Archive for July, 2017


“River, I’ve never seen the sea…”

As the teacher in my household prepares to steer her ninth-graders through tricky literary currents, she’s revisiting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; I’ve hopped aboard and joined her on the raft. I read Twain’s novel when I was 14, but returning to it more than three decades later has been a revelation. I hadn’t expected to find that the natural focus on slavery and race had obscured Twain’s other related ideas.

I’m probably the last adult reader to notice what makes it such a rich and challenging book: the perfect ease of the narrative voice, the tender passages about life on the river, and the wrenching moments when Huck starts to comprehend Jim’s humanity. And holy crow, Huck Finn is an epic catalog of the deficiencies and absurdities of the antebellum South: family feuds of long-forgotten origin; the poisonous grafting of codes of honor to lawlessness and mob violence; and grifters peddling phrenology, cynical revivalism, and mutilated Shakespeare to yokels who fully deserve to be conned. I can’t be the first person to imagine that the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? owes far more to Huck Finn than to The Odyssey for its episodic mythologizing of Southern culture.

What leaped out at me the most, though, is Twain’s full-on satire of people who take their entertainment way too seriously. I’ve written before about the chapter in Life on the Mississippi where the state capitol in Baton Rouge ignites Twain’s rant about the South’s destructive obsession with the Middle Ages:

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances. The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it. It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things—materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not—should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.

[…]

By itself the imitation castle is doubtless harmless, and well enough; but as a symbol and breeder and sustainer of maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world has seen, it is necessarily a hurtful thing and a mistake.

Twain is sincere in his loathing of romanticism, but in Life on the Mississippi he’s too blunt and unfunny about it to sound like anything but a crank. In Huck Finn, published two years later, he more effectively vents his ire through the excesses of Tom Sawyer, whose mania for tales of adventure tests the patience of his more practical friend:

We played robber now and then about a month, and then I resigned. All the boys did. We hadn’t robbed nobody, hadn’t killed any people, but only just pretended. We used to hop out of the woods and go charging down on hog-drivers and women in carts taking garden stuff to market, but we never hived any of them. Tom Sawyer called the hogs “ingots,” and he called the turnips and stuff “julery,” and we would go to the cave and powwow over what we had done, and how many people we had killed and marked. But I couldn’t see no profit in it.

One time Tom sent a boy to run about town with a blazing stick, which he called a slogan (which was the sign for the Gang to get together), and then he said he had got secret news by his spies that next day a whole parcel of Spanish merchants and rich A-rabs was going to camp in Cave Hollow with two hundred elephants, and six hundred camels, and over a thousand “sumter” mules, all loaded down with di’monds, and they didn’t have only a guard of four hundred soldiers, and so we would lay in ambuscade, as he called it, and kill the lot and scoop the things. He said we must slick up our swords and guns, and get ready.  He never could go after even a turnip-cart but he must have the swords and guns all scoured up for it, though they was only lath and broomsticks, and you might scour at them till you rotted, and then they warn’t worth a mouthful of ashes more than what they was before. I didn’t believe we could lick such a crowd of Spaniards and A-rabs, but I wanted to see the camels and elephants, so I was on hand next day, Saturday, in the ambuscade; and when we got the word we rushed out of the woods and down the hill. But there warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants. It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer-class at that. We busted it up, and chased the children up the hollow; but we never got anything but some doughnuts and jam, though Ben Rogers got a rag doll, and Jo Harper got a hymn-book and a tract; and then the teacher charged in, and made us drop everything and cut.

I didn’t see no di’monds, and I told Tom Sawyer so. He said there was loads of them there, anyway; and he said there was A-rabs there, too, and elephants and things. I said, why couldn’t we see them, then?  He said if I warn’t so ignorant, but had read a book called Don Quixote, I would know without asking. He said it was all done by enchantment. He said there was hundreds of soldiers there, and elephants and treasure, and so on, but we had enemies which he called magicians; and they had turned the whole thing into an infant Sunday-school, just out of spite. I said, all right; then the thing for us to do was to go for the magicians. Tom Sawyer said I was a numskull.

Huck and Tom argue about wizards and genies, and Huck decides to test his friend’s claims. It’s one of many times when he tries on the world-views of others as he struggles to work out his own:

I thought all this over for two or three days, and then I reckoned I would see if there was anything in it. I got an old tin lamp and an iron ring, and went out in the woods and rubbed and rubbed till I sweat like an Injun, calculating to build a palace and sell it; but it warn’t no use, none of the genies come. So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday-school.

Of course—spoiler alert for time-traveling readers from the 1880s—Tom Sawyer plays a huge role in the climax of Huck Finn when he agrees to help free Jim from imprisonment in a shack. Tom and Huck could easily break him out in a moment, but the liberation has to happen on Tom’s convoluted terms. Day after day, Tom draws out Jim’s captivity by insisting on all the elaborate trappings of a swashbuckling adventure novel: a secret tunnel, a coat of arms, snakes and rats, a rope ladder baked in a pie—there’s even talk of sawing off Jim’s leg even though he could free himself from his chain simply by lifting the leg of his bed.

