Tag Archives: Dickens

Tales of the Toilet; or, W(h)ither Fiction?

A couple of days ago, The Los Angeles Times reported the following

MADISON, Wis. — Two children and their mother lived for about two months withToilet Art from Jacob Earl the decaying body of a 90-year-old woman on the toilet of their home’s only bathroom, on the advice of a religious “superior” who claimed the corpse would come back to life, authorities said Friday.

===========When Deputy Leigh Neville-Neil …. opened the last closed door, she smelled “decaying matter” and noticed something piled on what appeared to be a toilet. Lewis told her it was Middlesworth’s body, the complaint said.

Lewis told the deputy that Middlesworth had died about two months earlier, but that God told her Middlesworth would come to life if she prayed hard enough.

She said she couldn’t say anything more until she spoke with her “superior” — Bushey, 57, also known as Bishop John Peter Bushey

She said she propped Middlesworth on the toilet and left the room to call Bushey, who told her to leave the woman alone and pray for her, the complaint said. He said he had received signs that God would raise her from the dead with a miracle.

The story, wretched as it is, reminded me of another tale of the toilet from a couple of months ago in which a horribly obese woman was found to have been living on a toilet in Kansas for two years, having been fed and tended to by her boyfriend as she refused to leave the bathroom. According to EMT reports she had literally grown to the toilet seat, which had to be removed and transported with her to the emergency room.

It’s hard to know what is more astonishing to the imagination, a disturbed woman who could not bring herself to move as she felt her body melding with porcelain, or the boyfriend who brought her breakfast every morning as he pleaded with her to leave the bathroom. A kind of prayer, to be sure, though one less literal than those of the woman and her children in Wisconsin. One wonders what neural snyapse firing in the boyfriend’s brain finally signaled the end of faith, a loss of hope. Why two years instead of two months? Or why not three years instead of two? What finally says to the self, let’s make an end of it. In any case, a synapse firing that had not yet occurred in Wisconsin as a woman watched her mother decay into “something piled on what appeared to be a toilet.”

One gapes, shudders, cries, or gags. And, yes, one laughs. Hopelessly, hysterically, apologetically. When you are at the bottom of the human drain, what else is left to do but laugh at horrors that we come to.

I remember my own shuddering sense of horror and delight and sorrow at first reading “A Rose for Emily” and saw in my minds eye the decaying corpse in the bed, imagined Emily there in bed beside her imaginary lover. Or Miss Havisham, Emily’s literary avatar, in Dickens Great Expectations. Or the perverse grotesques in O’Connor’s fiction–especially Norton, the grieving boy who hangs himself in “The Lame Shall Enter First” in a twisted and in some sense literal leap of faith.

But one looks at this stuff published daily and has to say helplessly that Dickens and O’Connor and Faulkner have nothing on this. Stephen King could do no better in calling up the bizarre extremes of human existence. No wonder contemporary readers have little taste for fiction, and novelists feel compelled to present their fictions as spurious memoir. With a world as it already is beyond all imagining, what role for the writer who wants to imagine what is not.

Of course, I still hold out hope that one role of fiction is to redeem the time. Imagination isn’t just an effort to invoke the extreme, but to shape it, to tame it to a tale. I think most contemporary fiction has given up on that part of the task, perhaps disbelieving that the rotting something on a toilet stool that is our material can be wrestled into meaning. Itself a kind of collective loss of faith.

Other toilets in the news:

According to Reuters, “A woman in Germany put an end to her troubled marriage by chopping up her husband and flushing parts of him down the toilet, authorities said on Tuesday. ‘You won’t find him, I’ve flushed him down the toilet,’ is what she told (her children).” And Hitchcock thought he was imaginative by having a man bury his wife in a Garden?

The airline Jet Blue apparently required a man to sit in the toilet, discovering after takeoff–after takeoff!!–that the flight was ovebooked. The man is suing… because the toilet had no seatbelts and he was bounced around during turbulence. A man who clearly has his priorities in place

Officials in Montgomery Country Maryland have announced a plan to save money by rationing toilet paper for prison inmates. They are using the savings to requisition more body armor in anticipation of the ensuing riots.

