Where Michael Kinsley Meets William Faulkner; or, The Beat Goes On

“The danger is in the neatness of identifications,” Beckett said in “Dante…Bruno.Vico..Joyce,” and “literary criticism is not book-keeping.” Perhaps a certain kind of journalism is book-keeping, the kind that embeds meaning in pre-packaged classifications, designations that deprive individuals of their unique character by assigning them to a group, where they are given a number.

I am today more than ever before it seems identified as a Baby Boomer, someone born between the years 1946 and 1964, according to the Atlantic’s Michael Kinsley, in his “The Least We Can Do,” a call for the Boomer generation to satisfy its promise to the country, to redeem its sins of excess by giving back, by paying off the national debt. The call is to behave now like Faulkner’s Isaac in “The Bear,” denying our inheritance, for, after all, no one can own the land, as the housing crisis now teaches. Of course, there’s already not as much land as there once was, our having, like Quentin in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, sold off a portion to pay for our year at Harvard.

We began our retirements at the end of a century of wars that ended in yet another war, a war that Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, called, not the least bit wearily, the “first war of the 21st century, implying it would be yet another century of wars: “But really, this is precisely what transformation is about. Here we are in the year 2002, fighting the first war of the 21st century, and the horse cavalry was back and being used, but being used in previously unimaginable ways. It showed that a revolution in military affairs is about more than building new high tech weapons, though that is certainly part of it. It’s also about new ways of thinking, and new ways of fighting.”

“You are a lost generation,” Gertrude Stein told Hemingway, suggesting that the post World War I survivors had been both abandoned and set free by their parents’ great war, the war to end all wars. But twenty years later they would find themselves caught up in another great war, and after that one they would be called the Beat Generation, and beat they were, the Boomers’ parents. Now we are burying the beat, yet the beat goes on. You can’t buy the beat.

Where The Gutenberg Galaxy Wanes While the Zuckerberg Zone Waxes: How the Founder of Facebook is Destroying the Printing Press

At 18, a grunt at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, sitting knee to knee and cheek to cheek with my peers in a latrine of 12 stools, I learned that going to the bathroom is a business, and privacy does not work for us, we work for her. We had, in 1969, at Fort Bliss, neither laptops nor cell phones, though we were allowed books, periodicals, and letters, and if someone wanted to know the status of a constipated grunt in Fort Bliss, they would be updated in a few days via an APO address, not instantly in a Facebook post.

In The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), a mosaic of blog-like posts illustrating the effects of print technology on the human environment, Marshall McLuhan explains that the printing press is responsible for the creation of the public. The printing press, McLuhan argues, created nationalism and the divorce of science from art, made the “marginal man,” the alienated individual, one who lives outside the margins (text boundaries) of society, and print is responsible for linear thinking. McCluhan’s 310 chapters each comprise a complex claim full of what today we would call “links” to other sources. Here’s one of my favorite chapters: “254 The typographic logic created ‘the outsider,’ the alienated man, as the type of integral, that is, intuitive and irrational, man.” And another: “258 Typographic man can express but is helpless to read the configurations of print technology.”

Can we read the configurations of  Internet technology? If McLuhan was right, and print technology traded an ear for an eye in its focus on the page, rearranging our sensorium, the eye now the dominant sense, and if the book, printed in one’s vernacular, killed Latin and created privacy, then will the global village created by the Internet reverse these sensory changes and take us back to primitivism? “187 Every technology contrived and ‘outered’ by man has the power to numb human awareness during the period of its first interiorization.” And when and how will we know?

A flurry of comments on these new directions, new configurations, filled the air this week. This week’s New Yorker (September 20) contains “The Face of Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg [founder of Facebook] opens up,” while CQ Researcher has just published a major report, “Social Networking: Are online social networks eroding privacy?” (Sept. 17): Marcia Clemmitt summarizes in her introduction, “For some the new world of ‘radical transparency’ will increase human understanding and encourage honesty and accountability. But some lawmakers and scholars [are] concerned about losing older notions of privacy.” Zuckerberg is also the subject of a new movie, The Social Network, which contains a largely unflattering view of him, but of the rest of us as well, according to a Newsweek on-line review (Sept. 20), “With Friends Like These.”