Many readers find the whole episode tedious and cruel, but the cruelty is the point. It would be easy to see the better-educated, middle-class Tom Sawyer as a lovable scamp who just wants others to share his bookish whims, but in Huck Finn he embodies a trend that Twain found troubling: the triumph of fantasy over reason and reality. Whatever the character meant to him elsewhere, Tom Sawyer is a figure of dangerous foolishness here. Wouldn’t Twain glower disapprovingly at the emergence of fandoms so all-encompassing that they inspire cosplay, cultural squabbling, and vicarious reinterpretations of history? He might have said that what our geeky age has wrought from harmless escapism will someday prove harmful to people who won’t play along. I guess we’ll see.

Jim is held captive for far longer than he needs to be because of storybook romanticism. You could see the whole Civil War in that, if you want.

“I can’t be left to my imagination…”

Sometimes, during the busiest weeks, we need to find time to slow down. I did—and in two blog posts about current approaches to art I noticed, and cheered for, implicit heresies.

* * *

First, via Cynthia Haven, comes video of California poet laureate Dana Gioia at the first annual Sierra Poetry Festival in April 2017. I’ve long been a fan of Gioia, but the first seven or eight minutes of his casual talk sum up every simple, contrarian impulse I enjoy in 21st-century poetry, which is as much of a niche pursuit as any can be. Gioia addresses a fellowship he describes as having “dedicated significant part of our lives, in a broader sense, to something our society doesn’t much value. We are people at odds with the values that are trumpeted around us in the media,” adding that poets aspire to exchange money, power, and social status for beauty, truth, and goodness. If your first impulse is to laugh at that, please think again: Almost nobody makes money with poetry, and doing something you love for its own rewards is actually a lot more normal than hoping your beloved hobby will turn a profit, earn you “likes,” or make you “YouTube Famous.”

The statement that struck me the strongest was this: “We don’t lead global lives.” Heresy! For all we learn from other perspectives and wider views, we can’t escape our own terroir, though many try. At a time when we’re supposed to aspire to be “global citizens,” whatever that is, Gioia preaches diversity of place, of values, of expression. I’m glad he does; those offer something true for all of us.

* * *

And then there’s this from the website Artsy: “Why the Rise of Workout Classes in Museums Should Worry Art Lovers.” Do we really need an “explainer” on this? I understand that some museums have grave financial problems, and I attended several museum conferences a few years ago where older administrators were openly terrified by their inability to attract a younger audience with the attention span of a capsized stinkbug. Turning art spaces into noisy, oniony locker rooms is not the answer. Museums have tried these stunts for a while; symphonies have also tried to cash in with gimmicks like crowd-pleasing concerts of orchestral versions of video-game tunes. In the long run, do these things attract more patrons than they repel? No one has said.

In my 21 years in D.C., I learned to laugh at Capitol Hill workaholics who pretended that a few hours of weekly yoga balanced out their frantic attempts to get noticed after working until dawn on those brilliantly persuasive bar graphs in a sorghum-subsidies report for the assistant to Senator Bedfellow. Learning to be alone to exhume your own thoughts is (to use the language of the stressed) a lifestyle choice—no piped-in soundtrack to every meal, no CNN or Fox News blaring overhead as you try to read a book or reconnect with a friend, no checking your phone every six minutes for nonsense.

I like music. I like video games. Yoga is good for you. I value my smartphone. But I’m zealous about there being one secular place left in our culture that isn’t about bodies rather than minds, or doing rather than thinking, or noise rather than silence, or therapeutic self-improvement rather than grappling with the difficult thinking of older, wiser minds. I suppose that’s my heresy. I support it with my wallet, but for now I’ll continue to live in the woods.

“Carving deep blue ripples in the tissues of your mind…”

I’m glad I went to college when I did; I get the sense that campuses have become less hospitable to eccentrics who seldom publish but thrive in the classroom. Perhaps the glut of job-seekers is to blame, or the dependence on adjuncts, or management priorities right out of the home office of Walmart. But I once knew a professor who hoped we would see that education could be bigger than all of that, and I was saddened to learn that he has, as Thomas Malory wrote of King Arthur, chaunged his lyf.

The right kind of student loved his classes. He urged us to rip our massive anthologies in half to make the world’s great literature that much more portable. He had us draw maps of mythical places, and he bombarded us with comic strips, song lyrics, modern poems, anything to convince us that knowing this stuff—and he did call it “this stuff”—let us form profound connections with our fellow humans, living and dead. When we read the Aeneid, he pumped us up by blasting Cream’s “Tales of Brave Ulysses” from a boombox and banging his head in psychedelic bliss—but then the frivolity ended as he passed around a tiny vellum manuscript in Greek and quietly asked us to consider both its fragility and its durability.

The last of the fanatic generalists, he taught ancient and medieval lit, the Bible, the Romantic poets, Shakespeare, and the Arthurian legend, but he had a special fondness for the Beats. He also loved Samuel Johnson, and I’m sure that when he went to London every few years, he roamed the alleys and streets with an 18th-century mental map. I don’t know if students see his like anymore: an outspoken liberal who defended the worth of the Western canon. He did so devoutly but without chauvinism: he also studied Japanese and joined his wife in an Indonesian gamelan ensemble.

