I think it lays a great foundation for a possible argument that Eraserhead is a film about spiritual power, and not necessarily the religious. Spirit as a word and idea is not solely about religion or divine energy. Spirit is also a measure of a person’s individual will. When a child demonstrates initiative, or is really passionate, or acts crazy it’s sometimes said that they have spirit. And this definition is important in our day to day lives because our spirit is our ability to give a shit. If a person is strong spiritually it means that they care and that they’re involved and engaged in their world and reality. If a person has low spirit it usually means they’re apathetic, disengaged, and divorced from their reality.
Looking at Henry I often see a man with little spirit. I’ve referred to Henry twice in this essay as bumbly and that’s purposeful because Henry never seems to be active. He’s always being passive to the world, to his environment, to the people interacting with him, and just letting life happen to him. Returning to the dinner scene for a moment demonstrates this:
Mr. X: Well Henry, what do you know?
Henry Spencer: Oh, I don’t know much of anything.
That’s it. After this Mr. X and Henry stare at each other for several minutes and until it becomes clear that’s going to be the extent of the interaction. Henry is a man who watching his life happen to him, and rather than try to make his life something else, he just goes about receiving and watching until he performs his only real action: killing the “baby.” I won’t get into the implications about fatherhood here because there’s already so many people on the internet offering such analysis.
My final assessment of Eraserhead lies in Lynch’s interpretation. It is a film about the human spirit and how it’s possible for people to become inundated by forces which seem out of their control. Looking back for a moment at Catching the Big Fish David Lynch talks more about his life during the filming of Eraserhead and I think it offers more proof for my assessment:
When I was making Eraserhead, which took five years to complete, I thought I was dead. I thought the world would be so much different before it was over. I told myself, Here I am, locked in this thing. I can’t finish it. The world is leaving me behind. I had stopped listening to music, and I never watched TV anyway. I didn’t want to hear stories about what was going on, because hearing things felt like dying. (35).
Lynch seems remarkably like Henry in this passage, a man who feels like his life is passing in front of him because there are forces which seem out of his control. Henry finds himself in a dead world where industry and technology have left the world buried in ash, and the people who live around him and interact with him seem just as dead, or else decaying. What life does exist is often grotesque and sick. In such a world how does a man find any kind of spirit, or else any incentive to continue living?
Ultimately, Henry finds some kind of redemptive act in action; in actually taking some kind of control in his life. It may be a destructive act, and horrifying one at that, but ultimately it does deliver him from the passive servitude that is his life.
Each person will bring their own self and interpretation to the movie Eraserhead, and so trying to come up with one central interpretation is going to be ridiculous. Instead the best advice I can offer the reader is to watch the film (preferably not at night) and see what your own reaction will be. The impulse at first will probably be depression or horror, but beneath that, at least in my experience, is a beautiful film about how the human spirit can overcome the seemingly endless onslaught of forces that seek to dominate it.
The film is also a wonderful example of why if you’re going to eat chicken, you might consider picking up some Raising Canes. At least the chicken strips won’t wiggle their legs at you.
I’ve included here several links if the reader would like to dig a little deeper into Eraserhead the film. Below is a link to the original trailer:
The following are several online articles either about Eraserhead or David Lynch himself:
And finally here are a few videos by film vloggers who offer up some analysis of the film, and one which is an actual interview with Lynch not long after he made Eraserhead.
It’s easy to be buried underneath the darkness of a film like Eraserhead, that’s why remembering it’s just a movie can be beneficial. Here’s something that will help: a picture of a young David Lynch talking and laughing with Jack Nance between takes during the film. I don’t know why I love this picture so much. Part of it may just be the fact that, in this moment, neither men would probably know how much the film was going to change their lives. That, and it’s fascinating to observe David Lynch’s most straight-forward haircut.
I feel really bad that this video took so long. Whatever following I have is either patient or crazy to wait so long between these videos.
In this video I try to explore Ray Bradbury’s novel The Martian Chronicles as a book which can inspire the next generation of innovators and creators. There is plenty of literary merit in The Martian Chronicles in terms of story, but I really wanted to explore this idea that science fiction is something which is worth a reader’s time. Science fiction as a genre is a subject which has suffered largely because it has been misunderstood. While there are plenty of crap science-fiction authors in existence who have contributed drek to the field, the truly great ones have simply tried to work with the idea that science fiction is an opportunity for thought-experiment.
Many authors call science fiction “predictive” meaning that the writers are simply trying to see what will happen in the future. This is unfortunate because as any careful scholar of science fiction will note, not every science fiction reality has come into place, to wit, The Nazi’s lost the second World War therefore Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle can’t be predictive.