These new direction discussions follow [in my reading on the subject] a November, 2009 scholarly article in The Australian Humanities Review, notable for its overall positive viewpoint [as well as for the review taking the social networking phenomenon seriously) of the Facebook experience. In “Grizzling About Facebook,” Meaghan Morris, (Chair Professor of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, and Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney) makes her position and thesis clear in her introductory remarks: “…anyone who thinks that social networking is a ‘superficial’ matter of clicking should explain to me (to begin with) in just what world the effort of making a photo album for friends and family does not involve emotional commitment; and in what kind of real world it counts as an evasion of contact to have an on-line party, or to send gifts, humour and words of comfort or affection to people across space and time. It would have to be a world without regard for writing and reading, obviously: no love of letters, no emotional responses to rock art and cathedrals; no crying over novels and poems, either. Come to think of it, it might be a world without great newspapers (a prospect which some pundits no doubt have uncomfortably in mind).” This was in response to a negative editorial in the South China Morning Post arguing that the virtual contact of Facebook is no substitute for “real” human contact.

But the mounting concern is not over how we spend our time, but whether or not we can spend it in private. To this question, Morris offers a number of questions, each of which might serve as the thesis for another paper: “I certainly do not mean to suggest that all criticism of Facebook is grizzling. Serious legal, ethical and political issues are arising from or being intensified by the ‘Facebook’ phenomenon (to use a typifying metonym myself), in the process sharpening some of the challenging debates of our time; free speech and its limits, censorship, the right to privacy, the negotiation of social protocols for a transnational economy that thrives on difference as well as inequality, the relations between semiotic and other modes of violence, tensions between legal, communal and performative models of identity, the foundations of community, the power of corporations in our personal lives, and the technological transformation of work are just a few of these.” Indeed, that’s enough to keep the Facebook scholars busy for a spell. In the CQ Researcher report, there’s a thread pulled out but not nearly unravelled to conclusion regarding the similarities and differences between Facebook and MySpace, a thread which suggests a social stratification, perhaps a tribal (in the McLuhan sense) response, ultimately, perhaps, a Marxist view of social networking.

But it’s those concerns about “older notions of privacy” that I find interesting. What is privacy? Where do these ideas of privacy come from? Is liberty synonymous with privacy? Are both the consequence of print technology, as McLuhan suggested, and as technology changes and changes us, will our notions of privacy also change? No doubt the development of self-consciousness in human evolution created some sense of privacy (when did we begin to sense a need to be alone with our thoughts?), but now, by privacy, do we mean secret, or do we mean control, or do we mean, as T. S. Eliot said in “Prufrock,” “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet….” Or do we mean privilege, as in the private privy, the privy chamber, not a public place, hardly a Facebook page. Not for nothing is the stool called the throne. The king enjoys the privilege of privacy, and has the power to grant a private audience. Now with 500 million advertised members, control of the masses would seem but clicks away, but who shall be king? But if the king remains in his privy, who cares?

Memorialized in Memo; or, where what we purpose proposes to parody

Louis Menand, in the September 20 New Yorker, takes the opportunity, with the recent publication of The Oxford Book of Parodies, to briefly discuss the world of parody, a world that currently, it seems, is too much with us, and “we lay waste our powers,” as Wordsworth said, a mother-lode of potential parody, if anyone knows Wordsworth anymore, for one of Menand’s points is that parody works only on the assumption readers “…[are] presumed to have a lot of literature at their mental fingertips.” In other words, parody is only effective if the reader knows the original.

Yet winter has indeed icussed us, and we are drenched in parody, for parody is now ubiquitous and can occur at random, without antecedent. Parody now springs from its own source; it does not even need a source. Life itself seems a parody of nature. It’s a dark matter, for, as Menand concludes, “…everything is quasi-parodic, when everything presents itself with a wink of self-conscious exaggeration…it has become virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.”

