Tangential Narratives: Notes on Julia Cooke’s “The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba.”

As a child can only be tangential to its parental revolution, what happens when the citizen is a child of the state that follows, the state that insists on adopting parental authority, never relinquishing its hold? The child learns to walk and talk in the surveillance of its parental shadows. Some children learn to escape into other families, baseball or boxing, music or resistance. Most want a narrative of their own. They must go off on a tangent.

It may seem some sort of performance is required: “The self does not belong to its possessor…A person is a mask which has grown into the body, grown one with the body” (from chapter V Person, “Love’s Body,” Norman O. Brown, 1966). A state, too, may be such a mask.

And when that self belongs to the state, is the state, revolution may become the mask. And the mask must be kept alive, at all costs. This is the state as a person, the corporation as a person. Symbols wash up with the tide. If states and corporations are people, what becomes of an actual person of substance? In practice, the further actual persons can move from the state or corporation claiming itself to be a person, the less likely the actual person is to be totally subsumed in the umbra of public eclipse.

A few weeks ago, rummaging through the neighborhood library box down around the corner, I pulled out “The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba” (2014), by Julia Cooke. The book is a first person narrative of Cooke’s time living in Cuba on the local economy amid actual persons of substance, each with their own personal narrative, all complicated by the paranoia often created by the inability to completely know another person (let alone a state or a corporation), particularly when that person lives within the shadows created by a repressive rule.

One of the ideas in Norman O. Brown’s “Love’s Body” is the state shaped like a body. Thus we get the head of state and the seat of government, the long arm of the law. And the body is huge, its shadow gigantic. And of course we get metaphor. And metaphor too becomes enmeshed in the narrative.

The reductio ad absurdum of the gentrified neighborhood is an urban street lined with posh restaurants. And that’s it. No locksmith. No shoe repair. No bookstore or record shop. No hardware store. No haberdashery or hatter. No luthier, plumber, or deli. No butcher, no baker, no candlestick maker. And the sidewalk has been swept clean of buskers. Poverty is the inability to make something, for lack of skill and resources. Dire poverty, fearsome and terrible, is a state of constant need. The one surplus is time, a resource persons of wealth can never get enough of. Persons with time but nothing else can only wait. Poverty is the inability to start something up while waiting.

Consumption of time is what corporations like Facebook peddle. It seems many persons have lost the ability to spend time doing nothing. Thomas Piketty argues that as capital continues to grow exponentially, income of persons with no capital falls (“Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” 2014). The poor will still have their labor power, but the 21st Century is already seeing needs for human labor diminish. What becomes of the poor person when he has not even his labor to sell? The block fills with Bartlebys. From page 531 of “Capital”:

“With zero return on capital, man (or the worker) finally threw off his chains along with the yoke of accumulated wealth. The present reasserted itself its rights over the past. The inequality r>g was nothing but a bad memory, especially since communism vaunted its affection for growth and technological progress. Unfortunately for the people caught up in these totalitarian experiments, the problem was that private property and the market economy do not serve solely to ensure the domination of capital over those who have nothing to sell but their labor power. They also play a useful role in coordinating the actions of millions of individuals, and it is not so easy to do without them. The human disasters caused by Soviet-style centralized planning illustrate this quite clearly.”

And one of those disasters, given Piketty’s view, has been Cuba, and the details, the description, of the specific and authentic person to person human disaster is one of the themes of Julia Cooke’s book. Of course there’s still the problem of narrative, the stories we create as we try to explain our predicament to others. Cooke lives among common persons coming of age in Cuba as Cuba is forced to change in its old age, personified by the aging and death of Fidel and the subsequent changes in leadership. The crash of the USSR, upon which Cuba had relied for economic aid, precipitates and rushes in local change. Still, the common person, the worker, seems occupied with two choices: wait for the opportunity to leave Cuba or stay and wait for more substantive change. Leaving is possible, though not easy, through both illegal and legal means. Both options are fraught with and rely upon bureaucratic and random chance happenings. And the motivation for each relies on a future narrative fictionalized in the present. Will I be glad I left or happy I stayed?