Science fiction instead tries to do what every other field of literature does: explore a possible set of conditions and see how humanity would probably or possibly react.
The only difference between Johnathan Franzen’s Freedom, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or Vladimir Nobokov’s Lolita is that Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chroncles has rockets. At their core all books are trying to understand how human beings think, feel, and react to their world.
Science fiction however does work as an impetus because while the writers are often more concerned with exploring the parameters of their thought experiments, some of them will offer ideas of possible technology that could exist and such ideas have pushed the innovations we currently rely on and enjoy today. This review tries then to blend this general idea of what science fiction is and how a book like The Martian Chronicles can inspire the next generation. While on the surface it is a novel about what will happen to mankind as it colonizes the planet Mars, it’s also an opportunity to understand what that journey will do to our internalized sense of being and purpose.
The books used in this video are:
The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (Bantam Spectra)
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin (Ace Science Fiction)
The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow)
If you have any questions, or suggestions for books that you would like to see me discuss, please feel free to comment below.
Thank you for watching.
Joshua Jammer Smith
FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW TO WATCH THE ACTUAL VIDEO:
"Fire Walk With Me", "Once a day everyday give yourself a present", A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Agent Dale Cooper, aliens, American Horror Story, Blue Velvet, Bob, coffee, Corruption, Corruption of Small Town America, Dale Cooper, David Foster Wallace, David Lynch, David Lynch Keeps His Head, Evil, Evil as a Force, Failed Hero, Film, film review, Forrest, Gay Porn, gif/jif?, Good vs Evil, Hero, horror, I know too many Michaels, Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Palmer, Literature, Mark Frost, mythology, Nature of Evil, Novels, Owls, Philosophy, reflection, science fiction, Surreal, television, The Black Lodge, The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks
Though I hate personally doing this, I want to warn the reader that this review has information which may “spoil” the ending of Twin Peaks for the reader. If you have not seen the ending, and do not wish to know it, please do not read any further. However, if you do not care, progress slowly. The path is strange and wonderful.
Mysteries precede humankind, envelop us and draw us forward into exploration and wonder. Secrets are the work of humankind, a covert and often insidious way to gather, withhold or impose power. Do not confuse the pursuit of one with the manipulation of the other.
–The Secret History of Twin Peaks, Mark Frost
It may seem a cliché, but really and truly, I have to drink coffee while I write. Ever since I’ve lost my taste for beer, coffee has stepped in and replaced that precious elixir which supports my spirit after a day, or really evening, of work at the library. And that idea of spirit is everything as I approach the impossible and write about Twin Peaks, because as I leave the town for the first time, I wonder at the experience because, much like wonderful oddities that appear in the show, the appearance of the program seems to come out of nowhere, and nothing of what I remember is what it seems.
To be honest, I can’t even trace my awareness to any solid origin other than my friend Michael. As I’ve mentioned, some might argue too much, I’m part of a bi-weekly Graphic Novel Book Club and it’s through these meetings that I have managed to become exposed to some books, movies, and materials I almost certainly would never have been exposed to on my own. Part of that is simply the diversity of the company of the group, the other is the fact that I’m a fucking social recluse who would probably never leave his house given the option. It was through these meetings though that I first heard the term Twin Peaks, and initially I treated it the way most people treat friend’s pictures of their children: I nodded and smiled understanding that this show meant a great deal to my friends, but I honestly didn’t give a shit about it because it had nothing to do with me.
That, and I was still going through grad school and planning on becoming a teacher. Words like “the black lodge” or “Agent Dale Cooper” or “The owls are not what they seem” were words and nothing but that.
But one day, after a meeting, I asked Michael about Twin peaks. I think part of it was that I had written a review of David Foster Wallace’s essay David Lynch Keeps his Head(which I’ll get to in just a moment). Michael had offered some thoughts about Lynch as a director, informed me that I had to see Twin Peaks to understand why the man was brilliant, and then another friend of mine (also named Michael) shared a gif (jif?) of Kyle MacLachlan drinking coffee.
I stopped drinking beer, and one night, while looking through Netflix I saw the word again. It was like the scene in Muholland Drive when the blue box opens. I was drawn in and found a new world.
That, and I’ve found myself more and more drawn to the taste of damn good coffee.
