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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 John Cage Lip-synchs with Lloyd Thaxton while Playing Guitar Hero

“Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell advised, while Humanities instructors encourage students to “write about your passion.” But what if we find ourselves blissless and passionless? Or if we are passionate about anything, the last thing we want to do is to write about it, for that will suck the passion right out of the marrow. Better to write about what we lack passion for, about that which we know nothing. Then, like Beckett, we might write about the condition of our very blisslessness, blisslessly laughing at characters hoping for something to happen that might arouse their passion.

Following one’s bliss might involve endless hours of playing Guitar Hero. Kiri Miller, an ethnomusicologist at Brown, writing in the Journal of the Society for American Music, challenges the common assumption that virtual instrumentalists have different values (want something different) than real instrumentalists. “Trouble,” the Music Man persuaded the good folks of River City, is a pool table; better to lip-synch with virtual instruments – the confidence man encourages learning music through the “think method.” Combining Miller’s Guitar Hero analysis with the Music Man’s “think method,” we might call reading a kind of virtual writing. When we read, we recreate the text, like a Guitar Hero player recreates the text of a song. Lloyd Thaxton was the king of lip-synchers, and on his show, The Lloyd Thaxton Show, real musicians lip-synched through canned performances of their own songs.

Miller briefly evaluates the electronic music of John Cage in her article (pp. 404-405). Cage might be a precursor, probably not, but we can easily imagine him taking an interest and no doubt incorporating a Guitar Hero guitar into a composition. Cage also sums up the debate of the usefulness or value of virtual versus actual experience. In his manifesto on music, written in 1952, he says that “nothing is accomplished by writing [hearing or playing] a piece of music: our ears are now in excellent condition.” Yes, and ready for real guitar, Guitar Hero, or to read something by Beckett. Or, as Garry Moore said of Cage’s “Water Music”: “I’m with you, boy.”

An Argument of Definition: A Definition of Argument; or, The Light Without the Light Within

Have you ever read something and thought, I am not alone – there’s someone else here on the island with me. Someone has been speaking to me, and for me; I just maybe have not been listening in the right places. Personal essays are “arguments”; they are not “creative non-fiction.” On the contrary, the research papers are “non-creative non-fiction.” Yet whenever we write, we create. Creative non-fiction is a misnomer. All the world is an argument. Who wants to read an impersonal essay? What is an impersonal essay? One written by a machine? A bureaucratic procedure bulletin? There is no such thing as objectivity; everything we say and do, our every utterance, the clothes we wear, our music, how we cut our hair, betrays our beliefs, assumptions, values.

The time is 8 in the morning. Let’s qualify that claim; it’s 8 in the morning somewhere. But I’m writing in the Web, the country where it’s always light out, or light in. In any case, the sun rose in the east quite early this morning, though I’ve no proof of that, not even empirical proof, since we’ve cloud cover again, and anyway I was asleep at the time, whatever time it was. I was awakened by my neighbor who is lately up at does, as e. e. cummings said, pounding away on the deck of the ark he’s building. I should qualify too that since we are north of the 45th parallel, it’s not quite accurate to say that the sun rose in the east. We’re almost to the summer solstice, when the sun here rises in the northeastern sky. Of course, if we were standing on the moon looking down, this idea of the rising sun would be a curious notion indeed.

All non-fiction is a fiction of a particular community arguing to explain itself to itself in an inexplicable world. You’ve only to listen to any conversation for five minutes, Beckett said, to note inherent chaos. Beckett wrote fiction, primarily, and his fiction was also an argument aimed at explaining the inexplicable. And he did a pretty good job of it, too. Here he is, at the beginning of his novel Molloy (1951) , explaining what it means to be a writer (or a student, perhaps):

“There’s this man who comes every week…He gives me money and takes away the pages. So many pages, so much money…When he comes for the fresh pages he brings back the previous week’s. They are marked with signs I don’t understand. Anyway I don’t read them. When I’ve done nothing he gives me nothing, he scolds me. Yet I don’t work for money. For what then? I don’t know.”