In 1992 I was mulling over two improbable careers: cartoonist and medievalist. When I popped by his office to talk about graduate school, my prospects hung in the air for ages.

“If that’s really what you want to do, then of course I’ll write you a letter,” he said at last, “but I would be just as pleased to know that I helped to create a very literate cartoonist rather than another academic scrounging around wondering where the next pittance of grant money is going to come from.”

I was stunned to hear a professor suggest that campus life was anything other than a bower of bliss. I don’t know if he accurately perceived my eccentricities or was giving voice to his own disenchantment, but he was right to make me suspicious of the whole business. Decades later, I still make up my career as I go along. With no clear path to follow, life has been harder, and maybe I worry more, but I’ve also traveled more, written more, known more kinds of people, and stumbled more often onto unforeseen luck. More wide-eyed students should hear what I heard; it takes years to sink in.

That same year, I answered his call for a research assistant, an offer he rebuked. “It’s mindless work,” he grumbled, instead sending me home for the summer with an Arthurian tote bag: Malory in Middle English, Layamon’s Brut, and hundreds of pages of secondary sources ranging from credible archaeological studies to wackadoodle theories about the “real” King Arthur. Lacking any guidance or goal, I worked out my own mental outline of medieval Britain. I later built a ten-year teaching job on that.

When he organized a major conference on medievalism, he told me to check it out. The invitation itself was a compliment, but I was too callow to realize that such an event on my own campus was something I ought to attend. A few years later, he sent me the published proceedings, which started me thinking. I wander, I stall, but I do tend to get where I’m going. Did he know?

He could be frustrating. The forms I needed signed and the letters I needed written couldn’t compare to the brilliant conversations with Cavafy and Boswell that seemed always alive in his mind. More than once, he got into deep trouble with fussy little bureaucrats. I like to think he angered them by taking seriously the proposition that a university was a place to explore, to experiment, to gain perspective that makes you free in ways that the world can’t suppress.

We didn’t know each other well, but we shared stories about growing up in tight neighborhoods with large extended families. I hadn’t seen him in 24 years, but now and then a package would surprise me: boxes of books, a cache of poems, letters that rang with good cheer even in the face of failing health.

Good teachers leave you gifts long before you understand their value. Shortly before I graduated, he read my paper on an ephemeral modern author and congratulated me on work that was well-written and cohesive. Then he looked me in the eye and said, by way of farewell: “Study something lasting.” And so I have.


(Polaroid Land Camera photo of a grotesque near the University of Delaware campus)

“Now, the mist across the window hides the lines…”

Longtime readers might be surprised by how few medieval-ish doodads we have in our home. My office houses a framed copy of the opening of an Icelandic manuscript and a tiny set of Domesday Book postage stamps, and until recently that was about it. When we began renting a large house in the woods, the owners left us with a great deal to work with: not only sunny flower beds and several acres of bird-besieged trees but also walls with so many nails and hooks for hanging photos, artwork, and curios that we weren’t sure we could fill them all.

We did find art for most of them—but not all. And so a few weeks ago, when I noticed two bare nails over a doorway, I decided to put up some blemmyae.

The myth of the blemmyae goes back to the ancient world, when Herodotus described this race of creatures who resembled headless men but carried their faces in their chests. He placed them alongside other humanoids, such as dog-faced men, who were believed to abide along the coast of North Africa. During the Middle Ages, the blemmyae got dragged into texts about the wonders one might find in Africa and Asia. Alexander the Great captures several of them in one romance, and that wonderful liar Sir John Mandeville claimed to have seen some near India. Some medieval writers drew a comically fine distinction between headless men with faces in their chests and headless men with eyes in their shoulders. These beings went by various names, but their legend carried over to the Americas, where Sir Walter Raleigh chased rumors of their existence near what’s now Venezuela.

My blemmyae came from England. Oakapple Designs, a lovely company in South Yorkshire, has acquired the right to make casts of artwork at certain cathedrals and sell them to the public, and the cost is very reasonable. You can browse their assortment of people, animals, and mythical creatures, which runs rampant with angels, bats, dragons, green men, and monks.

According to Oakapple, the two blemmyae over my doorway were made in the 15th century for Ripon Cathedral, where they’re apparently carved onto misericords: folding wooden seats in the choir that can be leaned on in times of need.

I can only guess why people believed in these creatures for so long. Maybe they mistook certain stoop-necked primates as headless; perhaps real tribes of humans wore armor or helmets that gave Europeans peculiar ideas. I find these particular blemmyae rather ambiguous. I’m not even entirely sure what the one on the left is doing with that stick. What I do know is that the carver at Ripon Cathedral thought they were civilized: take note of the clothing and shoes. That’s good enough reason to welcome them into our home—and if they inspire a story or poem, so much the better. I doubt they’ll be the strangest things to emerge from our time in the woods.