This essay is a difficult task because I’m not entirely sure how best to approach it. Reacting intellectually to the show is a dubious proposition because how the flippity fuck do you react intellectually to a show that seems to constantly try to avoid any clear explanation. The alternative is to react emotionally and I worry about this because when it comes to the world of Twin Peaks (especially in the aftermath of Fire Walk with Me) there is already a great number of people offering up their emotions. And this also creates a conflict because there are people who have waited 25 years for the conclusion, or at least continuation) of the show, and in that time mountains of fan fiction, fan theories, and fan-based analysis has been generated.
What am I? A mere flea that’s just hopped on the back of a big dog’s ass. Yet here I stand willing to offer up my voice terrified of what I shall wrought. But as a great man so beautifully expressed:
Dale Cooper: Harry, I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.
My own intellectual conclusion after finishing the series is that in its own right it is complete. I hear the objection immediately. You haven’t even seen Fire Walk With Me, and there’s a new season coming out in May, how could you possibly argue that it is complete.
To this objection I simply state that I’m looking at the television show alone. This may be performing some blasphemy on my part, but again this is just reflection, not outright critical declaration.
Now Let’s Rock.
To the reader who’s never watched the show, Twin Peaks takes place in a small logging town in Washington and begins when a young woman named Laura Palmer is found murdered and wrapped in plastic beside the river. From there any and all kind of clear plot narrative is difficult because rather quickly the show becomes a surreal melodrama about the lives of the various characters that inhabit the town of Twin Peaks, and an FBI agent assigned to the town named Agent Dale Cooper.
On one side note there is also a gay porn-star named Dale Cooper who is kind of dreamy. I have no idea if this is his real name or else if he chose that as his porn name because of Twin Peaks, this aside is really just a warning to some Twin Peaks fans who might stumble upon this while googling pictures of Kyle MacLachlan.*
Twin Peaks follows the creative trend of David Lynch which is the corruption found within the supposed innocence of small-town America, and while some would argue that this is a cliché, I would remind that David Lynch helped make this trope in the first place. If you’re the first person to do something it isn’t cliché, it’s simply foundational. Agent Cooper discovers quickly that Twin Peaks is another world, a small community that revitalizes his spirit, and not just because the Double R Diner has the best Cheery Pie in the world. As Cooper works alongside Sherriff Harry Truman, Deputy Andy Brennan, Deputy Tommy “Hawk” Hill, and receptionist Lucy Moran, he discovers that the small town is hiding more than just local political and economic corruption. There is, as Sherrif Truman states clearly, “Evil in the woods.” And this is where ultimately the show Twin Peaks made its mark.
On the one hand this evil is manifest in the fact that characters have secret lives that sometimes involve crime, over time the supernatural powers that live and exist and manipulate the people of Twin Peaks become more and more apparent. A being known as Bob becomes the figure responsible for the death of Laura Palmer, however it’s revealed eventually that Laura Palmer’s father Leland was possessed by this creature and forced to rape and murder Laura.
Watching the scene when Leland/Bob confesses remains one of the most horrific and dramatic scenes in television, if not cinematic history ,largely because of the way Lynch establishes his universe. The question at first appears, is Leland really crazy or is there actually a creature named Bob controlling him. As this is being discussed Leland bellows out a passage that appeared once before in a dream Agent Cooper’s had not long after arriving in Twin Peaks:
Leland Palmer: Through the darkness of future past / The magician longs to see / One chants out between two worlds / Fire walk with me. I’ll catch you with my death bag. You may think I’ve gone insane, but I promise I will kill again!
At this point I wholly accepted the fact that Bob was real, but part of that conclusion was because of David Foster Wallace. If the reader has never heard that name he’s the author who wrote such books as Infinite Jest and Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. He’s also known for several non-fiction books such as Consider the Lobster, This is Water, Both Flesh and Not, and finally A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again which contains a vital read for Lynch fans called David Lynch Keeps his Head(Told you I’d get to it, and you doubted me).
My reader may wonder what this has to do with Twin Peaks. I promise there’s a message here, just be patient. The essay was an assignment for a magazine in which Wallace received the opportunity to be on set during the filming of Lost Highway. While at first the essay is mostly Wallace talking about the actual filming, as it continues he manages to break-down the creative structure of Lynch’s movies and tries to define the term Lynchian. There’s long passages full of insightful commentary but my focus is Twin Peaks and so one passage in particular seems terribly important.
Wallace discusses the idea of evil in Lynch films and how it manifests. He writes:
Characters are not themselves evil in Lynch movies—evil wears them.