Things are falling apart in the Humanities. But the Humanities have been in crisis ever since the 1970’s, and for a century before, as evidenced by Ihab Hassan’s anthology Liberations: New Essays on the Humanities in Revolution (1971). Everyone is starting to wear their pants rolled. No one is certain which person to use anymore. No matter what we may be doing, at any given moment, Basho said, it has a bearing on our everlasting life. In his preface to Liberations, Hassan said, “For more than a century now, the Humanities have suffered from a certain piety which even Revolution does not escape. True liberations engage some deeper energy, quiddity, or humor of life.” What should we be doing at any given moment? This is a question only the Humanities can answer. Then again, it’s a question only the Humanities could ask.

Where Listening Gives Rise to Silence and Fizzles

There lived in our neighborhood some time ago a locally famous pianist who enjoyed great demand for piano lessons from parents for their children. The demand was such that a prospective student had to interview with the teacher. One of the interview “questions” involved listening to chords: the child identified a chord as “happy” or “sad.” Children unable to pass this interview question eliminated themselves from consideration. It’s been some time since I’ve talked to the pianist, but I’ve wondered from time to time what emotion a Bm7b5 (B minor 7 flat 5) might equate to, or an Eb7b9 (E flat 7 flat 9, as an inside chord, without the 5th, on the guitar).

How one distinguishes sounds, as in the experiment discussed over at Language Log, might explain musical preferences. Listeners who prefer a country western song, such as Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (and its many covers), over a short piece by John Cage, might not hear sounds the same way the Cage fan distinguishes sounds, for “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees” (Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”) – as both Williams and Cage would probably agree.

The Language Log listening experiment might also explain reading preferences, why some readers, for example, prefer Charles Dickens to Samuel Beckett (Dickens writes in minor keys, invoking pathos and bathos and every other kind of oath, Beckett in jovial major modes with flurries of flats falling like ash in downward spiraling scales).

Emergence might be at work here, too (the entire piece can’t be predicted by any one of its chords), or simply that our ears sometimes grow tired or lazy, as do our tongues and our eyes. This is what Cage explored in Silence, and what Beckett meant by Fizzles.

Breakfast at Beckett’s

In their engagement of the studies referenced on the declining level of happiness of Americans, Becker-Posner begin to wrestle with the difficulty of quantifying for economics study human behavior as a market influence.

Late last night, after class, happy with a bowl of homemade chocolate ice cream, I flipped on Breakfast at Tiffany’s, on the Sundance Channel, and it occurred to me that perhaps the unhappiness of Americans has something to do with its writers, for a culture can only be as happy as its artists. We have, of course, come to confuse celebrity with art, and anyone can achieve celebrity status. Our ballplayers might be considered artists. But our insistence that they be heroes both on the field and in the museum results in a collusion of unhappiness.

Where our novelists are concerned, where the great American novel remains an elusive grail, the unhappy string of strikeouts has all but emptied the stands. Consider the Lost Generation hopefuls, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald; substituted with the failed promises of Vidal, Mailer, and Capote; and the newest crop, including Vollmann and now Keith Gessen, whose All the Sad Young Literary Men imagines nothing less than the success of unhappy celebration, yet at least does so without the usual self-delusion of greatness.

I flipped the movie off and headed to bed but first grabbed an old copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s off the shelf. In the book, unlike the movie, Holly has already gone lightly, leaving a heavy absence in her wake – the rest is flashback, beginning with “Her dispraising eyes surveyed the room again. ‘What do you do here all day?’ I motioned toward a table tall with books and paper. ‘Write things.’…‘Tell me, are you a real writer?’ ‘It depends on what you mean by real.’ ‘Well, darling, does anyone buy what you write?’ ‘Not yet.’”