Happiness is another theme. What is it? Do I mistake a general malaise and inertia resulting from dissatisfaction of wants and values with a permanent state of unhappiness? I seem happiest when hanging out with a few friends drenched in the heat of a Havana evening drinking bad rum out of improvised cups, listening to music, telling and listening to one another’s stories, discussing past, current, and the possibilities of future events, plans gone awry and the hopefulness of a new plan. But the extent of that telling and listening depends on who else is in the room, who else might be listening. And why they are listening. Paranoia lurks everywhere yet you’re never sure exactly from where it comes. Yet life in Cuba seems in some ways accessibly enjoyable: the weather, the sea and beach, one’s friends and family, the happy occasion of food. The lack of resources, without the boundless activities that seem to occupy persons elsewhere surrounded by sophisticated toys, pro sports, stadium rock, sponsored opera, and all the latest consumer stuff, the latest myphone, forces one into a different mode of life, but it doesn’t seem the case that this mode is unhappily different from the existential mode of unhappiness experienced when stuck in traffic in your 50 thousand dollar car in the latest but still inadequate infrastructure unable to find a good radio station in Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, or Houston, illegally texting while driving to tell your kids you’ll be late, unable to get them to pick up their cell phones busy creating stories on Facebook and Instagram. And while you can afford not one but two 50 thousand dollar rigs, you’re pissed your health care options suck.

Cooke’s book seems journalistic in intent, but is memoiristic in style and employs a creative, literary sentence structure and narrative form, including descriptive prose and conversational dialog. The book is also scholarly, researched, with a bibliography of sources and other references as backing and useful for further study. And the book is also something of a mystery. Cooke is in Cuba to experience and report on the changes in society and the effects on everyday citizens. To what extent are her subjects representative? For the most part, the focus is Havana, where she lives and keeps track of those she meets and lives among and with. But she’s interviewing them, clandestinely, with seemingly some degree of risk to everyone involved. Add to that the romantic Havana evening – but she’s quick to dispel romantic views of life within an oppressive, repressive, almost invisible regime. Practically no one she meets owns a rebuilt ’56 Chevy glistening down a Havana street. And she doesn’t hear, she reminds us several times, the Buena Vista Social Club playing Cuban jazz on every corner, if any corners. And the Cuban health care system is one of the best in the world.

Even music, maybe especially music, and art, and literature, comes wrapped in narrative.

“Adela hadn’t left Cuba. I had often wondered, in the year since I’d left Havana, if I really knew who Adela was…Once, drunk at a party with Lucia, a friend of hers had slurred to me that no one around me was who they said they were. He’d dated an American and the secret police had knocked on his door the day after she’d spent the night for the first time to interrogate him. I’d dismissed his words as boozy hyperbole, but the reality was, any one of my sources could have been someone spinning false stories of spliced families and sodden dreams” (207).

There are universal truths regardless of where a narrative originates or how it changes from person to person. That business of “spinning false stories” could easily apply to conversations with anyone here in the States.

The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, by Julia Cooke. Seal Press, A Member of the Perseus Books Group. 2014.

Fantasy Democracy: Notes on Capital, Politics, and Voting

fantasy-democracyLouis Menand’s “The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University” (2010) questions why forms of higher education have been so intractable against change. One reason suggested is the surprising conservatism revealed of professors as a group, surprising because professors are often associated with more liberal stances and presumed to understand the connections between one’s views and why one might hold those views. Understanding and questioning one’s own assumptions and presuppositions are important antidotes to the poisons of propaganda. Menand describes the 2007 national survey conducted by Gross and Simmons of full time faculty members. Part time instructors were not included, a group that no doubt would have presented particular “methodological challenges” (134), because the adjunct does not share homogeneous characteristics to a group of tenured professors. In any case, more important to notes on a fantasy democracy is Menand’s reference to an older study of the population as a whole.

That study found that

“In the general population, most people do not know what it means to identify themselves as liberals or conservatives. People will report themselves to be liberals in an opinion poll and then answer specific questions with views normally thought of as conservative. People also give inconsistent answers to the same questions over time” (134 – 135).