Consider, for example, the memos exchanged between Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Ron Ziegler published in Harper’s October issue, culled, apparently, from “100,000 pages of presidential records released by the Nixon Library in July.” Moynihan, 43 at the time and  Nixon’s counselor for urban affairs, wrote, or perhaps dictated, given it’s 1970, a memo to Ziegler, at the time Nixon’s press secretary (at 29, the youngest ever, Harper’s point out), berating the youthful neophyte for walking to a reception rather than taking a seat in an official White House car and riding to the event: “I know that appearances mean little to you, Ron, and that many of the supposed perquisites of the White House office seem more like burdens or even unnecessary expenditures to someone whose life has been so much lived in the more easygoing atmosphere of the Far West…But you have got to keep ever in mind the rule that appearances count.”

The Vietnam War is running; it’s two months after the Kent State massacre of duped students by the even dupier National Guard, and Moynihan sounds more like the counselor for etiquette rather than urban affairs.

Yet Ziegler responds with a full court press: “Can you blame me for disdaining, this once, the sycophantic procession of shiny black Chryslers in which lesser men cloak their insecurities, and choosing instead the leisurely promenade up Connecticut Avenue, throwing a little class on the otherwise benignly neglected locals and reveling in the charms of the summer evening?” But even that is all a throwing off of the scent prelude to Ziegler’s real thrust, the accusation that Moynihan’s real motive is to usurp Ziegler’s position as press secretary, for why else would Moynihan “put out all kinds of bad vibes about me [Ziegler].”

It’s the politics of parody that today draws interest – perhaps parody is always political in its intent, partisan in its tone, for, as Menand says, “it is harder for someone to subvert you if you are already subverting yourself.” As I read and reread the Moynihan/Ziegler to walk or ride memo exchange, I thought surely they can’t have been serious. They had to have been lampooning themselves in private: “1768-74 TUCKER Lt. Nat. (1834) II. 362 Thwarted in the cabinet, baited in parliament, and lampooned in public” (lampoon, OED), and memorialized in memo.

The I Ching (Book of Changes); or, where one should not try to be all-knowing

In harmony with the Book of Changes, the 3,000 year old Chinese pursuit of wisdom, I chanced across a copy (3rd ed., 21st printing, 1985), for $2, at a garage sale this past weekend. It’s the Bollingen hard copy, in fair condition, with dust jacket, for which Jung wrote the original foreword, not as worried, he explains of his inability to explain the I Ching to what he calls, in 1949, the “Western mind,” a mind that might best be described by Hexagram 29, “Bound with cords and ropes,” because he was then in his “eighth decade, and the changing opinions of men scarcely impress me any more.” Not only that, but, continuing Hexagram 29, “If you are sincere, you have success in your heart, And whatever you do succeeds.”

The I Ching provided Jung with a practical field of study for his concept of synchronicity, the theory that effects don’t always have measureable causes – or, at least, when we turn our attention away from causality (as John Cage did in his works involving indeterminacy), we seem to form a more perfect union with nature – by which Jung meant, in his foreword to the I Ching, physics.

Yet it’s not clear whether today’s physicists agree or not – that a truly exceptionally simple theory of everything (one that satisfies Richard Wilhelm’s desire to “…[make] the I Ching intelligible to the lay reader”) might be held in the random throw of three coins. In any case, globalization may have already made the Western mind boundary-less, ubiquitous on the planet, but the I Ching is still out there, waiting to be discovered. Like the gospels, the I Ching has, since Jung wrote his foreword, been “pinched and poked,” as e. e. cummings said in “O sweet spontaneous,” by the “doting fingers of prurient philosophers.” Yet, Jung says, “security, certitude, and peace do not lead to discoveries.” In this regard, at least, if in no other, the I Ching would still appear appropriate for “thoughtful and reflective people who like to think about what they do and what happens to them…,” and like to think beyond “reason and pedagogy [which] often lack charm and grace.” Of course, who wants to hear that today’s answer is the same one offered 3,000 years ago? Might make winning the research grant a bit more difficult.

Jung argued that the I Ching is best suited to questions of self-knowledge. That the I Ching has changed over time, been abused, cast aside, like the gospels, should not, with regard to its use toward self-knowledge, Jung seems to be saying, in his foreword, dissuade contemporary readers, for “often our relations depend almost exclusively on our own attitudes, though we may be quite unaware of this fact.” Why would anyone consult the I Ching today? Because, as Jung says, “The I Ching insists upon self-knowledge throughout. The method by which this is to be achieved is open to every kind of misuse, and is therefore not for the frivolous-minded and immature; nor is it for intellectualists and rationalists.” But it is, in other words, the perfect fit for our ideal, general interest reader.