Not to be outdone, a family in Manhattan is going without toilet paper for a year in order to be environmentally friendly. They are also going without friends. Not to be outdone, Will Smith proudly points to his new paperless toilets that clean and dry you. I’ve used a bidet, but I admit that the blow dry effect of Will Smith’s Japanese toilets seems just a bit much. Who knew that toilets would be the cutting edge of greenToilet instructions in Japan awareness.

We can also be glad that some enterprising young fellow has given us the following clever visual instructions for toilet usage. (Is it just me or do some of these look like positions from the Kama Sutra).

Aspiring MFA students take note, I see the makings a collection of short stories here. That they are all factual and more imaginative than anything you could dream up on your own should not stop you. There is still no law against writing the world as it is as if you came up with it on your own.

A final news note: Computer Keyboards can be dirtier than toilets.

On that note, I think I’ll go wash my hands. If I’m gone for two years, please come check on me.

Miscellany: More Librivox, More Emerson, More Diarrhea

Ok, to get to Diarrhea, you have to read to the end of this post.

 

MORE LIBRIVOX

I got some very good comments from “Hugh” who is a poobah of some sort over at Librivox. You should go read his comments yourself at my post, “Listening as Reading,” but a couple of excerpts here since I want to think about what he has to say. (And, hey, it’s a cheap way to come up with a post when it’s late at night and I’m having trouble collecting my thoughts.

Says Hugh:

“in pre-radio/tv/recordings days, and when books were relatively expensive, many books were actually written to be read aloud – it was a form of family entertainment: the family & friends gathered around papa (or mama) who read at the fireplace. dickens is a particular example. of course an mp3 audio version read by a stranger isn’t the same thing, but it is another experience of literature, one that has it’s own particular richness, and weakness.”

Yes, a good thing to point out, continuous with my general observation that for the longest part of human history reading was primarily about reading aloud, not reading silently. I’m not quite sure I would go completely down the road that books in the nineteenth century were written to be read out loud. This misconstrues the case. But it is the case that they were commonly read out loud, and there was a great deal of fluidity between the oral presentation and the written. Dickens is a good representative of this fluidity. I’m not quite sure I would say Dicken’s wrote his books in order to read them out loud. He wrote them in order to get them published serially in magazines. But it is absolutely true that he often rewrote and rewrote passages over and over in order to achieve certain kinds of emotional effects in his listening audience. Thus there’s a deep connection between the orality of the word and the writtenness of the word. A fluid interchange of sorts. I still tell students they ought to read their work outloud to themselves in order to hear how things sound. This can be a good guide to the kind of rhetorical affects you are achieving.

Says Hugh again:

“-we are primarily a platform to help people record audiobooks (with an objective of making a complete audio library of public domain books); that the public can download and listen to our files is in a way just a fortunate by-product of what we do.

-and while our collection’s “quality” is, by design, all over the map, the volume of good and extraordinary recordings is daunting…it’s a matter of finding the good stuff. Here are some recommendations:

http://ask.metafilter.com/79067/Librivox-Recommendation”

This last is very helpful, though I wish the list was more organized. I clicked through some of the recommended readings and–on the basis of very short sampling–most of them are superior to some of the detritus I’ve waded through the past few times I’ve strolled through Librivox. I wish that Librivox would provide some kind of ratings system itself–at least one that recognized the popularity of different readings–though I suspect that this would counter the dream of pure democratic participationism that drives this kind of thing on the web.

As for Librivox being primarily about the readers and not the listeners, something Hugh tells me in a second comment, I’m not so sure. (I think Hugh didn’t think it was fair of me to criticize many of the readers for being…well…Dull. Or annoying. Or both). To some degree I think he’s suggesting that Librivox is really more like a blog service where readers can express themselves via recording. Well, OK. But the thrill of doing so is that people will listen in, yes? I mean, if it wasn’t for the fact that people might actually look at this blog, why not just keep it on my computer instead of publishing it for all the world to sneer at.

It’s also the case that in reading a published work, the reader puts himself/herself in the position of performer/artist who is interpreting the work of another artist. There are a lot of opera singers out there who really ought to spare the rest of us and restrict their renditions of Nessun Dorma to the safety of their shower stalls. On the other hand, I don’t begrudge them the right to perform for the world on YouTube. But if they do, I generally think we’ve got a right and responsibility to Puccini and to Pavorotti to say, “You know, that really stinks pretty badly.” There’s no inherent nobility in performing, contrary to what most Americans seem to think.