In footnotes, Menand explains the primary sources of his research: “Gross and Simmons used a number of measures to confirm the self-reporting: for example, they correlated answers to survey questions about political persuasion and political party with views on specific issues, such as the war in Iraq, abortion, homosexual relations, and so on” (134), while in “the classic study [of the general population]…results have been much confirmed” (135). That study, by Philip Converse, titled “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics,” was published in Ideology and Discontent, in 1964.

Why would the explanations of the average person on the street not correlate, be inconsistent, even incoherent? Menand says,

“This is because most people are not ideologues – they don’t have coherent political belief systems – and their views on the issues do not hang together. Their reporting is not terribly accurate” (135-136).

That they nevertheless vote for people and issues they think they understand but probably don’t might simply create some random noise in the results, filtered out by some law of large numbers; or, what we think of as our democracy is a kind of fantasy, but one that, like fantasy sports teams, is based on a reality, and can be a lot fun, lucrative, or provide for any number of teachable moments and lessons learned. Outcomes often include random or chance influence.

An example of the questioning of assumptions and presuppositions as important to understanding causal correlations can be found in Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2014). At the end of his Introduction, Piketty says,

“The history of income and wealth is always deeply political, chaotic, and unpredictable. How this history plays out depends on how societies view inequalities and what kinds of policies and institutions they adopt to measure and transform them. No one can foresee how these things will change in the decades to come. The lessons of history are nevertheless useful, because they help us to see a little more clearly what kinds of choices we will face in the coming century and what sorts of dynamics will be at work….Since history always invents its own pathways, the actual usefulness of these lessons from the past remains to be seen. I offer them to readers without presuming to know their full import” (35).

Piketty’s primary statement, his argument, is expressed in a simple formula that illustrates a fundamental inequality in the creation and distribution of wealth that promotes ever greater risk of variance or disparity between the wealthy and the rest of society. The formula is

r > g (where r stands for the average annual rate of return on capital, including profits, dividends, interest, rents, and other income from capital, expressed as a percentage of its total value, and g stands for the rate of growth of the economy, that is, the annual increase in income or output)” (25).

What happens when r is much greater than g? Piketty says that

“it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin” (26).

And what when that happens? The divergence of inequality reaches

“levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies” (26).

In other words, inequality reaches such an extreme that democracy is at risk of becoming a fantasy. There is of course much more to Piketty than appears here (his book runs to 685 pages). But how might politics and voting influence wealth divergence such that r does not become overly concentrated and grow at a rate that increasingly continues to outpace g, undermining the very structure on which the accepted values (what is wanted) of the society in question are based, undermining the structure to an unsustainable level, and the whole system collapses? Collapse is what Karl Marx predicted.

Was Marx wrong? “Not yet,” says Louis Menand in a recent New Yorker article:

“Marx was also not wrong about the tendency of workers’ wages to stagnate as income for the owners of capital rises. For the first sixty years of the nineteenth century—the period during which he began writing “Capital”—workers’ wages in Britain and France were stuck at close to subsistence levels. It can be difficult now to appreciate the degree of immiseration in the nineteenth-century industrial economy. In one period in 1862, the average workweek in a Manchester factory was eighty-four hours.”

And wages are once again at stagnation, benefits at a minimum, if any level at all, pensions something your grandfather once had, and if you’re an adjunct instructor, your 84 hours are made up working on eight different campuses simultaneously.

“How we think and evaluate,” said S. I. Hayakawa in his Introduction to “The Use and Misuse of Language” (1962), is inextricably bound up with how we talk.

“If our spoken evaluations are hasty and ill-considered, it is likely that our unspoken ones are even more so….the unexamined key-words in our thought processes, whether ‘fish’ or ‘free enterprise’ or ‘the military mind’ or ‘the Jews’ or ‘creeping socialism’ or ‘bureaucracy,’ can, by creating the illusion of meaning where no clear-cut meaning exists, hinder and misdirect our thought” (viii).

The use of “unexamined key-words” permeating portals such as Twitter and Facebook, both of which are largely venues for “unspoken evaluations,” provides a contemporary example of Hayakawa’s example of how

“all prejudices work in just this way – racial, ideological, religious, natural, occupational, or regional. Like the man who ‘doesn’t like fish,’ there are the ideologically muscle-bound who ‘don’t like the profit system’ whether it manifests itself in a corner newsstand or in General Motors, or who ‘reject government intervention in business’ no matter what kind of intervention in what kinds of business for what purpose” (viii).