Jung acknowledges that “to one person its spirit appears as clear as day; to another, shadowy as twilight; to a third, dark as night. He who is not pleased by it does not have to use it, and he who is against it is not obliged to find it true. Let it go forth into the world for the benefit of those who can discern its meaning.” So Jung asked “Why not venture a dialogue with an ancient book that purports to be animated?” In an age when neuroscientists like Jonah Lehrer argue that “the mind is really just a piece of meat,” it would not seem that such a dialog as Jung suggests having with the ancient book can do any harm. But if I put the question to the I Ching, is the mind really just a piece of meat, I’d better be ready for the answer: Hexagram 36, “Darkening of the Light,” “…one should not try to be all-knowing.” Not only that, but, Jung adds: “The less one thinks about the theory of the I Ching, the more soundly one sleeps.”

Skylark, have you anything to say to Billy Collins?

We are surprised to learn poetry ever makes the news. But over at the Poetry Foundation, we found, under “poetry news,” this, from a Billy Collins interview in the Wall Street Journal: ‘“Lyrics just don’t hold up without the music,’ Billy Collins recently told The Wall Street Journal. ‘I assure them [his students] that Jim Morrison is not a poet in any sense of the word.'” So, it’s an argument of definition: what is poetry, and, whatever it is, can it exist apart from its accompaniment? This is when Jack Benny folds his arms, brings his hand to his chin, looks over his right shoulder, and sighs, rolling his eyes upward, to the corners, and wide, “Well!,” for surely Billy Collins is as wrong as a jackhammer on a holiday, and we find ourselves agreeing with Kristen Hoggatt, over at The Smart Set: “…come on, poets, let’s get off our high horses….”

But whether he’s on a high horse or a low one, isn’t lyrical poetry what Billy Collins writes? But Collins isn’t the first critic who would close the sacred canon’s door to songs – Leslie Fiedler opened that door in Liberations (1971), his delayed thesis of “The Children’s Hour” the right trap for those waxing pedantically like Collins, but, alas, the door keeps banging open and shut, in spite of Fiedler’s attempt to nail it open: “…downright contradictory notions of what poetry is or ought to be…stated…by different spokesmen to different audiences, existing in mutual ignorance or contempt of each other.” And to what end? For what Fiedler values, which he makes clear at the end of his essay, is “…remembering…as if there were ever a time when, at the levels touched by song, we were any of us anything else [young].” For it’s the song that we remember, and the song allows for poetry.

Yet there’s more to song lyrics than what we hear in popular rock music. Does Billy Collins also think that Noel Coward “is not a poet in any sense of the word”? Or Hoagy Carmichael? Or Johnny Mercer? Woody Guthrie? And what of the libretto?

But to Billy’s point that “lyrics just don’t hold up without the music,” as Fiedler illustrated, almost embarrassingly, poetry began in song, so, yes, exactly so, as so much of today’s poetry is also separated from its music, from its musical source, and, where there is no music, it continues to be argued, there is no poetry. How can Billy remain so malinformed? For we’ve been canonizing non-literary systems for some time now, in literature and in art, and, increasingly, though not soon enough, in religion. Consider this, for example, from 1991, by Rakefet Sheffy (Tel-Aviv University) already nearly 20 years old, but right on: “The Case of the Modern American Popular Song and its Contact with Poetry”: “Once the artistry of songwriting was recognized in literary terms, a canon of popular song began to be reconstructed in various ways, for example by reconsidering antecedent non-literary texts, issuing lyrics in book form, writing the history of the popular song, exploring and documenting its forms and styles, and institutionalizing its own criticism. Consequently, a whole body of cultural elements, which up to that moment were considered trivial, worthless or subversive, came to be regarded as a legitimate repertory available also to avant-gardist songwriters, this time, however, regardless of their initial ideological background or their affiliations with the literary system.”