This point is worth emphasizing. Lynch’s movies are not about monsters (i.e. people whose intrinsic natures are evil) but about hauntings, about evil as environment, possibility, force. This helps explain Lynch’s constant deployment of nourish lighting and eerie sound-carpets and grotesque figurants: in his movie’s world, a kind of ambient spiritual antimatter hangs just overhead. It also explains why Lynch’s villains seem not merely wicked or sick but ecstatic, transported: they are, literally possessed. […] And if these villains are, at their worst moments, riveting for both the camera and the audience, it’s not because Lynch is “endorsing” or “romanticizing” evil but because he’s diagnosing it—diagnosing it without the comfortable carapace of disapproval and with an open acknowledgement of the fact that one reason why evil is so powerful is that it’s hideously vital and robust and usually impossible to look away from.
Lynch’s idea that evil is a force has unsettling implications. People can be good or bad, but forces simply are. And forces are—at least potentially—everywhere. Evil for Lynch thus moves and shifts, pervades; Darkness is in everything, all the time—not “lurking below” or “lying in wait” or “hovering on the horizon”: evil is here, right now. And so are Light, Love, redemption […]. (204-5).
Reading this passage, especially after finishing Twin Peaks, and taking the time to watch Blue Velvet not long thereafter, I confess I had an “aha!” moment for everything seemed to fall into place. Rather than treat evil as a kind of abstract force that is inherent to the human condition, Lynch’s films seem to attack the viewer in a way so that it’s impossible to escape from evil and the way it can impact the people that suffer from it, and The Black Lodge seems to embody this idea perfectly. As Cooper enters it, trying to save Annie he finds himself at the mercy of the very idea of evil, and ultimately succumbs to it.
Watching the last episode of Twin Peaks, and watching Bob/Coop chuckle I confess that I was grabbing my laptop and screaming “No! No! No fuck no! That can’t be it!” The rage inspired by the idea that that could possibly be the end, that the hero and purely good hero at that, could succumb to the evil’s found in the Black Lodge disturbed me. I felt that there had to be a resolving, or a redemption in which the figure who seemed to embody so much strength could not possibly fall to evil.
But that confession reveals everything.
Again, looking at Wallace’s commentary, I realize that what keeps Lynch so interesting is the fact that he seems to recognize that evil is a force, that even if it is spawned within ourselves, it can still work outwardly as a force which can compel and destroy people. Leland Palmer was a good man, or at least he seemed to be a good man, that outward surface mirrors the reality of true life. When you remember that most rape victims tend to suffer under the hands of people close to them (usually family members) rather than outside strangers, the idea that Leland could do that to his daughter is more plausible, but nonetheless still retains its horror. Likewise, with the character Dale Cooper, who, over the course of the series, becomes some kind of extension of the viewer. As I watched Twin Peaks I identified more and more with Coop. Part of this is simply because I’ve always wanted to be intelligent and charming and charismatic, but also because he was a genuinely good person.
He also gave me the greatest lesson in life:
Dale Cooper: Harry, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair, or two cups of good, hot black coffee.
This man would eventually fall prey and fail against the pure forces of darkness. It’s not fair. It shouldn’t happen. And watching the very end I was angry and sad and terrified after what was surely the most terrifying 20 minutes of television ever recorded. And before anyone tries it, No. American Horror Story is nowhere near as terrifying as the Black Lodge. I don’t care how many clowns or gimps in leather suits they throw at me.
Part of this horror on my end was because of the characters and Wallace notes this in his essay:
When his characters are sufficiently developed and human to evoke our empathy, it tends to cut the distance and detachment that can keep Lynch’s films at arm’s length, and at the same time it makes the movies creepier—we’re way more easily disturbed when a disturbing movie has characters in whom we can see parts of ourselves. (167).
He also offers one more assessment which I feel is perfectly valid:
This may, in fact, by Lynch’s true and only agenda: just to get inside your head. (171)
If such is the case this certainly works. I know that I’ve offered a lot of extraneous material and haven’t so much dug into an episode by episode analysis but in starting this essay I did some internet research and it appears much of the fan-base has already done that for me. Besides I prefer to step back and observe the general trend and impression something leaves me with. And as I look over my opinions and assessment of Twin Peaks I find more and more that I stand by my original declaration. The first two seasons can stand alone as an art product because ultimately it seems to validate the trend of Lynches’ oeuvre.
Evil is a force that exists and it corrupts absolutely, and when looking at the small community the capacity to fall prey to darkness seems all the more terribly valid. In the case of Twin Peaks the characters are held by their own resolve and personal wills, but ultimately Lynch reminds the viewer that evil can manifest in such ways to break even the strongest people. Sometimes our heroes are not what we need them to be, and sometimes good people are destroyed.