Hayakawa was concerned not with the “correctness” of people’s talk, but with “the adequacy of their language as a ‘map’ of the ‘territory’ of experience being talked about” (vii).

That territory is now pockmarked with unhappiness and anxiety across the whole landscape of voting experience, as the “keywords” of its mapping search features illustrate: “pussy,” “locker room,” “wall.”

Where a pussy might be an opening in a locker room wall. I had a bit of juvenile fun on my own Facebook page recently. And it’s always interesting to see what keywords incite what reaction when they trigger the unspoken. I was working with satire and sarcasm (one difference being that satire usually has a target, while sarcasm is closer to farce, which is comedy without a target). Anyway, here are the posts I put up over the span of a few days:

Trump tries to woo Nobel Committee, says, “I’m going to make poetry rhyme again!”

Trump to dig moat around his locker room and fill it with crocodile tears.

English majors organizing to protest musician winning Nobel for Literature.

Trump to build wall around his locker room to keep Media out; meanwhile, Hillary advocates for Locker Rooms Without Borders.

Trump to defecting GOP supporters: “Wait! I’m going to make Mud Wrestling great again!”

Trump to open new restaurant franchise called Locker Rooms, to compete with Hooters.

Leak reveals Trump’s locker room not as big as he claimed.

Regent University to name new Locker Room after Trump. Says Robertson, “We’re going to make locker rooms great again!”

Trump on the Issues: “I thought they said ‘tissues.’ Stay on the tissues. I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about!

But where do the fundamental keywords that move thought from the unspoken sphere to a spoken realm come from?

In “Love’s Body” (1966), Norman O. Brown suggested words and ideas come from the body. Thus, we have a “head of state,” who sits at “the seat of government,” trying to control the “body politic”:

“’A Multitude of men are made One person.’ The idea of a people is the idea of a corporation, and the idea of a corporation is the idea of a juristic person. ‘This is more than Consent, or Concord: it is a reall Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person.’ Out of many, one: a logical impossibility; a piece of poetry, or symbolism; an enacted or incarnate metaphor; a poetic creation. The Commonwealth is ‘an Artificial Man,’ a body politic, ‘in which,’ the Soveraignty is an ‘Artificial Soul; the Magistrates, and other Officers of Judicature and Execution, artificiall Joynts,” etc. Does this ‘Artificiall Man,’ this ‘Feigned or Artificiall Person, make ‘a real Unitie of them all”? Are juristic persons real, or only legal fictions, personae fictae? ‘Analogy with the living person and shift of meaning are the essence of the mode of legal statement which refers to corporate bodies.’ Is the shift of meaning real? Does the metaphor accomplish a metamorphosis? ‘The Pacts and Covenants, by which the parts of this Body Politique were at first made, set together, and united, resemble that Fiat, or the Let us make man, pronounced by God in the Creation.” Or like the hoc est corpus meum, This is my body, pronounced by God in the Redemption. Is there a real transubstantiation? Is there a miracle in the communion of the mortal God, the great leviathan; a miracle which gives life to the individual communicants also? For so-called ‘real,’ ‘living,’ ‘natural’ persons, individual persons, are not natural but juristic persons, personae fictae, social creations, no more real than corporations.”

Hobbes, Leviathan, 3-4, 136, 143.
Wolff, “On the Nature of Legal Persons.” Hart, “Definition and Theory in Jurisprudence.

Online # 2: Laptop Notes From Underground

Notes from an Underground LaptopImagine Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man with a laptop…

“‘Why you’re . . . just like a book,’ she said, and I thought I caught a sarcastic note in her voice again.” Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man is with Liza, a prostitute, but what he wants is to talk to her. He finds her ellipsis revealing. She pauses, and she’s caught the mouse in a trap, even if she didn’t mean to. He mistakes her uncertainty for sarcasm: “I didn’t understand that sarcasm is a screen – the last refuge of shy, pure persons against those who rudely and insistently try to break into their hearts” (174), he says. Four pages of rant follow, and he makes her cry. But she’s his perfect audience. Had he a laptop, he would have pulled something up to show her. But was she being sarcastic, or was she reading him literally? What she says is accurate; he is just like a book.