Come back to the raft, Billy, we got a song for ya. But you have to sing it – it’s a dose of orality.

See also prior post referencing Fiedler and the either/or poetry definition fallacy here.

“Skylark,” music by Hoagy Carmichael and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, has been covered by many artitists (e.g. K. D. Lang in the film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).

The Myth of Adolescence: James Woods on Jean-Christophe Valtat

Reading James Woods’s review of Valtat’s “03” (New Yorker, September 6), when a comment pops up like the pea in the mattress he opens with, keeping us awake: “He [Camus] proposed four roles…: the conqueror, the seducer, the actor, and the writer. (One notes the convenient glamour of Camus’s chosen roles: not, say, the policeman, the bus conductor, the bureaucrat, and the shopkeeper).” But Wood’s comment might say more about Woods than about Camus, for Woods can’t seem to imagine a hero who is a plumber, a gardener, a clerk, a waitress. Besides, it’s not entirely accurate, as we find if we take a look at Camus’s actual heroes. But in context, Woods wants Camus to lead the way into Valtat’s four-types Camus imitation: “The exile, the rock musician, the eccentric, the suicide,” which, in turn, permits Woods to introduce his own, fifth role, that of the “…arrest[ed], of helpless delay, of simply coming to a stop while continuing to live,” the condition most adolescents find themselves consigned to once reaching adulthood.

It was some time ago, in an issue of Reed Magazine, we read with interest an article by a Reed English professor about what jobs an English major might aspire to. The breadth of the suggestions was anemic and seemed to reflect an academically enculturated world view: law school, teaching – that was about it, no mention of Wallace Stevens, the great American poet who (albeit trained as a lawyer) enjoyed a career as Claims V. P. with the Hartford; of Ted Kooser, US poet laureate who spent his adult working life at Lincoln Life, in Nebraska; of Kafka, who spent time employed by two European insurers.

Not that it matters, for the question in point is what bearing one’s occupation has on one’s role. When Sartre says that the existentialist’s existence precedes his essence, is he talking about finding a job? When Jesus said “follow me,” was he talking about joining a laborer’s union?

I’m not sure if Woods intends to dis Camus, adolescents, or both: “’03’ is indeed a moralist’s novel: I was often reminded of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus,’ that great outburst so loved by adolescents,” as if adolescents can’t fully know what it means to live, to suffer, to read, to write, to have to decide who to follow, and what book to take along. Alas, the current generation of adolescents will certainly have plenty of time on their hands thinking about it, as they go about applying for jobs that don’t exist.

Where Winston Churchill meets Roddy Doyle; or, the Library is not a Zoo

“Fancy living in one of these streets – never seeing anything beautiful – never eating anything savoury – never saying anything clever!” The quote could easily have come from any one of Roddy Doyle’s many crude characters, hewn from a pub-lyrical pint in a Barrytown road: “Wha’ part o’ Dublin? Barrytown. Wha’ class are yis? Workin’ class. Are yis proud of it? Yeah, yis are…Your music should be abou’ where you’re from an’ the sort o’ people yeh come from,” Jimmy Rabbitte says, who will manage The Commitments to his vision of a Dublin band playing soul music.

But it can’t be a Roddy Doyle character said it, the bit about “never saying anything clever!” For Roddy Doyle characters rarely say anything that’s not clever. Clever’s what comes from never seeing anything beautiful and never eating anything savoury. But what’s savoury? For that, we might to go Roddy Doyle’s The Van: “He got the scoop in under the chips and got a grand big load into the bag, filled it right up. Good, big chips they were, and a lovely colour, most of them; one or two of them were a bit white and shiny looking.” A bit of tea to go with the fish, perhaps, from Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper: “He tried the tea. It was brutal.” But if it was a Roddy Doyle character said it, he would have said it passin’ through a Churchill neighborhood.

Brutal too is the knowledge that our opening quote does not come from a Roddy Doyle character, but from Winston Churchill, quoted, according to Adam Gopnik, in “Finest Hours,” in the August 30 New Yorker, by Edward Marsh, Churchill’s secretary, as Churchill visits a working class neighborhood in Manchester. Gopnik pulls the quote out to evidence that those closest to and in a position to assist the great in their finest and not so finest hours are in the best position to snap shots peculiarly revealing. Gopnik may have had other reasons for isolating the quote. For one thing, it’s possible Churchill’s enculturated attitude displayed in the quote explains his ability to use those living in those streets as cannon fodder in his war.

