Tag Archives: Faulkner

Quote of the Day–July 25, 2008

Picked up via Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Seneca

“The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Samuel Goldwyn

I tell students not to be fooled by the myth of inspiration. Handel may have written the Messiah in 3 weeks, and Faulkner may have written As I Lay Dying in eight, but this belies the hours and hours of blood, sweat, and practice, practice, practice that made enabled them to take advantage of inspiration when it came. And the average 18 year old wonders why I’m messing with their style.

Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: Hard Times with Hard Times

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens

Hard Times is one of those books that English teachers make you feel bad about not liking.

Oh, I forgot. I am an English teacher. What to do that I found what some people call Dickens greatest novel so dull that it was not even engaging enough to be a soporific (Side note about falling asleep to books, books make us fall asleep best not when they are dull but when they are engaging enough that they take us to the edge of dreaming).

Seriously though, consider the first lines “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”

Isn’t it plain from this moment that the game is rigged. Who could not know that the speaker is a grind–well actually a Gradgrind–that he will get his comeuppance, and that the virtues of truth beauty and the imagination will out.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, that’s mostly what you get in this novel. The Gradgrinds, Bounderby, the Blackpool’s, they exist to tell us that industrialization has made the world go awry reducing everything to its material usefulness and leaving no room for the more spiritual world of the imagination embodied in things like–surprise!–imaginative literature. Of course there are details. Louisa Gradgrind marries the much older Mr. Bounderby on the basis of the practicalities of the facts and her father’s wishes, and we’re quite sure that she will be ground to nearly nothing, which she nearly is. She ameliorates her desperation by trying to help the laborer Stephen Blackpool and we’re nearly sure that Blackpool will die, which he nearly does. And then does. All parties concerned learn their lessons, including Mr. Gradgrind, who comes to realize that there’s more to life than facts, like his love for his daughter and his wayward son. Still, the love seems mostly to exist to make a point, and the point seems too familiar.

Industrialized Education

There’s nothing wrong with a thesis in a novel–I say this against all those who say novels don’t make points; I agree with those from Kenneth Burke to Wayne Booth who see fiction as a kind of rhetoric. But there is a problem with a novel whose thesis is baldly stated like an essay and whose thesis is never complicated, decomposed, challenged, reconfigured, or developed beyond what we can gather from the first sentence. (For that matter, there’s a problem with an essay written in a similar fashion).

I felt myself slogging along through the mud of the obvious and predictable, waking up just a bit when we finally get to the figure of Stephen Blackpool but descending again in to readerly despair when it’s obvious that Stephen is mostly a foil for the display of Louisa Bounderby’s sentimental charity, and later for the display of the pusillanimity and bourgeois moral corruption of Tom Gradgrind.

Stephen Blackpool and his mad wife

Stephen Blackpool and his mad wife

Stephen Blackpool, cog in Dickens’ sentimental machine.

On the other hand, I found myself wondering whether I found this all so predictable because so much has been built on a Dickensian edifice. In other words, would Dickens’ early readers have found his book dull and predictable or perhaps instead appalling, thrilling in its view of human degradation. Do we have a responsibility as readers to recover the shock of the new in classic works when they are no longer new?

I’m not sure. And I may be trying to cut Dickens too much of a break. I have read both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Douglass’s Narrative a multitude of times, and both are rife with moral sentimentalism, obvious bad guys, and endings that surprise only in their predictability. Yet I never find them dull. I will still be moved to tears by sections of both. So what it is it about Hard Times that leaves me cold, in the grip of something I feel I already know and don’t need to learn again, while I can read Stowe and Douglass (and Faulkner, and Hemingway, and at least some of Toni Morrison) as I read the Psalms, an ever renewing source even when I know everything that will happen.

Side Note: An interesting bit from Hard Times about reading. From the chapter where the town is beginning to hunt the falsely accused Blackpool, believing him guilty of robbing Bounderby’s safe.

“The factory-bells had need to ring their loudest that morning to disperse the groups of workers who stood in the tardy daybreak, collected round the placards, devouring them with eager eyes of those who could not read. These people, as they listened to the friendly voice that read aloud–there was always some such ready to help them–stared at the characters which meant so much with a vague awe and respect that would have been half ludicrous, if any aspect of public ignorance could ever be otherwise than threatening and full of evil. Many ears and eyes were busy with a vision of the matter of these placards among turning spindles, rattling looms, and whirling wheels, for hours afterwards; and when the Hands cleared out again into the streets, there were still as many readers as before.”

Me and My Aura

This is perhaps a fairly typical view of oral reading that occurred with regularity up until the 20th century. Now the only people who sit and listen to someone else read are either children or tony types who attend poetry readings. Still, I’m struck by the mystical aura of the word, the mystery and power that written discourse must have held for the masses of the illiterate underclass. Perhaps still holds for that matter. Still, it seems to me that the ubiquity of print has been bought at the price of its own devaluation. Indeed, the inflated presence of the word everywhere around us, where everyone and their mother can write–and indeed, where everyone does write, so much and so often, that no one really has time left to read–this glut of written verbiage has been bought at the price of writing’s (and reading’s) triviality.

Not that this dismal view applies to my own blog, of course. It’s infinitely valuable and more than worth your time. I’m sure it even has an aura.

For More of my summer’s guilty pleasures, see

Summer’s Guilty Pleasures: Black Snake Moan–June 30th

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.