“It goes without saying that both these Notes and their author are fictitious,” Dostoyevsky says in a footnote to the first page of “Notes from Underground,” which begins with “Part One, The Mousehole” (90). If it goes without saying, why does he say it? Another paradox. The typographical man develops a voice, even if he has nothing to say. Online, we feel a part of something, but of what? It’s enough to feel connected. In any case, these men do exist, in spite of this one being fiction, Dostoyevsky wants to make clear, and he wants to mark the difference between narrator and author. But in trying to distance himself from his narrator, Dostoyevsky adds another note to the pile.

I’m online again, going with the flow, superslow though, gliding, electri-gliding in the cerulean world of blues. “I’m so lonesome I could cry,” Hank Williams sang. But does he cry? He doesn’t tell us that he cries, just that he feels like crying. If only Hank had a laptop. How high the moon? He could look it up.

“Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness” (118)*, the Underground Man says. Later, Jung takes up this theme, that consciousness is born in regret, in memory. But how does man express his regret, which is his suffering? “The fall is into language,” Norman O. Brown said (257). What do we think about if we can’t remember anything? After reason, the Underground Man explains, “All that’ll be left for us will be to block off our five senses and plunge into contemplation” (118).

We were talking about the possibility that online culture diminishes memory because the “onliner” (i.e. someone online, not necessarily a reader, since one can go online without reading – but what is reading?) is constantly looking things up, one thing leading to the next, seemingly random. Nothing is memorized; the bookmarks are endless. If the fall is into language, browsing is free falling. But why all the notetaking in book culture? Can’t the readers remember anything? Non-literate people, McLuhan explains in “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” have much better memories than those born to books. Is there suffering being online? “The most obvious character of print is repetition, just as the obvious effect of repetition is hypnosis or obsession,” McLuhan says (47).

“I was so used to imagining everything happening the way it does in books and visualizing things falling somehow into the shape of my old daydreams that at first I didn’t understand what was going on. What actually happened was that Liza, whom I had humiliated and crushed, understood much more than I had thought. Out of all I had said, she had understood what a sincerely loving woman would understand first – that I myself was unhappy” (197). The Underground Man is stuck in a literate view. McLuhan: “The new collective unconscious Pope saw as the accumulating backwash of private self-expression” (308). The Underground Man’s literacy has turned him into an individual, and he’s nowhere to go. This is another reason he appears when he does; his point of view is his own beacon.

The sufferer comments. This is why the Underground Man “has appeared, and could not help but appear” (90), to explain why he has appeared. The browser joins the Internet commute, changing lanes compulsively but leisurely. Summer is near, and in the distance one can hear the Internet Highway and superfast modems melting across asphalt desks backlit with electric candles. A commenter interrupts the flow, but for the Underground Man with a laptop, comments are closed. Go start your own blog. I’m in the slow lane here. Go around me, he signals out his laptop window. Go around.

“I knew that what I was saying was contrived, even ‘literary’ stuff, but then, that was the only way I knew how to speak – ‘like a book,’ as she had put it” (179). The Underground Man is literate; Liza is not. But Liza intuits what the Underground Man must read. McLuhan explains the difference: “The visual makes for the explicit, the uniform, and the sequential in painting, in poetry, in logic, history. The non-literate modes are implicit, simultaneous, and discontinuous, whether in the primitive past or the electronic present, which Joyce called ‘eins within a space'” (GG 73).

“Enough,” the Underground Man says, but the closing footnote says there are more notes. “But we are of the opinion that one might just as well stop here” (203), Dostoyevsky says.

* My text (Signet Classic CT300, 1961, Seventh Printing, translation by Andrew R. MacAndrew), reads, “Why, suffering is the only cause of consciousness.” But I exchanged just this line for the Constance Garnett version of the line, which I prefer for its sole (solo) and soul homonymy (not to mention the suggestion of the sole of a shoe).

Fear and Loathing in Lexical Vegas

Over at Language Log we find a discussion on “words we hate.” I can’t tell if discuss is one or not. But some words strike some as literally offensive, or cause physical stress, a kind of lexical anxiety. This is not about disdain for the simple malapropism, or of academic scorn for the wrong word in the wrong place, but of word phobia, a word like some dreaded dog we walk around the block to avoid.