The lingering image then of Twin Peaks for me is Bob slowly crossing the living-room toward Mattie. It’s not a dramatic shot in terms of camera angling. It’s simple and it holds for exactly the right reason. The aliens, inter-dimensional beings, the forces of evil are not what they seem. They can be cackling lunatics, dwarves in red suits dancing to jazz, they can be owls, or they might even be someone close to you, someone who you’re supposed to trust and love.
These is no experience like Twin Peaks. And while it may sound at first as if the show ends on the note of hopelessness, but I would hope that after the reader finishes my essay or finishes the show for themselves they would take care to remember a line from the novel The Secret History of Twin Peaks by Mark Frost which offers a far more satisfying sense of closure than I could ever hope to give:
The owls may not be what they seem, but they still serve an important function – they remind us to look into the darkness.
While writing this review I found a picture of the pair of Dale cooper alongside Dale cooper. It led to an article which had confirmed that Dale Cooper named his porn name after Dale cooper the character. While I find this hilarious, it also leaves me curious if anyone has yet proposed a Twin Peaks porn parody and whether or not David Lynch would direct it.
Never-mind. Just Googled it. It doesn’t exist…but it could.
Here’s a brief snippet from the Charlie Rose interview that helped get David Foster Wallace on my radar screen. This snippet is where he discusses how Blue Velvet appealed to him originally:
And here also is the Charlie Rose interview with Lynch himself:
The famous Owl Line has echoed after the show and come to define numerous interpretations of the show and what the owls actually are. For my own part I like this interpretation one random blogger offered, though I am ALWAYS happy to hear other people’s ideas.
And here, because I like offering people more and more resources, are a few sites dedicated to Twin Peaks:
Look at this shot. Look at it. This is the shot that confirms my bias. There are no monsters, or killers, or jump-scares, there’s only a shot of a ceiling fan slowly turning, but this ultimately is David Lynch’s power, because this shot scared me more than four seasons of American Horror Story Combined. Great horror should always attempt to draw a viewer into another world, but while the viewer is being entertained the master of horror tries to get into the viewer’s world. There’s something behind me, there’s nothing and I know it objectively, but if a director can actually create the sensation that there just might be something there, then they have succeeded.
And then there’s Bob.
"mountain of knowledge", Art, Atheism, books, Christopher Hitchens, coffee, Cookie Monster, glasses, god is not Great, Joshua Jammer Smith, Literature, Mark Twain, original photograph, Philosophy, Richard Dawkins, Science, still life, The Bible According to Mark Twain, The God Delusion
A Small Mountain of godlessness
19 February 2017
"Lost Generation", A Moveable Feast, biography, Book Review, Eraserhead, Ernest Hemingway, Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Garden of Eden, Gertrude Stein, Gore Vidal, James Joyce, Kevin Birmingham, Leley M.M. Blume, Literature, masculinity, memoir, Novel, Palimpsest, Paris, Sylvia Beach, T.S. Eliot, The "Lost" Generation, The Great Gatsby, The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses, The Old Man and the Sea, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, The Sun Also Rises, Ulysses, World War I, Writers, Writing
So, what I told you was true… from a certain point of view.
–Obi-Wan, Return of the Jedi
Memoirs can be damned frustrating, mostly because they avoid outright classification. There’s some impulse to distrust the memoir, because it’s not objective like the biography, likewise there is even more distrust than the kind one saves for autobiographies, for even though these books are largely one sided affairs there is still some level of objective aesthetic goals. This is all just a fancy-pants way of saying that you can’t trust memoirs completely because the writers writing them are remembering impressions and feelings from events in their life rather than trying to write out a purely factual narrative of what was going on in their lives.
A good example of this is when Gore Vidal in an interview on Charlie Rose once remarked on his own memoir Palimpsest, which for the record is a term for a manuscript which original writing has been effaced or scrubbed out for later and newer writing leaving only traces of the original, that his book wasn’t an autobiography because of the way memory works. He gives the example that when you break your leg when you’re younger and look back on the experience at a later age you don’t remember the actual trauma, you just remember your earliest remembering of the trauma and so the writing becomes like a palimpsest stacking upon itself. This idea is intriguing when considering human memory, and I’m tempted to think of the explanation for the foundation of reality where all of existence is really just a disk resting on the back of a turtle which is standing on another turtle’s back till it’s “turtles all the way down,” but that would be getting rather poetic and cosmological and since my focus in this essay is Ernest Hemingway, poetics really isn’t all that necessary.
In fact I’m sure Hemingway would say “Bull to that” and tell me to shoot straighter.