And so on, until this morning when I pulled Samuel Beckett’s Molloy off a shelf. Too many think Beckett a despairing, desperate, depressing writer, but I’ve never thought that. He’s nothing of course like Capote, who, nevertheless, as Beckett commented on his own fate upon receiving the Nobel, was also “Damned to Fame.” But we must remember not to confuse narrators with authors; in those cases where the narrator is the author, yet the book is still called fiction, I think of the self-conscious infielder who can’t get his mind off his last throwing error.

Turn to any page in Molloy and count the number of times the word “I” appears. It’s extraordinary, each page, held at a distance, so that the I’s stand out, like some iconic, Concrete poem.

Ruth Reichl Comforts with Apples, Beckett with Words

“How’s the carrot?” Vladimir asks. “It’s a carrot,” Estragon replies….“That’s what annoys me….I’ll never forget this carrot.”

If a food writer describes an ice cream cone with such description that we can taste it – ah, but that’s just the problem, we can’t taste words. Words have shape, perhaps even texture. They fill our mouths, or used to, when we read like the monks, but words don’t have flavor. This is the existential predicament of the restaurant and food critic.

Perhaps it explains the poetic license of their exaggerations. Reichl, explaining her resorting to fiction to enliven a restaurant review, explains to her editor at the LA Times, “Haven’t you noticed that food all by itself is really boring to read about?…It’s everything around the food that makes it interesting. The sociology. The politics. The history” (p. 250). Nevertheless, “…this won’t do,” her editor replies. “In journalism you have to tell the truth” (p. 250). She then goes on to describe the historic Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, where “…the houses were decrepit…” (p. 251). It’s been awhile since we’ve driven through Hancock Park, but surely only a food critic could describe the dwellings and lawns there as bedraggled.

But then the perspective is from one for whom meals last five hours, and where “For great balsamico, the process takes an entire lifetime, the vinegar becoming more concentrated as it progresses through subsequent barrels of oak, chestnut, mulberry, and juniper” (p. 59). She can comfort with words, and the words do, for the most part, describe food.

“Crritic!” says Estragon, “(with finality).”

Reichl, R. (2001). Comfort me with apples [with recipes]. New York: Random House.

Where Crossan’s historical meets Beckett’s hysterical Jesus

Crossan finds Jesus living on the wrong side of the tracks – among the politically oppressed and the socially shamed, low class cynics roaming homeless camps.

Beckett’s Waiting for Godot begins with a gospel attestation analysis by Vladimir:

Vladimir: One out of four. Of the other three two don’t mention any thieves at all and the third says that both of them abused him….But one of the four says that one of the two was saved….But all four were there. And only one speaks of a thief being saved. Why believe him rather than the others? (p. 9).

As Crossan shows, they were not all there. Very few, if any, were there. The problem then, for Crossan, is one of attestation, correlation, cross referencing the varied and disparate stories for credibility and reliability, explaining the running editions, the omissions, the additions, the different emphases – the “theological damage control” of later traditions (p. 232). Crossan’s book begins with a remarkable story, taken from ancient Egyptian papyrus, about a common family, illustrating basic household transactions, including everyday hopes and disappointments. His research reveals the social, political, and religious landscape of the Mediterranean world, and discusses the survival skills practiced by ordinary households – the concessions, the breaking points, the sacrifices, the everyday hopes and fears.

Out of this anthropological view emerges a Jesus walking a landscape consistent with Beckett’s typical stage directions – for Godot: Act I, “A country road. A tree. Evening”; Act II, “Next day. Same time. Same place.”

“He was neither broker nor mediator but, somewhat paradoxically, the announcer that neither should exist between humanity and divinity or between humanity and itself. Miracle and parable, healing and eating were calculated to force individuals into unmediated physical and spiritual contact with God and unmediated physical and spiritual contact with one another. He announced, in other words, the brokerless kingdom of God” (Crossan, p. 422).

Jesus was an existentialist; there is no Godot.


Beckett, S. (1954). Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove Press.

Crossan, J. (1992). The historical Jesus: The life of a Mediterranean Jewish peasant. New York: HarperCollins.

Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why

Harold Bloom prefers his literature neat, and not served with a twist. Adverse to literary criticism that substitutes a doctrinaire reading for the actual text, Bloom’s approach to reading is summed up in his epigraph, from the Wallace Stevens poem “The House was Quiet and the World was Calm”: “The reader became the book; and summer night / Was like the conscious being of the book.” 

Bloom’s book on reading consists of a short introduction, which sets the stage for the kind of reading he prefers, followed by sections devoted to short stories, poems, novels, plays, more novels, and an epilogue.

Bloom’s favorite writers are Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson. But it’s Francis Bacon who provides the prose equivalent for Stevens’s poem: “Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.”

Bloom augments Bacon: “I urge you to find what truly comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and for considering. Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.”

Bloom hopes to inspire an “authentic reader.” Yet, “It is not the function of reading to cheer us up, or to console us prematurely.” 

“You are more than an ideology,” Bloom says.

“Chekhov and Beckett were the kindest human beings,” Bloom says. Reading Bloom, here and elsewhere, one wants to add his name to the list of the kindest readers, writers, and teachers.

Bloom, H. (2000). How to read and why. New York: Scribner.

Joyce’s “allforabit”

If at first glance we can’t figure out what Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is all about we might at least recognize one of its themes as the alphabet. Beckett told us Wake is about normal things in the usual sense: “Literary criticism is not book-keeping.” Explaining Vico, Beckett said, “When language consisted of gesture, the spoken and the written were identical.” Later, “Convenience only begins to assert itself at a far more advanced stage of civilization, in the form of alphabetism.” Beckett argues that Wake is “direct expression,” in a pre-alphabet way. “They (words) are alive. They elbow their way on to the page, and glow and blaze and fade and disappear…His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” 

Turning to Finnegans Wake itself, directly (never-minding the book-keepers), we find the alphabet itself. “(Stoop) if you are abcedminded, to this claybook, what curious signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thous had it out already) its world?” (p. 18).

Finnegans Wake, like most of Joyce’s work, is, in fact, memorable; its auditory impact sticks long after its photographic memory fades. For example, we continue to hear “When a part so ptee does duty for the holos we soon grow to use of an allforabit” (pp. 18-19) long after we read it.

Wolfram von Eschenbach notwithstanding: “I don’t know a single letter of the alphabet” (last paragraph Book II, Parzival, translated and with an introduction by Helen M. Mustard & Charles E. Passage. Vintage Books Edition, March 1961).

Our Exagmination Round His Factification For Incamination Of Work In Progress, first published as New Directions Paperbook 331 in 1972.

The weightlessness of existentialism

Early yesterday, reading Nick Paumgarten on “The lives of elevators” (New Yorker, April 21), about a person stuck in one for forty-one hours, we were reminded of the weightlessness of reading and writing. The video, from the Kafkaesque security tape, is a work of art Warhol could have made; or Becket might have written a one-act play, but would have omitted the piano score, though the tempo is perfectly counterpointed to the Chaplinesque speed of the fast forwarded film. Of course, we also thought of John Cage: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else” (“Lecture on Nothing,” Silence, p. 119).

Later, at the Triple-A baseball game in a cold, near empty ballpark, a woman in the row in front of us turned around and asked if we had a pen. She seemed surprised when we said yes, and pulled the pen out of our jacket pocket, handing it out to her. She was a few seats away, down the row in front of us. There was no one else around. She was bundled up for the cold day of the game, in wool cap, and she had brought a full pack of incidentals to the game, to help pass the time, the way some people do at a ballgame, but no pen. She got up and walked over, smiling, and took the pen.

The person stuck alone in the elevator is essentially weightless, can neither rise nor fall, cannot change seats. There is no exit. He pries open the doors to find a cement wall. He is a character in Sartre’s No Exit, sans the other people.  

Take a piece of blank typing paper. Fold it in half, then in thirds. Place the folded paper in a pocket with a pen. You never know when you might get stuck – in a station at the metro, waiting anywhere – and it will not be nearly so irritating thinking you might like to be somewhere else. Pen and paper provide one with a play against the angst of any existential waiting game.