What is the source of this strange malady, a fear of certain words? Perhaps some words do have facial expressions. Lenny Bruce tried to solve part of the problem, the dirty words versus dirty minds dichotomy. In the beginning was the word, and “the fall is into language” (O. Brown, Love’s Body, 257). Lenny may have gone down with his solution in part because we don’t want a solution; we need words we abhor.

So I googled (a word I don’t like, but don’t hate, but like certain tools we’d rather not have to pick up, the plunger, for example, the plumber’s helper, knowing we’re headed for another good word, “by means of suction,” add rubber cup and we’re having some fun here, sometimes we just have to grab it and get on with things – though to google hasn’t always been this way: from the OED: 1907 Badminton Mag. Sept. 289 The googlies that do not google) “words we love,” and guess what? The words we love are the same words we hate.

Perhaps James Joyce best explains words that cause fright: “Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself the word paralysis. It had always sounded strangely in my ears, like the word gnomon in the Euclid and the word simony in the Catechism. But now it sounded to me like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work” (“The Sisters,” in Dubliners, 1916).

Locke, Freud, Tinker, Tailor

Norman O. Brown opens his Love’s Body (1966) talking of liberty: “Liberty means equality among the brothers (sons)….” One problem immediately apparent to Brown is that if the sons rebel against the father, overthrowing the absolute monarch, because there are many sons, but there can be only one monarch, and who would assume the throne must either cultivate the father’s wishes or dump the brothers, both options against liberty, then there is no father, and “without a father there can be no sons or brothers.” Locke, for Brown, solves the problem in Two Treatises of Civil Government by disallowing earthly fathers: “Thus the defense of sonship turns into the discovery of another father, the ‘real’ father; and the real question in politics is Jesus’ question, Who is my father?”

For no matter what the sons do, everything still belongs to the father: “As fraternal organization covertly assumes a father, ego-organization covertly assumes a super-ego.” Enter the double-agent, whose genesis is the inability to solve the mystery of the father, as John Le Carre explains in his 1991 introduction to his 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which might have been sub-titled The Brothers: “But what very few people managed to understand,” Le Carre says, “was the pushme-pullyou nature of the double-agent’s trade.” The plot-solving question involves what is good for the double-agent, who must give something of value to both fathers.

What’s the motive for the mole’s behavior? Social class structure and father conflicts, Le Carre gives us. The double-agent Haydon’s motive is alienation attributed to class conflict and a difficult father. As an explanation, this seems inadequate. But there it is, the schoolboy vocabulary and antics of boys’ clubs being worked out in the adult world, where already, in 1991, Le Carre is saying “It is odd, in these altered days, to discover that Tinker Tailor’s already an historical novel….” Yes, but, what has been solved, after the mystery is solved, if the solution is recursive, a recirculation?

“We were new boys together,” Bill Roach (nickname Jumbo) overhears Jim Prideaux (nickname Rhino) explaining the nickname to the on-site parents. But the gun was not a dream of Jumbo’s, and Tinker and the others are nicknames for adults working out their childhood issues in an adult plot of boys’ club conflicts. And the novel ends on Jumbo getting a new father, an old spy.

Where Sarah Palin Meets Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol is everywhere. That sentence is everywhere. Andy’s fame has lasted longer than his predicted 15 minutes of world-wide fame for all of us. But one place he’s currently not to be found is on the New York Times bestseller list, which is full of Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue, already topping the million mark, according to the CSM’s tomatoes and books review.

What is fame? These days fame appears to be some light travelling in a motor home coach across the malls of America. The ubiquitous mall is where we might all go to “look for America,” as Simon and Garfunkel sang.

But a book purchased is not always a book read, as a review of our own bookcase shows. There sits Nabokov’s Ada, added to the stack decades ago and still not cracked, and McEwan’s Atonement, a paperback picked up at a garage sale last summer, the first few pages read a few times. Still, most do show signs of reading’s wear and tear. Our 1966 Love’s Body is falling apart – we’ll need to replace it soon.