I tried once to read A Moveable Feast when I was still in my Hemingway phase. It was a phase I think every young man who wants to become a writer goes through at some point, because Hemingway commands such respect, or disrespect, and the man has an aura of firm masculinity that I think beckons the young men who are trying to figure out who they want to be as men. You’re told by teachers and Hemingway afficiando’s, and your conservative uncle at Thanksgiving, that Hemingway was a man’s-man, and one of the last “great writers.” For the record I have yet to read anything that gives the model of this species known as “great writers” and have come to the conclusion that they’re like blue whales or the movie Eraserhead. You know it when you see it.
When I was younger I was told that Hemingway was great and so I read him thinking that if I read enough of his “great” prose then maybe I would become great.
Well, I read it. I read The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, a few of the Nick Stories, the Garden of Eden, and started For Whom the Bell Tolls. And here I am. Greatness isn’t exactly what happened. Really I’m just a guy who read Hemingway when he could have been talking to girls. Eventually Hemingway’s luster faded and I moved to Stephen King who promised me swear words, sex, monsters, and average everyday people encountering the supernatural.
A Moveable Feast has always beckoned though and so when I had the chance between starting my first teaching job and graduating with my masters I sat down and read about his days in Paris. The memoir is in fact just a small moment of Hemingway’s life, and was written long after he had moved from Paris and had become the writer he became. In 1956 Hemingway was bouncing between several manuscripts and during that time of creative shoots and ladders he managed to retrieve two chests he had had stored in the basement of Hotel Ritz Paris. Both chests contained notebooks which themselves contained notes about the period of 1928 when Hemingway was a young man, newly married (to his first wife, let’s be clear), and working on the manuscript that would become his first novel The Sun Also Rises. During this time Hemingway encountered people who would, in their own right, alter the world through their writing and that isn’t poetics on my part. Again the little Hemingway on my shoulder is jabbing me with his pitchfork whenever I try to be pretty in my writing. In the book Hemingway meets and comes to develop friendships with Ezra Pound, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Silvia Beach and Adreienne Monier, and two little unknown people called Francis Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
The little Hemingway poked me again for that last one.
I came to the conclusion, while reading it, that A Moveable Feast was the most enjoyable Hemingway book that I had ever read, but that pleasure came after years away from the man. Hemingway, and it’s easy to forget this because of the miasma of chauvinism that surrounds his work, is a damn fine writer and can create beautiful moments that resonate because of their simple quality. A Moveable Feast isn’t just a long series of musings about the power of creativity, it’s about just meeting the odd and wonderful people who were making the art that helped shape the creative literary stage of the 20th Century.
Part of that company were two women who owned a small bookshop called Shakespeare and Company, and while they themselves did not achieve literary greatness, they at least helped the ones who would. Early in the book Hemingway discusses, visiting the bookshop:
I was very shy when I first went into the bookshop and I did not have enough money on me to join the rental library. She told me I could pay the deposit anytime I had the money and made me out a card and said I could take as many books as I wished. (35)
For the record “she” is Sylvia Beach, the woman who would eventually publish James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. Hemingway continues this initial encounter with a bit of dialogue which only further demonstrates this woman’s selflessness
“You won’t be back very soon if you read all that,” Sylvia said.
“I’ll be back to Pay,” I said. “I have some money in thee flat.”
“I didn’t mean that,” she said. “You pay whenever it’s convenient.”
“When does Joyce come in?”
“If he comes in, it’s usually very late in the afternoon,” she said. “Haven’t you ever seen him?”
“We’ve seen him at Michaud’s eating with his family,” I said. “But it’s not polite to look at people when they are eating, and Michaud’s is expensive.” (36)
At the start this exchange does not seem terribly important, but I would argue that in fact that it is. The simplicity of the exchange reveals what kind of life Hemingway was living in Paris at the time, and the casual way he asks about Joyce while remarking about the proprieties of eating out only furthers this sensation. I’ve written before about the aura that surrounds authors and writers in culture, and so when A Moveable Feast tries to deconstruct that aura, showing the writers and artists of the day as a group of struggling, hungry people it goes a long way in deconstructing that myth. There is I think a little romanticism going on in this book, and probably in this exchange, but reading it I got the sense of Hemingway as a young man who’s looking forward and looking to a life that could be his.