There certainly is something to be said for living in beautiful, savory, and clever conditions, as Jonah Lehrer explains in his Frontal Cortex blog: “In the late 1990s…the University of Illinois began interviewing female residents in…a massive housing project on the South Side of Chicago. Kuo and her colleagues compared women randomly assigned to various apartments. Some had a view of nothing but concrete sprawl, the blacktop of parking lots and basketball courts. Others looked out on grassy courtyards filled with trees and flowerbeds. Kuo then measured the two groups on a variety of tasks, from basic tests of attention to surveys that looked at how the women were handling major life challenges. She found that living in an apartment with a view of greenery led to significant improvements in every category.”

But literature does not come from the beautiful, the savory, and the clever, but from the brutal, the sardonic, and the cleft. Art does not come from patios filled with plants, but from greasy asphalt alleys glistening in flickering neon. This is why we must be careful of the library. The library is like a zoo, its books like wild animals, snakes, and deadly insects, but the library is not a zoo, for in a zoo there are cages that separate and protect us from the lions and tigers and bears. In a library, the stacks are open, and readers reach out and pet the books at their own risk.

And after leaving the library, assuming you make it out alive, and you’re hungry and there’s a food cart about, be sure they’re stuffing their wraps with real food and not nappies.

We Ain’t Gonna Wait In Maggie’s Line No More

Cell block B in the low foreground, the line winds patiently around the jail and down the path to the amphitheatre.

The line to the Dylan, Edgefield concert Saturday afternoon wrapped around a hilly path lined with Oregon blackberry canes, around the old, defunct jail, its octopus arms marked with letters, A thru H. We climbed the hill and got in line above cell block A, a lovely view overlooking Edgefield, in the distance the Columbia River, and across the river the Washington hills below a few pillow-white clouds. We looked up at the Edgefield water tower, and could just see the roof of the old hotel, and on the hill above us tall thin poplars rose into the baby blue sky. The line was full of freewheelin’ older folks, everybody kicking back, reading, talking, drinking beer and wine, and waiting in line. Some of the folks passing to the end of the line looked fairly worn out.

We waited for two hours, drank a beer sitting in beach chairs up on the hill overlooking the empty jail, folks climbing wearily up the hill and past us on their way to the end of the line. Finally the line started to gather up front and folks broke camp all along the path and we walked single file down to the Edgefield amphitheatre where there were food booths and beer and drink tents and honey buckets outside the grassy theatre area that led down to the stage.

We found a good spot at the top of one of the rises, on the edge of one of the greens, for the amphitheatre is set up across a few of the holes of the pub course. It was a lovely evening, warm and quiet. The amphitheatre filled while an opening act of a couple of young blues players did their best to wail the crowd, then a long pause, and then John Mellencamp and his band came on. Mellencamp and his band had fun; he said so in his last song, an old call and response tavern rocker. It still worked he said, “because it’s fun!” And it was.

Darkness fell and the McMenamin’s artificial moon went up, so folks could find their way to and from the concession and honey bucket area. Half a day is a long time to ask a 60-somethin’ to go without a trip to the honey bucket. In Jeff Baker’s Oregonian review, he doesn’t mention the line, and he wonders why a few folks left early, before Dylan finished: “…not responding to what they were hearing or maybe just a little chilly,” Jeff says. He probably didn’t have to wait in line for the Oregonian sponsored concert. Most of those folks leaving early had been on the grounds at that point for around 7 to 8 hours. We got in line at 3, thinking we were early, but walked past a couple hundred people before we found the end of the line, up on the hill, above the old “farm” jail, above cell block A, with the lovely view of Edgefield and across to the Washington hills. Not complaining here; just getting the story straight. Those two hours we spent in line, sharing a beer and the view, talking about the jail, and about what Mellencamp and Dylan might play and say, and sharing the wait with the others in the line…those two hours might end up being as memorable as the concert.