We would like to think that the teens with their moms in lines at the malls to get Sarah’s book autographed will actually read it, but as Flannery O’Connor said: “I would be most happy if you had already read it, happier still if you knew it well, but since experience has taught me to keep my expectations along these lines modest, I’ll tell you that this is the story of a family of six which, on its way driving to Florida, gets wiped out by…” some misfit’s ill-tossed tomato. For “Words can be overlooked,” P. G. Wodehouse said; “But tomatoes cannot.”

The word value, often abused, as in “family values,” or “good, old fashioned ‘Good Country People’ values,” means nothing but what we desire, what we want. And what we want, as individuals and as communities, isn’t always what’s good for us.

Reading is good for us, but we doubt that many of the millions who have purchased Sarah’s book want reading. It takes longer than 15 minutes to read a book. Still, we hope they do read the book. We wish the book well, for in the midst of the Reading Crisis, it’s a rose in winter. We don’t want to read Sarah’s book; but we hope that the millions of shoppers who did buy it do read it – such is our faith in reading; such was Andy Warhol’s faith in art.

“Off with their heads!” Rhetorical Images of Heads of States

Mao: Another head in a different time and place.

“Off with their heads!” shouts Carroll’s Queen in Wonderland. Just so, Platon has beheaded them all in “Portraits of Power,” in the December 7 New Yorker.

The head of state is not a whole person, but a symbol, but of what?

“The king is an erection of the body politic,” Norman O. Brown says in Love’s Body. “The king personifies the pomp and pleasure of the community; but must also bear the burden of royalty, and, as scapegoat, take away the sins.” Yet the head retaliates with tyranny over the body.

The head of state is a figure, a doll, a clown, a puppet. But the heads glower like lead. The flash of the moment turns the head to metal. Platon’s photographs are like statues, busts; the heads in the color photos are surrounded with an eerie blue halo, as from a welder’s torch, echoed in Mugabe’s photo with a blue glow around his face, and a thin blue glow around his otherwise dark eyes.

England’s Gordon Brown, left eye slightly askew, appears to be saying, like Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Newman, “What, me worry?” While across the Irish Sea, Brian Cowen looks like a Roddy Doyle character just informed Ireland has made it to the World Cup finals, eyes disbelieving, mouth ready for the celebratory pint.

But not all the heads are smiling to be beheaded, nor are they all quite beheaded; two of the three women are spared, along with Qaddafi, who sports a paisley shirt that could have been worn by Sly Stone in There’s a Riot Goin On

Some of the heads shed an animal sense: Ahmadinejad a fox, Mesic an old dog. Some smile like they just ate the opposition (South Africa’s Zuma), or mischievously, like the Imp of the Perverse (Italy’s Berlusconi).

The electronic version of the portfolio contains a few more photos than the print version, and a couple of those are classics: Estonia’s Tooma Ilves, bespectacled with bowtie; and Lithuania’s Dalia Grybauskaite, looking very much like a Baltic Hillary. It’s not clear why these did not make the hard copy cut. The online recorded commentary by Platon on each head is remarkable for its detail and accessibilty to an otherwise “behind the wall” process that readers of the print version alone don’t have. Platon’s comments are devoid of political content, focus on the passion he has for his craft; he has time to barely brush against these men and women who surely have seen so much, and his task is to capture all that they have seen in a flash and convert it to metal, which he does with alchemical art. 

And Obama? Give this man his body back; the photo is from a previous sitting – it was decided he would not sit for a photo like the others at this time and place.

APA Caution: Metaphor Crossing

We don’t find E. B. White adhering to APA guidelines. It’s more palatable monkeying with rats if one denies them human characteristics.

One rule that hasn’t changed in the new 6th edition APA manual concerns a warning against the use of metaphor, specifically anthropomorphic connotations (p. 69). One may not use metaphor; the question is, can one not.