Paris becomes a creative landscape where a great number of people are trying to build the foundations of a great literary career. This especially becomes apparent when Hemingway briefly discusses his relationship with Ezra Pound:
Ezra was the most generous writer I have ever known and the most disinterested. He helped poets, painters, sculptors, and prose writers that he believed in and he would help anyone whether he believed in them or not if they were in trouble. He worried about everyone and in time when I first knew him he was most worried about T.S. Eliot who, Ezra told me, had to work in a bank in London and so insufficient time and bad hours to function as a poet. (110)
Pound is the poet who has suffered in recent times because his Anti-Semitism has been made more and more apparent. You’ll note that I’m only furthering this problem by making that my first point about the man. As always when dealing with great artists who have shitty-personal opinions (whether it be John Wayne’s Racism or Christopher Hitchens’s chauvinism) I’ll always defend the art first. If I can at least make one defense for the man, Hemingway certainly demonstrates that Pound was a man who cared deeply for art and artists. I suspect every creative community has a figure like this, the successful father-mother artist who watches out for the aspiring younger crowd desperate to achieve some kind of success. I’ve experienced some element of this character when I was part of a creative writing class, and I understand the importance of having such a person near you. While on one level there is a competition to “out-art” the other person at the same time there is a parental dynamic where you also don’t want to disappoint them.
Pound was not the only guardian and mentor Hemingway had in Paris for Gertrude Stein, a novelist and art collector, helped him, as well as the other writers of his generation, establish their creative locus. Early in the book Hemingway visits Stein in her house and she tells him plainly:
“That’s what you are. That what you all are,” Miss Stein said. “All of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.”
“Really” I said.
“You are,” she insisted. “You have no respect for anything. You drink yourselves to death….” (29)
Now before I get to the long lasting social significance of that line I should note that Hemingway later explains part of that problem when he addresses the fact that he wasn’t eating much at the time. He writes,
When you are twenty-five and are a natural heavyweight, missing a meal makes you very hungry. But it also sharpens all your perceptions, and I found that many of the people I wrote about had very strong appetites and a great taste and desire for food, and most of them were looking forward to having a drink. (101)
On another side note this partially explains the sensation of reading Hemingway’s first novel The Sun Also Rises because the book is largely nothing but people drinking, eating, fishing, eating, drinking, fishing, and eating some more. For that reason alone A Moveable Feast Goes a long way in validating much of Hemingway’s work, or at least his early books when that hunger was both literal and metaphorical.
But if I can return to Stein’s comments it’s worth noting how crucial that line was for generations of scholars and general fans of the ex-patriot American writers. Stein’s dismissal can at first appear to be nothing more than the typical generational disagreements which form between people. The Baby-Boomers complain about Millennials lack of [X] while Millennials complain about Baby Boomers wrecking the [Y] and the passive aggressive shit-fit continues. Moving past this obviousness however Hemingway I think isn’t just recording this moment to make Stein look like a grumpy woman who sees her artistic generational influence passing on, rather, at this moment, Stein is helping Hemingway as best she can.
The phrase “Lost Generation” came about largely because Hemingway used it as an epigraph to The Sun Also Rises, and the term stuck as generations of historians and literary theorists looked at the writing and general atmosphere of the time and realized that it worked as a functional classification. That’s all just a fancy-pants way of saying that World War I fucked Hemingway’s generation hard and left them wondering what anything, or everything, really meant.
It was in this atmosphere that Hemingway would meet one of the most important writers of his age: F. Scott Fitzgerald. And reading Hemingway describe the man after a while I came to the conclusion that there was no creature so pathetic as F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I had taken his pulse, which was seventy-two, and had felt his forehead, which was cool. I had listened to his chest and had him breathe deeply, and his chest sounded alright.
“Look Scott,” I said. “You’re perfectly O.K. If you want to do the best thing to keep from catching cold, just stay in bed and I’ll order us each a lemonade and a whiskey and you take an aspirin with yours and you’ll feel fine and won’t even get a cold in your head.”
“Those old wives’ remedies,” Scott said.
“You haven’t any temperature. How the hell are you going to have congestion of the lungs without a temperature?”
“Don’t swear at me,” Scott said. “How do you know I haven’t a temperature?”
“Your pulse is normal and you haven’t any fever to the touch.”
“To the touch,” Scott said bitterly. “If you’re a real friend get me a thermometer.”
“I’m in my pajamas.”
Send for one.” (165).
I deliberated on this quote before using it because some part of me wanted to be fair to Scott Fitzgerald, especially since several long chapters are dedicated to Hemingway describing their friendship and the various events these men experienced alongside one another. But honestly this is perhaps the best quote upon reflection because, as Hemingway describes the man, Fitzgerald becomes a whiney little tool who doesn’t appreciate his friends or else his own talents. This, of course, is everything. Hemingway beat Fitzgerald out in the end, not only by living longer, but also eventually in terms of critical recognition. The Great Gatsby was largely ignored during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, while Hemingway’s work achieved great notoriety eventually earning him a Nobel Prize. Because of this Hemingway gets to write the record of their relationship and so repeatedly during A Moveable Feast, Fitzgerald appears to be nothing more than sickly whiner who doesn’t appreciate the gift he has.