Mellencamp had played a varied set, singing “Cherry Bomb” alone on stage holding an acoustic guitar but not playing it, singing the song to the accompaniment of the crowd clapping. Then he sang a new song with acoustic guitar, “Save Some Time to Dream.” Dylan went infamously electric at the 1965 Newport folk festival, but he’s showing no signs of reversing. Susan and I have both listened to a lot of Dylan over the years, yet we had fun guessing what Dylan song they were playing – he rarely plays the same song the same way twice. The sharp-suited band cooked up a delicious garage stew on “Highway 61 Revisited.” After each song during the Dylan set the stage went dark, like the empty space on vinyl. It went dark one last time before the band came back for “Like a Rolling Stone.” Then the band lined up shoulder to shoulder and took a bow and walked off stage single file. Dylan had said only one thing to the appreciative crowd before introducing the band: “Thank you, friends.” Thank you, Bob, and you too, John. For some of us, this could be the last time we wait in the line; meantime, like Mellencamp, we are saving some time to dream, from the song:

“Save some time to dream / Save some time for yourself / Don’t let your time slip away / Or be stolen by somebody else / Save some time for those you love / For they’ll remember what you gave / Save some time for the songs you sing / And the music that you’ve made….”

And meantime, enjoy the line, and don’t worry about getting too close to the stage. Wherever you are, you’re close enough.

Overlooking the "farm jail" hoops court, Washington hills under pillow-white clouds, while the line winds back down the path toward the river.

Where Dylan Thomas meets Atul Gawande; or, Let Go Gently, for Here Comes the Night

If Atul Gawande had been the editor for Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” we might have gotten something like, “Let Go Gently, for Here Comes the Night,” the long and “The long, the long and lonely night night, night, night, night, night, night…” as Van Morrison sang with Them, fading away.

Atul Gawande, the Harvard Medical School professor, general and endocrine surgeon, and advisor to presidents, argues, in his latest New Yorker article, “Letting Go,” that Dylan Thomas’s famous poem might more efficiently and effectively have gone something like this:

Go gentle into that good night, Old age need not burn and rave at close of day; No need to Rage, to rage against the dying of the light. Wise men know dark is right, night is night, night is right, And they know whatever their words, those closest to them care. So wave bye-bye while you still can lift your hand, While you can still dance with your nurses, While you are still a wild man singing in the face of the sun, Do not grieve – grief is for those you leave behind. Grief is rage spent. Go, go gentle into that good night.

And maybe he’d throw in some stuff about shooting stars and eyes and then end with a prayer: “…my father, now brought gracefully down from the sad heights of the elevated hospital bed, all the tubes pulled out, the IV’s withdrawn, and you back in a warm pair of faded blue jeans, back home, back in the saddle again…while we with our mild tears fear and pray, go gentle into that good night; don’t ‘Rage, [don’t] rage against the dying of the light.’”

Gawande’s thesis is simple, clear, difficult but delivered with clarity: we need to have this discussion, to juxtapose Dylan Thomas’s poem against the raw night with the one now descending outside our window, the one the doctors can’t help us avoid, for they are not gods, and besides, like the gods of old, they make mistakes.

Dylan Thomas wrote his poem about his father dying just a short time before his own premature death. I’m not sure if Dylan raged against the dying of the light, but he sure seems to have worked it while he could. Yet, perhaps this poem is his own rage against his own hand he sees reaching for the light switch.

Listen to Dylan Thomas reading his poem “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Gaggle Me-Researcher Project Spilled on WankiLeaks

Gaggle, a new Internet start-up whose IPO and purpose have been double-secret rumors for months (it’s not yet clear if Gaggle portends a new great vowel shift or if there’s a schism in the works), has just had its cover blown by WankiLeaks, the surreptitious, hole-and-corner whistle-blowing site.

According to the story just leaked, Gaggle’s primary project is called “Gaggle Me-Researcher.” You enter your information in the Gaggle Me-Researcher tool, and it reveals “thyself,” which you can then come to know.