Camus avoided metaphor in The Stranger, creating an anti-man. For McLuhan, technology is metaphor, extensions of the senses. For Norman O. Brown, in Love’s Body, language is metaphor; to avoid metaphor is to avoid language: “Metaphor is mistake or impropriety; a faux pas, or slip of the tongue; a little madness; petit mal; a little seizure or inspiration” (p. 244). It’s easy to see why the APA wants to avoid it. On the other hand, “Freedom is poetry, taking liberties with words, breaking the rules of normal speech, violating common sense” (p. 244), in short, jazz. But metaphor is ambiguous, and that’s what we must avoid: “Psychoanalysis, symbolic consciousness, leads from disguised to patent nonsense – Wittgenstein, surrealism, Finnegans Wake” (p. 245). In “VII” of Love’s Body, titled “Head,” Brown lights out for the territory, ahead of all the rest: “Psychoanalysis shows the sexual organization of the body physical to be a political organization; the body is a body politic…a political arrangement arrived at after stormy upheavals in the house of Oedipus…a well-organized tyranny” (pp. 126-127). And if one wants to avoid sex, of course, one may go in for the corporate body, where the head sits at the top, and gets dibs on the first parking space.

Metaphor begins with sound, and poetry begins with being tricked by sound: “…cuckoo(‘s)fool, maid(en, mate, the Wryneck, which arrives at or about the same time as the cuckoo” (OED, mate).

So, in the 6th edition of the APA manual, we find this: “Correct: Pairs of rats (cage mates) were allowed to forage together. Incorrect: Rat couples (cage mates) were allowed to forage together” (p. 69). But, first, pair is no better than couple. Since the 13th Century, at least, the OED gives us, pair has been used to describe a married couple; indeed, the denotative meaning of pair is couple. Second, the offensive word in the passage (taking the APA view of metaphor as something to be avoided), is not pairs or couples, but mates, for a mate is one of a pair, a partner in marriage, a lover. The denotative meaning of mate, from the OED, is “A companion, fellow, comrade, friend; a fellow worker or business partner,” and only an E. B. White can handle a rat as all of these.

The poor rats, coupled in their cage, denied by the APA their very coupling, for, again, as the OED gives us, couple means “That which unites two. 1. a. A brace or leash for holding two hounds together.” Alone, together; together, but separate: like humans, a condition that can only exist in some cage, in cagey logic.

And what of cage? From the OED: “I. Generally and non-technically. 1. A box or place of confinement for birds and other animals (or, in barbarous times, for human beings), made wholly or partly of wire, or with bars of metal or wood, so as to admit air and light, while preventing the creature’s escape.”

Note “in barbarous times” suggests time past, but no longer: we wish, for language is our cage, a pair of gloves with a missing mate, a decoupling of experience.

If we want to avoid metaphor in the APA example given on page 69, we suggest: Rats were allowed to forage together, in cages, separated two by two. Lovely, isn’t it? Then again, were the rats allowed out of their cages to forage? Can one forage in a cage? Perhaps rats can, but still, an even greater problem than pair, couple, or cage is found with the word forage, for a forager is a messenger, though one may forage for oneself. Do rats “plunder, pillage, ravage” (OED, for forage)? No, only humans forage, as we have done here, within the cage of our blog.

Bio-Lego-Land: Building a Better Body thru Metaphor

In the September 28, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, we meet synthetic bio-Lego-boys Drew Endy and Rob Carlson: “Some of my best work has come together in my mind’s eye accompanied by what I swear was an audible click, ” Carlson tells New Yorker’s Michael Specter, who says Endy has never forgotten “…the secret of Legos – they work because you can take any single part and attach it to any other – in 2005 Endy and colleagues…started BioBricks Foundation…to register and develop standard parts for assembling DNA” (61).

What if Norman O. Brown had grown up playing with Legos? Would he have named Love’s Body, Lego’s Body? In Chapter XV, “Freedom,” Brown says that “Metaphor is mistake or impropriety…a little madness…a little seizure or inspiration” (244). 

“The glory of God is to conceal a thing, but the glory of the king is to find it out…,” Brown quotes Bacon in McLuhan (Gutenberg Galaxy, 190).

“Feet off the ground. Freedom is instability; the destruction of attachments; the ropes, the fixtures, fixations, that tie us down” (Brown, 260). 

William Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, drew the modern man: “The head Sublime, the heart Pathos, the genitals Beauty, the hands & feet Proportion.” Let’s hope the synthetic biologists mix their metaphors mercifully, for “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees,” Blake said; nor the same Lego, for that matter.

More on the genome of metaphor.