But enough. Mostly I’m on Hugh’s side here. I’m glad someone’s doing something like Librivox, even if I don’t want to listen to most of the people doing it.

 

MORE EMERSON:

I blogged a bit about Emerson today on the blog dedicated to my course on literary theory. Just a bit of that from a post I called “Emerson and the Gods of Reading”:

Along these lines, I think there’s a way in which Emerson’s notions of creative reading are embodied in the way we read now. For Emerson, reading was a threatening activity precisely because we were always tending toward submission and passivity, always on the brink of substituting someone else’s creativity or knowledge for our own. This would mean we had failed to be “The Poet” we were meant to be and in fact are if we would only realize it. Instead, reading only exists to a purpose if it inspires us to more writing of our own. Reading must always give forth in to new and different expression, or it is worthless. Reading that absorbs and doesn’t give forth in new creativity, reading that doesn’t come to an end in writing is destructive to rather than an enhancement of our humanity.

What is this if not the reading ethic of blogging. Emerson, the familiar spirit of Facebook culture. Reading for us now is only meaningful if it gives forth in self expression. Indeed, texts become primarily a means of further self-expression. I read other texts or find other materials on the internet in order to “blog” them. The verb in this sense means partly to write about them, but blogging something also connotes making it one’s own, making it an opportunity for self-expression, an opportunity to speak.

I don’t think I want to deride this outright. NPR had someone–maybe the founder of Facebook-?!-on today with a little piece on the glories of connectivity available through self-exposure. It seemed a little facile–by exposing my darkest secrets on the net I’ll be able to develop authentic relationships with people I’ve never met. Umm, maybe. If this were true, why not go expose yourself to your next door neighbor. Still, it is the case that kinds of connections are built through this incessant speaking. Ultimately, for Emerson, our seeking expression at the expense of reading was not a form of self-aggrandizement, though it’s often taken for that. It was ultimately a way of connecting to a broader world. In Emerson’s view, if all people would become The Poet they were meant to be, all the world would be saved and we would all be one. It’s ultimately a platonic evangelical Christian vision without Christ in some sense. If we’ll all individually get right with Jesus, we’ll all be one. The internet says something vaguely similar. If we would all just keep looking for ways of expressing ourselves through the texts of others, we will all be connected through what is, after all, the World Wide Web.

I have no idea if this makes any sense, but it seemed profound at the time. Parents are paying for this stuff. It better be.

 

MORE DIARRHEA

Ok, this doesn’t refer to the stinky liquid spew that this post is fast becoming. Or not only that.

I often tell my English students that there is a magazine about everything, so they can take their writing skills and find a job anywhere in the world. The last part is a department chair’s fantasy, but there really is a journal about everything in the world.

Witness “Dialogue On Diarrhea.” Yes, there is a journal covering everything you wanted to know about loose stools. Ok, I should say there used to be a journal. In the words of the web site:

Dialogue on Diarrhoea was an international newsletter on the control of diarrhoeal diseases published by Healthlink Worldwide (formerly AHRTAG), a UK-based non-governmental organisation.

The first issue was published in May 1980.The last of a total of 60 issues, during its 15 years, was published in May 1995.

Published four times a year, Dialogue on Diarrhoea offered clear, practical advice on preventing and treating diarrhoeal diseases. It also acted as a forum for readers to exchange ideas and share experiences.

Umm, just what kind of experiences are we sharing here exactly?

Anyway, the print newsletter is no more. And now instead we have “Dialogue On Diarrhea Online”. So the next time you have this problem, you’ll know where to head. Besides the bathroom. I mean.

And, as we think of it, doesn’t this point to the last important remaining geography in which print remains triumphant. Bathroom reading. It’s a bit tragic that the diarrheatics among us will now have to carry their Kindles to the bathroom in order to keep up on the latest and share their experiences. On the other hand, with laptop in hand they will now be able to share their experiences in a much more intimate and immediate way.

Ok, I’ll stop. I’m sure I’ve now insulted all the chronic diarrhea sufferers who regularly read this blog. And none of my students will ever get an internship with this website. That’s for sure.

Final note: I thought for sure I would be the only person on WordPress who used the word “diarrhea” in a tag. No. There are hundreds of us.

Isn’t the web a wonderful place?