Using a kind of sic et non computer code, Gaggle Me-Researcher collects all the data from your computer, from your email, your social networking sites, your documents, your Excel files, your photos – any program, file, or folder beginning with “My.” It also collects all of the data from all of your friends’ computers, from anyone ever connected to your computer in any way, including spammers – the information, the data, from anything you’ve ever touched using your computer. Gaggle Me-Researcher then compiles a comprehensive profile of you, called “Meself.”

It’s not yet clear how Gaggle Me-Researcher collects your DNA, but it apparently does. This allows Gaggle Me-Researcher to trace the individual user’s “self-data” all the way back to Mitochondrial Eve or Y-chromosomal Adam. Thus, ultimately, according to Professor emeritus Stephen Jama of South Santa Monica Bay College, insider consultant to the Gaggle Me-Researcher project, to “know thyself,” is to know everyone else.

According to WankiLeaks, Gaggle’s introductory offer will include the catchy claim, “It’s never been easier to ‘know thyself.’”

“Ask not for whom the whistle blows,” Professor Jama concluded, somewhat cryptically, “it blows for thee.”

Where Flannery O’Connor meets Julia Roberts on Late Night Talk Shows

We watched some late night TV last night, after class and before getting back to work on a suspended sestina, flipping back and forth between the two format giants, Letterman and Leno. Polished Letterman is the APA stylist of the late night television talk show. His “Top 10” list, for example, is always delivered according to strict formatting rules. He doesn’t wait for the laugh, but interrupts himself after each number, announcing the next number, tossing each card away – it’s a throwaway joke. He could be reading from a menu announcing the evening specials at a swank restaurant. If Letterman is APA, Leno is MLA, and The Tonight Show proceeds with ethos borrowed from Johnny Carson, the original stylist. For both Letterman and Leno, strict formatting rules govern the fit of suits, the colors and knots of ties (the tie remains the essential costume piece, signifying a governing body) the buttoning and unbuttoning of jackets. They both must sit stage left, slightly elevated above their guest, protected by a faux desk, a prop, but note their desks are at opposite ends of the stage, a stylistic difference that conforms to the meaningless but self-sustaining differences between APA and MLA. Form and content merge into one smooth, purposeful style. Last night, both Letterman and Leno sported purple in their ties, surely an oblique reference to Flannery O’Connor’s use of color as an ecclesiastical prelude to sanctifying grace.

Letterman’s grace last night appeared in the form of Julia Roberts, introduced by Letterman with such gravity one expected the appearance of an angel, and in this the audience was not disappointed.

According to the Inland Register, in a review of Brad Gooch’s biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, Flannery appeared on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, the original host, which would have put the appearance sometime in the mid-1950’s. We’ve not read the Gooch biography, but any reference to a TV sighting of Flannery on The Tonight Show should be rigorously pursued, cited, and referenced. We’ll see, but a few Google Books searches of other Flannery biographies found no references to Steve Allen or The Tonight Show. Who knows, maybe Flannery had her own TV talk show in a broadcast limited locally around Andalusia, live peacocks walking around the set instead of fake New York City night-lit backgrounds.

Meantime, it appears to be common knowledge that Conan O’Brien, briefly usurping Leno last year as MLA-Tonight Show host, wrote his Harvard thesis on Flannery O’Connor. According to the New York Times (para. 28), O’Brien’s thesis was on Flannery and Faulkner. We’re not sure if Flannery’s appearance on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen is an arcane piece of trivia or if it too, like O’Brien’s Harvard thesis, is common knowledge. In any case, it seems an irony that Flannery would appreciate, her admirer O’Brien hosting the same show on which she appeared, only to be yanked. O’Brien failed to secure the revision of The Tonight Show manual of style because of the cumulative effect of wearing the wrong tie each night.

Last night we took a look at “Good Country People,” later, watching TV, imagining Flannery chatting and laughing about her characters with Letterman (no idea at the time she actually had been on a talk show back in the 50’s), as Julia Roberts was doing, laughing for the audience, maintaining the stylistically approved appropriate authorial distance. Yet Julia commented, referring to the audience, “they want to be part of the experience,” and illustrated by gracefully acknowledging one like-minded woman in the audience who had commented on her running routine. But who wants to be part of a Flannery O’Connor experience? Maybe that’s why O’Brien failed. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Ah, Flannery; ah, humanity!