While I’m sure some would take this as an opportunity to explore Hemingway’s possible fear of failure, I prefer focusing on the work as an exploration of writing. Hemingway is writing a book about the people he met in Paris and how those people helped shape those experiences into the writing that would bring him tremendous success.
As a book A Moveable Feast isn’t just Hemingway taking the opportunity to re-write who was and wasn’t nice to him in Paris, instead it’s akin to Gore Vidal’s memoir Palimpsest where Hemingway is reliving the memory of memories while figuring out how he has become the writer he is. And that to me is the far more important relevance of reading this document. Even if the reader does not like Hemingway they cannot, and should not, underestimate the man’s influence upon prose and literature.
I read A Moveable Feast because at one point I went through a Hemingway Phase and wanted to see if Hemingway still had the aura that he originally had for me. While it wasn’t the same, I still felt, while reading, that I was observing an older writer writing his past and observing his own self in relation to others.
And so another small quote about Fitzgerald is necessary. Before Fitzgerald succumbs to his psychosomatic illness he is driving with Hemingway:
I was enthusiastic about the trip. I would have the company of an older and successful writer, and in the time we would have to talk in the car I would certainly learn much that it would be useful to know. It is strange now to remember thinking of Scott as an older writer, but at the time, since I had not yet read The Great Gatsby, I thought of him as a much older writer. (153).
The shift that takes place is everything. A Moveable Feast is written in small exchanges between people, and as the reader observes these people they also observe Hemingway observing himself. This style of writing is what good memoirs, great memoirs, should do. Rather than cold autobiography, which is almost always so much about “settling the score,” the memoir allows a writer a little more breathing room to just reflect on a few experiences and try to understand what they have come to mean to them personally. When Hemingway pauses to reflect on the fact that he once looked up to Scott Fitzgerald, a man he would eventually come to, not despise, but pity at least, there’s a great observable and human growth.
In my own life I’ve seen men and women who I looked up to as if they were gods, but as I’ve grown and come to know them better they’ve since fallen from the pedestal. This is sometimes a tragedy (often in the case of father figures), but often it’s simply part of growing older and recognizing that people are people and trying to paint them as anything else is silly and asanine.
The final impression then I guess is that reading A Moveable Feast is a great book because it affords the reader more than a chance to see Hemingway as a young writer who was about to publish A Sun Also Rises and begin an exceptional literary career, it’s the opportunity to see a great author as a young human being who was still learning, observing, and figuring out what life was. Even if the reader is not a fan of Hemingway’s creative work I do believe they would find a satisfaction in reading his memoir because it might afford them the chance to wonder about their own life, and question some of the experiences they’ve had or known. Life is about such small moments, when we allow ourselves to look back and realize so-and-so really was an asshole rather than a brilliant genius, and whats-her-name could have been great if she had just dumped so-and-so, and my god F. Scott Fitzgerald was such a d-bag and a whiner and I’m not just saying that because he stole my girlfriend.
He did but that’s not the point.
The point is A Moveable Feast is a great work of art, and a wonderful reminder of the miracle of growth. Time makes fools of those people we were and used to be, but in those recollections of people there’s still a burning truth of your own humanity. Those memories of memories are worth keeping, if only for the chance to figure out where you’ve come from and what was possible.
I found the Gore Vidal/Charlie Rose interview, which is actually a memorium for the life and work of Gore Vidal. You can find the man’s remarks about memoirs at about 7 minutes 30 seconds into the actual video, or about that range.
I originally intended to provide a few quotes from these books, because they deal with Paris during the time when Hemingway was writing, but I didn’t get around to them. The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kenneth Birmingham is wonderful and Hemingway appears quite often throughout the work (he smuggled copies of Ulysses into America). Another great book which was just released is Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises by Lesley M.M. Blume.
I mention these books because, as I noted several times throughout the essay, Hemingway is writing from his own perspective and as he writes in the Preface of A Moveable Feast:
For reasons sufficient to the writer, many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book. Some were secrets and some were known by everyone and everyone has written about them and will doubtless write more. (ix).
As such, it might be a good idea to get an outsider’s opinion if you’re looking for a more objective view of the writer’s community in Paris during the 1920s.